Raised in Indiana, Paul Jaskunas was educated at Oberlin College and Cornell University. He has worked for The American Lawyer, a monthly trade magazine in New York, and published articles in The Chicago Tribune, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and other newspapers. In addition to reporting, he has lectured for Cornell's English Department and helped edit the literary journal EPOCH. For his first novel, Hidden, he was awarded a grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts in 1999. He is also the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to Vilnius, Lithuania, where he is at work on his second novel, Providential Life.
Author biography courtesy of Simon & Schuster., Inc.
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A few interesting outtakes from our interview with Jaskunas:
"My wife's name (Solveiga) means ‘way of the sun' in Norwegian."
"On my wall above my desk is a photograph of the inside of a Lithuanian forest where we gathered mushrooms one October. There is another picture of sunlight on Baltic Sea waves. I lived in Lithuania for a year and half, writing and reporting and traveling."
"I'd love to be a photographer. I like the way photographers blend in, make themselves invisible while cornering the world in their lenses, and changing it, too. I began taking pictures as a kind of hobby a few years ago, and became sort of obsessed with it."
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In the fall of 2004, Paul Jaskunas took time out to answer some of our questions about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
As surprising as it is for me to realize now, the most honest answer must be the Bible -- the actual writing, as well as the ways the Bible is communicated to children (Catholic children growing up in the Midwest, in particular). That vast hodgepodge of narrative, poetry, myth, parable, its systems of meaning, the symbols and ideas contained within it, have had a tremendous impact on my way of imagining. At times, I feel this is a kind of gift (like a language learned in the first years of one's life). At times, it can be a burden.
The book that most influenced my work on Hidden, however, might be The Woman Who Walked into Doors, by Roddy Doyle. The novel, written by a man in the first person voice of a woman (who is a victim of domestic violence) gave me courage.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky -- I love these characters, the rushing prose, the power of the entire vision. It's an overwhelming book, one to get lost in. And at the same time, as large as it is, it is very particular and local -- rooted firmly in a time and place.
The stories of Katherine Anne Porter -- Porter captures more in her short stories than most novels do. I like especially how she writes about guilt in stories like "Noon Wine" and "Theft." She explores the psychology of her characters by revealing their outward actions.
Oscar & Lucinda by Peter Carey -- A thrilling, inventive love story. Peter Carey seems to me like a writer who is exhilarated by letting his characters be themselves and more than themselves. Oscar and Lucinda are vivid and clearly loved by their author.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner -- I remember reading this one night on a porch in Birmingham, Alabama, transfixed. It's a genuine comedy filled with breathtaking stylistic leaps that feel natural, that evoke intimate awareness of the characters.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- A friend just gave me an audio book recording (Jeremy Irons reading) of this masterpiece, and I had another excuse to go for the dazzling ride. Is there a better book about love and guilt and loss? There are moments that are overwhelmingly sad and invigorating.
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien -- This is the best book about war that I know. The stories are stunning works of art, but the entire volume is larger than its parts.
Middlemarch by George Eliot -- Dorothea Brooke is a magnificent creation, as are so many of the characters in this book. I love and admire how Eliot creates a vast world of human experience within this small town and its various trials.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf -- This book makes me want to write. I can't read it without speaking its sentences out loud to the empty room.
The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro -- Munro writes about love in a way that seems familiar yet surprising and unsettling.
Light Years by James Salter -- A book that sings. James Salter is another writer who makes me want to write, a quality I seek out in books.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?The Piano -- I love the gothic feel of this movie, and the music.
Rear Window -- Grace Kelly -- need one say more?
Dr. Strangeglove -- I grew up dreading nuclear war, and this movie taught me to laugh at it.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Some music I've been listening to recently: Josh Ritter, Tom Waits, Odetta, and Ray Charles. I don't usually listen while writing.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Philip Roth's new novel, The Plot Against America. I've heard great things.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like to give novels, though I try not to do this too often. Some people would rather read nonfiction, I think. Receiving books can be hit and miss. I usually have so many things I'm looking forward to already. That said, Oscar & Lucinda was a birthday gift (a signed copy, no less!).
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
When I was writing Hidden, I frequently had a map of Indiana at hand. Not sure why. It somehow excited me in a good way.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
After college, I started working full time in journalism, which, as many people have said, can be a helpful training for aspiring fiction writers. I wasn't spending much time on fiction during those years and eventually ended up in graduate school, where there was time. It took about a year and a half to write the book, and a few more, while I was teaching and traveling and working on other projects, to revise it. No horror stories, though the agent search wasn't easy. Once the right person find the book, we were off and running. It seemed harder to find representation than an editor, actually.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
I'd say Karl Parker, a poet whose home I am visiting now. He's a very generous writer and person.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
1) Engage with the world in ways that have nothing to do with ‘literary' ambition.
2) Write often.
3) Devour books.
4) Learn to ignore advice.
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