During my search for the topic of a new novel, some time in 2013, I read an article about a sunken submarine in a magazine handed to me by a dear friend of mine. The article described, in chronological order, the events that happened in august 2000, according to reports published a number of years after the conclusion of the official investigation.
In small type at the end of the article a short disclaimer said something like ‘This article describes one version of a much debated truth’. That disclaimer, together with the mirthless feeling that overcame me while reading of the doom that overcame the sailors aboard the submarine, intrigued me enough to want to read more on the subject. At this stage I was merely curious and had not made any connection to my on-going search for a subject fitting for a novel.
As I (almost obsessively) read up on the tragedy of the Kursk and watched every documentary available, I followed the chronological sequence of events to come up with my own ‘version of the true events’. I began by writing down the days and charting every piece of information I could find as and when it happened. By the end of this mission I had created a 30-page document of facts, but only facts. There was no story. But then, somehow, somewhere during that process a story started to emerge in my mind. Characters developed and their actions came alive as I connected them to the day-by-day development of this tragedy. Suddenly, a terrible event from the news archives became personal.
Armed with facts that could only be semi-relied on, given some of the sources, I was still
of the mind that I had only 40% of the story, and that story centered around Mischa Kastamarov and his family and friends whose plight was the most public during the course of the ten days that the Kursk tragedy unfolded. Little to nothing was known about the political involvement of countries participating in the rescue and even less about the individuals who were actually involved. Only a handful of public statements were ever released (and mostly by the Russians who almost always contradicted each other). Therefore, to develop the background story, I created US naval intelligence commander Mitchel James who would become the link between the days, countries, people and politics. While I like to keep think that Mitchel James came from nowhere in my mind, I must admit that his demeanor and attitude were most likely influenced by one of my favorite fictional characters, Jack Ryan.
In my mind, Mitchel became the tool with which I could link events However, I was concerned that he should not play a bigger role than in my story than Mischa. Mischa’s drama had be the center piece because his story felt most real to me, so much so it sometimes felt that he was speaking through me. Did I succeed in that? You’ll have to be the judge of that.
Although I had done some writing in the past, I did struggle with the discipline of realizing my vision in words. In fact I initially wrote Kursk as a screenplay so when it came to turning the script into a novel I thought it would only be a matter of filling in the blanks. Of course, it wasn’t that easy and in the end I turned to a professional editor to help me flesh out the characters to bring greater depth and drama to the story I had created. I was also told not to be so hard on myself because I was writing in a second language. However, having a professional writer to guide me through the process allowed me time to create the right balance between drama as entertainment and drama in the form of a real-life tragedy which affected countless lives and left many more scars.
Do I believe my story is the true story? Well, no. I don’t believe that. ‘Kursk’ is first and foremost a work of fiction. Do I believe it could have happened the way I wrote it? Sure. There are enough facts written into the story. Personally, I’m also convinced that there’s (much) more to the truth then any of the official statements have lead us to believe (read the afterword in the book). In my opinion, politics always trumps personal suffering. That being said, and to not sound too gloomy about the state of the world, I’ll repeat the words of Admiral Popov at the end of the crisis: “Life goes on. Bring up your children, bring up your sons and please forgive me for not being able to save our sailors.”
It took a good year to complete the novel, from the moment my friend handed me the article to the last word being put down on paper. It could have taken another year perfecting the story even further. Apparently this is a problem encountered by most writers; never knowing when to stop. I felt that reticence too – the fear of letting go – but then my desire to create another story became the stronger force. I guess this means I find the process of telling a story more fulfilling then creating the perfect word.
As a result, I’m currently in the process of looking for a new subject for a novel . Searching for a friend, I guess. Anyone?