One of the great joys of my current job is meeting and speaking to many authors. I am always interested and amazed to hear their stories of what inspired them to write and by their willingness to help other writers in the journey to get published.
At Book Expo America in May, I had the opportunity to meet Cliff Adelman, author of The Russian Embassy Party, which he self-published with Archway Publishing. Here’s a summary of the story from the web site:
A ride on the edges of history, with all its unanticipated connections, from the 1963 March on Washington to the 1993 chaos of Yeltsin’s Russia. When an ex-CIA agent convinces a bumbling law student to write a term paper on international rights on the high seas, the student and his roommates in Washington wind up with the whole Soviet Embassy coming to dinner. This happened on August 10, 1963, and has never been marked in the history books. Out of this encounter spins a story of revenge, counterpoint, and rollicking foolishness, ending on a railroad platform by the Russian-Finnish border in September, 1993. The Russian Embassy Party follows its sort-of-ordinary people in a not-so-ordinary web through the edges of history (the set for ‘I Have a Dream,’ watching the fall of the Berlin Wall, revelations of the Katyn Forest Massacre, the last gasp failed Soviet coup of August 1991, stumbling attempts to shore up democracy in Yelstin’s Russia) until . . . Well, let’s say only that there is a good dose of history in the story, and a larger dose of realism in the minds, environments, and conversations of both American and Russian protagonists and supporting cast. At the same time, the echoes of the 1963 Russian Embassy Party itself (when the students behaved and talked like the late-adolescents they were) cut veins through the story, linking its participants in ways they realize, bit by bit, as adults.
According to his bio on the Archway Publishing website:
Cliff started making trouble in grade school in the Boston area, made it constructive trouble at Brown and the University of Chicago, and brought the construction to a head in a string of influential monographs that demonstrated how tractable and smart both governments and foundations can be. Not exactly a wall-flower.
As you can tell by his bio, Cliff is an interesting character in his own right so I asked him to share about his book. Here are my questions and his answers to an interview I conducted with him. I think you will find it an enjoyable read.
What inspired you to write the book? For years, I had three stories I wanted to tell. I chose The Russian Embassy Party for my first novel. Why? First, because I started writing the 1963 portion of the novel as a memoir in 1973. It didn’t go anywhere then, and certainly wasn’t a story in and of itself. So it slept. Thirty years later, I meet a Finn on a train from Helsinki to St. Petersburg whose business is hauling out industrial waste sludge from Russia to extractors that could pull precious metals from the glop. It took nearly 20 years more for me to put the two poles together and say, “You know? There’s a good story here. Now, can I do it?” That 2013 is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which plays a revelatory role in the 1963 portion of the novel, was push enough to get this thing done in 2012.
….let your characters talk, and their talk should become the engines of the story.
What do you think gain by reading your book? They will squirm a little with the 1963 late adolescents talking and experiencing life like late adolescents; they will come to appreciate the underside of Soviet/Russian life as experienced by more-or-less ordinary people, who also tell bad Russian jokes; they will learn perhaps more than they ever knew of the way advertising works in international contexts; and will come to see how they, too, are bounced along the edges of history. And they
will have a good deal of fun along the way.
….have a marketing platform spelled out for yourself before you try to sell the finished product,
How did writing [non-fiction] for your job help you when writing this book? I wrote monograph-length pieces in ways that,as people said, “made data sing,” and asked how the hell the U.S. government let me get away with that kind of colorful writing, let alone titles such as Women at Thirtysomething, Tourists in Our Own Land, Answers in the Toolbox, and Moving Into Town–and Moving On. Gradually, these got longer, so I knew I could sustain the prose. Whether I could build and sustain characters and a plot that did not depend on underlying data was another story, and whether I could have the characters and story emerge principally through dialogue (as opposed to an auctorial voice) was a significant challenge that, as it turned out, was less difficult than I anticipated.
What tips would you to give aspiring writers? First, never write about places you have not visited As Orwell said, the physical memories—sounds, smells, surfaces of things—come first. Second, let your characters talk, and their talk should become the engines of the story. Don’t tell the reader what some character is thinking or feeling: let the character do it! Third, if you have an international environment, use languages other than English and put the translations in brackets. You may need help for this. I did with the Russian (not the German, in which I am half-conversant; but you will notice that, even there, I had the bi-lingual German character translate for his American listeners in the natural rhythms of conversation). Fourth, have a marketing platform spelled out for yourself before you try to sell the finished product, whether you wind up with an agent (highly unlikely), publisher directly (even more unlikely), or engage a self-publishing platform.
What has been the most satisfying aspect of publishing a novel? (I had published three non-fiction books with commercial publishers previously, so fiction was the issue) Easy: it opened the door to putting the next novel together. It said: you can do this, so do it again