Comedy in the Former USSR: In Conversation with Author Audrey Murray
At 28, comedian, humor writer and author Audrey Murray was caught between “settling down” and living her dreams of travel and adventure. The decision? A nine-month solo journey through the former USSR, in which she encountered a host of unfortunate yet entertaining circumstances. Fortunately for us, she turned these stories into her debut memoir, Open Mic Night in Moscow: And Other Stories from My Search for Black Markets, Soviet Architectures, and Emotionally Unavailable Russian Men.
Audrey guides the reader through diverse landscapes and culturally-rich countries that many Americans haven’t even heard of while making them burst out laughing along the way. But under the humor is a universally relatable story and struggle. We spoke to Audrey about travel, writing and all the serious life advice that such a hilarious woman could impart.
First, congratulations on your memoir! I’m excited to ask you about traveling, the writing process, and what you hope people take away from the book.
Thank you! I’m excited to talk about it.
First, before taking the journey described in Open Mic Night in Moscow, you had already moved across the world, navigated a new culture and language and even started Shanghai’s Kung Fu Comedy. In other words, you were a seasoned expert at being out of your comfort zone. How did the trip in the former USSR challenge what you thought you could do?
When I was living in China, I kind of developed this mantra, which was, “The first time I do something, I’ll probably completely screw it up.” I would repeat this to myself all the time–when I tried to hire a tennis coach but accidentally put up signs asking for a ping-pong teacher, when my bike was ruined because I didn’t say anything when the guy fixing it pulled out a blowtorch, when I tried to make a visa run to Taiwan on the day my visa expired but accidentally took a puppet-show pleasure boat that parked a few hundred yards off the coast of Taiwan, and then we had to sit through the hour-long puppet show before we could turn around and I could find the correct boat before the clock ran out and I became an illegal alien.
It sounds really simple, but by the time you’re an adult (and I was very barely an adult at this point–I was 23 when I moved to China), you’re not used to making very stupid mistakes or not being able to accomplish simple tasks, like getting on the bus heading in the right direction, not the bus headed in the opposite direction. It can feel very frustrating, and the only way I could prevent setbacks and inconveniences from ruining my day was to set the bar incredibly low, so that complete failure was the expected outcome, and anything above that was a stroke of luck.
I went into my trip through the former Soviet Union with the same mentality–I’ll totally bungle everything the first time I do something, maybe get a few things right on the second try–though in some ways, I did doubt my ability to pull off this whole trip. I’d traveled and lived abroad before, but I’d never done anything like this: traveling alone for so long, trying to write about something while I was doing it, going months without access to organic granola. Before I left, I worried about the scope of the trip and whether I was being too ambitious.
But as soon as I landed in Kazakhstan, those fears took a backseat to the tasks at hand and the minutiae of daily life that probably saves us from walking in a constant state of existential dread. It’s funny how, before something happens, you can worry about it from every possible angle, but once you’re in it, you often have little choice but to keep moving forward. I very much got through this trip just by putting one foot in front of the other, and that’s what makes me feel like I could do something like this again.
Obviously, you visited dozens of incredible and interesting places, but I have to wonder: if there was one place you visited that you could force your worst enemy to reside in the for the rest of their life, where would it be and why?
That’s actually a tough question, and sadly not because I’m wildly succeeding at my goal not to acquire enemies. It’s mostly because there isn’t a place that stands out as one I’d never go back to.
Turkmenistan was definitely the most challenging country to visit, because when you’re there, you can feel pretty cut off from the outside world. I only found one place in the entire country that had internet, and it was a very ritzy hotel whose lobby I would squat in each night I was in Ashgabat. People often compare Turkmenistan to North Korea, because Turkmenistan is a pretty repressive dictatorship that also fosters a cult of personality (the president’s picture hangs everywhere, and I mean everywhere–they even had separate portraits for business class and economy on a flight I took in the country), and the realities of that were even heavier than I was expecting.
I guess if you really wanted to punish someone, you could stick them on the Trans-Siberian for 72 hours. When I did the Trans-Siberian, I broke up my trip so I was never on a train for more than 36 hours. Even that is long–there’s nothing quite like sleeping a full night, getting up in the morning, eating breakfast, reading for a few hours, and checking the time, and then realizing you still have a full day to go. If you wanted to make it worse, you could add a bad roommate.
I was traveling in second class on the Trans-Siberian, which meant I had a bed in a compartment that slept four people. Most of the other travelers were great, but on the first leg of my trip, I was sharing a compartment with a woman who wanted me to help her smuggle tracksuits and sausages across the Mongolian/Russian border. Let’s just say the hours I spent with her felt like decades.
But what if you had to send away your best friend, your mom, or Sergey (your trainer who gave great “ass muscle” exercises)? Where would you send them?
The easy answer to that question is Saint Petersburg, because it’s a guaranteed crowd pleaser. It’s a beautiful city (featuring my favorite architectural style: columns stylized to look like naked men are holding up the building), and there’s so much to see.
You could easily spend a week exploring and never run out of things to do. It has palaces from the Tsarist era, seventy billion art museums, canals, churches, the works. And I think it’s a good starting point for understanding Russian culture before the Soviet Union. It was built by Peter the Great, essentially because he was like, “Hey, I feel like I deserve a new capital,” and it has long been a hub of art and culture.
There’s also a great museum of art from the perestroika period (Erarta), and what I love about it is that each piece is accompanied by a short piece that a third person (not affiliated with the artist or museum) wrote in response to it. These reflections really paint a picture of how people felt at the end of the Soviet Union and what it had been like to live through communism.
Tell us about the writing process. What role do comedy and writing have in your life? Does doing one help the other, especially in relation to a humorous memoir? (For example, you describe the Mongolian countryside as “empty, rugged, bare, as though an overzealous bikini waxer yanked off all the people and plants, leaving only the mountains and the wide spaces in between.” Or another one of my favorites: “What is it like to spend almost twenty-four hours on a train? It is something like passing through the fives states of grief, out of order, and with the most intense stage being hunger.”)
Thank you! I think comedy definitely helps with writing, because it provides such valuable, immediate feedback. When you stand up on stage and tell a joke, you know exactly how well it works. In writing, you never get to watch someone react to your work; in comedy, that’s part of your job. You have to feel out a crowd and see what they respond to and what they don’t.
Comedy is also so different than writing in that the feedback is almost instant. You can write a joke in the morning and try it out that night, and you’ll have a sense of how strong your premise is. When you write–especially when you write a book–you’re working alone for long stretches of time with no idea how it will play. It’s easy to start doubting yourself and thinking, “This is the worst thing that’s ever been written, everyone is going to laugh at me, I’m honestly not even sure this is still English?” Once it’s out in the world, it’s almost always better than you imagined, but it’s hard to keep going for so long without any positive reinforcement.
Comedy also teaches you how to tell the difference between subjects and themes that are universal, and topics whose resonance and humor are unique to you. You eventually figure out that when you introduce a premise on stage and the audience is like, “What?”, that means it’s a you thing. While you things can still work, you have to find ways to make them relatable. Take my obsession with the former Soviet Union. Not everyone is going to relate to that, because not everyone would drop everyone to spend a week in Siberia. But everyone is obsessed with something, and that’s the common ground. As long as I can explain what in particular draws me to places like Belarus and Kazakhstan, a reader can hopefully get on board.
On a technical level, Open Mic Night in Moscow is a fantastic mix of raw memoir, humor, and history, and you so seamlessly inform the reader while also being entertaining and relatable. What advice do you have for other writers to achieve the balance?
You’re making me blush! This is actually my favorite question I’ve ever been asked, because I have an answer that I’m dying to talk about, which is: you can always punch it up later. This was my first book, so in the very beginning, I would sit down to write and start panicking if the humor wasn’t right. In the months before I wrote the manuscript, I had been writing a lot of short humor and satire pieces, and with those, I really did have to nail the voice and tone from the beginning, and if I didn’t, the best thing to do was start over. With something as big as a book, you can’t start over every time you feel stuck.
Out of necessity and in the face of looming deadlines, I decided to just get the story down first with the book. This turned out to be a lifesaver: when you’re just focused on telling the story, it’s a lot easier to figure out where everything goes–where you need context, where getting personal would help forward the story, how to structure anecdotes, and when chronology doesn’t make the best organizing principle. I was still thinking about humor as I wrote, but it was much easier to go in and smooth out the voice (and inject more humor) while I was revising.
Some of the humor I’m most proud of actually came from that stage in the process, when I knew I had the story down and felt more free to experiment and take risks. Construction metaphors are overly deployed in descriptions of the writing process, but before you have the foundation in place, fiddling with jokes can make the whole thing fall down. (And yes, I’m available to build your house.)
If I could add a second thing I learned that might be useful to anyone interested in writing a travel memoir, it would be don’t be married to chronology (or anyone, if you can help it–writing a book requires a lot of alone time). When you’re writing about travel, it’s so easy to say, “First I went here, and I did this, and then I did that,” and then you read it back and think, “Wait, did I accidentally open an itinerary?” You don’t have to distort the sequence, but it does help to think, “Okay, if I were telling this story at a dinner party, what would it look like?” The answer is almost always leading with the most interesting part and then jumping back to the beginning, but it’s still a useful exercise–if only to help you aggressively script out your next dinner party (including the part on the subway ride home where you wonder if everyone secretly hates you).
Your book is hilarious, but you also get real with us. In one of the later chapters, after traveling through the former USSR and deciding to embark on another adventure, you write, “Maybe it’s because of this that I still feel torn, besieged by an off-brand version of late-twenties malaise. This feels like the period in my life where I should be reading a lot of memoirs and worrying that what I’m doing isn’t what I want to be doing for the rest of my life. The frightening thing is, I’m already doing what I want – I’m just so afraid that I want the wrong thing that I can’t commit to it wholeheartedly…” In that phrase, you encapsulate so clearly the worries and anxieties of many millennials. What do you think your story says about those fears? What do you hope people will take away from reading your experience?
Sometimes I wonder if those fears are specific to millennials or common to everyone, but easier to ponder under certain conditions. I think it’s natural to wonder and worry and have doubts, but doubts don’t draw as much energy when you have more urgent concerns, like if you find yourself living through the Great Depression. I wonder if we associate this struggle with millennials because we were born after a period of relative economic prosperity (from which not all groups benefitted equally, or at all), and so a larger portion of the population had the freedom to act on some of these questions without jeopardizing their ability to meet basic needs.
What I came to realize, after a long period of thinking and fretting about what I should be doing with my life, was that my choices weren’t as binary or binding as they sometimes seemed. I was framing a lot of decisions as either/or: either I travel for a year and try to write this book, or I settle down and become a normal adult, and whichever one I choose, there’s no going back. But later I started to see that that wasn’t true. I wasn’t signing away my life. I could travel now and get a corporate job later, or I could do the inverse. I had been so afraid of being stuck with something if I chose the wrong thing, but even if I didn’t, permanence was far from a guarantee. A few months or years in the future, the circumstances of my life would be different, and I would likely have to wrestle with another set of diverging paths. So actually, all I was deciding was what to do next.
That made things a lot easier. The question of what to do with your life is huge and scary, but the question of whether to pursue option A or option B is much more manageable.
If people take something away from reading about my experiences, I hope it’s that: that oftentimes, you’re only choosing the next step. And after that, there will almost certainly be another next step. Publishing a book was amazing and almost beyond my wildest dreams, but it didn’t come with a detailed plan I could just follow for the rest of my life. I still have to pick what comes next. But there’s not as much pressure for that next thing to be everything.