For his latest novel, Lake Success, Gary Shteyngart was about 160 pages into a first draft when he sent it to his editor. The plot centered around the hedge fund world and featured a female main character involved in a global thriller that took her and the book on a trip around the world.

Mr. Shteyngart was having fun, he said, but was also worried that it didn’t have an emotional center. When his editor sent back as many pages of questions and suggestions as he had handed in, he knew it was time to regroup. He went back to the drawing board.

In this case, the drawing board meant going back into the hedge fund world, dining with titans of finance, their wives and families, hanging out at their offices and homes to learn about this world and to find the pathos in it. Mr. Shteyngart has always been drawn to melancholy. It forms the bedrock of his humor.

Thankfully, for him, it wasn’t hard to locate the sadness.

“That was the thing I cottoned on to pretty fast,” he said. “How many of these people are super miserable. Their competitiveness is the sum total of their lives. They are looking out at these giant monuments they have built to themselves and think, oh no, it’s still not enough. And in some ways it is the human condition, but here it is the human condition to the max.”

Mr. Shteyngart said he has never been to the Vineyard and is looking forward to visiting the Island and participating in the book festival. In addition to taking part in a panel on transformative friendships in fiction, he will discuss Lake Success and the character of Barry Cohen, a financial wizard who, at the opening of the novel, is down on his luck and on the run: “Barry Cohen, a man with 2.4 billion dollars of assets under management, staggered into the Port Authority bus terminal. He was visibly drunk and bleeding. There was a clean slice above his left brow where the nanny’s fingernail had gouged him and, from his wife, a teardrop scratch below his eye. It was 3:20 a.m.”

Mr. Shteyngart immigrated from Russia to the U.S. when he was seven. His parents, he said, were so focused on a clean break with their home country that they refused to join the Russian diaspora in Brighton Beach. Instead, the family settled in Kew Gardens, Queens, in the early 1970s. They got by at first by selling leather jackets at a nearby flea market. They were poor, did not know the language, and young Gary was sent to Hebrew school, which he hated, in large part, he said, because everyone hated him.

“In Hebrew school I had no friends and was known as the Red Gerbil because I was Russian and everyone hated Russians,” he said. “I was the commie, even though we had fled communism.”

Eventually, he learned English and even dropped his Russian accent by singing Neil Diamond songs while looking in the mirror.

“He has that very elongated pronunciation of words so you could see how the language works,” he said. “We didn’t have a TV, so we only had the records.”

The author demonstrates, singing bits from Coming to America and Sweet Caroline, doing a credible Neil Diamond impression with his old accent.

“I would try to listen to the Go Go’s but I couldn’t make sense of the words,” he added. “Instead of Our lips are Sealed I kept hearing All the Hasidim.”

But learning the language didn’t immediately make him less of a pariah. It took writing to finally bridge the cultural gap of adolescent prejudice.

“I wrote a satire of the Torah called the Ganorah where Exodus became Sexodus, where Brooke Shields became Brooke Sheildovitz and I made my first American friends that way. ‘Oh, this guy is not just a gerbil,’ they started to think. ‘He’s funny and we hate all this religious stuff too.’”

“And I had a great teacher who set aside 10 minutes at the end of every literature class for Gary’s story time,” he continued, remembering a time in grade school. “It was like being born again. You’re this hated person and all of sudden you find something. Is there anything writing can’t do,” he said with a tone of amazement still evident so many years later.

After Hebrew School in Queens, Mr. Shteyngart went to Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and then Oberlin College in Ohio, where he began writing in earnest and completed the first draft of what would become his bestselling debut novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. Since then he has completed four novels and a memoir called Little Failure, the title referring to a nickname his mother created after he chose to be a writer rather than fulfilling the immigrant parents dream of becoming a doctor, lawyer or, better yet, a titan of finance.

Which brings us back to Lake Success, which HBO has optioned for a television series with Jake Gyllenhall to star. Mr. Shteyngart said the idea and subject matter emerged based on what was happening out his front door, in the city he has lived ever since coming to America.

“A lot of my stuff is set in Manhattan and the boroughs,” he said. “And I looked around, I don’t know in about 2014, and I was trying to think about what the next novel would be and I realized all my friends were gone. No one could afford it anymore. I thought who’s left and I realized it was people working for hedge funds or private equity or banks. And there is a sad part of that obviously, but I’ve made it sort of my mission to chronicle the city in a big way and I thought, well, I gotta work with what I got.”

And so he went to work, researching this world, even shadowing one man for over six months which formed the basis for an article in the New Yorker. But because he wasn’t interested in just a story about extravagance, his research also included a journey far from the empires of New York city, traveling the country by Greyhound bus — the path Barry Cohen takes as he tries to escape into anonymity — talking to people, crafting possible characters and settings.

“I had a strategy,” he said. “I would get there early, scramble on the bus first to make sure I’d find an outlet that would work, stash my things, and inevitably someone’s outlet wouldn’t work and I’d say, ‘Oh, I have one that works.’ Then it would be, ‘So, where are you going? Headed to Dallas? Me too.’”

“Four months I spent on the Hound,” he added. “And I have to say, weirdly enough that was more optimistic in some ways than hanging out in hedge world.”

But there was a darkness too. This was in the summer of 2016, when the reality of a Trump presidency was not yet visible in the coastal cities but beginning to percolate as a possibility in small towns and cities across America.

“This white supremacist preacher gets on the bus yelling about crucifying Muslims and Jews of which I am one of them,” he said. “And I’m watching and surreptitiously taking notes, and he’s yelling racist stuff, and on the bus it’s mostly people of color and a Jew like myself, and we are in the majority but not challenging him, just pretending we are asleep. I thought that was a perfect metaphor for the summer of 2016. That was the first preview of what was happening in the country, seeing the shift for people who maybe always harbored these thoughts but this was the first time they felt emboldened to let that out of their mouth.”

Mr. Shteyngart is quick to point out that Lake Success is not a Trump novel, although the white supremacist preacher does get a scene in the book. Rather, he said, it is a book about a family, a man and a woman, and a relationship that is falling apart.

“That’s at eye level, and the greater canvas is the finance industry and the time period, 2016.”

One could also say it is an immigrant’s story, or rather an immigrant’s lament for his adopted country.

“I grew up thinking that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had a chance to become like America or Western Europe but the very opposite is occurring,” he said. “America is becoming more like Russia, with its oligarchy and this president and his disdain for free speech, free press, the rule of law, it just goes on.”

Gary Shteyngart will discuss Lake Success at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival, which will be held at the Chilmark Community Center on August 3 and 4.