Oak Parker Gint Aras has been spending much of the past few months out and about talking with readers, whether during Independent Bookstore Day at Volumes Bookcafe or at the live lit event “That’s All She Wrote” at Great Lakes Tattoo in West Town (or during an upcoming “Local Author Night” at The Book Cellar).
So goes the business end of the writer’s life, which Aras understands and accepts, even if he’d rather be writing than marketing. “It’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “But I’ve never had an experience where a publisher published my book and then relieved me of all marketing duties.”
Originally placed with Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, The Fugue found a home at Tortoise Books after Jerry Brennan scooped it up when the publication rights became available again. The long route to publication for The Fugue is something of a story in and of itself.
Aras finished a draft of the manuscript in 2006. He spent a year pitching the project, to no avail. A literary agent expressed some interest, having him rewrite and rejigger, but in the end wasn’t 100 percent behind the novel. So he stuck it in the proverbial drawer and moved on to other projects.
During the past decade, Aras has published several pieces of short prose as well as the book Finding the Moon in Sugar, building his platform and developing as a writer. But that’s not all.
“I kind of grew up writing this book,” Aras says of The Fugue.
After spending the better part of a decade under his bed, the manuscript proved something of a revelation. “The man who was forty-two years old and opened up the book for the first time in five years and read the words that he had written himself when he was twenty-six was quite surprised.”
Surprised at how much he had grown, and surprised at how much he knew then.
What he found was a manuscript with a mature voice despite its author’s relatively young age. He found a story full of drama, intrigue, pathos, and depth. Despite fears of ineptitude, despite self-denial and self-hatred, and despite dismissing his skills as a writer, “I opened up the book and thought, ‘Hey, this guy actually has something to say.’”
It was, Aras says, “a realization that I didn’t know myself very well.”
The opportunity to reinvestigate his old text showed Aras that his fears were unfounded. It showed that The Fugue had, in fact, been written by a very mature self.
They say that time and space can help writers. They say that setting aside a manuscript for a few days, a few weeks, a few months—or even a few years—can lend the kind of distance that allows a writer to see the manuscript anew, with fresh, ostensibly more objective eyes. This proved to be exactly the case for Aras.
Not that writing and rewriting and pitching and publishing came entirely easy. Some parts were difficult to write about; some came freely. There was some work involved in structuring it, formalizing it, and disciplining it. “The Fugue is a disciplined release of energy,” Aras says. “That was hard. That was really, really hard.”
The novel, which is set in Cicero and spans three generations and more than fifty years, is full of stories—stories he learned while sitting at family dinner tables, while fishing with his grandfather, while listening to people talk over cake and coffee after church. Stories that were full of nostalgia and romance. The Fugue also is full of the stories that were never told to him, stories where he had to fill in the blanks.
Much of these stories revolve around art and war, around alcoholism and abuse, powerful stories told to him by “old men in bars, when they were really drunk and when their defenses were down.”
“Those kind of stories were actually much more common than I realized,” Aras says.
It is these stories that fill the pages of The Fugue, a quintessentially Chicago tale where place and setting become the tie that binds, a character of its own. A character with its own smell and rhythm, its own sunset, its own gravel-ridden streets. Its own soul.
Soul, as it happens, is important to Aras, as a reader and as a writer—especially at a time when, as he recently wrote in a blog post, we are constantly barraged with an “embarrassing maelstrom in our daily rhetoric.”
In times such as these, Aras says, “the most radical thing that a writer can be right now is sincere and fearless.”
Sincerity and fearlessness is what Aras strives for, and what he instructs his students to strive for as well. To be honest and raw is important—crucial even, especially when so much literature is full of contrivance.
“It’s time to be honest about ourselves and to be sincere about our honesty and to not fear the consequences,” Aras says. “If you have it in you to share some sparkle of beauty with others and you refuse to do it because you’re afraid of being criticized by the people who loathe you, they’ve won.”
At a time when “winning” seems utmost on people’s minds, it’s likely fair to say that Aras himself is winning the battle of writing with sincerity, no matter the consequences. Not that he has much to fear. The Fugue has been praised as nimble, spellbinding, alluring, and seamless, a “must read” that crosses generations and genres.
That’s some high praise for a novel that took a decade to see the light of day, written by someone who deeply questioned his abilities as an author—one who has something to say and isn’t afraid to say it.