In the spring of 2018, as I was finishing the second year of my three-year MFA program, I came into the office of my graduate advisor and said, “For my thesis, I’d like to write a book about growing up in Soviet Russia and being an immigrant in America. Obviously, it’ll be informed by my own experience, but do you think I should make it fiction or nonfiction?”
“That’s easy,” my advisor said. “Definitely nonfiction. You have an interesting story to tell, and memoirs sell really well these days.”
It did sound pretty easy: You tell the story you already know the way you remember it, no research required, and voila—a memoir! My first book had been a biography, so I told myself I knew what I was doing. I began to outline, to write the first scenes, and immediately ran into a problem. Or rather, problems.
For one, writing a memoir is not like spilling your guts out in a therapy session. To make a book, the long, twisty, messy, connection- and contradiction-packed story we call life requires a kind of culling that will yield a dynamic, digestible plot, but when the story is yours, it’s hard to cull. Everything seems important. Everything that’s ever happened has culminated in what you are.
For two, memory—at least, my memory—is not only fickle but full of gaps, and mine was lacking quite a few crucial “plot points.” Clearly, research would be required, some of it involving interviews: with the people in my life (who may or may not be thrilled by the idea) and with the people who are no longer in my life (whom I may or may not be able to find).
It was contemplating those interviews that made me realize there existed a problem number three, and it was a doozy: How do I portray other people, real people, in a real way, without hurting, distorting, or offending them? When I put a sliver of somebody else’s messy story on the page alongside mine, will I be inevitably unfair to them? Will I by default simplify them? Will I have to—deliberately or not—reveal secrets others would rather keep hidden?
Of course, authors do this all the time. Memoirists paint their companions, friends, and enemies with ruthless color and merciless perspective. But only having plunged into my own memoir did I realize that the process requires courage, a nuanced navigation of relationships, and running the risk of destroying those relationships. It became quickly apparent to me that I didn’t have this sort of courage, and so, The Light of Seven Days was born: a novel about a woman who is not at all like me, yet whose story shares with mine everything important.
A friend once jokingly suggested that I should put a standard disclaimer at the front of the book: This is a work of fiction; any resemblance to actual persons or events is purely coincidental. This would not, however, be true. While all my characters are fictional, some of them are based, to a greater or lesser degree, on the actual persons I’ve encountered, loved, detested, admired, resented, and missed. As for events, while none of them are factual, almost all of them are true. The resemblance this novel bears to actuality is never coincidental.
I’m sure I don’t need to expound here on the difference between fact and truth, but writing The Light of Seven Days, I found myself reflecting on the concept again and again. I found myself looking for the permeable boundary, for the balance between the two. This fraught liaison is essentially the root and goal of literature, isn’t it? Fiction takes facts and changes them, molds them, recoats and reshapes them, cuts them to pieces and splices them together in a verbal autopsy of a human life, all so it can expose their deeper truth. Their essence. The part of a fact that matters beyond the author. The universal seed of the particular. By this logic, all literature is myth: “What happened” becomes “what happens,” and that perpetual happening causes us to feel empathy, to relate to characters who are as different from us as we can imagine, to discover ourselves in foreign settings and dramas we haven’t lived. It is our guide to the human condition.
In one sense, The Light of Seven Days is a work of historical fiction: It is partly set in the context of a collapsed civilization, a realm that no longer exists. I ended up doing quite a bit of research, after all—filling the gaps in my memory, in my understanding of the intricacies of classical ballet, and in my knowledge of several aspects of the late Soviet Union. At the same time, the book is partly autobiographical: My protagonist and I both grew up Jewish in Leningrad; lived through Chernobyl, the Afghan war, and perestroika; escaped to America from the rise of Russian neo-Nazism; and made a home here. Having both entered intensive professional training as children—she as a dancer, I as a concert pianist—we endured many of the same struggles and epiphanies. Still, in the end, what matters here is neither history nor my own story. Those are just facts. The truths I tried to mine from those facts have to do not with what happened but with what happens: How we survive in a world where love walks hand in hand with murder. How we are connected across centuries, oceans, races, and ideas. What it means to have an identity and why we crave it. What it means to have faith. What lengths we go to so as not to be alone in the world.