Writer in Residence

The Art of the Novel: Interview with Antanas Sileika

By Bianca Lakoseljac

By Bianca Lakoseljac: OB Writer in Residence

 

The Art of the Novel: Interview with Antanas Sileika

For over two decades, Antanas Sileika’s novels and short stories have been an inspiration to me--they are at once passionate, witty, humorous, and tragic. His unadorned, wry style and fearless, honest depiction of the human condition, combined with historical perspectives that touch upon my own roots, make his novels an unforgettable read.

The National Post has referred to Sileika’s novel, Underground, as “…a gripping tale… …[that] acquires richer and richer layers of meaning. It is figurative, denoting a world of false identities, hiding places, a secret, invisible regime feeding off the above-ground society.”

Quill & Quire, in its review of Buying on Time, refers to Sileika as the author who “…handles the stories with a deft touch that allows the collection’s themes to emerge naturally from its events and characters… He skillfully evokes the time and place of the stories, and creates a believable cast of characters grappling with life in a new country.”

Antanas Sileika is the author of four books of fiction, and has been shortlisted for the Leacock Medal and the Toronto Book Award and included twice in the Globe’s best books of the year lists. His novel, Underground, has been optioned for a film. His work has been translated into Chinese, Italian, and Lithuanian. Sileika’s memoir, The Barefoot Bingo Caller, will be released by ECW Press in May of 2017. Antanas Sileika is the director of The Humber School for Writers.

I am pleased to bring you Antanas Sileika's discussion on novel writing:

 

Bianca Lakoseljac: How important is the setting in a novel and why?

Antanas Sileika: Due to a roll of the dice of history, I find myself in Canada writing for an English-speaking audience about events that occurred in Lithuania – a country few here could place on the map and fewer still would care to do so, unless it were to recall the Holocaust, which was particularly brutal in that country. Yet because I have the language, I have a privileged view of a stage upon which some of the most terrible events of the twentieth century took place. Only there can I find a murderer who loved literature so much, he went on write children’s verses and became the national equivalent of Doctor Seuss. Only there did death come upon the guilty and the innocent in the most grotesque manners that recall fairy tales or the Thousand and One Nights. Lithuania has become my fictional territory, but I am keenly aware the events I describe must reveal the human character in all its complexity and universality. Unless we are aboriginal, in Canada we live in the luckiest place in the world and therefore our greatest dangers are excessive sensitivity and complacency – in Disney films we see boys whose lives were traumatized by fathers too busy to go to their baseball games. That sort of problem is a joke to those who lived through terrible times. Most Canadians, never having been put under extreme duress, imagine ourselves heroes of one kind or another and need to be awakened to the complexity of human responses when one must kill or be killed, collaborate or suffer hunger and pain, or denounce others pre-emptively for fear of being denounced ourselves. I am drawn to a world that echoes the territory of Czeslaw Milosz, the dark humour of Jaroslave Hasek, and the irony of Milan Kundera. But unlike them, I am Canadian-born, so my sense of moral ambiguity comes with a view from the distance rather than first-hand experience. In short, I often write about a place far away and in a time long ago, but I am writing about you and me now.

 

BL: How do you decide on the names for your characters?

AS: Many technical problems come up when one writes about a foreign place, and one of the minor but devilish problems is that of names. Most Lithuanian men’s names end in “-as”, with some variations. Most female names end in “a” or “e”.  Naming my characters for an English-speaking audience is terrifically hard. I have already used up Tomas, Jonas, Paulius, and Lukas, let alone Maria, Elena, and Monika. But my problems are few compared to writers with Polish characters (those consonant clusters!) or languages in which names exceed three syllables.

 

BL: What do you consider the most difficult aspect of novel writing?

AS: I always think a novel is done before it’s done. Whenever I finish a draft after the second or third go, I think the work is perfect, but this belief is informed more by hope than experience. A novel I decided to dash off five years ago is now in its ninth draft.

 

BL: Of the novels you wrote (or are working on), do you have a favourite?

AS: My favourite novels are the ones that took the most research and work, but my readers prefer the light-hearted humorous stories found in Buying on Time. I write both comedy and tragedy, and the audience seems to prefer comedy.

 

BL: What are your thoughts on the first-person POV in novel writing?

AS: More and more, the language in novels is the language of the spoken word, usually first person. Readers prefer intimacy to overview. Each POV presents a problem because modern readers often want to identify with the voice, and that’s easier to do with a first person narrative, but first person is so limiting. I sometimes compromise by using limited third, and I long for the beautiful and sometimes lofty language with resonances from the King James Bible, but most modern readers will want none of that.

 

BL: Do you have an all-time favourite quote you could share?

AS: Oscar Wilde once wrote that all bad poetry is sincere, and the same can be said of novels. Thus sincerity is overrated, yet readers want authenticity in its place. More likely, they want the appearance of authenticity, some kind of truth. But how one achieves the truth of authenticity is a real problem without slipping into the sincerity trap. How is one to render the appearance of authenticity without being manipulative? I don’t think one can. Artistry trumps lofty moral stances. Hemingway went on about writing the truth, but in a recent novel manuscript written by a friend, I found a fictional character writing the truest things he knew, and they were racist, sexist, and homophobic. This anti-hero is authentic, but repellent. The writer has so many problems, so close to home.

 

BL: What are you working on now?

AS: I have a memoir called The Barefoot Bingo Caller coming out in May of 2017. It is mostly light-hearted. Comedy, in other words. I have been working for five years on a comic espionage novel but comedy and espionage do not cohabit easily, and so I am in the ninth draft I mentioned above. Its working title is Provisionally Yours. Finally, I am working on a biography called The Rhyming Assassin, about the man I mentioned who murdered in order to write children’s verses. But I’m beginning to think that biography might turn into a novel. The research has been fascinating though, because I have been sitting in KGB archives in Vilnius, reading agent handlers’ reports.

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Bianca Lakoseljac second novel, Stone Woman, which relives Toronto’s 1967 “summer of love”, has just been released by Guernica Editions. Bianca is the author of a novel, Summer of the Dancing Bear; a collection of stories, Bridge in the Rain (Guernica, 2012, 2010); and a book of poetry, Memoirs of a Praying Mantis (Turtle Moons Press, 2009). She is TWUC liaison for the National Reading Campaign, past president of the Canadian Authors Association, Toronto, has judged various national literary competitions, and has served on a number of literary contest panels. Bianca taught at Ryerson University and Humber College.

You can write to Bianca throughout the month of November at writer@open-book.ca