Meet a Writer: R.J. Fox, author of Love & Vodka

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Photo Credit: Jon Wilson

R.J. Fox is an Ann Arbor writer and Huron High School teacher who recently published his memoir, Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukrainewhich is about his journey as a young man to the country of his beloved. The book has received a good deal of praise. Davy Rothbart writes of Love & Vodka: “If you’ve ever done something crazy in the name of love, R.J. Fox’s adventures in Ukraine will strike a chord,” and you can listen to Fox discuss his work with Cynthia Canty on Michigan Radio’s Stateside program here. Literati was happy to host his launch, and I had the chance to talk about love and courtship, vodka toasts, and screenwriting with the author. Thanks, R.J.!

1.) Your love story begins in Hollywood, where you were attending a screenwriting workshop and Katya, the Ukrainian love interest, is sight-seeing. How does screenwriting play into your writing these days? Your background is in screenwriting, and this book was originally written as a screenplay. However, you decided to rewrite the screenplay as a memoir. Tell me about that process of shape-shifting, and the choices you had to make along the way.

Prior to writing prose, I had written about a dozen screenplays (my first one was written as a senior in high school in 1995!), optioned two to Hollywood, and had some other close calls and mild successes in screenwriting competitions. After the film option for Love & Vodka expired in 2009, I was devastated. After I picked myself off the ground, I decided it was time to change direction and turn the script into a book. A classic case of “Who Moved My Cheese?” This way, I could incorporate scenes that I couldn’t fit into the script and make it more like the true story that it deserved to be, rather than the slightly-fictionalized version in the script (especially after the extensive development process I did with the producer).
I continued screenwriting for a short while while working on the book, but in 2011, I turned completely to prose. It was certainly an evolution. For one thing, screenwriting has so many more constraints and limitations than prose. It is so much more formulaic. So my initial attempts at it were very choppy, since brevity is king in screenwriting. I made Hemingway look long-winded. So then I went too far the other way and over-cooked my writing. So I had to find a middle ground. The great thing is, once I found a balance, my writing really took off.  Brevity always remains a goal and I can thank my screenwriting experience for giving me that skill. I can also thank screenwriting for my ear for dialogue, which I feel is one of my strengths as a writer in any genre.

am certainly not opposed to writing future scripts. I still feel like screenwriting is my main passion and calling. I hope I get the opportunity to adapt my books into film someday (of course, it helps that the screenplays for my two books are already written). By the same token, I have plenty of other scripts that I can turn into books. It’s nice to think I can pocket my screenwriting skills for future use. I miss it sometimes and get the itch every now and then. Especially after watching an amazing film or TV series, like
Fargo or Mad Men, for example. Now that I have mastered the craft of both prose and screenwriting, I feel that they mutually benefit one another.

2.) You eventually decide to propose to Katya after exchanging some letters between the US and Ukraine. What were those early letters from your pen-pal courtship like?

Nothing too romantic– especially in the early going. I mean, it was romantic in a sense that two people just found such a comfort zone with one another from the start.  Once we established our general interests and life philosophies (which were established rather quickly), our messages and chats really covered all aspects in life. Anything, everything and all aspects of life. It was like we each had this sounding board half way around the world to bounce random thoughts off of, sharing daily experiences, hopes, and dreams. I never experienced anything like it. Nor will I ever experience it again. It was just an amazing moment in my life where two people had this outlet on opposite ends of the world. No matter what we were doing, we could never end the day without sending one another a message about how our day went. Big moments, but just as important, the mundane moments in life.  And suddenly, we both had someone to share all of these moments with, even though we were thousands of miles apart. Of course, the distance made things more complicated, which is why I decided to go to Ukraine with a ring and do something about it! I’ve always been more comfortable baring my soul through written words than I am in person. Obviously, I’m a writer. So it was only natural that I would fall in love through my writing. To me, it is also so symbolic of the time. It was on the cusp of the social media explosion and things like Tinder. Chat and instant messenger certainly laid the groundwork for the present day, which is how so many relationships get started today. Even to this day, I am more comfortable sending an e-mail than I am calling someone. Or meeting in person. I’m just programmed to communicate more with fingertips than my mouth!  Fortunately, I’m not a recluse, so I can operate in the “real world” fairly well, too. Looking back, even though our marriage lasted eight years, I really think the height of our relationship was during that period when all we had was the written word. With no cynicism intended, maybe most relationships would be better off that way!

3.) You make note throughout the book of how, through your eyes, Ukraine appears a strange place. What did you learn about the place while you where there? Were you inspired to delve into the history of the country and its customs? You mention learning the language–how did learning the language influence your understanding of Ukraine? And, as a foreigner in Ukraine, what did you learn about your own culture?

Every day there was a learning experience. Especially during my first trip. However, I was so “blinded” by the courtship of the real-life”–“Katya” at the time, a lot of what I learned came over time. Obviously, being married into that culture meant I had an eight-year learning experience. A lot of what I write about in the book came as a result of learning over several years of immersion with living with someone from that culture, or during future trips there, or visits from her family.

As far as the historical information in the book, a great deal of it was researched for the purpose of the book. Actually, the publisher (Jon Wilson, from Fish Out of Water Books) did a tremendous job of offering guidance and suggestions to add more cultural and historical context throughout the book, which I would say my earlier drafts were lacking the most.

During the time of my life I dub my “Ukrainian period”, I never came close to mastering the language, nor the Cyrillic alphabet (even harder!). However, I picked up basic words and phrases on that initial trip and on subsequent trips. I don’t know if I could survive there on my own, but I could at least ask for a bathroom and a snack.

As regards my own culture, I learned to appreciate the everyday conveniences we have here in the U.S. that are easy to take for granted (such as warm water, screens on windows, etc.) Experiencing another culture like that was very eye-opening and made me more open-minded toward other cultures in general and a little less judgmental. I feel like if I were take that trip today, I might have a more mature point of view on my experience, than the one expressed as the 23-year-old I was when the story takes place. I had to remain true to that character when I wrote it, rather than the person I am today. This is similar to the approach I take with any character I write. My 23-year-old self was essentially a character, rather than a real-life person in many aspects.

4.) Beyond noticing cultural differences between Ukraine and the US, did you encounter any similarities or familiar resonances?

I mean, people are people. So when you get right down to it, there are more similarities than differences. The whole Maslow Hierarchy of Needs model. One thing I noticed is that Ukrainians– despite their sometimes gloomy outlook and conditions– really appreciate life and just enjoying the moment. Especially when vodka is involved!

American pop culture is certainly  prevalent there, just like in other parts of the world. In fact, you can sometimes get American movies and music on the black market before they even come out here! 

5.) Tell me about the importance of vodka toasts during your introduction to your new family at this time in your life.

Vodka toasts are such a huge part of Ukrainian life — especially when you are a guest. With every meal comes multiple toasts (followed by straight shots of vodka, time and time again). And every toast is so eloquent. They are like poetry. And usually all off the cuff. Here in the U.S., most people simply say “Cheers”, clink their glasses, and drink. Not so much in Ukraine. They END a toast with “Cheers!”. Of course, I am only basing this on my own, singular experience.

I found it interesting that the third toast is always dedicated to the women. The men always have to stand for this. When it comes to men and women, there is a very old-school mindset at times.

6.) What have you been reading lately?

Just finished The Alchemist and East of Eden. I’m currently reading The Stranger by Albert Camus and Rabbit, Run by John Updike. About to tackle Ulysses and Infinite Jest
7.) What are you favorite books of 2015?

A few years back, I realized that as an English teacher AND writer, there were many gaps in my reading of the classics. So I have really been tackling those, more so than new releases. Usually, I enjoy them. Other times, I am bored to tears. But it’s like the equivalent of eating healthy food. I know it’s good me! This past year, I really enjoyed The Hobbit (which I liked more than I thought I would, as I am not a big fantasy fan), and most of all A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I also tackled Atlas Shrugged.

As far as newer books, I really enjoyed The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette? I am drawn to books by female writers with strong female protagonists. Similar to most the short stories I have written.

Speaking of, I just finished Ann Arbor author Camille Pagan’s Life and Other Near-Death Experiences. Fantastic book. I recently discovered that we went to the same high school! Something must have been in the water there. They did have deer and peacock in a courtyard, so who knows?

8.) And who remain the old favorites–writers and books you return to again and again to inspire and inform?

David Sedaris for sure. I would say he was my greatest influence on Love & Vodka. Raymond Carver is a huge influence. Bradbury. Plath. Salinger (Catcher in the Rye is my favorite novel). And of course, Stephen King, who I started reading in middle school. I would say he probably had more influence on me in my formative years than any other writer.

9.) Can you tell us a little bit about what you are currently working on?

I have just finished a very gritty, dark novel entitled Awaiting Identification. It is set in Detroit. The idea originated from an article I had read about how every year, hundreds of unidentified bodies end up in the Detroit morgue. Many of them are never identified and buried in common graves. This just seemed like such a depressing way to depart this planet. So I came up with an idea to tell a story about five unidentified bodies that end up in the Detroit morgue on Halloween…with five intersecting storylines that slowly reveal how they ended up there. Very dark, but also very hopeful in the sense that each character has a moment of redemption before they die. Not necessarily in a religious sense, but definitely in a spiritual one. Very symbolic of the city itself. So even though it is a complete contrast to Love & Vodka tonally, the one thing it has in common is that the setting functions like another character in terms of how it impacts the actions and decisions of the other characters.

Incidentally, like Love & Vodka, Awaiting Identification also started out as a screenplay which was optioned, but never produced. I think, it could make for a great anthology series like Fargo, True Detective, or American Horror Story, which each season having a different location and characters.

Now that my first fiction novel is complete, I am going back to my collection of short stories and polishing them up (with all the re-writes I did for both books, I know there are things I can certainly make better in my short stories, now that my conversion from screenwriter to prose writer is complete). These stories are Raymond Carver-esque pieces thematically linked by suburban characters and the truths that lie behind the white picket fence. They are all set in either Detroit or metro Detroit under the umbrella title The Other Side of Sadness. These stories are more in line with Awaiting Identification.

I also have a dozen or so comic essays about my childhood struggles with being a nerd and coping with bullying. The collection would be called Lovable Loser. These would be more similar to Love & Vodka in terms of tone and being creative non-fiction/memoir. Sedaris-esque. It’s just a matter of figuring out what should come out on the heels of Love & Vodka. If it’s too different, then I might alienate a potential audience. Of course, a lot of it is out of my control, so it’s just a matter of letting the chips fall where they may.

I certainly have no shortage of future novel ideas and other short stories. Less so with non-fiction. I just have to keep writing away!

10.) How does the process of working on this project compare to the process of writing Love and Vodka?

The process of writing Love & Vodka and Awaiting Identification was quite similar in the sense that I had the skeleton already put together in screenplay form. It essentially eliminated the outlining process, which I find to be the most difficult part of the writing process. With the screenplay, I just had to add the meat and flesh to the bones. The key difference was that Awaiting Identification isn’t a traditional narrative. It’s a bit more experimental. There are five separate sections, which are stand alone stories in themselves. However, events and characters that happen in one section overlap with events and characters in another. So if I made one slight change in one section (even one line of dialogue)I would have to make changes in one or more other sections. So it was a bit of a pain at times! But I kept fighting through and eventually, finished it! I would say writing Love & Vodka was a lot more pleasurable. I think the humor had a lot to do with it. And to be able to re-live that experience over and over (and over and over and over). Nobody really dies in Love & Vodka. Not so much so in my second book. All of the characters are already dead in the prologue!


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