Why is it important to bring diaspora authors together? Or perhaps not only diaspora authors but Lithuanian writers who live in Lithuania and Lithuanian writers who live in diaspora?
The Arts thrive in community. In isolation, an author can push themselves to create, yes, but to truly realize their full potential they must be challenged in an inspiring way. The more diverse the ideas that the artists and writers discuss when they come together, the more intriguing ideas bubble up – instead of just beer, you get champagne. Writers of the diaspora see Lithuania from a different perspective, from a bit of distance. Do you know the fable about the elephant and the blind men? One saw a wall, one saw a rope, one saw a tree, and one a spear? Only by adding this all together could they discover an elephant? It is both challenging and inspiring to hear about how other writers work, where they find peace, how they get through writing blocks, what themes and ideas matter. There is something about being in a room full of people who care as much about the perfect word as you do – and then discovering that person lives across the globe from you – and yet you have similar roots, you both know the blue of a cornflower, you both remember some adult showing you as a child how to get to the sharp, bitter scent of a rūta by crushing one leaf between your thumb and forefinger, you both know the savory taste of dill. It pulls the world closer, like a drawstring. And what you keep in that secret sack—that is up to you, but it is nice to know that everyone is carrying some memories that are all tied together.
Could you tell more about your creative writing studies at Columbia University? If I’m right, Michael Cunningham, the author of “The Hours,” was one of your teachers?
Yes! He is a brilliant instructor. This was just a year before he won the Pulitzer Prize and he was still writing that book while we were in class with him. I will never forget the day he came to class a bit late and very unhappy because he had gotten stuck writing and was feeling depressed about it. “Guys,” he said, “I am writing a book about my mother and Virginia Woolf. Is that crazy?” I look back on that day whenever I feel doubtful of my own creativity, or when I am second-guessing a very strange story I am working on.
One day I had workshopped a long story about a grandmother and a young singer that the class wasn’t very favorable about, and Michael called me into his office and told me that I had a gem, but it was buried in descriptions. He said, never be afraid to cut – and he took out actual scissors and cut and cut until my 24 page story was only a 12 page story. The second paragraph became the last paragraph. It got published the first time I sent it out. He was wonderful and very insightful as a teacher.
I had other fine teachers too: Helen Schulman was one. She told me to write about whatever caused me pain, never to be afraid to go to the dark places. The workshop structure taught me to figure out who the good critics were and only pay attention to them, ignore the people who didn’t understand the work at all—they would find other writers to enjoy. Write for people who love your writing.
Our Lithuanian Studies Unit at the National Library of Lithuania wants to offer our readers creative writing classes. Hopefully, it’s a project we’ll be able to implement in the future. However, a number of Lithuanian authors, whom we intended to invite as lecturers, refused our invitation saying that creative writing is purely a question of author’s talent: You either have it or you don’t. What’s your take on this?
I believe that writing talent is something that you have and that it is connected to your powers 1) to observe and 2) to make people interested in what you observe through your ability to communicate. Curiosity and the desire to communicate can’t be taught, but what can absolutely be taught is to reconnect to your creativity, to use richer words, to describe more freely—the craft of writing can absolutely be taught. You can also be encouraged by a good teacher to let go of your insecurities and your blocks – you can be shown what your strengths and weaknesses are as a writer. Can you always overcome them? Not always. But you can absolutely become a better writer with training and practice. Will you be guaranteed a brilliant bestselling novel? No, but you can’t expect every doctor to become a great brain surgeon either, even if they want to. There is a combination of dedication, hard-work, desire, and yes, talent.
I have noticed that Margaret Atwood is among the authors who have had an influence on your work. Does feminism play an important part in your life?
I am surprised to say that it does. For decades I held that men and women were equals and if all things were blind (judging, no names, no appearance-based decisions) then talent would rise to the top regardless of gender. While I still believe that, in the past ten years or so, I have come to believe that there is a systemic sexism that prevents women from achieving as highly if people know that they are women. I do think that women have to work harder than men to receive the same accolades. I definitely think that a woman losing her temper is seen as a negative thing, while a man losing his temper is seen as ordinary. I guess, if anyone is still asking if women can/should be the equal of men, then the fact that a question remains means that there is still feminist work to be done—because the goal is to see all of humanity as themselves. People that all have strengths and flaws. None better or worse than any other, just more useful or less useful, more agreeable or less, more talented or less, etc…all on an individual basis. Why do we group ourselves so readily? I do not think like all of the other women in the world. I do not think like all the other New Yorkers. I do not think like all the other Lithuanians born in Texas, even. I barely think like the other people in my own family! We are all individuals. Instead of competing against the groups that are most dissimilar to us, why don’t we seek what we have in common with them and try to band together into an even larger group?
If my information is correct, you had an apartment just a block away from the WTC Towers when the attacks of September 11 happened. I presume that the tragedy has touched you very deeply. Would you mind telling more about that experience?
It was a terrible day, however I still live in that same apartment. Just as my life has changed since that day – I have two children now that are nearly grown – the neighborhood has also completely changed. If anyone has visited, they will know that there is now a beautiful park with two extraordinary waterfall monuments to the Twin Towers and the lives that perished that day, there is a museum, and there are clothing shops and restaurants and new train stations and boutiques and the whole place is vibrant with community. That day was very shocking: I had a meeting on the plaza that morning that I had canceled the night before – I should have been on the plaza having coffee with a colleague working on his musical script. Instead I was still asleep and a large boom shook me out of bed. My husband should have left for work but was still home and said it was a bomb – I came running. There were white office papers flying outside the window like snow in a snow globe. Random swirling with no end in sight. My neighbor brought her baby to our apartment because theirs faced the Towers and she didn’t want the baby seeing the fires and the people jumping. So she put the baby with a banana into our windowless bedroom while we contacted people to see what was going on. The second plane hit and shook our building again. It felt like an earthquake and other neighbors told us our building was being evacuated. While we were discussing this, the first building came down and plunged our apartment into darkness. It was such a pretty day that we had not turned on any lights and the debris was so thick it blotted out all the lights including the sun. My husband (a hero!) got wet washcloths to breathe through and told me to put on long pants and hiking boots in case of debris. I grabbed our passports and my camera and took pictures as we walked. The second building collapsed while we were in the street and we ran ahead of the billowing cloud of dust and into a random office building where the fire warden gave us emergency water and welcomed us to stay as long as we liked. We ended up hiking all the way up to my mother in law’s house, which is not far from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Two things are memorable about that walk: 1) once we were out of the cloud it was a beautifully clear hot day and we had to go to a shop to buy shorts and flip-flops so we would not overheat. And 2) it took us a long time to figure out a route because we were afraid other buildings were targeted. We ended up taking Second Avenue because there were no landmarks on that route.
Does New York or Manhattan have a special place in your heart?
I love Manhattan. I love New York. When I arrived here around 30 years ago, I felt home for the first time. Here, no one thought I was strange or out of place, no matter who I was, what language I spoke, what I wore, what I thought – New York City could handle anything from normal to completely weird, and just accept it. I love this still. I also love the endless change and the endless movement. So many completely different people, speaking a hundred languages, looking a hundred different ways, all getting along (mostly). This is a home to anyone who doesn’t fit in anywhere else. This is my home.
Please tell about your project “Pen Parentis”?
This was a creation of love. I was co-host of a reading series where my friend and I brought together writers who had kids to talk about how they manage to keep writing books while caring for their child. There were so many wonderful stories – but everyone agreed that community was important. Having the support of friends who were writers was important. So I decided to add structure and create this community. We have a membership of writers who are also parents, we have monthly literary salons that are open to the general public where we try to expand people’s ideas of what a parent writer can accomplish, we give an annual Fellowship to one talented writer who is a parent. The website is penparentis.org – I encourage everyone to have a look!
You really enjoyed visiting the Children and Youth Literature Department at the National Library of Lithuania. What was so exciting about it?
It was so beautiful, and so thoughtful. I loved how independent the children were—I loved the soundproof study section where everyone I saw was actually studying. I saw only one girl on a cellphone and she put it away after looking at it for only a moment. The self-discipline was beautiful. I was also impressed by the quantity and quality of the books offered in the children’s section: I loved that there were classics from all over the world both in the original language and in translation. I was amazed that the library provides childcare for toddlers so that adults can work without interruption. The space allotted to children was enormous and welcoming and the children were all studious and well-behaved.
Could you recommend a book or a shorter literary piece for our visitors? It could be a light summer read or something more solid.
I saw that you had “100 Years of Solitude” on your shelves in Lithuanian translation by Gabriel Gracia Marquez – that’s an amazing book which seems so realistic even though it is entirely fantasy. I wouldn’t call it light, but it is a good read for the summer because it is so easy to get deeply lost in it. For summer, I really like books that transport the reader and show them unfamiliar worlds.
What are your best tips to overcome writer’s block?
What works for me won’t necessarily work for everyone, but I like to walk around. It brings circulation back into the body and while you are walking, you often see things that seem relevant to the story—sometimes you can fix a plot problem or solve a character issue quite naturally. Just make sure you leave your phone turned off!