An Excerpt from The Memoir Prize 2021 Grand Prize Winner: Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen, by Gint Aras. The full Relief by Execution: A …Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen by Gint Aras
It’s always an exciting step when your publisher tells you the cover of your book is finished. Here it is.
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.
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.
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.
Photo of a contemporary book burning from Wikipedia.
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?”
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, firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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?
Photo: 9/11 Memorial, New York City
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.
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.
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.
Follow Tortoise Books on Twitter.
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.