Author Interview in Foreword Reviews this Week

Here’s an interview I did with ForeWord Reviews, a great publication that focuses on books published by independent presses. You can access the original here (scroll down to the bottom of the page):

Conversational interviews with great writers who have earned a review in ForeWord Reviews. Our editorial mission is to continuously increase attention to the versatile achievements of independent publishers and their authors for our readership.

Julija Šukys

Photo by Genevieve Goyette

This week we feature Julija Šukys, author of Epistolophilia.

978-0-8032-3632-5 / University of Nebraska Press / Biography / Softcover / $24.95 / 240pp

When did you start reading as a child?

I learned to read in Lithuanian Saturday school (Lithuanian was the language my family spoke at home). I must have been around five when, during a long car trip from Toronto to Ottawa to visit my maternal grandparents, I started deciphering billboards. By the time we’d arrived in Ottawa, I’d figured out how to transfer the skills I’d learned in one language to another, and could read my brother’s English-language books.

What were your favorite books when you were a child?

E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory come immediately to mind. These are books that I read and reread.

What have you been reading, and what are you reading now?

I recently finished Mira Bartok’s memoir The Memory Palace, which I found really extraordinary. I’m now reading Nicholas Rinaldi’s novel The Jukebox Queen of Malta, which was recommended by the writer Louise DeSalvo. My husband, son, and I are nearing the end of an eight-month sabbatical on the island of Gozo, Malta’s sister island, so I’m trying to learn more about this weird and wonderful place before we head home to Montreal.

Who are your top five authors?

WG Sebald: To me, his books are a model of the possibilities of nonfiction. They’re smart, poetic, restrained, and melancholy.

Virginia Woolf: I (re)discovered her late in life, soon after the birth of my son, when I was really struggling to find a way back to my writing. She spoke to me in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

Marcel Proust: I read In Search of Lost Time as a graduate student, and the experience marked me profoundly. This is a book that doesn’t simply examine memory, but enacts and leads its reader through a process of forgetting and remembering.

Assia Djebar: I wrote my doctoral dissertation, in part, on Assia Djebar, an Algerian author who writes in French. Her writing about women warriors, invisible women, and the internal lives of women has strongly influenced me. Djebar, in a sense, gave me permission to do the kind of work I do now, writing unknown female life stories.

Louise DeSalvo: I discovered De Salvo’s work after the birth of my son when I was looking for models of women who were both mothers and writers. DeSalvo is a memoirist who mines her life relentlessly and seemingly fearlessly. She’s a model not only in her writing, but in the way she mentors and engages with other writers.

What book changed your life?

There are two. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and her collection Women and Writing, especially the essay “Professions for Women.” I read these at the age of thirty-six when my son was approaching his second birthday. My work on Epistolophilia had stalled, and I was exhausted. I was trying to create conditions that would make writing possible again, but I was struggling with some of the messages the outside world was sending me (that, for example, it was selfish of me to put my son in daycare so that I could write; or now that I’d had a baby, my life as a woman had finally begun, and I could stop pretending to be a writer).

I remember feeling stunned by how relevant Woolf’s words remained more than eighty years after she’d written them. What changed my life was her prescription (in “Professions for Women”) to kill the Angel in the House. Before reading this, I’d already begun the process of killing my own Angel, but Woolf solidified my resolve. There’s no doubt that she is in part responsible for the fact that I finished Epistolophilia and that I continue to write.

What was it that brought you to writing?

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. It’s the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to be.

Did anyone inspire you to write?

Mrs. Nabieszko, my first-grade teacher, was the first person to notice what I was doing and to make me feel like it was important. The very first “book” I produced was a poetry collection (written entirely without vowels) that I created at my desk over recess on a rainy day. When my teacher came by to ask what I was doing, and I told her that I was writing poems, she took the bits of paper I’d been scribbling on and bound them into a book using a piece of wallpaper sample (it was yellow, black, and shiny silver). We then visited other teachers to show them my book.

Though the desire to write was already present, Mrs. Nabieszko fed the small flame that she saw in me. She was an extraordinary teacher.

How do you write? Do you have a daily routine? What’s good, bad, and ugly about the process?

First of all, a confession: I’m a very slow writer. In terms of real writing, I max out at about 1,200 words a day; I’m satisfied with 500, if they’re good. I write five days a week, and when I’m not writing, I’m reading, editing (sometimes for money), reviewing books, essays, blogging, translating, or applying for grants, fellowships, and residencies. I do my best writing in the morning, and if I allow myself to get distracted too severely before noon, the day is shot. As for my process and project planning, it all depends on what stage I’m at.

Beginnings (ca. 100 manuscript pages): At the very start of a project, I try simply to write. I don’t worry about quality, but just let ideas flow uncensored. I gather questions, comparisons, and avenues to explore in the future. Each day I sit down and try to fulfil a quota (minimum 500 words), even if it’s garbage. At this stage, I’m always buried in books and research, and the writing is about finding a footing on new terrain. Beginnings are light and fun and full of hope. At every stage of writing, I keep a list of what needs to be written next.

Middles (ca. 100-300 manuscript pages): This is where it gets hard. I’ve had my fun, and now it’s time to figure out a theme, structure, and direction for the book. I need to gather all the nonsense I’ve put down on paper and sort out the good from the bad. It’s very easy to get lost or stalled or overwhelmed at this point, since I’ve produced enough that there’s no turning back, yet not so much that there’s an end in sight.

One tactic that worked for me while I was writing Epistolophilia was to chop up my manuscript into small pieces of three to ten pages, and limit myself to one idea per piece. Dealing with a single idea at a time allowed me to see what didn’t fit, and to experiment with the text by removing or radically rearranging entire sections. In the end, Epistolophilia was made of thirty-two small chapters that I bundled into nine parts. This process worked so well last time that I’m trying it again.

Endings (300+ manuscript pages): This is where I stick to a schedule. It’s time to nail the text down, and write the hard sections that I’ve been putting off. I set deadlines, write them out on a calendar, and stick to them. Accountability is key at this stage, even if it’s manufactured. For me, it’s enough to announce my schedule on Facebook to feel like I have to stick to it or face public humiliation (never mind that it’s a mind-game—the key is to find a game that yields results).

What did you have to unlearn, un-believe about yourself to find your truth as a writer? What had to go?

Although my graduate training provided a whole arsenal of research and analytical skills, it also saddled me with some baggage. I had to unlearn some of the theory-speak that I’d acquired over the course of completing a PhD. I had to learn how to write in scenes, and to let go of the belief that writing in the first-person voice was necessarily narcissistic or undisciplined.

Is finishing harder than starting? Is there a part of you that doesn’t want to let go?

Finishing is a huge relief and a source of joy for me. Because the production process (i.e. copyediting, proofreading, and printing) is so long, and because I always have overlapping projects, I haven’t found it hard to let go. By the time one book comes out, I’m well into the next project.

Do you have any particular story to tell concerning the writing of this book?

The germ of Epistolophilia began sprouting some twelve years ago when I first came across a collection of letters archived in Vilnius, Lithuania. 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 means “a love of letters,” “an affection for letter-writing,” or “a letter-writing sickness,” and it refers to Šimaitė’s lifelong dedication to her correspondence. She wrote on average sixty 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.

What advice have you received concerning writing? What advice would you offer young writers?

I would say that writing is not supposed to be easy. If it feels hard, that’s because it is. It takes discipline, endurance, and faith. Books get written one step at a time. Great writing doesn’t necessarily come in moments of inspiration. More important is the cultivation of productive habits: Sit down at your desk and stay there. Work. Revise. Repeat.

How did you find the publisher for this book?

The University of Nebraska Press is a major publisher of creative nonfiction. After they published my first book, Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout, my editor, Heather Lundine, (who has since left the press) communicated that she would be interested in seeing anything else I was working on. As I wrote Epistolophilia, we kept in touch. She read pieces of the book along the way, and offered insight when I had questions or worries. It’s rare, I think, to get that kind of support at a university press. And there’s no greater gift to a writer than the championing of her work.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing a book based on the letters that my paternal grandmother sent her children from her exile in Siberia. In 1941, she was deported alone from her home in Lithuania to a settlement in the Tomsk region where she worked on a collective farm for seventeen years. Her children and husband (all of whom were away on the night the Red Army soldiers came) fled to the West and ended up in Canada. My grandmother and her kids were reunited after twenty-four years of separation. So, it’s a story about the wounds of exile, about writing as a way of maintaining family ties, and about love, anger, and forgiveness.

Do you have a favorite line from a book?

I’m not sure I have a favorite, since different ideas resonate differently at various moments. Right now, though, I like this:

“Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” —Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.

[Originally published by ForeWord Reviews]

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2 Replies to “Author Interview in Foreword Reviews this Week”

  1. What an interesting and insightful interview, Julija. This — “I would say that writing is not supposed to be easy. If it feels hard, that’s because it is. It takes discipline, endurance, and faith. Books get written one step at a time.” — is such good advice. There’s no easy way to write a book! Yet those very things — discipline, endurance, faith — can result in joy, the joy of accomplishment. Thanks for insisting on this.

  2. Thanks so much for writing. And yes! Even if it’s hard and required discipline, there’s such joy in producing good work.

    Often, when I describe what I do, I’m met with the response “but that’s so much work!” I’m never sure how to respond, except to “Yes. Yes, it is.”

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