Elif Batuman's Possessed charts a hidden map of Russia
SFBG When the guy who had an accident on the bus wouldn't throw out his pants afterward?
EB Yeah. She used the phrase "despicably cruel." I was frustrated by that e-mail, because it seemed to me the story was only being read as gossip when I tried really hard, when people did things that I thought were interesting or funny, to write about them in the service of some larger point. In the Tolstoy piece, it was about the universal frailty of the human body that affects all of us. It wasn't about one guy who did something embarrassing, but about this horrible plight that we're all in as human beings.
SFBG The Possessed got overwhelmingly positive reviews. When people said not-so-positive things, did you have to develop a thicker skin?
EB I can't read reviews, because they freak me out. If they're one paragraph, I'll read it. My publishers send these publicity updates with one-sentence reviews in them, so I know the Buster Keaton–Susan Sontag quote [laughs].
SFBG "If Susan Sontag had coupled with Buster Keaton, their prodigiously gifted love child might have written this book." It's a weird description.
EB [Laughs.] It freaked out my mother. She was like, "Why would they say something like that? Why do they think Susan Sontag should be your mother and not me?'