Saulius Šaltenis: “Literature was always like playing to me.”
What were the most important events and people in your career as a writer?
Birth, life, and play. I’ve played all my life. I’m a playful person and literature has always been play to me. I started writing in childhood; I’d write all sorts of love letters. To others it can be torture, but to me writing doesn’t cause any complications, I experience the joy of creation. I even used to feel uncomfortable meeting with friends Sigita Geda, Bitė Vilimaitė, Grigorijus Kanovičius, Vytautas Rimkevičius or Romaldas Granuaskas, as we’d always talk about literature. And it seemed a bit shameful, being a writer; it seems such inconsequential work—knowing how to craft something seems much more serious.
Undoubtedly I know how to write better than anything else, and incidentally, no one taught me that. Sigita Geda would even laugh about it: “Saulius would prefer riding the trolleybus and ‘reading’ people.” I do find people interesting. I rarely come across a book that would thrill me. Although from time to time I have found interesting authors, for example, I just now discovered the poet Rimvydas Stankevičius. Eimuntas Nekrošius was a big discovery to me, too.
Have you found anyone else new lately?
Lately I’ve gotten interested in the writers Giedrė Kazlauskaitė and Giedra Radvilavičiūtė. There’s a lot of intelligent, interesting women writers in Lithuania. Overall, I’m not a fan of the essay; everyone’s learned to write them now, to examine their belly buttons and be engulfed in their trivial affairs, but these women’s work is marked by irony, accuracy, and honesty. I’m intrigued by that decency, which male writers really do so often lack.
You are a screenwriter and a playwright. Which shows or films left the deepest impression?
I don’t watch movies much these days, but probably my favorites are those by Federico Fellini and Charlie Chaplin, which even now can teach us as much about the theatre as about film. How do you make a classic from a bit of straw? Chaplin’s films don’t seem to speak of great ideas, but you can find everything in them.
Personally, in cinema I found working with the director Arūnas Žebriūnas most interesting. He is a terribly cerebral director, and to him I was the best and the only Lithuanian dramatist. Besides, he wasn’t at all arrogant; he would always listen to any intelligent suggestion—while in the meantime, there's others who could get really insulted.
You haven’t written for the theater for some time. Why?
I’ve always written for the theater, even if for amateur ones. I rewrote “Jasonas” for the Šiauliai drama theater. I’m always happy to help out students and children. I’d rather do that than write for the so-called grandees.
The Juozas Miltinis drama theater commisioned a play from you. Do you have any idea yet of what it will be about?
Yes, it’s called “Never Cut Your Hair in Panevėžys.” I drove over to Panevėžys and an idea, a plot presented itself. The play will be about Panevėžys and the beginnings of independence. It’s an extremely vivid turning point in time, when everything was being made anew and there was a lot of hope, possibility, and disappointment; it’s a fascinating time that I remember very well. Besides, I just finished writing a historical novel about Brunonas Bonifacas, a period thick with decapitations, so I decided to remove myself to more contemporary times. I took the offer from Linas Marijus Zaikauskas as a challenge: Is it possible to write anything at all about Panevėžys?
How has the artist’s situation in society changed, if it has changed?
Of course it’s changed. I always wrote, and I was always true to myself. It was possible to survive the Soviet period; I was free, and I played. Of course, many writers waited for independence, but many were astonished by it. My bookshelves are full of books I can’t throw out because they’re autographed, but the books are completely unreadable. That’s a terrible thing—when you’re still alive, but your books have died. At the same time it’s beautiful, the way time sifts
literature. I think being true, being honest, creating life, is the only way to last. Now the main challenge to literature is the internet and film. Writers should react to that; literature itself must be more picturesque, more like the cinema.
Speaking of changes in literature, what do you think of Bob Dylan’s award this year for the Nobel Prize in literature?
It’s like a rock thrown into stagnant water. Of course, only a person who has an excellent feel for the nuances of the English language can understand Dylan’s work. Dylan represents the Anglo-Saxon world, and of course, his Nobel Prize is, in a certain sense, the result of cultural imperialism.
You've also had a taste of politics. How do you evaluate your work as a politician now?
I was never a politician. It was a revolution; I always knew it would happen. Because I felt such a huge amount of scorn for the Soviet system, I always believed independence would come, and so I went into it full steam ahead. I was a warrior; I went everywhere, did everything. However, the revolution was over with quickly, and left a lot of garbage behind; a revolution is like a fermenting garbage heap. I was naive for a long time, I was an enthusiast out of inertia. I remember one evening we were meeting late in the Seimas, everyone was tired; I said something and one lady jumped up and said, “I’m sick of that Šaltenis’s idealism.” Then I understood that my revolution was over. I’m a man of the shade, the shadow. I need peace. My politics was The Rebirth. And when the dream came to life, I didn’t know what to do next. All that’s left is to write.
This interview first appeared in Lithuanian on bernardinai.lt in March of 2016.
Photo courtesy Evgenia Levin / Bernardinai.lt
Atostogos (Vacations): short stories. Vilnius: Vaga, 1966. 75 pp.
Riešutų duona (Nut bread); Henrikas Montė: stories / illustrations by Vladislovas Žilius. Vilnius: Vaga, 1972. 176 pp.
Duokiškis: a story. Vilnius: Vaga, 1977. 65 pp.
Škac, mirtie, visados škac! (Scram death, always scram!); Jasonas: plays. Vilnius: Vaga, 1978. 141 pp.
Atminimo cukrus (The sugar of memory): stories and tales. Vilnius: Vaga, 1983. 187 pp.
Apysakos (Stories): stories / illustrations by Elvyra Kriaučiūnaitė. Vilnius: Vaga, 1986. 251 pp.
Lituanica; Duokiškio baladės (The ballads of Duokiškis) : plays / illustrations by Henrikas Ratkevičius. Vilnius: Vaga, 1989. 162 pp.
Kalės vaikai (Sons of a bitch): novel. Vilnius: Vaga, 1990. 194 pp.
Pokalbiai prieš aušrą (Conversations before dawn): articles. Vilnius: Lietuvos aidas, 1995. 184 pp.
Riešutų duona (Nut bread): stories and tales / ed. Kęstutis Urba. Kaunas: Šviesa, 2003. 174 pp.
Kalės vaikai (Sons of a bitch) / collection. Vilnius: Žaltvykslė, 2006. 415 pp.
Pjesės (Plays) / edited by Agnė Iešmantaitė. Vilnius: Žaltvykslė, 2006. 111 pp.
Kalės vaikai (Sons of a bitch): novel / edited by Agnė Iešmantaitė. Vilnius: Žaltvykslė, 2006. 115 pp.
Proza: novelės ir apysakos (Prose: short stories and tales) / edited by Agnė Iešmantaitė. Vilnius: Žaltvykslė, 2006. 129 pp.
Lietuvių grotesko ir ironijos dramos: Juozas Grušas, Kazys Saja, Saulius Šaltenis (Lithuanian plays of grotesque and irony: Juozas Grušas, Kazys Saja, Saulius Šaltenis): a reader/ ed. Agnė Iešmantaitė. Vilnius: Žaltvykslė, 2007. 223 pp.
Demonų amžius (The age of demons): prose and dramaturgy. Vilnius: Tyto alba, 2014. 295 pp.
Žydų karalaitės dienoraštis (The diary of a Jewish girl): novel. Vilnius: Tyto alba, 2015. 150 pp.
Diary of a Jewish Girl: novel / translated by Marija Marcinkute. Nottingham, UK: Noir Press, 2020. 176 pp.
Geležiniai gyvatės kiaušiniai (The iron eggs of the serpent): novel, Vilnius: Tyto alba, 2020. 197 pp.
Bees on the Snow (Kalės vaikai): novel / translated by Elizabeth Novickas. Flossmoor, IL: Pica Pica Press, 2021. 158 pp.