Sasha Vasilyuk

Cultural journalist 

Blog

Caveman To Do List vs Modern To Do List

Posted on August 1, 2015 at 3:10 PM Comments comments (0)

Caveman To Do List:

- Get food

- Clean house

- Make baby

 

Modern To Do List:

- Get food

- Clean house

- Take the laptop that was fixed back to the place that fixed it to tell them that it wasn't actually fixed at all

- Drive to bank to get a replacement card for the one that you lost while trying to fit the receipt for the computer that wasn't fixed into your wallet and into your purse, while holding your take-out lunch with the other hand and talking on the phone with your friend about plans for that evening.

- Replace car window that was broken while you were at your friend's house that evening

- Find the tent that you borrowed from your parents, but that was now stolen from the car by what must have been the luckiest homeless person in the world. Use the computer that wasn't fixed and the card that you lost while fixing it to purchase said tent.

- Make baby?....

 

 

Interviewing a Clown

Posted on May 12, 2015 at 2:25 PM Comments comments (0)

I once wrote a profile piece about a clown. He came from Russia to perform in a popular clown-based play in New York. He was here as long as the gig would last - months or years maybe, he didn't know - and he worried about how he and his wife and 12-year-old son would be able to stay in the country thereafter. What fascinated me about him was the difference between the costumed clown self that he was by night and the regular middle-aged immigrant self that he, concealed amongst many other New Yorker, was by day.

 

I spent a lot of time hanging out with him in the greenroom, watching as he put on his sad clown make-up - blackish circles around his eyes, giant white lips and drawn stubble - before the show and then took it off two hours later, peeling his sad clown face away layer by layer to reveal his true, also slightly sad face underneath. We also spent time away from the theater too, where I was trying to understand and then capture the strange dichotomy of his double-life.


In writing an in-depth profile like this, all you have to go on is what the person tells you, what other people tell you about them (if you get such access) and what you notice yourself. The problem is that as soon as your subject knows you're writing about them, they become too self-conscious. Sort of like in photography. They immediately begin acting unnaturally and editing what they say. To break through that, you can ask them unexpected questions (Oriana Fallaci was particularly famous for this in her interviews with people like Kissinger and Gaddafi - see this Vanity Fair piece "Oriana Fallaci and the Art of the Interview"). Or you can ease them into it, letting them forget they're being interviewed. The danger of that is that they begin thinking of you as their friend and are later surprised by what you have written. 

 

You can probably guess what happened. When the piece came out, the clown hated it. This has happened to me a few times before (Russian male artists seem to be particularly touchy), so I wasn't surprised or upset. But what I found interesting was what exactly the clown didn't like: my interpretation of his anxiety, which I felt I spotted in his subconscious asides and his nervous smoking. To me, they were more telling than what he was telling me.

 

When I heard his reaction, I couldn't stop myself from questioning what I observed. Was he right? Did I misunderstand everything? Or was my interpretation true and thus hurtful because like a mirror it revealed the truth he didn't want to see? The thing is.... I'll never know. As I work on my memoir, I think a lot about my interpretation of other people, their words, their intentions and how true my translation of them will be.


A Writer's Puzzle

Posted on April 30, 2015 at 3:10 PM Comments comments (0)

When we lived in Russia, I shared the bedroom with my older brother Dmitri, who was my guardian and biggest source of entertainment. We were very different, Dmitri and I. He loved reading Asimov novels, solving math puzzles and playing chess, often against himself. I gravitated more toward words and visuals, muttering nonsensical poems to myself as I rearranged my Barbie’s tiny tea set.


But sometimes his geeky puzzles lured me to his side of the room. I especially loved watching Dmitri build elaborate chain reaction puzzles out of dominoes, wooden pieces of construction kits, and whatever else he could find in our bedroom. After carefully positioning all the moving parts, which sprawled from my writing desk all the way to the radiator by the balcony, he would tiptoe to the start of the puzzle and say “Ok, ready? Don’t make a peep.” As I held my breath, he pushed the first domino. The white pieces clacked quickly, falling first in a straight line, then speeding up into a spiral. Glutinously, I watched Dmitri’s magical masterpiece come to life as I knew the ending would always come too quickly. The last white domino fell onto a pulley that raised a long wooden piece, from which a small metal pin ball rolled down a narrow tunnel, hitting a new set of dominos, black this time, causing them to lay down obediently onto the floor until all the pieces played their parts and the room went quiet again.


For me, writing has always been like putting together an elaborate puzzle with a lot of moving parts. Like Dmitri’s puzzles, the time and arduous effort needed to construct a good piece of writing is disproportionate to how long it takes to consume it or the enjoyment it brings. And while all the little parts can be arranged in a million ways, some words, sentences, and paragraphs carry more weight like a pulley while others act more like dominos that can be easily traded. Yet no matter the size or importance of each small part, the main purpose of all of them is to push the next one forward because if, God forbid, one falls out of line, it may stop the whole thing from coming to fruition. If however all the pieces work in perfect unison, they have the potential to create something that feels magical and alive.