Shteyngart Wins Wodehouse Prize

Writer Gary Shteyngart recently won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction. The 11-year-old award was named for British author P.G. Wodehouse and has been awarded to Brits — until this year when it was given to a self-proclaimed Russian-Jewish New Yorker. Shteyngart won for his third work of fiction, Super Sad True Love Story, and he will be given a pig named after the novel as a part of the prize. Shteyngart told Robert Siegel, "This is what I've been writing for all my life. The last award I won was the National Jewish Book Award — and now I get to hang out with a pig."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I have in front of me a photograph of a Gloucestershire Old Spot Pig. It's white with black spots. And there is just such a pig named "Super Sad True Love Story," which happens to be the title of a novel by Gary Shteyngart, a novel which has won a prize for comic fiction.

The book is about the relationship between a late-30s nerdy Russian Jewish guy and his mid-20s Korean-American girlfriend.

Mr. GARY SHTEYNGART (Author, "Super Sad True Love Story"): (reading) You're such a nerd, she laughed cruelly at me. What, I said, I'm sorry.

SIEGEL: That's Shteyngart at a reading.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: (reading) I laughed, too, just in case it was a joke, but right away I felt hurt. LPT, she said, TIMATOV, ROFLARP, PRGV, totally PRGV. The youth and their abbreviations. I pretended like I knew what she was talking about. Right, I said, IMF, PLO, ESL. She looked at me like I was insane.

SIEGEL: "Super Sad True Love Story" has won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize. It is named after the English author PG Wodehouse, who actually lived much of his life in this country.

But since its inception in 2000, the prize has always been awarded to a Brit, until this year, when it goes to a late-30s Russian Jewish guy from New York City. And Gary Shteyngart joins us now. Congratulations.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Thank you. This is a great prize. USA, USA.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: And tell us about what you won and why it has four legs.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, it seems that I have won a pig, and I've won several gallons of champagne and the collected works of PG Wodehouse. So my plan is to get really drunk with the pig and then to read all of Wodehouse to the poor creature.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: And the creature will live out its days, I gather, in the company of other pigs that have been named for the novels of the other winners of this prize.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: It would be very hard to get this pig through customs. So I'm going to leave it alive and in the United Kingdom.

SIEGEL: It's an award for comic fiction. How important is it to you to write a book that makes us laugh, that's funny?

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Very important. You know, I'm - there's sort of this idea that there's commercial fiction and literary fiction, and commercial fiction is supposed to entertain, and literary fiction is supposed to make us think.

But for me, if my fiction doesn't entertain the reader, I think I've failed miserably. Whenever I see somebody reading my books on the subway, I just want to see if they're laughing. And if they're looking very morose, I feel like I need to rewrite the whole book.

SIEGEL: Even if they bought the book?

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, yeah, it is nice to know that I already have the royalty. Thank you, yeah.

SIEGEL: Now, I confess that while I read your novel "Absurdistan," which I guess was your second novel, I have yet to read "Super Sad True Love Story." So you have to translate a little bit of what just happened in that clip. Some of those - TIMATOV, some of those acronyms.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: TIMATOV is - TIMATOV is a wonderful acronym, sounds almost like a Hebrew word, TIMATOV, but it actually means, TIMATOV spells out - think I'm about to openly vomit. And it's a little abbreviation that exists in the future.

It exists in a future where most Americans don't read books. Young people think that they're very smelly and stay away from them. And Lenny, my nebbish, is in his late 30s, and he's one of the last book readers out there.

And the woman he's desperately in love, the beautiful Eunice Park, she went to Elderberg College, and she has majored in images and minored in assertiveness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHTEYNGART: So she is incapable of understanding Lenny's love of books.

SIEGEL: Now I gather that as you are practically knocking on the door of 40 yourself, you actually make a point of researching the way young people speak.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, I'm lucky. I mean, I do teach at Columbia, which is, of course, a very intelligent campus, but still strolling around and pricking up one's ears, one can hear amazing, amazing new words coming out of youthful mouths.

SIEGEL: Things that are novel to you, that you...

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yeah, I mean, most of the acronyms used in this book are not suitable for public radio.

SIEGEL: This is true.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: But TIMATOV certainly is.

SIEGEL: Now, do you go over to Britain to formally receive or to meet the pig in question?

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yes. The - I shall be introduced to the pig. We will shake paws, and then we'll talk about our days in Eton, and then I'll try to eat the pig. The pig will run away coquettishly, and it's going to be a good day.

SIEGEL: Have you... (Laughing) Are there videos extant of some of the prior winners meeting their pigs? Have you seen how this is done or what the ceremony is like?

Mr. SHTEYNGART: I've seen Ian McEwan inside what looks like some kind of trailer, sitting on a bed of hay with the pig, or sort of lying on the bed of hay with the pig, holding his champagne bottle and his book. So something similar may happen to me.

I'd rather be more sort of free-range with this pig, see if we can just roll around in its mud and, you know...

SIEGEL: But in any case, there's going to be a very dignified shot of you with the pig, pretty soon, in circulation.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: This is what I've been writing for all my life. You know, I've been - the last award I won was the National Jewish Book Award, and now I'm getting to hang out with a pig. So it's been a very interesting arc.

SIEGEL: Covering all the bases. Well, Gary Shteyngart, congratulations and thanks for coming to talk with us.

Mr. SHTEYNGART: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: That's Gary Shteyngart, winner of this year's Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for his novel, "Super Sad True Love Story."

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