Standard advice to a writer is often: “Write what you know.” How then did you, with your roots in the American Midwest, so successfully create a character in “Watching Oksana” like Aleksei Andreiovitch Smirnov, including details from his life in Odessa, his experiences as a seaman, and nuances about bars in Superior, Wisconsin?
—Marion Lang, Menomonie, Wisconsin
This question reminds me of one of the best compliments I’ve ever received as a writer. I’d been part of a writer’s weekend with Samuel Delany, who’d earlier read “Watching Oksana” blind—no author’s name on it. When I met him, he told me he’d thought I was going to be a forty year old sailor.
So, yes, I was writing outside my immediate area of knowledge. The fact is that I’ve always wondered about the particular advice to write what you know. A writer does start from personal experience—it’s the building block and the filter we look through—but we know many things and in many different ways. We read. We listen. We observe. We also imagine, which is perhaps the writer’s most intense but productive work. Often, when I’m going into territory that is new to me, whether it’s looking for the right small detail for a room I’ve never seen or trying to understand the motivation of a character who’s totally unlike me, I ask myself questions. What is this like? What is this person thinking? And why is he having this reaction? The answer doesn’t necessarily arrive at once, but an idea presents itself sooner or later and I think, yes. There it is.
On the other hand, some things can be rather easily copied from life. For instance, I had shingles before I started writing “Watching Oksana,” and poor Aleksei got stuck with them, too. As far as creating places for characters to inhabit, even if a writer doesn’t know a place firsthand, it’s possible to do enough research to provide at least a few landmarks to suggest life in a place like Odessa. When it comes to that Superior bar, it’s just a generic composite although, Marion, I lived in Wisconsin. How could I not know about Wisconsin bars?