Ilya Lyashevsky, whose short story At the Seaside is featured in Epiphany’s Fall/ Winter 2011-2012 issue, didn’t reach consciousness until he was twenty-five.
He’s quick to explain himself when he tells people this, as he does to me when
we met a few weeks ago for coffee near his Williamsburg home. He references a scene in Saul Bellow’s Herzog when the titular character recalls a psychiatrist telling him that, at the age of 27, he was very immature. Ilya’s ‘consciousness’
is an understanding of how to be a good human being. It's a prevalent theme in
his writing, which often grapples with questions of purpose and humanity.
“The most important traits in any human being are goodness and kindness,” Ilya explains. “And it’s inherent empathy that makes you a good writer”
While I feverishly slurp down an iced latte, Ilya slowly sips a small cup of water. He’s an even-tempered guy, who’s neither dramatic nor soft-spoken, with a robust frame that recalls Ken Kesey rather than Oscar Wilde. Not too long ago he introduced himself to me on New York City subway platform, where moments prior I’d convinced myself he was a psychopath intending to push me in front of an oncoming train. That was far from the case. He’d only wanted to say hello, after recognizing me from an Epiphany reading months before.
Ilya’s unafraid to jump into some of his more complex rationalizations. “Art is basically the only method we as human beings have to communicate emotions,” he tells me. “We see each other. We see you look sad, or happy, and we reference our own experience to understand that emotion. But art allows us to communicate this information across time and space. We are emotional beings as much as we sometimes pretend not to be. And the person who creates art is driven by the desire to share the thoughts and emotions he's experienced with the hope that if he does so truthfully, they will resonate with others and reconnect them with their own humanity."
Rather than physical intimacy or outward aggression, Ilya is talking about the processes of the human brain. There’s no link, no firewire-adaptor that sends actual feelings from one person to the next. We’re only capable of interpreting and expressing external signals, and Ilya believes the artist is a specialist in the field.
“Essentially, all the problems in the world amount to people denying who they are, what they’re all about and what they’re doing to other people. The artist penetrates this barrier, and tries to open the consumers of art to greater awareness—both of the self, and the world around them. The great artist creates empathy, the accomplishment of an individual experiencing the life of another human being…The reason art exists is because it has to exist. Without it we lose sense of the greater world.”
Ilya resolves that the ultimate purpose of art is to connect people to other people. It’s a theme in At the Seaside, a story drawn in part from his own life experiences. Wanting to see a relationship of a couple in their twenties amplified by time, he fast-forwarded the scenario and created Carl, a man frustrated on a number of fronts. At the onset of his retirement, Carl travels with his wife to Spain, where he counts his regrets. Life, love, labor, children—the decisions he’s made. He ponders God, grapples with feelings of inadequacy, and questions his own manhood all while lazing on the idyllic, Andalusian coastline.
“My primary concern [for the story] was a man coming to grips with the possibility of a wasted life, both in the sense of his partner, his professional worth, and his worth as a man.”
This kind of consideration can only come from someone who’s thought deeply about the course of his own life. Ilya was born in Russia, Moscow to be exact, whose icy streets he and his parents left for the sunny shores of Northern California when Ilya was ten. Ilya recognizes, as part of the last great exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union, his immigrant experience was a far cry from what it might have been a century ago. While then he would have ended up in a New York or Chicago ghetto, he was fortunate to instead grow up in a quiet Bay Area suburb, eventually going to Stanford where he studied engineering and creative writing.
“Having that freedom was good,” Ilya says of writing in college. “To write quickly on a subject that I might not have the gumption to write about now and often the result was not terrible—childish—but appropriate for the time. I could pump out a story in a night and present it the next morning to a professor who would softly critique it.”
Ilya’s foray into the humanities was concerning to his parents, engineers themselves, immigrants who struggled to see the practicality of the craft. They always wanted him to be happy, but were concerned with him being able to support himself as well. It may have been their guidance which kept Ilya tied to the more practical discipline, which he now employs as a software designer and a consultant for the online journal Electric Literature. He’s managed to quite successfully marry his interest into a career.
I believe I’m on my second cup of coffee when we begin to traverse our grander theories on existence. An admitted agnostic, Ilya details an understanding far more unique than many I’ve ever heard before.
"I see the world as a sort of entertainment simulation for God. Being an engineer, I tend to think of God as one as well. And that's actually not very reassuring when it comes to the sort of attitude he might have toward us as his creations. If I write a program, a game, say, I’m not necessarily concerned with the welfare of the characters in the game, not in the way I would be concerned for yours or another human being’s, or even another animal’s. Take The Sims [video game] for example. A character in The Sims is just a piece of code, designed to perform a certain way. Look at that little guy jumping. It's amusing to us, but how do we know that the internal experience of that piece of code is not as rich as how we [humans] experience the world? We can only try and understand the experience through metaphors. That distance, the same distance, could be envisioned as the one between the creator [God] and us. Perhaps, being infinitely more powerful and compassionate than us, he is capable of bridging that gap. But we can't know that. But the other thing that's interesting is that just as the characters in a video game do actually interact with their creator -- or at least the player, who is essentially one and the same because he's basically all-powerful in relation to the character -- we can posit that somewhere in the world there is some way to communicate with God the engineer. And historically, of course, prayer has served as that connection."
The internal conversation with God is a vital aspect in At the Seaside. Carl, suffering from food poisoning, engages God in conversation through prayer, minding (as Ilya himself does) that he subscribes to no particular faith or established higher power, but understanding, within reason, that little requests might garner notice from a higher power. Ilya ties this higher connection in with the innate desire in all people to be useful.
“Really all of us have a desire to be useful. Usefulness is closely related to power. The more effective you are the more powerful you are, whether you are a programmer or a politician. We all need an answer to the question: why do I deserve my place at the table?”
Ilya has a way of tying everything back together, bringing our conversation to back to where it began, the role of the writer (this time, a specific, if not a caricature of the writer) in society, underlining his or her inherent usefulness. “Even the misanthropic writer, who is mud slinging and miserable, is trying to make the world better by showing its faults and redundancies. The motive exists whether [he or she] intends it to or not. He’s being critical because he is frustrated with the reality he encounters and wishes it to be better. He’s trying to draw attention to foibles and follies that make him a misanthrope.”
Before we depart, Ilya leaves me with yet another sage-kernel of writer-ly wisdom, of which he never seems to have a shortage. “When you notice something has affected you, if you are deeply moved by something, it is most likely a universal truth. The source is the same for everyone." And this is why empathy, as Ilya explained, is the key component to great writing.
We all experience the same emotions, and noting those triggers can be a great place to start your next story.