“Words are a Plastic Matter”: Interview with Alexander Ray

Russian psychologist, author, and entrepreneur Alexander Ray talks his new book, Russianness, and the importance of selling one’s own talent.

In anticipation of the English edition of Alexander Ray’s new book, The Russianist met with its the author to discuss the book and digress into other, seemingly unrelated, topics.

The Book

Alexander Ray, Russian author and psychologistThe Russianist: Alexander, could you tell The Russianist readers a few words about Island of the Giant Tree?

Alexander Ray: Imagine a world filled with one boundless ocean, with just one tiny piece of land amid it. A giant tree grows in the middle of the island, reaching far above the clouds. A simple boy named Ike lives here, a boy that will turn the islanders’ familiar world upside down when he resolves to break a centuries-old prohibition.

The Russianist: The book emphasizes the importance of curiousity. How does this spirit of “whying” emerge in children, and how do we parents handle it?

Alexander Ray: Curiousity is the driving force of life. The interest for new discoveries, new frontiers, betters people and opens new horizons. It is not only children that “whying” is important for. This spirit is there in every person regardless of their age. It is just that we adults often forget to listen to it and thus become unhappier.

Ike’s adventures are meant to remind everyone that the world is a fascinating and limitless place. Each discovery spawns another one, and another one, and so on. If you follow your pathfinding instincts, your life can turn into an exciting adventure.

The Russianist: “Ike” is an odd name. Why did you decide to call the protagonist that?

Alexander Ray: As in most of my books, the name came by itself. I just knew that the book would be titled this, and the hero would be called that. I don’t go through the pains of searching and thinking things up. I often have the feeling that all the stories I will write do already exist. They are just lying somewhere on bookshelves, waiting for their time to come, and all I have to do is write them down.

The Russianist: The end of Island sounds like a beginning of another story. Do you plan to continue the series about the adventures of a brave boy named Ike?

Alexander Ray: Absolutely! Island of the Giant Tree is the first book of the Ike’s Adventures series. The boy will have to embark on a journey for answers and to visit new islands, each unlike another. In Island, he could understand the meaning of courage and break a senseless prohibition. In subsequent books, he will learn about other important parts of our lives — bitterness, malice, confrontation — and will find a way to overcome them.

The Russianist: The book has some peculiar illustrations — could you tell us more about them and their author?

Illustration to Island of the Giant Tree by Olya Khatkovskaya

Illustration to Island of the Giant Tree by Olya Khatkovskaya

The illustrations are by Olya Khatkovskaya. We worked together on the ‘Rents animation series, where she was one of the animators and I wrote the screenplay for several episodes.

When I saw her other illustrations, there were these funny “nosies,” and it amazed me how resembling they were to how I envisaged the islanders from my book. I proposed Olya to work together on the “Island,” and the rest is history.

I love Olya’s illustrations! The way she conveys emotions, the “camera angles” she chooses — I’m sure her illustrations will be a deciding factor for the book’s success among children.

Russianness

The Russianist: This is your first book to be published in English. Aren’t you afraid that it will be “too Russian” for the English-speaking reader? Is there such thing as “Russianness” in literature at all?

Alexander Ray: I don’t think the “Russianness” will scare them away. Quite the contrary: however the politics try to build a wall between us, the “mystifying” Russian culture and soul have always captivated the Western people. For instance, they never ceased trying to “demystify” us through the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Now that Russian culture is on the rise, I believe our authors will be increasingly interesting to English-speaking readers.

And, yes, Russian mentality is prominent in our literature — just as Japan is omnipresent in Murakami’s novels, and England in Jack London’s. Russian authors often search for “the man’s and mankind’s place in life,” their Destination. Characters of the greatest Russian masterpieces are persistent in trying to understand why the universe exists. Saving the president or building a house is never a goal for the “Russian protagonist.” Less action, more self-awareness.

In a way, Russian authors historically vest “Higher Ideals” into their characters, but not to make them the “chosen ones,” but rather to turn them into servants and victims of their own Mission, who try to stay Human despite all the adversities. But that’s another story.

The Russianist: At The Russianist, we try to explore “Russianness” through the Russian language. In this respect, what’s your favorite Russian word or phrase, and why?

Alexander Ray: It’s hard to choose one: I love the Russian language as a whole for its huge potential. In everyday life I often “distort” words, create uncombinable combinations, juggle with meanings — this is fun for me. I have a feeling that words are a plastic matter one can transfigure to one’s own intent. By the way, I have a whole novel about the power of words, which is entitled The Bookworm.

My favorite Russian proverb is “Do not hurry, or you might be on time.” It teaches us to accept the flow of time and the sequence of events. We humans often lack this ability, always on the run and never knowing how to wait. In reality, it is the combination of acting and waiting that is the driving force of dreams coming true.

Fathers and Sons

R: You became popular in Russia after publishing The Blank, a book one could hardly call “childlike”. Why did you decide to switch to children’s literature, and how did this transition go?

AR: In fact, there was no transition. I worked in parallel on the serious books about spiritual growth and Why Do We Live? — the first book from the Tales for Indigo Children series. Working as a child psychologist, I often watched how diffidence, cowardice, and rancor took roots and turned children into angry and unhappy adults as the years went by. I wanted to tell my stories to change this.

Working with and for children is a huge part of me. I’ve always dreamed of not only writing children’s books but also creating cartoons and games — which is what I am doing now.

R: What are the differences between writing for children and for adults?

AR: First of all, it is the choice of the protagonists and the challenges they have to overcome. In my adults’ books, the hero’s main adversary is his or her broken inner world. In the children’s tales, the protagonist becomes better through action. Children won’t want to read about spiritual unrest, for they are learning this world by themselves, through trial and error.

R: Is the Russian approach to raising children specific in any way?

AR: Yes, in many ways, actually. I would say that the childraising attitude is just beginning to develop in modern Russia. It is a blend of the Soviet heritage, the Slavic mentality, and pedagogical psychology, which has recently entered the lives of Russians.

In my therapeutic practice, I meet more and more parents who not only have made the conscious decision to raise a child, but also do it in a responsible manner, striving to raise a true human.

R: What modern children’s books would you recommend to today’s parents?

AR: It’s hard to pick a few. I am a huge fan of children’s books, and I love great stories, especially those provided with emotional illustrations. I enjoyed Anna Nikolskaya’s Bloshkins and Fru series and the encyclopedias for children by Rosman publishing.

A Renaissance for Artists

R: Speaking of publishing: You crowdfunded your first children’s book from the Tales for Indigo Children series. Why did you decide to do that, and did it live up to your expectations?

I just did what my heart wanted me to do. I felt that this book would be very needed. While working with children, I kept facing the same problem: Regardless of their age, the kids did not understand what they lived for, what the purpose of studying was, for the sake of what all their efforts were. Their parents couldn’t answer the question, because they too were living “just because.”

And so I came up with the idea of the book and published it on a crowdfunding website. I believed that if the world needed this book, I would find the funds. Halfway through the fundraising, I found a sponsor and published the book.

It lived up to all my expectations, because I keep getting grateful responses from children and parents alike. This means that all the pains were not in vain.

By the way, the book is both available for free download and can be bought in paper or electronic form. I want everyone to decide for themselves as to how to proceed.

R: What would be your advice to authors who decide to go the same way?

AR: Crowdfunding is a tough grind. You can’t just publish a project and wait for everyone to find out about it. You must invest a lot of time and sweat. If you decide to go for it, be ready to work hard.

R: On a similar subject, could you tell us about AllyBoy — a “collaboration platform for creative projects”?

AR: Oh, that’s a killer! In talking to writers, and being an author-turned-publisher myself, I realized that there is a huge number of great book ideas around that people cannot bring to life, because they lack the needed knowledge or skills. And even if you manage to make a publisher’s dummy, it can easily get lost in the publisher’s mailbox.

AllyBoy helps overcome these obstacles. It allows users to publish their idea and gather a professional team that will turn it into a prototype. AllyBoy itself acts as a literary agent and commits itself to reach publishers. This is very convenient and efficient. AllyBoy already helped implement several high-profile projects.

Granted, each idea undergoes a strict selection process before being published. But this just means that such projects have very high chances of being published.

R: Lev Ozerov once wrote: “The gifted must be lent a hand, the talentless will find their way through.” Would you agree with this statement?

Well, I must be talentless then, because I did have to find my way through by myself. No, wait. Robert Kiyosaki lent me a hand. In one chapter of his book, he was explaining to an arrogant reader that the sole reason for the book’s success was his ability to sell, not talent. This book made me realize: I will either learn to sell my talent (however rude that sounds), or remain an “unappreciated genius.”

When publishers started accepting and publishing my projects, I understood that I’d done it and that I wanted to help other peoples bring their ideas to life. So yes, talents must be lent a hand.

R: What is it like to be an artist in today’s world?

AR: This is a renaissance time for artists. The Internet opens unlimited opportunities for talented people. You can get instant feedback to your work and reach out to the right people. Everything becomes faster and simpler. Launching and finding teammates for your creative project is now easier than ever. I believe that whoever whines about being overlooked is just doing nothing for their success.

As Mr. Freeman once said, “the road unfolds under the walker’s feet.”