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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Art is resistance

It’s always an exciting step when your publisher tells you the cover of your book is finished. Here it is.

Relief Execution Cover final

The release date is October 8th. Pre-order begins on Amazon and Barnes and Noble some time late next week, February 21st. Follow Liquid Ink to keep up with the details, including news about the launch party, scheduled for October.

Here’s what Mikhail Iossel, the founder of the Summer Literary Seminars, and a samizdat writer born in the USSR, had to say after reading it:

This short text packs a powerful punch. A searingly raw exploration of one’s roots, one’s original milieu, one’s upbringing and one’s own conscience. At times difficult to read, it is nonetheless entirely engrossing. Hard to look at yet impossible to look away. A remarkable piece of writing.

From the back cover:

Between the years of 1996-1999, Gint Aras lived a hapless bohemian’s life in Linz, Austria. Decades later, a random conversation with a Polish immigrant in a Chicago coffeehouse provokes a question: why didn’t Aras ever visit Mauthausen, or any of the other holocaust sites close to his former home? The answer compels him to visit the concentration camp in the winter of 2017, bringing with him the baggage of a childhood shaped by his family of Lithuanian WWII refugees. The result is this meditative inquiry, at once lyrical and piercing, on the nature of ethnic identity, the constructs of race and nation, and the lasting consequences of collective trauma. 

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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: What’s your religion?

I’ll reveal that this question comes from students. I think it’s worth saying a few things about it on my blog.

Obviously, I write a lot about religion. Religion is a powerful force in the game of human fate, with tentacles in everything from political systems to educational institutions, nations’ customs and individuals’ identities. I’ve studied religions both formally and informally, and I’ve read a lot of the sacred books, including the Bible, Bhagavad-Gita and others.

I’m in the school that says you can’t really study Western Civilization without knowing the Bible, and you’re at a massive disadvantage as a student of literature if you don’t know at least the plots of the major Bible stories, including lessons in ethics like the Book of Job, the Sermon on the Mount or Paul’s letters. This isn’t just because every book of note will be packed with allusions to the Bible, but also because certain cultural assumptions trace themselves to a Judeo-Christian understanding of reality.

This is an evasive way of saying I’m neither Christian nor Jewish, but that I have deep reverence for the ethics and lessons of those traditions. Granted, I was raised Catholic, which is a lot like saying you used to be a cop or a member of the Latin Kings. Once you’re in, your mind will forever be affected. You can pawn your badge or burn all your black and gold, but the way you see the world remains. I have an easier time remembering the Act of Contrition than all the passwords I use on the internet.

I don’t identify as Catholic. Beyond that, my personal spirituality is a private matter.

Readers of this blog know I belong to a Zen center. I’ve written about mindfulness and trauma on multiple occasions, and I’m quite open about my meditation practice. Zen practice was as effective, if not more effective at treating my PTSD —at least after a certain period of time— as talk therapy. I stayed on because, frankly, it’s a sensible way of looking at the contemporary world, and I’ve also met wonderful people at the center.

What does a Zen Buddhist believe? My advice to anyone who wants an answer to that question is to try meditating. That’s the answer. While Zen has its set of ethics, it does not offer a list of rules that need to be followed. With the exception of meditation, there’s not really a set of beliefs or behaviors that equal Zen. What’s there to believe, and who’s in position to believe it? That’s a Zen question.

Still…this probably doesn’t satisfy the readers’ question. If I’m going to do something besides evade it, I should probably make an offering. What I’m willing to do is to present a list of questions that currently make up what I like to think of as my spiritual journey. I don’t have answers for them:

  • Is time a line, a circle or some other shape?
  • Is consciousness the result of the brain or is the brain the result of consciousness?
  • Will the individual please stand up?
  • What must be done in order to count beyond one?
  • Where is the past?
  • Where is the future?
  • If Jesus truly believed in paradise, would he have raised Lazarus?

 

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Photo: 9/11 Memorial, New York City 


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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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Thoughts on switching publishers

My publisher, Jerry Brennan of Tortoise Books, recently wrote a blog post to share his thoughts about taking over publishing and production duties for The Fugue. Writers aspiring to publish novels should read it. Today I want to expand a bit on Jerry’s thoughts.

It turns out that, unbeknownst to either of us, Jerry and I were students at Columbia University at exactly the same time. He was at the J-school while I attended classes one building to the north at the School of the Arts.

I often used to peer at the J-school and feel pangs of jealousy. Journalism students, I was sure, didn’t struggle with feelings of illegitimacy the way I did as a mere writing student. They were all sure of themselves and would one day offer society valuable skill. How could I know one of them would be publishing my book?

It’s possible that Jerry and I ate in the cafeteria at the same time or stood queued up in the bookstore at the very same hour. I would pass the J-school every single day, no matter if I was going to class or to the library. Al Gore was teaching there, and I once tried to pry in to a lecture only to get paranoid at the last minute and hide away. Jerry attended those classes.

I’ve known Jerry on Facebook and Twitter ever since the publication of Finding the Moon in Sugar in 2009. He and I caught wind of one another through Chicago’s indie writing community. Of course, I had no idea we had been classmates, trading places in rather classic ships-in-the-night fashion. I was quite literally working on the earliest version of The Fugue while Jerry was studying under Al Gore.

I experienced a roller coaster of a day this past February when CCLaP and I parted ways. In less than twelve hours, I went from being suddenly unpublished to published again, with a new marketing plan and a ton of support.

As with virtually anything in life, luck and diligence conspired to see me find a second deal. And I see no small bit of weirdness in the story, that a book I had essentially put under my bed, hung up as a failure, ended up published not once but twice, and in the span of less than a day, the second time by a guy from essentially the same graduating class.

I got good advice from wise people when I published Finding the Moon in Sugar. Here it is: reach out to everyone you can and take an active interest in other people’s businesses and stories; look at others in the publishing world as collaborators, not competitors, and understand that a team effort is necessary for a book to do well. Of course, many things are just beyond your control. You go to graduate school, at least partially, to “develop a network”. How fitting that a guy in my network was someone who shared my college experience when neither of us had any idea until the ink had dried on the contract.

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