Writing fiction for me begins with a chattering at the back of the brain, something akin to coming apart. A voice, a suspicion, a split in the road. Under other circumstances taking that kind of thinking seriously might be a first step toward madness. The NEA news, when it came, was a kind of confirmation to the contrary. "Surprise!" it seemed to say, "all irrational thoughts are not wrong thoughts." Gather together enough of them and a person could end up with a novel.
From the novel Leaving Katya
I plucked the cord that bound the envelopes. It was cinched as tight as a guitar string on all four sides and the letters themselves could not be examined without untying the knot. Only the postmarks and the return addresses were accessible. The addresses were written in English but followed the Soviet format--backward with the name of the city first, then the street, then the sender.
I flicked through the corners and saw the dates and the cities change. February 14th, 1993, the day before she left me, was the last one from New York. After a month they picked up again in Utah. There were unfamiliar small American towns called Moab, Ephraim and Nephi; then came Provo and finally Salt Lake City. She must have lingered in Salt Lake for there was no correspondence from her for several weeks. What had happened to her there that had caused her to stop writing? Something significant it seemed, for when the correspondence resumed again it did so in a flurry. She wrote a letter every two days between mid-April and the beginning of May as her postmarks drifted back eastward: Omaha, Chicago, Fort Wayne, Akron, the Bronx, and finally Manhattan once again.
I flicked back further in time to see if she had marked the same moments that had stayed with me. It seemed she had. There was a letter written the morning after she had finished--the date of the November full moon. There was a thick one on the day of our wedding and another thick one following the evening of our engagement. There was no denying it. This pile could very well contain the key to it all--a kind of Katya Rosetta Stone.
I pulled at the end of the string to see if it would loosen. It would not. How unfair. Why did it have to be tied up so tightly? Wasn't I being honest? Wasn't I just trying to learn the nature of our process and then find out why she abandoned it? I didn't deserve this obstacle. Some Russians I knew would even call it fate that I had found these letters. No doubt they recorded scores of hollow impasses that a simpler marriage would have effortlessly plowed through. But I hadn't had a simple marriage. I'd had a mess. And now here was a kind of legend to that mess. How easy it would be--to go through every letter and note each mistaken impression. And once I had this overview I could plot the route I had traveled that stretched from that first white night with her all the way forward to my present exile. And then I could put an arrow on the map that said "you are here."
Paul Greenberg's first novel, Leaving Katya, (G.P. Putnam's Sons) was selected for Barnes & Nobles' Discover Great New Writers spring, 2002 series. His essays, fiction, criticism and humor have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Vogue Magazine, Boston Globe Sunday Ideas, Forward, and on NPR's All Things Considered. Throughout the 1990s, Greenberg was based in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans. During that time he trained journalists in Siberia, ran management seminars in Tajikistan, produced conflict resolution programming in the former Yugoslavia, and created Bosnia's most popular current affairs news magazine. A speaker of Russian and French, Mr. Greenberg lives in New York City.
Photo courtesy of the author