Julija Sukys Talks to CKUT Radio About Creative Nonfiction and Canada Writes

Canada Writes

I was honoured to be chosen as a reader for the Canada Writes creative nonfiction competition for 2013. Over the winter months, I sifted through hundreds of submissions that arrived at my door every few days in fat yellow envelopes. Now, at long last, the shortlist and winner have been announced.

Last week, I talked to Anne Malcolm, host of The Monday Morning After at CKUT Radio in Montreal, about creative nonfiction in general and about being a Canada Writes reader in particular. Even though I have a bit of a phobia of hearing to audio of myself, I took the plunge and sat down to take a listen to the interview and decided it wasn’t so bad.

You can listen to the CKUT interview with Anne Malcolm here.

You can read my Q & A (the one I refer to in the radio interview) about being a Canada Writes judge here. 

[Photo: .sarahwynne.]

Share

Epistolophilia: A Few Thoughts on the Occasion of a Book’s Birth

The day before yesterday I received a note from my publisher saying that copies of my book had arrived in the warehouse, and that I could begin announcing its publication. Though my official date of publication is March 1, 2012, the baby’s come early. It’s a strange and great feeling to know that my book is now ready for readers.

The process of writing and shepherding Epistolophilia through the production process has been long and sometimes difficult. The germ of the book began sprouting some twelve years ago when I first came across a collection of letters archived in Vilnius. Their author, a woman named Ona Šimaitė, had saved the lives of hundreds of Vilna Ghetto children and adults, and then had been arrested, tortured, and deported by the Gestapo.

The title of my book, Epistolophilia, means “a love of letters,” “an affection for letter-writing,” or “a letter-writing sickness,” and it refers to Šimaitė’s life-long dedication to her correspondence. She wrote on average 60 letters per month (therefore between 35,000 and 50,000 letters over her adult life), and not always with joy. The letters weighed on her. She often resented them and blamed the time-consuming correspondence for her inability to complete the memoir that many of her friends and colleagues were after her to write.

But to me her letters were utterly compelling. From the fragments I read in that first archive twelve years ago, I could tell I loved this woman, and I wanted to know more. Eventually, I raised enough money through grants and fellowships to collect the rest of her life-writing corpus, scattered as it was to archives in Israel, America, and other Lithuanian institutions. In the end, I suppose, I developed my own case of epistolophilia.

Now that the book is officially out, I should perhaps celebrate. But I’ve been here before, and I know that this is simply another beginning. Just as a manuscript has to be tended and cared for, so does a newly published book. And switching from an introspective and solitary way of being (that writing necessitates) to a bold, confident, and even crassly self-promoting one (that a newly published book requires) can be hard. Really hard.

Writers have fragile egos and are easily wounded. I’m no exception.

Just yesterday I sent out an email announcement to friends, acquaintances and colleagues telling them of the book’s publication. I received many kind and celebratory responses. Some people reported buying the book, others had suggestions for reading venues, and even requests for interviews. But among the sixty or seventy congratulatory emails, there was a terse one, asking to be removed from my “mailing list.” It was from a woman I’ve known for a couple of years, and someone who I genuinely thought might be interested in at least knowing about the book. I was stung. I felt stupid. I obsessed for an hour or so. But then I shook it off and moved on.

The last time around, with the publication of my first book, I did virtually no publicity to support it. I was pregnant and my newborn son beat my book by about three weeks. By the time the second “baby” (the book) arrived, I had my hands full. That said, I’m not sure I understood the importance of promotion back then, and may not have proceeded differently under alternate circumstances.

But this time, I’ve vowed not to abandon my book to its own devices just when it needs me most. I’ve vowed to be brave, bold, and even crassly self-promoting when necessary. And I won’t let the odd terse email get me down. I owe at least that much to Ona Šimaitė.

So, in the spirit of supporting and nurturing my new baby, please note that you can buy the book hereEnter the code 6AS12 to receive a 20% discount. Of course, you can also purchase it through your local bookstore or preferred online retailer.

If you enjoy Epistolophilia, I hope you’ll spread the word.

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

Share

This is Who-Man: On Writing, Play, and Fun

This is Who-Man. My son and I invented him over breakfast this morning.

Who-Man is a superhero whose arch-enemy is a many-eyed monster called “Crime.” Who-Man wears a bumpy suit (as you can see in Sebastian’s rendition of him above). The suit can shoot fire, but our hero rarely has to use this weapon. He has other ways of defeating his enemies: confusion.

Here’s an example of one of his crime-fighting encounters:

Who-Man hears a bank’s silent alarm and rushes to the scene of the crime. He succeeds in intercepting the robbers just as they are about to jump into their getaway car.

Who-Man: Stop! In the name of Justice and Who-Man!

Robbers: In the name of who?

Who-Man: Who-Man!

Robbers: What?

Who-Man: No, Who!

Robbers: Who?

Who-Man: Yes, that’s me! Who-Man!

Robbers: Oh man, what?

And so on until they’ve wasted so much time that the police arrive and arrest the bad guys.

Sebastian was laughing so hard when we acted this scene out that he could barely talk (he’s definitely ready for “Who’s on First”). Then he said “Let’s write a a book about Who-Man! We can make the first page right now!”

As we giggled and added detail upon detail to our story, I had a feeling in my chest that I recognized. It was the elation of creativity and play. It’s the way I feel when my writing is working.

When I started writing my first book, I spent months reading and researching and sitting on my hands, trying to resist the scholarly impulses that graduate school had hammered into me. I had just completed my PhD, and won a coveted postdoctoral fellowship. I should have written a dry literary study, gotten myself a tenure-track job, and settled into a life of literary analysis. But no.

Instead, I wanted to write something that could never be mistaken for an academic book. I decided not to give in to my training (better to write nothing than to write stuff that made me unhappy, I reasoned), not shush my creative impulses, and allowed myself to do some preposterous things. Some of the more insane ideas got cut during the editing process, but others were just crazy enough to work.

Fun and play are not concepts that would naturally be associated with the kinds of books that I write, because so far, I’ve only written about tragedies and atrocities. (Though Who-Man may change all that!)

For example: my first book (Silence is Death) is about an Algerian author who was gunned down outside his home at the age of 37 in a growing wave of violence against artists in intellectuals during the 1990s. My second (Epistolophilia) is about the Holocaust in Lithuania, and my third (working title: Siberian Time) will be about about Stalinist repression.

Nonetheless (and at the risk of sounding psychologically unbalanced), one of the ways I know I’m on to something good is that I start having fun.

In Silence is Death, I wrote a posthumous interview with Tahar Djaout, the subject of my book. A chapter of almost pure invention (though I still had to do a lot of research), it was great fun to write. I visited then wrote about shrines full of saints’ bones, interviewed nuns about the meaning of relics, and dragged my husband on a weekend trip to a funny little Iowa town called Elkader that was named for the Algerian national hero, Emir Abdelkader. All of this made its way into that first book, which turned out to be my first big step into creative nonfiction.

For Epistolophilia, I recorded the trips I made with my infant son to find my heroine’s various homes, including a French nursing home where Ona Šimaitė (the subject of the book) lived out her final years. I wrote about my pregnancy, compared the pronunciation of my heroine’s name to a Leonard Cohen song, and immersed myself in a friendship that only existed in my head. I circumnavigated the globe, collecting archival documents along the way.

That too was fun.

In the Guardian’s famous “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” (or nonfiction, for that matter) Margaret Atwood says, “Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

I would add: enjoy it. Living a life of writing is a great privilege. Whatever way you manage to do it, remember to have fun (in the name of Who-Man!) and to play once in a while.

Your writing will be better for it.

[Image: Who-Man, by Sebastian Gurd. January 19, 2012]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

Share

In Praise of University Presses: How They Work, What They Publish, and Why You Might Consider Them

Typography good enough to print by RellyAB

For almost ten years now, there’s been growing anxiety in the writing community about the “publishing crunch.” Essentially, what’s happened is this: publishers find themselves in increasing financial peril; they need to make money, so they try to make safe bets.

The result for readers is a “narrowing of the breadth and depth and diversity of our culture: the quieting of all but the blandest voices, the elimination of all but the safest choices.” The result for writers is that every year it gets harder to publish. Bestsellers reign supreme, and midlist (or mid-career) authors have been shunted down the pecking order, taking the place that beginning writers used to occupy. As small presses (the home of many first-time authors) die in huge numbers, first-time authors may find themselves out in the cold.

It’s a kind of death of the middle class, but within the microcosm of our industry.

There are many reasons for the crunch: the publishing industry’s antiquated returns systems, the growth of the big-box store and mega-distributor, the rise of e-books and internet retailers, and the influence of ever-larger publishing giants.

A writer calling herself Jane Austen Doe, described the crunch for Salon.com in 2004:

In the 10 years since I signed my first book contract, the publishing industry has changed in ways that are devastating — emotionally, financially, professionally, spiritually, and creatively — to midlist authors like me. You’ve read about it in your morning paper: Once-genteel “houses” gobbled up by slavering conglomerates; independent bookstores cannibalized by chain and online retailers; book sales sinking as the number of TV channels soars. What once was about literature is now about return on investment. What once was hand-sold one by one by well-read, book-loving booksellers now moves by the pallet-load at Wal-Mart and Borders — or doesn’t move at all.

So what is a junior or mid-career writer to do? Perhaps you’re not ready to jump into self-publishing (and I think there are many reasons not to), yet find yourself agentless and therefore shut out of the above-mentioned conglomerate publishing world? Perhaps you don’t want to write about vampires or celebrities or weight loss. Well, there’s one corner of the publishing world that  remains a meritocracy (that is, publishing decisions are made largely based on the literary value of a work) and where good writing can still find a home. This is the world of the university press.

University presses publish a large number of books that would never see the light of day otherwise. These presses and the texts they disseminate are important for our culture, our memory, and for the way that future generations will regard us.

Contrary to popular belief, university presses don’t only publish dry treatises and technical works. In fact, a huge number of university presses publish non-scholarly texts. Many publish creative nonfiction, memoir, poetry, fiction, and even children’s and Y/A literature. Most publish regional fiction — the University of Nebraska Press has a series about the American West; Indiana UP about Indiana; Queens-McGill UP about Canada.

When I was looking for a home for my first book, Silence is Death — it’s a hybrid text (part memoir, part literary analysis, part biography) — I submitted proposals to 13 university presses. 12 said no thanks, but the University of Nebraska press asked to see more. Nebraska is a major publisher of creative nonfiction and memoir, as well as colonial French history, so we seemed a good fit for one another. I ended up publishing the book with them, and my editor at the press made it clear that she was interested in anything else I wrote.

Now, to a writer, there’s nothing quite as valuable as having a champion for your work.

While struggling to finish my second book, I had coffee with my U Nebraska editor who had been so supportive of me the first time around. I was feeling frustrated. My book had stalled while I was trying to force it into a form that seemed more mainstream to me, but it hadn’t worked. Finally, I’d given in and started once again to write from my gut. I was having fun, but the book seemed weird, and this worried me.

“I wanted to write a straight book this time around,” I confessed.

My editor laughed and shook her head. “Why would you want to do that, when you can do what you do?”

I went home with renewed energy and confidence and finished the book.

Long story short: the manuscript sailed through peer review at the University of Nebraska Press (if you don’t know this works, see my earlier post here), and here I am, many months later, waiting for the birth of my second book, Epistolophilia.

University presses will not be an appropriate match for every writer. If you write genre fiction, for example, it won’t be a good fit. But, if your stuff is smart (calm down, I’m not saying that genre writers and writing aren’t smart, just that these are not what university presses publish!), researched, and literary, you may find a home there, and you will find yourself in good company. (My own press, for example, publishes a former US poet laureate and two Nobel Prize winners.)

When submitting to a university press, you generally don’t need an agent. Go to their website and read their submission guidelines carefully, then follow them to the letter. At the proposal stage, send out as many queries as you want (but always according to each press’s individual guidelines). Once a press has solicited your MS (that is, they ask to see the entire book), the accepted etiquette is to send the entire book to only one press at a time.

Here’s a list of university presses that publish in areas other than strict scholarship:

Baylor University Press nonfiction, children’s books
Capilano University Editions poetry, anthologies
Carnegie Mellon University Press poetry, fiction, short stories, nonfiction, drama
Cleveland State University Poetry Center poetry
Harvard University Press poetry, fiction
Kent State University Press poetry, chapbooks, fiction, nonfiction
McGill-Queen’s University Press poetry, nonfiction, art, photography, drama
Miami University Press fiction, poetry
Michigan State University Press poetry
Northeastern University Press poetry, fiction, nonfiction, photography
Northwestern University Press poetry, fiction, nonfiction
Ohio State University Press poetry, short fiction
Ohio University / Swallow Press poetry, nonfiction
Oxford University Press USA fiction, nonfiction, children’s/YA books
San Diego State University Press poetry, fiction, nonfiction, art
Southeast Missouri State University Press fiction, nonfiction, poetry
Southern Methodist University Press fiction, creative nonfiction
Stephen F. Austin State University Press poetry, fiction
Temple University Press art, coffee table books, sports
Texas Tech University Press poetry, fiction
Trinity University Press regional nonfiction
Truman State University Press poetry
University of Akron Press poetry, nonfiction
University of Arkansas Press poetry
University of Chicago Press poetry
University of Iowa Press poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction
University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press fiction
University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books poetry, memoir, creative nonfiction
University of New Orleans fiction, poetry
University of South Carolina Press creative nonfiction
University of Tampa Press poetry
University of Tennessee Press fiction
University of Utah Press poetry
University of Virginia Press regional nonfiction, poetry
The University of Wisconsin Press poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction
University Press of Kentucky poetry, regional nonfiction
University Press of Mississippi regional nonfiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, photography
Wesleyan University Press poetry, nonfiction
West Virginia University Press/Vandalia Press poetry, fiction, nonfiction
Western State College Press poetry, fiction, nonfiction, anthologies
Utah State University Press fiction, poetry, folklore, regional nonfiction

[Photo: RellyAB]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.


Share

A Shout-out to “Chroniques de Montréal”

My thanks to Mouloud Belabdi, who writes beautifully on his blog, “Chroniques de Montréal,” about the Algerian writer Tahar Djaout, assassinated in 1993. Djaout was the subject of my first book, Silence is Death.

How pleased I was to read Belabdi’s description of my book:

Son livre est une méditation constante sur la mort, la paternité de l’œuvre et le rôle des intellectuels. Ce serait faire violence à sa mémoire en réduisant l’homme à un symbole. Il s’agit préférablement, de lui donner une voix sans faire violence à sa mémoire (3).

Belabdi goes on to conclude that we must read and re-read Tahar Djaout.

I couldn’t agree more.

You can learn more about Djaout and Algerian literature on Mouloud Belabdi’s blog, where there is a link to his Algiers radio show on Chaîne 3.

[Photo: Le Kabyle]

Share

Thinking journeys: On work and play

Today my son Sebastian pulled out a chess set that I bought in Jerusalem’s Old City years before his birth. He tucked it under his arm and explained to me in a very serious tone that the chess set was his “work.”

First, he set up the chess pieces like bowling pins and knocked them down with a stuffed ball. A few minutes later, he packed everything up again, said bye-bye, and headed off to “work” (in a more conventional sense this time, I suppose). He returned seconds later and plopped himself down on the chess case in mock despair, lamenting that he’d missed his bus.

It suddenly occurred to me that Sebastian was on a thinking journey.

I came across this idea for the first time in Jerusalem, and I wrote about it in my first book:

At the end of a day Yaron [an education specialist] showed me a parcel that had arrived in the mail. “It’s one of my thinking journeys,” he explained, unwrapping a book and laminated card. The card illustrated the lunar surface, and on closer inspection I could see that it was textured. The depths of outer space were covered with a regular scattering of convex pinpricks, and a series of lines and dots defined the shape of the moon. Yaron’s kit was intended to teach blind children about the concept of space. I closed my eyes and ran my fingers over the bumps, feeling for moon craters. Did he have similar cards with stars and planets? I asked. Yaron shook his head. The point of this exercise wasn’t to teach children about space in the sense of identifying constellations, but to communicate the idea of space. (Šukys, Silence is Death, 87-88)

A thinking journey has no destination in mind: on these journeys the mind is the destination.

Until now, I’ve thought of reading and writing as thinking journeys: both take you through interior territories and are their own destination. Only today, while watching my son, did I realize that play is also a thinking journey.

There’s no point to play, yet for small children, play is the only point. It’s their work, and their best way to learn not only about the world in all its concreteness, but also about the idea of the world.

If play can be work, then surely work can be play. Laughter almost always accompanies a moment of insight, and our best texts are often the ones that (at some point) make us laugh while we write them. Work and play; play and work. Toute same? In some ways.

Happy journeys. Happy play. May your work bring you joy and your littlest loved ones show you truths you’ve forgotten.

[Photo: David Ortmann]

Share

What is life-writing?

“How many times has someone said that writings of a particular woman had no value because they were merely about daily events?” — Elizabeth Hampsten, Read This Only to Yourself.

The term “life-writing” designates private texts not written for publication,  primarily letters and diaries.  It can tell us a lot about the past, how people lived, what they thought, how they organized their time. It can also tell us about the internal lives of people who have traditionally gone unnoticed, especially women. And although we might read much life-writing for content, many of us are interested in life-writing not only as historical artifact, but as literature.

But for all its richness, life-writing poses challenges. Unlike a formal biography or autobiography, it tends have little structure other than chronology, its boring parts aren’t edited out, and obscure references go unexplained. Life-writing records life at as happens. It’s raw and real. Sometimes this isn’t a good thing, but what surprises me more is how often it is.

What continually amazes me about a pile of letters spanning a decade or more is how successfully they tell a story, bit by bit, day by day. Despite the chaos of daily life and lack of artifice, life-writing holds its own. Reading a collection of letters can be a  moving, intimate and compelling experience.

I wrote my first book, Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout,  on the basis of a public archive, telling Djaout’s story through the books and articles he left behind after his 1993 death, when he was gunned down through his open car window. I didn’t interview his family members or visit his grave. I didn’t read his letters or diaries. Instead, I built a relationship with him inside my head, and carried my idea of him for several years while I wrote my (his?) book.

But with the next big project, I decided to take up a new challenge: to tell the life story of a woman who did not consider herself a writer, even though she wrote an amazing number of letters and diaries. Ona Šimaitė, the subject of my second manuscript, wrote somewhere between thirty thousand and fifty thousand letters during her adult life. A great number of these survived, and they served as my primary source.

For years Šimaitė’s writings perplexed me. Pages and pages of diaries, manuscripts and notes. Heroic deeds, travels, tragedy, hardship, poverty, revolution, shopping, cats, visa applications, debts, books, weather: these are the themes that circulate through her writing.

It is both mundane and sophisticated. Flat and poetic. Tedious and enlightening. Just as the woman herself. Just as life itself.

[Photo: Paul Worthington]

Share

A Shout-out to El Watan

I recently came across an article referring to my book, Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout, in El Watan, a major Algerian newspaper. The piece’s author, Benhouna Bensadat Mustapha, writes about the Algerian national hero, Emir Abdelkader (or Abd El Kader), the Iowa town of Elkader that was named for him, and two international writers (including yours truly), who have written about the connection between the town and its namesake.

Also cited is John Kiser, who, in a addition to his recent work on Abdelkader, has written a very good book called the The Monks of Tibhirine. Both Kiser and I travelled to Elkader around the same time to see what an American town named for an Algerian looked like. Benhouna Bensadat Mustapha compares our travel narratives.

Here’s an excerpt:

L’éveil culturel pour l’Emir Abd El Kader et pour l’Algérie se perpétue à El Kader, qui a dernièrement été visitée par 2 célèbres écrivains : John Kiser et Julija Sukys. Tous deux ont écrit deux récents ouvrages sur l’Algérie. Le fait, marquant une coïncidence heureuse, est que tous deux ont réservé le premier chapitre de leurs ouvrages respectifs à la magie qu’a exercée sur eux El Kader (USA) et l’histoire de son appellation. Julija Sukys, en se documentant pour son livre La vie et l’œuvre de Tahar Djaout, a été charmée par le fait qu’une petite ville dans l’Etat de l’Iowa puisse se nommer El Kader. Son livre s’ouvre, donc, sur comment El Kader avait été ainsi baptisée et utilise cet exemple pour mettre en scène et raconter la vie et l’œuvre de l’écrivain poète Tahar Djaout. Elle nous révèle également que des ouvrages d’auteurs algériens sont choisis dans le cadre de lectures publiques. Elle nous apprend que pas moins de 9 forums — qui sont étalés sur 6 semaines — ont été organisés dans le comté de Johnson, voisin d’El Kader. Un questionnaire, précise-t-elle, avait été distribué pour servir de guide au public pour discussions ainsi qu’aux professeurs pour son utilisation en classe. Cet événement culturel particulier avait culminé avec une interview avec l’auteur algérien, Assia Djebar. La réaction du public à ce programme avait été enthousiaste. La liste de commandes chez les librairies locales, souligne-t-elle, pour Le dernier été de raison de Tahar Djaout, par exemple, avait augmenté d’une manière significative et que très vite le roman est devenu le best-seller local. Finalement, Julija Sukys conclut son premier chapitre avec un message personnel : « En appelant sa ville El Kader, Timothy Davis ouvrit une porte grande ouverte sur le monde dans un pays qui cherchait à s’enfermer sur lui-même. Une chose curieuse se produisit à El Kader au moment de son baptême, une petite ouverture dans l’univers avait été creusée… cela a formé un cordon (ombilical) qui s’étend à travers l’Atlantique, unissant les Etats-Unis à l’Algérie… C’est aussi une porte grande ouverte sur d’autres mondes : l’Orient mais aussi l’au-delà. Le temps, la langue et l’espace n’auront aucune emprise. Le présent et le passé coexistent (déjà). Bienvenue à El Kader. »

You can read the whole article here.

[Photo of vintage Algiers postcard, ca. 1910, by postaletrice]

Share

Writing Lives

For a long time I resisted calling myself a biographer. I didn’t mean to write these kinds of stories, or those kinds of books. But, like all the best things in life (cats, love) — biography chose me. Despite myself, and despite having been trained as a literary scholar at a time when the author was dead, when a writer’s intention didn’t matter, and when the makings of a literary life were beside the point, writing lives was what I wanted to do.

I started by telling the story of an Algerian author gunned down in 1993 in a civil war between armed militants and a dictatorship. He was thirty-eight when he was killed, and had accomplished more than most of us do in a lifetime. His name was Tahar Djaout, and the book I wrote about him is called Silence is Death (his most famous turn of phrase).

Next, I wrote the story of a brave librarian who defied Nazism. She left us thousands of letters and scores of diaries in various languages. I used these to write the book I’m calling Beloved Profession. It’s not out yet, but I’ll let you know when that happens.

Now, I’m working on a third project. It’s a personal story that starts in Lithuania, continues in Siberia, and ends in Canada. I’ll let you know more as that develops.

This blog explores the writing of biography, autobiography and life-writing. I’ll share my understanding of the process, and point to others who I think are doing or have done interesting work in this area. We’ll see how it goes.

[Photo by Martin Marcinski]

Share