Born in Moscow, in the family of a pioneering Soviet sociologist Boris Grushin, Olga Grushin spent her early childhood in Prague. After returning to Moscow, she studied art history at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and journalism at Moscow State University. At the age of eighteen, she was given a full scholarship to Emory University, and became the first Russian citizen to enroll in and complete a four-year American college program, graduating summa cum laude.
Since coming to the United States, she has been an interpreter for President Jimmy Carter, a cocktail waitress in a jazz bar, a translator at the World Bank, a research analyst at a Washington law firm, and an editor at Harvard University's Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
Her short fiction has appeared in Granta, Partisan Review, The Massachusetts Review, Confrontation, and Art Times; her nonfiction has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Granta, Vogue, The Daily Mail, and elsewhere. The Dream Life of Sukhanov, her first novel (published in 2006), won the 2007 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Washington Post Top Ten Best Book of the Year, and has been translated into fourteen languages. Her second novel, The Line (The Concert Ticket in the UK), was published in April 2010 and chosen as an Editors' Choice book by The New York Times. Her third novel, Forty Rooms, will be published in February 2016. She is now at work on her fourth book.
A citizen of both Russia and the United States, Grushin lives near Washington, DC, with her two children.
When did you start writing?
My first writing attempts date from the age of four. The earliest preserved story starts, rather dramatically, with a knock on the door; when the princess answers the door, she finds several princes behind it, “all in a row handsome.”
From that age, I wrote continuously. When we lived in Prague, we had a family tradition: every year I would write a long tale, my father would then type it (“Original orthography and punctuation preserved,” as our title page invariably announced) and bind it, I would supply illustrations, and we would present the resulting book as a gift to my mother on her birthday. Three or four of these books have survived. The first one, "Tale of a Lazy Princess,” composed when I was seven, was rather autobiographical in nature: the heroine was a princess who resented being told by her father the king to make her bed or cook him dinner; naturally, there was a suitable moral, as her domestic training stood her in good stead when she was kidnapped by a dragon with a liking for neatness and gourmet meals.
Could you tell us about your education in Prague and Moscow?
My three years in a Soviet school in Prague were full of red banners unfurling, Lenin busts towering over marble staircases, mass outings to black-and-white films eulogizing Soviet heroes, songs about Lenin’s birthday, and much else in a similar vein (the school was, after all, a Soviet outpost in a nearly Western environment), but I was too young to notice, too in love with the magic of Prague, and generally too busy having a very happy childhood.
The world seemed so much starker upon our return to Moscow in 1981: the neighborhood school, to which I had been assigned, turned out to be a grim, oppressive place. After a year or two I started looking for another school. I finally transfered in 1984, just after turning thirteen. The new school, known throughout Moscow simply as “Number 45,” was a marked contrast to the old. It emphasized English studies, was challenging and progressive, and full of amazing teachers, from a wonderful if quirky principal (whose old-guard ideas of Marxist equality included, among other things, banning earrings for girls and mandatory crew cuts for boys, yet who let us read Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye in the vernacular) to our literature teacher, my favorite, who quite happily ignored the prescribed Soviet curriculum in favor of Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Kirkegaard. It was a unique place to be, brimming with stories and characters, and it created a fascinating daily backdrop to the fascinating changes just beginning in the world outside.
How did you become a student at Emory University?
In 1988, after my high school graduation, I enrolled in the journalism school of the Moscow State University. My choice of subject was not accidental—writing had been one of the few constants in my life, and journalism was in my blood: my grandmother, mother, brother, and sister-in-law were, or had at one point been, journalists; my father taught courses at the department; a couple of my cousins were attending the program at the time. What followed, however, was entirely accidental: chosen as one of the interpreters for a group of visiting academics from Emory University, I met and talked at length with one Dr. Ellen Mickiewicz, a prominent scholar of Soviet mass media. When she casually asked whether I would like to come to Emory, I casually replied, “Sure.” I thought it to be joking banter and soon forgot all about it, but some months later, in the spring, I received a letter from the University President, offering me a one-way ticket to Atlanta and a full four-year scholarship. It so happened that I would be the first Russian citizen ever to graduate with an American college degree.
What was your career path after college?
I have always been interested in trying my hand at different things. During my college years, I worked at a snack bar (a crash course in unfamiliar sodas and candy bars), in a video arcade (quite an education in American comic book superheroes), and in a post office during Christmas season (an eye-opening, if exhausting, experience). For one summer I was a hostess at a fashionable after-hours café, where I was hired, I was told, for my accent and my then-predominantly-black wardrobe; I gave dessert tours, and learned a lot about coffee and chocolate. I even tried a stint at Victoria’s Secret; I did not last very long, though, as I did not own any frilly skirts or floral dresses, which I seem to remember as an unwritten requirement.
As my 1993 graduation neared, I faced the quandary of where to go after college, and did something unexpected: I applied to law schools. I did not have a clear idea of what I wanted to do, apart from writing (which, as everyone told me, was no way to make a living). I had taken a couple of classes at the Emory law school, and I thought them rather interesting; it seemed an easy, if somewhat random, choice, not to mention an effective means of pursuing the American Dream. Luckily, I tried working at a Washington, DC law firm for a year before making my final decision—and soon realized that such a life, perks and all, was not for me. The grueling experience left me no time for writing, and after many unhappy months I quit on an impulse, moved to a basement studio, found a job as a waitress in a local jazz bar, bought a typewriter, and began work on a short story. The next year or two were not easy, but after a while I started publishing my first short pieces. Eventually, in 1996, I happened upon a perfect job as an editor at Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Institute. I worked there until I could dedicate myself to full-time writing. I left in early 2001 to work on my first novel.
Which authors do you most admire?
I have to start with Nabokov and Gogol, my two favorite writers, but the list is quite long, and I add to it all the time. In no particular order, then: Chekhov, Andrei Bely, Bulgakov, Flaubert, Proust, Apollinaire, Laurence Sterne, Henry James, Paul Bowles, Jorge Luis Borges, Lewis Carroll, Bohumil Hrabal, Dino Buzzati, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Dante, Euripides, and the poets of the Russian Silver Age, to name just a few.
Olga Grushin in the press
Bill Thompson's Eye on Books, "Olga Grushin: 'The Line'" (17 May 2011)
"Waiting to be transformed," Interview by Alden Mudge, BookPage Magazine, April 2010
"Olga Grushin," Voyager Magazine, April 2010 (UK)
"Очередь длиною в жизнь," Voice of America (12 March 2010)
"Я считаю себя русской писательницей," Voice of America (December 30, 2006)
"First-fiction Annual," Poets & Writers Magazine (July/August 2006)
"Glittering Debuts," The Scotsman (June 3, 2006)
Interview, Orange Award for New Writers (May 2006)
"Русско-американский писатель Ольга Грушина: История успеха," Справочник писателя (May 2006; in Russian)
"Писатель Ольга Грушина: 'Я выбирала между престижем и предназначением'," Известия (May 19, 2006; in Russian)
"Orange nominees beat the language barrier," Scotsman (May 3, 2006)
"Post-9/11 author makes shortlist," BBC News (May 2, 2006)
"An exceedingly auspicious debut," Emory Magazine (Spring 2006)
Interview, BBC Russia (March 14, 2006)
"Rising Star," The Observer Magazine (March 5, 2006)
"Ten Questions," Politics and Prose Bookstore, Washington, DC (February 2006)
"American Hour with Alexander Genis," Radio Liberty (February 7, 2006)
Candice Dyer, "Back in the U.S.S.R.: Writers at Work," Atlanta Magazine (February 2006)
Bill Thompson's Eye on Books (January 29, 2006)
Anne Marson, "Checkov the List," Washington City Paper (January 20, 2006)
Regis Behe, "The End of the Underground," Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (January 15, 2006)
"Russian-born novelist pride of Birmingham father-in-law," The Birmingham News (January 12, 2006)
Viv Groskop, "Cold War and peace," Harpers UK (January 2006)
Interview with Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal (November 1, 2005)