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Stephan Eirik Clark explores cultural anxiety, here and in Russia

His novel in progress, “Sweetness #9,” is “about anxiety and what you do about your fears of the unknown.”

Stephan Eirik Clark began writing his first novel, “Sweetness #9,” more than a decade ago.
Stephen Geffre/Augsburg College

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“It was terrifying; I felt like I was writing under a ticking clock. I thought the book would be done too late to make sense or matter. Things that were prescient when I first wrote them became past tense and I had to take them out,” said Stephan Eirik Clark, who is finishing edits on his first novel, “Sweetness #9.” He began writing the book more than a decade ago, inspired by the wave of anxiety he saw permeating American society after 9/11 and Y2K. “They say the culture moves too fast and you either have to lead the way with your writing, or make it timeless.”

The novel, which is scheduled to come out on Little, Brown in spring of 2014, is about a young chemist who notices side effects in rats and monkeys fed his lab’s chemical sweetener. The animals exhibit obesity, anxiety, depression and a generalized dissatisfaction about life. Twenty years later, he sees the same symptoms in his wife and children, and society around him.

“He’s a whistleblower who swallows his whistle, then later has regrets,” says Clark. “The book is about anxiety and what you do about your fears of the unknown. Are these symptoms because people are eating this sweetener, or are they just part of the American condition?”

‘A foodie novel’

Clark, who teaches creative writing and screenwriting at Augsburg College, began writing the novel after Y2K hysteria swept the country (and was quickly forgotten). The national mood after  9-11 also became part of his story. And during this time, he noticed that he always felt a little lousy, and realized his diet was heavy on processed foods.

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“I took it away and started feeling better, which got me really thinking deeply about food,” he says. As a result, he says “Sweetness #9” is a “foodie novel.”

“When I started it, our awareness about organic food, genetically modified ingredients, chemicals in food, farmer’s markets, all those things, were very much at the beginning. It’s amazing to me the amount of growth we’ve had in the past 12-15 years on these topics. As I got deeper into the work, I could see a lot of other people were thinking about these issues too. And I had to constantly revise to keep up with society.”

Short stories on the side

Meanwhile, he was also keeping an eye on society’s ever-shrinking attention span, which meant that Clark not only had to write faster, but shorter. So he wrote short stories on the side. His collection, “Vladimir’s Mustache” (Russian Life) explores another society’s troubled psyche. These classically crafted stories, which were nominated for a Minnesota Book Award in 2012, center on Russian characters. They also share a careful love of words, along with a wry, fatalistic humor and melancholy, with the classics of Russian literature. Clark writes very much like a Russian, although he isn’t one.

“I’m a bit of a Zelig. I moved around so much as a kid and heard so many voices that it’s made it easy to adapt to other cultures. I don’t really have a hometown to go back to, so my hometown is a period of time — I go back to the ’80s. That means going back to the end of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union is at the center of that time period. Reflecting back on it, I found my life intersecting with Russia in a number of different ways,” said Clark, who was born in West Germany, and spent much of his childhood in England before moving to the U.S. He’s married to a Russian woman and lived in Russia and the Ukraine as an adult. His mother is Norwegian, so when he was offered a job in Minnesota, it seemed like a good fit.

He immersed himself in Russian history, and his stories pair events and figures from the country’s turbulent political past with characters shaped by life under strange circumstances — or bad weather.

“I really think the harsh weather in that part of the world explains why a lot of Russians are the way they are there. And I’m surprised more people in Minnesota aren’t like Russians, because when I was living in the Ukraine and it was winter, everyone walked around just scowling and looking down, and I did too, because you have to watch where you are walking. With all the ice, you have to watch your feet so you don’t slip. You aren’t looking up into people’s faces, like you are in California — you are worried about your own safety. This is why Russian literature is the way it is. It’s like walking on an icy street.”