Lara Vapnyar on life and death in the age of social media

What if the dead could still talk to the living? Eleanor Wachtel speaks with Russian-American author Lara Vapnyar, whose novel Still Here explores how we live — and die — in the modern world.
Still Here is Lara Vapnyar's fifth novel. (Stepan Pachikov)
Listen to the full episode52:47

Novelist and short story writer Lara Vapnyar came to the United States from Russia in 1994. She was 23 years old and barely spoke English, but she chose to write in the language of her adopted country, learning by reading romance novels and watching soap operas. Her stories in The New Yorker are about Russians living in Moscow or Brooklyn, and they're filled with longing, humour, astute social observation and an exploration of what it means to be an immigrant.

Vapnyar's latest novel, Still Here, follows the intertwined lives of four immigrants in New York, all struggling with varying degrees of angst and dissatisfaction as they try to navigate the strangeness of America. She spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from the CBC's New York studio.

Finding a way to connect

My first several years in the U.S. were such a disappointment. I had dreamed of this new, exciting life, with an exciting career. And then I quickly found out that my diploma didn't mean anything here, and I couldn't find any work. I am an introvert, so although there was a Russian enclave around me, I wasn't speaking to anyone outside my family. I was mostly at home alone with my kids.

I was so lonely and so isolated that, for me, writing in English was the only way to connect to my new country and the people in my new country. When my first story was published in The New Yorker, I got a lot of letters from Americans who identified with my Russian characters. My character was a young Russian teacher, and I would get all these letters from teachers who would say that they felt exactly like my character. This was so important for me — I felt that I wasn't lonely anymore, that I was accepted, that I was making contact.

The memorial app that almost was

I have two friends who tried to develop an app and went through the whole process —  they developed the app, developed a design, hired programmers. And it didn't work. But then we had this one crazy, wonderful friend who was brimming with the craziest ideas for an app. We'd gather at his house and talk about apps and just have fun. But one of his ideas was so wonderful. He called it Virtual Cemetery, and it was basically a memorial site for yourself, that you can pre-program so that you can still have an online presence after you die. You can send sweet messages to your children, or you can send nasty messages to your ex-wife. We had a lot of fun with the idea and discussed actual steps of how to develop it. It proved to be too difficult for us and we abandoned the idea, but then I decided to use the idea in Still Here.

How should we be (virtually) remembered?

I have several characters in the book who offer different approaches of how you deal with your online presence and death. I personally hate all of them, except one called Virtual Suitcase. It's a space, a website or something, where you can open the door to the room of a certain person and you could spend some virtual time with that person by being in that virtual room. You can look at pictures of the person, read their letters in virtual form, listen to their favourite music. I think it would be beautiful if something like that was available.   

​​My goal was to show the way we live now. And this is the way we live now — like it or not, we are dependent on technology. I didn't mean to say it was a bad thing. I satirize some of it, but I don't think that it's an evil of our age. It's a mark of our age, but it's not necessarily evil.

Laura Vapnyar's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast: "Dance Me to the End of Love" composed by Leonard Cohen, performed by 2Francis.