Sure, you've probably been in love. But have you ever been so head over heels that you'd travel across the world for it? R.J. Fox, a metro Detroit writer, falls into that category: His quest for love is captured with colorful prose in his recently published memoir Love & Vodka. After meeting Katya, a Ukrainian exchange student, at Universal Studios in Hollywood, and a year of writing letters back and forth, he headed to Ukraine with an engagement ring in hand. The following three weeks is captured in the memoir, a rich narrative that's a pleasure to read front to back.
We spoke briefly with Fox about the book, and the process of writing.
Metro Times: The title of your book, Love & Vodka, immediately captured my attention. It manages to distill your wild experience in Ukraine down to three words. Can you talk about what led you to writing the book, and what excited your publisher about it?
R.J. Fox: When you are a writer and you have the most memorable, life-defining experience of you life, then you have no other choice but to put it all down on paper ... In March of 2000, I met an Ukrainian exchange student on the E.T. Ride at Universal Studios in Hollywood. I was in L.A. for a screenwriting workshop. We spoke for 20 minutes, exchanged contact info, became pen pals. A year later, I headed to Ukraine with an engagement ring in hand. The three weeks that followed are the focus of my book. I returned home just days before 9/11 and started writing my experience as a screenplay (screenwriting had been my passion and only type of writing I did at the time). I later optioned the script to a producer (the first of two optioned scripts that I turned into books!) The option later expired before it got produced. My frustration led to me turning the script into a book. A few years after that, it was published. Of course, I'm still more determined than ever to get the movie made. Just had to take a detour first.
MT: What are some of your fondest memories about your time in Ukraine?
Fox: My favorite moments from the book are the ones that are most bizarre and humiliating (like being chased by an old babushka woman threatening to spray me with bleach), or having a Ukrainian man force my fingers down my throat in an attempt to vomit up the vodka force fed to me.
However, I would say the most profound experiences for me were the two- to three-hour-long meals that were so routine over there, which consisted of endless toasts that were not only thought up off the cuff, but flowed like poetry. While on the subject of flowing, there was the endless stream of vodka that accompanied each toast. And if you didn't partake, they made you feel guilty about it. When you have low tolerance to straight shots of liquor like me, you can see how it can lead to a grown man shoving his fingers down your throat.
MT: Was it difficult to transition from writing screenplays to prose fit for a memoir?
RF: There was definitely a learning curve involved. On one hand, prose was so much liberating. Screenwriting has so many more limitations and is so much more cookie-cutter and formulaic. My initial attempts at prose were very choppy. Brevity is king in screenwriting. So I think I overcompensated by overcooking my prose in an attempt to break away from terse approach in screenwriting. I had to find a middle ground. Once I found that right balance, there was no looking back. I can also thank my screenwriting background for my ability to craft dialogue, which many prose writers will often say is their weakness. Even though my book is nonfiction, it wasn't like I was recording every conversation I had. I had to recreate dialogue to the best of my memory and stay true to the spirit of my real-life experiences.
MT: Anything else you'd like to add?
RF: It is my hope that anyone reading Love & Vodka who is sitting idly on a dream will be inspired to pursue it — to not be afraid to take a chance on something that many wouldn't be willing to try. At the very least, and I can't stress this enough, to find a way to take at least one trip in your lifetime that is out of your comfort zone. Especially if you are still in your 20s. And especially if you are still single. Because that window will close. Forever.
I realize this is easier said than done, but I never in a million years would have predicted that my life would lead me to such a zany adventure... yet it did. I'm glad nobody managed to talk me out of it. Some tried, but they failed.
For more info on R.J. Fox, visit rjfoxwriter.wordpress.com.