June 4, 2019

We Are All Idiots

by The Cut on Tuesdays

Background show artwork for The Cut on Tuesdays

Filmmaker Sandi Tan told the Cut that her next project would be an adaptation of Elif Batuman's novel The Idiot — it's a book about a hapless college freshman. So we brought Elif and Sandi into the studio to talk. Sandi pumped Elif for autobiographical details, Elif told us her big revelation of 2018, and they agreed that people who lose touch with their past selves — however idiotic — are the worst.

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From the Cut and Gimlet Media, this is the Cut on Tuesdays. I’m your host, Molly Fischer.


My ten-year college reunion was this past weekend, and I definitely did not go. It didn’t even really occur to me to go--to think that going would be a fun, appealing thing to do.

It’s not like I was miserable in college--I wasn’t even unhappy, most of the time. It’s just that there’s never been another time or place on Earth when I felt as dumb as I did in my freshman year on that campus. And I hated, hated feeling dumb.

<<MUX IN>>

My whole sense of identity, circa age 18, had to do with NOT being dumb. I was good at school: that was what I did. I was good at school-adjacent activities, like running the student newspaper and making adults like me. Unfortunately, I did not know how to do much else.

JULIA: We basically lived in a nunnery for 7 years

That’s my best friend, Julia, who I’ve known since we were 11, which was when we both started at the all-girls school where we stayed through twelfth grade. And right up through high school, we spent our free time chastely reading magazines, making frosting and then eating it, and creating elaborate collages on my bedroom door. On the rare occasions when we managed to encounter a boy, we would basically malfunction.


JULIA: We were all sitting in a room watching the English Patient, I don’t know why

MOLLY: I remember this story

JULIA: We’re like watching the English Patient, and this boy Yuri comes in and says

“Julia, do you want to go to the Kong” which is like this chinese restaurant. And I was like “no!” and he was like, “really? You don’t want to...are you sure? Do you want come have dinner?” And I was like “NO!!!!” And then he left.

Julia then spent the next several weeks trying to get Yuri interested in her again.

JULIA: And he wasn’t, obviously, because I’d like embarrassed him in front of a room full of people and publicly rejected him. But in my mind, it was too obvious and shaming and incomprehensible to respond in that moment as a normal human would.

<<MUX IN>>

JULIA: My yearning was so strong, and yet I was completely self sabotaging in the moment, because I had no tools.

I, like Julia, had no tools when it came to love, and at the time this seemed like a deeply shameful secret. Walking onto campus freshman year, I was good at school, but in every other way, I was an idiot. Which is why--about a decade after the fact--I was so delighted to read The Idiot, by Elif Batuman.

The Idiot is a novel about a college freshman who’s smart in some ways and really, really not smart in others. She shows up at Harvard filled with intellectual ambition. She’s got serious ideas about art and literature; she wants to study linguistics and learn how language works. And then she develops a crush on an older guy named Ivan in her Russian class. She’s paralyzingly self-conscious around him. She has no idea how to flirt or how to act; she doesn’t know what he expects from her or what she’s supposed to do. But then she and Ivan start sending each other emails. The book is set in 1995--email is just becoming a thing. And email gives her a way of becoming the writer she wants to be while also forging a new, scary kind of intimacy with another person. Her story is funny and cerebral and vividly mortifying, in a way that sent me straight back to freshman year.

I remember reading The Idiot and thinking, “oh my god, I love this book,” and also thinking, “it sucks that probably no one else besides Julia is going to want to read it.” It’s a 400 page book about a nerdy college student with a crush that’s absolutely, not at all, not even remotely consummated. It involves extended riffs on linguistics. It does not scream “mass appeal.”

Fortunately, I was wrong. The Idiot went on to be a Pulitzer finalist, and one of the New York Times’ notable books of the year. And one of the many other people who read it and fell in love was a woman named Sandi Tan. She remembers thinking the story of that unconsummated crush wasn’t boring or frustrating--it was thrilling.


SANDI: It just sucked me in. It was as hypnotic as maybe some people would have found Twilight, you know. Like a first person narrative that kind of like sucks you into this girl's head, this extremely lonesome girl who doesn't realize that she's extremely lonesome and that's part of the charm of it.

Sandi’s a filmmaker--she’d just finished work on her first documentary when she read The Idiot. And right away, she saw that it was a story about something more than an 18-year-old’s crush.

SANDI: I went to college around the same time she did. So it was like the early days of the internet, and I was completely entranced by the way that the first line of the book was like, "I didn't know what email was until I got into college." And I thought that's like an amazing first line. It is like - that is the period novel for our age. It's like it almost seems like an 18th century statement at this point.  It captured the early form of how this thing that we live in now happened. This was like the very beginning of people learning how to have an online persona. And so I was completely drawn in by that.

A friend whose taste she trusted told her, Sandi, THIS is your next project. She was nervous, though--the book was so much inside this one character’s brain. That was what she liked about it, but it would also make it a challenge to adapt. She wanted to get in touch with the author, Elif Batuman--but she was kind of nervous about that, too.

SANDI: This took a long time, because I was like dithering. I was like, "Oh, I want to do this, but oh, it's going to be so hard. She's so scary."

MOLLY: "She's so scary"!? In what way?

SANDI: Because my friend who said, "This is your next project!" sends me this podcast that Elif did, where she’s like super, super articulate. I mean she just sounds like the scariest person in the world.

MOLLY: She seems like someone with extremely high standards, I think.


MOLLY: When you read her criticism, or read her writing, she seems like she's perceiving things at a very, very high level.

SANDI: Yeah, and then she's also known to be very, very tall.

Sandi’s next move was very true to the spirit of The Idiot: She decided to send a long, intense email to Elif. It would be an attempt to win her favor, personally and intellectually, through the power of the written word.

SANDI: "Dear Elif, you don't know who I am," blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I explained this film-

MOLLY: Yeah, what was your opening line, or what was the subject on that email? Do you remember?

SANDI: Meet me at the sundial, or something. Which is a line from the book. Or maybe that was my end line... so I wouldn't sound too insane.

MOLLY: Just insane enough.

SANDI: Yeah, just insane-

MOLLY: You want to sound just insane enough.

SANDI: Just insane enough.

The sundial’s a deep cut from The Idiot, a throwaway moment I’d completely forgotten about. It’s the kind of detail you drop if you want to prove how closely you’re paying attention.

So Sandi sent off her three-page, single-spaced email to Elif Batuman. Elif, meanwhile, had been hearing from lots of readers—but not necessarily lots of readers who really seemed to get it.

ELIF: There had been some film interest, but none of it super coherent or compelling.

That’s Elif.

ELIF:  I got an email from Sandi's company forwarding this letter that she'd written that was three pages long, and at the end of it she was like, "Also just watch my movie, and if you hate it, let's just pretend that none of this ever happened."

SANDI: I really was very thorough, because I didn't want her to say no. So I didn't give her a chance to... if she said no, she would seem very churlish.

MOLLY: So you felt like you had really... you felt confident.

SANDI: Well, yeah. I mean, because I knew that if she saw my film... I mean, the main thing was to make her see my film.

Shirkers, Sandi’s film, came out last year--and as soon as I watched it, I remember firing off texts to at least three different friends to tell them they had to see it. It’s a documentary that takes you back to Sandi’s world as a teenager, growing up in Singapore in the 80s and 90s.

FROM SHIRKERS: When I was 18, I had so many ideas I hardly slept at all.

That’s how Shirkers begins. And watching it, you really do get the sense that Teenage Sandi had too many ideas to sleep. She and her friends published zines and butted heads with the older guys who presided over Singapore’s indie rock scene. They got Sandi’s cousin in Florida to mail them bootleg David Lynch videos. Teenage Sandi wanted to make movies.And the summer that Sandi and her best friends were 18, they cobbled together a cast and crew to shoot a dreamlike road movie they called Shirkers. They even managed to talk Kodak into giving them free film.

SANDI: my friends Jasmine and Sophie were playing the goofy girl card. It was just like, "Oh, we just want to learn how to play with film. Do you have some extra film we can play with for free?" Then a lot of people just found it really charming at that point because nobody else was doing that kind of thing.

MOLLY: Yeah.

SANDI: It was slightly condescending, but we're like fuck, we're just gonna take this and run with this

Sandi wrote the script and played the lead. She drafted their mentor--a high school film teacher-- to serve as the director. At the end of the summer, Sandi and her friends went off to school abroad, leaving the reels with their teacher to process. But then he stopped answering their calls.

SHIRKERS: That was the last we heard from him. He was gone, and so was Shirkers.

He’d disappeared. And he had taken their film with him. The mystery of what had happened loomed over the rest of Sandi’s life. And then, nearly 20 years later, Sandi got an email. Her high school film teacher had died--his widow was writing to tell Sandi that she’d just found 70 cans of film labeled “Shirkers.”

Sandi’s documentary contains the footage she recovered. In it, she confronts the teenage self that was lost for all those years: Her energy and pretensions and innocence are all up there, onscreen.

When Elif watched Shirkers, she saw a teenager who was just as serious and ambitious as she’d been--and someone who was now just as serious about re-examining her own past.

ELIF: And it was really watching Shirkers that convinced me. I just felt so much affinity for 19-year-old Sandi and her whole situation, and the clips of the original movie,  they were more sophisticated than my sensibility at that time but so attuned to it. It just felt very miraculous.

I was watching Shirkers, and it was just about this older guy who saw it in Sandi and her friends, his energy that young women have that's just this wild energy, and he sort of took advantage of that and then couldn't deal with it and just absconded with it, and Sandi just got it back now.

Although in my case, nobody ran away with anything or took anything ... It was all me ... but I also feel that I lost some number of years.

Right after college, Elif wrote the manuscript that would become The Idiot. It was an autobiographical novel about her life as a freshman. But, at that point, Elif wasn’t quite ready to be a person who’d write a novel about their freshman year crush. She set the manuscript aside. She got her PhD in comparative literature, she wrote all those essays that had intimidated Sandi, and she became respected as a serious journalist and critic. It was fifteen years before she went back to that old draft. By the time The Idiot came out, Elif was in her late thirties.

Sandi had lost two decades because her film was sitting in some guy’s house, but Elif had done it to herself. That was the connection Elif saw when she watched Shirkers, and that’s what she told Sandi when she replied to her email.

SANDI: Bizarrely enough, it didn't occur to me that that was the link. That was the connection between Shirkers and this. Why I was in love with the Idiot was that it was a book written by a person looking back on something she did when she was 18. Shirkers is me looking back on something I did when I was 18. It never occurred to me until I was writing to her. Like oh, ok! This is it.

So she wrote back, and it was like the most exuberant reply one could have. It was the most giving reply. It was longer than my email to her, which was very long.

The two started writing emails back and forth. But they didn’t actually see each other in person until last year, in New York. It was a high-stakes social encounter. Elif was meeting someone to see if she could trust them with her story. Sandi was meeting someone she’d been nervous even to email.

SANDI: We had breakfast in SoHo. I think we got along, except I was like gibbering nervously and I must've sounded like a complete idiot, because I was on L.A. time

ELIF: She was wearing this amazing black top with bumblebees on it that I think they had some kind of three-dimensionality.

SANDI: and I remember she ordered poached eggs that she said, "Ooh, they look like boobs." And I thought, "Okay, you're not that scary. You're kind of goofy too, really."

ELIF: She suggested a place and she was like, "They have bavette." I was like, "I just remember bavette being a kind of steak, so I must be wrong about that." But then I wasn't wrong and then she ordered that and it was a delightful brunch.

SANDI: But it was good, and I didn't disgrace myself too much. And also, oh, the other thing that made me realize that she was completely okay was that she... besides the reply that she sent me, this long reply, she began sending me cat pictures.

<<MUX IN>>

That’s how you know you’ve achieved the necessary level of trust—when you pass the threshold of cat pictures.

So now Sandi is going to be adapting Elif’s book into a movie--which is exciting news for me and Julia and the many other people who wound up loving The Idiot. It’s the rare adaptation news where my first response isn’t wincing or feeling protective of something I like… I’m just curious to see what happens. In Sandi’s first email to Elif, she told her she saw shades of Hitchcock in the book. Which never would have occurred to me--but then Elif told me that she was actually watching all of Hitchcock when she wrote her first draft.

Anyway, in the time since they met, Sandi and Elif both been thinking about The Idiot—and what it means to make art about your past. So we got the two of them together in the studio to share what’s been on their minds. And Sandi took the opportunity to pump Elif for details about her shameful 18-year-old self. That’s coming up, after the break.


ELIF: Hey, look at your little kitty cat backpack

ELIF: I brought you pictures

SANDI: Oh my god

Welcome back. This week, we’re talking to the writer Elif Batuman, and the filmmaker Sandi Tan. Sandi is adapting Elif’s novel The Idiot for the screen. And they’re two people who have some time thinking professionally about their teenage selves.

MOLLY: How would each of you describe yourselves at age 18 or 19?

SANDI: Fully formed I guess. But fully formed in my very unfinished way.

MOLLY: What do you mean by that?

SANDI: Because I'm still pretty much fully formed in the same unfinished way, just older.

ELIF: That actually feels very true. I also feel the same just older, which is not how I imagined it going down when I was that age. I thought something was gonna change.

SANDI: Yeah, I know. It's so disappointing, isn't it?

Elif: It's really disappointing, yeah.

Maybe none of us manage to totally escape the people we were at eighteen—but it takes a little while to realize that, much less accept it. Elif says that was something she still hadn’t managed to do when she was 23 and writing her first draft of The Idiot. Back then, she was determined to put as much space as she could between herself and the hapless college freshman she used to be.

But later—when she was in her thirties and went back to read what she had written—it was all those attempts to sound wise and mature as a 23-year-old that struck her as most embarrassing.

ELIF: So I'd written that document when I was 23 and there was a lot of effort in the 23 year old version to distance myself from the ... I had had one year of comp lit grad school, then I took a year and a half off to write the novel, so I knew about the difference between the narrator and the author, and I was at great pains to show that I wasn't the person who was 18. You know, when we're younger we do these things and then we get older and we understand.

MOLLY: We get older, we turn 23.

ELIF: Yeah, we turn 23 and we know all this stuff. When I went back, the most shameful parts were really the parts that were from 23 Elif trying to prove how much smarter she was than 18 year old Elif. And the parts where 18 year old Elif was like acting in a completely preposterous way were really interesting to me.

SANDI: Can you say what some ... I'm so curious now, what those more embarrassing things were?

ELIF: Mostly the relationship with Ivan and the emails,

MOLLY: That sounds like the whole book.

SANDI: Yeah. Yeah. Were there specific emails that were almost like too personal that you couldn't share? Were there - Did you feel you were holding back anything? And I'm just asking for a friend.

ELIF: Not that they were too personal. Definitely when I turned in the draft, um my editor did not have a ton of comments. But one of the comments was like, she's like, "Elif, we need to talk about the emails." And I was like, "Okay." She's like, "Can I be frank?" And I was like, "Hit me." She's like, "They're too like ... Nobody's going to be able to read this," because I had pretty much just like copied them out-

SANDI: Oh, wow.

ELIF: And they went on for pages. And she was like, "Nobody's going to be able to read this. I understand that it would have been very exciting to receive these emails at the time, but-"

SANDI: Wait, wait, wait, wait. Can you send them? I want to see some of them. I won't share them.

ELIF: Yeah, if you don't share them, I can send you some of them.

SANDI: Of course! I won't.

ELIF: Okay, good.

Watching them talk, I got the sense that Sandi was ravenous for any information she could get about Elif. Elif is doing her best to accommodate. And over the past few years, she’s has some practice putting her teenage self out there. She’s had a chance to think about what it means to do that—why she’s hesitated in the past, and why she cares about doing it now.

The book came out at a moment when talking about your teenage feelings could not have seemed less important.

ELIF: So the reception of The Idiot was kind of weird because it came out in early 2017 and I started doing the pre-pub right after the election.

MOLLY: Oh god.

ELIF: Yeah, and then the first events and the first interviews were just with totally shell-shocked media people. I would go to events and everyone would be like, "Hope everyone's okay," in Trump-adjusted terms, and of course, "We have to keep going forward and literature still matters," and then everyone would be like, "Here's this person who wrote a book about a crush she had in 1995. Let's give it up for Elif Batuman." I was like, "Awesome."

MOLLY: Yeah. I listened to an interview you did with Isaac Chotiner. He's kind of like, "So Russia. What do you think of Russia?"

ELIF: Oh yeah.

MOLLY: I was like, "Oh my god." March 2017. That was, yeah, different stuff to talk about it.

ELIF: It was intense. It was intense. Yeah, Leonard Lopate asked me about the Armenian genocide.

But in the two years since The Idiot came out, watching everything that’s unfolded since the election and #MeToo, Elif’s been thinking… what if a book about an old crush isn’t as far removed from the serious stuff as she used to believe?

ELIF: When Idiot came out, I was very invested in calling it a novel and when people would ask, how autobiographical was it, I was like, "Pretty autobiographical." Now, I've been thinking a lot about the difference between fiction and non-fiction, and how the discourse around it is kind of spurious; particularly the conversation around privacy.  #MeToo kind of blew my mind, I didn't know the extent of the NDAs. I didn't realize the extent to which the stories were actually being suppressed, and it made me think differently - I've been wanting to work with autobiographical material for a long time and had not really been doing it because I felt like I have to fictionalize it and I have to protect people's privacy. It just sort of made me think, what are we protecting when we're protecting privacy?

It’s a thought she’s kept coming back to--which stories matter to which people, and why. For a while, she was playing around with writing a possible sequel to The Idiot. And at the same time, she was watching the news.

ELIF:  I was working on it in 2018 when the Kavanaugh hearings with Christine Blasey Ford. I was just listening to her testimony, and I was actually listening to a podcast. Erin Ryan was talking about, "This is something that happens with women is that something happens in their past when they're teenagers, and they think about it every day for their whole lives and the guy just forgets. For him, it goes away." And this was actually something I experienced because the character of Ivan is based on a real person who I checked in with before I wrote it. I was just like, "Oh, is this okay? I'm going to have these emails." He was totally like, "Oh yeah, that's cool. That's fine. I'm honored."

He was super, super nice about it. But I could also tell from talking to him that like ... We actually met and I was asking him all these questions about, "Oh, how's your dog?" I remembered the name of his dog, and he was like, "Wow, you remember so much about me." I was just thinking about how this was this huge thing for me, and it wasn't really for him.

I was like, so this very personal story that I'm going around feeling kind of guilty about doing this personal story and not writing about ... I actually wanted to write something about the Armenian genocide. There was a long essay that I started writing about military coups in Turkey and my different experiences with the different coups and my parents' experiences with the different coups, and I do want to go and do that stuff. Anyway, so I was having all of these thoughts and being like, "Oh, why am I writing about this crush that literally nobody else cares about except for me?"

MOLLY: Not even the crush.

ELIF: Not even the guy. The guy's just like, "Peace."

MOLLY: "Oh, you remember my dog."

ELIF: Yeah. He's like, "Oh, that dog died so long ago." Oh my god. Rest in peace, Photon. Where was I? Oh yeah, so then I reached this extremely banal conclusion. Not that it's banal, it's just that it had been reached very fully already at least in 1970 and by now, it was 2018, where I was like, "Oh, this thing that I've been writing that's super personal, it actually is political." The fact that -

MOLLY: It seems like the personal might in fact be political.

ELIF: Yeah, it seems like the personal might in fact be political. And then I was like, "Are you serious? Seriously, this is your big revelation of 2018 is the personal is political?" I was like, "Yup, that's it."

So it took Elif a while to have that big revelation--a bunch of second-wave feminists beat her there by 50 years or so. But she’s fine with coming to it late. In fact, you might say that’s the great lesson of her novel: Recognize the ways you might be an idiot, all the things you don’t know yet, and then keep learning anyway.  

Meanwhile, in preparation for the film, Sandi’s taken a couple research trips to Elif’s old college campus. She’s scoping out the setting of the book, looking for the places where Freshman Elif wrote her intense emails and went on her agonizing almost-dates.

ELIF:  Our conversation has been like, she goes to Cambridge and sends me photographs, and she's like, "Was this the less-romantic bridge?"

SANDI: Yeah I was like live-texting her. I was like, "I'm here now. Is this that thing you were talking about? Is this the café?" It's really funny to be able to get the author to tell me stuff exactly. I was sending her a building, "Is that the building?" It was fun to do that. We did  that twice.

ELIF: That was amazing, to get those photos.

MOLLY: What do you remember thinking receiving those photos, Elif?

ELIF: I just feel like the past few years for me have been such a scrambling of time, partly from therapy, partly from just politically. It feels like a lot of stuff from the 90's and even the 80's is coming up now. A lot of the people were the same. I found just the Kavanaugh hearing, where Chuck Grassley is still there from the Anita Hill hearing. I just feel like we've been in this kind of nightmare of recycling the past and things that we thought we moved beyond, but we hadn't actually moved beyond. Just getting these little dispatches from there just felt sort of like, par for the course.

MOLLY: Par for the course, not weird.

ELIF: Yeah, or just part of the ambient weirdness.

MOLLY: Yeah.

ELIF: There is an extent to which the past is floating around a lot more than maybe we're necessarily used to thinking.

SANDI: Those are the kinds of people I tend to get along with.

MOLLY: Yeah, me too, yeah.

SANDI: The people who are like completely divorced from their past selves, you know, their more child-like selves, are just aliens to me.

MOLLY: Yeah.

SANDI: I just cannot relate.

ELIF: Yeah. Who have really identified with their adult roles. They're horrible people.

MOLLY: I think we should end on that note. I think that's perfect.

It’s not that Sandi and Elif made me regret skipping my reunion--but they did make me feel a little more generous to The Idiot I was freshman year. And a little less embarrassed that I keep going back to her, trying to figure out how I got from there to here, and what changed or didn’t along the way.

That’s it for this week’s show… we’ll see you next Tuesday.