Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why Antanas Sileika isn't worried about finding his next story

The author of The Barefoot Bingo Caller answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Antanas Sileika is the author of The Barefoot Bingo Caller, a memoir. (Liudas Masys)

Antanas Sileika regularly appears as a columnist on The Next Chapter, he's the director of the Humber School for Writers and he's been nominated for literary awards such as the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour and the City of Toronto Book Award. His latest project is the memoir The Barefoot Bingo Caller, a collection of essays in which he shares some of his funniest and fondest memories.

Below, Antanas Sileika answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Barbara Gowdy asks, "How old were you when you knew you would try to become a professional writer?"

My formative moment came when I saw a comic book panel, which depicted a mustached writer leaning on the rail of an ocean liner while sipping a cocktail, and I said, "That is the life I want to lead." I have a mustache (and beard), I have had cocktails, but I am still trying to find my way onto the rail of an ocean liner. I knew I would be either a writer or a professor from the time I was a little kid.

2. Trevor Cole asks, "How do you decide what to write about next?"

I have infinite material. As my parents' generation began to die off, their Lithuanian language books ended up in church bazaars. My late mother brought me a memoir of a sculptor, Petras Rimša, who went to Paris in the era of Jacques Lipchitz at the turn of the 20th century. The book fascinated me and I began to read more like it, mostly memoirs set in Eastern Europe, the place that historian Timothy Snyder called the Bloodlands. Fate was so grotesque in that place and many, many memoirs are still lying around but they are written in Lithuanian, a language I have access to.

I began to draw inspiration from these books and haven't stopped yet — nobody out in the west really knows about the place aside from its terrible history in the Holocaust. Therefore, I have a treasure-trove of inspiration. Also, once I began to write about the place, people started contacting me with incredible stories, such as the uncle who was deported to Siberia with a bicycle but not winter clothes; the children's writer who was permitted to publish his verses only after murdering someone; the kids who stopped a Nazi supply train by greasing the rails with a side of bacon. My life won't be long enough to get through all of this material.

3. Emma Richler asks, "As a writer, you never really stop working, though you may not be holding a pen all day, or typing. What can you do to relax your mind?"

My writing mind never really relaxes unless I am doing something physical such as making a pie or building a shed. A live concert will take me out of myself but I hardly ever find the time to go. The next novel is always with me, often clamouring in the back of my mind for a little more attention.

4. Riel Nason asks, "Do you keep an idea notebook? If so, what kind of things do you jot down in it?"

I don't walk around with a notebook but I keep a running commentary and notes in a spiral notebook on my desk. It is the only way I can remember the ideas I have had and prevent myself from doing as Wayson Choy did in one of his collections, namely killing the grandmother three times.

5. Jo Walton asks, "What time of year is best for your creative productivity — summer or winter?"

Winter because it is too cold to do anything outside. Nothing is worse for my productivity than lilacs in bloom.

6. Robert Currie asks, "What book by someone else do you wish you had written, and why?"

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin. It compresses the history of the Italian 20th century into one life and is representative of the unlikely lives that so many Europeans lived in that time.

7. William Deverell asks, "Claims of suffering writer's block are just excuses for laziness. Agree or disagree?"

Oh yes, agree. But there is something about writing that makes one delay the work as much as possible. I can sit in front of computer for four hours and actually only type during the last 30 minutes. It's laziness not to sit in the chair in the first place, though.

8. Louise Penny asks, "Do you use real people as inspirations for your characters?"

Many of my characters are inspired by real people because I use historical sources. However, the entirely fictional ones that pop up, usually secondary characters, seem to develop a lively presence of their own.

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