My latest novel, Natalia, is out this week and this one is quite a departure from my previous two books. This novel is a suspense set in the dark underworld of sexual exploitation in the former Soviet bloc, and as a writing project it was quite a long time in coming.
I suppose my interest in this part of the world goes all the way back to my childhood, growing up at the height of the cold war. I was always intrigued by the Soviet Union and wondered what life must be like behind the Iron Curtain. Our governments were at odds, but surely the citizens in the U.S.S.R. must by and large be good, honest people just like us, right?
I got my first glimpse of this mysterious place when I was on a family vacation in my teens. On a ferry from Germany to Finland through the Baltic Sea, we went along the coast of Latvia and Estonia. I remember marveling at this sight of the so-called "Evil Empire."
Many years later, in 2002, I finally made my first visit to these former Soviet republics. By then the Baltic states had been independent for more than a decade. They were not yet part of the European Union, but no longer within the Russian sphere of influence either. It sort of felt like they were their own never-never land, struggling with this communist hangover but not yet fully Westernized.
One day when I was walking into the Old Town section of Riga, I saw a good-looking, sharp-dressed blond man in a brown suit. He was walking along talking to two attractive girls that he'd just sidled up to. The girls, it turns out, were foreigners, and I heard snippets of their conversation in English. It wasn't enough to fully understand what was going on, except that he was trying to convince them of something and wanted their contact information. They gave him the brush off and he continued on down the street, seemingly unperturbed.
By this point I was intrigued. I'd heard of criminal elements recruiting girls from these parts to be sex workers in the West, often under false pretenses. Was that what I'd just witnessed? I decided to follow the man in an attempt to find out.
Keeping half a block behind, I trailed him through the Old Town. Sure enough, whenever he saw an attractive young woman, he'd march right up and give them his spiel, whatever it was. Most of the girls simply ducked their heads and hurried away. I wanted to get closer, but how?
The man stopped at one point and stayed put in the center of one of the little walking streets, still flagging down any girls who walked past. Beside him was a little sandwich shop. I ducked into the shop in an attempt at surveillance. I ordered a sandwich from a nice girl at the counter and then found a seat to watch the man through the window.
One of the girls that the man approached actually stopped to talk to him. She was in her early 20's, tall and attractive, with long dark hair. She nodded her head as she listened to the man, spoke a few words to him, and then took his business card.
The man continued on his way down the street. I stayed where I was, still full of questions, and ate my sandwich. A few weeks later I would see the same man in Tallinn, Estonia, up to the same questionable antics.
As it ends up, I spoke a bit to the girl working at the sandwich shop in Riga that day and we ended up becoming fast friends. Jogita actually owned the shop, and when I asked her about this man I had seen outside of the window, she told me that it was not uncommon for men to come around recruiting like this. By this time, most of the girls in this part of Eastern Europe knew what to expect from suspicious offers of jobs abroad.
I never did find out if that was what I had witnessed for sure, but a few years later I saw a documentary on public television about girls from some of the poorer countries further east being kidnapped, sold, and smuggled across the Adriatic Sea into Italy and beyond and forced into prostitution. Later I saw another documentary about girls from Ukraine and elsewhere being sold and smuggled through the Black Sea to Istanbul.
By this point, the kernel of an interest had grown in my mind to the point that I knew I had to write a novel about it. I decided that my lead character, Natalia, would come from Moldova, known to be the poorest country in Europe and the source of many of these girls. Later I shifted it to Transnistria, a breakaway republic within Moldova, officially recognized only by Russia.
Following many of the true stories I had researched by this point, I decided that Natalia would be lured away under false pretenses, as so many of these girls are, and sold to a criminal gang in Istanbul. For research into her life on the farm, I did not go to Transnistria itself. I'd heard too many horror stories of run-ins with Transnistrian border guards demanding payment or a visa from this country that, to most of the world, didn't even really exist.
Instead I went just across the border to Ukraine and spent a month there getting a feel for what life was like in that part of the world. I spent most of my time in the small city of Lviv, but I also saw some of the countryside, where horse carts seemed more common than tractors, even in the 21st Century.
To get a feel for Istanbul, I spent a week there soaking in that city as well. I walked around the neighborhood where most of the Russian ex-pats lived, and where I knew the sex trade flourished behind closed doors. Aside from a few strip bars and sex shops, the neighborhood itself does not seem particularly seedy, but from my research I knew that some of these apartment blocks hid plenty of secrets.
When I came back to the U.S. I spent a year or so working on the novel until I felt that it was ready to submit. I sent it around to all of the publishers and agents I could find. No luck. I was rejected across the board. So after all of that work and effort, I buried the novel away and mostly forgot about it.
Then in 2010 I noticed the beginnings of a sea change in the world of publishing. Writers were actually beginning to make a living self-publishing their works as ebooks. This looked promising. I decided to try it out for myself. First I revised and put up my first novel, No Cure for the Broken Hearted in December 2010. Next I put up my novel Sweet Ophelia in August, 2011.
When it came time to revise Natalia, beginning last September, I thought it would take about 4-5 months. It ends up it took me 12 months, but now after a long journey, the book is finally available! All because some suspicious-looking, well-dressed man caught my attention ten long years ago.