Wednesday, May 26, 2010
One of the ironies of my nascent writing career has been that, while I write most of my fiction in English, my publications are primarily in Russian. In the United States, my stories have appeared in a score of online magazines with various levels of affinity toward zombies, vampires, and the preternatural—even though I’m pretty sure I’ve never intentionally written genre fiction. In Russia, my second collection of short stories is scheduled to come out in September from a well-established publisher of literary fiction. The way it goes is usually like this: I write a story, I send it off to family and friends for questions and comments, and the very next morning I receive responses from St. Petersburg. From my mother: “I didn’t understand anything!” and “This is great, but I didn’t understand the ending. Why don’t you translate it to Russian?”—from my father.
I tell them I have no time to translate. I have too many ideas for new stories; for every story I translate, I could write three new ones. My Russian is not that great any more, my grammar is tenuous at best, and my vocabulary is imprecise and dictionary-dependent. I live in the US, I write in English, and wouldn’t my time be better spent focusing on just one language? I should dedicate some time to studying English-language poetry, for example. I read a lot of fiction, but English-language poetry has been a huge blind spot in my education. To this day, the names of Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens run together in my head because, well, don’t they sound similar? If I attempt to write anything in English, I really should crack the covers of those anthologies.
My parents don’t argue, they know better than to pitch their logic against mine. Instead, they go to my brother or to one of their friends who know English okay and are interested enough in my work to spare the time. The next day or a day after (things always seem to move very fast in St. Petersburg), they email me the result with their comments: “I still don’t understand what happened to the main character. Does she hate her daughter or love her?” I look at the attachment. Their translators are competent enough to avoid silly mistakes like translating “mystery” as “mystics” or “public company” as “non-governmentally owned.” No, no, the gist of it is usually all there. But it doesn’t sound like me—neither like I imagine I sound when I write English nor when I write Russian. And when I reread the story, now completely detached from it, I start to wonder: what is going on with that central character? Why can’t the author decide whether the main character loves or hates her daughter?
Even if writing in Russian has become increasingly difficult for me in the 13+ years since I’ve lived in the US, I still remain a competent reader in Russian. Seeing my stories translated into Russian provides the double distance, not only making them less personal—guaranteeing the critical distance so crucial during the revision process—but also making the plot more transparent and allowing me to examine the logic of the narrative and of the characters’ interrelationships with each other. From this point on, the real work begins: retranslating the story in my own voice, revising the ending, the beginning and the middle, then going back to the ending again and making sure it still works. Then, I go back to family and friends, and look for a competent editor to look over the latest draft and to clean it of all the unnecessary prepositions, transform the dependent clauses into adverbial or adjectival phrases that sound more native to Russian.
This process leaves me with a book to be published in Russian, and a bunch of first drafts in English. What I really should do now is go back to the English originals and compare them to the Russian revisions, and to see how many changes I can transpose to the English versions. I haven’t done this work for most of the pieces yet—there are always new stories to be written, but once I do, I can probably start thinking in terms of the English-language collection as well. It turns out that my parents are excellent managers: they are able to get me to stretch my time much thinner and use it more efficiently than when I’m working on my own, without supervision. But I’m also glad they don’t read English very well, because if they did, I never could’ve felt so free writing about them.
I am a fiction writer and editor based somewhere between San Francisco, California and St. Petersburg, Russia. In 2006, Neva Press published my Russian-language collection of short stories, "Кофе-Inn." Since then, I have been working primarily in English, and this year my stories are slated to appear in Narrative Magazine, Alligator Juniper, and J Journal. My second collection of stories in Russian will be available from St. Petersburg-based Limbus Press in September. I am a regular participant of the San Francisco Writers Workshop with Tamim Ansary, and this summer I'll be attending Tin House Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon.
Monday, May 24, 2010
Mary Jean Place is our featured writer this month.
The shelves of read and unread books are only tabs to a life, some real and some imagined. They line the hallway wall, two walls of every bedroom, and study, with random shelves in the kitchen and living room. The 16 large bins of printed photos recording weddings, births, fourth of July celebrations, family reunions, special plants, travel adventures, loved cars, all uncatalogued and begging to be put in order, but must settle for a re-distribution or elimination. The bolts of fabric that were so tempting for a project, that never got translated into a serviceable dress, table cloth, or quilt, stacked in a closet arranged by colors of red, white, yellow, and some purples. The dressing room floor lined with shoes that have given out, refused to fit, or never match a current outfit, suggest a waste of space and money.
The filing cabinets that cradle the brilliant thoughts and records of one’ s business and community life, complete with yearly indexes; the financial decisions one hoped to retire comfortably on, and hundreds of hanging files of family letters including the first letters and notes written by the offspring that are now producing college graduates. Files with descriptive notes covering the recent two years of living in France, the French language tapes, and the letters from the recent French friends, and endless drawers of medical records, medical payments, and letters to MD’s!
The walls lined with art, etchings, lithographs, watercolors, drawings, paintings, some by artist who became famous, and some who never made it. The sculptures of marble and bronze add dignity to the rooms, and the Steinway grand piano and harpsichord dominate the living room, reminding me how much I love to perform music. The CD rows of all kinds of music suggest a love of all cultures, as well as the many forms of American music.
These are just things, and some say they are not important. I find it difficult separating from them, as they are the triggers of my memory. Removing these things is like surrendering my life, because they each have a story that springs to mind as I review them. The cortical area of the brain has plenty of memory, more then my computer, but I need the keys, these things I am thinking of removing. They are the connections to the incunabula of my life.
In a nutshell, a little about me. In my early years after finishing my studies at the university in philosophy and library science, I went to work in Europe as a librarian, 1951-1952. Became a reference librarian at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota after that. My avocation/hobby all my life has been art, though I only do photograph, it consumed my free time. After moving from N.Y. city to the Bay Area, in the late sixties, I opened an art gallery in S.F., and for 35 years I worked as an art consultant putting collections together for corporations and private collectors. However, my interest in libraries continued, and in Palo Alto I founded the Library Advisory Commission for the city of Palo Alto, as well as starting the Palo Alto Library Foundation in 2002, that raises money for the libraries.
I recently lived in France for two years, which I loved. I work one day a week with my six year old autistic grandson, a beautiful child. I have three daughters from my first marriage, and five step children from my second marriage. I have three grandchildren, and three step grandchildren. I served on the Board of the Experiment of International Living for many years, striving to make understanding between cultures a positive force in all our lives. I have an incurable lung disease, which no one knows about. I have a fantastic dog named Lily, and I truly enjoy the dialogue with people, all kinds, except boring ones! I have traveled extensively, and I have one other writing group besides the one at Kepler's. I am a fantastic chef, I love food and cooking. I have always been very active physically, skiing, tennis, yoga, now more walking as I have matured into my later years.
Mary Jean Place
Monday, May 17, 2010
Recently, I was invited to a luncheon by a good friend in northern California who wanted to introduce her book club to me and my new memoir, The Journal Keeper. The food was delicious, the setting serene, and for several hours I was in the company of eight thoughtful women whose eyes sparkled with intelligence, curiosity and good humor.
One of them was Nancy Chen, a diminutive 82 year old Chinese American who had come to the United States in l948 for graduate school and never returned home. She listened intently as I read a passage from the book about my mother who came to live with me when she was 80, five years before her death.
One evening, while we were having our usual drink before dinner, the subject turned to what it would be like for me after she died. “You may not believe this,” she told me one evening, “but after I’m gone I’ll be even closer to you than I am now. All the barriers will be dissolved.”
When I finished the passage, Mrs. Chen leaned forward with a question. “Did you understand at that time what your mother was telling you?”
“Yes, I did,” I answered.
“I am the most senior person in this room,” she said. “And I can tell you that just before the end of life most people my age don’t understand what it’s all about. They are confused. Your mother was most enlightened.”
I live in Virginia. A good argument could be made that flying 3,000 miles across the country to sit around eating tuna salad with a handful of people – none of whom know Oprah Winfrey or the non-fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble – is not the most cost-effective way to market a new book. I have made that argument myself and I try as hard as most authors to maintain my little tower of importance, and do everything my publisher asks of me. But it is very chancy work.
Strike one: the important NPR interview, secured because I know her best friend, is cancelled, (a recently released Iranian hostage journalist pre-empted me). Home run: the woman napping next to me on a plane, turns out to be a lead reviewer for a major newspaper and she reviews my book. On Monday, you are flooring 1200 people at a major book and author luncheon,. Tuesday, you are in a book store, addressing five people, three of whom came with you in the same car.
Up, down, up, down. There comes a time in the book promoting process when you realize that the entire thing is basically out of your control and you might as well sit back and enjoy the very thing that makes being a writer such a wonderful, soul-satisfying profession. You get to meet people like Mrs. Chen, who are never in short supply. And soon, at Kepler’s Books, I will get to meet you. Or not. People have a lot of demands on their time. Maybe this time, you will not be there. But I have gotten into the habit of passing around a spiral notebook and asking people to please put down their name and e-mail address. It cuts down on the separation anxiety. After we have said goodbye, I have something to look back upon to remind me that you were real, that we were together, and that books are the best way in the world to expand your life. Some people have a limited capacity for new friends. But who would turn down a Mrs. Chen if she presented herself? Not I.