Best-selling author Gary Shteyngart on growing up Soviet, his real name and why he didn't mind getting hit as a kid
You’ve written three novels–The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story–that draw on your life, so why a memoir?
Well, I’m 41, which is 67 in Russian years, so I feel like time is passing me by. I need to get this out before the heart attack, the stroke and the exploding liver that many Russians have at this age. I wanted to get this little story down with these three people who were my family. It’s also a 20th century story, about moving from one failed superpower to another not-doing-so-great superpower.
Aren’t you worried that you’ve used up all the material for future novels?
This is my opportunity to use up the material so that the next book will be about someone other than myself. I want to write about maybe a woman, so I’m meeting a few here and there. They’re great.
The book is called Little Failure, a translation, you say, of a name your mother used to call you–Failurchka. Really?
When it first happened, I was living on the Lower East Side. I’d just graduated from Oberlin College, majoring in the Beatles or something. My mother visited me in this sort of 100-sq.-ft. apartment, which had a sloping floor where you would go to sleep on one side and wake up on the other, and she said, “Oh, Little Failure.” It kind of stuck.
And your father called you Snotty?
Growing up I had a lot of asthma, so Snotty was an appropriate name. In our society, Snotty is kind of affectionate.
You did 12 years of psychoanalysis four times a week–that’s what, $800,000?
[My doctor] charges me a special rate because I’m one of the few Soviet émigrés who is in psychoanalysis–our kind doesn’t usually go in for it. We’re more into founding Google and stuff.
Your father hit you as punishment, but you don’t seem to have minded.
I don’t know any Russian boy of my generation who hasn’t met the back of his father’s hand. That may sound horrible to people from Santa Monica, but that’s the way we grew up. When my father stopped smacking me around, it was sad for me because I thought, He doesn’t love me at all now, not even to the point of correcting my behavior. Although he kept the verbal stuff up, so that was good.
Given that your parents were upset when somebody suggested that the adults in your novels resembled them, how do they feel about this book?
I don’t know yet. I sent them a copy before it was published, but they’ll read it when it comes out in Russian. So let’s wait for that to happen.
Is it true that Soviet televisions literally blew up?
I think they were called the Signal television set. Terrifyingly explosive. It’s funny, when my books get published in Russia, I get reviews like “Balding traitor betrays motherland.”
The Russia you describe in your books is comically inept. Do you worry about the Sochi Olympics?
I think it’ll be O.K. This year I’m celebrating 41 years of not giving a damn about the Winter Olympics. And a nongay Olympics seems even worse than the regular Olympics. What a jerk, by the way, this [Vladimir] Putin. It’s like he figured out, O.K., you can’t go after the Jews anymore, so who’re we going to go after now?
Are you boycotting?
I stopped drinking Stoli for a day until I figured out it was made in Latvia.
Do you ever wish that you had kept the name Igor?
Yes. Igor is such a beautiful name. And the last name wasn’t Shteyngart, it was Steinhorn, which means stone horn. So I could have been Igor Stonehorn. A Bavarian porn star in the making. Hi, ladies.
This appears in the February 10, 2014 issue of TIME.