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.
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, “NussunDorma,” 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. Nussundorma 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.
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.
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.
She stood still, staring at me with her big, round eyes, cool and composed. She certainly looked like all the pictures I’d seen of my dead mother, but she was very-much Ivan’s granddaughter. Stubborn and poised with an odd, almost-confident cockiness. The girl continued to stand there, saying nothing, like she was waiting for me to say something.
Dimitri, the main character in Ivan’s Wife, is a complex man. He struggles with panic and mental illness. Trying to find the source, he thinks back to his childhood and the brother he lost.
The only one who understood was my brother, Alexander. I confided in him at twelve, told him about my spells and the delirium that followed. We’d walk along the Moskva River, near the homestead, talking for hours. I never felt judged or insane with him. He never offered me an explanation for the spells but he understood. At times, I wondered if he had them too. I hadn’t imagined how his brows would knit together and his eyes would twitch a little when he listened. But he never said anything, he’d just assure me that I wasn’t crazy and all would be revealed in time. Alexander had an inward grace, calm and reassuring.
One of the most interesting characters to write in my upcoming novel, Ivan’s Wife, is the main character’s wife, Clarissa. A woman of many faces and complexities, it’s uncertain whether she is a villain or angel. In this scene, Dimitri tries to explain his attraction to his best friend. Or obsession?
Christian was a cynic when it came to women. He’d never been married but loved to dish out marital advice. But I loved the guy and he’d talked me off the ledge more than once. He meant well but Clarissa was the kind of woman you come across once in a lifetime. “You don’t get it, meeting Clarissa in Italy changed me. I’d watch her during the movie they were filming and I knew she was the one. Looking at her was better than any sex I’d ever had. I told her when she agreed to marry me…something I didn’t think was possible…that I would do anything for her. I’d kill for her—”
The chemistry between the two is electric and perplexing. Writing from a male point of view presents new challenges, one I am embracing. In some ways, it gives me a unique perspective on defining the woman through a man’s eyes. It’s a journey, for sure.
My developing novel, Ivan’s Wife, is written from a male point of view. I hesitated, unsure whether I wanted to tell a story from that viewpoint. Turns out, I love it. Once I got into the main character, it was less about a male perspective and more about Dimitri’s. In this scene, we are introduced to Dimitri.
I started my gray Bentley and checked myself in the rear mirror. The eight-ounce glass of Absinthe had already numbed me. My black hair hung loosely over my forehead and my blue eyes were red and droopy. There was a slow hum in my head. Of course, it didn’t take much. The booze was seventy-proof and a hallucinogen although I doubted the latter. Wishful thinking maybe. Even so, it was a favorite among rebels and renegades which suited me fine. Today I needed it. Why my deceased brother left his daughter to me was anyone’s guess. I could barely take care of myself. When Clarissa and I married, I figured she would want a baby but to my surprise, she didn’t. Admittedly, I took it as a rejection. Children tie you together permanently and Clarissa was my obsession. You’d think that fixation would have dulled by now, but it’s only grown more intense. I still bring a baby up once in a while to see her reaction. Every time, she tossed her blonde hair and giggled in that low, breathy voice that makes me crazy.
I can’t wait to see where this journey takes me. Have you considered writing from the viewpoint of the opposite sex?
Certain months are just harder than most. February is my dreaded month and my heroine, Katherine Hathaway, agrees. In this scene from my soon-to-be-released novel, Brooklyn Bitters, she foresees the hardest month of her life:
I sipped hot tea, stretched out on a recliner, gazing out my bedroom window. February had arrived with a whimper. The vivid colors of fall were now raked or withered, and gray clouds and misty rain cast their gloom over the city. A few Christmas trees laid decaying on the curb and the neighbor a few doors down begrudgingly leaned an old ladder against his house to remove the holiday lights. All of the tragedies in my life happened in February, twenty-eight days holding my breath and waiting for it to be over.
And here we are, in February. It can’t be a coincidence that February carries such a wallop.
Brooklyn Bitters is a different coming of age story.It covers the two year span of a woman facing middle age. Kate, the heroine, lived a conventional life until a chance meeting with a handsome and mysterious man in New York City. The relationship challenges how she sees her life and forces her to face some difficult truths:
I saw myself in that crowd. Not just now but twenty years from now. It wasn’t that long ago I was a young college student and in a blink had become a forty-year-old woman sitting in my sister’s house with Lindsey asking me why I never got married. It would only take another blink or two, and I’d be a white-haired woman sitting in this exact barstool with my head down after a bland visit with Gunner.
I wonder how many of us get to the point where we look back and wonder where the years went and why we didn’t take a different road. Kate is a different kind of character who embodies our most poignant thoughts.