No Better Friend

The protagonist in Ivan’s Wife, Dimitri, has a steadfast best friend named Christian. Christian is a strong, loyal friend who worries about Dimitri and often confronts him. In this excerpt, the friends have a difficult conversation. Christian’s reaction illuminates the depths of his own vulnerability. Dimitri expresses his disdain for therapy and medication, believing that he needs to avoid certain triggers in his life. Christian suggests that seeking help might benefit Dimitri, but their conversation becomes heated as Dimitri defends his position. Tensions rise between them as they confront their struggles and insecurities. The dialogue reveals underlying issues of fear for one another. 

It starts with Christian asking Dimitri about his recent stay in a mental hospital:

Dimitri answers:

“No worse for wear. Anna’s been staying out of my hair, and Consuelo’s been trying to fatten me up. The doctors have called a few times, wanting me to schedule an appointment, but I don’t need to. I can already hear the lecture on the miracle of psychotropic drugs. A few days with my wife, and I’m better than new.” 

Christian grew quiet, rubbing his forehead. “Dimitri, maybe that’s not such a good idea.”

“What’d you mean?”

“Therapy and medicine might help you, buddy.”

“Hell, no! Yeah, I’m screwed up, but I’m not a psycho. All I need is to steer clear of my weird niece and for my father to stop treating me like a goddamn disease.”

“Calm down,” said Christian. All I meant was that a lot has happened, and maybe this is your time to finally figure out what’s causing the delusions and whatnot. You can’t blame Ivan and Anna for everything, and Elena is not a panacea.”

“Bullshit!” I snapped. “My wife is pampering me. Being with her makes me forget the last few weeks. And when did you become Sigmund Freud? You had a Norman Rockwell childhood with two parents who adored you. Find a skid mark in your life, and then we’ll talk!”

A red flush spread across his face. He put his fists on his thighs, his chest slowly moving up and down. He reminded me of the poor saps at the asylum sitting in the waiting room before shock therapy. “Hey, I’m sorry, man…I didn’t mean anything. I can be an asshole. What can I do? I love you, man, you know that.”

He wouldn’t talk. The stress had built a nasty rash on his neck; I doubted he knew because he kept scratching it, which made it worse. I’d never seen Christian like that; it made me feel like a terrible friend. 

He gave me a passing glance with a slight nod, signaling he accepted my apology. I felt like crap; Christian had visited me every day at Clayborn, and the nurses said he stood outside my room for hours when I was in solitary. There was no better friend. Christian was the saint to my devil. I loved the guy. 

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Indifference and Passion

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Challenges Ahead

Only a few chapters left, and the last ones are the hardest. I’m not sure how much falls under the difficulty of concluding a complicated mystery and how much resides in the events of my own life. I guess it doesn’t matter. Ivan’s Wife has been a wonderful, frustrating, heart-wrenching experience to write. The characters are multi-dimensional and, at times, disturbing. Still, I love the characters and want to do them justice. Although Pages in the Wind was challenging, Ivan’s Wife has been my biggest challenge.

In this chapter, Dimitri, the main character, learns why he was coaxed to Russia. The secrets are life-changing; he must reach into whatever strength he has left to handle what lies ahead. 

I stepped across the austere room to the only window and pulled back the red linen drapes, coughing as dust exploded like dirty snow in my face. The narrow casement window overlooked the fountain and swung outward. Outside, the mist and wind were breathy and smelled like gardenias, so I cranked the handle to invite clean air into the misery. It wouldn’t budge. I glanced at the steel vault door and realized it would be hard to escape. It was on the third floor, and the window was stuck and had thick glazing bars. My heart quivered for a few seconds before regaining its rhythm. Without the roar of water spilling into the fountain and soothing wafts of fresh air, there was no way to let the gloom out. I felt trapped and garroted by the insanity that breeds from isolation.

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Crowded Room

Crowded Room

Ivan’s Wife is almost in the edit stage. Hardest ending ever. But, who likes simple? Not me. I’ve enjoyed the characters and the crazy parallels. In this excerpt, Dimitri finds his private room invaded. There is an interesting parallel at the end he won’t see coming.

I carefully set down my mother’s picture and listened. It had to be my imagination, like waking up in the middle of the night thinking you’d heard a suspicious noise downstairs. But, when I turned toward the door, I noticed two shadows poised like evil specters in the hallway. It was true. My sanctuary had been invaded. 

And the door had no lock. 

Another knock. A little heavier this time. But, still oddly rhythmic. Not a man’s knock. One knuckle. Three taps. Hardly a demand to open the door but not tentative either.

“Uncle Dimitri?”

“Shit,” I whispered, feeling blood rush like storm troopers to my head. Prickly sensations crept through my body as every muscle readied for battle. Anna. No way could I allow her to get away with invading my private space. A place that, until now, was known only to me. The safe haven where I talked with my mother.

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The last two

By Saylor DeSmet

Two more chapters and Ivan’s Wife goes to editing. This book has been cathartic during an extremely difficult time in my personal life. At times I wonder how my writing might change if life rolled along easily. Maybe I’ll find out someday. Who knows.

In this chapter, the characters are in Moscow attending the debut of Ivan’s wife. Tension builds.

Music, a mix of violins, cello, and flutes, tiptoed like a soft breeze into the quiet. The children and the men working in the field faded into nondescript houses and disappeared. The beautiful woman, twisting a strand of her hair around a slender finger, pretended not to notice the dashing man who held her with his eyes as he walked toward her. You could tell his presence moved her, her chest rose and her cheeks grew red as he approached her. Her hair tumbled down like a dark veil over her beautiful face.

Should be a fun trip finishing this novel and picking the right male to play the role of Dimitri. I must say it was fun and not difficult at all writing in a male voice. hmmm…

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Two More

Two more chapters and Ivan’s Wife is finished. The final two chapters are challenging but my characters will come through. In this chapter, Dimitri arrives in Moscow for his father’s long awaited opera.

It was easy to get lost in the magic of the old theatre. I could feel the creative presence of musicians taking the stage to share their art with theatre goers over the last two centuries. Whether it was war or famine, triumph or sorrow, music had the ability to touch the hearts of friends and enemies in much the same way. A myriad of emotions, nurtured through the passing of time, rippled through the theatre and quieted my racing heart. If only music could have united my father and me—if only for a time. 

I have thoroughly enjoyed Dimitri. He was a pleasure to develop and I’m not ready to let him go. Thankfully, I have one more edit before the book goes to print.

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Evolving Characters

One of the characters in Ivan’s Wife is a mysterious young girl who comes to live with her uncle after her father’s death. Dimitri doesn’t trust her and suspects she is working against him. When she shows a rare vulnerability, he wonders if there is more to her peculiar behavior. 

I admired the palms and the way the shadowy fans stood like giant tarantulas against the night sky. The patio, where Clarissa and I often dined, had a muted glow. Consuelo must have put some wood in the fireplace; my wife always did that when she had something to celebrate. No doubt she was drinking champagne with Ivan to celebrate the funding for her upcoming movie. The veranda, with its towering trees and flaming torches, was the perfect spot for the party of two. 

Of course, I was avoiding my niece. I waited for her to utter some deft comment and dart off. But she didn’t. She lingered, slumped with her hair draped in front of her face like a black veil, idly kicking the dirt. She was silent, other than an occasional exhale. With her arms wrapped around herself and her head bowed, she seemed much younger than her fifteen years.

Her eyes were watery and teardrops dangled from her nose and lips like beads on a chandelier. She buried her face in her hands.

My heart fluttered aimlessly in my chest as I stepped back, gawking at the stranger in front of me. Questions dangled in my mind like a game of hangman. Was this a trick? This was not the girl I’d known for a year. Was she laughing behind the tears? Another one of Ivan’s plots? After all, she showed up minutes after my father left. This had to be an act. Ivan bobbed and weaved like a prizefighter; I, however, felt like a fool navigating with rudders in the sand. Her abrupt personality change had to be a trick. No one could change that fast.

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Music in the Shadows

Ivan, a famous and celebrated composer, sees his son, Dimitri, as a failure. He discounts him not only for his mental problems but his lack of musical abilities. But, growing up under the weight and criticism of a Svengali only pushes Dimitri’s talent into the shadows. In this scene, we see how Dimitri feels about the music his father could never see.

“Good,” I said, turning back to Delia. There was something about her. She sat with her long graceful arms in her lap, so still yet fluid, her beautiful face holding onto a sight that no one else could see. Every so often, her lips would part as she mouthed the words, “Nussun Dorma,” an Italian song of love often sung at weddings. I wondered if it might be their song, symbolizing the love she had for her husband. Music stirred people. I’d seen it many times at the restaurant. Many a man and woman dropping their composure over a song, peeling back the shell that life destroyed and exposing the soul that made them human. I’d seen a song transform a monotone heart into an eager kiss full of fire and raging desire.

I took a deep breath, moving my hands in small circles to warm them. Nussun dorma was not easily transformed into a solo piano piece. I steadied myself, feeling the keys beneath my fingers as I mouthed the words, “None shall sleep, even you, oh, Princess.” The emotion of the piece took over, breaking the silence of the room, filling me. The notes seemed to touch my fingers and spread outward, melancholic yet stirring. The space between the music and the world disappeared.

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Writing Crazy

All my books have characters who struggle with mental problems. None as much as Dimitri, the main character in Ivan’s Wife. He’s creative, emotional, insecure, complicated, and often delusional. He’s been fun and sometimes a challenge to capture. In this excerpt, Dimitri considers his father, a famous composer, and ruminates about the role he played in his life.

My mind barely touched reality. You would think being locked in the asylum for two weeks had given me time to think. Just the opposite. Electrocuting my brain had blasted my memory to the far end of nowhere. But, I didn’t need a half-ass shrink to know my father was a serpent slithering along the perimeters of my life waiting for the right time to murder me. He was no different now than when I was a dumb kid crumbling into a medley of ticks, hives, and chewed fingernails at the sight of the great composer. His crusade for retribution over my mother’s death started at birth. The worst was my birthday. He’d sit at the head of the table, gazing off with basset-hound eyes while he twisted his wedding ring.

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Getting to know Dimitri

Ivan’s Wife is progressing nicely and is becoming my favorite work so far. It has been a welcome distraction from the pandemic and the uncertainty of pretty-much everything right now. The trepidation I had in the beginning to use a male voice quickly evaporated once I understood the character of Dimitri. I’m enjoying the rich layers of his personality and his challenges. In this excerpt, he waits to talk to the admitting doctor in a mental hospital:

Everything about the office reeked of a set-up. The ultimate symbolism to remind me that I was a suffering lunatic and he was not. It was like waiting for Wizard of Oz to heal me. The shrink’s chair was a plush black leather and inches higher than my armless one. I waited, which only tripled the anxiety I had coming in here, and the skimpy cotton gown and damn paper shoes compounded my humiliation. A mute attendant stood next to me, armed with massive muscles and an encased object on his belt which I doubted was a pop gun.

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