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Spring in Siberia

Interview for Geistesblueten Literatur- und Kulturmagazin
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– Dear Artem Mozgovoy, you contacted us on Instagram. With so many imaginative posts and memories of romantic trips in your profile, we wouldn't have been surprised if you sent us a message in a bottle or a carrier pigeon. Are you a dreamer who will do anything to make dreams come true? It must feel like a miracle that in 2023 your debut "Spring in Siberia" will be released by Red Hen Press in California.


– On winter nights when the moon was young, my grandmother used to charm water and bath me in it – to charge me with the lunar powers. She used to harvest tomatoes sweeter than sugar and pumpkins bigger than the sun, and fed our whole family in the hardest of times. She knew how to talk to animals like Diana and with her sheer silence made humans act better and be lighter in her presence. I am her apprentice, the magician’s assistant.


– The novel begins on a freezing cold morning in the Soviet Union of the 1980s. It is the story of the boy Alexey Morozov. Child of a typical Soviet family. He is more sensitive than his classmates. Somewhat out of touch with the world, the others mock him as an "alien". Only one in the class likes his softness and dreaminess. The two fall in love when they are just 16. Alexey is overwhelmed. The school friend confesses, although his parents are in the KGB. Everyone around the boys reacts cruelly.

You spent your childhood in a small town in Siberia. Ten years ago you left Russia. Since then you have lived in six different countries. You have a Luxembourg passport and now live in Brussels with your Romanian partner. Alexey in the novel always felt his home was unfair. After all those moves, do you yourself feel that life treats you fairer now?


– I still wake up in the middle of the night with all the troubles of the world throbbing in my heart and on my mind. But then, all the sunrises are mine. Like today, when Siena was the one to calm me down: I walked its empty streets, talked to the Duomo en tête-à-tête, and bathed in a 13th century fountain. These are gifts from life, and I’m grateful for them.


– In the novel, the dark sense of hopelessness and leaden boredom slowly brutalise the Russian teenagers. For anything to happen at all and for the teens to feel anything....


– …they get high on sniffing glue until the police catches them and pour that glue over their heads and faces. They beat homeless men to pulp or strike passing women on their heads with a pipe or a bat, then have a feast out of whatever was in their victims’ possession. Up on the rooftops or in the dark of the staircases, they suck each other cocks or go deeper, like they’ve learnt it well in prisons – then go kill a faggot or two. They’d lower anyone down just to convince themselves there’s someone below them.


Or, if the boys have the luxury of clean hands, minds and conscience, they might disappear in the libraries, read – and write something about it all.


– You wrote the novel in Venice in English, even though that's not your native language. Did you want some kind of distance? Or was this your own restart button?


– I did it for the man I love to understand me better. Also, I was very angry at Russia and to reject it was my best revenge. But also, I wanted to prove to the Western world that I can be good at something other than washing dishes and cleaning toilets, which were some of my jobs at the time. All in all, it happened intuitively and spontaneously: I just sat down and began writing in English. 


– On your homepage you write that you are the "'secretary of the invisible, a novelist, a poet, a phonograph stylus turned upwards". This is your moment on the dance floor, so let's dance! What song of your life will be the next record?


– When I submitted my novel, I was told by an American agent that he would only send it to publishers if I cut it down to 90 thousand words (the standard book size in America today, determined by the standard size of the shipping containers). It was an outrageous demand since the novel contained 230 thousand words. There was no way I could possibly shorten it by 60%. So I just scrolled down to where the text hit 90 thousand words, and submitted that with no expectations. He accepted it by the following morning. 


The next record is the continuation of "Spring in Siberia", or rather its ending, that I have to find a way to publish it as a separate book now.


– As a magician's assistant, you must have been very good. Your 'writing mentors' Stephen Fry, Ocean Vuong, and Michael Blumenthal all agree that you accomplished something special. You overcame your difficult childhood and turned it into art. How did the three of them come to know the book?


– The only literary mentor I’ve ever had is John Clanchy, the Australian writer. I met him and his wife Brigid Ballard at a French writers’ retreat that I used to work for. When the novel was ready I sent it to Stephen Fry, Ocean Vuong and Michael Blumenthal among others – and the three of them were kind enough to respond with short reviews.


– Arthur Rimbaud becomes Alexey's favourite poet in the course of the story after seeing the film "Total Eclipse" about the openly lived amour fou between Paul Verlaine and Rimbaud. The famous Tchaikovsky had to hide his homosexuality. Neither his success nor his well-heeled family could have protected him from loss of face and a harsh punishment. Even today, being gay in Russia is dangerous. You no longer live in the country, but you make your feelings public even there, as you continue to write poetry in Russian. How can literature and poetry change politics?


It can’t. Or so I learnt from WH Auden. Putin supporters won’t read my poems. Or like me on Instagram - or like me, ever. And I doubt those who vote for Trump or Marine Le Pen will either.


What art can do, however, is bring light onto the world. But that has to be true art, not political propaganda in disguise.


– "I is another" (In the original: je est un autre) by Arthur Rimbaud remains forever in our memory. Knowing no limits, rising above oneself. In his life, too, there was "a time in hell" (in the original: une saison en enfer); the anthology of the same name was written in the countryside at his mother's farmhouse. The contradictory reality that one must face and endure is at the center of the essays and poems he wrote as a 19-year-old. Like him, you have understood your 'peculiarity' as an opportunity. "Spring in Siberia" is, despite all its melancholy, a book that gives you courage to go your own way. 


– You know I go to that place often? That very spot where Arthur Rimbaud’s farmhouse used to stand. Only a wall of it remains today. I lean on it, write notes to Patti Smith who owns the property now (she never responds to me, but that's more than ok) – and I think of it all… This bizarre swirling universe, and my path through it, and how it all comes together sometimes. And how very often it doesn’t. Which is also ok.

Artem MOZGOVOY’s debut novel SPRING IN SIBERIA is due to be out with Red Hen Press (USA) on April 5, 2023 and available for pre-order now.

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The interview conducted by Marc Iven for the Geistesblueten Literatur- und Kulturmagazin No 19.

Order your copy of the magazine here.

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