In 2007, Scott Stambach had barely written a word of fiction in his life. Just seven years later, he’s completed his first novel, . His path from literary neophyte to burgeoning author started when, as a graduate student in the physics department of UC San Diego, he came across another debut novel, Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 bestseller House of Leaves.
“I thought it was the most moving, inspiring thing I’d ever read,” he says. “I thought, ‘I want to do this. I want to be a part of this.’ ”
In the 27 years before that moment, Stambach said, he may have written a short story once—in seventh grade. But that didn’t stop him from immediately putting pen to paper, establishing a routine of writing about 500 words daily. He sent his stories off to literary magazines and, soon, they started getting published.
Then, in 2007, he saw Maryann DeLeo’s 2003 documentary film, Chernobyl Heart, which takes viewers into hospitals in Ukraine and Belarus where children suffering from radiation-related illnesses as a result of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster have lived their whole lives. Stambach knew that the kids in the film had the same instincts and dreams as any other young people. But, he said, “it seemed like they didn’t have any road to living them out.”
The kids haunted and inspired him, and the next year, while enrolled in a creative writing class, he started toying with the idea of giving someone like them a voice.
“If all you knew for your entire life was the four walls of a hospital, what would that sound like? What would your education look like? And how would that shape you? It would obviously be a very unique existence, probably torturous,” he says.
His imagination gave way to a 5,000-word story for the class about Ivan Isaenko, a physically disabled but sharp-witted young man who has lived all his 17 years in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus, and whose life changes when he meets Polina, a beautiful leukemia patient. Years later, he showed the story to his agent, Victoria Sanders, who suggested he expand it into a novel. Starting in 2013, Stambach spent a grueling year doing just that. He woke up at 5 a.m. every morning and wrote his usual 500 words, then spent the rest of his day teaching high school and college classes in San Diego.
“All of those are full-time jobs, but once you get a bite from an agent, especially in this market, you go for it,” he says.
While Ivan Isaenko is much more complex than the short story from which it originated, Stambach says he didn’t stray much from his original narrative arc.
“All the specific down-and-dirty, nitty-gritty stuff that goes on in Ivan’s mind and in his world gets fleshed out in the novel. But ultimately, it’s a very similar story,” he says.
Stambach’s starting point for his research was Chernobyl Heart. For color, he turned to some of the Russian he’d picked up from his high school sweetheart, a Ukranian immigrant who lived in Ukraine at the time of the Chernobyl incident. As he imagined Polina, he drew on his experiences with a girlfriend who went through chemotherapy and a mother who died of cancer.
The Ivan character, he says, is to some extent a reflection of his own personality. But at least initially, the spunky, resilient yet vulnerable young man seemed to emerge in his mind almost like magic.
“You start writing, it pops up, and suddenly you have a person and a voice and it feels real. I don’t know if there’s an explanation for it. That’s part of why I love doing this,” he says.
Jordan G. Teicher is a New York-based writer and critic. His work has been published by Slate, NPR, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.