Catching up with old friends and acquaintances can be a rewarding experience; it can also be emotionally unsettling, unearthing challenging and painful emotions or reminding you of why you’d grown distant to begin with. In his new book To Whom It May Concern, Dmitry Samarov blends writing and art as he looks back on people he’s known and the letters he did and didn’t send them. I spoke with Dmitry about his new book, how it connects to his other work as a writer and artist, and what’s next for him.
In both To Whom It May Concern and paint-by-numbers, there seems to be a running theme of autopsying why interpersonal relationships have gone south, whether your own or others that are in your orbit. Do you see these two books as being connected?
I only know how to work from life, so of course the two books are connected. Paint is more about professional relationships whereas To Whom concerns more of the personal ones. As to the through-line of failure, maybe, since I’m the one constant factor, it’s my special contribution.
I suppose if a different writer took up making a narrative out of the letters they received throughout his life, it might stress other themes. What interested me was the gap—sometimes over thirty years—between the source material and what I made of it. The result is necessarily a kind of fiction.
The previous book ends up fiction as well but in different ways. It’s more out of the necessity to protect the guilty by changing names and tweaking timelines. I never used to know why anyone would write fiction when all the drama and intrigue you could ask for was available just by getting on the subway or plopping your ass down in a bar seat. Then I found out that when you write about people you know they sometimes aren’t pleased. Hence my last three books.
This started with Old Style. My books are always between genres but these last three have all been some kind of fiction out of necessity and self-preservation.
Perhaps if I ever have any relationship work out, I’ll write about that.
What prompted the use of the Melville epigraph?
A reader of my newsletter sent me a longer excerpt it was part of in response to a thing I wrote about the Dead Letter Office. It’s from Bartleby the Scrivener. I thought it perfectly described the range of hopes and intents that letters can contain.
Another theme I noticed in To Whom It May Concern was in either discovering or recognizing some genuinely awful behavior in others, racism especially. Did you have a sense that that would be something you’d be writing about before you began this project?
Like the failed relationships, I work with the material at hand. All I do my whole life is look and listen. The bad behavior isn’t all that remarkable but it does tend to stick in the memory so it ends up on the page.
I rarely have much of an idea beforehand. I see the structure and shape of a thing in process, so, no, I didn’t have a pile of notes of people’s lousy behavior sorted in a file so I could use it in the book. It’s just a recurring theme that emerged as the thing came together. My own behavior is often not the greatest either.
Which also begs the question: when did you begin conceptualizing this project as a book?
This one is definitely a result of lockdown. Unable to be out in bars and cafes, I turned to my desk drawer for human subject-matter. The same drawers that stored ephemera like old homework assignments and showcards that began appearing in my new collages also held every letter that I ever got.
I started reading a few of the letters—as I have periodically through the decades—and got sucked in. Then, as an experiment, I wrote a response to one. I didn’t want to attempt time-travel or playact my way back to whenever I’d received it. I wrote it as if this letter showed up in my mailbox yesterday. Then I wrote another and another. Maybe the repeating failed relationships that run through the book are because so many of my jumping-off points are letters from exes.
Family also plays a big role in To Whom It May Concern: chosen families, biological families, and families not formed all fit into the overall narrative. What draws you to writing about family?
Even the most solitary types come from some kind of family configuration. I spend the lion’s share of my life alone but that doesn’t mean that connection to others isn’t important to me. I think we’re programmed pretty deep down to try to cohabitate and form community of one kind or another. A personal letter is like piece of thread binding the writer and the sender.
In a way this is my most personal book as it deals least with my artwork or whatever day-job I have going. What’s left is the people in my life. Family is a pretty amorphous term; it can hold almost every kind of non-business relationship. Just as with the failure and bad behavior things, the family theme is not what I started out with but what showed up along the way.
Were there any challenges of finding the right balance between your writing and the art that suffuses the book?
Each chapter features a collage made up almost entirely of the letters I read and responded to. There’s not a one-to-one connection between each collage and the chapter it illustrates, so you can’t glean answers treasure-hunt style from reading the bits of text in the art. But there’s definitely a symbiotic relationship between word and image in the book.
Because I came from visual art, I can’t conceive of a book without pictures. But I’m not usually interested in straight illustration. I want the two things to push and pull at one another. It was nice to have actual firsthand matter to use as material for this one. It also serves the double purpose of destroying the originals letters so they won’t be read in the future by people they weren’t intended for.
Did you have any difficulties on the production side of things?
I found a printer less than a mile from my house and at first things went smoothly. A week before the run was due at the beginning of September, the printer asked whether I could pay him the balance, and, like a fool, as a show of faith, I did.
He delivered a hundred of the five hundred he owed me on time. There were many printing errors and the color reproductions could have been better. Also, he kept texting me short-story length screeds about his personal and professional problems.
Over the following three months, the reasons why the remaining four hundred copies weren’t done ranged from worker sabotages to heart attacks. It was like he had a herd of dogs that took turns eating the homework day after day after day.
I thought for a time that it was some kind of scam but it was way too inefficient and tortuous a thing to be that. This is just someone with no ability to handle time-management. Bad quality for a printer, I’d say.
Wonder of wonders, a couple days ago the books arrived. They’re not what I wanted them to be but I’m moving on. After I sign and number them, that is.
What’s next for you?
I want to put together a coffee-table type art book surveying my paintings and drawings the past thirty-plus years. I have the layout mostly done. Have to write a few short essays and, most importantly, find a new printer.