‘Russian Lessons’ with author Elena Devos

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Today, I am thrilled to interview Elena Devos, the award-winning author of Russian Lessons (Ripol Classic, Moscow)! Her poems, essays, plays, translations, and articles have appeared in “Юность”, “Вопросы литературы”, “Нева”, and Russian Reporter. Elena has taught Russian and world literature as well as French and English languages at the Moscow State University and at language schools in Paris. Today we talk about unexpected facets of Paris, difficult and delicious aspects of writing, and her brilliant new book.

What brought you to Paris?

I came to Paris from Moscow in 2000. I was passionate about the advertising industry and brand design in general, so I became a brand manager and it was my first job in France. I immediately fell in love with France in general and Paris in particular.

Looking back now, it was quite a naive feeling, I fell in love first of all with the French language  and with this immense cultural heritage that one can indulge in, simply walking through the city. As well I met outstandingly interesting people during my very first stay in Paris, I was young, healthy, carefree, I wrote a lot and had an abyss of free time  – so, all seemed to me very sunny and optimistic. Later, when Paris became part of my personal and family life, I saw another dimension of Parisian dream: bureaucracy, cultural differences, another philosophy of learning and teaching in general and in schools in particular, different social values and taboos than in my native country. I think, nevertheless, as a writer it’s been a tremendously useful experience and it was thanks to Paris I’ve got some stories and characters that were ready to move in my little ink and paper worlds.

What keeps you here?

Firstly, my family and my close friends live here. Secondly, it starts to feel like home now. My nostalgia for Russia finally mutated into something else, and, quite interesting, every time I go back to Moscow I feel more and more lost, even misplaced, as if I were a foreigner there myself.

Can you tell us about your book?

The book is a bunch of stories that happened to Svetlana Lapteva, a Russian teacher in Paris. Svetlana starts with private Russian lessons “just for a while” but she very soon understands that for her it could be an ideal job.

Each of her students has a particular reason to study Russian, and they are so different that you can  hardly imagine them living on the same planet. There we meet a French chef, a writer, a famous cello player, an old Russian princess. Meanwhile, the most important students for Svetlana are children, and her experience with them is full of surprises as well. One of her little pupils is a son of a Russian millionaire who now lives in Paris. Svetlana gradually understands that whatever happens during these Russian lessons, one thing is sure – the teacher never feels bored.

How did you get the idea to write it?

As I mentioned, I am very lucky with meeting interesting people, moreover, people who want to share their stories with me. One day I heard a story about that Russian millionaire in Paris and his kids and his dog whom he tried to turn into vegetarians. Another day I heard a story about Russian lessons taught to a psychoanalyst, given in his cabinet with the famous Freudian couch.  I thought: “Gosh, they are just delicious stories, you can build something with them!” And before I knew it, my Russian teacher appeared on paper.

What were some of the challenges of writing? What were some of the rewards?

The most difficult in writing for me is the creative part when you throw on paper some thoughts that didn’t exist visually before, when you literally write it down, rewrite it, delete and write it again. I am rarely content with what I write and, moreover, I can’t manage my time when I’m doing it, sometimes I can’t tell if I’ve been writing for 1 hour or 4, and I never feel that I am productive enough. I desperately need time and total loneliness at this phase, which is, in my case, quite challenging to organize. Then there is the editing phase which is a pure joy, because I become less sensitive to what is around me and can  say: Okay, I will work on it for 1 hour, and then I have other things to do. At the same time it is a dangerous phase because you can merrily spend hours on editing your text without moving forward. Rewards are somewhere classical for any writer: enormous pleasure to play this game of building worlds with words, the game that liberates your mind and makes your whole life real. I feel real in my everyday life if I am writing, that’s the only way how I can describe it.

A unique moment between the two, between the tortures and the pleasures of writing can be this: when you have written enough to see the characters,  some moments of their life, some shimmering light of their existence  – and you understand that you can’t stop now. You just can’t.  To stop means to kill  them all, and it’s too late, it’s already born, you almost must write more, because now without you they will stop breathing.

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How has your poetry enriched your prose?

Well, to start with, I hope it has. Then, in my humble opinion, good prose is almost another type of poetry. The well written text longs to be remembered, no matter if it is a poem or a page of a novel. It interacts with something deep inside you, something much more complex that obvious rhymes and rhythm. The text  either has music inside it, or not. Naturally, with this opinion, you try your best to put a portion of music inside the text. When Svetlana talks about tango or her love for teaching languages, she does it poetically. I hope that readers will feel it too.

What advice would you give to a first time novelist?

The first advice for any creative mind: be consistent and keep writing. Write every day, even if it’s not your main text, write letters, write your diary, just write – everything needs practice. Treasure your time and space, and protect them. Don’t compromise, don’t write for ‘anyone’. Write for people you love. Write and rewrite a lot. Give your text to a real reader, if possible, to many. Be ready to be misunderstood. Protect what you are sure of, learn and accept the rest. Be ready to see your manuscript come back to you with “no”, be ready for no answers at all.  Be patient, and once again, keep writing.

What is the best advice you have ever received?

I am quite impatient and feel upset when things don’t move or when I can’t get any progress in my work. So, the phrase that really helped me was: don’t be afraid to feel stuck – progress is never linear, it will certainly come soon, and it will come with a jolt.

What books are on your nightstand?

Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Chekov in all translations and variations especially Chekov in Andre Markovic French translation – a joy! Arseni Tarkovsky’s poetry, a couple of very dear English books, “The Last Samurai” of Helen DeWitt and Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory”, Michael Ende and Astrid Lindgren in French, Haruki Murakami in English, plus dictionaries and a lot of white paper!

What’s next?

Next will be a bunch of letters that the reader finds on an old dusty piano, and the piano is locked with a key. And why it is locked, and where is the key, and who played it before, being madly in love without knowing it yet – these are, more or less, the themes of my future book, if, of course, I am lucky and the manuscript will become a book.

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