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The L: Some of your essays are quite personal. Are you ever concerned about how the people in your life might react to them?
EB: Yes, this was a subject of concern for me with The Possessed, particularly in the title essay and in "Who Killed Tolstoy?" When I first submitted "Who Killed Tolstoy?" to Harper's (where it was eventually published), it was as fiction. It was based on real events, but I had changed the characters a bit. But they wanted it for the "Miscellany" section, and that meant running it as 100 percent non-fiction—they even had it fact-checked. A fact-checker literally called up another participant at the Tolstoy conference, to corroborate the sequence of events.
I know some people thought it was in bad taste for me to go forward with the publication, and I do see where they're coming from. Personally, I don't see the downside in designating a basically true story as "fiction"—whereas the upside is that you have some leeway to protect the other people involved. But in the end, it wasn't my decision to make. As a beginning writer, you don't get to call all the shots.
There's a similar story behind the title essay, "The Possessed." My initial idea was to write a novel based on Dostoevsky's Demons (The Possessed), set in a Stanford-like literature department program, where the role of Stavrogin would be played by a particularly magnetic graduate student. But my agent wasn't crazy about this idea, and neither was my editor, so I decided to put it on the back burner.
The following year, my editor came up with the idea of a Russian literature memoir-essay collection—and then I decided to adapt the Possessed-in-Stanford idea as a final essay. It was actually an incredibly difficult piece of material to work with, involving some painful memories. At some point in writing, between my own self-recriminations and my worries about the potential recriminations of the other people I was writing about, I became completely paralyzed. I missed all my deadlines—the whole rest of the manuscript had already been copyedited and I still hadn't finished writing that one essay. I realized I had to decide once and for all: was I going to write this thing or not? If I was going to write it, I had to accept what had happened, accept the fact that people might be angry, and just write it as best I could.
The one thing I do always keep in mind is absolutely never to use personal information gratuitously, or for the sake of gossip. For me, this means only using what I needed to make a larger, somehow universal point, so it's not really about that one individual. In the Tolstoy piece, the "larger point" was about the frailty of the human body, which sooner or later affects all of us; in "The Possessed," it was the kind of frailty that enables that kind of Dostoevskian mass hysteria.