Alexander Motyl, professor of political science and deputy director of the Division of Global Affairs at Rutgers–Newark, is noted for his prolific writings on contemporary politics in Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and Russia, as well as for more theoretical explorations into the nature of nationalism, empire, and revolution. Over the past two and a half decades, he has written six books of nonfiction and contributed dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has managed, by dint of enviable self-discipline and resourcefulness, to publish two novels, while also pursuing a career as a painter.
Focus: Did you ever consider a full-time career as an artist?
Motyl: I was a history major and an art minor in college, and for my last two years there I mostly took art classes. The idea of academia had turned me off. I remember looking at the rows and rows of dusty books in the library and saying, “I’ll never contribute to that dust!” But I didn’t have the guts to pursue a full-time career as a painter. It would have required an enormous leap of faith in myself and what the future would hold. It’s still scary, but back then it was absolutely terrifying.
Focus: How did you end up as an academic researcher, a profession you once dismissed?
Motyl: I discovered, after trying various other things and finding I didn’t like them, that I was good at it. My primary impulse, however, wasn’t intellectual, but political. I went into Soviet studies with a mission: I wanted to understand this criminal state and to be able to write about it in ways that would weaken it and advance human, national, and civil rights. This is very clearly related to my background – my family is Ukrainian, and several relatives had been murdered by the Soviet secret police – and so it has a personal and a political component.
Focus: How did you make the leap from research to invention?
Motyl: The impulse to write a novel came in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union was no more, and I’d written a lot about why I thought it had collapsed. There didn’t seem to be much more to say. Meanwhile, the aftermath in most of the successor states was pretty crummy – violent, corrupt, seedy, and full of intrigue. Writing a political thriller seemed like the obvious thing to do.
Focus: How do you find time to publish academic articles, write novels, and paint? Are you able to work on all three at once?
Motyl: It’s just that I’m well organized. There is an enormous amount of time that we have that we waste. My academic work is an ongoing concern, while I concentrate on fiction writing over winter and summer breaks. But once I have a text, I can edit at leisure – on the subway, even mulling it over in the shower. Painting is an alternative to my academic life, and I do it all the time.
Focus: Do these three disciplines cross-pollinate each other?
Motyl: My fiction writing is very much based on things that I have experienced, known, or studied. My novel Whiskey Priest (iUniverse, Inc. 2005) had a lot to do with what I knew about the Soviet secret police, and Who Killed Andrei Warhol (Seven Locks Press, 2007) has themes related to communist ideology. In my academic work, I ave always tried to craft well-written pieces that are tightly structured and use an economy of words. And what strikes me about painting, as in any kind of written work, is that composition is king. If you have no composition, you have nothing. When I’m teaching a course at Rutgers on research methods, I sometimes have the students draw something to get at this idea of composition and structure.