Tuesday, October 26, 2010

“YA AMERIKANKA” – An American Writer in Russia

Writers are always looking for settings they can use to create atmosphere, deepen character, build suspense and heighten realism. Today Joyce Yarrow will take us on a tour of some of the locations in Russia where she set scenes from her latest book, The Last Matryoshka.

I was staring at a collection of books and journals on exhibit at Vladimir Central Prison Museum. Each book represented a human being – a writer – a poet – an essayist - who had occupied one of the cells just a few yards away from where I stood, shivering all night long on a thin wooden plank mere inches from the concrete floor.

I had come to Vladimir Central (still a working prison today) to research the criminal sub-culture of the Russian vory—but I had not known that Alexander Solzenitzen was imprisoned here –or that Stalin’s own son had occupied a cell.

Spending time in Vladimir Central Prison made me realize how the protagonist of The Last Matryoshka would at first take her freedom for granted, how she would come to Russia with that “I’m an American and they can’t touch me attitude.” And how she would be cruelly disillusioned and then tested to her limits. She would suffer—but not as much as these writers, many of whom were tortured in with the implements now on display in the prison museum.

Prisoners were forced to wear this around their necks

My motto as a writer has always been, “write about what you don’t know.” It means letting go of my preconceptions about other places and cultures; it means stepping outside of my comfort zone—not only on the page, but in real life.

Weapons confiscated from prisoners – I love the hollow book!

Almost every destination I visited in Russia ended up playing a role in the storyline of my book, as did many of the people. I was impressed by how Russians love writers—how they treated me like a celebrity, although I’m sure they could tell from my low-budget itinerary that I was not getting rich from my craft –not yet, anyway. I wanted the Russian characters in my book to be multidimensional, and I doubt this would have been possible without my visit to their country. I was told to carry a plastic bag instead of a backpack when I went out walking so that I’d be mistaken for a native. It worked like a charm – several people even stopped to ask me directions in Russian! “Ya, Amerikanca,” I would say, and they’d laugh at how I’d tricked them.

The Moscow Subway provided lots of opportunities for my protagonist—private investigator and performance poet Jo Epstein—to reminiscence about her days writing poems while commuting underground on the D train in New York. It’s hard to imagine graffiti desecrating these hallowed halls!

The room where I wrote in my journal every night had once housed an entire family – one of three that shared a communal apartment in the Soviet days. Looking at the photo of this window now, I miss that feeling of gazing out over a strange city and wondering what tomorrow would bring. Mmm…maybe I’ll set my next book in Cuba. I hear there are plenty of flights out of Vancouver—I wonder if I’ve saved up enough miles?

Joyce Yarrow's mystery series features Jo Epstein, New York performance poet and private investigator. The first book in the Jo Epstein series, Ask the Dead, is now available for the Kindle and the Nook. You can visit Joyce's website to learn more.


Joyce Yarrow said...

Hi Terry - thanks so much for inviting me as a guest blogger! I've let my friends know and hopefully some of them will stop by. If anyone has questions, I'll be available to chat.
All the best,

Terry Odell said...

Joyce, so glad you're here. A fascinating blog post. Thanks for sharing.

Unknown said...

Interesting! Writers make strange tourists, visiting prisons and forgoing our telltale backpacks for plastic bags. You used your research well in The Last Matryoshka. It's a great read!

Joyce Yarrow said...

Thanks Jane - I'm grateful those prison gates opened both ways!

Sandrine O'Shea said...

Fascinating. Your use of detail makes me want to run right out, buy your book, and read it. Best of luck with it.

Joyce Yarrow said...

Thank you, Sandrine! The Last Matryoshka will be available from B & N and Amazon starting Nov. 17th. I appreciate your enthusiasm and will visit your blog to say hello.

Patricia Stoltey said...

This must have been a fascinating research trip, Joyce. Makes me want to read The Last Matryoshka (which is on my TBR list) even more. Thanks for hosting Joyce here, Terry.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you got some great ideas from your trip, Joyce! Best of luck on The Last Matryoskha! I love the title, btw...the image of opening one layer after another until you come to the final, smallest doll is very powerful.

Joyce Yarrow said...

Hi Patricia and Ann - Thanks so much for your comments.

The more I learned about Matryoshka dolls on my trip, the more fascinated I became!
Gone are the boring, peasant archetypes that the Soviets mass-produced. There are political Matryoshki – for example a Bill Clinton doll that contains both Hillary and Monica; high-art Matryoshki decorated with hand-painted copies of famous Russian paintings; comic-book Matryoshki – it’s endless. So not only did the nested dolls offer a great opportunity to structure a complex mystery – they also became a way of introducing the reader to the New Russia.