Climbing by Moonlight



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.

About the author
Joyce Yarrow is the author of the Jo Epstein Mystery Series: Ask the Dead and The Last Matryoshka ( Russian Reckoning). On her way to becoming a full-time author, Joyce has worked as a screenwriter, singer-songwriter, multimedia performance artist and most recently, a member of the world music vocal ensemble, Abráce.She is a Pushcart nominee, whose stories and poems have been widely published. Her first book, Ask the Dead (Martin Brown 2005) was selected by The Poisoned Pen as a Recommended First Novel and hailed as “Bronx noir”. Originally from Southeast Bronx, escaped to Manhattan as a teenager and now lives in Seattle with her husband and son.Joyce has co-authored a romantic thriller with Indian writer Arindam Roy, set in India and North America. The book is slated for a November launch.
  1. Thanks Morsels & Juices or hosting me! I’ll be happy to respond to comments and answer questions from readers.
    All the best,

  2. your opening lines…I have always wondered how authors do it.
    And then Russia, for me the grand stage of War and Peace and the soul of Dr.Zhivago, the restlessness of Anna Karenina and the courage of the Mother…the country, its culture and literature has always held me in awe.I must thank you for taking me on a trip down its streets.

    • Joyce Yarrow - Reply

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Uma. I’m so glad you enjoyed my post. You obviously have a real love for Russian culture. Perhaps you would like to add the surrealism of Mikhail Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita” to your list.

  3. Beautifully written.
    Your story inspires me to start writing something on Japan where I spent five long years. It was definitely a different world.Years passed by , memories faded. But whatever is left should be written down.

    • Joyce Yarrow - Reply

      Dayeeta – I’m sure the faded memories from Japan will surface as clearly as ever when you begin writing. Best of luck with this project. I’m so glad that something in my article sparked your determination.

  4. Thanks Joyce, your beautifully etched post has inspired me to read Russian literature once again. In fact I grew up reading lots of it but I’m sure one enjoys reading again, a little more; it’s like travelling back to one of your favourite haunts in the past….so much nostalgia. Just today I was thinking of writing a travelogue of sorts…you’ve helped me decide to do it. I also loved the idea of you stepping into Jo’s shoes and learning as you walked along together. Deep regards

    • Dear Late Bloomer – I am truly touched that my post has motivated you to return to reading Russian literature and to write your travelogue. I owe so much to writer friends who have supported and encouraged me and it means a lot to be able to pass on even a smidgeon of that energy to you. All the best in your endeavors.
      Warm regards,

  5. This is such an inspiring and beautifully written account Joyce! I remember reading it when it was published, and now reread it and once again am in love with the wonderful world of discovery and deep insights that you have shared with us. Amazingly beautiful.

    Much love,

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