Your protagonist is a twenty-six-year-old Albanian immigrant named Lula who lives in New Jersey. Why Albania?
If you are going to write a novel, I would not suggest that you pick an Albanian unless you are an Albanian. I was writing about immigration, and I wanted to pick someone from the most psycho-isolated Eastern-bloc country. If you go to the Czech Republic now, it is deceptively easy to forget what happened there. But if you go to Albania now, you are not going to forget it— you just can’t; then is now.
In a strange way, the novel began ten years ago, when I was staying at this really crappy Hilton in Tampa, Florida, for a weekend. We got there and there was a plate of food outside someone’s door in the corridor. It was there when we got there and it was there when we left, and I thought, This is just like Eastern Europe, because no one really cares if you ever come back again. In the late eighties, I went with my family to former Yugoslavia. We showed up at some restaurant, ordered dinner, and the waiter came back two hours later and said, “What? I had to eat my dinner.” End-stage capitalism and Eastern-bloc communism have a lot of things in common, as Lula discovers in the course of the book.
So you visited Albania?
I did. I got about forty pages into the novel and I couldn’t go any further. It turns out that you can’t find out about Albania on YouTube as much as one might like to. I mean, you can learn about people’s vacations and weddings and so forth, but not much more. So I went on a trip with the State Department. I was there for about two weeks and I just loved it.
Do you think one has to acquire experience to be a novelist?
Well, I would, because nothing has ever happened to me. I had to go to Albania; I couldn’t make it up. It more often happens the other way around. It is not as if you go around saying “I think I will have a love affair, and then I will write about one.” It’s more “Blah-blah broke up with me and said the most cruel thing,” and ten years later you find a way to put it into a book.