In February of 2015 I returned to the Vilnius Book Fair for the translation of my 1997 story collection, Buying On Time, translated as Pirkiniai išsimokėtinai.
The conference centre was so full that people needed to be directed by security guards acting as pedestrian traffic cops. Sixty-eight thousand people attended over four days.
My presentation was well attended and the books sold out, and I had many interviews, but my real surprise was stumbling across a find in the used book section. It was a copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra, translated by my namesake and uncle, Antanas Sileika, in 1938. I knew this book existed and my cousins own a copy, but I did not have one of my own, and here I stumbled across it on the top of a stack of old books.
Beyond that, I played with my grandson, who lives in Vilnius with his parents, and made a few contacts to pursue the biography of Kostas Kubilinskas, whom I call the rhyming assassin of Lithuanian children’s literature.
I presented the Lithuanian translation of my 1997 story collection, Buying on Time, at the Vilnius Book Fair between February 21 and 23. The Lithuanian title is Pirkiniai išsimokėtinai. The collection has already been translated into Chinese and it will be translated into Italian (online) this year as well.
I am rewriting the Provisionally Yours manuscript, am consulting on the translation of 1997’s Buying on Time, and have assembled a stack of research material for my next novel, so the last thing I need is a new idea.
Yet one has come at me, and I’m finding it very powerful.
I received a letter from a reader in Lithuania who had some information about Kostas Kubilinskas. I used this historical character as inspiration for one of my fictional characters. Kubilinskas was the most prominent postwar children’s writer who, it turns out, had a dark secret. In order to ingratiate himself with the Soviet authorities, he infiltrated the partisan movement, shot and killed a partisan and betrayed several others who were killed in ambush. Then he went on to write popular children’s ditties.
I thought I was done with him, but my correspondent began to tell the story of Kubilinskas the year he worked as a teacher in 1944-1945 in the village of Lynezeris. My correspondent’s father was a boy then, and remembered the writer well. Each evening, Kubilinskas would take a half bottle of vodka and sit under the oldest oak in the area, and write poetry.
So far, so good – a little extra information about my past subject matter.
-But the more my correspondent wrote, and he wrote almost every day, the more interesting the place became to me. I encouraged him to keep sending me the strange and sad anecdotes of the war and the postwar in Lynezeris. Here are summaries of a few of them.
– The correspondent’s father, as a boy, stole a side of bacon and ran off into the woods to grease railway tracks because he’d heard you could stop a train that way. He tried it and it worked, but he and his friends were almost shot to pieces when the German guards fired at them in the woods.
– His grandfather found a German motorcycle in the forest. A retreating rider had run out of gas and fled. So the man hauled the motorcycle home and traded a Russian soldier a bucket of liquor for a bucket of gasoline. The farmer rode the motorcycle happily all through the the forties until early in 1950, when he was deported to Siberia and his riding days were over.
– The villagers had managed to protect six Jews during the German occupation, but the Jews were betrayed for a reward by a farmer’s nephew who came in the fall to help with the harvest. After the Soviets came, they couldn’t find the nephew, so they deported to Siberia the family that had helped hide the Jews.
There are many more stories like this, all filled with poignant detail, so I have arranged to meet my correspondent next summer and spend some time in the village. In the past, it had hundreds of inhabitants and a school, but now it is down to twenty-seven year round inhabitants. Others come in the summer.
I think that the oak tree, the children’s writer, and the incidents of the villagers might make for a strong nonfiction book. I’ll find out.
I was working through galleys of one of my books last weekend, and while this is not so unusual an activity for a writer, what is unusual is that the galleys were for a book that came out in 1997.
Porcupine’s Quill is doing another printing of that collection of stories, which has never ben out of print, I might add. But the films were so old the proces had to be done again. There is also an ebook of Buying on Time now available at the Porcupine’s Quill site.
I hadn’t read this material for fifteen years and it was a delight to read it again. I had even forgotten some of the jokes and laughed anew (I don’t usually laugh at my own jokes). Publisher Tim Inkster warned me to resist the urge to rewrite. That was very hard to do because I am a rewriter by nature.
But Tim did permit me a few corrections – oddball things. The book had already been through four reprints, but I still found a couple of details we had all missed. I called sandwich meat “baloney” for 150 pages, and then somewhere around page 180 I elevated it to “bologna”.
Most writers do not reread their works, and I never do once they are in print, so this was instructive. The lesson is that a work of fiction is never finished to the writer – one could keep on writing forever, but editors and publishers wisely forbid us to do that.
The hard copy of the newspaper has a large sketch of me labelled “Irresistible”. It’s a page I wish I could send to some of the girls I admired in high school.
To critique the critique, the review does insist that I am not writing humour – it insists a bit too much because I am indeed not writing humour in this novel – it’s about a fight to the death without a lot of laughs, but perhaps some tender moments.
But there is dark humour in the tone, a bit of “what fools these mortals be”.
Where is the writer who will agree wholeheartedly with a critic’s assessment? He also called the novel compelling and layered, and that’s pretty good.