Twenty years ago, I stepped through a portal into an alien world.
I had tried to find such a portal throughout my childhood. Inspired by The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe, I had climbed inside my grandparents’ wardrobe, pushing through coats and dresses, probing for a hidden passageway. I still remember the disappointment when my fingers hit against hard wood at the back of the wardrobe. There was no frosty lamp-lit world waiting for me, no goat-man or Turkish delight – instead I emerged back into the bedroom to smells of lentil soup and distant chatter, a council house with a claw of damp on the kitchen wall, the grey skies outside hanging low. Not Narnia, but Stenhousemuir.
I finally found the portal to another world in an Aberdeen University newsletter in 1994. A small advert, headed with three words – TEACH IN LITHUANIA.
I knew more about Narnia than Lithuania at that point – the latter had only been a country again for less than three years, since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. I was weeks away from finishing my degree, 21-years-old, itching for adventure and desperate to become a writer. When my dad was in his early 20s he had spent two years as a military policeman in Berlin, seeing the wall go up; the generation before had lived through WW2, the generation before that WW1. I lacked such big experiences to fuel my writing. After a couple of days of reflection, I applied for Lithuania. In my naiveté I imagined it would be the perfect place to write a novel – scribbling away in the shadows of a Soviet tower block, the strange world around me informing my masterpiece.
In late August I flew out.
My new home was Ukmerge, a town of 30k people at the crossroads of Lithuania. Apartment blocks clustered together across the town, interspersed with farm buildings, bunker-like shops, and forest that sprawled everywhere, filling in the gaps. I stumbled through the first few days, utterly lost, more dislocated than I’ve ever been in my life.
School presented yet another new planet for me – a compact building painted in fading pastel colours, each bell heralding the thunder of feet on wooden floors and a babble of incomprehensible voices. The school syllabus was still emerging from Soviet pedagogy and was perplexingly incomprehensible for a westerner; English textbooks were based around ‘approved writers’ deemed to be socialist enough – Shakespeare was a socialist, Robert Burns was a socialist, Hemingway was a socialist, along with various others who had faded into obscurity in the west. I already knew after a couple of weeks that this would be an incredibly difficult year, and not the writer’s holiday I had foolishly imagined.
As summer faded into autumn, I moved into an apartment with James, the other Scottish guy in town, both of us part of the same teaching programme. In the evenings we sat listening to the BBC World Service and lived off curry soup and beef stew. Sometimes we went to the bars in the town, much to the outrage of the local teachers; these shadowy pubs were frequented by the local mafia, yet the goons left us alone, or occasionally bought us beer and asked us questions about heavy metal bands.
Winter struck. I have never really recovered from the astonishing melancholy of snowfall in Lithuania – imagine being hundreds of miles away from everyone and everything you’ve ever known, standing on a quiet street with fairytale wooden houses, a lone streetlight casting a puddle of brilliant yellow light, the only noise the almost soundless kiss of thousands of snowflakes patting the roofs and road. Letters from home were precious in a way that’s hard to imagine in the super-connected 21st century – my family and friends would send me newspaper clippings, magazines, mix-tapes of the latest music. To this day, I still find it hard to listen to Portishead’s first album, because it sound-tracked the winter for me – Beth Gibbons’ ghostly voice lamenting a lost love, strange beats looping and twisting, a beautiful confusion pouring into my ears to match the one I was experiencing all around me.
At weekends I rode ancient buses around the country to attend parties thrown by expats; at these events we drank too much, said the sort of stupid things only young people far from home can say and get away with, and traded books. Like letters, books were incredibly precious. Years later, I read about a famous gang of Lithuanian folk heroes – the Book Smugglers – in the so-called Forty Years of Darkness in the late 19th century. At a time when the Russian imperial authorities were trying to eradicate the Lithuanian language and culture, these young patriots slipped across the country and swam rivers under cover of darkness, smuggling bundles of books to be passed between the people so that the Lithuanian tongue would not perish. I still love the story of the Book Smugglers because it reminds me of that winter, that feeling of carrying a new book across the country to be read in the shadows.
Spring came – and with it, change. The first supermarket opened in the town, along with the first pizzeria, the first burger joint; America crept into the corners. The entire country seemed to shimmer with greenness. I made some Lithuanian friends and learned a little of the language, and soon was spending the evenings sitting in gardens eating grilled shashlik, drinking the malty local beer. At the weekends the expats got together in Vilnius parks, the brewery town of Utena, and the coastal town of Klaipeda. The exam period began, and classes wound down. I had got through the year.
Finally, on a hot June day, Lithuanian friends drove me to Vilnius airport. I bid them farewell and got on the plane. In my luggage was a scruffy handwritten draft of my first novel.
It’s one of my enduring regrets as a writer that I wrote that novel and didn’t simply keep a diary of my time in Lithuania. It took me two years to realise that what I’d written out there (a thriller about a Scottish terrorist group) was actually crap. After coming to terms with this revelation, I knew what I had to do next: write a novel about Lithuania.
My Lithuania novel took seven years to write, during which time I wrote five wildly different drafts while working full-time. There were various elements of my experience I wanted to get across – the huge change the country underwent in my year there as it continued to transition from communism to capitalism; the fact that almost every town had a mass grave from the Holocaust which was barely mentioned or talked about; the energy of the young people and their hunger for a new world. I wanted to get all of that across but wasn’t sure how to package it into the narrative arc of a novel.
The early drafts were shapeless, heavy on description, a vague storyline about a group of English teachers in Lithuania and their unusual lives. The early title – Ghost Town Winter – accurately summed up its problem. Lots of moody atmosphere, attempted Booker-winning poeticism, the story confined into my experience of living through an intense winter of greyness and snow.
This time I gave extracts and drafts to friends for feedback, and they were mostly encouraging. I recently browsed through an early draft and was surprised to quite like it. Sure, it lacked a strong storyline and there were far too many metaphors and similes, but it accurately captured a world in flux.
I sent my friend Jonny one of the early drafts (at which stage I felt the novel was almost complete) and, when I visited him in London and after a night out in the local pub, he told me what he thought. He was gentle. Jonny skilfully talked me through the central problem of the draft. The writing was good – needed work in places – but there was no real resolution. The main character lacked a problem, lacked conflict. The main character had no real reason to be in Lithuania, and he hadn’t really changed by the end of the novel.
So I needed some conflict, some drama, and as it happened I had some in my life at that time. I had split up with my long-term girlfriend. I stumbled through the days at work and lived for the evenings, when I would push the start button on my PC and escape back into my alien world. I wrote and wrote and wrote, mixing in tales about three generations of one Lithuanian family. I chipped off pieces of the novel and packaged them as short stories, entering them into competitions. I kept writing. And then, just when my life had got worse with the loss of my grandfather, something amazing happened.
The fast beep on my work landline told me I had messages on my answering machine. Three messages. The first two were work related. I still remember slumping bored in my chair, looking out the window to the skyline of the Ochil hills, granite crags and blue sky beyond.
“Hello Neil, this is Francis at Canongate. I have some good news for you. Your story KGB Hairdressing has been selected as a Canongate Prize winner…”
I played the message back several times. I scrawled down Francis’s number, called him to confirm that it was in fact true, and then went to an empty meeting room, closed the door and jumped around a little bit.
The experience was life-changing, partly because it validated my little secret. I could now justifiably call myself a writer – I had evidence. The Canongate Prize Anthology was published in August 2001 and launched at the Edinburgh Book Festival. My story was a chapter from the Lithuania novel, and Canongate – the coolest publisher in the UK – were interested in the novel.
The most important outcome of the experience was not the publication itself, but getting out of my self-imposed garret. At the launch party I met other writers, and soon joined Stirling Writers Group. I attended weekly for around a year, during which time I brought in various chapters of the Lithuania novel (now called ‘The Vodka Angels’). People were positive but it seemed I was still missing the mark when it came to a clear storyline. Canongate had made positive noises when I sent them the first few chapters, but had reservations about the multiple points of view. The tutor at SWG, Magi Gibson, summed up the problem quite neatly one evening when she asked, “whose story is it?”
In 2002 I packed up my life in Scotland and moved to Amsterdam for a new job, taking the novel with me on a floppy disk, but leaving my desktop PC behind. My new life and lack of a PC delayed my work on The Vodka Angels, and soon I was only occasionally tapping away at it, intimidated by its growing size (already 120k words) and spending my time on short stories instead. Another chapter was published in an anthology, scoring the title piece in New Writing Scotland’s ‘Milking the Haggis‘, a short piece based on me cooking a haggis for my Lithuanian students on the birthday of Soviet-approved writer Robert Burns.
Another two years passed before I got back to another draft, and eventually in 2006, feeling that I’d finally managed to write a version that held together, I sent the first few chapters to an agent in Edinburgh. She emailed back quickly to ask for more. I sent it, and a couple of weeks later I got the call saying she’d like to represent me. I flew back to Edinburgh for my stag party and on the day I arrived I signed a contract with the agent. In the pub that evening, friends around me, it felt like all aspects of my life were coming together as I’d always hoped.
My agent tried to sell The Vodka Angels for around a year – I think in total we received around 15 rejections. The feedback tended to follow a similar theme – “Beautifully written, fascinating premise, but lacks narrative drive”; “Not a commercial prospect.” My agent told me that two or three years previously she’d have sold it no bother, but now things were getting tougher for literary novels.
It was hard to take: seven years of work with no end result. I felt strongly that I’d written a good story that had something important to say about the world. But it was not by any means a happy book. And it seemed that this was what readers wanted in the Noughties – happy books with feelgood endings.
Last year I scrolled through The Vodka Angels and had a brainwave. One weekend while my wife was in Poland visiting family, and ably assisted by beer and black tea, I bashed out a new 2k word epilogue in which the main character Kyle returns to Lithuania in 2012, seventeen years after his trip. He goes to the country through his work, meets an old friend, and reflects on all that came to pass. This new ending has completely changed my idea of the novel, because enough time has passed that the book can almost be considered historical fiction, capturing a time and a place that will surely become more important to historians as the century progresses – that brief moment of chaos between socialism and capitalism, a fleeting pre-millennial moment where one half of Europe was unknown to the other half; a time when ‘history was over’ and western neo-liberal values had won, despite the turf still healing on Europe’s new mass graves in the Balkans; a time which foreshadowed the Europe of the 21st century, a continent where shiny facades of prosperity hide burnt-out interiors.
Just as epublishing Amsterdam Rampant gave me closure on one project, this late add-on has brought The Vodka Angels to a neat end for me. I’m not sure if I will ever publish it, as it feels somehow too personal now. It nestles on my hard drive, 90k words needing a good edit, but ultimately it’s an original novel that tells a story nobody else has.
Last year I was in touch with a Lithuanian friend now living in Dublin. Messaging each other on Facebook, he wrote this about my time in his home town: “I don’t know if you realise, but to us you were a guest from the cosmos.” It was funny to suddenly see it through his eyes – I had been the alien, not them.