In my travels I sometimes meet people I want to forget. But more often, there are characters I want always to remember! On my last trip to Russia, finishing research on my new novel, THE SOUL AJAR, I spent long nights beside the Black Sea throwing back shots of vodka with an old bear of a Russian who claimed to have been a prisoner of war during WWII.
To my reckoning Nazdi Khabarovsky would have to be at least 90 years old to have fought in that war. He looked a mere youth of 80, but he was born in the Caucasus Mountains that tower over the Black Sea region of Russia, where people are known for their amazing longevity, so maybe Nazdi's war tales were true. The story I loved most was why he became a writer.
As he told it, once during combat his plane was shot down. "You were a pilot?" I asked. "Not important," he said. And where was his plane shot down? "Not important." What he wanted to stress was that he was shot down over a forest buried in ice and snow. That a ravine of soft, deep snow had kept his plane from exploding on impact with the earth. And that everyone was killed but him. Thus, he lay semi-conscious in sub-zero weather for days, during which he lost all feeling in his feet, his legs and groin.
And that is how the enemy found him, patched him up and threw him in a prisoner-of-war camp. "The Germans?" I asked. As usual, Nazdi waved his hand. "Not important." After several weeks, he slowly regained feeling in his limbs. But no feeling returned to his testicles. "Frostbite. But not important." What was important was that after four years of torture and starvation he was liberated by the Yanks. And in a Red Cross hospital, several of his toes "and other things" were surgically removed.
Nazdi understood he could never have children. So he decided he would have stories instead. He would write about all the absurdities and tragedies of war. About prisoners eating 'shit sausages,' from the cut-up intestines of dead comrades. About a stolen radio, men weeping at the sound of violins. About sadistic guards, knocked out and thrown on ice floes, and how prisoners cheered as the ice floes slowly sank. About bare-assed girls from distant villages backing up to link fences so prisoners could have sex with them. About tubercular men tenderly dancing together, coughing up blood on each other's shoulders. And about how even survivors were afraid to go home, knowing Stalin would execute them as 'traitors.'
After decades of writing stories that were never published - Russians did not want to read about war - Nazdi decided that NOW was the time for his big book. After 9/11, Iraq, Syria, the bloody revolutions of the Middle East, war was fashionable again! And so he began his POW memoir, the title of which broadly translates into English as HOW I SAVE MY LIFE BUT LOSE MY TESTICLES. "Many years in writing," Nazdi said. "Many false starts and detours."
In his struggle to turn random stories into his OPUS, Nazdi had finally found the perfect role model, a writer whose books were guiding him. "Real genius who help me upchuck this hairball of novel stuck in throat for decades." When I asked who, Nazdi threw out his arms like a man greeting heirs. "Your American! Most famous writer in all world! Real Einstein of words!" "Ernest Hemingway?" I asked. "Nyet! Nyet!" Nazdi shouted. "More better than Hemingway." I searched my brain. "Saul Bellow? Stephen King?" "Nyet! Nyet!"
He stared at me in shock. "You don't know who was true American genius?? Was like American Shakespeare! Wrote many dozen books!" "Okay. Then give me a title." Nazdi sat back, struggling to translate titles into English. He finally leaned forward. "He write about... nickles. Da! Many nickles." I frowned, groping for some genius book about nickles. Or metals. Nazdi downed two shots of vodka, stared at his glass, then whispered. "Was like Star Wars...nickles... Martian...nickles." I sipped my vodka. Upchucked hairballs. Martians. Nickles. Then, like an epiphany, it came to me.
I turned to Nazdi and smiled. "You mean Ray Bradbury. THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES. He jumped up from his chair and danced. "Da! Da! Great American genius! Bradbury. Loved by all the world!" He waved his arms and kissed the air. "He say novel is like big hairball. Takes patience. Many years to upchuck." After a while, Nazdi sat down again. "Now we live in age of terror. Mass killings everywhere. May be my war not so great, too long ago. So. I write book about surviving. How old prisoner of war lose toes, lose testicles, lose mind. But still could not be brainwashed. Not be destroyed. Good lesson for soldier today. Maybe also good for writers."
The day we said da svidanya, goodbye, he introduced me to his son, a big strapping man in his sixties. "Your son?" I said. "Da! Four sons, two daughters, many grandkids!" I stood there thinking of frostbitten testicles, which, presumably, had been surgically removed, which, presumably, is why Nazdi decided to father books instead. He waved and drove away, but in that last moment he looked back and winked. So maybe none of it was true. Still, it makes great fiction.
Months later Nazdi sent me a chapter of his novel, translated into a ripped-to-the-tits Caucasian-Russian version of English. Included was a kind of survival kit, based on 'four grueling years as a prisoner of war.' (Memoir? Fiction? Who can know?) Either way, he's right: it's also an excellent guide to surviving as a writer. Herewith, for your pleasure.
The POW's Guide to Surviving:
1. Never give up hope.
2. Never scale down your dreams (of liberation, or success).
3. Create a routine: a time to work, a time to read, a time to sit and think, even pray.
4. Get Physical. Jogging, stretching, sit ups. It toughens the mind as well as the body.
5. Be prepared for torture, thirst, starvation. This is why you toughen your body and mind.
6. Keep a secret space for yourself. Don't give things away, your thoughts or dreams. (Your plots!)
7. Say the opposite of what they expect. Keep them guessing and unsure. (Readers like mystery)
8. Go back to daydreams and childhood, when you were innocent. It keeps you pure.
9. Your brain cannot be washed. In spite of torture, pain, starvation. Don't change what you believe in. Don't give in! (For writers, that means not quitting. Ever!)
10. Find humor where you can. Laugh, even if it kills you. Laugh out loud. It shocks the brain.
11. Find three people to trust, love and care for. In return, they will love and care for you when you are down and out. You don't need more than three. More is a burden.
12. Be patient. Good things (liberation, or success) will come if you believe.
13. Lying is important to survival. Lie your head off. (The best liars are the best storytellers.)
14. Always act dumber than you are. Hide your intelligence. Use it as a secret weapon.
15. Never give up. Never! When you give up, you die.
16. When your stomach is full (or, your rent is paid) give thanks.
17. You were born. You are here. That in itself is a miracle. Again, give thanks.
Happy Writing, Happy Reading! Please add to the above list in your comments!