Antanas Sileika is the author of the novels Underground (Thomas Allen and Son 2011), Woman in Bronze (Random House 2004), and Dinner at the End of the World (Mosaic 1994). His story collection, Buying on Time (Porcupine’s Quill 1997) was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Awards in 1998 and serialized on CBC Radio’s “Between the Covers.” Woman in Bronze was a Globe and Mail Best Books selection. Sileika lives in Toronto, where he is the director for the Humber School for Writers. I was on the Humber site, clicking around while thinking, Should I sign up? Should I? when I came across his blog mentioning a recent trip to the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius (greater in population than Hamilton, smaller than Vancouver) and subsequently to the London Book Fair. He kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his trip.
1. Why did you leave your desk?
Actually, as a restless writer, I leave my desk all too often, frequently to start a complicated batch of soup or to clean months-old smudges on the light switches. Research is the most engaging pursuit of all because I am away from my desk but I am “working” by reading books or visiting sites that are important to my historical novels, and since they are set in Europe, I must go there. Although travelling can be wearying, it is also dangerously fun because I can say I am “working” again, but I am not actually sitting at my desk and getting down a thousand words a day, which is my frequently unfulfilled ideal.
2. When and where did you go?
I was in Vilnius, Lithuania, to participate in a book fair last February. I am often in Lithuania because I have the language and the place has a wealth of untapped dramatic stories unknown here. For example, one of Lithuania’s most prominent children’s writers in the fifties, Kostas Kubilinskas, was only allowed to publish his verses after ingratiating himself to the communist party. He did this by infiltrating the resistance and murdering one partisan and betraying four others who were blown up by grenades. Imagine a murderous Dr. Seuss and you get a picture of the kind we don’t see all that often in Canada. I have also climbed ancient hill forts, sat in underground bunkers, and interviewed old-timers in wooden country houses with homemade cheese and bread as well as beer and wine and home-distilled samagonas on the table in front of us.
The book fair was a revelation. In a country of just over two and a half million Lithuanian speakers, 60,000 people attended the event over four days. Families came with children in tow and spent much of the day there. I took part in several panel discussions. In one of them I helped present a book of aphorisms to a crowd of three hundred. I couldn’t pay thirty people to attend a presentation of aphorisms in Canada.
My own novel presentation (for Pogrindis, the Lithuanian title of Underground) had room for four hundred chairs, but it was standing room only with people milling at the doors to hear what I said. Newspapers, television, and magazines reported on the fair daily and I had hours and hours of interviews over six days. Books are news there. By contrast, the London Book Fair in April, which I also attended, was much, much different. That consisted of agents and publishers in short meetings, like speed dating, with hardly a fan or a book in sight. [In 2011, the total attendance of The London Book Fair was 24, 802.]
3. What colour or odour did you notice/do you remember?
I also go to Paris from time to time and passed through there this time as well, and because I stay in old-fashioned hotels, the smell of mildew is prominent because those tiny rooms have tiny showers in them, and the steam has nowhere to go. The streets of Paris used to smell of Gauloises, but those days are gone. Now, one barely smells the reek of black tobacco at all – I miss it, actually.
As to sights and sounds, Vilnius is in a valley, and the clouds loom over the place dramatically. They seem much lower there than anywhere else, and because the history has been so troubled there, it often feels as if a malevolent god broods over the city, lifting his thunderheads from time to time to give the illusion of safety. The swallows also screech over the city at dusk, and I have thought of them as the souls of murdered, deported, or departed souls.
4. Did you meet anyone?
I meet readers and writers, intellectuals and farmers, local eccentrics in small towns who provide me with the comfort of strangers. I talk to parish priests and look at the smiles of shy country children when I make jokes in the general stores of hamlets and villages. I also speak to the dead in the Jewish cemeteries, making useless apologies, and I speak to the departed in prison cells where they were tortured or shot. People come at me with their stories of what happened during the war and after it, of how their parents were deported, of how the chair of the communist party forbade visits to Israel but might permit a visit to the United States. The great advantage there is that I am not tied into my Canadian social milieu. I am a wanderer and a researcher, an archaeologist of old stories and a reporter of new ones. I seem to be some kind of magnet to people with stories in them, and I am grateful for this quality because my store of narratives to be re-imagined in literature shows no sign of getting smaller.
5. What was the best and worst part of your sojourn?
I had the good fortune of presenting a popular book at the book fair, so the line-up for signatures was an hour long. One of the people at the end of the line said, “Getting a signature from you is like trying to get bread in the old Communist days. I used to wait in line for a long time, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted would be available when I got to the head of it.” Luckily, signatures do not run out. As to the worst part, even the bad was good. I had to do a two-hour “walking” interview on the sidewalks of Vilnius. It was minus ten and we ambled slowly along the sidewalks with a cameraman who was walking backwards into traffic as I shivered both for the cold and for fear of his imminent demise.
6. Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
Doris Lessing once said that writing was a way out of boredom. When I travel, I am not bored at all, and the writing suffers. Some writers are recluses, but I am not among them. I both need to be out in the world and need to be alone at my desk for certain periods of time. I’ll be travelling again this summer to the Curonian Spit, a strange long sandbar on the Baltic that has the sea on one side, and a lagoon on the other. It has sand dunes that cover ancient fishing villages that lost the battle against the sand. I’ll rent a house next door to the summer house Tomas Mann had before the war, and there I’ll try to finish off my next novel while my wife does her painting. That might be the place where I find some kind of balance between being away from my desk and being at it. I do know that at some point, I’ll go out in search of the smoked fish that villagers sell from windows in their homes, and maybe a frothy beer to go with it. And then it will be time to return to my desk in the house among the dunes.