Thursday, March 20, 2014

Traveling “In Character” to Russia


When Jo Epstein’s émigré stepfather, Nikolai, is suspected of murder and flees to Moscow, Jo jumps on a plane to follow him. For an intrepid private investigator like her, this was another high-speed chase set far from New York’s West Side Highway. For the author, it was a chance to accompany my protagonist onto foreign soil in order to see Russia through her eyes. It resulted in a whirlwind research tour, with Jo and me relying on our instincts to ferret out what mattered most.

Fresh off the train from Moscow, we were escorted through the prison yard at Vladimir Central Prison and up the stairs to a museum proudly exhibiting the works of formerly incarcerated Russian writers. The sense of Russian irony was compounded by the fact that, directly across the hall from a display of 19th century instruments of torture, we found an art therapy class in progress. Our guide proudly related how today’s guards and prisoners are encouraged to express themselves through painting. While she spoke, my imagination ran wild. What if Jo were incarcerated in a dank cell with graffiti-covered walls in an attempt to prevent her from finding Nikolai?

 

The thing about traveling alongside a fictitious character is that everything you experience is potentially part of her story. In Suzdal, we visited a monastery with an underground cell where heretics both religious and political were once tried in secret—and yes, this history-packed locale eventually served as a setting for a pivotal scene in the book.

Jo and I then toured a Matryoshka Factory, with spinning lathes and woodchips flying. Little did the skilled workmen and talented women painters know that their nesting dolls would one day hold clues to a mystery spanning two continents.

Back in Moscow, we dined at a Georgian restaurant with a Commander in the Moscow Criminal Police.  He waxed nostalgic for the vory v zacone – thieves-in-law— famed for their strict code of conduct. To my surprise, he expressed regret that the brutal yet consistent rules of the vory were not followed by the modern Russian Mafia. I consulted with the Commander about my antagonist’s background and planned course of action. That he chose to bless my storyline was definitely a high point of the trip.

 

With only 20 words of Russian between us, Jo and I were hard pressed to decipher the Cyrillic signs in the impressive Moscow subway. We worked out a deciphering system worthy of a spy novel—perhaps to be used in her next adventure.

I’ve always been a believer in recycling and repurposing and this inclination got a workout in Russia. Even the apartment we stayed in, which was once a Soviet-style, communal residence, became a setting for a scene in RUSSIAN RECKONING.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

My 'Made it' Moment

I wrote this short piece for Jenny Milchman's "Made It Moments" series (http://www.jennymilchman.com/blog/) and she published it last year -  thank you Jenny!

It's time I shared these words here:



Made. adj. Assured of success. The year was 1965, the place New York City, where a young lady of seventeen lives with her boyfriend in an apartment with an airshaft instead of a window and discovers she loves playing with words, letting them tumble on the page and jostle each other in strange juxtapositions, the weirder the better. Having emigrated to the Lower East Side from the Southeast Bronx she speaks a smattering of Puerto Rican Spanish and knows how to stare down a potential mugger in an empty subway car. Late at night, after a long day spent repairing damaged books in the New School library, she sips Chianti from a coffee mug and edits the poems she wrote on the Houston Street bus.

Six months later she comes home to her lover’s announcement that he prefers someone else, the lease is in his name, she gets the picture. “Oh there’s a letter for you,” he remembers and she snatches it out of his betraying hands on her way out the door, leaving it unopened for a week or so while she learns to breathe again and trust the air will not murder her.

The letter says we read your Bus Poems, want to publish all eleven of them in our new magazine named after a tragic nymph. How apt. She meets the editors who are delighted with her tender age. One offers to introduce her to Alan Ginsberg. When the magazine comes out it is beautifully bound, Niobe inscribed on the cover in large green letters, her poems interspersed with photographs of graffiti-spattered walls in the city she will eventually desert as abruptly as her boyfriend dumped her. She is destined to give up poetry to write mystery novels, but for the moment, she has ‘made it.’

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Trust Your Instincts

This little piece was originally published on the Venture Galleries Blog - http://venturegalleries.com/blog/when-writing-trust-your-instincts/

Beginning a book is like taking a wrong turn on the way home from the airport. You may end up in a bad neighborhood, and run out of gas before you find your way out, or you may decide this is the place for you and settle in to get your work done. In that case, everything you need is right there… a church or temple as the case may be, a bodega or bordello depending on your mood, and enough shady characters to balance the host of heroes mandated by the current vogue in publishing.

Your family will miss you, but they’re used to it. Whether you check into a flea-bitten SRO or a gilded mansion on the edge of town is entirely up to you. But do not fail to write yourself a note saying something like: My surroundings are entirely illusory and I can return to reality at any time. Post it on the fridge, just in case.
 
As for the actual writing, for me it is a process of unlearning, each and every time. Like a kitten refusing to move when attached to a leash, whatever has worked for me in the past declines to take the first step on the new journey. I’m on my own and the sooner I accept this the better. I wrote Ask the Dead in the first person, present tense, a technique that shot the story forward at bullet speed. I tried the same thing with The Last Matryoshka (aka Code of Thieves) and ended up tossing the first 30,000 words and switching to past tense. My new book, co-written with Indian journalist Arindam Roy, is set in India, the US and Canada, and is a saga told from multiple points of view.
 
The company of an independent-minded cat can also be a great help.
 
I write both literary fiction and mysteries and have found them remarkably similar in structure. Why not, since life is the ultimate mystery. As long as my protagonist has something at stake, something to believe in, something challenging her belief in herself and a compelling reason to put herself at risk, the story will move forward. When I feel blocked, I seek out the noisiest coffee house, park bench, or subway car I can find, and use the white noise to focus my mind.
 
A few consistent rules that work for me are:
  • Outline only when events begin to contradict each other and continuity is in danger.
  • Develop your characters fully and they will reward you by revealing your plot and bringing life to every moment on the page
  • When a story is not climbing toward a peak of some kind there had better be a deep ravine up ahead.
  • Never write in a vacuum. Even the most insular love story takes place somewhere. Rub the lantern fervently and often, and with the help of your imagination the world you create will reveal and challenge your characters and enchant your readers. My own genie has whisked me off to Russia and India on life-changing, so called ‘book research’ trips for which I will be ever grateful.
Above all, trust your instincts and don’t think too much.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mysterious Musings

Today I am being interviewed by the astute, inquiring mind of Julia Buckley. Please stop by - she has entitled the interview New York Streets, Russian Gulags, and Indian Poetry.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Bringing Moscow to Allahabad

I wrote this post as a guest on Timothy Hallinan's blog and thought I'd share it here too, since this experience in Allahabad was so amazing:
Co-Authors

Arindam Roy—with whom I am writing a novel-in-progress set on two continents—loves concocting surprises. So when I checked into the Hotel Yatrik on a Friday and he told me I’d be giving a talk to students at Allahabad University that Sunday, I managed a grin and a thank you for the opportunity. Then I rushed across the street—risking life and limb amidst the madly rushing rickshaws, wildly over-burdened scooters, and incessantly honking cars—to see if I could get my Mini laptop fixed in time to retrieve my slideshow on my book-research trip to Russia.

On Sunday afternoon, Professor Sanjoy Saksena came to fetch me in a taxi. I was duly grateful, knowing that if I braved the intense humidity and walked the quarter mile to the University, I’d arrive looking more bedraggled than a shipwrecked cat.


The University’s English Department is one of the oldest in India, situated in a grand Edwardian Mughal structure. The Head, Professor Dubey, greeted me warmly, with an offer of tea and many expressions of appreciation. “Your visit will be recorded as was that of Mark Twain, who visited us many years ago,” he said. I was flabbergasted and tried not to show it. Instead I told the students who joined us around the table how remarkable it was that in both Russia and India people could be counted on to treat authors with great respect, regardless of the size of their book sales or reputations. “There is a special appreciation for the act of writing itself that is imbued in both cultures,” I said. I don’t remember if I shared my opinion that this would never happen in celebrity-crazed America.

My presentation, titled The Place of Place in Mystery Writing, always opens with a discussion of how Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosley, and Elizabeth George use the settings of their stories to reveal character—so much so, that in Chandler’s case, Los Angeles became a character in its own right. I then segued into how I got the idea for writing The Last Matryoshka while visiting my mother’s downstairs neighbors, two lovely Russians who held house concerts in their apartment. It was when I reached the slide showing a group of émigré men playing chess on the Brighton Beach boardwalk that it hit me. Here I was, describing a book largely set in Moscow while showing pictures taken in Brooklyn to a group of graduate students in India!

As if to jar me out of my dream, one of the faculty members spoke up. “Do you think that mysteries are really a form of literature?” he asked. Fighting words—more like what I was used to. “Yes, as a matter of fact I do,” I replied. “Just because publishers find it convenient to classify books into genres in order to market them doesn’t mean that some are better than others. It depends on the writer.” I looked around the room and found a young woman I could tell was just dying to raise her hand. I looked directly at her and asked, “What do you think.”  There was an eerie silence…perhaps I had defied some classroom etiquette of which I was unaware. Then she smiled. “I like reading Agatha Christie and I think her books are every bit as good as Charles Dickens,” she said. A girl after my own heart. We were off and running then—even the quiet students leaned forward in their seats to listen.

Afterwards the professor who had challenged me came up to apologize. “Are you kidding?” I asked. “You made it happen.”
Before I left, they draped a beautiful, orange shawl around my shoulders, as is the tradition with honored guests. By that time the classroom was close to inferno temperature and sweltering under the hot wool scarf I did my best not to pass out. Then came the flowers.  I could get used to this.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Here's my interview with Fun Sherpa: Interrogating the Interesting, just posted today:

Stop by and join the fun...
http://blog.funsherpa.com/author/admin/

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I'm very excited about the next stop on my blog tour - Tim Hallinan's "Blog Cabin!"

Tim is an exceptional writer of mysteries and thrillers set in exotic locales. He was recently nominated for two major awards, the Edgar and the Macavity. I'm honored to be his guest.



Come on over to the Blog Cabin anytime on Wednesday and Thursday, April 18 and 19th to read about my extraordinary experience "Bringing Moscow to Allahabad."

You will also find a link there to FREE copies of THE LAST MATRYOSHKA on Amazon.