Writing a book is not what I thought

That is not true. Writing the story was about what I thought it would be. It was the after-work, both for me and for all the people I needed help from – and whom I keep on needing.

The book is based on a the story of two young people from different ends of the former Soviet Union who meet in Moscow and fall in love. Their love is not “approved” because they are from different ethnic groups, but when Lena goes to Kazakhstan to meet Arsen’s parents, she sees a picture of a painting on the wall at the house. Lena asks Arsen whether he knows about the picture, and he explains to her that the girl in the picture has been his muse as he grew up. Lena explains to Arsen that her mother painted the picture – of her!

The fictionalized story was easy to write, first because there were many articles about this magical, true union, and the happy life that followed. Secondly, I had signed up for a writing class that kept me on schedule and inspired the first set of revisions. But then came the rest of the story of writing. I’d attended a presentation by Anny Ewing at iFLT one year. I hadn’t listened closely enough to understand what would follow.

Ten or twelve different groups read and commented on the story, thanks to kind colleagues and my own students. Rewrites ensued. A brilliant young editor taught me more about writing, though that meant tearing the story apart several times and revising many sections several times. Because I am not a native speaker, the Russian had to be edited and edited and edited. And edited again. In the meantime, a long-time student who is a talented artist researched the clothing, the hairstyles, and the way buildings looked in 1950’s Soviet Union. He drew illustrations and planned to lay the entire book out for me to self-publish. I kept re-reading it with students and fixing it. I took out chapters and rearranged them.

Tragedy struck: my sweet, brilliant editor died of a terrible cancer. By this time, we were friends. Another wonderful colleague swooped in and fixed the remaining Russian problems, once I decided to move on. Then my illustrator broke his hand, but when I was telling yet another colleague about the trials I expected to face in self-publishing and the temporary obstacle of the broken hand, she offered to publish the story for me! That was a completely unexpected dream come true, but it did mean that I needed to bring the vocabulary structures in line with her expectations for books for language acquisition. More editing. Glossing restructured. Glossary revised and corrected.

In the meantime, I’d been trying to get permission to use a photograph of the painting of Lena for the front cover. I connected with the Tretyakov museum, where the painting Morning (Утро) hangs, but the museum doesn’t have the rights and did not seem to know who does. My first editor had planned a trip from her home in Kazakhstan to where Lena lives today. She had once attended an exhibit of Lena’s – Lena had become a well-known artist herself, as had Arsen. But that chance was gone.

My new editor and friend recently connected me with Lena and Arsen’s son Zangar, who is an artist living in Minneapolis. He also doesn’t have the rights to the painting, but put me in touch with his mother. Can you imagine how I felt when he responded to my Facebook message! My characters were walking off the pages, into my life. And now, it looks as though he is going to let me use a picture of his painting of his parents for the book cover. Friends in Minneapolis are offering to help get to the physical location to take the picture. I am besotted with love for the universe that makes these connections.


7 responses to “Writing a book is not what I thought

  1. Michele, this does sound like a magical tale with so much passion and determination with the collaboration of people that also believe in you and the story! Congratulations! Becky

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Douglass Crouse

    What an amazing story behind the story! Is there an anticipated release date yet? And what will the proficiency level be? With so few resources like this out there for Russian learners, my Russian teacher colleagues will be thrilled.


    • So glad to hear it! You’re right…there is painfully little out there, which is why I decided I’d better start writing. Spoiler: traditional Russian teachers are going to have a beef with me. It was a big decision to have English on the pages…We put all words that my own students needed a boost with to the right of the text so that no third-semester HS student needs to have a moment’s worry about meaning. I really wanted it to be accessible to beginners. My testers told me that it was good for second-semester university students. I’ve read through it with people in their second semester of non-credit classes, but they did need my support.


      • Douglass Crouse

        Sounds like a good compromise. I’ll be ready to share the news with my department mates when it hits the presses!


      • Thanks! I will come back and share…it’s being published by Kirsten Plante at the CI Bookshop in the Netherlands! She is starting with final layout in September. If you have a colleague who would like to try out the first couple chapters of my slightly wonky own copy, let me know.


  3. So many language teachers look for meaty texts that students will struggle with, believing that struggle will help students grow. Yet providing texts that our students easily sprint through builds fluency, fast processing of the target language rather than slow, labored processing. This is the turn learners need our colleagues to embrace. I wish you good luck introducing your comprehensible novel to Russian teachers everywhere!


    • Since it was Mike Peto who got me through the process…I want to point out that anyone who wants to write should take any writer’s group class that Mike offers! They’re awesome. I’m part way through my second novel because of Mike. Never thought I’d get one written.

      You are making a difference in the acquisition world, Mike!

      Liked by 1 person

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