1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I’ll assume you mean the first published book. In that case, my first book was a novel titled Finding the Moon in Sugar. It changed my life in all sorts of ways.
A set of wise people told me that I had to build up an internet presence in order to stand a chance in a cutthroat industry. That advice turned out to be no different from the story I got, following my first “real job,” regarding investment in real estate. I’m currently living in a condo I can’t sell. It’s a drain on my net worth, and while I’m in it, I deal with more internet apps and electronic noise than is healthy for any reasonable person. I’m no longer addicted to the internet, thankfully, but for a few years there I was doing disgusting things like sleeping with telephones, just in case I had to manage some potential reader interest before I got out of bed.
Finding the Moon in Sugar was written by someone with a voice and vision, but within the context of early adulthood. My latest book, a memoir, Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen, sees me writing from a position of middle age, where I have much more distance from the passions of my youth. Oddly, that distance gives me greater control and firepower, so I’m writing with more intensity than ever. I am just as sincere as I was in the past, but I fear much less.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
As a child, I read fiction for fun and non-fiction for school. That has since changed, but I think this had a strong influence on what I also wanted to write.
I’ve always felt alien to this world. I should admit that, in childhood, writing was a means to control and escape a reality in which I constantly felt foreign and confused, common symptoms among children of alcoholics.
Granted…I started writing when I was able to hold a pencil, and I did it all the time, wishing to become a “real writer” since around fourth grade. That desire for control and escape wasn’t all that different from what I experienced while playing role playing games, which were a huge influence on me. It was just a realm to free the imagination.
I now write to dive into chaos and present its reality, all in an effort to provoke thoughts about the things we all take for granted. Non-fiction makes that easier in some ways and more difficult in others, but I eventually got to the point where I just think of myself as a prose writer.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Well, not all projects are created equal. Some of them are the results of editors asking, “Hey, do you think you could write this thing I wish someone would write for me?” Others are spontaneous combustion, or a fit of really dangerous emotions that need to get out right fucking now.
Generally, I feel like I work slowly, admiring every word like an ill and obsessive mechanic who loves the shape of lug nuts. That said, I can crank out 2,000 words in an evening if someone absolutely needs them.
The real shift in this whole thing came when I became a parent. Sometimes I have 40 minutes to write, and I have to do something valuable in that time, so I don’t screw around. However, when I’m “in it,” in that “writing zone,” if you will, I write one word at a time, and concepts like minutes and hours disappear, until an alarm goes off or a kid wakes up.
4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Right now, I have ideas for two screenplays, a comic memoir about American education, a novel that’s kind of an homage to the work of Thomas Bernhard, and a politically incorrect satire about political correctness. I can see all of these works as pieces of architecture—I’ve been building them while talking showers, riding my bike, or smoking grass on balconies.
Works “begin” for me as climaxes, particular emotions and realizations I want to provoke a reader to experience. Then all sorts of hallways, walls and windows form around them. I meditate daily, and what I notice is that I’m always writing, even when I’m not aware that it’s happening, somewhere in the dungeons of my mind, and I’ve been doing this since I first learned to read.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I wanted to be an actor as a kid, but I realized I wasn’t talented enough to take on everything: I’d have to pick one thing and stick to it if I wanted to get good. Readings give me the opportunity to stand on a stage in front of people, and to practice that thrill of public vulnerability. I love giving readings. I love seeing people’s expression when I look them in the eye and read.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
We live in an age of such unbearable conceit that people don’t understand we’re facing ancient questions. Who am I? Where does the world come from? How will the apocalypse feel on the body?
We’re also living in an age of unbearable denial. This is the hour of our extinction. It’s happening now. By virtue of being a humanitarian, I interact with plenty of people who consider themselves liberals and environmentalists. A lot of them really just play these personas on Twitter. They drive the same SUVs and take the same amount of plastic out of the grocery store as would some suburban accountant who voted for Obama twice and Trump once, but keeps both moves secret.
If I have a theoretical concern, it’s probably linked to my aesthetic, which is that of a provocateur. My biggest question is usually, “What’s keeping you from admitting that you’re part of the problem,” though I try to corner the reader into asking this themselves. I’m also interested in human psychology and the nature of consciousness, so my writing often ponders the line between what we consider imagined and remembered.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Writers are not a homogenous group. I really see no difference between announcing a role for someone based on their artistic medium and, say, announcing one for someone based on gender, social class or race.
The larger culture, especially in the West, is in serious decline. I feel that my personal role should be to point this out, to fight against it, and to offer what mooring I sense myself capable of offering. That’s why I write about things like denial, narcissism, identity and consciousness.
If writers care about writing, they should therefore care about culture, and work to maintain it. If I were king, writers would be required to read. A lot. Books written by people they could otherwise not meet in their daily life. That’s how one maintains the culture that maintains writing.
I’m saying this because I’ve met plenty of writers at book fairs and conferences who simply don’t read, or they only read books that leave them feeling smug and comfortable.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Editors are no different from anyone else: take doctors, lawyers, professors or drug dealers, just to compare. The largest portion is mediocre; another portion is awful, and then there’s that portion that really knows what you need.
I’ve worked with editors in all three categories. The editors of my last two books knew exactly what I needed, and working with them wasn’t work. It was like a civilized and inspiring conversation.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
If you’re going to write, you’re going to be rejected. Once you publish books, you’re going to be criticized, especially if you write critically.
To that end, one writer I adore told me that if you’re going to believe the good things people say about you, you should probably also believe the bad. But you also have to remember that criticism tells us much more about the critic than of the critiqued.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to memoir to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
On one hand, I’m kind of blue collar when it comes to this. If someone asks me to translate something, and I can see that I’d do a good job, I’ll take it on, and literally just “snap” into that mode, especially if there are a couple of bucks involved.
On the other, I’m kind of reckless. Writing a memoir is horrifying, and that’s why I did it. I was getting way too comfortable in the safety net of fiction. When I started the memoir, I loved the thrill of “getting things out,” to reduce the process, though I think you know what I mean.
Fiction, however, is the more demanding art form, at least for me. It’s rooted in deeper traditions, and the risks you take leave more at stake than just personal embarrassment, or someone taking issue with an idea you have. When you’re writing fiction, you’re sitting in the room with all the ancestors, the lineage going all the way back to Homer, to the Old Testament, Christ’s parables, the myths and legends that form the foundations behind the fundamental assumptions we use to create a reality for ourselves. So, you’re adding a patch to that quilt, as you stretch and bend it. It’s a really demanding moment.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
It depends on the time of year, what country I’m in (I spend my summers in Europe), and what stage of a project I’m in. I teach at a community college, and during the fall and winter, sometimes the only writing I’ll do is short essays and things, or just sketches for potential projects. Sometimes I write nothing at all.
In the summers, I write every day, and I try to write 1,000 words. Once I do that, I stop.
If I get to take some time away and live in the woods or something, then I’ll try to write 2,000 words each day, though I end up drinking way too much coffee.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Music. I also ride my bicycle or take walks almost every day, often with a camera, and I’ll photograph things like walls and puddles, just to calm myself. But I listen to music when I’m in doubt, or when I feel like this whole business is just a waste of time, which happens a lot.
Of course, I’ve also learned that “getting stalled” is actually a fear response, and it usually means that I’m telling a truth that’s really powerful and frightening me, so I end up playing this stupid game. “Oh, you’re stuck! You need a break.”
Bullshit. Take a walk. Get to work.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Well, I don’t have one home.
The smell of carpeting or rugs reminds me of my childhood home, for reasons that I don’t want to share. They’re not pleasant.
The smell of water in the air, especially in strong wind, reminds me of Lake Michigan.
The smell of Ikea reminds me of the Vilnius airport. And the smell of fresh mushrooms reminds me of the Lithuanian countryside.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Man…pick a number. I’m an über nerd, with an insatiable curiosity.
Among the most eloquent and flowing things that our brains have come up with are mathematical principles and equations. I have a primitive understanding of maths, but what I do understand leaves me in awe. I mean, there’s a way to numerically represent a curve on a 3d axis. Those numbers will plot the exact same curve, no matter who is plotting it, and this will be true until civilization goes up in smoke. That fucks me up.
My novel, The Fugue, is inspired by…you know…fugues. For a time in my life, I listened to Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s fugues on repeat, switching it with Ashkenazi’s recording of Shostakovich’s Fugues and Preludes.
I have a list of favorite museums that I must return to regularly. I follow all sorts of physicists on Quora, and I read books about business. I’m just fascinated by the human mind, left confused by the majority of human beings who seem bored by their own thoughts.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I became obsessed with James Baldwin’s non-fiction while writing Relief by Execution, and I think I read Notes of a Native Son four times in a row or something, with each reading feeling like it was brand new to me. I think he’s the best American essayist, period, white or black, living or dead.
When I start to feel really lonely, or that I’m aging rapidly while having accomplished nothing, I go back to Stuart Dybek, who’s just an enormous inspiration.
I also have this thing for Carson McCullers, though to my great shame, I have only read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. That’s the best title of a book ever conceived. When I feel hopeless, I just look at that title on my shelf, and I remember that you can open up your awning in the morning and get on with your work, as happens in the last chapter of that book.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
My biggest regret is that I didn’t double-major in physics and English as an undergraduate. I got frustrated when I saw how much math I lacked, and I got intimidated by the amount of time I would have had to put in (thanks, high school) to catch up. But I would really like to get paid by a university to write papers about the God particle, or how learning M-theory has the same impact on the male anatomy as Viagra.
I would have been the best trial lawyer in America.
I wanted to be an actor, and I think I would be a good film director, if I knew how to plug in the lights.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I answer this, in a way, in my memoir. I spent most of my childhood horrified of things like nuclear war, death and hell, Nostrodamus’ predictions (which my mom loved and repeated constantly), and my alcoholic, narcissist father. Writing was a way of escaping that fear and controlling my reality, simply by concocting a new one. It was quiet. It drew no attention. When I wrote, people left me alone.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
If I’m to be honest, the last great film I saw was Birdman, which was a while ago. But this year I also went to see Werner Herzog’s Meeting Gorbachev, which is one of the simplest yet most immediate documentaries I’ve ever seen. He’s got a hardon for Gorby and doesn’t hide it, conveniently ignoring Gorbachev’s crackdown in the Baltics in 1991, but the film is still profound in the way it trusts its own simplicity. Most of it is a conversation.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Essays and blog posts to help promote Relief by Execution. I’m also in the early stages of writing a screenplay.