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Elif Batuman

Portrait of Elif Batuman sitting on a boat on the water
  • Interview by Emily Stokes
  • Issue 19
  • Free RadicalJune 2017

The epigraph to Elif Batuman’s latest novel, The Idiot, is taken from Marcel Proust’s Within a Budding Grove and describes the paradox of youth: “There is hardly a single action we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul,” he writes. “Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them.” The Idiot is a celebration of what Proust calls this “ridiculous age.” The novel follows Selin, the child of Turkish immigrants, as she settles into Harvard in the mid-1990s. Batuman, born in 1977 to Turkish parents and grew up in New Jersey, wrote the novel at twenty-three, immediately after her own undergraduate years at Harvard, in a break from a Ph.D. at Stanford in comparative literature. As she told me recently, it wasn’t until after she had published The Possessed, a collection of essays about studying the Russian authors she loved, and had become a staff writer at The New Yorker, that she returned to the manuscript, at the age of thirty-eight. She was at the time struggling to write a novel about a female journalist in her thirties; instead, she kept writing long flashbacks to her student days. The reworked novel, like almost everything that Batuman writes, is both erudite and personal, carefully sculpted and cringingly honest.

Emily Stokes

What’s interesting about email as a literary genre? Is email a part of your process?

Elif Batuman

In the mid-90s, email was this space of tremendous freedom. At first it wasn't totally clear what it was for, which meant that you could do anything with it, and as with all new forms there was a pressure to do something new, to invent a new content for the form. Many passages in my first book, The Possessed, started out as emails I wrote to my classmates about funny things that had happened that day. At that time I was using emails instead of a diary. Today, I don’t keep a diary or write anyone delightful detailed emails. My inbox is all just work and requests and the soulless exchange system of courtesies. I just got back from a vacation where I didn't look at email for four days. I went to Puerto Rico and it rained every single day but I didn't care, it was so incredible not to be on email. A friend of mine was just saying, If a movie with a title called You’ve Got Mail came out now, it would be a horror movie. It’s all become routinized and bureaucratized, and a lot of the delight-function has been outsourced to social media.

I notice you recently joined Instagram.

Yeah, exactly—in the old days, if you saw something crazy or beautiful or hilarious, you had to describe it in an email. It took forever and it was a huge pain in the butt, and it was just for one person. I mean, you could copy-paste your description and send it to all your friends, but you’d feel like a jerk. Now you see something funny, take a picture of it in one second and put it on Instagram, and all your friends can see it at once. It’s much more efficient, but less personal, and you don’t end up with those nice, beautiful documents.

Both your fiction and your nonfiction essays remind us of those nice, beautiful documents—full of details that feel really intimate. Is there something freeing about writing about things that you know to be true?

I wonder sometimes how much control people have over what they write about—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. I feel like a lot of writers write what they can write, or what they have to write about, and for me that’s often things that actually happened. I know some novelists feel freed by inventing things, and constrained by writing about the arbitrary ways that things happen to have cashed out. I feel the opposite. Writing stories about completely invented, imaginary people doing imaginary things—to me that feels like censorship, because what I want to write about is often the actual way things are, the way things really are in the world. Really the most interesting problems to me are the problems I’ve experienced. To change the details too much feels distracting. Like—my life is already enough of a mystery to me, I don’t need to make it more mysterious by adding more unknown variables. When I talk to a fact-checker—I know for some people, the most salient feature of fact-checking is hearing about all the things that don’t check out. But for me, the thing that’s always the most astounding is the majority of stuff that does check out. Part of me just can’t believe that my experiences and interactions in the world are verifiable, that I didn’t in some way dream them or make them up.


If I’m writing fiction and I invent something that’s too far from the truth, I feel like people will be able to tell, the way that the IRS can tell if you fictionalized your taxes. The numbers you invent—they have these telltale signs.

In the introduction to The Possessed, you describe the plot of The Idiot. You Write, “There may be interesting and moving experiences, but one thing is guaranteed: they won’t naturally assume the shape of a wonderful book.”

Yeah, I know that could seem like a contradiction. But basically I think the plot of each novel is, by definition, something that doesn’t resemble “the plot of a novel."  I think the novel is a constantly evolving, dialectical form. Each new novel is a dialectical clash between the body of previously existing novels, on the one hand, and the inscrutable laundry list of stuff that actually happens, on the other. Take Don Quixote. He wants his life to resemble a chivalric romance, and to follow the rules of that form—but when he leaves the house, looking for a giant, instead he sees a windmill. When he attacks it, you know, maybe it breaks, and a guy comes out and yells at him, and that’s the plot of the novel. It’s what happens at the interface, the collision, between past books and present experience. For me, that’s an animating tension of The Idiot—between Selin’s desire for meaning, and the meanderingness and inexplicability of the stuff that happens to her when she pursues what she sees as a love plot.
The novel is a kind of balancing act between beloved literary formulas and open-ended experience. If all you do is rehash the formulas you love—they’re already of the past, they’re closed-off and ossified and impermeable to reality, they won’t let your life in. But if all you do is transcribe your life in the exact way it happens, without being in some kind of conversation with other books and formulas and expectations, then you get a laundry list that doesn’t make sense, and it’s boring and upsetting to read.
I do like when novels have a diary-like element. It’s a reminder that what you’re reading has been written by someone over a really long time. The novel is different in this way from poetry, which was recited before it was written. Novels were always written. Writing takes forever. It’s work. There’s this amazing passage near the end of In Search of Lost Time. The narrator realizes he has to write this huge novel, in this particular way, he knows it’s going to take forever and he’s not sure he’s going to live long enough. He starts working on it at his desk. Then he moves a paper and sees an invitation to a party that he can’t go to. The whole book is all about how he wasted all his time at parties. So he had to go to those parties, to get the material for his book, but now he can’t go, because he has to write the book. He starts writing a letter to say he can’t go, and then he remembers, “Oh, this other woman’s son died, and I never expressed my condolences.” So then he writes to her, too. Then he’s so tired that he has to lie in a vegetable state for a week on his sofa.

What were some of the changes you made to the original manuscript?

I cut a lot of the editorializing and flashbacks. There were all these retrospective musings ("When we are young we are so very foolish, then we get older and realize..."), written from the perspective of a twenty-three-year-old. When I wrote the first draft, I was at some pains to show that I, the writer, wasn't as stupid as the Elif-like person I was writing about. Revisiting that manuscript at age thirty-eight, I realized that the "stupid" parts were the most moving and real to me. So I tried to bring them out more, and to let them stand alone, and that’s also when I decided to call the book The Idiot.

Are there things you have learned as a teacher that inform your writing?

 A lot of the work of teaching is imaginative. You have to remember what it is not to know. And it’s important to approach students with the same basic level of respect for the other that you bring to other human interactions. You can’t assume that you know everything about them, or that their whole experience is so much easier than your experience, which is something that I felt from teachers sometimes. I think Selin feels that with some of her professors in The Idiot.

Were you influenced by any campus novels?

You know, when I wrote the first draft, I didn’t realize I was writing a campus novel. My whole adult life at that point had taken place on campuses, so I was just writing about life. When I revisited the manuscript at age thirty-eight, the “campus novel” aspect seemed really obvious, so I decided to make the timeline of the novel coincide with the calendar year of Selin’s first year of college. 

By that time I had read and really admired Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami and also Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. Catcher in the Rye was probably an influence. I also really liked Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which is kind of a campus novel in the first half before it goes sci-fi and crazy in the second half. I was conscious of violating the form a little bit in the second half of my book, too—but in order to violate the form, it’s important to have a form that you’re violating.

How did you come to read the Stoics?

I was having a difficult time for various reasons and I happened to read Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful biography of Montaigne, How To Live. I was not super-compelled by all of Montaigne—to me, all the slam dunks were when he talked about the Stoics. So I decided to look into them. I was in Turkey at the time, so I was doing most of my reading by Kindle, and I downloaded a book by a philosophy professor, William Irvine, who had been in some completely different field of philosophy and then had discovered the Stoics. He read the Stoics as a philosopher and was like, “Oh, this is what we all thought philosophy was when we were kids. It’s about how the meaning of life, and practical advice.” I first tried out the exercises with little things, like when I forgot my keys, just thinking, “Nothing bad has happened.” It really helped. Out of the different Stoics, I read some Marcus Aurelius and Seneca and Epictetus, and Epictetus’s teacher Musonius Rufus. 

Some of the happiest moments in your novel are those in which Selin has escaped the action, by reading.

There’s kind of a received idea that books with literary criticism in them should be nonfiction—they should be memoirs or essays. But I don’t see why novels can’t have reading in them. Iris Murdoch has characters reading Thucydides. Don Quixote goes into a lot of detail about which books Don Quixote read. Proust, too. When I was revising The Idiot, I realized it isn’t always clear what Selin wants, or what she thinks is going to make her happy—and really the happiest scenes in the book are when she’s eating hazelnut wafers and reading Dracula, or eating chocolate and reading The Magic Mountain. I guess I’m very fond of eating sweets and reading.

Emily Stokes is features editor at

Portrait by Andres Gonzalez