The actual journey took about a month in 2013. We left Williamsburg, Virginia, by train to New York, spent precious and never-enough time with my late dear friend Fr. Patrick Brennen Fitzgerald, and laughed all night with my cousin Roy and his wife Patty, two of my favorite people. We ate our way through Manhattan, and the next day flew to St. Petersburg where we boarded the famous trans-Siberian railway. Actual travel time on the train was about a week, but we disembarked for exploration several times, ending about three weeks later in Vladivostok.
I knew from the inception this was a writing project, and my son, Michael, was along to take thousands of photographs. They would be our primary souvenir, of course, and used to trigger memories and tell stories. But they would also go on to be used in solo art shows he displayed as well as for use in a myriad of articles for print and online journals. The book has a healthy selection of Michael’s photographs.
While the text has just over a dozen chapters, various versions have been printed in different combinations of content, style, format, and with or without artwork. Usually with. I knew I didn’t have the authority or expertise to write historically or with any accurate social commentary about Russia or the rail, and others had already done so with more skill than I could have anyway, including one of my favorites, Ian Frazier (Travels in Siberia). David Green, too, of NPR, wrote specifically about the ride in Midnight in Siberia. I had no intention of duplicating these men.
Being the son of a father who was almost ninety years old at the time, and the father of a son who was about to venture out into his own life at the time, I found myself deep in the narrative of middle-age, of letting go, of contemplating what’s next, and of trying to balance planning ahead with my natural tendency toward spontaneity.
So to include my father on the journey, the early stories were framed as letters to my father from the dining car of the railway. I like them; I like personal approaches to writing so long as the reader recognizes herself in the piece as much as the characters on the train. This was going along swimmingly and a handful of journals published the pieces with this format.
Then I went to Ireland and participated in a workshop with the deeply talented Jacki Lyden and Elizabeth Rosner. It was Liz who casually asked when reading a story of mine about floods along the Amur River, “Why the hell is this a letter? Who would possibly, during a once-in-a-century flood sit in a dining car and write a letter?”
Damn. She’s good.
So I took all the pieces published that way and rewrote in standard narrative form and discovered how much more I can do that way, and still include my father in the content without the reader mirroring Liz’s sentiment.
So I republished them all, some in various forms including other essays wrapped into them and some abbreviated and some much longer than other versions. In fact, a few anecdotes ended up in nearly all the stories published. In the end, there are about fifteen chapters rewritten and combined nineteen different ways published in twenty-one magazines and journals. But that’s not the book. The book is not a collection of essays, and I never intended it to be published as such. The Iron Scar is a narrative, one long story from New York to Vladivostok, covering more than ten thousand miles, seventeen times zones, and about two hundred pages.
I must, however, give thanks to those publishers who found something worth sharing in my stories.
The Maine Review “On the Occasion of that Inevitable Conversation with my Son”
Kestrel: A Journal of Literature and Art “Tracks” “Checkmate” “Off-Track”
Olive Press “Dissidents”
World War Two History Magazine “Meanwhile in Leningrad”
Columbia Journal “Tiger, Taiga”
Southern Humanities Review “Leningrad Story”
Nowhere Magazine “Exiles and Dissidents”
The Alabama Literary Review (December 2021)
The Virginian Pilot “It’s Not Their Fault”
My last book, A Third Place: Notes in Nature, was published by Kim Davis of Madville Press in Lake Dallas, Texas. She did a beautiful job and I enjoyed working with her and her team. An editor at a significant publishing house in New York read several of the pieces above and asked to see a more complete manuscript, which I promptly sent to her. Her editorial staff enjoyed the work, loved that it is more about fathers and sons and moving on than it is about Russia or Siberia or trains, but the marketing department said they simply cannot market this book—it is much too niche, and it isn’t worth it unless I had a reach like Frazier or Green. I don’t. I can’t even reach them.
I knew I would be in great hands at Madville, and Kim had shown interest in it before, so I signed a contract. I actually don’t think it has a niche audience, and I believe it can, with the proper marketing and publicity, touch anyone who is a parent, has an aging parent, wonders what the hell to do with their lives.
But for me, this book is a diary, a journal, a remembrance of a time when my son and I rode the railway across two continents one summer, on a journey that continues still.
The Iron Scar: A Father and Son in Siberia is scheduled for release in April 2022.