“A good crisis will bring your work to the next level.”
— from the chapter “Naised Köögis,” Letters from Estonia
WHEN WE ARRIVED to America with our overstuffed suitcases at the end of the summer of 2013, we moved to the very tip of Long Island, nearly 170 kilometers to the east of New York City. There, in a seaside village, I began working in cafes on much of the material that became this new book.
I was, in retrospect in crisis in every way at that time. Emotionally, physically. Too overwhelmed to work toward some great literary goal, I just borrowed an approach from some of my favorite musicians. Instead of composing perfect pop songs and then going into the studio, they would enter the studio every day, record whatever came to mind. Some of the greatest albums of all time have been recorded in this chaotic, spontaneous, loose way. Think of the eighteen messy songs on The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. Or the 36 tracks on The Clash’s Sandinista.
That’s how you accomplish great things: improvise.
So the “letters” in Letters from Estonia were envisioned by me really as “song demos.” Every day I would begin work on a different song. Whatever idea came into mind, it was written down. I think the first two chapters I wrote this way were “Kid Sirts and Surfer Taavi” about two bohemian friends of ours, and “Tea with the Icebreaker” about the naturalist Fred Jüssi. I remember when I showed the Jüssi chapter to Epp, she was really pleased with the outcome.
My favorite scene in this chapter is hovering outside Fred Jüssi’s window in the 1980s and watching him write the book Jäälõhkuja and then floating outside my window at the same time.
That was fun.
I was inspired to write more and to try new approaches to writing, each time focusing on a person, or a place, or an experience in Estonia. This process continued after we moved back to Tartu. “Andres Metspalu’s Elevator Speech” was one interesting result of this experimenting, a new journalism style profile piece, while “Naised Köögis” was one of the more challenging projects I worked on, because my source material was a notepad full of scribbled thoughts from the night they recorded their video in our old house in Viljandi. For this project, I used a new technique, where I inserted “images” into the story, so that the reader could imagine snapshots of the scene without ever seeing them. I love the idea of using imaginary images to accompany text.
As I wrote on, I also started to dig through my older “demos” to discover stories or pieces of dialogue I had written years ago but never finished. A beat up old notebook of conversations from Viljandi that evolved into some great chapters, like “Vastlapäev Arithmetic,” or “Kuldkala,” where I literally wrote down the scenes as they happened, or “Tree Balsam,” from Obinitsa, where I would take breaks working on the farm in November to type my feelings with cold, shaky hands. The project gave me the opportunity to at last complete them.
The desire of anyone involved in such a project is that once it is done, it will all fit together. A song is a song, a chapter is a chapter, but put them all together, and you may get a great album or a great book. I am sure that anyone who reads this book will understand what my life has been like during the past years. It is at times humorous, at times playful, at times melancholic, at times just sad. It begins with a ghostly encounter in the forests of Vormsi, and ends with a man losing his family on a beach at sunset in Narva-Jõesuu, his own idea of the “End of the World.”
These have been the toughest years of my life. This book documents them best.