The Birth of a Novel

Today we’re featuring a guest post from Ann Simon, who like me is a writer in Northern Virginia. Below she shares with us her story of turning the quiet hours of an ex-pat experience into a novel, Jaguar Sees: The Lacquer Box.

your guest blogger in Moscow (she's the one not made of snow)

Every now and then, life bestows a free and beautiful gift.  It arrives with a little zing of surprise, like a swirl of golden glitter. I received such a gift in 2005 when my husband, Steve and I moved to Russia for his job on nuclear weapons security.  Russia!   Wow!   Two years in Moscow is not a gift everyone wants, but I was ecstatic!  I was given a second gift a year and a half later.  It was wrapped in the long, cold, dark, Russian winter afternoons.

If you’ve been or know an ex-pat, you know that the working hours are long and hard.  The trailing spouse is left to fill his or, more usually, her time as she may.  The American Women’s Organization (AWO) saved me.  Every morning offered a different activity, and two evenings brought our Russian tutor.  During the first winter’s afternoons I watched endless re-runs of McCloud’s Daughter’s and dreamily burrowed into experiencing the descriptions in Russian novels.  I began a blog, such a new form that my mother called it a blab.  Blogging was different from the technical writing, articles and poetry I’d written in the past.  I loved describing so many startling discoveries.

Coming home through a park one mid-March, I discovered Mazlanitza, the holiday that looks forward to the spring that comes in two months.  A myriad of kiosks had popped up since the morning.  One sold Blini (sweet Russian crepes).  From another, you could buy golden honey to pour on them.  Standing behind card tables were babushkas (grandmothers) selling little homemade dolls.  A stage was set up, a band practicing.

In fact, kiosks were permanently scattered all over the city:  on sidewalks, in parks, in vacant lots.  We all had our favorites.  For example, the spit-roasted chicken sold on Tverskaya Street wasn’t as good as those that came wrapped in flat bread that were sold behind the Belaruskaya train station.

Then there was the language.  A couple of adult classes at our local high school and regular tutoring do not make one proficient in a language that has an entirely different grammatical structure.  How proud I was when I could effortlessly give metro directions using the names of stations like Novoslobodskaya and Krasnopresnenskaya.

The Moscow Metro!  Was there ever such a lovely mode of transportation?  Twenty-five cents (less if you bought a multiple-ride pass) took you anywhere in the city.  Stations were all over the place, and you never waited more than two minutes for a train.  Yes, it was loud and sometimes smelly, but it whisked you from here to there like a large, crowded magic carpet.  I felt sorry for the women who had drivers and cars.  They waited forever in the notorious traffic jams.  We who braved the metro were free!

So what if I couldn’t recognize the cuts of meat in the grocery stores?  Just see the eggs, bright orange centers shining up from the frying pan!   And if someone on the street harsh scolded my friend and I for conversing in English, the woman selling Red October chocolates at the top of the parahoad (underground street crossing) always had a smile and a kind (if incomprehensible) word.

And may I just tell you that the world’s biggest craft market is in Moscow?  Be still my beating heart!

I received my second gift after 18 months.  One evening we were sipping on an after-dinner vodka, chatting about this and that, when my husband pronounced, “I had an idea for a thriller.”

“What is it?” I asked, amazed.  Steve is a scientist, and his interest in creative writing was last demonstrated, well, never in the 35 years I’d know him.

“This guy goes to the craft market and buys a lacquer box.  Part of the painting on the box is the key to a nuclear weapons smuggling operation.”

Hold the horses!  “That’s a great idea!  What happens next?  How does the box lead to the smugglers?

“Oh, I don’t know; that idea’s the only part I thought up.  You should write it.”

So I did.  That germ of an idea, that gift, was developed during those long winter afternoons when there were no distractions, when the quiet gray sky allowed the ideas in my head to come to life.  Mazlanitza went in and the amazing Russian parties, the 12” blini from the corner kiosk and vodka.  I took a few ideas from Steve’s work and, of course, the glorious metro had a place.

Then another aspect of my life jumped into the story.  Shamanic journeying with its spirit animals unrestrained by the laws of physics wove themselves into the mystery.

Morphed versions of Steve and I (because aren’t we always the heroes in the stories we read and write?) became Claire and Jack who had to evade tactical nuclear weapons smugglers.  I wrote it carefully and consciously and still couldn’t believe what I was writing.

It’s called Jaguar Sees:  The Lacquer Box. The enigmatic title reflects its intertwining concepts:  a fast paced thriller about nuclear weapons smugglers with a mystical/paranormal overlay in an exotic setting that jumps from Moscow to a pine forest in Siberia:   a little something for everyone.  They say we all have at least one book in us, but who knew this was mine?  Not only is this one mine, but there’s a nagging whisper, growing louder daily, that tells me to write another one.

Ann Simon lived in Moscow for two years while her husband worked in nuclear non-proliferation.  She is an ardent traveler and a balletomane.  A former teacher and technical writer, she has published many poems and articles; this is her first novel.   She lives with her husband, Steve, and Elaine the Psycho Cat in Northern Virginia.  You can follow her musings at www.annsannotations.blogspot.com

Jaguar Sees:  The Lacquer Box by Ann Simon is available at the Amazon Kindle store.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

9 Responses to “The Birth of a Novel”

  1. Ooo, I loved reading this. What a delicious post, full of joyous adventure.

    My husband worked in Russia on the oil pipelines. He was stationed on Sakhalin Island, off the east coast of Russia and north of Japan. He was only there for the summer of 2005, so I didn’t go with him. But I’ve used his bizarre adventures (part KGB-style scary, part Russian disco party crawling with ex-pats), spun into fiction, for a story I’ve outlined.

    Not sure if I’ll ever go all the way with my idea, but seeing you take yours to completion is truly inspirational. Congratulations on your novel and the way it was gifted to you! I’m positive it must contain the kind of dancing passion you put into this post. Your exotic title also promises that.

    I’ve bookmarked your chapter one to read when I’m not hurrying out for errands.

    P.S. I totally understand your joy in the Moscow Metro. As a single parent with no car living in Melbourne, Australia in the ’90’s, being a train traveler made me feel adventurous and “creative underground-ish” in a way that life with the conveniences of a car in Typicalcity, America doesn’t quite capture.

    ~ Milli

  2. Ann, thanks for agreeing to be a guest blogger today, it’s great having you here on The Artist’s Road. And kudos to Milli, such a loyal reader (and former guest blogger here herself) commenting before I could!🙂

  3. Hi, fearo — Steve’s been to Sakhalin! (I, too, did not join him there. Well, I wasn’t allowed to.) Austrailia’s on our list, but sooo expensive to get to. Am glad you enjoyed the post. @Patrick, Thank you for having me!

  4. This is a great post! I can tell you are a novelist just by reading this blog. It is descriptive to the point of putting the reader into the situation. I bet your novel is fabulous! Has it been published? If so, I’ll put it on my “to be read” list. 🙂

  5. “I began a blog, such a new form that my mother called it a blab.” I loved this line! Embarrassingly, I said the same thing as your mother at one time.

    “How proud I was when I could effortlessly give metro directions using the names of stations like Novoslobodskaya and Krasnopresnenskaya.” All I can say is Congratulations!!! Well done.

    I love the sound of the Metro. If only we had that here in the CA Bay Area.

    That is such a nugget Steve dropped for you…the seed of an idea! Wow. I’m on Amazon 1-Clicking Jaguar Sees: The Lacquer Box Kindle book and tonight I’ll take my husband’s iPad to bed with me instead of the Hemingway I’m reading! Is it bedtime yet?

    Thanks for the wonderful posting. It brought your life in Russia for two years alive.

  6. Amy and catherine, thanks for stopping by and reading Ann’s post! And Amy, follow the link at the bottom of the post for the Kindle store. You can read it on other devices too; I have a free Kindle app on my Android phone.

  7. Thank you all for your kind comments! You know, blab, blog, it’s the same thing, really! I hope you all will try and enjoy the book (currently just an e-book), and tell your friends about it, too. If it’s just somewhat successful, this sequal that’s naggaing at my brain can be let out to play!

  8. The first commenter said it best–this post is delicious. More so because I’ve always wanted to go to Moscow. Loved reading this, and congrats on the novel.

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