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The desk that made me a writer is 6,000 miles away, in Siberia. The year was 1991, and I was a college junior on a year abroad in a country called the Soviet Union. Urgency led me to the small desk made of flimsy metal painted red. As I sat and wrote on a warm September night, I kept reaching down to scratch my bare legs. A tickly itch appeared and disappeared again and again. When I looked down to investigate, little brown cockroaches of a distinct Russian type were crawling on my legs. I was disgusted and also curious: I had never seen a tarakan before.
I was witnessing the final days of the USSR, and I felt a desire, compulsion, and sense of duty to write it all down and send it back home. I wrote my first piece of foreign correspondence and mailed it to my campus newspaper, which printed it and made me a published writer.
I have been writing ever since.
As your host here at Real and Imagined, I would like to welcome you and invite you to come in, sit down, and take a look around. Real is the non-fiction and takes you to essays. Imagined is the fiction and includes summaries and opening scenes of my novels. The two novels that I have published independently are for sale in paperback and ebook formats. And if you would like to know more about me, my bio is here.
And what about this blog? Where have you landed as you read these words, right here?
I hope these essays, these so-called “blog posts,” will span a broad spectrum: the reading life, the writing life, and life itself. I will write about the books that I am reading and recommend works of fiction, new and old, and probably some non-fiction, too. I will write about my creative process, where the ideas come from, struggles and feats with my novel-in-progress, and so on. I will also write about what I see out in the world and what it may mean, drawing on conversations with my husband and our middle-school daughters, trips near and far, observations of the human world and the natural world, and more. Like all writers, I steal everything that I can all the time, everywhere. We old-fashioned writers may not have many transferrable skills in this complex modern world, but we notice everything and rarely miss anything.
And now back to our story.
Once upon a time, a young woman went far, far away to a land called Siberia. She learned to speak like a Russian. She learned about the Russian people. And she discovered in that distant place, away from everything familiar, that she was a writer.
After college, I returned to Russia, this time to St. Petersburg, for two years. I met a Russian rock star and spent a few months hanging out with him and his band to write a profile. I sent a copy to David Remnick at The New Yorker, and he wrote back with kind words about my writing and encouraged me to keep at it. Talk about validation—and from my first-ever writer hero, no less. A few years ago, I revised a scene from that profile (read it here) and combined it with a new piece about my muse Lyle Lovett (read it here) to create an essay for a class that I took at my local high school.
I love the form of the personal essay and the challenges that it brings the writer. Reveal too much, and the essay devolves into confessional or solipsism. Ick. Reveal too little, and the essay takes on a distance and a dryness that may lose readers. Zzz. Finding the balance is difficult and fun. A well-composed essay usually includes a personal story intertwined with observations of the outside world, nuggets of truth with humble lower-case T’s, anecdotes, facts, and wide-ranging yet relevant references that must be carefully selected.
The Real part of this gallery of writing has been developing for a very long time. The Imagined part came a little later, though I have been a reader of invented stories my whole life.
After Russia, I lived in New York City for a year, an experience that American folk wisdom says everyone should have. I agree. I loved it. I was a graduate student at the journalism school at Columbia University, one whopper of a program with staggering amounts of homework. We hit the streets to report and then hit the keyboard to write, again and again and again. While I was training that year to become a newspaper reporter—with an eye on The New York Times Moscow bureau—I discovered the writer Junot Diaz just as the rest of the reading world was discovering him, too, through his debut story collection, Drown. I read a profile of Diaz in The Times, and I fell in love with the fiction writer and the journalist who wrote about the fiction writer. I wanted either job—or, ideally, both. Since I happened to be in New York and so were Diaz and the Times reporter and a bunch of big-time editors and literary agents, I interviewed the writer, the Times reporter, and some big-timers. The long piece was my master’s project, on Diaz and “the making of a literary star.”
That year, my heart and my mind divided in two: one part devoted to literature and writing fiction, and the other in love with narrative non-fiction and journalism. For several years, I worked as a newspaper reporter, and I also woke up each day at dawn to work on my first novel. Then one day, when my biological clock ticked at a deafening roar, I left my last job as a journalist to follow my new dream of writing novels while raising children. I can still hear that newsroom door slamming shut behind me. I was as scared as I was excited to pursue the risky work of writing novels without a paycheck.
For thirteen years, I did just that. Along the way, I was represented by two different literary agents. The first left her agency just as I finished months of revisions with her and my novel was finally ready to be submitted to publishers. Ouch. I got very lucky, though, and another agent offered to represent me. He was a legend, which meant that he was old, and after about a year and a half together, he fell ill and died before he sold my novel. Since then, I have not gotten lucky again, though I have continued to write and submit my work.
And that is the story of how a novelist with dreams of a traditional publishing contract becomes an independently-published author. I went rogue! I found the gumption to use the printing press that has been sitting in my writing room all these years: yes, the internet.
Thank you for visiting. I hope you will come back again. Or stick around for a while and settle in with one of my novels. If you like it, there are more where that came from.
Sometimes the friendly people in my community ask whether I am still writing. This makes me smile. Is the fish still swimming? Is the bird still flying? I am always writing, always at work on the next novel. And now I have the next blog essay to work on, too.