Monday, May 30, 2011

The Master and Johnny Cash: A Travelarity Book Report

The National Library of Russia in Moscow.

I once read somewhere that, to be a successful writer, one should (1) write every day, and (2) read all the time.  I followed this advice religiously during my travels over the past six months, so I’m thinking I must be on the cusp of something big.  In fact, I can smell success as I write this.  It smells like money, and Barnes & Noble, and really good coffee.  

When I travel, I like to read contemporaneously about the places I’m visiting, if possible.  That’s why one day I shelled out 450 Russian rubles (about $15, even at half price) for a book called The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov.  I’d never heard of it until my Russophile roommate in St. Petersburg, Scottish Janine, highly recommended it.  It’s a Soviet-era satire concerning the Devil’s visit to Moscow.  I loved it, just like Scottish Janine said I would, and was not the least bit surprised to discover that The Master and Margarita is considered to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

I read and learned from The Master as I struggled simultaneously to write my own book.  Take The Master’s opening, for example.  Here’s how Bulgakov began:

At the hour of the hot spring sunset two citizens appeared at the Patriarch’s Ponds.  One of them, approximately forty years old, dressed in a grey summer suit, was short, dark-haired, plump, bald, and carried his respectable fedora hat in his hand.  His neatly shaven face was adorned with black horn-rimmed glasses of a supernatural size.  The other, a broad-shouldered young man with tousled reddish-hair, his checkered cap cocked back on his head, was wearing a cowboy shirt, wrinkled white trousers and black sneakers.

If I were writing this same passage, I would have said: 

I saw these two guys sitting by a pond.  It was hot.

See the difference?  From that day forward, I tried to be a little more like Mikhail Bulgakov—and a little less like a first grader—in my own book writing.

Drawings in stairwell of Bulgakov Museum, Moscow 

The Master was over 500 pages, and I didn’t finish it until I reached Ukraine, where, incidentally, Bulgakov was born.  I was sad when it was time for me trade it in my hostel’s book exchange.  But I was also eager to see what would come next.

The hostel book exchange is one of my favorite aspects of travel.  It’s pretty straightforward:  leave a book; take a book.  I never know what I’ll be reading next, and I like it that way.  Sometimes you can find a real interesting gem.  A life-changer, even.

In Kiev, Ukraine, I ended up with a compilation of genocide-survivor memoirs called Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields.  And here’s the weird thing:  I saw on the inside cover that this had been a library book from a satellite-branch library in St. Petersburg, Florida, where I held a library card growing up.  How weird is that?, I wondered, thinking it was an omen of sorts.  

But what did it mean?  In recent years, I had become increasingly interested in human rights law and genocide studies, particularly after visits to Rwanda and Bosnia.  I was convinced that this book being left behind was meant to be a message for me; like it was pointing me in a direction as I considered my future path.  

I racked my brains thinking, but what?  Should I go to Cambodia?  Become a human rights law professor?  Apply for a job at The Hague?  Later I decided perhaps it was just a large coincidence.  But still it's weird that the book was from my library in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Over the course of six months, I read some great books picked up in the exchanges.  The topics were wide-ranging:  from the Lost Boys of Sudan, to the political, societal, and cultural aspects of Macedonia’s ethnic communities, to a catalogue of West Balkan Pramenka Sheep breed types. 

Two random, hostel-exchange books had major influences on my writing, I think.  At least that's what I'm going to tell Matt Lauer when he asks.  The first, mentioned in a previous post, was The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, which won the Pulitzer for fiction recently.  The guy’s a genius of a writer, and I pretty much worshiped him by the time I was done.

Another book took me by surprise late in the game, and I think breathed new inspiration into my writing.  The author’s name is Matt Melvin and I picked up his recently-published first book—Dracula is a Racist: A Totally Factual Guide to Vampires—in a hostel in Albania.  I read it front-to-back on the bus ride from Saranda, Albania to Athens, Greece, and it resonated.  It’s (very) dirty and funny and dark, which can be entertaining if done well.  Which is a relief, because lately I’ve been realizing more and more that I’m (very) dirty, and funny, and dark myself.

In the end, it was the autobiography of Johnny Cash that brought me in, back to America.  Even beyond Walk The Line, Johnny Cash has interesting stories to tell.  His book showed me that if your story is a good one, telling it doesn’t have to be complicated.  It’s a lesson I still needed to learn, I think.  “Just put them words on paper, girl” is what I imagine Johnny Cash would say, as I struggle to finish my travel memoir.

So, about that.  Here’s the long and short of it:

I worked seriously on writing my book over the past months.  I had a theme song for the book and everything:  M.C. Hammer's Turn This Mutha Out.  I'd listen to the Hammer periodically when I needed a certain boost, and I think I made substantial progress on the first draft as a result.  I don't know when the memoir will be finished and polished, but I imagine it will be sometime in the coming months.  The best thing is this:  I know now that my book is no longer a matter of if, but rather, when.  

I’m not making excuses, but in my defense I do want to say a couple of things about why I didn't exactly finish a full first draft.  I didn’t realize when I started this journey just how important and time-consuming my blog would become--not to mention, I spent a lot of time actually doing all the things I wrote about in the blog.  Travelarity forced me to practice my writing every day, and it was really a great thing.  I finish it tomorrow convinced that it was worth the time, even if it did slow me down on the book.  My book will be better for it.  

Also, Travelarity connected me with so many people at home and abroad, and helped me feel less alone as I traveled solo.  And here’s something really big:  it gave me confidence.  Sometimes, when people asked me what I do for a living, I actually told them I was a “writer.”  And sometimes, within those times, I didn't even feel stupid saying it.    

Now that I’m getting close, I’ve begun to worry about other things, like fame.  I was thinking back to my visit to Scotland in 2006 when I dropped in at the “The Elephant House” – one of the cafés in Edinburgh in which J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel.  The place has become a tourist attraction.

Inside the Elephant House

As I finish my forthcoming travel memoir—and prepare for the potential spotlight—I think about all the places in eastern Europe and the Balkans that may receive similar attention.  I wrote my book in many libraries, including, most notably, the National Library in St. Petersburg, Russia, where—to my amazement—I was able finagle an actual library card with my picture on it.  I wrote on the shores of Lake Ohrid, Macedonia, in the Rila Monastery outside Sofia, and in endless cafes along the way.   Some of my best work emerged at the Café Memento on General Gurko Street in Sofia.  Perhaps that will be the next Elephant House?

My desk in the Rila Monastery.

A lot of times I kid—this being, after all, a humorous blog—but I want to say something seriously.  I appreciate all the support I was given on this travel-writing adventure.  With respect to the blog, I tried to give my best for those who followed along the way, and I appreciated the opportunity to write, show, and tell.  I have two more posts to go, and I’ll be sad when it’s done.   But the book is waiting, and regarding this, let me say, if I may:  if you liked this blog, you might want to cordon off a weekend when the time comes.  From what I've got so far, I'm thinking you won’t be able to put the book down once you get started.

On the flipside, if you think my blog sucked, then you’ll have plenty of time that weekend to catch up on laundry.  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

And now, the Complete Travelarity Reading List, in case you’re curious:

When You Are Engulfed In Flames, David Sedaris
In My Hands:  Memories of A Holocaust Rescuer, Irene Gut Opdyke
Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, edited by Kim DePaul; compiled by Dith Pran
A Long Way Gone:  Memories of A Boy Solider, Ishmael Beah
Why Should We Teach About The Holocaust?, Jagiellonian University Institute of European Studies 
I Will Plant You A Lilac Tree, Laura Hillman
I Was No. 20823 At Auschwitz, Eva Tichauer
Survival In Auschwitz, Primo Levi
Into the Flames:  The Life of Story of a Righteous Gentile, Irene Gut Opdyke with Jeffrey M. Elliot
Mother Tongue:  The English Language, Bill Bryson
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
Power Sharing and the Implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement (2008)
Catalogue of West Balkan Pramenka Sheep Breed Types 
What Is the What, Dave Eggers
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass
Dracula Was A Racist:  A Totally Factual Guide to Vampires, Matt Melvin
Cash, The Autobiography of Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash with Patrick Carr