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Understanding Russia — and what drives its complicated, dynamic people — has confounded historians and world leaders for centuries. But in a new novel, author Josh Weil captures those complexities and sets them in a futuristic Russian society living under a glass dome. It’s in this vast greenhouse bathed in perpetual sunlight that Weil’s main characters live, love and struggle to come to terms with a new Russia that, in some respects, bears a striking resemblance to the present day. Kojo explores the world under the “The Great Glass Sea.”
- Josh Weil Author, "The Great Glass Sea" and "The New Valley"
Read A Featured Excerpt
THE GREAT GLASS SEA © 2014 by Josh Weil; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, facing the economic and academic challenges. We'll talk with Howard University's new President Wayne Frederick. But first, in 1939, Winston Churchill famously defined Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Today, that quote aptly describes (unintelligible) of Moscow, as headlines from the country continue to confound and madden leaders worldwide.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo, how do you put the complexities of this fascinating, frustrating country on the written page? It's not a job for the faint of heart. For author Josh Weil, looking back to Russia's magical folklore was an important way to understand the country he was drawn to as a child. In his new book, Weil uses elements of Russia's rich literary past to tell his own tale of a new Russia set under a massive greenhouse. It's in this vast society, bathed in perpetual daylight, that his main characters live, love and struggle to come to terms with their changing world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd it's in that futuristic setting that we see some eerie similarities to our own society. Josh Weil joins us in studio. He is author of "The Great Glass Sea." He's also author of "The New Valley," which is a collection of three novellas. Josh Weil, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. JOSH WEILThanks.
NNAMDIRussia has been very present in the headlines lately, but for you, Russia has been an integral part of life since childhood. How did Russia shape your early years, and why did you choose to give it a dystopian twist for your first novel?
WEILYeah, it's been in me for a long time. I think, in part, because my mother's side of my family is all Russian. So, it was my great grandfather who came over from Russia. So, a few generations removed, but I grew up eating some Russian foods, and my mom would put on music on the records of folk songs, and we'd dance. And so, I had kind of that in my blood already. And then, when I was in sixth grade, a girl who I had a crush on decided she was gonna take a Russian language class in seventh grade, when we moved to junior high.
WEILSo, I wound up following her, of course, to that class. And that led to the most important, kind of, formative stuff in my entire junior high and high school education.
NNAMDIIn other words, your entire life has been transformed by a sixth grade crush.
WEILWhich, it's very, very true. I mean, this novel would never have been written without that. And so I studied Russian language for six years intensively, and also got wrapped up in the culture. And I would put on -- I helped the Russian Club put on (word?), these festivals, and we'd dance and sing songs and all that stuff. So it was a really important part of my life, right when I was at that age when you're starting to figure out who you are and starting to shape who you are as a person. Made all the more important by the fact that I was part of a student exchange and went over to the Soviet Union, the last year it was still the Soviet Union, in '91.
WEILAnd I lived with a host family there, in a far northern city, kind of working class city, in just a gray Soviet style apartment block for a month. Going to school and spending time with the family, going to church with my host mother. All that kind of stuff. And it was just a mind blowing experience for a boy at that age, so I came back from that with my world view just shifted. And always knew I wanted to write about it, but it wasn't until this story came along that I had a route into it.
NNAMDII'm glad you said this story came along. What made you decide to give it a dystopian twist in this novel?
WEILI think there were a bunch of reasons for it. The first is that the whole reason the novel, the whole thing that birthed the novel, was I was listening to an NPR show, actually, in, down in near Blacksburg, West Virginia, where I spent a lot of time in a remote cabin. And NPR's kind of my friend down there, cause I don't see anybody or talk to anyone, sometimes, for three, four weeks at a time. So, I was listening, and there was a professor, a local professor who was being interviewed. He'd written a book on the history of night time.
WEILAnd he, just in a kind of a throwaway comment, mentioned oh, and the Russians, in 1993, sent this experimental satellite up to try to reflect sunlight down into the dark corners of Russia, with the idea they could light these cities 24/7. And then he moved on, and I sat there stunned, thinking that is one of the craziest ideas I've ever heard. And for a writer, for a novelist, you know, my imagination just started running with that. Well, what if they had succeeded at that? And what happened with it?
WEILSo, so the dystopian element of this kind of was the thing that brought me back to Russia. And I thought, well, okay, I can -- this is now requiring that I dip back into my love of Russia. This thing's been stirring in me all this time. Now I have a way in, because I want to write about what if the Russians succeeded in doing this with a city?
NNAMDIOur guest is Josh Weil. He is author of "The Great Glass Sea." If you have questions or comments for him, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Have you visited or lived in Russia? What were your impressions of the people and culture there? Or for that matter, what do you think life would be like in perpetual light? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. There are several parallels we can draw between the futuristic setting of your novel with modern day Russia.
NNAMDIIn "The Great Glass Sea," an all-powerful oligarch rules a society under a greenhouse that stretches for miles and employs thousands of people. Today, Vladimir Putin is considered Russia's strongman, supported by very powerful oligarchs. I think a lot of people wonder why Russians put up with this style of governing, even as they watch the gap between rich and poor grow. What's your take on it?
WEILYeah, I mean, for me, it's, in some ways, it's clear. And that's that Putin has been able to deliver. He is a strongman. He gets stuff done. In fact, when I was there, I went back in 2010 to do research for this book, and hitchhiked around and went to rural areas and slept in a tent and stayed with a peasant family out in the middle of nowhere. And I also stayed with a guy who'd done very well in the early 90s in Moscow, and went around the city with him.
WEILAnd so, got a kind of glimpse of what was going on in that scene. And his response to me, and I heard this over and over when I would ask people, you know, well, what about Putin and the way that he's put such a clamp on the media and he controls so much of the media? And he's kind of castrated the Duma, the parliament, in some ways. And he would turn around and say, well, how come Americans support such a weak and ineffectual form of government? So, it's, you know, they look at it that way.
NNAMDIYou can't get anything done.
WEILThat's exactly what they say. You can't get even the smallest stuff done. They would say, you know, Putin, sure, maybe he goes too far sometimes. Maybe he goes in the wrong direction. But at least he goes. And they feel a certain sense of excitement, and that their own power, as a nation, is wrapped up in his ability to actually do stuff, to push directions. There's a pride in that, and I think there is also a sense that I got, whenever I'd talk with -- I'd sit down with schoolteachers or with a guy who was an out of work logger. And there was this sense of aggrievement, that felt like it filled most things when I would talk with the Russians.
WEILAnd part of that was, you know, they spent 70 plus years going in one direction, and then all of a sudden, that was chopped off. And they were told, no, you have to actually go in this opposite direction the rest of the world's already been doing for a long time. And there's this sense of having to play catch up with that. And just kind of getting the short shrift with that.
NNAMDIBut the one thing that seems to be consistent throughout the two eras is a kind of political culture that we have a lot of problems understanding. Your two main characters, Dima and Yarik, are twin brothers who have a bond so close that readers are left to wonder if it's almost too close. I know I did. Why was it important to really draw out the close but complex relationship between these two men?
WEILYeah, that's the heart of the book for me. That's the story that I wanted to write. The rest of this is the trappings, it's the external world that encases that story. But for me, when I'm writing, I'm always beginning with character and beginning with something that a character is struggling with that means enough to me that I say, okay, I can spend five years wrestling with this in a novel.
WEILSo, for me, this was the relationship I have with my brother. And he's five years older. We're not twins, but we grew up extremely close, and for a period of time, all the way into our early 20s, we were each the most important person in each other's life. Then life kind of changed and intervened and did what life does and my brother got married and had a kid.
NNAMDIWhile you live in a cabin somewhere.
WEILYeah, and I live in a cabin. And now, in the last two years, my life has changed dramatically. I'm now married, have a baby on the way and have a step-daughter.
WEILThank you. And so, but what that meant is I had to shift my understanding of my relationship with my brother, who was the person I loved most in the world. And that was a very painful and difficult thing to do, to try to learn my way around that. So I wanted to make sure that I wrote something that tried to get its hands around that issue, that character emotional -- that kind of personal issue, as best I could.
NNAMDIDima and Yarik work in the Oranzheria, which is a massive greenhouse that employs thousands of Russians and is bathed in perpetual daylight by giant satellites. This daylight messes with nature in ways that seem both reckless, on the one hand, and efficient on the other. I wonder if you could read a little bit to us from the book to give us a sense of what life is like under the glass. Go to page 12, if you would.
WEILSure. This is just a few paragraphs. "In villages, gardens ground to a halt. Field crops grew confused. Barley forgot to form seed heads. Pea shoots paused pre-flowering. Where tubers had been sewn the soil waited. A few farmers tried to hang on to pasture milk cows on clover that didn't bloom to grow the few things that seemed able to withstand the constant light. Plots of cucumbers and onions, a few patches of strawberries. While all throughout the city, the people watch their old trees swap for ones grown in the consortium's great greenhouse. Park gardeners planted beds with consortium cultivated flowers, seeds developed in the laboratories of the oligarch went on sale."
WEIL"Though, even the researchers, who had found the light sensing gene, who had flicked off the molecular switch, couldn't ease the panic that coursed through the mice, tree frogs, bats. Voles were hunted as if with spotlights. House cats grew fat on their kills. New prey presented itself to dogs out beside the soon doomed woods, fields became feasting grounds for foxes, falcons. Their hunting, an unimpeded bliss. But why were the snowy owls booming their mating calls? Displaying their wings when their spring fledglings were barely out of their nests?"
WEIL"Why, so long after spring had gone, were the warblers and wagtails stirred to sing so often and so loud? The geese watch for the time for flying south to come near, still waiting for flight feathers to grow. Deer didn't mate. Bears browsed lazily as in mid-summer, oblivious to their approaching sleep. And when the cold arrived, did they hear their stomachs groan? Did a shiver run up the flanks of the wolves beneath their summer fur? First snows came, and how strange to see the silhouettes of arctic foxes that had forgotten to turn white. To watch them try to creep upon hares equally unable to hide. And how frenzied the white world seemed then, teeming with ermines and pole cats and minks, the panic of their dark shapes."
NNAMDIJosh Weil, reading from his novel, "The Great Glass Sea." If you have questions or comments, 800-433-8850. What do you think life would be like in perpetual light? Are you familiar with Russian fables and folklore? What are your favorites? 800-433-8850. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Later in the broadcast, we'll be talking with Howard University President Wayne Frederick. Right now, our guest is Josh Weil. He is author of "The Great Glass Sea" and author of "The New Valley," which is a collection of three novellas. If you have questions or comments, 800-433-8850. What kind of research did you do on what life would be like under perpetual daylight?
WEILThat I actually did a fair amount of research about. There is a lot that just paying for myself in this book but that of course I couldn't know. So I wound up -- I was doing visiting writer positions and so I had access to some good libraries at universities. So part of it was just looking at photo period as some circadian rhythms, how plants will be affected, how animals would be affected.
WEILAlso, reading stuff about how people were affected mentally with such a thing because it's -- it obviously messes with the way that we think and the way that we understand our natural way of moving through the world. There is also a little bit of what my dad likes to call tractor questions. My dad's a professor of soil fertility and sustainable agriculture. And so he knows a lot about farming.
WEILAnd so I asked him questions, too, about that with this. And he calls them tractor questions because early on in my writing career, I was working on something, it's actually one of the novellas in my first book about a man who's repairing an old tractor. And I would call my dad up all the time and say, you know, how would you do this? How would you do that? And so now anytime I call him he says, oh, Josh is calling with a tractor question again.
NNAMDIAt one point, you describe a society where stores never close and new foods, like prewashed greens and low fat avocados appear, which sounds a lot like life here today. Is this your way of worrying about the direction of our own hyper-efficient society?
WEILI do worry about it. I do. And in many ways, this book, although it's set in Russia, in an imagined Russia, in a Russia that's partially based on my experience there but also in my memories, which are of course not very reliable from when I was 14 years old. And so, also fables. And so it's very much a Russia of my imagination. And part of the reason why I wanted to set this there is it allowed me to create just enough distance between my concerns about society, the American society, and place it somewhere else that you can look at it with, in some ways, a more finite eye and a crystallized lens.
WEILSo there are concerns that I have about the way that we, as a society, are caught in this trap of constant productivity, needing perpetual growth for us to keep on being happy. And part of that, I looked back at things like the economist John Maynard Keynes said in, I believe it's 1928 just before the big crash. He predicted that in a hundred years, the American worker would be working about 15 hours a week.
WEILAnd the big problem would be, how do we use all of our leisure time in an effective way? And I look at that and I look at numbers that say, well, the American worker back then compared to the American worker now. The worker now is twice as productive as back then, producing twice as much stuff. And yet, somehow, is working the equivalent of a month longer each year. So what happened to our society that that's happened?
WEILAnd another thing that an interviewer actually asked me that let me see this book in a whole new way. The interviewer said, you know, the mirrors in "The Great Glass Sea" in some way, are stand-in for the internet. And I hadn't thought about that before, but our leisure time has been turned into productive time at home. And the internet, there's this constant, constant need to be producing and moving. And I worry about what that does to our quality of life.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you think our society is becoming too focused on efficiency? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. You mentioned earlier about the Russians once attempting to light the Earth with space mirrors. I should point out that I understand that you're writing a short story based on that space mirror idea. It's going to be called "The Age of Perpetual Light" and it will anchor a collection of short stories out in about 18 months.
WEILYeah. Actually the collection itself is called "The Age of Perpetual Light." And the short story is what started all this off. And I wound up being just fascinated by the way that the human kind has attempted throughout for most of our history to diminish the amount of darkness around us and in the world and increase the amount of light. And that's a very rich material metaphorically, story-wise.
WEILSo the collection begins around 1901 with early electrification of some of the smaller cities in the States and goes all the way into a future where the United States is linked by these space mirrors and there's no darkness.
NNAMDI"The Great Glass Sea" is a futuristic tale, yet the language you used to tell this tale is evocative of a folkloric fable. Why combine those elements in your writing? What are some of your major influences?
WEILYou know, for me, I never thought of this book as science fiction. I think of it more as magical realism, in a way. And the space mirrors...
NNAMDIYou said you're not even aware that you've even read a lot of science fiction.
WEILI haven't. I've read hardly any at all. And I don't have anything against science fiction, it's just not -- hasn't been in my sphere. But I have read a fair amount of magical realism. So Gabriel Garcia Marquez that kind of stuff was a big influence on me as a writer. And in a way the fables in this give birth to these space mirrors that act almost like a beast in a fable. Their effect on the world is one of stripping away the darkness very much in the same way that in Russian fable there's a beast called the Chudo-Yudo.
WEILAnd the fable has it that the beast leaps up into the sky and swallows the sun. And then Ivan Popyalof, who is often a character in Russian fables has to go out and slay the beast in order to get back the sun. So that kind of thing was important to me for the tone of this book, in part because I'm not Russian, I'm not trying to write a Russian novel. I couldn't. It'll be arrogant and impossible for me to do that.
WEILI'm not trying to say this is, you know, this is a clear vision of the Russian today as they are if you were to go there right now. And I'm going to show you the Russian soul as an American writing this book. I couldn't do that. But what I did feel I could do was write within my sense of Russia, my understanding from having been there and traveled back and used that as a setting that would make the story come to life through fables, which is a large way of coming in to Russian culture.
NNAMDINot just the fables and Bill have two questions. One, using fable and folklore and then having people see it as science fiction, was that a surprise to you?
WEILIt was, in a way. Honestly, I wasn't expecting it. I understand why that's there. But the point -- I think what differentiates this from a lot of science fiction is that it's rooted in character and character concerns. And the elements that are science fiction, like, are really just there to put pressure on those character concerns. And I'm not really concerned with the mechanics of the satellites or, you know, how "The Great Glass Sea" works as an object in a way that I think a lot of science fiction would be very interested in the nuts and bolts of that.
NNAMDIWell, "The Great Glass Sea" includes also your original drawings at the beginning of each chapter, which are very striking. Why did you do that? And how do the processes of writing and drawing compliment each other? Are you headed for a graphic novel at some point?
WEILI don't think I am. But who knows? Maybe. I didn't think that I would ever be lucky enough to illustrate a novel. So I don't what will happen with that. But there -- my thinking around illustration and writing started when I was in graduate and I was reading W. G. Sebald. His work was very influential to me. And for those of your listeners who might have read his stuff, they'll know that he has these photographs and other images and places them within the text.
WEILAnd sometimes they'll refer to something that doesn't happen until the next page or sometimes they'll be referring to something that already happened. And there's a fluidity in the way that we can approach those and encounter those on the page that doesn't happen with the written word as we go sentence by sentence. So I was very interested in the way that works. With this book, specifically in my first book, too, the middle novella was illustrated.
WEILSo I already had some experience with that. But with this book, my understanding of Russian fables and the world of that Russian folklore is inextricable from the illustrations of Ivan Bilibin. He was an illustrator working about a hundred years ago. That's how I see them. And it places me immediately in this magical world that I wanted the feeling of that for the reader in this book. So these illustrations are inspired by Bilibin, nowhere near the quality of his work, but they're the best I can do.
NNAMDIThe brothers Dima and Yarik are eventually torn apart as Yarik ascends the corporate ladder of the Oranzheria and Dima starts to drift, eventually quitting his job, cruising around on city buses all day. I think a lot of us sometimes wish we could do what Dima did. Why was it important to you and to the story to show the dichotomy of the ultra-efficient twin versus the wandering leisurely twin?
WEILIt's that that pries them apart. So they begin the story very, very close as brothers. But the pressures of life operate on them differently. And that's why it was so important for me to have them react differently to those pressures. So Yarik, the older brother -- he's only older by a few minutes, but he takes on the role of the older brother -- the has children. He has a wife. It's important to him to be able to support them and to work his way up that corporate ladder.
WEILDima lives with his mother and his only concern, really, is his relationship with his brother. Like you said, almost an oddly close relationship. I think, in some way, he's the more disturbing character, though he's also the one who's probably closest to me. But he is -- it was important for me to have a character like that who could pull in the opposite direction, away from his older brother so that their gap widens and widens due to their very true and real character concerns, what they need out of life.
NNAMDIWell, this started as a short story, ended up as a novel. Next you'll be doing a collection that we talked about earlier. If you'd like to hear more from Josh Weil, he'll be at Politics and Prose this evening in conversation with Elliott Holt, author of "You Are One of Them." They'll get the discussion underway at 7 o'clock at the store. It's located at 5015 Connecticut Avenue Northwest. It's free and open to the public. Josh Weil, thank you so much for joining us.
WEILThank you so much.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking with Howard University's new President, Wayne Frederick. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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