In the beginning, you just start writing. You write, and you write anything because anything is better than a blank page with its cursor blinking back at you. I started writing the second part of Minu Eesti, My Estonia, that same way — whatever came out, came out, and a lot of it stayed. Only later did the story begin to congeal and I could see it for what it was. But that was later, not at the beginning.
I wrote what became the prologue at Vello Vikerkaar’s place in Nõmme. I stayed there for a day or two in December 2009, taking advantage of his hospitality and couch and free books and magazines. His wife Liina made me pasta and told me of how she had once hitchhiked to India. Terrific people, the Vikerkaars. This stay coincided with a photoshoot for Anne ja Stiil. It was just as one would imagine it, with makeup artists and stylists and lighting specialists.
Later I strolled over to the National Library on Tõnismägi to man the Petrone Print table at the Christmas Fair and sign autographs and listen to a recording of a cool jazz version of “Põgene, Vaba Laps” that was being played on repeat at a nearby booth. And while I was sitting there, listening to “Põgene, Vaba Laps,” wiping the makeup from my face, I had to ask myself the question, how the hell did this kid from Long Island wind up writing a monthly column for a goddamn Estonian women’s magazine?
It’s not like it’s a bad gig. I enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out whatever it is that Estonian women want to read about. But, let’s just say that when I was eight years old, lying on the grass outside my home, staring up at the stars, longing, dreaming, yearning, I never thought about being a columnist for an Estonian women’s magazine. Not once. So it had to be fate, right? It was my fate to be their columnist. I tried the fate argument with Vikerkaar, but the cantankerous Canadian cuss wouldn’t have any of it. He’s one of these literary frontiersmen who still refuses to admit that someone else is driving the bus.
And that set the framework of My Estonia 2. It’s a debate. Fate versus free will. The dreaming boy in the grass versus the columnist for an Estonian women’s magazine. Which side are you on? Since it takes place in 2003, it’s a story about a 24-year-old father to be trying to adjust to the realities of his new life in a foreign land and wondering if they are what he longed for. It’s why the Estonian title of the book is “What do you want?” — Mida sa tahad?
The reason there even is a second book is because I never finished the first one. I was hundreds of pages in, closing in on my deadline, and the publishing house hierarchy was asking, “When will it be finished?” And I realized that I was only half done, and if I had kept on like that, I would have wound up writing a 700-page opus about an 18-month period of my life. So there had to be a part two, if only to finish what I started with part one.
This begs the question: Will I write a 350-page book about every year of my life from now on? The answer is no. This is a two-time affair.
While I was writing the first part and, especially after I finished it and became alienated from it, as it seems a lot of writers become from their work, I developed a reading habit. I had always read before, but not like this. I was just devouring books. As soon as I finished one, I needed another, and so on. Some stayed with me, others went right through me, leaving little residue.
One that stayed with me was Epp’s book, Kas süda on ümmargune? It’s translated in English as Around the Heart in Eleven Years, but between us it’s just known as “The Heart Book.” The reason this book stayed with me is because I read it at least half a dozen times, as I helped to edit the English version. Epp plays with time and memory, the storyline leaps back and forth through the years, and it creates a sense of disorientation, of timelessness. I enjoyed this lack of linearity and wanted to apply some of it to the second part of My Estonia.
Another book that stayed with me is Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. After I wrote the first part, I developed a hunger for ex-pat fiction. So I looked up the regulars. Tried a little Hemingway. Delved into Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But bull fights and the riviera aren’t exactly for me, if you know what I mean. Miller was far closer to my reality, and therefore easier to appreciate. He’s known mostly for the obscenity trials. This was the man who carpet bombed his audience in the 1930s with the “c word,” cunt that is, but I’ve never been roped in by a narrator like that. He was foul, at times, but he was also honest. And when you are frequenting the red light district of Paris, you have to be honest.
Plus, it was Miller who introduced me to the concept of the “fictional autobiography.” And that is what this book is. It’s nearly all true, and yet, it’s a work of fiction. It must be, and you’ll see why. But I bet that most autobiographies contain an element of fiction. People tend to not remember the same things the same way.
There were other books that served as guideposts: Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami, Tristessa by Jack Kerouac, The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell. Even Goldfinger by Ian Fleming. I am sure that if you squint at My Estonia 2, you can find traces of all these authors. I listened to Django Reinhardt while I wrote most of it, and revisited Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring. So I had something in mind, but what was it?
There are many themes in this new book. Fate is certainly one of them, but the other is alienation, both from the country of origin and the new country. The main character returns to Estonia and tries to fit in there, even though he is deeply foreign, can’t speak the language, doesn’t get the humor, and can’t even remember his new relatives’ names. There is also the theme of alienation between people within Estonia, and how the narrator reacts to this different emotional climate.
Another theme is Europe and, especially, Estonia’s new place in the pantheon of northern European countries as this limbo land – this gritty kid from the streets, to steal a line from Fletch — that has exited the post-Soviet orbit only to wake up to Scandinavian-style consumer culture. That’s why a great number of the settings in this book are banks and office buildings and shopping centers. Those are the places where Estonians spend a lot of their time! When people hear “My Estonia” they think you are going to write a book about some old forest brother sitting in the woods somewhere reading Kalevipoeg. But Selver is just as Estonian as a song festival, isn’t it?
There are other ways to look at this book, as a coming of age story, a clash of idealism versus reality, old versus new, past versus the future, America versus Estonia. Oh well. How much can you really write about a book that you wrote? That defeats the point of the book, doesn’t it? I finished this book at our kitchen table on the day after Christmas, 2010, slightly over a year after I started it in Vello’s living room. It’s not easy to write a book when you have a full-time job and a family to look after. But I did it, and for that simple reason, I am satisfied. I hope readers are too. And since this book is due in stores on or around February 24th, it is dedicated to the Estonian people.