How to Grow a Book: A Feeding and Watering Guide for the First-Time Nonfiction Writer

Celebrate Nonfiction November with me! I gave this talk as part of the Mizzou Alumni Webinar Series (hello, pandemic adjustments…). In it, I discussed the practicalities of writing from life experience: how to start, what it means to embark on a book-length project, and how to take the first steps toward publication.

Thanks to Stephanie Anderson, the Mizzou Alumni Association, and the University of Missouri System Presidential Engagement Fellows Program for setting this up and hosting me.

About Me:
Julija Šukys is an award-winning author who works with emerging writers of nonfiction to help them craft literary texts from memory, experience, and research. Julija knows what it means to be driven to write a book, how to go about researching eclectic subjects, and what it takes to bring an ambitious writing project to fruition. For her, writing is a way of life: it’s how she understands the world around her, the means by which she survives it, and (as Joan Didion says) her way of finding out what she thinks, sees, and fears.

Julija is the author of three books, one book-length translation, and of more than two-dozen essays and articles. She is currently working on a project about university and college campus shootings that took place across the United States and Canada between 1966 and 2015.

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Aunt B. Reads My Book: On the Anxiety of Publishing Family Stories

Few aspects of nonfiction cause as much anxiety for beginning (or even experienced) writers as writing about family. Memoirists and essayists approach the issue of familial input or approval in a variety of ways. Some writers give family members veto power over their manuscripts. Others only share their books in proof—that is, before they are published but after they are typeset, when it’s too late to change a text significantly. Still others share nothing at all, and keep a text close until its publication.

For better or worse, I fall into this last category: though I told family members what they could expect to find in my 2017 book Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning, no one (except perhaps one beloved cousin?) got to read the text in advance. And no one (not even the beloved cousin!) got veto power over the book. Though, to be fair, no one asked for such power either. Maintaining this level of control over one’s work makes the writing process easier (the last thing a book needs is a whole bunch of cooks), but it also makes publication day nerve-wracking as all heck.

When I started work on Siberian Exile, I planned to write the story of my grandmother Ona’s seventeen years of life and work on a Soviet special settlement in the Tomsk region of Russia. The book was going to be a kind of testament to her survival and an exploration of women’s memory, oral history, storytelling, and life-writing. It was going to focus on her almost exclusively.

I was forced to widen my scope in 2012, when I requested, among other materials, my grandfather’s KGB files from the Lithuanian Special Archives. With those documents came a bombshell that I couldn’t ignore. The files accused my grandfather Anthony of overseeing a massacre of Jewish women and children. They also showed that he had been under surveillance by Soviet authorities for most of his life in postwar England and Canada.

Suddenly, my female-focused project morphed into a painful text of reckoning with a dark family secret. Rewriting my family’s past in this way felt like stepping into a storm. The reader I was most worried about? My late father’s elder sister, Aunt B. The sole surviving member of Ona and Anthony’s nuclear family of five.

Aunt B. has always had a sharp edge. She can be quick to criticize and will not hesitate to tell you the truth, no matter how thorny, right to your face. I too can be quick to criticize. I get into trouble for speaking without thinking. Point is, we aren’t all that different. Point also is: two sharp tongues can draw a lot of blood.

SukysFor most of my life, my relationship with Aunt B. was polite and cordial, but not close. This changed when I began to write about our family. The project gave us a chance to bond over a shared purpose and, over time, I began to feel our mutual sharpness soften. She and I started spending hours at her kitchen table, looking at photographs, talking about life in the displaced persons camps and how it felt to meet her mother when she finally arrived in Canada, after so many years of separation. We took to talking on the phone regularly. I liked that Aunt B. and I were partners in this, so I began sending her updates on my work.

But Aunt B. and I never talked much about Anthony. The subject of the Holocaust in Lithuania and the role he played in it was simply too painful, too delicate. It was easier for me to put his part of the story onto the page than to speak it out loud. Without ever explicitly agreeing to do so, Aunt B. and I established a sort of equilibrium, bonding over Ona’s story and carefully sidestepping Anthony’s.

Of course, our dance of avoidance couldn’t last forever. Eventually, the book would come out and my aunt would read it. The notion terrified me. Just thinking about it made me queasy and kept me up at night. I worried the book would hurt her. That her sharpness would return. That our newfound relationship would suffer, and that she would disown me.

“You’re not giving her enough credit,” said my cousin Darius when I confessed my fears to him. “Send her a copy of the book.”

So I did.

I inscribed the title page, slipped in a note of thanks for her support and help, and then packed it all up, posted it, and waited.

After about ten days, the phone rang and her name popped up on the caller ID. I swallowed hard and picked up the receiver. Aunt B. had read Siberian Exile in a single sitting, she told me, on the very day it arrived. “I loved it,” she said.

I was stunned.

“She said that?” my cousin Darius said in disbelief, when I called him to report the surprising turn. “What did you say?”

“That I was just happy we were still speaking to one another. I mean, I did compare her father to Adolf Eichman. Do you think she read that part?” Darius—my biggest champion and eternal optimist—laughed and laughed.

About two weeks later Aunt B. called me again. She had read the book three more times, she told me, and in this call, her assessment was more nuanced. “I don’t see my father exactly in the same way as you do, and I don’t agree with everything you write,” she said, “but I still love the book. This book is a gift.” I paused before responding. After a moment of thought, I thanked her for being so generous. I told her I understood her perspective. She saw things differently, and that I was OK with that.

“He was my father,” she said quietly. “You never knew him like I did.”

“No,” I said. “That’s true.”

We talked for a while longer, and soon our conversation turned to weather reports, summer plans, and teaching schedules. I told her some funny pet stories and she told me about the state of her yard. Ultimately, we ended the call like any other and, as I hung up, I realized that we’d succeeded. The danger had passed. We had come through the storm intact. We had kept control of our tongues.

There is, of course, no guarantee that loved ones will accept or like or even respect what we write. But as writers, perhaps we have no choice but to trust not only our books but also our readers, even the ones whose opinions scare us the most. If we’re lucky, our books will do their jobs, and our most unnerving readers will open themselves up to them. And finally, if we’re gentle and patient, these same readers may surprise us and respond to our words with love.

Originally published on the University of Nebraska Press’s Blog.

[Photo: PracticalCures.com]

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Interview: Ocean State Review

I was deep into my work on the book when I discovered (to my great joy) that I was pregnant with my son. Once I was over morning sickness, it was an easy pregnancy and even a pleasurable one. I continued to work and travel until the last month when my blood pressure shot up. At that point, per my midwife’s orders, I abandoned my manuscript and put myself to bed. It was a long, long time – almost two years – before I managed to return to writing in a concentrated way. — J. Šukys, in an interview with The Ocean State Review

Thank you to Heather Macpherson for taking the time and energy to talk to me at length about writing, research, and my last two books, Epistolophilia and Siberian Exile. This interview appeared in the most recent issue of The Ocean State Review.

You can read the interview with The Ocean State Review here.

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DEEP BALTIC Interview: “Someone Always Pays”

Some time ago, I had the pleasure of talking to Will Mawhood, Editor of Deep Baltic about my book, Siberian Exile. Thanks to Will for the excellent conversation.

Here’s an excerpt of the interview:

The first sentence we read in the book is “Someone always pays. The question is who. And the question is how.” Could you expand upon that a little?

Over the course of writing this book, I thought a lot about the question of who paid for Anthony’s crimes and how. When I discovered the war crimes indictment against my grandfather, that is, that he had overseen a massacre of Jewish women and children in 1941, I was struck by the fact that he had seemingly not paid a price for those actions and for the choices he made. His wife paid the highest price, through her deportation and loss of her children. His children paid through the loss of their mother. As I write in the book, we, his grandchildren have paid as well in certain ways. I, for example, lost my father to a sudden heart attack when he was 56 and I was 18 years old. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always connected his sudden death to childhood trauma. What interests me is the way that actions have echoes and consequences that become visible slowly, over decades and to what extent those echoes and consequences remain real today.

If your grandfather had been at home in Kaunas when the KGB arrived, he would almost definitely have been deported, and so would not even have had the option to consider whether to collaborate with the Nazi occupying forces when they invaded Lithuania shortly afterwards. You write how tempting it is to wish for that single change – to wish for a misfortune, but one that would have prevented him from becoming complicit in terrible events. “In this alternate and, yes, selfish history, where I can change only one fate, Anthony would have been a clear, clean victim”. Do you think family tragedy is in a way less hard to deal with than guilt?

In many families, tragedy and hardship can be points of pride. An ancestor who was wrongly imprisoned, for example, might be held up as an example of resilience but an ancestor who was rightfully imprisoned for committing murder is unlikely to be celebrated. This basic difference struck me as I was writing and a question arose for me: can we take credit for our ancestors’ good deeds, talents, and triumphs if we are not willing to take some sort of responsibility for their sins as well?

You describe how your grandmother was finally given permission to join the rest of her family in Canada in 1965, but how she always remained somewhat apart – having a distant, though seemingly unfractious relationship with her husband, and finding the material abundance and different customs and language of her new home hard to adjust to. She says about the experience of being reunited, during a later interview conducted in Lithuanian: “I felt that these weren’t my kids. That these weren’t my grandkids.” Do you think this was very typical of people like her, who had been deported for long periods of time, on being reunited with their families – that it was in some way a bittersweet experience?

I imagine that my grandmother was not alone in her experience of a bittersweet reunion. As I was thinking about what Ona’s and Anthony’s reunion must have been like, I didn’t have much information to go on, even second hand, so I did bibliographical research to try and understand the range of returnees’ experiences. I read about what happened to marriages when deportees returned to the spouses they’d left behind. Many marriages, unsurprisingly, did not survive and upon their return, deportees divorced. Oftentimes if deportees remarried after returning from Siberia, they ended up marrying other deportees. I think that makes sense. Few others could have understood a returnee better than another returnee.

In my grandmother’s case, I think that her children were tie that bound her to the family. She couldn’t and didn’t blame them for having become somewhat exotic creatures in her absence. From her 1977 interview, it seems that she worked hard to adjust to her new reality in Canada. That said, she must have mourned those lost years and having missed out on watching her children grow and mature. The great gift that she received shortly after her arrival in Canada was the birth of my cousin Darius. She really co-raised him with her daughter and I think that having a new baby in her life, a child who grew to love her like no one else, was life-saving and healing.

Continue reading the interview here.

[Photo: Ona and Margarita by their cabin in Siberia]

 

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On Packing for a Year-Long Academic Sabbatical

A few weeks ago, when I started packing in earnest for our family’s year at the Institute for Advanced Study, I couldn’t find an academic sabbatical packing list (for either women or men). All I found were tips for short-term trips (like a month) or nomadic year-long family trips across warm continents. So this is my (somewhat feminine, at least in terms of the clothing list) effort. Such lists remove a whole piece of mental work, and goodness knows, there’s enough to think about!

If you have the good fortune of a year away from your usual life, then CONGRATULATIONS. I hope this helps.

Happy research. Happy writing. Happy packing.

Sabbatical Prep: Basic Tips and Principles

Stowing stuff before you leave

  1. Order one or a couple of those inexpensive clothes storage closets (with cover) for items you leave behind. It’s easier for both packing & unpacking and clothes don’t get mangled. Especially good for monstrous Midwestern houses with big, dry storage rooms.
  2. In the event that you don’t have a ginormous storage room and need to store things offsite, those pod containers that come to your house and then get carted away for the year also work beautifully. We used a pod when we went away to Malta for a year and rented out our Montreal house. We had to empty our library completely for the tenants, plus clear closets and drawers. In that case, I rolled the cost of storage into rent.
  3. Take the opportunity to reduce your clutter. Donate or freecycle any clothes you’ve (ahem) outgrown or just don’t wear. Cut up old t-shirts for rags. Take part in your neighborhood’s garage sale and share the proceeds with your kid when he sells old toys. Donate the leftover toys. Honestly, there is nothing like leaving your house for a year to make you take a good hard look at the excesses of North American life…

What to take and how to pack and transport it: first, the broad strokes

  1. When choosing which clothes to bring, I found that an organic solution emerged: a unified color scheme made my decisions easier. In the end, I packed mostly blue and black garments. This means everything will go with everything. Also, there’s less to think about when you’re dealing with reduced clothing options because you have better things to do…like write a book.
  2. Two words: COMPRESSION SACS. They even work on boots rated to -30C that I managed to mush down to a fraction of their usual size! The sacs allowed me to pack our warm jackets, ski pants, gloves, hats, and neck warmers  into a very small space. And since we have our winter essentials, we’ll be able both to ski and walk our dog in the snow comfortably. WHERE TO GET COMPRESSION SACS? I bought some inexpensive sacs online. They are just rectangular plastic envelopes with a ziplock top and one-way valves at the bottom so you can squeeze the air out. You don’t need the hardcore camping ones; just the travel kind.
  3. Related to #2: resist the temptation to “just buy new ones” of everything. Good quality clothes are expensive, and it’s worth bringing staples that will protect you against the elements, like rain gear, waterproof footwear, warm hats, winter coats, gloves. I’ve learned my lesson, having wandered around with wet feet on one too many trips.
  4. Related to #3: it’s equally important to resist the impulse to TAKE everything. Living with less is also a pleasure.
  5. I suggest deciding on how many bags you plan to take and allowing that to determine what you can bring. We took 3 large suitcases, 3 carry-ons + work papers for 2 adults and one kid. Consider sending suitcases by UPS Ground, especially if you’re driving to your sabbatical destination, as we did. UPS shipping was surprisingly affordable and send bulky stuff ahead left room in the car for cat, dog, child, and cooler. You can also ship any musical instruments. We shipped a guitar and saxophone.
  6. Be sure to pack a blue-tooth speaker. You can stream radio and music from phones and laptops and get high quality sound. I packed this almost as an afterthought, but it’s already proven to be essential.
  7. Earphones and earbuds. Enough for all family members to share.
  8. Playing cards. We’ve been playing Gin as a family since we left home.
  9. If you’ve got ’em, then take some Turkish towels. These are compact and work at the pool or beach. They also double as travel blankets on cold airplanes. Plus, towels can be in short supply in rentals. I also tucked 3 dish towels into the car before leaving and I’m glad I did, since we arrived to find none in our new apartment!
  10. Be kind to the kid. Remember that his treasures matter too. Find room in the car for 2000+ Magic the Gathering cards, if need be. The kid barely has any clothes anyway, because he outgrows them so fast. Everyone needs to be allowed something special.

What I Brought: Here’s Where We Get Specific

Work

  • research materials: photocopies from archives, notebooks, a few books
  • a “working copy” of my book for readings
  • draft of an essay-in-progress (hard copy that I didn’t have time to transcribe)
  • laptop
  • phone
  • charging cords
  • wire book holder for desk
  • book light for bedtime reading
  • pens & pencils
  • wrist brace to treat/prevent carpel tunnel syndrome
  • business/book cards
  • pens
  • computer sleeve
  • camera (for work & play…)
  • backpack for conference travel
  • reading glasses

Essential documents

  • passports
  • immunization records (you can’t register your kid in school without them)
  • your child’s last report card (also needed for school registration)
  • birth certificates
  • directions & welcome packet for the new place
  • health insurance cards
  • checks
  • …plus whatever’s in your wallet (make sure your driver’s license won’t expire while you’re on sabbatical, and far away from home)

Kitchen & food

  • pack your road-trip food in your usual tupperware or food storage containers (we brought 4 or 5 in our cooler and I’ll use these for packing my son’s school lunches)
  • thermoses that double as water bottles (also for use during the long road trip)
  • a cooler, ’cause that road food will kill you
  • picnic plates and cutlery
  • dish towels
  • lunch box for the kid (we have a soft one which makes packing easy)
  • fabric shopping totes (we used these to pack shoes, pet stuff, toiletries into the car and now use them shopping)
  • a couple laundry balls
  • laundry bags for washing delicates
  • two large laundry bags for storing dirty clothes and transport to laundry room (across the street)

Pet stuff

  • leashes
  • cat carrier
  • flea & tick meds
  • Prozac for the problematic canine
  • poo bags
  • food bowls
  • a couple toys for the pup; a couple of small balls to chase for kitty
  • pet food (enough for the trip and a few days upon arrival)
  • any skin care meds that the problematic canine might need
  • brushes & shampoo for grooming
  • litter box & scoop, double-bagged for travel
  • “kitty quilts” (made by my husband’s aunt; yes, the cat actually sleeps on them…)
  • immunization record for cross-border travel with dog

Things to do before you leave home

  • set up online billing and bill payment
  • change addresses with the bank, HR, magazine subscriptions, your mother’s nursing home, etc.
  • get your mail forwarded to the new address
  • talk to your home insurance company if you’ll have a tenant or house-sitter and make sure you’re covered under these circumstances
  • suspend or reduce insurance on any vehicles you might be leaving behind
  • change your voicemail message if you’re like us and still live as if it’s 1995
  • hire someone to mow the lawn if you don’t want to ask the house-sitter or tenant to do so
  • write up a set of emergency instructions with contacts for your house-sitter, i.e., what to do if a tree falls or the roof gets blown off
  • register your kid in his new school
  • go see the doctor and dentist and get up to date on tests and cleanings; NB: your kid will need a health form signed by the doctor to register for school
  • put an auto-reply on your email accounts to buy some extra space and time for the book you’re writing

Clothes, etc. *

  • 2 jersey dresses (one black, one blue)
  • 6 long-sleeved jersey shirts (in varying shades of black, purple, teal & blue)
  • 6 short-sleeved jersey shirts (ditto)
  • 1 tunic (blue)
  • 1 long cardigan (black, of course)
  • 4 work-type jackets (in blue and black, of course) that can be dressed up or down, of different weights and styles (this may be excessive, but I allowed myself this folly since I love to layer and a jacket makes me feel immediately polished)
  • 2 winter/fall sweaters (one dove grey one in merino; one navy in cashmere)
  • 1 spring cardigan (black)
  • 1 spring pullover sweater (a departure: red and white stripes!)
  • 1 fleece jacket (grey)
  • 1 stretchy athletic jacket (teal)
  • 1 down jacket (turquoise for variation)
  • 1 medium-weight fall/winter coat (black); with the down jacket underneath, it should see me through the snowy season
  • 1 rain/ski shell (grey)
  • shoes: tall leather boots (no heel), leather ankle boots (slight heel), comfy walking boots, warm winter boots, sneakers, sandals, ankle-height rain boots (good for muddy hikes as well as rainy days)
  • 2 pairs of jeans (blue)
  • 1 pair wide-legged cotton pants that go across seasons (black)
  • 2 winter/fall skirts (one in a dark, very cool denim with distressed edge; one navy pencil skirt)
  • 3 summer skirts (2 navy and one crazy mint green one for fun, in a fabric printed with images of food trucks)
  • 2 light-weight summer pants (airy light blue ones and a pair of beaten up khaki hiking cropped ones)
  • 3 pairs cotton pajamas
  • light-weight dressing gown (silk; it folds down to nothing)
  • 3 pairs of tights (black & grey)
  • black beret & gloves
  • sun hat & sunglasses
  • 2 belts
  • 3 pairs of earrings; 3 necklaces
  • bras & underwear & socks
  • umbrella
  • 5 colorful scarves of varying weights (if you’re packing mostly grey, blue & black, then you need some color somewhere!)
  • 1 leather purse (teal blue), tote-style to carry all the things…
  • athletic gear: yoga pants, yoga mat, running shorts & shirts, runners, running hat, socks, sports bra, sports socks, ski googles, ski pants, ski socks, neck warmers, long johns
  • 2 bathing suits & goggles
  • toiletries (you know what you need…)

*Written out like this, it’s a lot…I admit. But I tried to pack comfortably for 4 seasons, for skiing, yoga, running, hiking & swimming, for conferences & book festivals, for long days in the library, dog walking, cocktail receptions, holidays and parties…

POST-SABBATICAL UPDATE. Or, The Verdict.

The year is now up so I can share how I did with what I brought…

Things I’m glad I packed: #1 Ankle-height rubber boots. I wore these in every season. They were invaluable for the rainy, muddy woods at the IAS. #2 Yoga mat. I did yoga once a week and it made me feel so much better after long writing days. #3 Umbrellas for the whole family and rain gear in general. Invaluable. #4 Ski gear. We went skiing over our son’s holidays and it was totally worth bringing, even for one week of fun.

Things I could have done without: #1 I only needed 1 bathing suit but brought 3!  #2 I didn’t need the super warm winter boots. Lighter boots would’ve been far more useful. #3 I brought 2 dresses but, to be honest, I really only needed one.

Things I wish I’d brought: #1 Linens in general, since the apartment was short on sheets. I would have loved to have brought a comforter or soft blanket (or 2), more towels, and dish towels. #2 Espresso pot or machine. This one was tough. We made do with a drip coffee maker and then broke down and bought a moka pot. #3 Slow cooker. My neighbour brought hers and I was super jealous. #4 Bike rack and bikes for the whole family. We made do in various ways but bringing would’ve have been better.

Best packing list ever? Joan Didion’s.

TO PACK AND WEAR:
2 skirts
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
stockings
bra
nightgown, robe, slippers
cigarettes
bourbon
bag with: shampoo
toothbrush and paste
Basis soap, razor
deodorant
aspirin
prescriptions
Tampax
face cream
powder
baby oil

TO CARRY:
mohair throw
typewriter
2 legal pads and pens
files
house key

“This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (i.e. no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same motel room. Notice the typewriter for the airport, coming home: the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, and start typing the day’s notes.”

—Joan Didion, “The White Album”

[Photo: Thomas Hawk]

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Audio Interview: The Missouri Review

Not too long ago, I had a great conversation with the Missouri Review! Thanks to Sarah Beard for sitting down to talk with me. In “UNBOUND Book Festival Interview: Julija Šukys,” we talk about my book, Siberian Exile, research, digging into family history, archives, and much more. Come have a listen.

[Image: The Missouri Review]

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Teaching in the Archives: Women Writing Lives

Last summer, I spent a few weeks in the State Historical Society of Missouri developing an assignment for a new course called Women Writing Lives. I envisioned brining students into the archives and wanted them to get a sense of how enthralling archival work could be. It was more successful than I ever could have predicted, so I wrote a short piece about it for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Here it is. 

[Photo: Texas State Library and Archives Commission]

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Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning

NOW AVAILABLE!

“Interweaving coincidences and reversals with historical precision in a narrative that layers, folds, zags and spikes, Julija Šukys wanders the ghost-filled streets of the present, mingling with kin, real and imagined, and corresponding with multiple unspeakable pasts. I can’t recall the last time I read so gripping and so delicate a documentary of atrocity, complicity, dispossession and survival. Siberian Exile is remarkable, daunting, and disarmingly real.” — Mary Cappello, author of Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack

“All families harbor secrets. What if, in blithe innocence, you set out to research your family history, only to discover that your grandfather was guilty of the most heinous of crimes? Šukys pursues her tragic family memoir with courage and self-examination, often propelled to her painful discoveries by what she believes is a bizarre synchronicity. This is not a book written at a safe distance.”—Rosemary Sullivan, author of Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva

“Riveting. . . . Beyond the historical and familial narrative, Julija Šukys ponders her own exile and her own complicity, allowing readers to do the same, comparing versions of selves and asking which version is truest, an impossible question, but one readers will find as enthralling as these pages.”—Patrick Madden, author of Sublime Physick and Quotidiana

BUY Siberian Exile at the University of Nebraska Press. 

BUY Siberian Exile at IndieBound. 

BUY Siberian Exile at Amazon. 

About the Book

When Julija Šukys was a child, her paternal grandfather, Anthony, rarely smiled, and her grandmother, Ona, spoke only in her native Lithuanian. But they still taught Šukys her family’s story: that of a proud people forced from their homeland when the soldiers came. In mid-June 1941, three Red Army soldiers arrested Ona, forced her onto a cattle car, and sent her east to Siberia, where she spent seventeen years separated from her children and husband, working on a collective farm. The family story maintained that it was all a mistake. Anthony, whose name was on Stalin’s list of enemies of the people, was accused of being a known and decorated anti-Bolshevik and Lithuanian nationalist.

Some seventy years after these events, Šukys sat down to write about her grandparents and their survival of a twenty-five-year forced separation and subsequent reunion. Piecing the story together from letters, oral histories, audio recordings, and KGB documents, her research soon revealed a Holocaust-era secret—a family connection to the killing of seven hundred Jews in a small Lithuanian border town. According to KGB documents, the man in charge when those massacres took place was Anthony, Ona’s husband.

In Siberian Exile Šukys weaves together the two narratives: the story of Ona, noble exile and innocent victim, and that of Anthony, accused war criminal. She examines the stories that communities tell themselves and considers what happens when the stories we’ve been told all our lives suddenly and irrevocably change, and how forgiveness or grace operate across generations and across the barriers of life and death.

BUY Siberian Exile at the University of Nebraska Press. 

BUY Siberian Exile at IndieBound. 

BUY Siberian Exile at Amazon. 

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Lions in Winter, Eastern Illinois University, Jan. 30 & 31, 2015

LionWinter

I’m heading to Charleston, Illinois, this weekend to read and to give a craft talk  at the Lions in Winter Literary Festival. Come on out if you’re in the area. I’ll be reading from and discussing the birth of Epistolophilia and what I learned about the ins and outs of archival work in the process.

The Lions in Winter 2015 featured writers are Stephen Graham Jones, 
David Tomas Martinez, Edward Kelsey Moore, Julija Šukys (yours truly), and Jessica Young.

You can find craft talk descriptions and download the program here. 

[Photo: Tambako The Jaguar]

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On Research: Examining One Point in the Holy Trinity of CNF

HolyTrinity

The holy trinity of creative nonfiction, I told my students recently, is SCENE + RESEARCH + REFLECTION.

Most of my students get the first scene piece: since high school, they’ve doubtless heard the mantra “show don’t tell.” Generally speaking, showing is not a problem for them, especially those who come from a fiction background.

The third point of the trinity (we’ll come back to the second momentarily), reflection, is more complex and requires an intellectual leap: writers must not only recount the past, but think on the page and interpret the meaning of what they create as they do so. Thus far, the most eloquent argument I’ve found for the necessity of this process in memoir and other forms of CNF comes from Phillip Lopate in “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story” (Fourth Genre 7.1, 2005, pp. 143-156.) I highly recommend it — so much so that I keep foisting this essay into the hands of all my students.

The question is: how do you get from SCENE to meaningful (non-navel-gazing) REFLECTION?

My answer: RESEARCH

By research I mean anything that helps further your understanding of whatever it is that you’re trying to figure out. It can be book or scholarly learning, like exploring the history of Négritude as one of my students has done or by reading Anne Sexton’s archive, as another did (I’ll return to the importance of library research shortly), but it can also be something like going on a train trip to watch how the landscape changes. It can be having a conversation with someone who knows more about a topic than you do (for a example, with a historian or a scientist) or simply standing in front of a painting in a museum. I, for one,  have traveled to places where the people I’m writing about once lived: weird little Siberian villages or forgotten industrial towns in France, for example. This past summer I walked through Lithuanian forests in search of mass graves; I stood and contemplated the house that once belonged to an important “character” in my manuscript.

I think of this kind of work as environmental or perhaps experiential research, but often it is this human gaze and journey and reality (everything on a human scale) that gives CNF energy, gravitas, life, and beauty.

Even if you’re writing about the past, or perhaps especially if you’re doing so, revisiting sites from that past can be incredibly powerful. When I venture to these kinds of places, I spend my time gazing at a building; I collect stones and put them in my pockets to bring home; I pay attention to the insects that buzz around me; I talk to cows; I think about and note change, impermanence; I ask what remains; I watch those around me; I chat with strangers about their lives and homes; I accept every invitation to tea or a meal; I photograph everything I can; I contemplate the sky; I take tons and tons of notes.

To me, all this staring, wandering, and chatting is as valuable as a trip to the library (where I spend a great deal of time too): the trick is to pay attention and record all the details along the way.

But be warned: all this staring and wandering and chatting may only be the first level of research. For example, I have a student who has recently returned from a life-changing trip to Iceland, and he’s now starting to write about it. His first level of research is complete, but  more work lies ahead. The second level and stage of research might mean his going to the library and reading tons about sagas and Icelandic history until this writer has mastered his subject enough to distill and retell with energy and spontaneity. Once this learning starts to belong to him in some way (as family history does) — that is, once he’s achieved a kind of deep learning — then he’ll likely find organic ways of engaging with the necessary literary-historical material and, in turn, of teaching his reader.

When I’m talking about this process of deep learning, I tend to call it “digestion.” You have to let the facts and history work their through you, I say (though I try not to follow the metaphor through to its logical ends, ahem). The research has to become part of you so that you can put it back out onto the page and into the world in a form that won’t fight the story that you’re trying to tell.

This, I believe, is the most difficult aspect of writing good CNF: figuring out how to teach the reader; how to give enough background history, facts, and evidence but without deadening your text.

Once you do the research, you reflect and figure out what the research tells you about the primary journey you’re on: for one of my students, the question is what Anne Sexton’s archives can teach her about a mother’s death. For another, the question is what the slave ships of Nantes have to do with her search for home and belonging.

Research will help you interpret the scenes you write and details you put to paper and it will help you get closer to an answer to whatever question drives you and makes your text vibrate. It will deepen your text and make it larger than your sad little story of loss (I don’t mean to minimize, not at all; we all have these). Most CNF undulates in some way between the big and the small. The writer’s sad little story is the small of the piece: all our mothers will die one day. The reflection and understanding that grows out of research (in whatever form it might take) will constitute the large. It is in going beyond ourselves, beyond our own smallness that we can learn something and then give that lesson over to a reader — what is the big thing that I can learn from my smallness? That’s the great question, gift, challenge, and mystery of CNF.

[Photo: angelofsweetbitter2009]

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