At 14, I was given the richest cache of material an aspiring writer could wish for, and I knew it. This was in 1973, the Cold War was very much on, and my parents and I were leaving Moscow and heading West, to America.
Becoming a refugee--such was the designation of our immigration status--can swing open the doors into an adventure novel.
I was obsessed with Huck Finn. Also, I was captivated by Sholem Aleichem’s novel about an adolescent named Motl leaving a Ukrainian shtetl and embarking on an American journey at the turn of the 20th Century.
I love-hated these books. Fascinated though I was with the idea of a kid of roughly my age exploring America, I resented the authors’ presumption. What made them think that it’s possible for an adult to write from an adolescent’s point of view? Even as these books revealed the magnificence of America, I was insulted by what struck me as false notes. I could do better than those two, I believed. I would write about my American adventure in real time—or as close as I can get to real time.
Over the years that followed, I collected papers, thinking through scenes, making plans to sit down and write. By the time I did, I was 33. I still had boxes full of papers and notes laying out scenes and conversations.
Yes, I did write that book. And I rewrote it. And rewrote it. And rewrote it. The novel, which one might describe as a darkly humorous story of immigration, follows a Moscow intelligentsia family through its first six months in America. Unlike my real-life parents, who adapted and prospered, my characters don’t do so well. The narrator’s voice—he is 14—made the thing hang together. You can see the young protagonist become more fluent in English language as the story progresses.
Anyone can hypothesize, but a quarter century after it first made rounds in New York, the novel remains in my desk drawer. Out of stubbornness and denial, I barreled through the disappointment of rejection. Two of my subsequent novels got published—the next one will be out in February. Three of my non-fiction books were published as well.
I accept full responsibility for this, because what other choice do I have? Great material was tossed to me and—using objective metrics—I failed to catch it and run with it. Every time I open that manuscript, I recognize that it can be made better, but I also see that everything I have written since comes directly out of that manuscript. Hating that thing would be classifiable as self-hatred.
I moved on, technically. And yet my next novel—a dark comedy about a Florida condo board—can be regarded as a sequel to its unpublished predecessor. I didn’t need to spend much time pondering the identity of that novel’s protagonist. He is the protagonist of my coming-to-America novel—just older and wiser, but just as determined.
The eternal conflicts between fathers and sons—the organizing principle of my unpublished manuscript—also make a leap into the new novel. The appeal of larger-than-life characters, too, travels from novel to novel, and the narrator’s voice has the power to bring everything together—and that principle, of course, applies to fiction, memoir and narrative nonfiction.
I suppose I could quit everything I am doing now and commit to reworking my first novel till I get it right. But even with more effort, is it possible that my first novel cannot be fixed? Do I have the tools? Is it possible that the novel’s DNA is the problem? If that’s the case, chopping the thing up in a food processor and reconstituting it will not address the root problem. I have no answers, alas.
In the name of sanity, I have limited myself to one rewrite per decade, with the next attempt coming up in six years or so. In the best-case scenario, the novel that I thought would be my first will be my fourth.
I should probably take solace in an oddly comforting observation I made after leafing through the two books that inspired me to put pen to paper: Mark Twain was 49 when Huck Finn was published, and Sholem Aleichem was 57 when Motl’s American adventure saw daylight. As I get older, I am less scandalized by the idea of a grown man pretending to be an adolescent narrator and far less certain that I can do better.
Paul Goldberg’s novel, The Chateau, will be published by Picador in February. His debut novel The Yid was published in 2016, and was named a finalist for both the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the National Jewish Book Award’s Goldberg Prize for Debut Fiction. As a reporter, Goldberg has written two books about the Soviet human rights movement, and has co-authored (with Otis Brawley) the book How We Do Harm, an expose of the U.S. healthcare system. He is the editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter, a publication focused on the business and politics of cancer. He lives in Washington, D.C.