Grigory Chkhartishvili, AKA Boris Akunin, is an international publishing phenomenon. A scholar of Japanese language and culture, and a former literary translator, he wrote his first novel at the age of 40 and in the 13 years since its publication has sold twenty million copies of his books in Russia alone. Daniel Kalder interviewed him for Publishing Perspectives, ahead of his upcoming appearances at the London book Fair 2011.
When I read The White Queen (Akunin’s first book) it was so dense with literary and geographic allusions that I sat with a pocket Moscow atlas in hand so I could follow the hero around the city. Given that your books are so steeped in Russian literature and history, were you surprised when they became successful overseas?
I’ve had no reason to be surprised because my books aren’t all that successful overseas. Maybe because they are so filled with “local color”. Or maybe because they are simply not good enough.
When you describe the genesis of your projects, you sound highly analytical, even calculating. For instance, you once described yourself as a Frankenstein ‘growing a literary homunculus in a bell jar’…
I call “Boris Akunin” a project, because that’s what it is: a sort of architectural construction. Not a hospital or a school or an administrative building, to be sure – rather something playful like Disneyland, but still something devised and built according to a technical plan.
You came up with the idea for intelligent, literary detective novels because you spotted a gap in the market- nobody was writing such things for Russia’s middle classes. Do you think if you had selected another genre- say, literary Science Fiction or literary fantasy you would have been as successful? Or do your personal sympathies essentially lie with the detective novel? Is the Russian mega bestseller of ‘ironic detective stories’ Darya Dontsova a Boris Akunin fan, and vice versa?
I’ve always liked the detective genre because it’s the only type of fiction where you can make readers your co-authors, in a sense. I mean that a reader would begin to build his/her own versions trying to create a version of who’s the culprit, trying to outsmart the author. This had been an interactive genre long before the internet appeared.
As for Darya Dontsova, I doubt that she reads my books. She wouldn’t have time for reading anything with her tempo of writing – she publishes a new novel every month which is a constant source of envy and admiration for me. Neither do I read other detective authors’ works. It’s not healthy. You might easily fall under a colleague’s influence.
When I lived in Moscow I noticed that English detective fiction was immensely popular- everybody knew Agatha Christie, and everybody knew Sherlock Holmes. Growing up were you a connoisseur of either, or both? Do you see yourself as writing in the British detective tradition? And do you have any sympathy for French authors such as Simenon?
I definitely belong to the “British school” as opposed to the American “hard-boiled” and the French “social” detective. Holmes is my life-long icon.
In 2000 you made the texts of many of your novels available online for free. Why did you do this? Most western publishers and authors would have a stroke at the mere suggestion…
I had no choice. Everyone in the Russian Internet is a pirate, you cannot catch and hang them all. I told myself: let this work as promotion for my books. A person would start reading them online, then maybe get hooked and go to a bookshop… It often works. What irritates me enormously is the audiopiracy. I am very careful at choosing actors who read my texts for licensed audiobooks, each of the recordings is nearly perfect. But there are dozens of home-made audiorecordings throughout the Russian Internet, where some mumbling and stumbling character reads my defenceless text, making all the wrong stresses, overacting, etc.
When the first Fandorin novel was published your Russian publisher, Igor Zakharov, was a tiny independent. Now, like you, he is a titan of the Russian publishing world. Why did you choose Zakharov?
Nobody else wanted to publish my first novel. Zakharov was a beginner publisher, he was naïve. When I told him that my novel was sure to sell 50,000 copies he believed me. He was patient too. He started to grumble only after the fourth novel proved to be an even worse flop sales-wise than the three previous ones. With the fifth title the heavens finally had mercy on him. Since then Zakharov has sold about 20 million Erast Fandorin books in Russia. He is semi-retired now. He collects stamps and sounds happy when we talk on the phone.
Recently Vladimir Sorokin- a fellow post modernist- has written two explicitly political/satirical works: Day of the Oprichnik and The Sugar Kremlin. Are you tempted to venture down the same path?
Not in fiction. When I want to make a statement or voice an opinion on a public issue, I do it through my blog.
A few years back you started a series called ‘The Genres’, in which you wrote books in different genres- children’s book, spy novel and so on. It is a bold experiment. Were there any genres you felt uncomfortable with? Can you imagine writing in the most despised genre of all- socialist realism?
This series amuses me a lot. It’s fun changing the rules, testing yourself at different types of sport. Socialist realism is not a challenge, it’s often pastiched in modern Russia. Vladimir Sorokin, whom you’ve mentioned, has done it many times. I’d love to write something unusual and really difficult. A feminist novel maybe. Or a utopian novel.
Currently you are also working on a series of cinematic novellas that together constitute ‘Bruderschaft with Death’… again, as you tell the story you move through different genres. I’m curious- before you sit down to write such a book do you perform a conscious analysis of the genre- or does it flow easily as a result of a lifetime’s reading?
This series is based on 10 film scripts about espionage during WWI. I did this work for a big cinema/TV project which was not realized. What the hell, I thought. I’ll make it into a “paper movie” all by myself. And that’s what I’ve done. It was easy, it was fun. There was a lot of work for the artist though. He had to draw about 500 “freeze-frames” and hundreds of “captions”.
Is it natural for you to think in terms of series and recurring characters? Have you ever been tempted to write a monumental epic a la Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn?
I have been tempted, I am tempted, and I’ll try to do it come what may, although I realize very well how outdated and outworn a genre it is.
You are extremely prolific: does writing come easily to you? Do you follow a fixed routine? Or are there long stretches when you do other, non-writerly things?
I write every day. Not because I am hard-working. I do not consider writing to be work, it’s a way of living. Japanese would call this attitude Sakkadoo – “The Way of Writer” (I do not think such a term actually exists in the Japanese language, but it should). Anyway, if I didn’t start each day with writing I wouldn’t know how to occupy myself.
For a long time I have wanted to read your study on the Writer and Suicide, which you published under your real name, Grigory Chkhartishvili. Will it ever see print in English? Would it shock readers of Fandorin and Pelagia, or would they find traces of Akunin in the scholar Chkhartishvili?
There are lots of mutual cross-references and allusions. It’s a different sort of writing, but it’s still me. I have a book called “Cemetery Tales” with two authors on the cover: Akunin and Chkhartishvili. One wrote novellas, the other essays. These two sub-authors live inside me. If it is schizophrenia, I welcome it.
Originally published over at Publishing Perspectives