Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Antanas Sileika

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Antanas Sileika

Antanas Sileika talks to Open Book about his latest novel, Underground (Thomas Allen & Son), the story behind the novel and his next project. In a recent review of Underground in the Globe and Mail, Donna Bailey Nurse writes, "Sileika elucidates the socio-political context of occupied Lithuania with astounding ease. He gives us a brilliant, highly accessible military history, one that remains largely repressed — underground — in the East and in the West."

Open Book is the fifth stop on Antanas Sileika's blog tour. For tour details, visit the TAP Authors Hit the Virtual Road Facebook page.

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your latest book, Underground.

Antanas Sileika:

The novel is a love story set in a forgotten war in Europe.

I was thinking about how we are different today from the characters in the classic WW2 Bogart film, Casablanca. In that film, during the climactic scene on the airport runway, Bogart turns to Ingrid Bergman and says, "I'm no good at being noble, but the problems of three people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

What he meant was that politics were more important than private life. I don't think we believe this any more. I think we believe the opposite, that relationships trump politics, so I set a love story in war, intending it to be a kind of mirror image of Casablanca. But I chose a different part of WW2.

For those of us in the West, the war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, when we laid down our arms and began the hard road to peace, the rebuilding of ruined cities, the denazification that would clear away the old enemies and the counting of the dead that would lead to an understanding of the horror that innocent people had suffered through.

But in the East, no such end came. Instead, in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, in Ukraine and Byelorussia and parts of Poland, the war went underground.

In the West, the demobilized soldiers went home to build homes and garages and to fill them with refrigerators, washing machines, televisions and cars. In the East, the project begun in the Soviet Union twenty years earlier was continued, and the farmers were stripped of their land. The mass deportations began in earnest again, the cattle cars rolling north-eastward with hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, many to be starved, frozen or worked to death.

The Reds could sweep the countryside and hold it as long as they were present, but as soon as they left, the partisans came out of their bunkers again to assassinate the local Reds whose job it was to collect requisitions, to police the streets and in particular, to check the myriad of documents that the regime began to issue.

In this desperate situation, men and women continued to fall in love, so the novel traces what happens to relationships in impossible circumstance.

OBT:

Underground is based on real events. Can you tell us about the story behind the novel? Who are the real Lukas and Elena?

AS:

Lukas and Elena are fictional characters first, but Lukas had a strong model in the Lithuanian resistance fighter named Juozas Luksa. He was an architecture student who fought terrible battles in the underground resistance behind the iron curtain and was sent out in 1947 to solicit help from the West. Since no one was really interested in his issues, he became stranded and ended up in Paris, where he met a woman and married her. Then the CIA became interested in him and dropped him into Lithuania in 1950, where he was betrayed and killed.

But he is not the only model. The Brits were sending agents in by boat across the Baltic. I was interested in who became double agents and why.

The cast of real characters who fought in the underground was just too fantastic not to borrow from — I think in particular of a man named Kostas Kubilinskas, Lithuania's most beloved children's writer, someone like Dr. Seuss. He was a special double agent for the Communists, one who sought out and killed partisans, yet he became kiddie classic!

Such outrageous fate is hard to imagine.

OBT:

Please tell us about the research for your book.

AS:

Although English is my strongest language, I have reasonable conversational Lithuanian and I read the language well. Thus I had access to material not available to many. After the old Soviet Union collapsed and the archives opened up, there was a rush of memoirs published and declassified KGB documents made available.

But most Westerners with windows into the East have languages such as Russian, Ukrainian or Polish. Lithuania is a small place with a hard language. Timothy Snyder, the brilliant multilingual historian who published Bloodlands to great acclaim, complains the language is too hard to learn.

By an accident of fate, I have that language and thus I have access to so much material.

For my novel, I took a battle scene from one of the partisan memoirs, for example, a scene in which the partisans seized a town and held it for a day with intense fighting. I went to this small town, called Merkine, to walk the battle scene and found that history was still alive on the street, where a man I stopped there detailed what happened that fateful day in 1944. I climbed up to the church tower where a machine gun nest had been set up to shot at the invading partisans, whose plans had been betrayed.

I found an old man who had been a partisan and I sat with him in a musty bunker as he told me the story of what it was like to live underground for weeks at a time, and then I drank vodka with him in his wooden house and ate homemade cheese from the milk given by a cow visible form the window.

I kept bumping into personal history as well. I found out that an uncle of mine who had died in the gulag was sent there for supporting partisans. I found out that one of the major partisan leaders used to work for my mother when she ran a teachers' college during the war.

The research was so fascinating that I could easily still be doing it now. But t some point, you have to stop and begin writing.

OBT:

You are the Artistic Director of the Humber School for Writers. What does the job involve? How does it affect your own writing?

AS:

I love everything about fiction, from reading it, to writing it, to talking to writers and wondering about the meaning of it all. Therefore, I think I have one of the best seats in the Canadian house of letters. My dean, the prize-wining writer, Joe Kertes, handed me a credit card when I started this job. He said, "Find the books you love and then get the writers who wrote them to come and teach for you."

For someone with a literary bent, what could be better than that?

During the literary season, I am sometimes out most nights of the week at events that include the publishing parties of former students whose first books are appearing. More joy! (But slightly dangerous to the liver.)

The only problem is finding enough time to write, but I think that is true for anyone with a day job. Conceivably, there will be a time when I'll need to slow down to permit more time for writing, but not yet.

OBT:

What's the best advice you've ever received as a writer?

AS:

The most important thing I was ever told, and I've been repeating it since, is that writing is a marathon, not a sprint. It took me 15 years of practice and three "failed" manuscripts to publish my first book. I kept on going through serious setbacks and many dark periods. Just keep going until you get your second wind, and then your third and fourth.

The second piece of advice came from the writing of Ezra Pound, who said, "Literature is news that stays news." In other words, there is no rush. In my line of work, I see a lot of people who want to get famous fast. (There are other ways of getting more famous rather than by writing a book, by the way.) But even if your ambition is merely to get famous, first you have to get good. That takes time. Learn how to do it. Be patient in a world of more and more instant gratification. Turn off the email, Blackberry and television. Unplug the iPod.

Doris Lessing said you need to be a little bored to write. Get bored a bit. Stare out the window. Daydream.

OBT:

What's your next project?

AS:

It's a novel about paranoid espionage and paranoid science fiction.

I am going back to history and a real-life father and son team who have fascinated me for a decade. I always wanted to interview the son, but he died before I got around to it, so now I will have to make up the story.

Al Budrys was an American science fiction writer of the 1950s. He was also a judge for Scientology sci-fi competitions. He wrote books about alien invaders, real paranoid fifties material.

His father, Jonas Budrys, was the head of Lithuanian counter-intelligence in the '20s — fighting off potential invaders from Germany, the Soviet Union and Poland. He was the one who seized the city of Klaipeda (Memel) from the Germans, changing from a defender of the nation to an aggressor of sorts.

I want to compare the two worlds of these men, and in particular, I am interested in their moral landscapes. How can you defend a nation or the earth, for that matter, and with the power at your disposal, not give in to darker urges? When the old order collapses, as it always does, how can you make the new world better? Is that even possible?

I'm not sure, but I am going to have a lot of fun finding out.


Antanas Sileika is the author of two novels and one collection of linked short stories, Buying On Time, which was nominated for both the City of Toronto Book Award and the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. His last novel, Woman in Bronze, was a Globe and Mail Best Book selection. He lives in Toronto, where he is the artistic director for the Humber School for Writers.

For more information about The Adventures of Cosmo the Dodo Bird please visit the Tundra Books website.

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