Grigory Ryzhakov was born in the Far East of Russia, where he has bathed in icy streams and played in snowdrifts. He has made the journey to the United Kingdom, has a PhD from Cambridge and now lives in Oxford where he works as a molecular biologist, an author and an authority on contemporary Russian literature. I was lucky to meet him at an author’s fair in London and we have been interested in each other’s work ever since.
Grigory has done a wonderful interview with me for Rules for Thursday Lovers. I would love to do the same for him.
Grigory has an impressive list of published works –
Yana Stajno: Hello Grigory, You have made such an extraordinary journey to your present home in Oxford. When you place yourself in world literature, do you see yourself as a Russian or English writer or are you both?
Grigory Ryzhakov: Hello Yana, thank you for having me at your blog. I have been living in the UK for nearly thirteen years and have been writing in English for as long, so I consider myself a Russian British author, since I write in both languages. I had not been exposed to foreign languages in the childhood, the way Nabokov had, and I find it exciting to be able to create in English - I don’t take any word for granted.
Yana Stajno: From reading your your CV, Grigory, I see you are a brilliant scientist. What has drawn you to writing comic fiction, which seems to me to be the furthest subject from molecular biology? Or are they linked in some way?
Grigory Ryzhakov: I have always had many creative ideas and, at some point, decided to write in order to improve my written academic English and to communicate scientific topics I am interested in. Humour is by far my favourite genre to read, so naturally, when I started writing, comic fiction was my first choice. And science is easier digested when served with humour.
Yana Stajno: Your first books – Mr Right and Mr Wrong and Becoming Agie are classed as chick lit and comedies. But to me they broach very serious concerns about love and gender and trans sexuality in particular. These are very tortuous subjects. What made you decide has drawn you to writing about transgender politics in this way?
Grigory Ryzhakov: Becoming Agie is a duo of novellas about a transsexual scientist; it was inspired by a book I have read, which contained interviews of deaf or blind LGBT people. Suddenly, I wanted to write about people at the edge of the society in terms of their sexual orientation and disabilities. And, of course, I have included many scientific ideas into it.
Yana Stajno: I see you have written a play, Usher Syndrome, which was performed in the Baron Court Theatre. How was that experience? Do you enjoy the theatre? Will you write more plays?
Grigory Ryzhakov: The Usher Syndrome play is based on the first part of Becoming Agie. I have always loved theatre and at some point got involved with a London theatre group called Chelsea Players. We’ve managed to get the director and actors onboard and the play was warmly received, with many of my colleagues had gone to see it back in 2010. I may write more plays in the future, once I am done with the heap of fiction projects in production.
Yana Stajno: Your work - Made in Bionia - is an extremely interesting science fiction novel and seems to me to be addressing the paradoxical worlds of Soviet Union Russia and contemporary Britain. Is this how you see it? How did you become interested in writing a science fiction novel? Is it because you are a scientist? Also, are you influenced by the great Russian science fiction writers? I am thinking of Wayside Picnic and the novel behind Solaris, but there are many others.
Grigory Ryzhakov: The idea of Bionia, a country run by scientists, came from Castalia, an academic ‘paradise’ in The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse. The world of the novel is indeed very much like ours, but I’ve shown it in a distorted satirical way, hence Britain became Aglia, and Russia – Crushia. The premise of the book is a mystery connected to a bioterrorist plot. As a scientist, I wanted to try myself in science fiction, so I could express my scientific ideas in a bold yet accurate way. Many things in the book seem implausible, though all these phenomena have an underlying scientific explanation. Genre-wise, I was more inspired by American fantasy books rather than Russian scifi.
Yana Stajno: You write that you are influenced by Chekhov, Murakami and Dahl, as, strangely, am I. Your work certainly has warmth, an irony, a humour and a love of people, however diverse the subjects. Do you have more authors who have directly or indirectly influenced your work?
Grigory Ryzhakov: I think, as writers, we are influenced by everything we read. That’s why in order to be unique, I prefer to read widely and not just from a best-seller list. My big influence is Fyodor Dostoevsky, though one wouldn’t tell this if they read my stories. Amongst other books that left mark on me is Jack London’s Martin Eden, Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey (a dystopia not the BDSM) and, of course, your book, Yana, - I’m never forgetting Fiona’s extravagant hats.
Yana Stajno: As a busy person myself, I am very interested in how you manage to fit writing into your day? Do you have a set time or place to do it? And what gives you inspiration? Music? Art? Other works of fiction?
Grigory Ryzhakov: I work in the lab long hours and sometimes on weekends, science is demanding. Most of the days, I am too tired to write, so weekends and holidays is when this happens, and I can completely immerse into a fictional world. But evenings are often long enough to compose music, something that I can do even if I’m half-asleep. Composing is effortless to me; it does not need me thinking. Creativity for me is like a drug, it fills me with energy to do everyday science, which is full of routine lab work and much regimented. Creativity has freedom that science lacks, while, thankfully, both are fueled by imagination. Science is hard work, yet it’s exciting since you discover new things and change the world, and creativity is my reward.
Yana Stajno: You have done such diverse works of fiction. And are fearless in tackling genres. Can we look forward to a new work? Possibly in another genre?
Grigory Ryzhakov: My work-in-progress is a comic roller-coaster adventure, set in England and Mexico, a quest for a cactus called Tomb Flower.
Yana Stajno: Now for your most recent work –
The Reader's Mini-Guide to New Russian Books: A Catalogue of Post-Soviet Literature
This seems to be much more than a guide. It is a piece of literature in its own right and speaks of a tremendous affinity with Russian literature. The research must have been tremendous. It has had excellent reviews. Are you happy with it?
Grigory Ryzhakov: I am very glad I could accomplish this. It took a year to research it. Over two hundred titles are mentioned in it, most of them already translated into English. International readership is not much familiar with new Russian books, so I was happy to fill this gap. Indeed, it’s not just a book guide. I was trying to introduce Russia, its culture, mentality and history, through the work of its modern authors. I hope this book, despite the recent political perturbations, will contribute to connecting Russian and British cultures.