After read­ing this con­ver­sa­tion with @shteyngart and @clairemiye, you’ll want to fol­low them on social media — although they would prob­a­bly pre­fer that you fol­low a gar­den path instead.

In their lat­est nov­els, Claire Stan­ford and Gary Shteyn­gart con­front the ways in which tech­nol­o­gy inter­feres with moment-to-moment liv­ing. Shteyngart’s Our Coun­try Friends takes place in a house in upstate New York, where sev­er­al friends hole up while the pan­dem­ic rages on. In Stanford’s Hap­py for You, pro­tag­o­nist Eve­lyn Komin­sky Kumamo­to finds her­self in Sil­i­con Val­ley, work­ing on a hap­pi­ness-increas­ing app for a com­pa­ny with dubi­ous ethics. Despite the grim­ness under­ly­ing both cir­cum­stances, Stan­ford insists that life is still full of sur­pris­es and strange­ness and change.” This con­ver­sa­tion — which exam­ines tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ment, race and (mis)categorization, the solace of nature, and the lure of writ­ing sci­ence fic­tion — bears tes­ta­ment to that fullness.

—Kyra Lisse 

Stephanie But­nick: We’re going to talk about hap­pi­ness in the world of tech­nol­o­gy. This won’t be at all dystopi­an. If our con­ver­sa­tion gets too dark, the machine I’m wear­ing on my hand will beep to tell me to get more positive.

To start off, Gary, there’s a line in your book about Karen, the Tröö Emo­tions app devel­op­er: Recent­ly, she had sworn to stop upload­ing pho­tographs to the very social media that made her rich, to enjoy moments instead of impris­on­ing them.” Let’s dive into that.

Gary Shteyn­gart: I was recent­ly on an eat­ing tour of Mex­i­co City, and I real­ized I was run­ning around on my phone. I would take a pic­ture of some­thing and think: Okay, done. I don’t have to expe­ri­ence it any­more. Back when you had to load film in your cam­era, you real­ly had to take your time. When I’m talk­ing about impris­on­ing the moment instead of enjoy­ing and inter­act­ing with it, I’m talk­ing about cre­at­ing a screen around it and mov­ing on to the next thing. Now I have proof and the proof is going to be on Insta­gram. The proof of my being there is more impor­tant than my actu­al­ly being there.

SB: Claire, in your nov­el, there are moments when Eve­lyn is try­ing to take a pic­ture of some­thing and then real­izes it’s so beau­ti­ful that she can’t cap­ture it on film. Can you talk about that?

Claire Stan­ford: I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in the idea of what we choose to cap­ture. In one scene in my book, a man on the bus is tak­ing a pho­to of the secu­ri­ty footage video on the bus. Eve­lyn is watch­ing this and think­ing, What is hap­pen­ing? Why would any­one take a pho­to of that?

I love the phrase impris­on­ing the moment.” Both Eve­lyn and I grap­ple with tech­nol­o­gy and how it gets in the way of being hap­py. Many of us have a com­pul­sion to pack­age our lives in a way that can go on social media. If mar­riage, moth­er­hood, and buy­ing a house are the things that we have decid­ed are going to get the most likes,” what kind of pres­sures does that put on our choic­es — whether we’re con­scious of it or not?

My book also asks what we need to do to be more in the moment, in the flow of life — whether that’s dis­tanc­ing our­selves from tech­nol­o­gy or find­ing oth­er ways to be more cen­tered in the body and expe­ri­ence the nat­ur­al world.

GS: You know, Our Coun­try Friends hap­pened because I was stuck upstate. I did have the Inter­net, but you can’t be online twen­ty hours a day. So I began to walk around out­side. Recent­ly I was inter­viewed by a friend of mine, and he said, There are so many more sounds in this book than in your oth­ers. There are so many sights and smells.” I hadn’t noticed that. That’s what being in nature did. Plus, I don’t under­stand tech­nol­o­gy. It’s a new ecosys­tem. Some are good at it; oth­ers aren’t — myself included. 

CS: I did enjoy fol­low­ing your Insta­gram posts from Mexico.

GS: Oh, thank you! I should fol­low you back.

SB: Claire, in your book, ani­mals seem to serve as a kind of anti­dote to Evelyn’s tech­nol­o­gy-focused life. Do you see that as an alter­nate way of living?

CS: That’s exact­ly how I was think­ing of it. Eve­lyn becomes entranced by Mis­fits!, a nature TV show that pro­files not lions and pea­cocks, but ani­mals like the big-head­ed African mole-rat, and the kakapo, which just lies very still because it doesn’t know how to defend itself. She’s inter­est­ed in the show as a way of see­ing how oth­er beings can coex­ist, espe­cial­ly as she becomes immersed in the tech world. Things are becom­ing more and more stan­dard­ized online, but life is still full of sur­pris­es and strange­ness and change.

SB: Gary, you wrote Super Sad True Love Sto­ry in 2010, which also pre­saged a new era of tech­nol­o­gy. What is it like to dream up advances in wear­able tech­nol­o­gy and then see them in real life?

GS: I didn’t think any­thing I wrote about would hap­pen for decades, but it took only twelve years for tiny details in the book to become real­i­ty. It is hard to sep­a­rate tech­nol­o­gy from any human expe­ri­ence that we have today. So much of what we do — from Ama­zon deliv­er­ies to roman­tic encoun­ters — hap­pens through the small screens of our phones.

If mar­riage, moth­er­hood, and buy­ing a house are the things that we have decid­ed are going to get the most likes,” what kind of pres­sures does that put on our choic­es — whether we’re con­scious of it or not?

SB: I first lis­tened to your book on Audi­ble. It wasn’t until I start­ed prepar­ing for this inter­view that I got my print copy. I had no idea that Tröö Emo­tions is spelled the way it’s spelled. I had no idea the char­ac­ter of the Actor is cap­i­tal­ized. I thought, What if I’m miss­ing oth­er things? This book was intend­ed to be read in print.

GS: At some point, you’ll prob­a­bly be able to take a cap­sule and the words of a book will float through your brain. If you want to stop it, you’ll press on your ear and that will pause it. Our Coun­try Friends: The Pill.

SB: I feel like that’s some­thing Evelyn’s com­pa­ny would be mak­ing next, Claire.

CS: They’re prob­a­bly already mak­ing it! When I start­ed writ­ing Hap­py for You, mea­sur­ing hap­pi­ness on an app was a spec­u­la­tive con­cept. Now there are all sorts of apps pur­port­ing to help you improve it.

I’ve talked with oth­er writ­ers about how hard it is to write real­ist fic­tion right now. Real­i­ty is chang­ing so rapid­ly, espe­cial­ly since the begin­ning of the pan­dem­ic. In some ways it’s eas­i­er to write spec­u­la­tive fic­tion, because at least you get to make up some of the rules. The world you’ve cre­at­ed can stay sta­ble, unlike our con­stant­ly shift­ing one.

GS: I agree. When I was younger, I wrote more satir­i­cal and dystopi­an sci­ence fic­tion because my present was sta­ble. I want­ed to project which parts of the ice­berg were going to float off first. Now that we’re all on the ice floe, I want to focus on the per­son­al lives with­in each indi­vid­ual ice floe. Should I go for a wide-angle lens or zoom in? That’s the kind of ques­tion that I think a lot of writ­ers are going to be grap­pling with as our world con­tin­ues to move in deeply unpre­dictable ways.

SB: Claire, your pro­tag­o­nist is half Jew­ish, half Japan­ese. The idea of her half­ness” comes up repeat­ed­ly through­out the nov­el. Why was that some­thing you want­ed to explore, and how did you go about doing it?

CS: Eve­lyn is a char­ac­ter I haven’t seen much in fic­tion. Hav­ing an Asian Amer­i­can Jew­ish pro­tag­o­nist is mean­ing­ful to me. I think it is also real­ly impor­tant to the whole struc­ture of the nov­el. Eve­lyn is some­one whose whole life has defied sim­pli­fied cat­e­go­riza­tion, and now she works in the tech­nol­o­gy sphere, where every­body is hyper-cat­e­go­rized. For exam­ple, you can only choose one race on the app’s drop­down menu. This used to be a very com­mon experience.

SB: That brings us to a great ques­tion from the audi­ence. In Hap­py for You, char­ac­ters are often giv­en sum­ma­ry descrip­tions like Asian man” and white woman.” Do you want us to exam­ine how quick­ly we cat­e­go­rize peo­ple, and how social media push­es us to that split-sec­ond per­cep­tion (or misperception)?

CS: That is such a good read­ing. Eve­lyn is some­one who is quick to cat­e­go­rize. It’s a bit of a defense mech­a­nism — she knows that oth­er peo­ple are attempt­ing to cat­e­go­rize her. She real­izes over the course of the nov­el that some of her cat­e­gories and assump­tions are wrong. She’s not so much bet­ter than the tech com­pa­ny. While her think­ing is more com­plex, she’s still com­plic­it in some of their ideas. Is cat­e­go­riz­ing peo­ple an innate trib­al need?

I also see this as part of a grow­ing move­ment toward not assum­ing default white­ness in char­ac­ters. If I’m going to rec­og­nize what cer­tain people’s racial back­grounds are, then I should rec­og­nize everyone’s. That’s anoth­er rea­son that char­ac­ters are some­times tagged as white or blue-eyed or some­thing else that will give their white­ness away. 

SB: Jew­ish” func­tions in an inter­est­ing way here — it isn’t often on the drop­down menus you men­tioned ear­li­er. Gary, how do you see Jew­ish” work­ing as a label in the US ver­sus the Sovi­et Union?

GS: I was born in the Sovi­et Union, where the nation­al­i­ty sec­tion of the pass­port includ­ed Ukrain­ian, Belaru­sian, Russ­ian, and Jew­ish. It was not marked as a reli­gion but rather as a race or a peo­ple. When I came to Amer­i­ca, I went to a Jew­ish day school. There I was con­sid­ered oth­er” because I was Sovi­et. I had a big fur hat. It was almost as if I wasn’t Jew­ish there. I was in a sep­a­rate cat­e­go­ry. It wasn’t until I end­ed up in a place where every­body was from some­where else that I felt the most at home.

SB: Cir­cling back to the begin­ning of our con­ver­sa­tion, how do you break away from tech­nol­o­gy and be present in the moment?

CS: For me, read­ing books on an iPad is a recipe for stray­ing over toward social media. So I main­ly read phys­i­cal copies of books. I live in LA, so I also go to the beach a lot. The beach becomes a no-Inter­net zone.

GS: I swim for about an hour a day. There’s no way to be on the Inter­net under­wa­ter. And my favorite thing to do, espe­cial­ly in New York, is to walk around and eaves­drop on people’s con­ver­sa­tions. You get a whole dif­fer­ent view of the world with­out ear­buds in your ears. Any lit­tle thing you can do to inte­grate your­self with the phys­i­cal world is a won­der­ful thing.

SB: But you’re still going to fol­low Claire on Insta­gram after this. 

GS: Just did! 


This inter­view is an edit­ed and con­densed tran­script of a live Unpack­ing the Book event cop­re­sent­ed by Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, The Jew­ish Muse­um, and Tablet Mag­a­zine

Stephanie But­nick is the deputy edi­tor of Tablet and has writ­ten for The New York Times and The Wall Street Jour­nal. She has a bach­e­lor’s degree in reli­gion from Duke and a mas­ter’s in reli­gious stud­ies from NYU. She lives in New York with her hus­band and their cat, Cat Stevens.