Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


The writer who doesn’t read books

I was at a book sale and signing event recently, sharing a table with another writer. The bookstore, located in a place with virtually no foot traffic, was near-empty, and the only people who came to our tables were interested in getting our signatures so that they could use them to enter a raffle the store had organized. My table partner and I spent the time talking about the usual things: book marketing strategies, the publishing industry and our current projects.

Eventually, I asked the guy, “What are you reading?”

He shrugged and said, in a tone so casual to be almost dismissive. “Eh, I don’t really read books. I’m just not really into them right now.”

I had no way of preparing myself for this. The guy was young, in his mid-20’s, right at the age when I had discovered writers who would remain favorites for the duration of my life, whose influence on my writing will never evaporate. He was at the age when I—no children or frightening responsibilities in my life—read between two and three hours each day, towers of books on my nightstand, desk and toilet tank. To this day, I don’t ever leave the house without a book in my bag, so I simply couldn’t hide my shock. “You don’t read?”

“I mean, I do research for projects. I like to study, mostly, so I get stuff from the internet. But I just don’t read books right now.”

I started stuttering. Perhaps I appeared offended. The experience was painful, stinging, unfathomable, inexplicable…I felt strain in my stomach and was overwhelmed by an urge to clench my teeth. “So, how do you work on craft without looking at stuff written by people who are better than you?”

“Eh, I get feedback. I’m in a writer’s group.”

“And…these writers. Do they also reject books? Do they ever tell you things like, ‘Your writing reminds me of such and such?’”

“Maybe they like books, but we don’t talk about it. The group is all about writing, so we focus on that.”

I sat with his answer for many minutes, feeling the silence stretching between us like a bungee cord about to kick back with the force of a falling elephant. I imagined the guitarist who did not listen to guitar, the painter who did not look at paintings, the doctor who rejected convalescence, the teacher who had nothing to learn. On any level, in any environment, the sculptor who had no use for sculpture would be considered a buffoon. If a singer came to a singing coach to reveal she had no interest in listening to song, the coach should send her packing. Yet this young man sat cocksure and certain of his intrinsic talent. Reading would be an admission of either weakness or incapacity.

I finally asked him, “How do you rationalize selling books to people when you don’t want to buy or consume books yourself?”

“Yeah, I get that point. I mean, it’s true, I guess, kinda. But I just got so many things on my plate. I don’t need to read someone else’s stuff to sell my own.”

I realized I was the only person to have ever asked this man that question. His education and culture must have reinforced his position as reasonable and rational. Still, I’d have a much easier time with the pharmacist who knows her wares are poisons just as I could get my head around the grocer who sold high fructose corn syrup without ever eating it himself. But…dude…these are books.

Books.

In America, in the 21st century, it’s not just the president and his followers who don’t read. Some writers have also joined their ranks.

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Photo of a contemporary book burning from Wikipedia.


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Flooding damage

I had a clogged sewage pipe. The basement flooded, about five inches of water. All sorts of stuff needs to be discarded: rugs, mattresses, clothes. But there are two things that just ripped my heart to shreds.

This is a photo of the box that contains the only hard copy of the novel I wrote while living in Europe between 1996-1999. About a Lithuanian orphan who ends up influencing the life of an historian from Santa Barbara, it was never published. Yes…like The Fugue, this one was just sitting on the floor somewhere.

My wife fell in love with me while reading this book. I developed friendships while writing it, and I became myself as a writer, found my voice somewhere in the middle of it. It contains some of the worst sentences I’ve ever written, so pathetically, honestly unfortunate that they represent an organic beauty I’ll never know again.

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The text is ruined. Also in the box were critiques of my writing I had collected from classmates at Columbia, some of whom have gone on to become quite accomplished and acclaimed writers.

The other damage is a box of letters. Those letters date back to the late 80’s; many of them are in old air mail envelopes. The box contained post cards from ex-girlfriends, letters from men who had witnessed the Soviet crackdown in Lithuania; it’s just a box of treasures, memories, mementos, documents to make sense of my identity and past. Many of them will be saved, but some of them are just trashed.

My computer and cameras survived. So did my tax papers and all sorts of stuff money can replace.

Move your treasures to higher ground.


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My reading at Waterline (video)

Here’s a video of me reading from The Fugue, as recorded by the good folks at Waterline Writers Reading Series in Batavia, Illinois.

If you’re interested in the writing workshop I’m leading, click here.

Gint Aras at Waterline Writers: March 2017 from Waterline Writers on Vimeo.


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Books: a threat to fascists

Two American classics, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, are again under assault. People have been calling for bans on these books since they were first printed.

Generally, two reasons explain why someone tries to ban a book. The first is the person’s ignorance of the book’s message. The second is that the person understands the message but fears it. In this case, both reasons might apply.

My purpose isn’t to advertise the name of the woman who called for the books’ ban or to draw attention to the school district temporarily and foolishly banning the books when they know exactly what they’re about. Interested readers can easily find this information. I’m here to counterpunch. An assault on any book, from the Bible to The Anarchist’s Cookbook, is an assault on all books. It contributes to America’s ever-growing anti-intellectualism and adulation of ignorance, which is often conflated as concern over someone’s emotions.

The worried mother claims the n-bombs in Twain and Lee disturb her biracial teenage son. Of course, instead of asking her son to be excused from reading, she wants the books removed completely. Her rationale: “I’m not disputing this is great literature. But there is so much (sic) racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that, and right now we are a nation divided as it is.”

Claiming offensive language interferes with whatever the books are saying is, in fact, a dispute of the books’ greatness. She either hasn’t read or misunderstands Lee and Twain. Her concern for a divided nation is transparent; because her boy finds the books offensive, she feels the rest of the school should as well.

Ironically, both these books provoke discussion about the nature of equality and unity. Curiously, the woman uses the same critique employed by people who fear what ideas these books might provoke.

These books should be difficult for any boy, biracial or otherwise. Great books slap us silly, shake us up and kick us. If the woman could “get past” the offensive word, one that should offend us in 2016, and battle through what violence children witness in the narratives (Huck’s dad is an abusive drunk, for example, and Scout haphazardly stops a lynch mob from murdering Tom Robinson), she could stumble into seeing that both Twain and Lee littered their books with n-bombs, in 1884 and 1960, respectively, while essentially arguing that black lives matter.

In short, these books agree that the biracial boy should be offended not only by words but by his society. Another lesson is that Twain and Lee are also provoking his Caucasian peers to see the consequences of racism.

That’s among the many reasons these books are part of our canon, and also why people have feared Twain and Lee’s critiques for as long as the books have existed.

*     *     *

Literature has always been a threat to those fascists who want to bait us into hating each other. They know it’s a remedy to growing inequality and division. I’ve met very few people who consumed it in large quantities but came away hateful, afraid of their fellow man.

Having consumed it in large quantities myself, I’ve learned it radical in 1884 to claim black people were human beings deserving of equal rights, just as it was radical to make the claim in 1960, and it obviously remains radical today. If not, it should offend no one to hear the phrase black lives matter. People should hear it and think, “Yeah, no shit.”

Despite my life in letters, I know far more Americans who see no use for literature. So many  believe individual words are more offensive than the act of banning them. These people are everywhere; I’ve found them in HR offices and among the administrators in schools. Our president-elect has no use for literature, just as most of his supporters seem to care little for it. Forget about great books—sketch comedy offends them.

People fear books because they want their flawed ideas and hatred either justified or hidden while they get to control the narrative. That has been the only reason books have ever been hated and burned, the only reason their makers are demonized as unpatriotic and brought out to face firing squads.

Of course, my critics will point out that this woman has the best intentions. She’s a leftist who wants a safe space for her kid, and she’s trying to protect him from racism. That misses the point. Her impulse might be to protect her boy, and she’s right to find the word offensive. But right beside this affront is an impulse to make everyone do as she likes.

It’s exactly the impulse of someone who has either read too few books or failed to gain their most important lessons.

 

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Photo, book burning, from Wikipedia.

“Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. –Harper Lee


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Readers ask: Should a writer travel?

Most questions about writing are loaded, and they require reading between very many lines. They usually are versions of these two questions:

1.) Will such and such make me a better writer?

2.) Will such and such help me get published?

We should note that those questions are not about the same thing. If getting published required someone to improve their writing, a lot of currently published bestsellers would have never made it past the acquisition editor’s desk.

The only thing a writer should do is read and write. You really can’t do one without the other, not if you want to compose engaging texts. That’s the short answer.

The long answer is more interesting. Will travel make someone a better writer? Travel, when done outside all-inclusive resorts, builds empathy. It offers alternative points of view. Travel enough and you’ll learn that everybody considers themselves the center point. I’ve heard people from at least six other countries tell me they come from the greatest country in the world. (Russia, Canada, Australia, Germany, The UK, New Zealand)

Travel also disarms the traveler. It can, when done with the right purpose, displace mythologies. Travel raises questions that have no answers. It also displaces common explanations. Why was Rome built where it stands? Well…there’s the Tiber. Yes, but Rome stands elsewhere, not just on the banks of the Tiber. Fifth grade geography class has its limitations.

All of those things make someone a better thinker and citizen but not necessarily a better writer. We can work on our observations skills in our bedrooms. Their application on trips really does reveal things that are otherwise invisible.

Of course, some of the best writers never really went anywhere. One thing they all did, however, was read, and they read whatever they could get their hands on. Travel is fun and engaging, a much more rewarding way to pass the time than, say, watching NFL games. It’s not as expensive as people think, certainly not when compared to its benefits. One thing I always have in my bag when I’m traveling is a book. It’s usually written by someone very different from me.

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Photo from Wikipedia

 

 


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Readers ask: Does The Fugue make allusions to Lolita?

Well, someone finally noticed this, so I feel I should respond. “Hey, Gint,” a reader asks, “What’s with the age gaps between the lovers in your books? Is Lita Avila an allusion to Dolores Haze?”

The reader has noticed that both Finding the Moon in Sugar and The Fugue depict lovers with a notable age difference. Perhaps naturally, they’re wondering if I have some kind of fetish.

Audra and Andy from Finding the Moon are probably more than a decade apart. Andy, born in 1986, claims he was never able to figure out Audra’s true age and puts her birth date somewhere between 1977 and 1972. Of course, Audra’s vain and a liar, so her email address, audra1974@zuikis.lt might be set up to make her seem younger than she truly is. Dazed and confused, the stoner boy Andy never notes the year in her address as evidence for anything. If Audra is truly born in 1974, it means she and Andy are twelve years apart.

Yuri and Lita of The Fugue have a wider gap. Lita’s just a teen when they meet, and they are almost two decades apart. Neither character seems to think much of this, and (minor spoiler) Lita’s family are all either dead or gone by the time her initial crush on him evolves to something more mature.

When I wrote and self-published Finding the Moon in Sugar, I thought The Fugue was a dead project that no one would ever read. I was definitely conscious of the repeated age gap—that makes it a motif, right?—but didn’t worry too much about it. Once I knew The Fugue would be published, I figured the only way someone would catch it would be by reading both books, which would be wonderful if they did. To me, Lita and Yuri’s relationship is a rich construction that reveals so much about both characters and also the nature of trauma. I had no intension of tampering.

Now…did I have Nabokov in mind when I chose the name Lita (the character’s full name is Angelita Avila)?

Nabokov’s Dolores (Lolita) Haze is Humbert Humbert’s victim. Humbert is not merely her abuser and rapist but also her legal guardian. And while Hum suffered the tragic loss of a child-lover while a kid himself—an experience that leaves him searching for a surrogate or an incarnate…an avatar, if we will—he admits that he deserves to be tried and sentenced, even if he does beg readers for leniency and forgiveness.

Yuri is not victimizing Lita. For much of the time after first leaving prison and returning to Cicero, he is hardly able to interact with anyone, so shell-shocked that he imagines buildings that aren’t there, and he can’t  know how to thank Lita for her gift of a broken bicycle. He later sculpts her portrait not out of a desire to possess or control her but as a way to release his affection, which is probably discomforting, though not necessarily because of Lita’s age: Yuri has lost almost everyone he has ever loved, and now a stranger has given him a gift.

It’s true that Lita’s portrait is crossed with his memories of other women—Lita’s is not the only portrait he has sculpted. And Lita, young and self-conscious, never imagines he has sculpted her portrait. When she guesses it represents some other woman, she’s partially right.

Honestly, when I thought of the name Lita, I was also thinking of names for other characters. So my concern with the name Lita had less to do with Nabokov and more to do with its similarity to Alina, Yuri’s interest from his teen years. I wanted names that seemed shades of one another…variations, if you will. (In an early draft, Alina’s name was Lina.)

I was reading a lot of Nabokov at the time, so it probably did things to my mind. But I didn’t see Yuri and Lita’s relationship as taboo or profane, and I didn’t think of Lita as Lolita’s literary variation, at least not consciously.

I should probably say that I had several crushes on older girls while still a 13 and 14 year old at summer camp. One of those girls turned out to be a lifelong friend. I’m sure the intensity of such feelings and experiences evokes itself in my writing all on its own, without me needing to do very much.

Still, in future novels, what lovers I surmise will all be around the same age. I feel like I’m done exploring these age gaps and that my fiction has expressed what I wanted, even if I can’t say what that is.

 

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Readers ask: Why don’t your stories have endings?

This question came a while ago from someone who has read almost every available work of fiction I’ve ever written. While my novel, Finding the Moon in Sugar, saw very few reviews, several reviewers commented that the book had no ending. Reviewers of The Fugue have not made similar comments…not that I remember. But the reader asking the question felt the final paragraph of The Fugue is even less an ending than the final bit in Finding the Moon.

I find this really fascinating. It goes completely contrary to my process and point of view. I don’t feel I can really start writing something until I see how it ends. I’ve said in many interviews that The Fugue started out as a vignette of a man repairing a window. I didn’t know I had a novel until I imagined the very final scene. The horror and displacement convinced me I had a novel.

All this aside, my endings don’t offer resolution. I find resolution to be among the greatest contrivances in literature. I don’t think of narratives or time in linear terms, but if we do think this way, a cliché applies: all roads lead to the same destination, and that destination is a mystery. There’s a difference between writing the last word of a text—always an energizing moment—and resolving the narrative’s problem. A good ending is one that leaves the reader feeling obliterated or provoked. It is not one that leaves the reader with the delusion that now s/he “understands something” or, worse, “understands everything.”

There’s no way to answer this question in detail without discussing the actual endings. As a person fascinated with love and death, I write about not knowing. One of my most important themes, I think, is ignorance, especially the kind of ignorance we can’t perceive. So I don’t try to answer any questions in my fiction. My fiction is a way for me to express my ignorance, and my endings work to that end.

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Readers ask: How’s it feel to kill a character?

I’ve been holding off answering some of the questions I’ve received about The Fugue because the book is really hard to talk about without giving up spoilers. Even skilled interviewers like Amy Danzer of New City (click for interview) and Rick Kogan of WGN (click for interview) had to find clever ways of talking about the book to keep from revealing too much.

At this point, I’ve gathered enough questions that I can start blogging on a more regular basis. I’ve found some to be really the provocative.

So, here’s the first:

How’s it feel to kill a character?

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun sometimes. To blow off steam, sometimes I’ll just write torture scenes in my notebook, most so over-the-top that they become nonsense. “Blood and brains were everywhere. Everywhere. She’d find bits of spongy brain in her pencil case months later.”

Of course, sometimes the death of a character is a really intense moment. Death is a central theme in my books, especially in connection to religion and love. I’ve written death scenes that have left me crying afterwards. There’s one particular bit in The Fugue that I feared writing. It has to do with a hanging. When I did finally complete it, I went for a long walk through Morningside Heights Park at around 2:00 AM.

I think it’s important to explain what assumptions I bring to my writing. I don’t feel very strongly influenced by the Hollywood narrative in which the good guy survives. I assume I’m treating representations of real people, and so death is a certainty for every character I’ve ever written. Sometimes that death happens within the plot, and some deaths are more gruesome than others. In The Fugue, some people burn alive; another one goes to sleep and never wakes up; a third is killed in a bus shelter; one guy gets kicked in the head by a horse.

I’ve never written a character just to kill them off. Unlike a writer like Flannery O’Connor, I don’t feel that death is a punishment or an instrument of God. To me, it’s part of life, like the rain or the sunset. Readers should notice, however, that unlike Tolstoy in Master and Man, I’ve written very few in-the-moment death scenes. There are two important ones in Finding the Moon in Sugar. In The Fugue, a character named Lars is near death, feverish and delusional in one scene, but he comes out of it. A lot of the deaths happen “behind the scenes” and are either discovered or noted by other characters.

Of all the scenes I’ve ever read, I feel that Nabokov must have had more fun than anyone else writing Humbert Humbert’s murder of Clare Quilty. It’s a romp, at once sublime and profane, and even includes a poetry reading. I think the reader enjoys, at least partially, watching Quilty go. I’d be shocked if readers found characters in my books they wanted to see destroyed.

However, I’m working on one now that people will probably want to see tortured. I haven’t decided what I’m going to do with him yet. But his fate won’t be easy.

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Getting compared to your idols

This past week, the Chicago Tribune ran this review of my novel, The Fugue. The reviewer, fellow Chicagoan Dmitry Samarov, called the book “magisterial,” said it goes for all the marbles and compared it to Dostoevsky.

Other commentators have compared my writing to other writers that I love, including Nelson Algren.

All these conversations are insane. They don’t feel real. I’m certain a moment is arriving when a director or other puppet-master will say, “We’re finished, thank you,” then turn off all the lights, unplug the equipment and send all the players back to reality.

I have so many questions about how this all happens. How is it that you read the books of the writers you love, write your own book and then end up getting compared to them? The comparisons are obvious compliments. But what’s going on? Have I internalized these forms, or are they attractive to me because I found parts of myself swimming in them, parts placed in a text long before I was born?

Today, I’d just like to nudge the director or puppet-master, if s/he’s reading. Don’t turn off the equipment. Not for a while, anyway.  I’d like to keep this insane conversation going.

Here’s a self-portrait I took of myself in Queens, NY.

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