Antanas Sileika Answers the HN Questionnaire

Antanas Sileika is the author of three novels and a collection of linked short stories. He is also the Artistic Director of the Humber School for Writers in Toronto. He will be reading from his latest novel, Underground, at the Vancouver International Writers Festival, on Saturday October 22, 2011 at 8:00pm. He will also be reading, as part of the Lorenzo Reading Series, on October 24 at UNB Saint John, on October 25 at UNB Fredericton, and on October 26 at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. To complete his busy fall schedule, he will appear on November 5 at Bookfest Windsor.

Blog: On website.
Twitter handle: @sileika

What’s going on in your writing life right now?

It’s hard to concentrate on my next novel with Underground just published this year, but I am nudging forward painfully slowly on a new novel while writing short essays for my own amusement.

What’s your writing routine?

A lot like my exercise routine. I put it off and put it off until I feel so lousy I need to start it again, and then I become very serious for some months before slacking off again.

What do you usually eat for breakfast?

Ever since I read that jam sales are falling because people find putting jam on toast too hard, I have begun to eat toast and jam. But I am not helping jam sales – I use my own jam. I like oatmeal occasionally, and love cream of wheat and adore soft-boiled eggs (which are supposed to be dangerously unhealthy now – this is how a writer lives dangerously). I would eat poached eggs often if I could get them without water dribbling onto the toast. [Editor’s note: blot poached eggs on and with paper towels after cooking and before eating them!]

A recent weekend breakfast for Antanas and family

What good books have you read recently?

Aleksander Hemon’s Lazarus Project, Esi Egudyan’s Half-Blood Blues, and Tadas Ivanauskas’s A Apsisprendiu, the latter obscure even in Lithuanian, but fantastically rich and detailed in its depiction of manor life in Eastern Europe before WW1.

What did you eat for dinner last night?

Beet borscht, butternut squash, and roast chicken

Writing rules you live by:

Not rules so much as questions: How can I say that more succinctly? How little can I interfere in the depiction of a scene in order to lead the reader to make his own interpretation? How can I punish real people I know by using their names or characters for people who end badly in my writing? [Ed: I do this too!] How can I make a reader fall into the work?

Foodstuffs you’re fiending these days:

I begin to nest in the fall. I stew rough farm apples and preserve some of them in jars to cook with onions and pork tenderloin in the winter – I make homemade butter and farm cheese, Damson Plum liqueur and Mountain Ash liqueur – boil up rillettes to spread on bread and would do more except my wife, Snaige, is taking over cooking now.

Describe a scene or piece you’ve written that features food:

In my last novel an editor accused me of putting more care into the description of making a pot of borscht than into the descriptions of sex.

Favorite restaurants:

I’m old school on this issue – Le Select on Wellington for French comfort food and ease of access; Bairrada at 1000 College Street in the summer where on the back patio I have eaten suckling pig, salt cod, and Portuguese chickens to be followed by a walk down the street to the Sicilian Ice Cream store; any of the many, many decent Vietnamese Pho restaurants; the fish sandwich restaurant (two tables!) in Little Italy; Caplansky’s on College for old-fashioned Jewish deli food and many, many more: Italian sandwich, Jamaican jerk, and Indian curry holes in the wall.

Three formative books from your youth:

Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (a play I read as a novel over 100 times)
Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms
Every single Joseph Conrad in print, but most repeatedly Nostromo

Three formative books from your adulthood:

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas
Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire
Barry Unsworth’s The Songs of Kings

Dishes/recipes in regular rotation in your cooking repertoire:

(with guests) Cassoulet, sour cherry duck, pepper steak, lamb shanks, Cuisinart chocolate cake, creme caramel, apple pie

(at home) roast chicken, chicken livers, leek and potato soup, Italian sausages, beef and barley soup, borscht, braised pork chops, lentil soup, cheese omelettes

Random bits of writing advice:

Don’t get out of the chair when you are stuck. Stay there.
If it looks horrible, look at it again another day.
Don’t give up at 25 pages. That’s the first hard part in the long process. Push on to 100 before you give up.

What do you do when not writing, eating or reading?

Cook, do rough construction, fish, walk.

What’s your idea of comfort food?

Very good cheese with bread or crackers and port; chicken stew; beef stew; sausage pasta; risotto; roast beef and Yorkshire pudding; mushrooms as a main course; custard, rice pudding.

And comfort reading?

Most Central or East European history books (Tony Judt, Norman Davies, Timothy Snyder etc) or novels with strong characters and plots – Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers; Joyce Carey’s The Horse’s Mouth; Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake etc.

Also, the New Yorker, New York Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, Times Literary Supplement, Harper’s, Toronto Life, Cottage Life, Quill and Quire, Publishers’ Weekly, and even a Lithuanian journal, Kulturos Barai.


Rethinking the Holiday Turkey Meal

The food: A reconstructed turkey dinner

The story:

The traditional turkey dinner, chez nous

See that overstuffed plate above? That’s what my family traditionally eats for Thanksgiving dinner – a panoply of starches, including rice, mashed potatoes, bread stuffing and sweet potatoes, overlaid with butter and gravy, and accessorized with cranberry sauce – and this year, a spoonful of green bean casserole – on the side.

That meal has long been my favorite, but when I ate it this year for Canadian Thanksgiving, something seemed to be missing. The texture mixture was good – the crunchy nuts and toasted bread in the stuffing contrasted nicely with the soft potatoes and rice, and with the dry (I like it that way) turkey breast meat. But no matter how much salt and gravy I poured over my plate, the food tasted bland – the robust flavours I associate with a turkey dinner weren’t coming through.

A few weeks before that dinner, I had bought a turkey and cranberry pie from Au Coin Gourmand, an artisanal shop in the Atwater Market in Montreal, and quite enjoyed it.

But had I liked it because the turkey meat was integrated with a creamy sauce, because of the herb-flecked crust, or because I’d eaten it with peach chutney on the side? Or for all three of those reasons?

Left with a large jar of rather ordinary turkey gravy (made by a gourmet food shop) post-Thanksgiving, I decided to reconstruct a turkey dinner. I bought a fresh turkey breast on sale from the supermarket (don’t judge), roasted it, added the drippings to the prepared gravy to juice it up, and thinned the sauce further with some chicken stock. It already tasted better that way, but the kick and depth it needed came from a spicy, fruity jelly I’d almost forgotten existed within reach: Nuala’s Fiery Irish Gold. I drove over to the Wychwood Farmer’s Market on Saturday to pick up a small jar and stirred half of it into the simmering gravy.

I also threw together a small batch of bread stuffing using a few whole wheat ciabatta rolls from Ace Bakery – cubed and toasted, some chopped dried apples, fresh sage and thyme leaves, pecans, and sauteed onion and celery, all baked for 20 minutes with a little more chicken stock.

The baked stuffing, turned out onto a plate, made the perfect bed for the cooked turkey mixed with the now delightfully piquant gravy. Here was the robust and satisfying flavour and combination I’d been seeking, and without a need for three extra starches or a handful of salt.

Anthony De Sa Answers the Hungry Novelist Questionnaire

Anthony De Sa is the author of the Giller-prize-nominated short story collection Barnacle Love and is also a high school English teacher in Toronto.

Blog: on website
On Twitter? Yes. My username is antiole

What’s going on in your writing life right now?
I’m working on the final edits (fingers crossed stressing final) of my new novel, Carnival of Desire.

What’s your writing routine?
I work full time, and I’m married with three young children. My routine is simply, I write when I can.

What do you usually eat for breakfast?
I don’t eat breakfast. I never have. Does a large cup of coffee count?

What good books have you read recently?
Over the summer I read a wonderful book, Life After Genius, by M. Ann Jacoby. I’m just about finished with Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table. But I must say I’m very excited about reading Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. I’m fascinated with magic.

What did you eat for dinner last night?
My wife and I took the boys out to dinner at Korea House, on Dundas St West. I had seafood Bibimbap. The place wasn’t much to look at but the food was very good.

Writing rules you live by:
1. Write it down when it comes to mind.
2. Read, read, and read some more.
3. Borrow the truth, it’ll never let you down.

Foodstuffs you’re fiending these days:
A friend of ours is getting involved with raw food at Make it Raw. I’ve had raw spring rolls that were incredible. I’m also obsessed with Falafel World’s Janina sandwiches: lentils, carmelized onions, roasted eggplant, humus, tabouli and hot sauce, wrapped in a pita.

A scene or piece you’ve written that features food:
Food is an important part of my writing because I write about the Portuguese community. My first book, Barnacle Love, opened the door to what it was like to be in a Portuguese home. I don’t shy away from my cultural tradition of butchering pigs in our garages and in our laneways, and I write about the smells associated with food—the way the smell of sardines on the grill wafted through our chain link fences, or how the smell of pot roasts mixed with cabbage and sweet potatoes stuck to our clothes and got absorbed into our carpets and walls and stayed there for days. It’s part of what we remember as family.

Favorite restaurants:
Terroni – 720 Queen Street West, Toronto
Bairrada Churrasqueira – 1000 College St. West (Food is good but the atmosphere during the summer months is unbeatable)
Husk Restaurant – 76 Queen St. Charleston, SC

The patio at Bairrada

Three formative books from your youth:
The Magic Bed-Knob by Mary Norton
The Hardy Boys (only because I wanted a brother so desperately) various ghostwriters published under the collective pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon.
Fairy Tales and Stories by Hans Christian Anderson
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler

Three formative books from your adulthood:
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Lives of the Saints by Nino Ricci

Dishes/recipes in regular rotation in your cooking repertoire:
Pasta with fresh tomato sauce (just finished canning four bushels)
Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (Cod and potato casserole)
Caldo verde (potato and Collard green soup)

Random bits of writing advice:
Listen to those you trust.
Stay away from as many writing events as possible. [I particularly like this bit of advice – HN]
The cliché . . . write what you know.

What do you do when not writing, eating or reading?
Are you kidding me, Kim? There isn’t enough time in the day to walk the dog, go to work, come home and fix up something to eat, get the kids ready for soccer practice after school or help (yell at) them do their homework, get them ready for bed, do a bit of editing and then plop myself into bed before I’ve got to do the whole thing all over again. (I might sneak in a bit of T.V: Mad Men, Modern Family, Parks and Recreation)

What’s your idea of comfort food and comfort reading?
Thick soups or stews with lots of fresh crispy bread and butter to sop up the juices. Roast chicken and roast potatoes.
I like books that take me away to a place that is foreign and exotic and yet the human drama is familiar. Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, comes to mind.