When I arrived in Moscow I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t well prepared. I knew life would be hard, but I couldn’t have predicted how hard it would be. In many ways it feels like I don’t have any spare time anymore. That’s not entirely true – but the time I can spend on activities like writing has been dramatically decreased.
Fortunately, I have some time between the now and again. Yesterday I was at the Danilovskij market with an Italian friend. It was a very interesting experience. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to buy that much, but I bought mandarins and strawberries.
The Danilovsky market in Moscow.
In the last couple of weeks I have struggled with sleep problems, which I happily managed to find a more or less permanent solution to.
I will be able to get through it, and in many ways it seems that life as a Russian student fosters discipline. At the same time, I don’t know how healthy it is to have very little free time. I don’t envy the Russian student life over time. Especially considering that many students work as well, something they need to do in order to be able to afford to study.
The Danilovsky market in Moscow
The latter situation is unfortunately becoming more and more common in Norway as well, and I sincerely hope that the government can eventually provide the students with much needed resources so that they can focus on studying rather than working. What is the point of being able to live if you don’t have the time or energy to get good grades?
It isn’t easy to hide the fact that Russians have a reputation for being … thirsty. Of course, here, like in other countries, there are people who do not drink or drink very little.
But when I visited Russia for the first time in 2014, Vladimir Putin had changed the period during which shops could sell alcohol. From being able to sell twenty-four hours a day they could only sell until eleven o’clock in the evening. A rather harsh restriction, but seen through the eyes of a Norwegian, it is still quite astonishing to be able to buy alcohol until bedtime for most people going to work, school or university the following day.
As if this wasn’t enough: having been in Moscow for almost a month, I have noticed that they sell beer everywhere. Not spirits but beer. Beer is sold at Burger King, at Subway, and, along with Kvass, at a lot of coffee and brunch places and patisseries. Beer is sold at the cinema, and any restaurant with respect for itself has at least a selection of five to ten varieties, not including spirits and drinks.
Most people who know me know that I have a liberal relationship with alcohol and am very fond of beer. That’s why it’s really absurd that I’m sitting here and ranting about too easy access to beer. Still, I don’t understand the Russian alcohol culture.
As a Norwegian, it’s hard for me to understand the need to order beer with coffee in the morning on your way to work, or with or without family at Burgerking (if you want to eat and drink alone, can’t you order your burger at Burgerking and bring the beer from the supermarket across the street into the park?)
And what’s the point of going to the movies if you’re going to drink anyway and don’t want to pay attention? Believe me – beer and cinema do not belong together. A good friend of mine was once going to review a movie right after drinking an unknown number of beers out on the town – it didn’t work out well.
It can’t possibly be the availability that’s at fault. There is no supermarket in Moscow without a rich offer of alcoholic products – so it would be logical to assume that there’s something cultural going on.
Yes, and did I mention that you can also have a beer at the MGIMO canteen? I’m going to sound like a reactionary Christian conservative American now, I know, but: what on earth is it that makes the Russians believe that alcohol is a smart idea to serve to beer-thirsty students in the middle of a busy college?
Is there some kind of reverse perverse logic behind it, or is it an unspoken social code that if you order beer in the canteen outside of special occasions, everyone will give you the stink eye?
The day before yesterday I bought a frying pan at one of the shops just off the local subway station, Yugo Zapadnaya (South West). It marked an informal start to my new life down here. I have had to rebuild my life, you see. From scratch.
I’m afraid I will be another person when I return to Norway. Just yesterday I was thinking I was going to miss life here terribly when I return. That’s why it’s important to try to make my life as similar to Norway as possible.
Up until yesterday I had almost eaten out every day here (except last Sunday, when I borrowed a frying pan that happened to be in the kitchen). It’s quite possible on a Norwegian budget, but it isn’t healthy, in the long run.
Me, in front of a giant statue of Peter I
Apropos health: Today was the first day I worked out here. I haven’t done it in about two and a half months and it felt incredibly wonderful.
Last week was the first week of studies. On Monday I had only one lecture, but on Tuesday and Wednesday I had lectures until 20 and 21. On Thursday I had lectures until 13:30.
I’m not used to having lectures run into the evening, but because I live right at the campus, it means that at least I don’t have to move much after the lectures. It helps.
In addition, lectures in the evening are only about the Russian language and I love having five lectures with it per week. Now we seem to have even more so that we get 18 ECTS in total for Russian only. It’s amazing, as it means I don’t have to take so many of the other subjects.
Right now, life in Moscow feels a bit like a mix of vacation and university. It’s a good feeling.
A couple of days ago I was at the Lenin Mausolum on the Red Square.
Being so close to the body of a man who is so steeped in myth and history, still glorified today by so many people, was a very interesting experience. It made me think of the fact that I used to glorify Lenin. To a certain extent, I still do. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that the man was more of a paradox than a hero.
He was a saviour for millions of poor russians, and for that, he will always be a hero in my eyes. But he also gave the order to kill their oppressor. tsar Nikolas II. The oppressor might have been more or less incompetent as an omnipotent ruler, and thus more indirectly than directly responsible for oppressing his own people. The fact remains, though, that he was an oppressor.
But did he deserve to die?
This question should be at the forefront when looking at Lenin’s life and political work. Like the tsar, Lenin was also more or less indirectly responsible for his actions. Nikolas’ dad had given the order to kill Lenin’s brother, and Lenin had started a revolution that might have been very difficult to see through to the end had the tsar still been alive.
But did that relieve him of the responsibility for giving an order to murder an unarmed man and his family?
This is the paradox of Lenin. After being to his mausoleum, I visited Russia’s State Historial Museum. On the occation of the tsar’s murder, it contains an exhibition to Nikolai IIs memory. I’m not the only one who’s had to grapple with Lenin’s paradox. Vladimir Putin is also having to navigate between strongly condemning the act of murder and at the same time not condemning the Lenin’s Soviet Regime.
For some people, murder is a line that cannot be crossed. Once you’ve murdered someone, you are and forever will be a tyrant, a beast, a semi-human. I will contend that Lenin was, like the rest of us, a flawed human being. But unlike the rest of us, he achieved great things. And here, perhaps more than any, is the most important question concerning Lenin:
Can great acts of heroism excuse tragic acts of violence?
Depending on what your answer is, he is probably a hero or a beast. For me, he will always remain a paradox.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has a joke he likes to tell;
A man arrives at Lubyanka (KGB headquarters) saying: – I’m a spy, I want to surrender.
He is asked: – Who’s do you work for?
He answers: – I’m an American spy. – Well, then you have to go to room number 5.
He goes to room number 5: – I’m an American spy, I wish to surrender .. – Do you have weapons? – Yes. – Please go to room number 7.
He goes to room number 7: – I’m a spy, I want to surrender and have weapons. – Please go to room number 10.
He goes to room number 10: – I’m a spy, I have weapons, and I want to surrender. – Do you have communication equipment? – Yes. – Please go to room 20.
He goes to room 20: – I’m a spy, I have weapons and communication equipment, and want to surrender.
He is asked: – Do you have a mission? – Yes. – Well, go and do it. Stop disturbing people when they’re trying to work!
This is obviously an old joke from the Soviet era, but it goes right to the heart of Russia’s bureaucracy . A bureaucracy that is still very healthy and strong.
When I shared this joke with the exchange students who are here with me at MGIMO, many responded instinctively: “This is MGIMO’s international office,” they said.
Being an exchange student – or “international student”, as it is called here – at MGIMO isn’t easy. The first thing you have to do is deliver your passport to an office for them to copy. Then you must bring your passport, health insurance, negative HIV test and vaccination card to MGIMO’s International Office, where all documents are copied.
Moscow by night
Once this is done, you’re handed a contract with about ten pages that you have to sign, sign and sign again. All this takes about twenty minutes. When you come back after a day, you get a bill that you have to bring to another office to pay for your accomodation. Also, do not forget to go through a fourth office to take a photo. Images must be taken to the international office anyway, but the picture to be used on MGIMO’s access card must of course be taken by MGIMO!
Apropos admission cards: Oh my God, how wonderful it will be to receive admission cards! Both the dorms and the university have their own security guards who have nothing to do but check the identity of those who go in and out through the barrier at the entrance. At the entrance to the dormitory, it is sufficient to show an admission card issued on arrival. At the university, on the other hand, one has to show his or her passport. And it must be checked – manually – against a list. If more than three students are going through at the same time-well, you can imagine.
Back to the dorms: they’re … OK. The rooms are in a building that is obviously a survivalist from the Soviet era. But it has been refurbished inside. There are rumors on campus that these dorms are the best throughout Russia. I do not quite know what to say – at least they are minimalist. Each room is approx. 15 square meters, including the bathroom. It contains two beds – fortunately, I still live alone – cupboards, and shelves. The bathroom has a toilet and a bathtub, and that’s it. Wifi isn’t available, but fortunately I have access to Moscow’s public internet from my room.
Me, in front of a building which housed Lenin and his secretary during the soviet times.
The dorms are five minutes walk from MGIMO. It would have been nice, but MGIMO isn’t exactly centrally located. It takes five minutes by bus and twenty minutes by metro to get to the city center. Fortunately, there are several shopping malls around the local metro station, Юго-Западная (literally: Southwest), so you can get most of what you need without having to go all the way to the city center.
Nevertheless, the distance to the center means that one way or another you always have to use Russian somewhere on your way back or forth. And for someone who loves this difficult, strange, but beautiful language, the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy, which many English speakers regard as “butch,” and the Russians themselves merely refer to as “очень сложный,” very complicated, that isn’t exactly a disadvantage.
A few days ago, I was emailed by the proprietor of this blog. The conversation went a little something like this:
Proprietor: Hi! I’d like to review your book on my website. Are you willing to shell out 75$ for my services
Me: Uhm, I’d rather not. I can pay you 10$ now, and 65$ once I’ve made that much in book sales. That shouldn’t be any trouble for you if you’re actually confident in your own product.
Proprietor: I’ve done this with three authors before, and not one of them fulfilled on the promised deal. They made the money back and more and still they did not pay me.
At this point, I am sceptical. How did she know that the authors “made the money back and more”? Clicks does not equal sales. The conversation continued:
Me: Fine. I guess it’s fair that we should split the risk. I’ll pay you 35$ now, and then 35$ later.
Proprietor: I’d like to go through with this. You’ll pay me 35$ now, and then 35$ when I prove I’ve written a review, before I publish it.
Me: I’m not sure you understand. My risk is that I won’t make back the money in sales. I have no doubt that you’ll actually write the review. I’ll pay you the remaining 35$ once I’ve made 75$ in sales.
I haven’t heard from her since. Here’s the thing – and I can’t believe I have to state this again:
Clicks and/or pageviews does not equal sales!
I have no problems paying maybe 10$ or so for a review now and again when someone contacts me, even though they usually never equate to any sales (maybe one or two). Mostly, they build my ego, even if I prefer reviews that are not paid for (I have some of them as well). I’m an author, my job is not to be a financial advisor to myself.
However, I’m also not stupid. If I were to shell out 75$ for every review without expecting a return on my investment, I’d be financially ruined.
If you read this, and you’re a book blogger, you need to understand that from a business perspective, your review is essentially worthless if it doesn’t generate sales. I’m sure some of you will be thinking “it’s a hobby, you shouldn’t expect to be making money off of it”.
But that’s exactly the problem – there are a million and one of not just reviewers out there, but publishers, proof readers etc. who are doing everything they can to make a quick buck off of people’s hobbies. And it’s a real shame, because for every genuine hobbyist out there, there are two more secretly wishing to reach the New York Time’s best seller list. I can tell you right now – you don’t get there by paying for reviews.
Sometimes an interview just doesn’t pan out. In this case, me and the culture editor thought it was good, but the editor didn’t. Anyway, I saw Good Time before it was released in Norway, and I had a conversation with producer Oscar Boyson about the movie.
Oscar Boyson is the producer of Good Time, one of the films featured at BIFF this year, with Robert Pattinson in the lead role.
– I had a wonderful experience producing this movie, explains Boyson. It was difficult, challenging, educational and emotional, but first and foremost rewarding. The thing with New York is that it has become a very welcoming city for filmmakers.
Oscar Boyson before the red carpet of Good Times Photo by / Courtesy of Saskia Lawaks
Boyson explains that there are bigger and bigger productions filming there because of tax incentives and how welcoming the city has become. But, he says:
– Productions with less money are being pushed to the outskirts of the city. Every movie I’ve been working on has been gradually harder to make than the previous one. What’s happening is almost like discrimination of film productions.
Boyson believes that Good Time gives a perspective on America at a time when nearly two and a half million people are imprisoned in the country.
I’m not sure if you can talk about a message, but I think it gives a perspective. It lets you decide what’s wrong or where the community is wrong.
He says that it’s not just about being imprisoned, but about where you are when you are released from prison.
– If you have a criminal record in this country, you have very few possibilities. For example, you cannot vote. The film shows us a side of the story we do not always see and asks us to think about it.
Back to youth
The film makes him feel the way he did when he was young.
– It made me think about why I wanted to be a filmmaker. We need more movies that look like they were made by a person and not a committee. We need to remind people why we make movies.
In the USA, fewer and fewer people go to the movies, Boyson explains.
– It is harder and harder to make people sit in the darkness of the cinema with random strangers when we have created the expectation that you can watch movies on your phone and computer.
“It’s always hard,” Boyson sighs when asked if the movie was hard to finance.
It doesn’t matter how much money you have, it will always be difficult. If not you’re doing something wrong, because you’ll always want to make it look like it cost more than it really did. Robert Pattinson is a star and he wanted to get this movie made no matter what the cost. We manufacturers only want to make things all the time. When someone like Rob gets involved, it makes everything a lot easier.
This means that, while Hannah Baker‘s suicide might have been premeditated, it is highly unlikely that she would be planning it for as long as it would take to record thirteen tapes where she intricately describes every wrong doing she has suffered at the hands of her tormenters.
At that point, she would likely be crying herself to sleep, not commiting suicide. Human beings have a survival instinct. To overcome it, you, more often than not, have to be acutely sick – experiencing a psychological crisis – or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
While the things experienced by Hannah Baker are each like adding salt to a wound, The National Institute of Health says that 90% of all those who successfully go through with a suicide display some sort of diagnosable mental disorder. In other words, the wound is already there. The dynamics of suicide are bewilderingly complex, and it is never one person’s, or even thirteen persons’ fault. At worst, each person may have contributed in some small degree, but in the end, statistics show that in reality impulsive decision making and immediate crises play a much larger role.
Does that mean that people should stop caring for each other? Absolutely not! Every positive comment, however small, every smile and every genuine question helps to minimize the risk that the person in question will experience the kind of crisis that can ultimately take a life. If anything, that should be the lesson that people learn from “Thirteen Reasons Why”.
There’s a rule called “Laidlaw’s rule”, which basically states that any book will be better if the second sentence is “And then the murders began”.
People have started using this to hillarious effect! 😀
Here are some awesome examples:
One sunny Sunday, the caterpillar was hatched out of a tiny egg. He was very hungry. And then the murders began. #LaidlawsRule
It was a magical experience. He talked a lot about where he gets his inspiration from and how he creates his characters. But what I’d like to show you, my dear readers, are the tips he gave me as an up-and-coming author. Hopefully someone other than me will be able to utilize these tips as well.
I can only speak to (sic) my own experience, but I think that this can be a universal thing.
The world is full of people that will tell you you cannot do it. My mother literally said “don’t waste your time, you will never get published.” This was after she read my first two unpublished novels. Maybe she’s onto something! But I cannot listen to her; I would have stopped.
Had I listened to all the agents who rejected my first novel or my second, I would have stopped. Had I listened to the surgeon who’d heard I had quit my job to write my third novel, who accosted me in a coffee shop, poking me in the chest, saying “Who the hell do you think you are, the next John Grisham”, I would have stopped.
So, I think there are a lot of reasons for this. I mean, people walk away from their aspirations all the time, I mean, it’s just a hard world. If they see you walk away from yours, then maybe they feel better about their decisions. If you go on to become the next Jo Nesbø, then maybe they should not have walked away from their dreams.
So, it’s just the way of the world – there are people like that. You need to find people who understand what you’re trying to do, and will be supportive.
But – be careful about people you ask to read the manuscript. I’m going to tell you this from my own experience – there is no creature as insecure as an unpublished writer. I’m not saying that’s you, but that was me – in a very specific way. If you’re looking for someone to read your manuscript, it’s going to be someone you trust – obviously.
If they tell you that it’s brilliant, you’re probably going to think they’re being nice and not believe them. If they tell you it’s horrible, you’re going to be crushed, and you might never write again. It’s very, very difficult to find the right reader – someone who’s opinion you trust, who can deliver it in an honest, caring way. I was lucky in that my wife is great like that. And if I succeed, it’s great for both of us, so, she’s very capable of that honesty. She’s not going to leave you down the primrose path.
So I think those would be my two pieces of advice. The world is full of writers that will say “take classes, join workshops” – I never did any of that, so I can’t speak to that. I do think that there are countless rookie mistakes that keep you from being published – not you specifically – it’s very important to learn what rookie mistakes are. I don’t know at what level you write, but I did read a few books early on. Just “How to avoid passive voice,” “How to show, not tell,” you know, the proper use of certain types of punctuation, so that I’m able to present a manuscript that looks knowingly done.
Because publishers and agents are very, very busy, they’re very, very jaded because they’re inundated with manuscripts. They’re so busy with the ones they already have that are working, people that are selling, working on the next book and need this, that and the other. Thus, it’s hard to find the time to nurture the new voices. So, you need to be very careful to not rush the manuscript out.
And let me give you a personal anecdote: so, the first novel failed, the second novel failed, it was my third that was published. And this is a rookie mistake, and this is how eager I was. Remember I talked about that insecurity? What I wanted was validation – I wanted somebody in the know to say “you weren’t foolish to do this a third time.” So I think I was probably about ten pages away from finishing the book, when just on a lark I emailed an agent the first chapter, thinking “well I’ll hear back in maybe six weeks.”
Well I got an email that night from her assistant saying “Heidi really loves this, why don’t you send the rest of the manuscript?” I hadn’t finished the book! So I wrote like a madman for the next couple of days. But when I sent it off, I hadn’t edited. And then I got rejected. I got rejected and rejected and rejected. For nine months I got rejected, before I finally did what I should have done in the first place, which was to step back. I had done that through all those rejections – for nine months, I had not looked at the manuscript. I went back and read it with some perspective, and I saw all the problems that were obvious to everyone that said no. Plotholes, tin dialogue, overwritten purpley stuff. And I fixed it!
Three months of rewrites, I sent it out, and the first agent that saw it wanted to represent me. So understand that, yes, there are lots of agents and publishers, but you only get that one shot at the first impression, so don’t undo your good work by rushing it. It’s very tempting.