Hannah Gildea, a Southeast Portland resident and Reed College graduate, received a scholarship to a writer's workshop that is "10 time zones away," in Vilnius, Lithuania.
"I was completely floored when I received a letter saying the judges were strongly impressed with the work I submitted, and they were offering me a fellowship to study abroad. I think I read it several times and checked my name, because I figured they must have made a mistake," she says.
But the fellowship to the Summer Literary Seminar in Lithuania is real, and Gildea soon will fly off to Eastern Europe for the series of workshops held July 13 to 26.
The program is a meeting of artists, writers and scholars from all over the world; Gildea, 29, says she thinks of it "as the International Space Station," only with no shortage of gravity.
She will be studying with Jeff Parker, author of "Ovenman," workshopping fiction with his group, and then taking a class called Writing Vilnius, with Laimonas Briedis, the author of "Vilnius: City of Strangers."
To prepare for the seminar, Gildea says she has been reading 1980 Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz's poems, which she finds "incredible," and also Stephan Collishaw's book "The Last Girl," a book that "drips with melancholy," as it describes Vilnius and Lithuania during World War II and after, when it was part of the Soviet Union.
Gildea was awarded the fellowship because the judges were impressed by "The Cypress Grove," a short story she wrote about a recently divorced woman visiting a sort of surreal half-built artist's colony in the desert.
Judges praised it "for its masterfully handled interiority, control of language and startling imagery. A favorite line of mine was 'a minaret made of whipped cream,'" notes Ann Ward, program director for the summer seminars.
Ward says there are 50 international students, mostly from the United States and Canada, and 24 Lithuanian students in the seminar; Gildea is the only one from Portland.
The Summer Literary Seminars were created in 1998 by the founder and executive director Mikhail Iossel. The workshops, which ran in St. Petersburg, Russia, until 2008, "are premised on the idea that one's writing can greatly benefit from the keen sense of temporary displacement created by an immersion in a thoroughly foreign culture," Ward says.
In 2009, the programs moved to Vilnius.
"To me, the programs are less about playing the tourist and more about full cultural immersion — getting to see a new place through the eyes of the local artists, writers and scholars, and forming bonds and friendships that can only come out of such an intensive experience," Ward says.
She adds, "I love when people ask me, 'Why Lithuania?' It's a place many people know very little about, which tends to make writers that much more curious to discover it, their Vilnius, for themselves."
City of contradictions
Even though she had not yet been to Vilnius, a city located in the heart of Europe and in the epicenter of the region's post-Soviet transition, Gildea says that everything she has read about that city makes it seem "so mysterious and yet so accessible."
"As a writer who tries to make the mysterious accessible, and the accessible mysterious, Vilnius seems like a natural fit for me," she says.
She also gets the sense that "the mundane and the bizarre keep company there. They hold hands and walk down the street together."
This is partly due to the architecture, with medieval, baroque and Soviet-era buildings practically on top of one another, and partly due to the fact that the city has been the site of so much turmoil, she says.
"In the last hundred years or so, Vilnius has been part of the Russian empire, Poland, the Soviet Union, under German occupation, an independent state and a member of the European Union," Gildea says.
She also notes that an estimated 95 percent of the Lithuanian Jewish population, around a quarter of a million people, perished under Nazi occupation.
"I think it's humbling and instructive for citizens of such a young country, and especially from such a young city, to go to such ancient places. I think they have wisdom for us, like spending time with our grandparents," she says.
Novels, short stories
Gildea describes herself as a freelance writer who would like to make her living as a published author. She has completed drafts of three different novels, but right now is focusing on short stories.
"I used to think I couldn't write short stories. Turns out the pressure to compress is good for me. Also, style is just as important to me as substance. I think short stories are great venues for more — for the want of a better word — poetic prose," she says.
Another nice thing about short stories, she notes, is that the writer is not compelled to tie up loose ends or resolve everything.
"I believe boundaries are much blurrier than we make them. I mess around with life/death, human/animal, real/imaginary, mundane/uncanny in my work quite a bit. That's one of the reasons I'm interested in going to Vilnius. It seems like a place where contradictions coexist. And that tension is what fuels my work right now, so it's a possible wellspring, another source."
Gildea has some advice for aspiring writers: "Cast your net wide applying for summer opportunities and start early because they do fill up. And apply to a variety, because you never know. The crazy dream, the one you don't think could ever happen, that might be the one you buy a plane ticket for."
Gildea also is inspired by the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, who said, "Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant."
She adds, "If you think of yourself as planting seeds, you feel much more patient with the process. The cool thing about this international program is it isn't just about planting, but you actually get the chance to work with other artists and writers, to cross-pollinate."