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Daina Opolskaitė

I was born in the summer of 1979 in Vilkaviškis district. My childhood world was created by very strong people, who, like some gods, knew answers to all the questions. I am indebted to them probably for that. Having come of age, I began making my way in life and became an observer – I observed and marvelled at my observations. I wanted to write books. In 2002, I graduated with a degree in Lithuanian studies and began working in education. In this way, I got the most extraordinary stories for free – from detective stories to psychological thriller. I could start writing. In 2003, my daughter arrived and since then a myriad of stories found me. I had to write.

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Graphic Novels

Photo by Ričardas Šileika

Interview by Jurga Tumasonytė

 

When I read Daina Opolskaitė’s texts, I catch myself thinking of luxurious, diligently knitted lace, through which she observes simple people and their seemingly simple stories. Even though the author’s language is perfectly polished, this literariness does not overshadow the strong psychological charge in her work, involving the readers in the intimate and often painful lives of her characters. Opolskaitė’s literary debut goes back to 2000 and a collection of short stories entitled Drožlės (“Scobs,” published by the Lithuanian Writers’ Union Publishing House, 2000); she later moved onto the stage of youth literature, and recently published another short story collection, but now for adults, Dienų piramidės (“Pyramids of the Days,” published by Tyto alba, 2019). The writer also works as a teacher, lives in Vilkaviškis town, and doesn’t have any personal blogs nor posts about her personal life on social media. She’s not one of those authors who rush to write one book after another. Nevertheless, Daina Opolskaitė steps onto the literary field with confidence, well aware of her work’s value.

 

You are one of the few short prose writers in Lithuania: do you feel that you’re following the tradition, or rather moving against the grain? What sort of goals in general do you set for the literature you write?

If it’s really the way you’re saying it, I guess I feel like I’m playing both roles today. Indeed. The situation seems paradoxical, yet I think it’s actually very typical for today: if you seek to maintain a classical form, you’re inevitably part of the interesting minorities. You attract attention this way, since you are, in part, moving against the grain. I think this will only become more and more evident with time. Really interesting.

When I write any text, I first of all think about the mastery of language, or even of a single word. It’s not all the same for me – how it’s going to be written and whether one word will be chosen instead of another. I am precise; I’ll make the time for long edits, “polishing” the text. I remember from the books I read in childhood and later on how sensitively I’d react to a new, never before heard, or really vivid word or expression, or the opposite – a strange one, used in the wrong place and the wrong way, would give me goosebumps. I guess I’ve always had a very sensitive ear. Where it all comes from – I don’t know. But when I’m writing, it all makes me think of my readers, too – how they’re going to be affected by some word or a certain sentence, and how I want them to be affected.

 

Which one do you prefer – George Saunders, experimenting with literary forms, or, for instance, Alice Munro, who’s not so fancy style-wise?

I like experiments, and I also like a simple style. I’m always for everything that works from the literary perspective. I don’t speculate and it’s not my business why a writer speaks of a particular thing in one way or another. The most important thing is for it to work. When I start reading a new book, I am completely open to it and ready to surrender to the author’s mastery. I think this is the main point. For me, the most important thing is for the text to drag me in, earn my attention, attract and involve me, just like good literature is supposed to. If a writer manages to do that, I consider it to be a good book.

 

Which of the world literature authors are important to you? And what does your reading look like – do you make annual reading lists, or read multiple books at a time, or perhaps just stay with the one?

My reading is partly chaotic, but maybe it’s for the best. I like freedom in my reading process, I want to feel free. So I definitely don’t have any lists – I don’t make those; such a thing would only make me feel depressed and stressed out about the fact that here I am, not managing to read everything I’d like to. Ideally, one should only read one book at a time – an enchanting one, one pulling you in completely. I did discover such books and experienced such a pleasure of reading. Yet this doesn’t happen often. Much more frequently, I read several books at a time, basing my choice on my moods and needs. There are books that I tell myself I must read – just to have my own opinion and experience. World literature has given me Michael Cunningham, Virginia Woolf, Torgny Lindgren, Ray Bradbury, Frank McCourt, and many others.

 

What is the recipe for a good book according to Daina Opolskaitė?

I don’t know. Maybe a strong semantic charge and an excellently playing instrument of a sentence.

 

I imagine that if I worked in a school, I wouldn’t be able to write the way I wanted to anymore, afraid of the students’ or their parents’ reactions. Aren’t you afraid, as a teacher? Considering that people – as we have seen from the recent events with Marius Ivaškevičius’s novel Žali (“The Green Ones”) – can lynch a writer right away for the depiction of a world that doesn’t correspond to their expectations.

I find this question strange, as well as the fear associated with it, as I can hardly imagine how an activity, job, or profession can restrain a writer. Then I think that if I were a pastry baker, I would also have to be fearful when writing about food. Even if I work in a school, I can write what I want and feel what I want about it. It’s my personal opinion, and I have a right to it. We just have to remember what a literary character of ours has said: “As a poet, I am not a priest, and as priest, I am not a poet.”[1]

A writer is an extremely free phenomenon, and this inner freedom, I believe, is their biggest gift, value, and privilege. A writer doesn’t have to justify themselves in any way. For which I congratulate them.

 

A question for you as an acclaimed and awarded author of youth literature: what kind of difficulties did you face writing for this audience? The genre seems like a slippery one – teenagers don’t want to read children’s books anymore, and could just as move on to adult literature…

In the recent years, I had to deal with much bigger difficulties not while writing for teenagers, but confronting youth literature specialists and critics. I’m still very surprised and confused by the opinion that books written for the youth are meant to instill certain values, avoid cruel and painful subjects, be sexually neutral, contain only positive content and a necessary intellectual touch. I encountered a multitude of stereotypes and canons stating that only books written according to certain rules are good for our teenagers, and if they don’t correspond to those rules, they’re worth little consideration. And neither textual power, nor the quality of language are relevant. And what’s even more disappointing is that this is what the experts on this type of literature really think. Sad and upsetting. We still want to have a very pedagogical kind of literature, unaware that there’s no place for it here. I think this why Lithuanian teenagers choose to read foreign authors, dismissively pushing away the Lithuanian ones, as this is where they find freedom of thought and identity. Stereotypical and cuddly literature doesn’t interest them. And as long as we don’t realize that, there’s no point in complaining that we don’t have any youth literature in Lithuania.

Lithuanian publishers, taking into account the readers’ expectations, are afraid of short prose and only want writers to write novels. Why, do you think, in the times when readers affected by the internet find it more and more difficult to focus on a long text, novels are still what sells best?

A novel remains something that is approachable for the contemporary reader. More approachable than other literary forms and genres. A novel promises a gripping and impactful story with a clear beginning and ending; at least this is what I’m guessing the reader hopes for and what their expectations are. Other literary forms, unfortunately, are not that easy to grasp. They require concentration and for one to delve deeper into the text if one wants to really understand it. A novel, in the meantime, gives hope that more or less everything will be clear as it is.

 

Are you aware of any boundaries that you wouldn’t be able to overstep if you included real life details or prototypes of people you know into your texts?

I do. Very much, in fact. Sometimes it’s really hard to move away from it; some things that I see or experience affect me really strongly. But professionality, in my opinion, lies exactly in how much and in what way a writer is capable of using the real life to create a new, artistic reality. Otherwise, any piece of work risks to become the result of “singing what you see.”

 

I’ve noticed that you like to give very refined, rare names for your characters. Why?

I certainly don’t look for them or choose them specifically. I can’t imagine going through a dictionary or some index of proper names struggling to find the right name for one character or another. Names come spontaneously, together with the characters, and they just suit them. Characters bring their names for themselves – only those particular ones and not any others. And then they introduce themselves to me: here I am. I get surprised: where do you come from? But they don’t answer such questions.

When do you find the time for writing, and what does your creative process look like?

I can’t remember exactly when and which writer once said: “My book has already been created, now all I have to do is write it.” I really like this idea. Indeed, the writing process itself is not as long and complicated as the creative one. I carry my creation with me in my thoughts for a long time and walk around with it; sometimes it can last for months, even years, and sometimes – only several weeks. I hear and imagine separate sentences, think over the structure, even see what the finished book could look like, its pages, chapters, etc. So my text grows like an infant – rocked and carried around. It’s a really pleasant and delicate sensation. When I sit down to write, everything is already done and clear to me. All that’s left is the technical bit.

 

Even though you graduated from university in the capital, you’ve been living in a small village for some time now. Does being part of a smaller community, compared to that of a big city, affect your work?

It’s hard to say. I have thought about it. Physically – yes, it limits me and takes away many opportunities; it sometimes makes me sad that I can’t go where I’d like to and meet the people whom I’d wish to see. I’m missing out on an active cultural life, and I’m a city person, essentially. But I don’t know whether this narrower environment affects my work. I don’t think so. Creative work always relies on one object – a person. And people interest me wherever and however they are.

 

How do the people around you react to the fact that you’re a writer?

They do react in some way, but it’s a shame I don’t really have enough time to go deeper into it. And my family doesn’t react at all – something I am really grateful for.

 

 

1. Translator’s note: The author is quoting the main character of a very influential Lithuanian novel written in 1933 – Vincas Mykolaitis Putinas’s Altorių šešėly (“In the Shadow of Altars”).

 

 

Interviewed by Alexandra Bondarev

 

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