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Novosibirsk State Pedagogical University

Changes

Last month, as I took the last of my few things stored a my childhood home, I looked back to find the most appropriate view: the house swallowed up in trees we'd planted.

Last month, as I took the last of my few things stored a my childhood home, I looked back to find the most appropriate view: the house swallowed up in trees we'd planted.

The first time I ever bought a cup of coffee was about three days after I got my driver’s license, and the drink had nothing to do with wanting to feel grown up, or wanting to emulate Dad’s morning cup or anything like that. In fact, that first coffee had nothing to do with coffee. Exploring the new freedom of life with a vehicle, I’d gone to the logical first place: the bookstore. I would get to stay as long as I wanted this time, not rushing for a waiting parent who had someplace more important to get, or the next stop to move toward on a chain-shopping trip. I explored the place top to bottom, section after section, but at a certain point, even a 16-year-old begins to feel self-aware about wandering endlessly through a shop with no potential purchases in hand. Eventually, I wandered over to the café and bought a small coffee, then played copycat on the adults that populated the tables: I grabbed something from the periodical rack—I’m pretty sure one of them was a copy of the Prague Post, which was at that time sold in a number of U.S. book shops—and plopped down with my coffee and a free read. I bought a paperback or two before leaving, which was a big deal for a kid whose income was paid yardwork for the folks, at least until hay and straw bailing season would begin a few weeks later. Then, I’d make some solid money, but for the moment, two books and a coffee was a pretty full day of expenditure.

This morning, I’m again in the café of a bookstore, again in love with the smell of 10,000 books around me, colliding with puffs of steam from the espresso machine behind me. There are other places to loiter while I work, of course—home and my campus office and cafes both corporately and locally owned. But it’s always been here, surrounded by the written ideas of others. And it seems like the right place to cap a week that’s been filled with news ranging from openly joyful to bittersweet at best. The home I drove back to after that first coffee was sold today. Earlier this year, my parents downsized their home, and while I’m happy for them in that regard, that was the home I always came home to: from college and work, from grad school and at holidays, on long weekends when I just needed to be someplace familiar around someone familiar. It’s tough, knowing I’ll never again drive home to that grey house behind the pond.

Like the sale of that old home, the rest of this week’s news has been a long time in process.

My first book has been published—in Russia. Last year, Russian linguist Olesya Valger and I co-wrote and co-edited a textbook called Stories From the American Rust Belt With Case Studies in English Grammar. The text, published by Novosibirsk State Pedagogical University Press, includes several of my stories, along with exercises and practical details to help second-language students of English interact with contemporary American literature. As I understand it, some printed copies are in the early stages of transit, and I’m looking forward to holding a copy soon.

But that was just the start of good book news.

On Tuesday morning, Seattle-based Orson’s Publishing released my debut story collection for pre-order. Print copies will ship in April, and ebook copies will be available at that time, as well. When the book was announced this week, some of the first questions I received were connected to my time in Russia—namely, whether this was the book of stories I wrote while overseas. It’s not—though I continue to work on those. However, this set did get some substantial editing and revision work during my Fulbright grant, and I submitted it to the press from my flat above Vybornaya Street.  

The collection runs the gamut of my writing life: the oldest story got its start during my first month in graduate school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and the newest one was completed last Autumn in Siberia—it made the trip with me as a half-finished stub, and I finally did enough surgery to it to make it feel like a story that belonged in a set.

For much of the last year, Publisher Garrett Dennert and I have pushed and pressed each other and wrestled this thing into a book I’m extremely proud of, one that traces the lives of workers and workers’ kids and retirees in the post-industrial Midwest—the Rust Belt. It felt right working on the collection in Siberia, which in many ways knows a similar history: regions of single-industry towns left to rise and fall at the mercy of economy and other, connected single-industry towns, places trying to reclaim names rife with disparaging stereotypes, regions full of youthful, vibrant generation set against the remnants of past decay. The collection has busted-up factories, yes, but more importantly (and I think more interestingly) it focuses on what the people do after they walk out those doors for the last time—something I can connect with this morning.

A final piece of exciting news: Peasantry Press, the publisher of my forthcoming novel Pine Gap, sent final edits this week, and work has started on cover design. Review copies should be heading out soon, and by the end of the year, it’ll be a trio of books with my name on the spine so that someday, some kid with newfound freedom and a set of keys might just buy a drink as an excuse to linger, and when they do, maybe, just maybe they’ll pull one of those books or its neighbors from the shelf. And if they get to travel the same path I’ve gotten, one full of words and daydreams, a trail of ideas and travelling friends that stretches from Illinois to Irkutsk—well, they’ll be immensely lucky.

 

The finished product: the cover art for my U.S. debut in book-length fiction: Thrift Store Coats.

The finished product: the cover art for my U.S. debut in book-length fiction: Thrift Store Coats.

An American Snow Day

An American Snow Day

Dispatches From Siberia returns: this time with an in-depth look at the process of returning home after a life-changing trip abroad. First up: snow days in Kentucky after a year in Siberia.

Dispatches From Siberia #9: An Evening at the Ballet

Dispatches From Siberia #9: An Evening at the Ballet

When the notice came that I’d be spending nine month in Russia, it took a few moments to settle in. Once I got past the initial shock, one of my first coherent thoughts went something like this: “I’m going to stand in the middle of Red Square. I’m going to get fat on borscht. I’m going to see the Nutcracker in Russia.”

Dispatches From Siberia #8: Let it Snow. And Snow. And Snow. And Snow Some More.

Dispatches From Siberia #8: Let it Snow. And Snow. And Snow. And Snow Some More.

This lady lives at the Novosibirsk Zoo. I'm feeling like she had a pretty good week.

This lady lives at the Novosibirsk Zoo. I'm feeling like she had a pretty good week.

This week was all about work. And snow. And more work. And more snow.

Tuesday’s snowfall was a Novosibirsk city record for that particular date. The snow hasn’t stopped (save for a few brief pauses) since Monday, and the sun hasn’t made itself fully visible for more than a week. And that’s perfectly fine with me: with a mountain of story and book edits, revisions, a couple of fiction contest entries to finish and, two 90-minute conference presentations to prepare, and looming deadlines for a whole slew of book and story submissions, this has been a week at the desk, becoming cozy with the array of teas and coffees I’ve purchased during the last few weeks. Some stories, it turns out, go best with cherry tea. Others with black Sumatran coffee. And sometimes, you just have to take a break and raid the grocery store down the street for a box of Oreo cookies.

The tea helps with writing.

The Oreos help with editing.

I’m working with two different editors on two different projects right now. One situation is hard work but harmony. On the other project, the editor and I seem to have slightly different visions about audience and story direction. It’s a good experience to have—this close comparison of styles. It’s good to be stretched this way as a writer, and it’ll serve me well as I learn, grow, and develop as a writer. But it requires cookies. Lots of cookies.

With all those projects ongoing, organization has become important. Not just organization between tasks, but also the rather key tenant that I have to keep in mind: I’m not just here to lock myself in a room and work. Part of my job is to explore.

Looking and feeling like a proper Siberian.

Looking and feeling like a proper Siberian.

One of the great benefits of a Fulbright Grant is the freedom it allows. That’s also one of the biggest challenges. With new books, books in revision, stories, poems (yes, I said it—I’ve been writing poems), query letters, presentations to prepare, and a number of other projects of various size and scope, I count at least 30 ongoing writing jobs right now. The good news: I generally spend between six to eight hours in the classroom per week, plus a couple hours reading and preparing and a couple hours taking Russian lessons. So, there’s fairly boundless time to work on all these projects. But I can’t do them all at once, or I wind up wasting days on indecision and halfhearted taps toward working on a project, then flitting over to another with no real impact on the mountain of work.

And then, the imperative of seeing the world and meeting people.

So far, this is how I’ve arranged it.

As is the case at home, my first work hours go to my students. Teachers have all sorts of philosophies about this, but my prime work hours each week go toward preparation, innovation, and response to student work. It’s just how I operate, and that will always be the case.

After that, I slice my time into layers. First, I work. Then I explore a little. Then I come back and work, taking motivation from the exploration. Then I venture out again, then I work again. By tackling my goals in stripes like this, I stay invigorated, motivated, and inspired.

This week, though, I had to fall back on a different pattern, one I learned well during my days as a reporter: when the deadlines, come, everything else waits.

So, next week, I’ll resume the stripes. My life this week was a bit boring. Thankfully, though, my students filled in the gaps.

Just going for a little ski at the university stadium.

Just going for a little ski at the university stadium.

The Siberian Writers Workshop is in full effect. Students seem to become bolder and more talkative during each session, and so the class meetings get richer, more exciting, more focused and even more funny. For all their skill and seriousness, I’ve got a fun and funny group of students. The more they laugh, the better the class works, and so I’m excited to see them prodding and joking with each other more and more with each class—while maintaining a seriousness and focus befitting their task. But that’s something we writer have got to remember from time to time: it’s okay to step back from the ledge and have some fun with our work. The world won’t end if we get our ending skewed a little bit in the first draft. Well—unless it’s a draft about the end of the world, and we did have one of those this week.

As a pair of colleagues explained earlier this week, Russian students are quite used to a style called the Pedagogy of Cooperation. There can be critique, but it must first be buffered with kindness and positive remarks. Those versed in the Iowa workshop method (also called the American workshop and simply the creative writing workshop) will understand that there’s seldom space for anything beside unmitigated truth. Often the critique can become quite competitive, intense, bold, and even ferocious. I’m working hard to keep the workshop on a middle ground: I don’t want students to spend too much time on unwarranted platitudes, but I also want respectful and purposeful honesty. So far, they’ve toed the line brilliantly, and the texts have been astonishingly good, even in their first go-around. What I’m even more excited about, though, is the growth of enthusiasm, as the students work together, share ideas, and process through new concepts just what might be possible to accomplish through fiction. This is fun to watch and to read and to hear.

It's a drivable snow. I promise.

It's a drivable snow. I promise.

Now, this snow: there’s a solid foot of it on the ground, even though we had a couple of mid-week melts. This is enough white stuff to shut down a mid-sized Midwestern U.S. town for a week, but the Siberians have it under control. It’d beautiful to see.

When the plows haven’t made it to the street yet, they manage to drive, but with some sensibility. For example, drivers don’t come to complete stops and then look confused when they start up again and fishtail. They slow down enough that they can time their arrival at lights and avoid stopping at all, thus keeping both momentum and traffic. It’s amazing what a bit of knowledge about the properties of physics can do for snow travel.

Thus: I propose a new international exchange. America should send drivers to Russia so they can learn and see firsthand that with just a touch of common sense, snow driving is, indeed, very possible. And Americans could return the favor—since last year featured record summer heat in Siberia, maybe U.S. citizens can share some if our proven methods in sunscreen application.

But seriously (and I’m looking directly at you, Huntington, WV and Cincinnati, OH) after what I’ve seen folks cope with just during this first snowstorm of the year, I will have no sympathy whatsoever later this winter when history repeats itself and your Facebook posts begin chronicle cities incapacitated by the local government’s inability to remove four inches of snow. No. Sympathy. At. All.

In the meantime, be nice to each other. This lousy election is almost done. It’s important, but don’t lose any friends over it. Seriously.

And remember, no matter who wins the presidency, the Fulbright Disclaimer will still apply: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Department of State or the Fulbright Program.

A little work in the warm cafe.

A little work in the warm cafe.

Dispatches from Siberia #4: Winter Is Coming (And Everyone Loves to Say So.)

Dispatches from Siberia #4: Winter Is Coming (And Everyone Loves to Say So.)

"Winter is Coming!" and then a pause until I nod and acknowledge that, yes, I know the show--that I understand. Over and over again, this conversation has happened. It hasn't gotten old yet, but it's getting a bit realistic. The primary catchphrase of the Game of Thrones television series is big deal here, precisely because winter really is coming. Quickly. 

I always imagined it would take a blizzard to put a Russian into a parka. There was no reason for this assumption, but it just seemed logical: a historical reputation for hardiness, the prevalence of cold, the fact that most humans hate bundling up until it's absolutely necessary. Those ideas got shattered earlier this week when I walked to the university office to run a few errands. Wearing a T-shirt under a wool cardigan, I was warned by no less than four colleagues that I ought to have a scarf on, and probably a hat as well. It was 55 degrees at the time.

This blog seeks to provide perspective. Speaking of which: does it seem we have a bit of a leaning situation going on here?

This blog seeks to provide perspective. Speaking of which: does it seem we have a bit of a leaning situation going on here?

This is still shorts and short-sleeve weather for most folks at home, I wanted to say. I didn't though: one of my resolutions before boarding the plane to Moscow was that I would avoid at every possible juncture the opportunity to become needlessly comparative. You know--the person who always says: yeah, but back home we... More listening, less explaining, I decided (a good philosophy all the time, not just when traveling). So I nodded and said thanks for the advice. I have a couple of scarfs, and I'll use them. Hats, too. I'm just not quite ready to give in to them. Not during the daytime at least. But that 55-degree afternoon? It turned into a 28-degree night. So, they had a point: if my visit to the office required the normal commute home to the city center, I would've run into night, and therefore a deep chill. In reality, all I had to do was walk back across the street, which left me safely ensconced in my flat before the temperature took a cliff-dive. The next morning, my phone told me it was 26 degrees. "Well, that escalated quickly," I mumbled, but by the middle of the morning, it was back to cardigan temperatures and sunshine. 

Before I left West Virginia, I heard more than a few people gasp as soon as the word Siberia came out of my mouth, mostly on the account of the assumed snow. As the last paragraph indicates, it's about to get cold here, and it will likely stay that way for a very long time. But I've gotten a handful of notes from other researchers in Russia, proclaiming jealousy of the sunshine-laden photos I've posted on social media. Siberia, it turns out, is a veritable paradise of sun and pleasant temperatures. At least for the moment. And yet, many people are bundled like it's mid-winter. As I write this, it's Friday afternoon and I've got two windows propped open. At the bus stop below, at least half the students and all the ladies with shopping bags from the nearby store are in puffy parkas with hood up and hats on. Some wear gloves. There are a few in snow boots, even though there have been only two instances of precipitation in the last month. Where I had imagined a toughness with respect to the weather, the reality is thoughtful preparation.

My Internet connection was set up this week, and I very much hope these two had something to do with it.

My Internet connection was set up this week, and I very much hope these two had something to do with it.

Of course, pragmatic as life looks in the daytime, the evening will shake things up. After my Russian lesson this afternoon, I'll catch a bus to the city center, where a theatre is in the third day of an American film festival. Netflix and Hulu don't work here for licensing reasons. Pandora and Spotify are null for the same reason. So, I make it a point to enjoy entertainment in English when it comes. I fully expect that when I arrive in the center, I'll see the same thing everyone sees in every city: waiting outside the dozen nightclubs of Novosibirsk, the teenagers will have forsaken their daytime coats for short dresses and T-shirts. Because if there's one thing that can be counted on in every culture, the kids will put party before health. 

Aside from the weather, my attention has turned to preparing for workshop classes, which begin next week, and the continued struggle of my own Russian lessons--one of the most humbling, frustrating experiences of my life. The struggle to remember subtle differences in letters. The conflation of sounds. The vocabulary that eludes me at every turn. But there is hope. Following Tuesday's two-and-a-half hour session with multiple teachers, I proceeded directly to the pizza place where I'd struggled mightily through an order the week prior. With no English and no pointing, I managed to order a large pepperoni to go. The same girl who was so patient but so confused a week ago clapped this time. She actually applauded, right there at the counter. Bored eaters looked up with scrunched brows and shaking heads. This should've made me feel like a child, but it was a victory. Learning to connect with a person on their terms is one of the most valuable and essential skills a human can possess, and this experience of struggling every day to communicate, to accomplish the most menial of tasks--it's letting me approach live moment-by-moment with greater nuance and greater appreciation for the people around me. Whether they've worn their scarf or not. 

Russian lessons: lots of strife and the occasional small victory.

Russian lessons: lots of strife and the occasional small victory.

Next week, the primary work of my fellowship begins: the students have been selected and my merry band of burgeoning creative writers will meet for the first time. I can't wait to hear the stories they bring with them. Until then, I leave you with the immortal words of the Fulbright Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Department of State or the Fulbright Program.