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Interview: Dmitry Samarov Steps Away From The Taxi

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 12, 2014 4:30PM

Dmitry Samarov (Photo credit: Chuck Sudo/Chicagoist)

"My job is to listen, so I can do this anywhere," Dmitry Samarov says to me earlier this week at Maria's Packaged Goods and Community Bar. The artist and author met with me to discuss Where To?: A Hack Memoir.

Where To? picks up where Samarov's 2011 book Hack left off, with Samarov recounting tales and observations from behind the wheel of his taxi. Where the first book took a day-by-day approach of Samarov's time as a cabbie, Where To? is more of an overview of his career as a taxi driver, from his beginnings driving a cab Boston in his 20s, to June 23, 2012—his final day behind the wheel.

"It was actually easier to come up with an angle for this book because I quit driving; I had an actual ending," Samarov said. "So I had a beginning and an end to this story."

In this interview, Samarov compares and contrasts his experiences writing the two books, what he's currently doing, developing a TV series with John McNaughton and how he seeks inspiration and stories now that he no longer drives a cab.

Chicagoist: How do you feel now that the book is out?

"One of the great joys of driving at night is you deal with drunks who you can outsmart real easily. You can steer them in the direction you want to get them to."
Dmitry Samarov:
It's been a long time coming. I was hoping to release this book a year ago, so there's some relief. I have to re-familiarize myself with what this book is about.

C: How was the writing and publishing process different the second time around?

DS: Well, with the first book I was approached (by University of Chicago Press) to write the book. I didn't have to find anybody to publish it. But I also didn't know much about writing a book. When it came time to write this book, I had a better idea of what I needed to do in order to put it together.

C: So the concept of setting this book up in themes and a timeline came as a result of what you learned before?

DS: There's a bunch of different stuff. The first book was set up in days of the week in a sort of "slice of life" kind of thing. The second book is more of a summing up of the whole experience of being a cab driver. It's a wider angle.

C: And you still approached this with your your artwork first, and writing second, correct?

DS: For the most part. There were a couple exceptions but my primary artistic outlet is painting and drawing. That's always going to be my primary way of expressing anything.

C: So you don't do any writer-style things like keep a journal?

DS: As with the first book, the primary material came from my blog entries from the time when I was still driving; I definitely came to look at those as first drafts. Then there's Twitter; I use Twitter to take notes all the time. I started using Twitter because I wanted to share things that were happening with people. If there was anything from there that was stuck in my head, I would try to work on it.

"It was actually easier to come up with an angle for this book because I quit driving; I had an actual ending. So I had a beginning and an end to this story."
C: Because you didn't have a publisher lined up for the second book when you started writing it, how was editing it different?

DS: I still relied on folks like Bill Savage, who helped edit the first book, as well as this one. Martha Bayne also helped edit this one. I traded artwork for their services. Shay DeGrandis (Samarov's girlfriend and producer of the "Mortified Chicago" storytelling series) helped edit it. So by the time it got to Curbside Splendor, the book was done. And then (Curbside Splendor editor) Naomi Huffman looked over it. But if you asked her, I think she would tell you her job wasn't too hard. The book was in pretty good shape, by then.

C: What added elements did Curbside bring to the process, then?

DS: Mostly cosmetic stuff. Naomi was happy with how the book was. And Curbside Splendor is a completely different type of publisher than University of Chicago Press. U of C is an academic label, while Curbside Splendor is a relatively new label that's growing fast. They're sort of learning as they go. And I had a lot of access and control throughout this process.

C: How has your artwork improved and developed between books?

DS: Improved? (laughs) It would be hard to say. As with the first book, there was a combination of art that was done on the spot, like the sketches I drew in the cab. And there were the sketches I did from memory for the stories, because there was no other way to do it. It's a mix of observed scenes and caricature. The artwork is the most consistent thing between the two books.

C: Do you have a favorite piece of art in the book?

DS: Nope. My thing is once I finish the artwork, I try not to think about them anymore. It's out there.

: Since you've stopped driving a cab, you did a Kickstarter project to help you raise funds so you could write the book. You also worked at Hardboiled Coffee Company in Beverly for a spell. What other jobs or gigs have you been doing since you stopped driving a cab?

DS: The coffee shop gig was the only formal job I held. I've mostly been doing freelance art, freelance writing, art commissions—relying on the kindness of strangers to get by without a day job. We'll see how long I can do that.

C: Do you find fans of your writing and artwork come up to you and identify you as the "Hack?"

DS: Well, it's the thing that people know me best for. You gotta be grateful for whatever attention you can get. And I continue to do things based on my experiences as a cab driver, like the TV show in the works with John McNaughton. Hopefully, if that works out, it will be a lot of work for me for a few years to come.

C: How did you wind up becoming involved with John McNaughton?

DS: I drove Tony Fitzpatrick around for a couple years, and they go way back, so I started running into (McNaughton) through Tony. He finally got around to reading my writing and he optioned the first book. He ended up writing almost a whole season's worth of a scripted show, which are now making the rounds.

C: And these teaser clips are a part of that?

DS: These teaser clips are another attempt to generate interest.

C: What has it been like working with McNaughton to this point?

DS: It's been interesting. We've been working on this, on and off, for three years now. It's really interesting to see how a screenplay is made. It has nothing to do with my creative process at all. He has to create all these characters for this TV show. It's basically a fictionalized account of my life.

C: So making these teaser clips is a new thing for McNaughton?

DS: Oh, sure. It's an interesting time to be a filmmaker or writer. He comes from a more traditional background, with publicists and marketers to handle garnering interest in projects, so this is new for him. We're just trying to get this in front of as many eyes as we can to drum up interest.

C: Are there any moments these days where you're out and about and you miss...

DS: Driving a cab? Never. (laughs) It makes me laugh. I watch them and can see what they're doing. I can tell when they're gonna cut somebody off and what they're going to do. Sometimes I fuck with them. Or I'll do a cabbie move and they don't fucking expect it because I know what they're going to do.

C: What has the response to the books been from any of the cab drivers or companies you've driven for?

DS: There's been none. It's a very strange world, very insular. It's interesting now, with the arrival of ride-share companies, because for years the cab companies have been left in the dark to collect money in their own ways. But no driver works for these companies; they're middlemen that collect fees from cab companies and lease drivers.

C: Even though you no longer drive a cab, do you advocate for any issues cabbies face, like competition from ride-sharing services or higher fees?

DS: It's hard to say. I wrote about ride-sharing for New City that there's no putting the genie back in the bottle. Some version of ride share will be the norm and these cab companies better figure that out.

C: How is the book tour shaping up?

DS: Pretty well, which is another difference between Curbside Splendor and U of C press. Curbside has kind of like an indie rock label about it, where what they can do is use their connections to setup readings and events across the country. University of Chicago Press wasn't concerned with that. I didn't do a tour behind the first book, outside of events around town.

C: Outside of Curbside using their connections to set up readings, are you bankrolling this tour yourself?

DS: Yeah. Like an indie rock label, Curbside has a lot of goodwill and enthusiasm, but not a lot of cash.

C: Where is the tour taking you?

DS: I'm going to New York, Boston, Minneapolis and the West Coast. I'm heading to Portland, as a good childhood friend of mine recently moved there and I've never been.

C: And Boston is your hometown. Is there some sort of homecoming planned for there?

DS: We'll see. I think a lot of my parents' friends will be there, so there will be a nice Russian Jewish contingent. I'll have to figure out what to read from the book to please them. The Boston event is at this big discount store where my dad used to shop for books—he's a huge reader.

C: Do you feel that had a huge influence on you growing up?

DS: It must have.

C: Do you have any advice for others who are in the position you used to be, trying to balance art and survival?

DS: The great thing about all these service industry jobs is it's a great place to observe people. That's what all my art and my writing is made of. I'm not making any of this shit up; I don't have to. All I have to do is find a place to watch and listen. The driver's seat of a cab is a good one. Being a bartender is another one. One of the great joys of driving at night is you deal with drunks who you can outsmart real easily. You can steer them in the direction you want to get them to.

C: Now that you're no longer driving a cab, how are you finding time to get out and observe people?

DS: Right now, one of my problems is I live in Beverly, which is in the hinterlands. It's not near anything so I spend a lot more time at home than I used to. I am riding the Ashland bus up and down. I can get on it at 95th Street and go all the way north, drawing people, listening to people. I did a bit of (observing) working at the coffee shop, but it's slightly different because you become a person to the customers in a way a cab driver isn't; you don't have the back of your head to them.

Curbside Splendor Publishing hosts a a release party for Dmitry Samarov's book, Where To?: A Hack Memoir, 6 p.m., Sept. 14 at Rainbo Club (1150 N. Damen Ave.). Shay DeGrandis, Bill Hillmann, Martha Bayne, Naomi Huffman, Erika Wurth and Irvine Welsh will be reading from the book.