"You must research very quickly, because when you write, you finish a book in six to eight weeks."
"No, no, not anymore," Akunin protests.
"Not any more?"
"No. It takes six to eight months." He sighs at the thought.
"Ahhh. Yes, I loved your comments about having run out of all the good words after writing so many books."
"This is a problem."
"You've also said" -- I quote him back to himself -- "that Russia has always made the wrong decisions. And that you see Russian history repeating itself. That Russia is again at a crossroads and again has decisions to make. What are the crossroads this time? And what are the decisions?"
A silence follows. The room grows darker still as the afternoon winds toward early evening.
"The usual ones. The bigger ones. Decisions between individual values and collective values. Russia has always been between those two poles. After [Tsar] Aleksandr II was killed by terrorists, Aleksandr III was so frightened that he started just putting 'stone pavements over the grass' so nothing would grow. He was hoping to just stop the time, which is impossible. So the pressure simply grew until [everything] burst in the beginning of the 20th Century and almost nothing was left of Russia. The same mistake is being repeated now because, after the liberal reforms of [the] '90s, now we are getting a period of, as we call it in Russia, 'Screwing the balls.' Which is not a pretty sight."
"Your translator turns an elegant phrase. He is very graceful. I assume he is mirroring your ornate style. It's a very accomplished piece. Frankly, American publishers hate translations. They inevitably come in so rough, require so much work and added expense. And yours is as smooth as liquid. How did you and he work together?"
Boris Akunin leans back on the couch. "I was very cautious about my English translator. I didn't want to sell my books to an English language market for a long, long time. [They were among] the last countries where I sold translation rights. There were several translators who wanted to do the job. Andrew Bromfield, from England, was by far the best. He feels the style. He has just the right professional background, because he has translated both Leo Tolstoy and Viktor Pelevin, who is sort of Irvine Welsh."
"You have said that you don't write from the heart. That you don't have a serious literary soul. That you write with your brain only. What do you mean?"
"I mean that I am not an exhibitionist," Akunin says, in measured tones. "Like practically every highbrow writer. I do not want to..." He struggles for the word.
I tease: "You don't think Ulysses is the greatest novel every written in English?"
Amused, Akunin shoots back: "You don't think that James Joyce is committing a public hara-kiri with this novel? He is."
"It is celebrated here."
He grows serious. "Actually, the only writer, really big writer, who is not an exhibitionist is Nabokov. And still I am not sure of that. Myself, I do not want to talk about my inner problems. My readers have enough problems of their own. I want them to forget their problems. I do not write for myself, like a real writer would. I write for an audience. And if I don't have readers, then I won't write. I have a lot of friends who are real writers and actually they do not care. They want their books to sell, but if no one bought their books, they would continue writing."
"You don't think Charles Dickens was a real writer?" I challenge. Actually, Akunin's characters are similarly over the top and entertaining.
"It's better not to talk about [the] 19th Century, because [the] literary scene has changed so much. It's really useless to speak about whether Charles Dickens is mass literature or not mass literature. [The] cultural situation is different. Back then only educated classes read fiction at all. Now everybody can do it."
I disagree: "Actually Dickens's sales were phenomenal in the U.S. I think when the American population was 8 million, he at one point sold over five million copies. Can you imagine."
"No, I think it must be an exaggeration."
"No, it's in old printing [industry] books." (Cheap Book Production in the United States, 1870 to 1891, by Raymond Howard Shove, University of Illinois. Edwards Brothers Inc., Ann Arbor, 1937. Page 139.) I dodge the debate: "So you write two hours a day. Why is your schedule so busy. What are you doing the other 22?"
"Computer games. [His computer game based on his Fandorin character will be out early next year.] But I am absolutely spent after those two writing hours and not good for anything. And there are different stages of writing a book. Some of them are quite delicate. A trifle is enough to do in a day. It can be a telephone call. It can be...just anything. You feel you are a glass aquarium. Fragile."
"What kind of cards did you play, bridge or poker?"
"Can you describe the '90s -- when Russia experienced mass culture for the first time and everything was lawless and open. And that was the bad part. But the good part was that it was so open, and for the first time you could write anything."
"It was a really fascinating sight to watch this big nation discovering mass culture. And it was both an ugly sight and very vital, very full of energy. But speaking about the book market, in the first wave the translations [were] of American hardcore crime fiction and all those books for housewives, like, there was Sandra Brown everywhere. This sort of [down-market, commercial] reading. And, of course, translations were awful, covers were awful. The book was falling apart in your hand. Then the second wave was when our [Russian] authors started to write by themselves, and it was even worse. Because they were not professional. They thought the more blood, the more sex, the better. So it went in waves, one after another. The third one started with [Lieut. Colonel] Alexandra Marinina, which was a decent wave of a decent level. Intelligentsia started to read it and enjoy it -- a psychological detective, without all that filth."