A conversation with Helen Stuhr-Rommereim in Full Stop:
There aren’t many people who straddle the worlds of academia and journalism with as much ease and good humor as Elif Batuman. A Turkish-American writer, she recently gained fame chronicling her adventures as a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Stanford University in her first book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. The book is a collection of essays about traveling, reading, academic conferences, relationship troubles, and the former Soviet Union. She continues to be a prolific writer of magazine pieces — her byline has popped up in the past year in the London Review of Books, the Paris Review, The New Yorker, n+1, and The New York Times, to name a few. I started keeping an eye out for her writing after I read The Possessed, which made me laugh out loud so often that I ended up having to read it aloud to whomever was around me. In Batuman’s hands it almost seems natural that a conference on Isaac Babel might leave you giggling and in tears.
Humor aside, it’s refreshing to have someone young, smart, and entertaining who is garnering attention for simply writing about how much she likes books. The Possessed concludes, “If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.” After finishing The Possessed, I was nearly convinced to jump into a PhD in literature, and I don’t imagine I’m the only one.
I was lucky enough to get to spend some time with Batuman at Koç University on the outskirts of Istanbul, where she is currently a writer-in-residence. We talked about her plans for her next book, her thoughts on contemporary fiction, and what exactly is so funny about academia.
What are you working on now?
I’m on contract for the first time with The New Yorker, rather than being a freelancer. It’s different because they help me come up with ideas, rather than me pitching and hustling. The last story I did for them was about football fan culture, which is not a story I would have come up with on my own. It was interesting to do something like that, kind of out of my comfort zone and also out of my interest zone.