This Wood, So Harsh, Dismal, and Wild

My third Russian historical, Journey Through a Dark Forest: Lyuba and Ivan in the Age of Anxiety, released 11 December. Due to its massive, sprawling length, I decided to release it as one book in four volumes.

This was one of those serendipitous cases where a story still reads smoothly when split into different volumes, instead of like a story intended as one very long book was artificially splintered. I’m planning a post about when such a course of action works, and why.

Part III is set from 3 June 1940–8 May 1945, opening with the bombing of Paris and ending in New York on V-E Day. Darya and Oliivia’s ordeal was, shamefully, not such a rare occurrence. A sizable number of people with American and British citizenship ended up in the camps, a subject which is still swept under the rug by TPTB. The survivors haven’t gotten much, if any, reparations or compensation either.

While the whole world is in the throes of one of the most concentrated periods of Sturm und Drang in recent memory, the Konevs and their friends far and wide struggle to survive and make their way back to some semblance of a peaceful, ordinary world.

Darya and Oliivia’s year of studying abroad at a Parisian lycée is indefinitely extended when the Nazis invade and occupy France. Fedya and Osyenka are chomping at the bit for America to join the war so they can get into uniform to save them. When the war finally comes to America, Fedya, Vasya, Osyenka, and Leontiy enlist as soon as possible, and in Canada, Yuriy becomes an Army medic. But winning the war isn’t going to be a quick or easy proposition, and there’s no guarantee they’ll find Darya and Oliivia, particularly after word reaches their families that they were taken away by the Nazis in November 1942.

While many other young men have joined the Army and Navy, Patya and Rodya have joined the Marines, and fight in the Pacific instead of Europe. Patya is a natural Marine, whereas Rodya is more scared in battle, and depends upon Patya to protect him. Rodya is desperate to prove himself as a brave, manly Marine who doesn’t need his best friend to watch his back all the time, and that moment finally, unexpectedly comes during the Battle of Saipan. But Rodya still isn’t satisfied with his Purple Heart and having protected Patya, and sneaks back into combat for the Battle of Tinian. Patya meanwhile is faced with the lifelong reality of the million-dollar wound which earned him his own Purple Heart.

As the young men in the Army and Marines struggle to stay alive in each battle, Darya, Oliivia, and their new friends struggle to survive as Nazi slaves. A seeming miracle happens when they’re transported to a Polish family’s farm taken over by the SS and chosen as indoor laborers, but all good things must come to an end, and they’re evacuated deep into Germany before being sent on a three-week death march to Mauthausen. Only the hope of being rescued and seeing her family again, and her determination to protect Oliivia, keeps Darya alive. Even if the war ends in victory for the Allies, Darya and Oliivia will still have to contend with the war inside their minds, and a world they no longer remember how to live in.

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The Right Path Appears Not Anywhere

Yesterday I celebrated the release of Journey Through a Dark Forest: Lyuba and Ivan in the Age of Anxiety, my third Russian historical. Since I was only able to bring the length down to 861K (from 891K), I made the decision to release it in four volumes.

Not only were many classic saga-length novels released in multiple volumes, but it miraculously, perfectly worked out so each of the four Parts reads much like its own self-contained story, with a focus on different characters and storylines. There’s no sense of ending in media res.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to visit Iran for firsthand research for the final version. The Iranian chapters and sections of Dark Forest will have to remain based on secondhand research, and my happy memories of my family’s Iranian friends when I was growing up.

I still plan to visit Iran someday, and I’m still completely unafraid. It’s a beautiful country, and the vast majority of her people are nothing like the media stereotypes them. They want peace and democracy, not a totalitarian theocracy. Many people don’t realise Iran was an extremely modern, Westernised country till 1979.

Part II is set from 15 January 1937–1 September 1939.

While the whole world is in the throes of one of the most concentrated periods of Sturm und Drang in recent memory, the Konevs and their friends far and wide struggle to survive and make their way back to some semblance of a peaceful, ordinary world.

The Konevs’ close-knit family bond is torn asunder when Tatyana finally discovers the truth about her paternity on the eve of her eighteenth birthday. She believes Boris’s self-serving, selectively-reported version of events, and wants nothing further to do with Ivan. As soon as she graduates high school and becomes a Barnard student, she moves in with Boris, who now lives in Harlem and operates a jewelry store. In order to keep an eye on the situation and make sure Tatyana is safe, Nikolay moves into the third bedroom. But the truth about Boris eventually starts catching up with Tatyana, and Boris’s latest schemes threaten to lead to his umpteenth undoing.

Meanwhile, in the USSR, the Savvins, the Zyuganovs, the Godunov cousins, and several now-adult former orphanage girls are betrayed by the Revolution and sucked into the terrifying whirlwind of the Great Terror. Leonid and Georgiya are arrested for violating the infamous Article 58 in various ways, while Inessa is left a young widow with going on three children and fights against the clock to get her family out of harm’s way and to their old friends the Lebedevas in America.

In addition to her own children, Inessa has also been given her old friend Inna’s baby nephew Damir for wetnursing and safekeeping while his father arranges for Inna, the elderly Mrs. Brezhneva, and some of the orphanage children and employees to get out of Kyiv. Inna’s group ends up in Isfahan, Iran, the same place her old friends Alina, Ohanna, and Izabella have fled to with their remaining families. Iran represents an entirely new world, unlike anything they’re used to, but it’s a welcoming haven for the dispossessed. The life Inna and her friends create for themselves in Iran isn’t always an easy life, but it’s a much better life than the one they fled from.

And back in America, Tatyana, Nikolay, and their new friends are enjoying being young, carefree, and in love, even as storm clouds gather on the horizon and threaten to tear apart the world of tomorrow they’re so excited to step into. But whatever lies ahead in the uncharted world of tomorrow, and however many shocks, struggles, and adjustments it may entail, change has always been a part of life. To be born or create something new, one must first destroy the pre-existing world, for better or worse.

Happy release day to Journey Through a Dark Forest, and happy 100th birthday to Aleksandr Isayevich!

                          

                          

With gratitude to Hashem, I announce the long-overdue release of my third Russian historical, Journey Through a Dark Forest: Lyuba and Ivan in the Age of Anxiety. I planned and plotted it in 2001, wrote the first draft from 5 November 2012–13 March 2015, and edited, revised, and polished it from September 2015–September 2018.

Because this book ended up sprawling so much, with a lot more important characters and storylines than I’d originally envisioned, the first draft ended up 891K. My conservative initial guesstimate going in was only 500K, but the further I got into it, the more it sprawled and demanded to be the longest book I’ve written to date. I got the second draft down to 877K, and the final draft to 861K.

I thought so long and hard about how to handle its length. Chopping out over a thousand pages was always completely out of the question, since it was deliberately planned and written as a saga, with an ensemble cast, with multiple storylines, spanning fifteen and a half years. It wouldn’t be nearly the same story anymore if I removed, e.g., the Soviet characters who escape to Iran and the U.S., Inessa and Vitya’s second chance love story, or Patya and Rodya’s service in the Marines.

I considered putting it out as the one massive volume; two volumes; two volumes plus a master version; four volumes; and four volumes plus a master version. Ultimately, I decided to release it as one book in four volumes. Many great novels of yore were originally released in multiple volumes. I don’t consider Dark Forest to suddenly have become four books. It’s still one supersized book that just happens to need four volumes.

Though I needed to make four different covers, and will need to pay for four ISBNs when it comes time for print (through a legit third-party dealer, NOT price-gouging monopoly Bowker), the length is now much more manageable and realistic. Part I is 146K; Part II is 267K; Part III is 215K; and Part IV plus the Epilogue are 233K.

I had two last-minute changes I’m glad I caught in time. One involved moving the text on the first cover, so it’d match the other three in showcasing the dark forest. The other was discovering St. Paul’s Regions Hospital was called Ancker in 1948.

Today I’m featuring the synopsis of Part I. The other three will follow on succeeding days this week. Part I spans 6 January 1933–23 January 1935.

While the whole world is in the throes of one of the most concentrated periods of Sturm und Drang in recent memory, the Konevs and their friends far and wide struggle to survive and make their way back to some semblance of a peaceful, ordinary world.

Lyuba and Ivan are snowed in at their barn on Russian Christmas Eve and have a passionate encounter which creates a surprise seventh baby. Lyuba is ecstatic to be pregnant again, in spite of her history of difficult pregnancies and deliveries, but her sense of serenity and joy is soon destroyed when she suffers a near-miscarriage. She’s forced into complete bed rest and using a wheelchair in order to carry her riskiest pregnancy yet to term.

Meanwhile, Nadezhda is finally released from Siberia after her 12-year sentence runs out, and makes her way to America with Vsevolod Smirnov, the older son of the family who rescued Lyolya all those years ago. America is a dream come true for both of them, but after they come to New York from San Francisco, they’re each confronted by romantic quandaries. Nadezhda’s emotional reunion with Pavel ends in heartbreak when she sees the phony wedding ring he bought, and Vsevolod falls in love with Nadezhda’s spinster cousin Vera. Each couple needs some time to navigate the path from friends to lovers, all while hoping for a happy ever after.

And in the middle of it all, Lyuba and Ivan’s firstborn Tatyana has begun growing up and becoming a young woman. Their sweet little girl Tanyechka is now a modern American teenager who goes by Tanya. Though her increasingly apparent young womanhood disconcerts her parents, they know she can’t stay their innocent little girl forever. Everything must come to an end eventually. And sometimes, one ending starts another beginning.

I chose 11 December as my release date not only because it’s Lyuba’s birthday, but because today would’ve been the 100th birthday of my favourite writer, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn. So much of who I am as a writer, esp. in regards to how I write my Russian historicals, I owe to him. He’s always been so much more than just a favourite writer, but one of my heroes.

One of the greatest regrets of my life is never writing him a letter in all the years our lifetimes overlapped, to tell him how very, very, very much he means to me. I forever stand in awe of his courage, faith, elephantine memory, willingness to lay down his life for the sake of getting his writing out to the world.

Dedicating my first Russian historical to his memory was the least I could do in gratitude.

May your beautiful memory be an eternal blessing, Aleksandr Isayevich, and may your incredible soul rest in peace. Happy 100th birthday, wherever your soul may reside now.

WeWriWa—Unwrapping presents together

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This year, my Chanukah- and Christmas-themed snippets come from Chapter 20, “Dueling December Holidays,” of the book formerly known as The Very First (which is set during 1938). The new and improved title will finally be revealed upon its release next year!

This week’s snippet comes a few pages after last week’s, as the Smalls (originally the Brandts) and their sponsors/hosts the Filliards sat down for a dinner jointly celebrating the eighth night of Chanukah and Christmas Eve, which fell on the same night in 1938. Now they’re going to unwrap some of their presents together.

Artwork by Yelena Flerova

After the table had been cleared, everyone went into the living room to unwrap presents. The Filliards had wrapped the Smalls’ gifts in innocuous, secular paper, without any Christmas symbols, not even snowflakes. Both the paper and ribbons were solid green, red, and blue. The gift tags likewise were devoid of any hint of Christmas, and could’ve easily been affixed to gifts for any occasion.

Cinni watched expectantly as the Smalls opened her gifts. She’d gotten a small, no-frills compact mirror for Mrs. Small; a tin of shoe polish for Mr. Small; a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle for Gary; a book of Heinrich Heine poetry in German for Barry; and pearl hairpins in the shape of hearts for Sparky. Barry’s earlier Chanukah present had been a dark blue and white plaid beret, so he’d have a more stylish, modern way to cover his head. Though Cinni had itched to put a more personal inscription in the book, she didn’t want Barry to suspect her true feelings. Instead she’d settled for “Dec. 24, 1938, to Barry from Cinnimin. Happy Chanukah.”

WeWriWa—A joint holiday celebration

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This year, my Chanukah- and Christmas-themed snippets come from Chapter 20, “Dueling December Holidays,” of the book formerly known as The Very First (which is set during 1938). The new and improved title will finally be revealed upon its release next year!

There have been a lot of religious conflicts during December 1938, as young immigrant Sparky (real name Katherine) and her family are inundated with symbolism of a holiday they don’t celebrate, and a variety of responses to their refusal to adopt Christmas as a secular holiday “everyone” celebrates. However, Sparky’s family has agreed to come together with their hosts the Filliards for a joint celebration of the eighth night of Chanukah and Christmas Eve.

This has been slightly tweaked to fit 10 lines.

Painting by Yelena Flerova

The Smalls had brought schnitzel, Kartoffelpuffer, chicken soup, brisket, candied carrots, bolussen, applesauce, and, best of all, plenty of Berliner Pfannkuchen, while on the Filliards’ side of the table sat roasted goose with stuffing; dried fruit compote; mushroom soup; gołąbki; pierogi stuffed with chopped mushrooms and mashed potatoes; kotlety; stuffed mushrooms; mazurek stuffed with dried almonds, chocolate, and apricot jam; chocolate sernik; zefiry; and several heaping platters of cookies. There’d be more than enough for everyone.

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” Mrs. Filliard said as she cut into a gołąbek. “You’ve been generous to share your food, and oughta taste some of ours in return.”

“Perhaps next year, we can cook by your recipes in our kitchen,” Mrs. Small said.

“It’s ‘with,’ not ‘by,’” Gary gently corrected her. “You’re making the mistake of directly translating a German expression into English. Sometimes being too literal results in improper English.”

“My mother and I made that mistake too, when we were learning English,” Mr. Filliard said. “That expression translates from Russian the same way it does from German, and it took a long time for me to realize I wasn’t being grammatically correct.”

Kartoffelpuffer are German latkes; bolussen are Dutch sweet rolls; Berliner Pfannkuchen are jelly doughnuts. Among the traditional Polish and Russian Christmas foods, gołąbki are cabbage leaves wrapped around a savory filling (usually including meat); kotlety are small, pan-fried meatballs; mazurek is a sweet, flat cake; sernik is cheesecake made with quark; and zefiry are similar to meringues.