Troika is my debut novel, but it's a debut only in the sense that it is the first of my novels that an editor acquired and published. The more complicated backstory is that during the twenty years preceding Troika, I wrote five novels -- none of which caught the interest of a publisher.
For most of my adult life, writing was my private passion. It was one that I pursued in solitude and shared with only a small group of "gentle readers" -- people whose affection for me compelled them to praise my work and prevented them from criticizing it in any meaningful way. (I should note that gentle readers are great for your ego but terrible for your career. If you can stand the pain, show your work to the more objective, critical types who will identify the flaws. Easier said than done.)
So when news of Troika's publication came out, many people in my life were stunned to learn that I'd written a novel. They'd never read anything that I'd written, never even heard me talk about writing. "You just decided to write a book and got it published?" some of them asked incredulously. "Just like that?" To satisfy their curiosity, I had no choice but to retrace the last twenty years of my life and explain to them how this novel was no hundred-year flood, but rather the culmination of years of writing, frustration, rejection and more writing.
My first novel, written in my late twenties, was a rip-off of The Nose by Nikolai Gogol. It was also a rip-off of many other books inspired by The Nose, including Philip Roth's The Breast. In my case, the protagonist lost not his nose, but one of his most cherished appendages. After first giving the book to a gentle reader (she confirmed its brilliance), I submitted it to a major publisher, who then promptly returned it with a form rejection letter. I was surprised and disheartened by the rejection, but years later I would concede that my book was awful in every possible way and that my gentle reader had, with great compassion, misled me.
Next up was a piece of historical fiction that took place in the nineteenth century. The opening scene depicted a man in a pig mask torturing the protagonist with a ferocious beetle. Enough said. I sent the manuscript to an agent, who returned it with a curt note that described the novel as weird, disturbing and unpublishable. All true.
After sulking for several years, I wrote a novel about a man who was sexually abused as a child, then prosecutes the offender thirty years later. At the trial, the victim-protagonist falls in love with the rapist's nineteen-year-old daughter -- and what ensues is a complex romantic relationship between two people who were both harmed by the same man. It's hard to imagine given the subject matter, but it was a very funny book (poignant too, I was told).
By this time, I had learned that the woman who lives in the apartment directly above mine was a literary agent. So the next time I saw Victoria in the elevator, I cornered her and all but forced my manuscript on her. (I believe she eyed the Emergency button.) To my amazement, she called a few days later and told me that she loved the book. She took me on as a client and tried to find my novel a proper home, but despite her terrific efforts we didn't succeed in getting it published; it just wasn't good enough. "Write something better," she said.
My next novel was a crime thriller. I figured I'd try my hand at a different genre, something with more commercial appeal, and see what would happen. Well, what happened is that I wrote a crime thriller with no thrills (and not much of a crime). We couldn't sell this one either.
Next, I wrote a book about a lonely, single, depressed guy with brown hair who lives in Manhattan. (One of my gentle readers said the character looked and sounded a lot like me. Not so gentle.) I gave the manuscript to Victoria, who told me that she hated the characters and the story bored her. She refused to show it to a single editor. (Not so gentle.)
All of which leads me to Troika...
After moping for a few months, I started a novel that included a young Cuban woman who works in a Florida strip club. The book went nowhere, but this character -- Perla -- stuck in my mind. I adored her. I then wrote a short story about a boy named Julian who was raised in a Siberian orphanage. I spent a lot of time thinking about these two characters, and just like we do when we set two single friends up on a blind date, I decided to make an introduction - to see what would happen if Julian from Russia walked into a club and met Perla from Cuba.
Well, when these two characters first met in a dark club in Ft. Lauderdale, sparks flew. And when I realized that Perla and Julian cared deeply for each other, it felt like the hard part of my work was done; these characters would now have to bear the burden of completing their own story. I'd found two characters I loved, and then a third, and I let these three members of the troika guide me. They told me how they felt, where they wanted to go, what they feared, what did and didn't matter to them. They told me how they wanted their lives to be portrayed.
At the very end of the book, Perla is faced with a major decision. At first I didn't know which way she should go. I sat on the ending for several days, trying it out one way, then the other. I couldn't decide which was best, which choice was more true to her character. Then it occurred to me that maybe I should ask her. So I closed my eyes and I spoke to her.
I said, "Perla, tell me what you want to do. Are you staying or going? What's it going to be?" I pictured her face as she thought about it for a few seconds -- and then she told me that she'd made up her mind. And she said it with such conviction, with such force, that I had no choice but to honor her wish, to give her the ending that she wanted so badly.
To have unwavering faith in your characters, to trust them with their own decisions -- for me, as a writer, that is the ultimate gift.