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Author Gary Shteyngart says Rob Ford may help diversify state of CanLit

Gary Shteyngart poses in this undated handout photo. Satirical American-Russian author Gary Shteyngart says he's sorry for saying some Canadian authors take fewer risks because they are beholden to government grants. But he still stands by his words, which he recently made to an online publication, and he thinks the problem will eventually change - thanks to embattled Toronto mayor Rob Ford. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Brigitte Lacombe

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Gary Shteyngart poses in this undated handout photo. Satirical American-Russian author Gary Shteyngart says he's sorry for saying some Canadian authors take fewer risks because they are beholden to government grants. But he still stands by his words, which he recently made to an online publication, and he thinks the problem will eventually change - thanks to embattled Toronto mayor Rob Ford. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Brigitte Lacombe

TORONTO - Satirical American-Russian author Gary Shteyngart says he's sorry for saying some Canadian authors take fewer risks because they are beholden to government grants.

But he still stands by his words, which he recently made to an online publication, and he thinks the problem will eventually change — thanks to embattled Toronto mayor Rob Ford.

"I think Rob Ford will give Canada licence to do something else," Shteyngart said in an interview to promote his new immigrant memoir, "Little Failure."

"Because now literature — the idea of this sort of perfect country, which is how many people see it, where everything just hums along smoothly and people are polite — you've got Rob Ford and that raises the bar, and I think literature has to meet that bar in some way.

"Because now we know that there's a craziness underneath it all that exceeds any insanity that we have in our craziest states — in Jersey, Alabama. I mean, this is beyond crazy. This is so crazy that, as a satirist who invents countries like Absurdistan, I could have never invented this. And this is here in Toronto. It's spectacular. Congratulations."

The bespectacled novelist behind "Super Sad True Love Story," "Absurdistan" and "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" recently took a jab at the state of CanLit in an article on vulture.com.

It was in response to a question of whether fiction should be subsidized.

"Let me say this. I was the judge of a Canadian prize, and it’s subsidized, they all get grants," started Shteyngart, who was on the jury for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize that went to Will Ferguson's novel "419."

"Out of a million entries, we found four or five really good ones, but people just don't take the same damn risks! Maybe they want to please the Ontario Arts Council, or whatever it is."

On Friday, when asked about the comments, Shteyngart delivered a tongue-in-cheek apology.

"I'm so sorry, Canada. I'm so sorry. I love all things Canadian," said the Brooklyn-based scribe. "I got married in Nunavut, in Grise Fiord, the northernmost civilian settlement — I mean, come on. Glenn Gould, I like him quite a bit. I just had a picture taken of me sitting next to him, at that statue outside the CBC. I ate poutine last night along with some Niagara icewine, dessert wine.

"I mean, I'm giving it all for this country."

He "was in a drunken stupor" and "had smoked some crack" when he made the comments, he added jokingly, quoting Ford.

Shteyngart, who teaches creative writing at Columbia University, said when he was on the Giller jury and read about 140 books, "many of them just felt very similar to one another."

When asked to describe those similarities, he pointed to what a Canadian student in his program has called the "Man Vs. Nature" theme in CanLit.

For example, "'A wintry day in Manitoba and uncle Neal's moustache has a bit of horse rust on it and someone loses a finger in some threshing machine,'" said Shteyngart, 41.

"Or the Toronto thing where two people see each other across the subway platform and stuff happens between them, maybe one of them is Nicaraguan or something. I mean, Alice Munro has elevated the inner emotional story to a level that we haven't seen since Chekhov, so I'm not saying you can't set something in provincial Ontario and not produce work that's groundbreaking and Nobel-worthy.

"But sometimes it does feel like the writer knows what's expected of her or him and then with a fair amount of skill reproduces that."

Shteyngart said he was hoping to see more risky writing and opinionated characters in the vein of Mordecai Richler, whose works he teaches at Columbia.

"'Barney's Version' is one of the saddest books I've ever read; it's about mortality and it's about the way we lose our faculties. That's all I was really looking for in that pile. We chose some great books and I'm so glad '419,' Ferguson's book, won it.

"I mean, look, Alice Munro and Atwood and William Gibson, there's obviously not a dearth of amazing writing there. But I just wanted more of that, more of Richler."

Shteyngart said he's also found the same problem with MFA programs that subsidize students in the U.S.

"I do feel there is ... a kind of homogenization going on where you get that kind of story, you know, the MFA story where it's finely crafted but there's some life that's missing," he explained.

"When I was writing my first book there was no funding at all. There was no feeling of me having to please any of them — no grants council, no teachers or students in an MFA program. It was just me and that allowed me to do what I wanted to do, not to redirect my voice for someone else's approval.

"Look, I'm a socialist, I love all kinds of support from governments, but sometimes in the arts you really need to go out on your own and do whatever you need to do."

The critically lauded "Little Failure" details the Shteyngart family's emigration from Leningrad, USSR to Queens, New York, where the novelist grew up with his conservative Soviet Jewish parents who wanted him to be a lawyer. As he reflects on his upbringing and family history, he analyzes himself and how his background has influenced his writing.

"People say 'Why a memoir? Why now? Why not never?' But I'm 41 years old, which is about 67 in Russian years. How much do I got left?" said Shteyngart, who recently became a father.

"I've got to make sure at least my kid will one day be able to pick up a book and realize what his dad's life was like, maybe hate me a little less."

Shteyngart said he uncovered some "heartbreaking" information about his parents he didn't previously know, including his father's stint in a mental hospital.

"I think in talking to them, the feeling was this: that I had grown up, as many children do, with a lot of anger and rage toward my parents," said Shteyngart. "Their child-rearing techniques were more 19th century Russian than 20th century American.

"But that anger dissipated and began to be replaced with this kind of sorrow that they grew up in this awful country and their lives were so overshadowed by Hitler and Stalin."

Shteyngart said some TV and film producers are now interested in adapting "Little Failure."

Meanwhile, he's writing a TV treatment for "Super Sad True Love Story" and is thinking about his next novel, which he said will likely feature a "strong female character" in a different setting with "maybe no Russia, minimal Russia."

"Because this book has used up so much of the material that I've used in the other books about short, furry, Russian Jewish nebbishes ... there's nothing left in the cupboard. The cupboard is bare and now we can write something completely different."

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