In early March I was in attendance at the literary festival known as States of Independence, organised by Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham and held at the De Montfort University in Leicester. It was a day of ideas, to witness how much fiction is being written, supporting independent writers and smaller publishers.
One of the speakers was Stephan Collishaw, whose talk on Lithuanian Noir intrigued me. Stephan is a man that knows a thing or two about writing and publishing. He is the author of four novels and editor at Noir Press, a publishing house set-up to introduce Lithuanian fiction to an English-speaking audience.
Lithuanian literature is something of an unexplored territory on the bookshelves of English readers. I myself have never read any, but Noir Press is on a mission to put this right, by publishing some of the best work by contemporary writers in Lithuania. Allowing things that haven’t previously been shared with English readers to be seen.
Stephan delivered his talk, giving those in attendance a calm, confident reading from the Renata Šerelyt? novel, The Music Teacher, which has been adapted for film in Lithuania and published by Noir Press over here. The more Stephan spoke, the more I thought his was an interesting position, speaking to us as both an author and editor. I wanted to know if being on both sides of the fence, as it were, had helped him in his own writing career?
“It certainly makes me aware about how pleased I am, as a publisher, when one of my authors works really hard to sell their novel,” he said. “Using any connections they’ve got to promote it. It makes a big difference. I know that I need to be doing a lot more as a writer to make sure that information about the book is getting out there. After all, people can’t read your book if they’ve never heard of it, and realistically there is only so much that the publishing house can do to promote it. Also, I work very hard on editing texts. I’m fortunate, in the publishing, to be working with some very talented translators, and also the books we are bringing out are great novels, so the editing process is a delight. It does, though, help, I think, when I come back to my own writing, to have that experience of really working hard on a book to ensure that every sentence is as good as it should be.”
I was also interested to know more about his own published work. Readers find it exciting to discover an author they have not previously heard about. Like a lepidopterist finding a new species of butterfly.
“My characters would struggle to call themselves the heroes of the novels, they are too flawed. My novel Amber is about betrayal. It’s about finding out that somebody you have loved was not who you thought they were, and the kind of emotional and psychological turmoil that can cause. Both The Last Girl and Amber were also about forgiveness and how possible it is. My last novel, The Song of the Stork, was about a young Jewish girl on the run from the Germans in north Poland during the Second World War. It was a novel about people having their stories taken away from them; Yael, the central character, is determined to survive to ensure that her story, the story of her family and her community are not silenced. But whatever you plan for your novel, it is often sabotaged by the characters themselves who refuse to be manipulated for your narrow ends as a novelist. Certainly that was the case with Yael; the section of the novel where she shelters in the house of Aleksei, a Russian mute, as the winter snow cuts them off, was a complete surprise to me as a writer. The delicate dance between the two, the sudden, heart-rending peace in the middle of war, was something that developed entirely organically and had nothing to do with what I might have been planning to do as a writer. You have to trust your characters. We are not gods. We are in a relationship.”
His latest novel, A Child Called Happiness, the kind of title you might expect of John Irving, was also mentioned.
“A Child Called Happiness is a story about loss. It is set in Zimbabwe. As the novel opens, a British girl, Natalie, finds a baby abandoned on a granite rock. The search for the parent of the child brings Natalie into a closer relationship with a local village. But tensions are rising and her uncle’s farm, where she is staying, is looking increasingly vulnerable to an attack by the War Veterans. At the same time, looped in with this story, is the tale of Tafawa, a Shona living in the Mazowe valley at the end of the nineteenth century, when the first white settlers are beginning to move into their lands. I’m delighted that a number of writers who know a lot more about Africa than I do, have had some lovely things to say about the novel.”
As an author myself, I struggle with the constant daily worry and guilt about how much work I produce that is actually good enough to stay on the page. It was refreshing to hear Stephan’s take on the act of writing.
“Writing is like marathon running; it’s hard to do at a sprint. It’s a slow plugging away. Determination is a key quality to cultivate. And bloody mindedness. There are so many wonderful things to do in life, that the discipline and commitment required to write 80 to 100,000 words is huge. I try to write 500 words a day as often as I can, and slowly the book evolves. A writer’s worst enemy is self-doubt. It’s easy to think that the writing is not working, or that what you are writing is rubbish – and this may well be true – but nobody got better by not doing it, and very few people are born able to do things. It’s important to persevere and write a first draft. Once you have that, then you can go back and start improving it.”
Read Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver, and you will find a rhythm, a formula to how the greats went about cutting, clipping their work. I’ve thought of the process like a sniper on a roof top, cold and calculated, taking out any words that serve no purpose, and Stephan thinks that the editor’s scalpel is the greatest possession a writer can have.
“What do you cut? Whatever you can. If it can go, it should go – that’s my motto. I lopped off 30,000 words of my last novel. It was redundant. We should be particularly suspicious of any passages that we are proud of; the likelihood is that we are being self-indulgent. Cut them.”
The subject of ideas came up. Could the simplest idea or incident make for a good story?
“One of my favourite writers is the Israeli novelist Amos Oz. I love him as a prose stylist and the wonderfully humanity of his writing (beautifully translated by Nicholas De Lange, who, by-the-way, was born in Nottingham, my home town). I bring him up, because often very little happens in his novels. And I think that is wonderful. I would write like that if I could, but at the moment it is not the style I have particularly developed and you have to find your own way, rather than trying to copy somebody else.”
Encouragement and a little bit of praise can take a writer a long way. Though you have to be in the right place at the right time to find that somebody who can see promise in your work.
“I went to a local comprehensive school and I don’t think anyone nursed my aspirations to be writer. My elder brother was very driven. From quite an early age he was passionately engaged with art and that was very useful to see. In many ways he modelled engagement with ideas and practice that I was able to learn from. I have always admired his absolute dedication to his art, which has paid off now, with an international reputation. I always felt I compromised. I’ve always worked full-time and have not given my writing the dedication that it needs. As a working-class boy, it was great to read working class writers like Alan Sillitoe, Keith Waterhouse and Bill Naughton – they showed that being working class didn’t mean that you couldn’t engage in writing. Later in his life, I got to know Sillitoe; he was an exceptionally generous man, and it was wonderful to have somebody I had read as a young man read my own writing and be generous in his praise.”
Flicking through the novels on the Noir Press book stall, I was curious to know why it is that the number of Lithuanian novels currently available in English were so few?
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#3535DB” class=”” size=””]”There are a growing number of Lithuanian translators, and we are working to encourage more. “[/perfectpullquote]
“That’s an interesting question and the simple answer is I’m not entirely sure, though I have my theories. It was of course the motivation for setting up Noir Press. When we started the press, it was literally impossible to read a contemporary Lithuanian novelist in English. There were some dead Lithuanian writers in translation, but nothing by a living novelist. One of the complicating factors is that normally in the translation world we translate from our foreign language into our native tongue. However, there are vanishingly small numbers of English speaking people who read Lithuanian, which makes the process of translation hard. There are a growing number of Lithuanian translators, and we are working to encourage more. Hopefully it will spark more and more interest in Lithuanian writing. We have had the privilege of bringing out some truly wonderful writers over the last year: Laura Cerniauskaite who won the European Union Prize for Literature with her beautiful, poetic tale of a woman whose family implodes; Rasa Askinyte, who has won Book of the Year in Lithuania, Grigory Kanovich, who has won every award going and is truly an international legend. Our latest is by another Book of the Year award winner, Renata Serelyte; a cerebral, funny, dark take on the crime novel, The Music Teacher.”
In a writing class recently, the subject of giving answers in fiction came up. Should an author give answers to every question his fiction poses? Just before leaving the States of Independence event, I asked Stephan that question.
“About ten years ago I was invited to a panel discussion with some fellow writers and artists convened by Nottingham City Council. It was at a time when Nottingham had begun to garner some bad press; the Daily Telegraph and others dubbed the city ‘Shottingham’, because of the problems of gun crime (something I actually knew quite a bit about, working as I did in an inner-city school where gang crime was a real problem. There were drive by shootings outside the school on more than one occasion). However, I had been invited as a writer, not as a teacher. Which was ridiculous. It’s not a writer’s job to act as travel agent to a city. It’s not our job to present particular images of people or places. In many ways (though as a citizen I would not wish it) the crime made Nottingham a more interesting city to write in. Having said that, novelists can change the world by shining a light on things that people might not want to look at. Upton Sinclair is a particularly good example. His novel The Jungle, about Lithuanian migrants working in the meat factories of Chicago in 1906 shocked a nation and resulted in a change of the law regarding food health (though that was not entirely his intention). And books are a place, I think, where we still go to find answers to the bigger questions in life, to understand what it is to be a human and how we might live better. As a writer, if we are honest in our explorations of character, if we are authentic, then readers can come away in some way enriched by the experience. If those moments are rare, they are none-the-less to be cherished.”