Ian Frazier's Travels in Siberia Shows Signs of Life in Permafrost

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Sigrid Estrada
Ian Frazier's storytelling is without pretense, making it easy to absorb. It is truthful and informative, making it a learning experience. Finally, it is engaging and thoughtful, making it addictive. If you're a fan of The New Yorker or of travel writing in general, you should be familiar with Frazier's direct and insightful tales. When he desires, this former Harvard Lampoon writer can elicit a laugh from the reader, even when the topic is as morbid as Jerry Falwell's father murdering a cat and feeding it to his employee.

His newest book takes him far from his usual stomping grounds in the American west (Great Plains and On the Rez) to Russia's far east. Travels in Siberia documents Frazier's adventures in the chilly, forbidding, and fascinating region. It also tells the histories of other explorers and adventurers who braved the extreme elements of Siberia and lived to write their tales. The book makes you glad to be warm in bed and only reading about giant bugs, poop-stained ceilings, and permafrost. The author, who will reading at Miami Book Fair International on November 20, took the time to tell us a bit more about his wanderlust and the potentially dim future of Siberia.

New Times: What motivates you as a traveler? 

Ian Frazier: Love of adventure and simple restlessness. If I'm not travelling far, I'm roaming someplace near. During '07 as I was writing the first parts of this book, I walked more than 1,000 miles in my New Jersey town and neighboring towns.

Would you consider Travels in Siberia a sort of a dark romance novel, in that it offers the reader not only your affection for the place, but also the gritty details of the history and your relationship with it? 

Yes, "dark romance novel" is a good description. I consider Siberia to be a dark mirror of America. We have in common with Russians the fact that our country and theirs are both continental countries. There is a shared romance in that.
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You're a humorist, and this book had many parts that made me chuckle (especially your bathroom experience in Omsk), have you ever written a book and after you've finished think, "I wish this had been funnier?" 


I often wish that what I'd written had been funnier. With this book, I tried to keep in sight the terrible sadness associated with the place. To express it only in humor would require a kind of joke people may not be capable of. I had to acknowledge the sadness, whether I could be funny about it or not. I think this book is basically about as funny as it could have been, under the circumstances -- if that makes any sense.

You write about the way Siberia exists as a construct or "expression in the mind." After having traveled pretty extensively around Siberia, do you still have an idea in your mind?

Siberia is no longer an abstraction for me. It was when I started. Now it's a very specific place. I feel I am starting to know it the way I know the U.S.

What do you see next for Siberia? 

Next for Siberia may be environmental chaos. If the permafrost melts, there will be a huge increase in swamps in this already swampy place. If sea levels rise, much of western Siberia will be completely under water. If the climate becomes wetter in central Siberia, the steppes may become wheat fields. The Chinese may take over parts of southern Siberia to accommodate their growing population. There's a huge amount of land there and humans will make use of it eventually. We will have to wait and see.
 
Ian Frazier will be reading at Miami Book Fair International on November 20 at 4:00 p.m. at Miami Dade College (300 NE 2nd Avenue, Building 1, Room 1261). Visit miamibookfair.com. See our full guide to the Miami Book Fair here.

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