Russian novelist Grigory Chkhartishvili, a.k.a. Boris Akunin, is an international publishing phenomenon. A scholar of Japanese language and culture, and a former literary translator, he wrote his first novel, The White Queen — starring the now famous literary detective Erast Fandorin — at the age of 40. In the 13 years since its publication, Akunin has sold tens of millions of books in Russia alone and countless more abroad. He spoke to Daniel Kalder for Publishing Perspectives:
PP: You are extremely prolific: does writing come easily to you? Do you follow a fixed routine? Or are there long stretches when you do other, non-writerly things?
BA: I write every day. Not because I am hard-working. I do not consider writing to be work, it’s a way of living. Japanese would call this attitude Sakkadoo — “The Way of Writer” (I do not think such a term actually exists in the Japanese language, but it should). Anyway, if I didn’t start each day with writing I wouldn’t know how to occupy myself.
PP: When the first Fandorin novel was published, your Russian publisher, Igor Zakharov, was a tiny independent. Now, like you, he is a titan of the Russian publishing world. Why did you choose Zakharov?
BA: Nobody else wanted to publish my first novel. Zakharov was a beginner publisher, he was naïve. When I told him that my novel was sure to sell 50,000 copies he believed me. He was patient too. He started to grumble only after the fourth novel proved to be an even worse flop saleswise than the three previous ones. With the fifth title the heavens finally had mercy on him. Since then Zakharov has sold about 20 million Erast Fandorin books in Russia. He is semi-retired now. He collects stamps and sounds happy when we talk on the phone.
PP: You came up with the idea for intelligent, literary detective novels because you spotted a gap in the market — nobody was writing such things for Russia’s middle classes. Do your personal sympathies essentially lie with the detective novel?
BA: I’ve always liked the detective genre because it’s the only type of fiction where you can make readers your co-authors, in a sense. I mean that a reader would begin to build his/her own versions trying to create a version of who’s the culprit, trying to outsmart the author. This had been an interactive genre long before the internet appeared.
PP: In 2000 you made the texts of many of your novels available online for free. Why? Most Western publishers and authors would have a stroke at the mere suggestion . . .
BA: I had no choice. Everyone in the Russian Internet is a pirate, you cannot catch and hang them all. I told myself: let this work as promotion for my books. A person would start reading them online, then maybe get hooked and go to a bookshop. . . It often works. What irritates me enormously is the audio piracy. I am very careful at choosing actors who read my texts for licensed audiobooks, each of the recordings is nearly perfect. But there are dozens of homemade audio recordings throughout the Russian Internet, where some mumbling and stumbling character reads my defenseless text, making all the wrong stresses, overacting, etc.
PP: Is it natural for you to think in terms of series and recurring characters? Have you ever been tempted to write a monumental epic a la Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn?
BA: I have been tempted, I am tempted, and I’ll try to do it come what may, although I realize very well how outdated and outworn a genre it is.
PP: When you describe the genesis of your projects, you sound highly analytical, even calculating. For instance, you once described yourself as a Frankenstein “growing a literary homunculus in a bell jar.”
BA: I call “Boris Akunin” a project, because that’s what it is: a sort of architectural construction. Not a hospital or a school or an administrative building, to be sure—rather something playful like Disneyland, but still something devised and built according to a technical plan.
PP: You once published a study on the writer and suicide under your real name, Grigory Chkhartishvili. Will it ever see print in English? Would it shock readers of Fandorin or would they find traces of Akunin in the scholar Chkhartishvili?
BA: There are lots of mutual cross-references and allusions. It’s a different sort of writing, but it’s still me. I have a book called Cemetery Tales with two authors on the cover: Akunin and Chkhartishvili. One wrote novellas, the other essays. These two sub-authors live inside me. If it’s schizophrenia, I welcome it.