Olga Grushin Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Olga Grushin
Photo: Karel Cudlin

Olga Grushin

How to pronounce Olga Grushin: GREW-shin

An interview with Olga Grushin

In this wide ranging and not to be missed interview Olga Grushin discusses her novel Forty Rooms.

What is your novel, Forty Rooms, about?

My novel is about many things – art, inspiration, motherhood, living spaces that contain and define us – but at its heart, it's a book about choices. It tells a story of one woman who struggles to choose between following a path that is ordinary but may lead to happiness or a path that is uncommon and will lead into the unknown. The story is told in forty chronological episodes, each set in a different room of her life, from the cramped bathroom of her childhood apartment in Russia to the stately entrance hall of her last home in America. And every episode – every room – contains a choice she must make. Some choices are momentous – whether to go abroad or remain at home, whether to leave a lover or stay with him, whether to get married, whether to have a child; she knows as she makes them that they will alter the direction of her life. Others seem small, and their implications become apparent only years later, when she can barely recall how and when it was that everything changed, and she wonders if it would have been different if only she'd paid more attention. Over time, my character undergoes a deep internal transformation from the nameless dreamy, hungry adolescent poet to Mrs. Caldwell, the sensible, content middle-aged housewife and mother of six who leads a life entirely different from the life she seemed destined to lead at the beginning of the story. The book explores all the choices, big and small, that caused this transformation, and beyond it.


How did you conceive of the unique way the story is told?

Four years ago we moved houses, and for a very long time – for months – the move consumed all my time: the search for a new house, the sale of the old house, the packing, the unpacking, the renovations, the pursuit of chairs, curtains, rugs. I thought about houses when awake, I dreamed about houses when asleep, and I did not like it. I had almost no time to write, and halfway through the ordeal, I started joking that I was going to tell a story of a woman artist who turned into a suburban housewife. I had no intention of writing it, of course; it seemed such a familiar plot.

But on the actual moving day something happened. My then-eight-year-old son had lived in the old house all his life and was sad about leaving it. Once everything was packed and carried away, I took him through the empty rooms one last time. In each room I asked him to think of the brightest memory he had of that particular space. It could be happy or sad or scary, it didn't matter which, but it had to be vivid and real. As long as he kept his memories with him, I told him, he would never leave the old house completely. I called it the "room memory" game. My son liked it, and we played it for some time. I found myself intrigued by the realization that some rooms were happy rooms, and some were sad, quite independently of their shape, size, or light exposure – that the spaces we inhabited were so strongly defined by our memories of the events that had transpired within them, and that our emotions were, in turn, so strongly defined by the spaces in which we lived. And then something clicked, and I thought of my artist housewife idea, and I thought: Now, this would be an interesting new way to tell the familiar story. And my main theme of small choices accumulating and leading to larger choices developed quite organically from that starting point.


The main character shares some biographical similarities to you. Did you borrow anything from your own life?

This novel is not autobiographical. I did start in a similar place – like my character, I too was born into a Moscow intelligentsia family, I dreamed of being a writer (though never a poet), I left to study in America, and the mood of the early chapters is certainly reminiscent of my own childhood. I thought of the first part of the book as a kind of love letter to Russia, to the magic of my upbringing. And I did borrow some details. My mother was not a mermaid, my grandmother never told me any stories about trees, but my father did smoke a pipe and have a beard, and Akhmatova's Requiem, when I read it for the first time (though under much less romantic circumstances than those in the novel), was indeed a revelation. Still, most of the details are different even in the early chapters, and, beyond that point, the deeper into the novel you get, the less my life resembles my character's. This book was, in some ways, my exploration of my own "what ifs" and "might have beens," both in the character of Mrs. Caldwell who marries, has six children, and gives up art, and in the minor character of Olga who never marries, has no children, and becomes a successful writer. I have made my own choices in life, and ended up in my own place – to state the obvious, I am a writer, but I am also a single mother of two – the opposite, in many ways, of my Mrs. Caldwell, but also not at all like the enigmatic Olga in the book.

That said, I did borrow something substantial from my life – I borrowed many of the actual rooms in which I lived: my childhood bedroom with its Don Quixote statuette, my father's office with its mechanical typewriter and the old leather chair, our dacha balcony with the moon and the nightingale, the basement (and the rat) of my first American apartment, my son's nursery with the plastic stars on its ceiling. To be sure, I populated the rooms of my book with different people and different stories, but I drew on the settings I knew well and felt strongly about. I suppose I can say that this novel has few autobiographical events but quite a few autobiographical spaces.


The woman at the center of the novel wants to be a great poet, a great artist, but her life takes a different path. Do you, as her creator, think she might have attained greatness as a writer, or is that something we are not meant to know?

This is indeed one the mysteries at the heart of the book – and I meant for the book to be read as a kind of mystery. Is this a story of a woman finding her happy place in life as a family matriarch – or a cautionary horror tale about someone who wasted her talent? Was the man who appeared in her visions a figment of her imagination, or was she truly visited by divine inspiration? Was she something special? Her childhood and youth certainly seem to point in that direction; indeed, hers appears to be your typical childhood of a future genius – a beloved single child raised in the atmosphere of intellectual discussions, summers spent devouring books in the countryside, a beautiful mother with a secret, a scholarly father with a sorrow, a story-telling grandmother, her precocious interest in poetry. But the early chapters are told in first person, with her as the (possibly unreliable) narrator, and, as she herself thinks in her resigned middle age, "In our youth we [all] believe ourselves so unique and our stories so original." And perhaps the elements of her childhood are too conventionally romantic – even clichéd? And in any case, is greatness something inherent, something inborn, or something that may be attained through the sheer act of will, through the power of work and imagination? Does one need to be chosen by the powers that be, or can one choose to be great in spite of one's upbringing and circumstances? These themes run through the book, as does the juxtaposition between the commonplace and the original, the conventional and the special. I would like each reader to try deciphering the puzzle of my heroine's destiny in his or her own way.


Clearly one of the themes of the book concerns the choices that many women have to make between career and family, pursuing one's dreams vs. living a conventional life as wife and mother. Do you think these same themes speak with the same force to male readers?

I conceived this as a universal story – a journey from childhood promise to youthful ambition ending in adult compromise; anyone who has lived to the age of thirty, male or female, will probably relate to that to some extent. Of course, it's also true that my book concerns specifically a woman's life and a woman's choices. But my first novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, centered on a man's life and a man's choices, yet it was read by women. And isn't one of the purposes of literature – if it can be said to have a definitive purpose – to immerse yourself in the experience of the proverbial "other," to imagine life through someone else's eyes, to train yourself in the art of empathy? If only women read Madame Bovary, only men read Don Quixote, and only whales read Moby Dick, literature wouldn't last very long. So I hope that this book too will manage to transcend gender barriers. Still, for the benefit of all the men who are reading this interview right now and deciding whether or not to brave the book itself, I will add this: on the pages of my novel you will find an erotic poem, a chain-smoking ghost, a surly plumber, an African prince, a monster who eats children's socks, a slightly disreputable muse who may or may not be Apollo, a lot of good cooking, a discussion of Russian outhouses, and one aside from God. If none of this piques your curiosity, then perhaps this book is not for you after all.


How much of what happens to this woman is chance and how much is choice?

She herself would like to believe that most of her life is decided by choice. The question of following the right path concerns her throughout the book, and she is supremely aware of making choices. But she never makes a conscious decision in the matter of the central choice of her life – her Choice with the capital C: that of being or not being an artist. She keeps delaying the decision, occupying herself with smaller dilemmas, allowing chance occurrences to intervene, giving in to temporary circumstances, never seeing it as an urgent matter of Either/Or – until one day the Choice seems to be no longer there without her ever having made any actual choice. So I would say that the interplay I explore here is not so much between chance and choice as between minute, daily choices that seem unimportant at the time and vital, life-changing choices that sometimes slip past us.


Would you say that the woman at the center of the story is ultimately happy or unhappy with the way her life turns out?

A frustrated artist (actress, lawyer, businesswoman) trapped in the quotidian life of an unhappy housewife is a plot that has been used enough times, and it was of no interest to me. Instead, I was interested in exploring the life of a woman who wants to believe herself genuinely happy with her role as a wife and a mother – and may in fact be. But as for a definite answer, I will once again reply with the writer's familiar plea: I want my readers to decide on their own. And the more opinions there are, the more pleased it will make me, since I was hoping to write a story that was not at all black and white, and would lend itself to many interpretations.


There is a lot of poetry in the novel, especially when the main character is a young, aspiring poet herself. Did you write this poetry? If so, did you write it in Russian first and then translate it into English?


There are many real poems in the book – Shakespeare, Pushkin, Akhmatova, and, most significantly, a poem by Innokenty Annensky (in my translation), whose words recur throughout the novel and become a major refrain in my character's life. There are also the poems she writes. I made her an aspiring poet – rather than, say, an aspiring novelist or an aspiring painter – because poetry seemed the most romantic of all the possible artistic aspirations, and I wanted to create the greatest contrast imaginable between the, well, the poetry of her adolescent dreams and the prose of her adult life. Of course, this presented a challenge. Apart from one verse about a hungry wolf written at the age of five and a handful of half-hearted adolescent efforts, I never wrote any poetry myself, and I needed original poems for my book. So I wrote them (directly in English), which was a bit tricky, but I also had a very specific intention in mind, which made it somewhat easier: I didn't want them to "give anything away" – that is, to provide a clear answer to the question of my heroine's potential greatness. I didn't want her poetry to be laughably bad, of course, but I also didn't want it to be unquestionably brilliant (which is my clever excuse for not producing any breathtakingly brilliant poems here – of course I could have, you see, but I chose not to for artistic reasons). I just wanted her poems to read as youthful, clumsy creations of someone who might, after years and years of passionate hard work, develop into a formidable talent but who might just as plausibly become a contented housewife and never write another line. Whether or not I succeeded is not for me to judge, but I am rather proud of my limerick:

            There was a young woman from Moscow
            Who bought laundry detergent at Costco.
            But her clothes turned to mold,
            And then she grew old,
            That no-longer-young woman from Moscow.


Your first two novels were set in Russia, where you grew up. But only the opening section of Forty Rooms takes place there. Did you find it a different experience writing a book set largely in America?

I don't really think of this book as being set in America – it's set inside American houses and apartments, that is true, but absolutely everything in my story transpires within four walls (which was quite a challenge in its own right – to try creating an engaging narrative in which none of the characters ever steps outside). Since I have yet to describe a strip mall or a gas station, I feel that I have yet to write my American novel.


There seems to be a touch of Mrs. Dalloway in your main character. What writers have influenced you—both in writing this book and in all of your work?


My main overall influences are Gogol, Kafka, and Nabokov, though they are probably less apparent in this novel than in my other works. This book offered a unique challenge because it consisted of forty more-or-less discrete episodes, so in some ways it was like writing forty short stories. I had written a number of short stories before, but I consider myself a novelist by nature, so I turned to some short story writers for inspiration, primarily Chekhov. He has an amazing ability to say so many things with so few words –a skill I am still learning.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Books by this Author

Books by Olga Grushin at BookBrowse
Forty Rooms jacket The Line jacket
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Readalikes

All the books below are recommended as readalikes for Olga Grushin but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
How we choose readalikes

  • Nickolas Butler

    Nickolas Butler

    Nickolas Butler was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, raised in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and educated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. He is the author of the ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    Forty Rooms

    Try:
    Shotgun Lovesongs
    by Nickolas Butler

  • Siri Hustvedt

    Siri Hustvedt

    Siri Hustvedt is the author of a book of poetry, three collections of essays, a work of non-fiction, and six novels, including the international bestsellers What I Loved and The Summer Without Men. Her most recent novel The ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    Forty Rooms

    Try:
    The Blazing World
    by Siri Hustvedt

We recommend 5 similar authors

View all 5 Readalikes

Non-members can see 2 results. Become a member
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Become a Member

Join BookBrowse today to start discovering exceptional books!

Find out more


Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: The Nazi Conspiracy
    The Nazi Conspiracy
    by Brad Meltzer, Josh Mensch
    The Nazi Conspiracy by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch was a big hit with our First Impressions readers...
  • Book Jacket
    Yonder
    by Jabari Asim
    The captivating historical novel Yonder turns an intimate lens towards the tragedy and survivorship ...
  • Book Jacket: After Sappho
    After Sappho
    by Selby Wynn Schwartz

    "Someone will remember us, I say, even in another time."
    —Sappho, fragment ...

  • Book Jacket: City Under One Roof
    City Under One Roof
    by Iris Yamashita
    When a disembodied arm and leg wash ashore in Point Mettier, Alaska, most residents assume they ...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
The Love of My Life
by Rosie Walsh
An up-all-night love story wrapped in a mystery from the New York Times bestselling author of Ghosted.

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Wade in the Water
    by Nyani Nkrumah

    A gripping debut novel of female power and vulnerability, race, and class set in a small Mississippi town in the early 1980s.

  • Book Jacket

    Exiles
    by Jane Harper

    A captivating new mystery from New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Jane Harper.

  • Book Jacket

    Moonrise Over New Jessup
    by Jamila Minnicks

    "Jamila Minnicks pulled me into pages of history I'd never turned before."—Barbara Kingsolver

Wordplay

Solve this clue:

It's A G T Me

and be entered to win..

Who Said...

To limit the press is to insult a nation; to prohibit reading of certain books is to declare the inhabitants to be ...

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.