For a writer to portray people steeped in a different culture-right down to the odors that permeate their kitchens and the stories they tell their children –is a delicate process. Every word seems fraught with the danger of misrepresentation, yet the process is as exhilarating as climbing a mountain lit by a sliver of moonlight.
As an author/researcher, I journeyed to Russia and then to India. I also traveled to Peru to work with teenage photographers. In all cases, I brought with me many ideas that were quickly discarded as soon as the airplane hit the ground.
I was not born to be an intrepid traveler. Not like my Canadian friend, Gloria, who backpacked all over Europe and the west coast of India by herself. I preferred hanging out in my studio, with the Seattle rain pattering on the roof as I dreamed up stories. But this all changed in 2005, when I reached the middle of writing Russian Reckoning, and started on the scenes that were set in Russia. Although I had read copiously about the criminal culture of the underground vory, devoured books on Russian culture, and watched dozens of movies, I knew in my heart I could not write the second half of the book without first setting foot on Russian soil.
So, I flew to Moscow, armed with a vocabulary of 20 Russian words. My first challenge was learning how to navigate the Underground Metro. Painstakingly, I would look up each of the Cyrillic letters in the station name and sound them out aloud until I could pronounce my destination. For the first time in my life as a writer I knew what it felt like to be illiterate.
Fortunately for me, the character from Russian Reckoning –whose identity I assumed and through whose eyes I gazed at Red Square and explored the monasteries of Suzdal—was a New York private investigator from New York, named Jo Epstein. She didn’t know a word of Russian either.
As long as I pretended to be Jo Epstein, I was off the hook. I wasn’t required to be an expert on all things Russian. Quite the contrary. My naiveté would work to my advantage. Like Jo, I would eventually learn why those rude policemen were stopping our car for a ‘document check’ every mile and how many rubles to give the driver to hand out the window to keep them quiet. Like Jo, I figured out that if I walked the streets carrying a plastic shopping bag instead of a backpack, I would not be identified as a tourist. In fact, I blended in so well that a few people stopped me to ask for directions in Russian. “Ya Amerikanka,” I said and they laughed merrily at mistaking me for a native. A great way to break the ice.
The most lasting thing I learned about Russians was simple. They love literature. And they love to meet and talk with writers, to stay up all night talking about ideas and being philosophical about their troubles. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t famous. It didn’t matter that they might never read a word I wrote, since many of them did not speak English. What mattered was that I was so committed to storytelling that I had traveled to their country to try to get it right.