The journalist-author on fictional truth, fake news and setting a coming-of-age novel in the end of history mid-1990s

In 1995 Elif Batuman started her first year at Harvard; she was in love with fiction and determined to become a writer. The child of immigrants from Turkey, she had a first name that was unfamiliar in New Jersey, where she grew up, and which had to be constantly spelled out and explained. She has said since that its four letters suggest a fitting joke about writerly aspiration: if the initial desire in a novel is to capture all of life, what is actually produced is just another set of words, a file.

When we meet, Batuman laughingly tells me that even when I was very small, my mother treated me like a great novelist. She was like: Oh, Im sitting at the breakfast table with Flaubert, and would say, if she burned some food, or was late arriving: Dont put this in your novel! Such confidence turned out to be justified: Batumans The Possessed, a comic foray into the academic world of Russian literature, was a bestselling bibliomemoir before such books became fashionable. She is a much admired New Yorker staff writer, who enriches her reporting with dry humour and self-revelation (her therapy, her unhappiness in love). And she has now produced her first novel, The Idiot, centred on Selin, a Turkish-American woman, who, in 1995, begins her first year at Harvard; she is in love with fiction and already determined to become a writer

A coming-of-age story set over 12 months, the novel recounts Selins awkward, embarrassing experiences as a new undergraduate, and draws heavily on Batumans freshman year. I dont think Ill be pulling the veil from anyones eyes, she has written, when I reveal that I myself had many such experiences aged 18. Selin is an outsider, as naive as she is intellectually hungry. In many ways, she resembles a Martian perplexed by strange student behaviour walking around, according to Batuman, as if saying What is this sex that you speak of? and why do I have to drink alcohol?

As Batuman did, Selin avoids taking subjects she had studied at high school, and ends up learning Russian and theorising about linguistics (Batuman can read or speak seven languages). Selin is painfully questioning of relationships, and is determined to lead a life unmarred by laziness, cowardice and conformity. I get that you despise convention, her friend Svetlana chides her, but you shouldnt let it get to the point that youre incapable of saying, Fine, thanks, just because it isnt an original, brilliant utterance.

As a novelist you write about social mores, Batuman says, but not everything can be explained. You want to make the familiar strange and memorable again, and an easy shortcut is to make your protagonist young, clueless and innocent. Just as The Possessed is a book about misunderstandings and mistakes made by an unseasoned but sardonic graduate scholar, so The Idiot (which also borrows its title from a Dostoevsky novel) has fun transporting the reader back to the pain and embarrassment that come with a stage younger still. Selin is trying to work out how to be a writer, and how to live or as she puts it: How to dispose of my body in space and time, every minute of the day, for the rest of my life.

The Idiot is also a historical novel, set in the days before smartphones and Wikipedia, which offers a commentary on how the world has changed since the mid-1990s. On the day of her arrival at university, Selin is given her first email address: handed an ethernet cable, she asks: What do we do with this, hang ourselves? Email is still exciting (this is the era before it became a curse): Always there was a glowing list of messages, some so different from a formal letter that they felt like they were being beamed straight from peoples brains. And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you the story of the intersection of your lives with others.

A lot of what I write is very personal. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

Selin begins an email relationship with Ivan, a Hungarian maths major who is in her Russian class. She enjoys their odd, pretentious exchanges, and though unsure about meeting him face to face, begins to write herself into a romantic narrative: I wanted to know how it was going to turn out, like flipping ahead in a book. Given that Batuman specialises in finding humour in the gap between plots and reality how things are supposed to be, and how they turn out its no spoiler to reveal that Selin and Ivan dont find lifelong happiness.

Batuman was keen to write about the struggle for a girl to find meaning outside of the romance plot. The tension in the book was there in my life, and I imagine is still there in the lives of a lot of young women. Theres almost something degrading about putting all of your being into the search for the love of a man. Yet everything is still set up so that a relationship with a man who treats you right is the measure of happiness. Such an attitude exists even among feminists, she maintains, giving examples from Tina Feys 30 Rock and an onstage conversation between Lena Dunham and Ariel Levy.

One reader, Batuman has noted, was angry at me because she spent the whole book waiting for Selin and Ivan to have sex. This, she believes, is the same voice, articulating from the same power supply, that makes people constantly ask: Do you have a boyfriend? Being in a heterosexual relationship for a woman is always implicitly a little bit humiliating.

In the second half of the novel, Selin journeys to Hungary in the belief that, by doing so, she will understand Ivan better, and is disoriented when the love plot doesnt run its course. Batuman has said that her own episodes of depression have come when she has been unable to see herself in any kind of story Its the same with a breakup the other person leaves and takes the story with them. And youre left there just falling through space.

Selin, as Batuman sums it up to me, knows that shes supposed to be doing something bigger and better. But she feels she is also falling out of another kind of narrative, that of becoming a writer. In Hungary, she is disconcerted by the long succession of people she meets, who come in and out of her life like characters in War and Peace: she finds herself staying in a house where the husband puts a stuffed weasel in her room, and judging a boys leg contest (an episode that also appears in The Possessed). Yet she is determined to open herself up to such experiences as part of being a writer; she feels she should always take the less conservative and more generous path. (As a reporter for the New Yorker, Batuman similarly makes herself vulnerable.) Selin ends up believing she has learned nothing yet one of the jokes being told is that the bizarre, inconsequential real-life happenings that inspired Selins story have ultimately ended up in at least one book, and possibly two.

The lack of structure in the second half of The Idiot deliberately mirrors Selins lack of control over her own narrative. A decade ago, Batuman wrote a polemic against the crafted, controlled fiction that was coming out of creative writing courses. Literature, she insisted, should encompass all the irrelevant garbage of life. American writers, break out of the jail! the essay concluded: Write long novels, pointless novels. Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things. Though the literary landscape has since changed, it seems unlikely that Batuman will ever write a novel that isnt also a set of thoughts about what fiction can or should be.

Even though I had a deep conviction that I was good at writing, Selin considers, and that in some way I already was a writer, this conviction was completely independent of my having ever written anything. Batuman felt the same. As an undergraduate she scribbled stories and diaries, and took up a graduate place at Stanford because they paid you to read novels. In the middle of her course, aged 23, she took time off to try her hand at fiction, and wrote about her very first year as a student. Fifteen or so years later, she was having difficulty with a novel about her life after The Possessed, and kept being drawn to flashbacks to a more innocent time. And I sat there thinking: why am I trying to remember college aged 38 like a chump, when I wrote a whole book about this? She retrieved her early fictional effort from the Cloud and rewrote it to become The Idiot.

When her efforts as a 23-year-old fiction writer came to nothing, Batuman returned to graduate study, and enjoyed a very heady, exciting time at Stanford, pure and intellectually supercharged. The Possessed is about being caught up in literature in such a way, the feeling of being possessed by reading and thinking about books; in it, the work of such writers as Babel, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky become almost a religion. Eat, Pray, Love for the PhD set was one summary, which would make more sense if it captured how funny The Possessed is, in the manner of the best campus novels.

The book pursues a love of Russian fiction ignited in youth by a violin teacher who wore a black turtleneck and produced an impression of being deeply absorbed by calculations beyond the normal range of human cognition. Batumans hapless adventures are offset by deep literary enthusiasm. She relates reading Babels Red Cavalry cycle on a rainy Saturday in February, while baking a black forest gateau: As Babel immortalised for posterity the military embarrassment of the botched 1920 Russo-Polish campaign, so he immortalised for me the culinary embarrassment of this cake, which … produced the final pansensory impression of an old hat soaked in cough syrup.

Batuman originally wanted to write the book as a novel, but was told nobody wanted to read fiction about a depressed graduate student. When her essays were greeted with acclaim, she, almost by accident, became a nonfiction writer, and was taken up by the New Yorker. But from now on she seems set on making her books fictional, not least because a lot of what I write is very personal and it seems more civil to change a few things. Her writing might be linked to the current trend for autofiction (as in the novels of Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard), but Batuman is dismissive of the novelty of such a practice: Really well-intentioned people tell me: Wow, youre exploding the boundary between fiction and non-fiction. And Im like: didnt Proust explode that more than a hundred years ago? She has admiration for writers who simply invent stuff that didnt happen But other people, like me, are interested in understanding the things that actually happen to them my life is a mystery as it is. If Proust were to be writing now, she has said, publishers would make his work nonfiction, with a colon in the title. Itd be In Search of Lost Time: The Rememberers Journey.

One of the two novels Batuman is working on is a Selin sequel, which will be similarly autobiographical, and also about books (Breton, Kierkegaard, Huysmans). It will feature more sex than The Idiot, she says, and will reflect further on Selins attempt to live an unconventional, aesthetic life, when all the classic literature she reads about seducing and abandoning gives the active role to men. I remind Batuman of a comment she made a few years ago: I think sex is a really big problem that people dont acknowledge enough. She laughs: Yes, that sounds like me.

The second novel, to be called Swan Park, is in part about the secular-religious split in Turkey, where she lived between 2010 and 2013, and the political polarisation of America. The impetus came directly from my experience of being in Brooklyn last summer, and of watching the Trump campaign gather momentum, and the way the polls were so wrong about Trump and Brexit. It made her think of political theorist Hannah Arendts idea of the invisible forces that people feel oppress them. I used not to think of myself as a political writer, she says, but she now realises that the novel can do political writing that no other discourse can. Fiction still has the power to change our minds like it did in the days of Huck Finn.

Batuman contrasts todays political moment, and the rise of identity politics, with the background to The Idiot the mid-1990s, post-cold war illusion of the end of history. She recalls her own undergraduate days: I felt that making too much of having a Turkish identity, or feeling it too strongly, was something I should get over. It was the same with feminism. I shouldnt say woe is me, Im a girl, I should just work harder I thought: racism is over, sexism is over, bigotry is over. I was in for a rude awakening. Its like a nightmare Trump is someone who was around when I was that age, we heard about him all the time. When my uncle came to America we took him to see Trump Tower. Im middle-aged now, and hes my president? I mean, how is that possible?

I suggest that the fake news associated with Trumps presidency will only strengthen the hand of those who want to draw a simple line between novels and nonfiction. Ever the evangelist for fiction, Batuman responds with the thought that theres something about novelistic truth that is actually anathema to fake news. Novels have to hold together as some kind of story you can enter into, and to make sense from all perspectives. Its that kind of plausibility that makes a novel feel true, as opposed to just the accuracy of each piece of information. After all, she has reminded us, Tolstoy didnt think he was detracting from the truth-telling power of a book by writing it as a novel.

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