Liquid Ink

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


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Readers ask: Why do you think fiction is more demanding than memoir-writing?

This reader is responding to an answer I gave to Rob McClennan as part of his 12 or 20 Questions series. You can read the entire interview at the link. However, here’s an excerpt to the bit that provoked a question:

Fiction…is the more demanding art form, at least for me. It’s rooted in deeper traditions, and the risks you take leave more at stake than just personal embarrassment, or someone taking issue with an idea you have. When you’re writing fiction, you’re sitting in the room with all the ancestors, the lineage going all the way back to Homer, to the Old Testament, Christ’s parables, the myths and legends that form the foundations behind the fundamental assumptions we use to create a reality for ourselves. So, you’re adding a patch to that quilt, as you stretch and bend it. It’s a really demanding moment.

Several people have found this answer surprising. My memoir, Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen, handles heavy themes, not least of which is the Holocaust. The belief is that themes, not mediums, determine difficulty.

There’s truth to that assumption, though my novels also handle themes like sexual assault, domestic violence, collapsing identity, wartime trauma, family dysfunction, religion, artistic process, etc.

I’m sure there are writers who find memoir-writing impossible. Writing my memoir was frightening; however, I could do it, whereas I can’t write poetry without it sounding like a nursery rhyme, bad rap song or random grocery list. I don’t bother with it. It’s too demanding.

Demanding how? I think it’s important to separate emotional demands from technical ones. They’re related, sure, but I find it much easier to say “this hurts” or “here’s where I messed up” or “here are my flaws” than implementing the scalpel, rib shears, protractor and carpenter square necessary to write even a short story of a few hundred words.

Of course, the demands are largely determined by me.

I’m aware and respectful of traditions, use a fair amount of allusion in my fiction, and when I draw water from the well that is the English language, I let the pail sink for a while before drawing it up. I’m bored otherwise.

At the same time, I think there’s an important note in English that colors my awareness of the past, as the words we use to categorize prose are fiction and non-fiction. That implies the default form is fiction, while the other form is its negation.

Imagine if, instead of saying vegetable, we used non-fruit or something. Fruit would clearly be the primary reference point.

To me, fiction is the primary reference point. The great lessons in Western civilization come in stories. Myths, fables, parables and allegories make up the reference points that both progress and define our culture, and we engage in much more soul searching and theoretical “what if” in our fiction than we do in our laws, news reports or histories. American philosophy—Emerson or Thoreau—is blithe stuff compared to Moby Dick or Huck Finn. Homer and Sophocles get me going much more than do Aristotle or Kant.

It’s true that a great historiographer must use her imagination to connect one dot to the next while arguing for some cause. Historiography is demanding, but I’m not an historiographer. I don’t have that kind of mind. I’m an artist, and when I want to put myself to the test, I try writing fiction. It’s sad that more people don’t read it, and that economic and social obstacles have prevented me from writing more than I have, but that doesn’t change what I find engaging.

I think the best example of what I mean should come from  writers I admire. If we compare Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory to Lolita, I think we’ll find he’s working much harder in Lolita. Dostoevsky hardly breaks a sweat in The House of the Dead, even when he’s describing gruesome scenes. But in his great novels, he’s carrying massive stones up the hill.

Some writers who find memoirs more demanding than novels might come up with examples of novelists who have it easy compared to their memoirs. I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

Ultimately, art is a kind of perversion in which the artist creates some problem and tries to deal with it, usually alone. Notice that dealing with it is different from solving. Beware artists who think they’ve got something figured out.

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Photo of Memory by Olin Levi Warner (1896) from Wikipedia.

 

 

 


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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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Video: live interview

This is about a 24 minute video of me answering moderator Amy Danzer’s questions following my reading at The Looking Glass Bookstore in Oak Park, Illinois on February 18, 2016. Yes! That gorgeous bookstore in the background is right here where I live. It’s worth visiting just to see the decor (and to  buy a bunch of books, obviously).

In this video, I answer questions about why I’d want to write a literary fugue, what place setting plays in my writing, how art helps with trauma, and what audience I had in mind while writing.

Enjoy, and do share.

Also, be sure to check out my fledgling YouTube channel. It’s sure to grow as I gather more videos.


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How I landed my book deal (in only 15 years)

I’m happy to announce that the pre-launch for my upcoming novel, The Fugue, is underway. You can find pre-order information here at the CCLaP website. I also encourage people to check out what kind words Jason Pettus, CCLaP’s owner, left on the novel’s Goodreads page. “This is the literary novel for those who love literary novels…”

The Fugue started out back in 2000 when I was a student in New York. One night I wrote a vignette titled “Juri’s Window”. Juri was a painter and sculptor living in Amsterdam, perhaps in the mid 90’s, where he collected unemployment benefits and sculpted from trash. The vignette was simple: a description of a window Juri put together out of glass bottles and the remains of a discarded fence. I looked at it as a writing exercise.

But this character pestered me, kept appearing in my work. Soon the name had changed to Yuri, and he had a family, a girlfriend. Later, I moved him from Amsterdam to my hometown of Cicero, and his family gained a complex history of flight and displacement. Eventually he’d been accused of arson and murder. I realized I had a novel.

I messed around with various drafts for years. But in the summer of 2006, at that time working in Bloomington, Indiana, I felt the book, clocking in at about 135,000 words, was finished, and I started trying to sell it, going about it in the traditional way, sending cold queries to strangers.

Mind you, obsessed with The Fugue, I had not published a single piece of short fiction at that point. I don’t know how many rejection letters I collected—for a while I had been assembling them in a scrapbook, but in time I had no place to put them, and far from motivating me, they were just trash mail, most of them the usual form rejections. What kept me writing queries were the nibbles. This Midtown agent asked for the first 50 pages; that Chelsea editor asked for the manuscript. Now another agent wanted the whole thing. After reading, she told me her colleague might be a better fit and forwarded the text along.

The people who read it in whole or part all said about the same thing: “You don’t have a platform, and this book’s too difficult to market.” I took to heart that they didn’t say, “Your writing is shit.” It left me enough to maintain the feeling that I could be a writer. But I hung up The Fugue as a failure and set it under the bed, so to speak.

In the summer of 2007, I started writing Finding the Moon in Sugar, a project that occupied the years leading up to my first child’s birth in 2009. And then I took on smaller writing assignments, including a stint with The Good Men Project.

Part of the reason I self-published Finding the Moon in Sugar was to get my name out there. I wanted to have something gripping but fun to read from during events, and I thought the best way to learn how to market a book—a work of literary fiction, to the point—was to get out there and try to do it.

Last autumn, 2014, I was reading from Finding the Moon at RUI, a reading series here in Chicago. I hoped, at best, to sell a couple of copies, maybe learn about some new writers. At the bar, Sheffield’s, I ended up sitting next to a man, Jason, who had a lot to say about selling books. Turned out he had a publishing house. After my reading—I read the scene when Andy hears opera music for the first time—Jason asked me if I had any short stories. Sure, I said. I have plenty. But when I checked out his website, I figured, what the hell. Maybe I’ll tell him about The Fugue.

This holiday season, the book that started out as a vignette will hit the shelves and e-readers. In anticipation, have a look at the cover. It’s gorgeous:

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My 5 year-old daughter explains fiction and non-fiction

My daughter came home from kindergarten earlier this week to tell me she had learned the difference between fiction and nonfiction in the school library.

“Really? What’s the difference?”

Her answer was a hodgepodge of Lithuanian and English, as it tested the limits of her vocabulary in both languages. I’m paraphrasing it:

“Dad! Fiction would be like this. Look at this tube.” She showed me my wife’s skin cream. “Look. If it’s fiction then you say, Okay, there’s an elephant, and he lives inside here with Strawberry Shortcake and all the Little Ponies and they fly and get their candy and cakes from the bakery, a good one that never closes and where you can have anything you want, but you don’t need to bring money. And then, outside, you can have an umbrella and sunshine and shower sprinkles and a hot air balloon all together at the same time, and you can sleep if you want to, but only if you want to. If it’s fiction, you don’t need to sleep. And you can make anything you want, and you can put it anywhere. Everything fits inside everything and you can always have a place for anything no matter what it is. Everything’s together. It can all be inside the tube and outside the tube and everywhere all the time.”

“That’s quite correct,” I said. “But what about nonfiction.”

“Well, nonfiction.” She shrugged. “It’s a tube. With skin cream. That’s all. It’s just real..”

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