"That American culture wants to streamline and eliminate difference. I think I was always conscious that there was this pressure to lose your identity, to lose your language, to lose your customs. I saw that a lot and it was something I always thought sad. So I put it in the father's speech. Also he's a character who's prone to saying things. He drinks. He's volatile. He was a song writer and singer, and a poet too. Anyway, the father is beaten down by the circumstances of his life and the fact that he wanted to be an artist, and now he's a janitor. He really had this passion for Latvian culture and song, and loved Latvian poetry and American country and western music. He wanted to be free to sing whatever songs he wanted. And when he tried to do that, he was brutally silenced -- charged with 'anti Soviet agitation' and found to be a 'socially dangerous element.' For which he was imprisoned and tortured, his hand mangled."
I think about this a moment, then ask, "How did you feel about the American romance with communism when you were growing up, when you were in school? Were you surprised by the American left?"
"Oh, I was very surprised. I was raised to just hate communism. I was indoctrinated from the time I was a child, so it was difficult to figure out and later realize that, hey, some of these socialist ideas were interesting. Maybe there was something to them. When I was a kid, I had a t-shirt that said, 'Nyet, Nyet, Soviet!', and it had a hammer-and-sickle and a list of all the countries they'd seized, crossed out on the front, and all the countries they'd invaded, on the back. I grew up in an environment of intense propaganda against socialism and communism. It was weird to realize I actually liked some of their ideas and believed that nationalism didn't have to be exclusionary, full of hatred, or unwilling to accept other ethnic groups."
"You have your hero fall in love with a socialist classmate, who's handing out the Daily Worker, and her father is a radical professor."
"Right," Paul Toutonghi laughs, "which I had so much fun with. I was teaching at the University of Vermont, and the Socialist-Worker people were out in front of the library on the steps, handing out this newspaper. So I'd have these wonderfully absurd conversations with them, where they would talk about the global industrial hegemony and the need for working classes to unite in all forms of struggle against oppression. I thought how interesting it would be if Yuri's girlfriend's father was a socialist, and she too. There I had my conflict between the hero and his family."
"Visitors from Latvia come to stay with Yuri's family, including a cousin his age: Eriks. Your hero envies his Latvian cousin his worldliness and wishes he had grown up oppressed."
Pauls Toutonghi nods. "When I went to Latvian summer camp, they brought over kids from Latvia. And I was very much envious of a sort of sophistication they had and my American friends didn't. It seemed very real to me; the Latvian kids had had tough lives. I was always conscious, from the time I was a kid, of being very lucky and being extremely privileged, of having this very comfortable middle-class upbringing. Part of that was due to Latvian Saturday school, where it was drummed into me repeatedly about the struggles of Latvian people under communism, and how they were forbidden to speak Latvian over there, how many were deported to labor camps, executed. It was a very bloody past. I was conscious of how good I had it. So when I met somebody my age from there, I was somewhat envious of this sense of their having seen a lot."
"Yet, of course, the visiting cousin is wonderfully naive too," I point out. "You have a terrific scene between them as they discuss a microwave oven. 'How can it cook so rapidly?' the visiting cousin asks. 'How does it work?' 'It's a microwave,' Yuri says, faking an answer. 'It cooks the food with micros.' Then he thinks: 'Who knew how a microwave worked, anyway? This wasn't necessary information for living a contemporary American life. You just punched in the numbers and the food cooked.'""I'm glad you liked that so much. Shay Areheart editor, my editor, will be delighted. She had a lot to do with that scene."
"For Yuri's big date, he does something very American. He takes his girlfriend for a joy ride in a stolen car."
"Yes, that was somewhat autobiographical. Not the stolen part but, when I was in high school, I was driving very late one night and decided to take my girl to Canada. Vancouver wasn't very far and we were driving down the road and making out, and we drove off the side of the road into the concrete barrier, blew out the tires, ripped up the fender. I had to drive back at 40 mph with the hazards on. That memory remains sort of fresh."
"When Cousin Eriks suggests that the Latvian flag might fly again, that the country might win its independence, the father just dismisses this. He can't believe it's possible. Was that your family's feeling as well?"
"Oh, yes. I was 15 when the USSR started to break apart. I remember when the television station in the Latvian capital was besieged, there were still Latvians here saying the Soviet Union will never fall. That was a terribly familiar sense of fatalism -- the atmosphere in which I grew up. I think Latvians are the most fatalistic people on earth. A friend, who is an investment banker now, came to the US and lived with my family. You ask him, 'How are you doing?' And, if you're lucky, he'll say, 'Oh, normal.' Never, 'Great!' Honestly, I feel like we are the most gloomy, superstitious, nihilistic folks in the world. If something good is happening, we do not want to talk about it, so that it will continue. Anyway, I cried when Latvia was free again. It was a very emotional thing for me as a teenager."