Boris Fishman

How did you become a writer?

This is like asking someone who he is. It can be answered well in ten words, or a thousand, but not something in between. I'll try: Due to various psychological family circumstances having to do with being Jewish in the Soviet Union and immigrants to America -- that is, life-long outsiders -- I grew up with several traits that help a writer, specifically acute sensitivity and observation; expressiveness; and the self-confidence to speak up. Due to some of the same circumstances, I spent a lot of time after college trying to be happy doing something more stable. Finally, I found the courage, or recklessness, to decide that if I was going to be miserable, I should be miserable on behalf of something I love, and applied for MFA programs in fiction.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). 

I admire morally preoccupied writers, serious writers, writers who think about the human condition (no matter how local their story), and yet do all of this without forgetting what a story is. I'm talking about Graham Greene, William Styron, the J. M. Coetzee of Disgrace, the Turgenev of Fathers and Sons, Bernard Malamud, and so on. When I was a teenager, my first love was Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Then I passed on to the Jim Harrison of Legends of the Fall and Returning to Earth. Then it was Malamud, who is all over my first novel. And now Greene and Styron and the rest. As for craft, John Gardner, for all his foibles, has always done more for me than anyone else. 

When and where do you write? 

I have a large desk in my living room. It was the first thing I got into this apartment, from a thrift shop, ten years ago, and it's probably still my favorite thing in it. (As a novice home decorator, I had neglected to measure the width of the door, and had to have it taken off its hinges to fit it.) I live on the 15th floor on the Lower East Side, and look out on a very nice piece of sky. I sit here from 8:30 to 2 or 3PM, first reading someone else, and then writing, Monday through Friday. I can't do it with other people around and I can't do it with noise. Can't do without the latter in New York City, though, so probably even after I'm dead, I will hear the children on recess in the school across the street; the crew of Indian construction workers eternally jackhammering the sidewalk in front of my building; and the train clattering across the Williamsburg Bridge. After ten years, that is no longer noise. 

What are you working on now? 

I've been working on a Ukrainian cookbook -- it's the recipes of the woman who looks after my grandfather, but between the lines, or dishes I should say, it's a memoir of everything she has come to mean to us, and we to her.  

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

No. If I did, I would go see a psychoanalyst; when I have in the past, it's been exceedingly revealing, and knot-resolving.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Be more serious than anyone you know. Work harder than anyone you know. Treat it like a job and write regularly -- every chance that your life circumstances allow. (If you have a full-time job and a family, maybe you can carve out only one hour Saturday and Sunday each -- but then write every  Saturday and Sunday for an hour.) Waste no time doubting yourself -- the world will take care of that for you. Be arrogantly indifferent to what anyone but a small circle of people who understand what you're trying to do -- not synonymous with positive evaluations of your work -- has to say. Minimize in your life the role of friends and relatives who are constantly on you with "well-meaning" doubt and skepticism. Go live in a cheap place. Find part-time work that takes stress off writing as an income stream, and takes you out of your head, and brings you in contact with other people. And read a lot -- A LOT.

Boris Fishman was born in Minsk, Belarus, and immigrated to the United States in 1988 at nine. His journalism, essays, and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The London Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. His first novel, A Replacement Life, received a rave on the front cover of The New York Times Book Review. It also won the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award and the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal, and was one of The New York Times' 100 Notable Books, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick. His second novel, Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo, about an immigrant family in New Jersey that adopts a boy from Montana who turns out to be feral, comes out from HarperCollins today.