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Wendell Mayo

Wendell Mayo is author of Centaur of the North, winner of the Aztlán Prize; B. Horror and Other Stories; and a novel-in-stories, In Lithuanian Wood. More than one-hundred of his short stories have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies.

Blurbs

"In Mayo's conjuring of contemporary Lithuania, characters reckon with Soviet ghosts, estrangement...and the fabulous weirdness of globalism. This is a significant, exceptional, ravishing book, and might be Mayo's best yet."

– Anthony Doerr

"Wendell Mayo...rips out the moth-eaten 'seems' of the short story, hemming up, in these blue tissue patterns, the sad sadness of the threadbare Baltic. These fictions warp and woof! You want to hold them close to your skin-- in comfort, as dressing."

– Michael Martone

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The Cucumber King of Kėdainiai

They Lived Unofficially in Vacant Dormitory Rooms

11/26/13

In the title story of The Cucumber King of Kėdainiai (pronounced keh-die-nay), a Lithuanian mafia boss who seeks to conquer the world through black market cucumbers takes two Americans on a strange tour of his castle, a former Soviet storage house. In a similar way, author Wendell Mayo takes readers on a strange tour to the other side of the Iron Curtain, to a post-Soviet Lithuania that is simultaneously real and surreal, playfully comic and deeply tragic. Each story in this collection is quite different from the next, but they are tied together by the exploration of the new realities of Eastern Europe, and also by precise prose and characters who continue to haunt you long after you turn the page. Wendell Mayo was nice enough to chat with me about his process of writing The Cucumber King of Kėdainiai, his own experience of traveling to Lithuania, and where he’s headed next.

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SU: Your first collection, Centaur of the North, was published in 1996, and you’ve released other two books between that and this one.  Was there anything different about the process of writing The Cucumber King of Kėdainiai? What has changed about the way you approach storytelling since your writing career began?

WM: The stories I collected in Centaur of the North were actually written after most stories in my third published book, B. Horror and Other Stories. I think that’s because, when I first started writing, I gave little thought to “collecting” fiction. It was only after I had a scattering of stories in literary magazines that I began to wonder about collecting them. It was a little like those Rorschach inkblot tests. I would stare at what seemed dozens of random stories. After a long time, some of my little ink spots looked like “Centaur.” Then, after another long time, I’d cock my head at another area of ink and see “B. Horror.” That’s how I used to work. But my process did change when I wrote stories in In Lithuanian Wood, my third collection, and now in The Cucumber King of Kėdainiai. I found I could not just write stories as they mysteriously presented themselves to me. I had to make a concerted effort, year after year, to commit my experiences in Lithuania to journals, scrapbooks, anything I could get my hands on to inspire fictions.

I first traveled and worked in Lithuania in 1993; the very first appearance of stories inspired by my work there wasn’t until two years later. My journaling resulted in a concentrated effort to write. I wrote story after story set in the Baltics. How could I not? Experiences I collected are so rich, with a special blend of Baltic humor and pragmatism. I remember coming back from Klaipėda to Vilnius via an old Soviet bus with a group of American teachers. It was a long haul on a hot summer day, no a/c of course. About half way along, the entire front windshield fell out of the bus and shattered on the pavement. The driver immediately turned onto dirt roads, wending his way through the countryside. When someone asked him where we were going, he turned to his busload of Americans and said, “Window shopping, of course!”

So, unlike my earlier days, when writing stories in The Cucumber King of Kėdainiai, I found that one story suggested another, and so on. It was a little like coming to a creek dotted with stepping stones. You get a sense that there may be enough stones in the creek (or possible stories in a collection) to get you across, but you’re not sure which stone will be the next one until you actually step onto the first stone and see where it gets you. This is how Cucumber came about—“Gōda” somehow suggesting “Cucumber” suggesting “Brezhnev’s Eyebrows,” and on. I suppose, in terms of process, it makes me seem a little more like a novelist, but I’m not, really. I live to write stories.

SU: When I told people I was going to Lithuania for the Summer Literary Seminars last July, I got a lot of blank stares and responses like, “Where is that?” All the Baltic countries have fascinating cultures and rich histories, but to many they are invisible histories.  The stories in The Cucumber King of Kėdainiai are contemporary, but they are intricately tied to Baltic history. What can American readers gain from experiencing stories of post-Soviet Eastern Europe?

WM: You can’t have a Cold War without at least two sides. I grew up in the 1950s and 60s, and knew quite well the American side the Cold War. My father was a NASA scientist working at the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. His job, so much as he could tell us without getting into trouble with the government, was to design small nuclear power plants for deep space exploration. He was in the space race in those days; we were all in the race. I saw every liftoff at Cape Canaveral (now Kennedy Space Center) from Mercury through Apollo, no matter what hour, day or night. I remember duck-and-cover drills in grade school and junior high, in case of a Soviet nuclear attack. I was “volunteered” by my father to join the (Boy Scouts’) Space Explorers unit. Communists were always on the “other side” of the Iron Curtain—and when they weren’t, look out! It was an incredibly fearful, stupid game that no could win—or dared to try.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, how could I not venture into the Baltics? How could I not be interested in a writerly way, but also personal way, in the truth—in the bigger picture after fifty years of Soviet occupation and American fear-mongering? I think American readers of stories in The Cucumber King of Kėdainiai can gain a deeper, richer picture of the Cold War, a kind of correction to the monolithic way Americans may have seen what is actually an historically rich and diverse region of former-Soviet annexed countries. It’s that curiosity I count on in myself as a writer, and in readers. I want curious readers. But I don’t pretend to know what most readers want these days. I guess if I did I’d feel pretty uneasy about it. I remember Jane Smiley saying that if you go to the beach and chase waves breaking on the sand, you’ll never precisely match them coming in and out, step for step—so, like reading trends, why try? As a writer, you stand your ground and, eventually, a wave or two will come in and meet you on your terms. Given so much aggression in other parts of the world these days, and the US’s involvement, I think that the history and folly of occupation, assimilation, and displacement of people in countries like Lithuania must be of interest.

Sometimes the whole matter of globalization and assimilation hits home, even in free Lithuania. I’m proud to say that my novel-in-stories, In Lithuanian Wood, has been translated into Lithuanian language and published by Mintis Press in Vilnius, under the title Vilko Valanda (English: Hour of the Wolf). But before that, when I was seeking a translator and publisher for the book, I contacted the American Center in Vilnius, part if the US Embassy. It was an information resource center that I understood had funded publication of some poetry collections by Americans translated into Lithuanian language. I met with folks at the American Center. I was halfway through discussing how to apply for funding when I was told I was required to write an essay justifying how the translation and publication of In Lithuanian Wood in Lithuania would contribute to “a more civil society” in Lithuania. I did not write that essay.

SU: There are many memorable characters in The Cucumber King, but one of my favorites is Vyt from “Spider Story.” Could you talk about the creation of this character?

WM: It’s probably a bit cliché these days, but Vyt really is a composite of several real characters I got to know in Lithuania. The first is a young man, a student in my ESL class I taught in Birštonas; outwardly, he’s pretty much the Vyt I write, in-scene, in “Spider Story.” He had ambitions to be “top cop” in Lithuania and figured he needed English to make it happen. I liked him a lot. But for the story, he needed a duplicitous side, so I drew on a fellow, bald as a cue ball, who would trail me many days across Rotušės (Town Hall) Square in Old Town Vilnius, begging for money. He spoke in broken English, something like, “Mister American. You rich. May I have dollar?” A couple times I helped him out, until one afternoon, sitting on the steps of Town Hall, I overheard him speaking with a group of young Lithuanian men in perfect English! They were laughing and joking at how effective their feigning broken English was in extracting money from foolish Americans. Next time I saw this fellow I let him know what I had heard! The third part of Vyt’s character is his being an orphan, someone not accounted for by society, his being “off the grid.” I drew this aspect of Vyt’s character from orphans I met teaching in Alanta, Lithuania. They were in their teens. Summer months, they lived “unofficially” in vacant dormitory rooms. So moved by these young people, I also wrote an essay, “First Things First: The Orphans of Alanta.” It was published in Advocating for Children and Families in an Emerging Democracy: The Post-Soviet Experience in Lithuania.

Anyway, the result is a Vyt who fascinates me—he’s alone in the world, has a keen sense of humor, survives by his wits, is extremely smart—and suspicious of American presence in Lithuania.

SU: You teach in the BFA and MFA programs at Bowling Green State University. What is the literary landscape of BGSU like?

WM: Having both the BFA and MFA all wrapped up in one place is pretty cool. MFAs in our small, intensive program get teaching experience and, in fact, teach most of the sophomore-level creative writing classes. BFAs have the advantage of learning from talented, inspiring, up-and-coming writers as well as faculty. Thursday nights we get together for readings, a concoction of presentations by BFAs, MFAs, visiting writers—you name it. We get around 100 attending these each week; it’s become a kind of happening, I think, because we include everyone in the program. I know the notion of “community” gets thrown around a lot these days, but I think it’s true for us. Like most MFA programs, we have a community of writers at all stages of their careers learning from one another and for one another. We tend to root for one another.

SU: What’s happening right now in the literary world that you’re excited about? Authors, presses, journals?

WM: I mentioned earlier that I try not be a wave-chaser. Seriously, it’s probably a flaw in my personality. I have started reading stories by Haruki Murakami (and in that regard, I wonder if I’m already behind the times?). Still, I’m interested in his fusion of the fantastic and real, for instance, in story like “The Second Bakery Attack.” I’ve only just started reading him but imagine myself following him a long way.

SU: What are you working on now?

WM: What’s the point of exploring lingering contemporary effects of the Cold War years on people in the east without doing the same for people in the west? So I’m working on a series of stories that explore the effects of those good old duck-and-cover days on people today in the US—the nuclear legacy. I’ve a good deal to draw on from my own experiences, but I’m also having a great time looking into history. This past summer I visited the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, a place where thousands of nuclear weapons were tested in the 1950s and 60s, long before the real aftereffects were known, resulting in nuclear test ban treaties. It was megatons more fun than the casinos in Las Vegas. Hundreds of bomb craters dotted our route through the test site. We were only permitted to exit our vehicle at certain safe, low-radiation areas and had to be sure to wear long-sleeves and long pants. At one point, I stood on the lip of a bomb crater affectionately known as the “The Sedan,” the result of an underground nuclear blast in 1962. This single crater was 330 feet deep and 1,280 feet (about a quarter of a mile) across—big enough, I’m thinking, to fill with new stories.

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