Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Stephan Eirik Clark writes about making Russian history his own for the stories in Vladimir’s Mustache.
In the summer of 2003, I read a review of Michael Bloch’s Ribbentrop in the Atlantic Monthly that revealed the underlying irony of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. When the Nazi Foreign Minister flew to Russia to sign the non-aggression treaty, he found the airport decorated with swastika flags — the same swastika flags that had previously been used in anti-Nazi propaganda films. What a great scene for a story! I thought. What would it have been like to work at the Air Field and first hang those flags in the name of propaganda and then to prepare for an official state visit? I was so struck by the absurdity of this that within months I had started what would become the title story of Vladimir’s Mustache, a collection of short fiction set against the backdrop of Russian history from the time of Peter the Great to the mail-order bride agencies of the present day.
While creative nonfiction fails when the reader begins to suspect it’s a work of fiction, fiction succeeds when the reader begins to think of it as a work of nonfiction. For this reason, it’s not surprising that fiction writers, especially those writing stories set in the past, mine works of nonfiction when building their stories. The detail is divine, Nabokov said, and so you have to buttress the believability of your fictional world with facts.
For my title story, I dove into history books and biographies, trying to learn about life in the Soviet Union just before the Second World War (or the Great Patriotic War as it is known to Russians). As I imagined my main character would need to be an actor who worked at the Moscow Airport, I researched nothing so thoroughly as early-Soviet cinema. Through this, I learned that in the films of the era you could expect to find one character who was politically conscious — a good Communist, you could say — and another who was not. From there the formula was simple: unmask, catch and execute the kulak or saboteur, while a member of the Communist Party provides sage advice and an old Bolshevik recycles familiar anti-Capitalist jokes.
Writing is sometimes less an act of inspiration than a process of discovery — by which I mean, as soon as I learned the formula of an early-Soviet film, I had the plotline of my own short story: my main character, a bit actor, would put art before communism, because he has been swept up by another revolution — that of Stanislavski, the creator of Method Acting. Sick of being cast as a peasant, sick of being handed a sickle and being told to go into another field and sing another patriotic song, he would yearn for a part, a part worthy of three years of study at the State Red Flag Theater for Russian Drama. And what better part could there be? Why not Hitler? He could be cast as Hitler in a propaganda film, which then begged the question: Could there be any danger in this during a purge? Especially if you were a Method Actor who liked to stay “in character” while preparing for a role?
By this point, my story had started to move off in its own direction, and though for a time I tried to keep my characters marching toward a final scene at the airport, where Ribbentrop would appear amidst a fluttering of Nazi flags, I soon realized that, unlike Nabokov, I could not think of my characters as galley slaves. They wouldn’t do what I wanted. The story demanded that Ribbentrop never appear.
Probably because this one story required such an understanding of Russian history — and left me with a notebook full of fascinating details — I stayed in the Stalinist period for another three stories, two of which owe a debt of gratitude to another biography, Stalin by Edvard Radzinsky. Like the passage in Ribbentrop that led to my title story, the passages in Radzinsky’s work that caught my attention were those that offered enough to stoke my imagination (the entire staff of the Pulkovo Observatory in St. Petersburg was lost to the purge!) but not so overburdened by details that I couldn’t fill a story with characters and events of my own making.
Other stories in my collection — a novella about an Italian castrato who longs to sing for the tsar, a story that re-imagines the failed KGB coup of 1991 — followed similar paths to publication. They demanded that I immerse myself in the worlds I wanted to recreate and find all the divine details needed to make a believable fiction. But not all of the details I needed could be found in books, especially when I found my mind circling back to a topic that had pushed me out toward Russia in the first place: the mail-order bride industry.
In the late-nineties, when I was living on the Russian River in rural northern California, my landlord, who lived on the same property as me, returned from Ukraine with a new wife and her two children. The latter was Liliya, a teenager of sixteen or seventeen years who the immigration authorities had considered too old to be classified as a dependent of her mother. Unlike her brother, who received a Green Card, Liliya was given only a year-long visa, at the end of which she was returned to Ukraine to resume the hard life her mother had wanted to escape.
In the years that followed, I often found myself thinking of her, and so after my stories had taken a turn toward Russia, I applied for and received a Fulbright Fellowship to Ukraine to research and write about the mail-order bride industry. My research took the form of ethnography: I simply spoke to as many people as I could — women wanting to leave, men wanting to marry, agency owners and translators — and asked that they tell their story. At the time, “I blogged about many of the people I met”: www.everybodyiloveyou.blogspot.com; when I returned to the States, however, I filtered the best of these experiences into two stories representative of a male and female experience with the mail-order bride agency.
As for Liliya. I never did learn what happened to her. I had come to Ukraine with her cell-phone number, but by the time I got around to calling it, the line was already dead.