A former American-Lithuanian English teacher met his future wife, Asta, in Lithuania in the early 1990s and Gordon Mott, the teacher-turned-best-selling-author, has fallen in love with the country, and the Baltics, for good. His first ever book, Lithuanian Lullaby, published in early 2021, has taken off immediately. The novel has been on the Amazon bestseller list in both the USA and Canada in the Lithuania category – it even achieved the coveted number 1 position in both countries. It has also sold well in Europe and has been purchased by readers as far away as India. The Baltic Times spoke to Gordon Mott.
Can you tell The Baltic Times readers about yourself, please... What is your connection with the Baltics and especially Lithuania?
In the early 1990s, I spent a year teaching English at Donelaitis School (now Vytautas Gymnasium) in Klaipėda, a Lithuanian seaport at the Baltic Sea. During my time there, I also travelled extensively in Latvia & Estonia. When it was time to depart, a friend in Vilnius hosted a farewell party for me. A girl called Asta from Kėdainiai was one of the guests. We’ve been married for 26 years now.
What inspired you to write the book, Lithuanian Lullaby? Was it easy for you to come up with the title?
I have a special place in my heart for the Baltics. To many westerners, it’s a mysterious place – some are only vaguely aware of its existence. One of the stories I wanted to tell in my novel was the story of the rebirth of Lithuania. In some ways, it’s a bit of a fairy tale as a tiny nation defies an Empire – and wins.
I had a couple of titles that I circulated with readers. Lithuanian Lullaby wasn’t my first choice, but was chosen by those earlier reviewers. It’s a good choice as it also symbolizes putting that empire to sleep.
At the end of the novel, one of the characters recites a Lithuanian lullaby, which reminds him of the life of one of his friends, “The darkness has enveloped the fields. Lambs are sleeping in the barn. Bees are quiet in the garden. The moon has climbed into the sky and now is peeking inside. Dream sweet dreams; sleep my little prince.”
Had you written any books before Lithuanian Lullaby?
No. It was my first book. Wow – it’s been humbling. The novel has been on the Amazon bestseller list in both the USA and Canada in the Lithuania category – it even achieved the coveted number 1 position in both countries. It has also sold well in Europe and has been purchased by readers as far away as India! There are themes in that novel that seem to resonate with readers. One reviewer described it as “a sensitive account of human aspiration, discovery, love, sacrifice and loss.”
I was excited by that review; it represented everything I was striving to convey.
Can you walk me through the book, please...Who are the heroes? Are all of them fictional?
It’s a historical fiction covering the period from 1987-97 and there are quite a few real people who appear. From Lithuania, Prime Ministers Kazimira Prunskienė and Gediminas Vagnorius as well as Vytautas Landsbergis all interact with some of the characters.
There are six main fictional characters with three separate storylines. All intersect to some degree with Lithuania.
Darius symbolizes the independence struggle as he rises from Soviet Conscript in Afghanistan, British Refugee, Oxford Scholar, Television Tower Protestor, Seimas MP and eventually Minister responsible for EU Accession.
While in detention in England awaiting refugee status, he meets a Hungarian woman, Vana.
It’s not love, but Darius likes her and feels it’s time to marry; Vana just wants to stay in the UK. They marry and then they fall in love. She eventually follows him to Lithuania and opens a restaurant in Vilnius Old Town.
Likewise, the American character, George, has an unusual love story. He volunteers to teach English in Palanga and falls in love with an ethnic Russian teenager, Tanja, who lives in Klaipėda. The problem is that neither share a common language, communication is a struggle. George is obsessed with her and eventually learns enough Lithuanian, which is her second language. The marriage of Tanja attracted quite a bit of reader attention.
Her wedding to George is a perfunctory affair. It is small and quick because she needs a visa to accompany her new husband to Seattle. Tanja then struggles as a new immigrant in America. Isolated from her family and friends, she grapples with the language and culture. That storyline might resonate with Baltic brides who married foreigners at the time.
Steve is a British Civil servant who has an affair with his superior, Sandra, which leads to an unplanned pregnancy. They struggle to raise their child in the city of York in Northern England. Steve becomes a Director at the British Council responsible for operations in the Baltics.
During the course of the novel, Darius and George become his close friends. Steve brings his family to Lithuania on a summer holiday and the country’s situation at the time is depicted through their eyes.
Steve and George also spend time in Latvia and Estonia during the novel. Before leaving for Lithuania, George is inspired by a visiting Estonian university classmate, Madis, who introduces him to the subject of Baltic liberation.
George later visits Madis in his native Tallinn and is surprised at how different the Estonians appear from the Lithuanians.
When I wrote the novel, I intended Darius as the main protagonist. The novel opens with him in the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. He meets a kindred spirit, Zurab, from Georgia, who is also a conscript. They share a common passion – a hatred for the USSR.
Zurab introduces Darius to the drug trade, which is co-ordinated by the Mujahedeen. The two sell heroin to military comrades, which helps finance Mujahedeen operations and slows Red Army progress. Eventually, it’s feared that their drug operation has been exposed, so a Mujahedeen operative, Sayed, helps them escape to Pakistan where a US military attaché arranges transport to Britain.
However, the most popular character with readers appears to be Vana.
As a teenager, she leaves Hungary with her boyfriend. They cut through a wire fence at the Austrian border. The couple pay a smuggler to help them cross the English Channel from Calais to England. After being mugged in London, Vana is detained by UK Immigration. She marries Darius so she can remain in Britain, and then she becomes interested in cooking, spirituality, philanthropy and business. She always needs to be doing something and gets herself into all sorts of projects. At one point, she even tries to reform the Roman Catholic Church in Lithuania!
Over the course of the book, Vana grows from naïve teenager to business entrepreneur and community leader.
Did you consult anybody writing the book?
After a technical review, the novel went to various story readers. One of them was a British Civil Servant. Another was a political figure in Vilnius with extensive background in history and politics. I suspected I might have a successful novel when I received his notes. The Lithuanian had extensively rewritten certain areas to ensure absolute cultural and historic integrity.
It seems your book has taken off since its release. What drives the success? Some could argue everything has been told about the Soviet era!
Actually, I’m not sure that’s right. I think the story of Lithuania in the late 80s and 90s is not well known amongst western readers and it is very interesting. It’s a story of David versus Goliath. For readers with a Baltic connection, it’s the depiction of post-independence life that seems to resonate.
Nostalgia is a peculiar thing. If I wrote about life in the current pandemic, I doubt there would be much interest. If I wrote about it next year, I still doubt there would be interest. However, if I wait 20 or 30 years, people may be in the mood to remember.
It might be interesting to reflect on the cake baking and mask wearing.
The 1990s were a strange time in Lithuania.
There was no hot water, little heat, pitiful salaries, crowded living conditions, overcrowded public transit, but it was also a time of hope. There were also positive facets to the period. For example, to survive Soviet times, people had developed ‘networks’ of friends and family to distribute goods. These networks also acted as social and emotional support for its participants. Tanja originally doesn’t want to go to the United States.
She is very devoted to her family and feels that she needs to stay in Klaipėda to support them. That’s the kind of attitude that prevailed at the time.
Most people weren’t independent, they were interdependent. It served as a contrast to English culture, Steve and Sandra react to their problems by cocooning themselves.
They try to solve their personal problems by themselves.
What feedback are you hearing on Lithuanian lullaby?
The book has received extensive media coverage. It’s appeared in Lietuvos Rytas, Draugas, Bridges, Anglija Today. A correspondent from Radio Free Europe even wrote a book review. So far, readers have been very generous with ratings and reviews. One of the themes I tried to depict in the book is the sense of solidarity amongst the Lithuanians at the time.
I think that spirit still exists and I’ve been the accidental beneficiary of it.
I understand the pandemic may have derailed your plans to promote the book…
Not really. The book isn’t just about Lithuania. It opens with George touring the world and having wonderful adventures, something that is denied to the eastern characters in the 1980s.
I think that sense of escapism may have resonated and served as a positive offset to current times.
When did you travel to Lithuania last? What changes in Lithuania over the last 30 years seem stunning to you?
I come to Lithuania regularly, every couple of years, to visit friends and in-laws. From a post-Soviet republic, Lithuania has developed into an open western-style democracy. The changes are ubiquitous, from customer service to driving etiquette; life is gentler. It’s fantastic that people are free to manage their own business, travel, vote, worship and express their opinions without fear of retribution. In many ways, life is not that different from the west. Probably, the most stunning thing is that this transition has occurred in just 30 years, a short period in historical terms.
Yet our societies are still haunted by xenophobia, homophobia, islamophobia, etc. Do you have a recipe - or a tip - how to root them out?
In recent years, we’ve seen some countries oscillate from their democratic roots. There’s been a renewed interest in populism and hate. On occasion, there appears to be a quest for simple solutions to complex problems.
When politicians sow fear, hate becomes an easy motivator. I wouldn’t pretend to have a recipe to stem this drift. My only advice might be that the Baltic people reflect on the spirit of their Singing Revolutions.
It was a quest to be free from oppression – we should all aspire to stand for those who are oppressed.
Do you have any new books in the pipeline? What are they?
I have a draft of another novel that is moving through the review process. It continues with the life of George and Tanja. It’s a sequel, but won’t read as one to readers who haven’t read Lithuanian Lullaby.
George is taken hostage on a business trip in the Middle East and is pronounced dead. Tanja then moves back to Klaipėda. It’s a sad story when George reemerges from captivity. Tanja was told he was dead, so her life has moved on. George has to re-establish a new life for himself. It sounds sad, but it isn’t in the end.
Where can one order the book? Both the hard copy and the digital copy if the latter is available?
The easiest way to order a copy is through Amazon, which offers a kindle and paperback edition.