Written by: Petr Kolář
Photo by: Vojtěch Vlk
Originally a teacher, today he’s the best-selling Czech writer. With inexorable regularity he writes a new book year after year – for fourteen years counting.
When you were eighteen you decided to become a writer, because you were aware “that it’s a way to get lots of money without much effort.” How did your decision work out?
I was joking. My greatest ambition was to publish a story in the weekly Mladý svět. Only after various magazines had published about 25 stories did I start to toy with the idea that I could write a novel. I wrote two, and neither was published for ideological reasons. I told myself I wouldn’t attempt the impossible for a third time. The strategy of an intimate small-town, detective-genre love story turns out to have been good. The novel was published shortly after the revolution. The fact that I became “the most popular Czech writer of recent years” – I’m quoting journalists – was a matter of chance, through Wonderful Years of Misery, a spoof on socialism, a book whose time had come. I came with the right text at the right time.
What percentage of your themes have autobiographical subtexts, how many are based on friends’ experiences, and what percentage could be called fiction?
For years myth has had it that I was copying from my life. I would have lived some life! Under twenty percent have real bases, and the rest is fiction, or some mosaic of hearsay, friends’s stories in some other form. This is called creativity.
You received the Jiří Orten Award for Wonderful Years of Misery, but critics call your other works commercial pandering. How does this reaction strike you?
Those are a few critics’ opinions – readers are more indulgent. Novel for Women sold 80,000 copies in a year, and 50,000 copies of Monkey in the Middle were published, with a second edition of 20,000, and this says something. They’re not required reading; people buy them voluntarily – and it’s not intellectual “trash”. I meet my readers in person, and each year I read my works in public 20 to 30 times. In a small town as many as 80 people come and I’m well received. To me, this is the most important feedback. Of course I can’t please everyone, but that’s okay.
You’re a sort of Anglo-Saxon style modern author. You give readings abroad, and you’re commercially successful. But this success is at the price of media interest, which didn’t exist before the revolution. How has the writing profession changed in fifteen years?
We too have been affected by computer games, the internet, and films of ever-improving quality. Copies published are dropping, while the number of titles is rising. Literature must struggle for attention. It mustn’t fall back to passive resistance, it has to be competitive. In this sense the writer’s role is changing, too. He has to be a bit of a showman, and appearance matters too. I don’t know if the promiscuous, disheveled alcoholic Charles Bukowski would be on the cover of a society magazine today.
Are you a showman?
I somehow get through talk shows with readers, but I always get butterflies before a camera.
Unlike other colleagues, you haven’t spurned advertising. What was the payoff of advertising with love letters in the Prague’s subway before Novel for Women was published?
I was asked to write prose for subway patrons. I was concerned that no one would read a classic story between two stops. So I wrote six fictitious love letters from a man who worked in an advertising agency whose girlfriend had left him – he wrote the subway letters asking her to come back. Only later did I think of the marketing connection with the novel I’d just written. It was a successful mystification. TV Nova hired a psychologist who analyzed the writer’s style on the news – he claimed that the writer had had childhood problems with his mother but was not violent. Two weeks before the book’s release Lidové noviny revealed me as the author, so it worked out great.
People are well aware of you from society magazines, and the tabloids “love” you. Is there a reasonable balance between media popularity and protecting your privacy?
I’d draw a sharp line between society magazines and “light” tabloids that just generate rumors – and rough, evil tabloids that appeal to the basest human instincts and cause intentional harm. For example, this year they wrote that I have a mistress, an Academy of Literature student. Should I sue, like Helena Vondráčková? It’s useless, it’s just more advertising for them. So I chose the same weapon: I wrote a story for Mladá fronta Dnes called “The Lesson of Creative Slander”, with just one real character – the former editor-in-chief of Spy magazine. I wanted him to go through what it’s like to find your name in a slanderous text. I’m not naive, I don’t expect him to be sorry, but we have to protect ourselves somehow.
Do you still write four hours a day, three months a year? As a freelance writer, do you need someone to hold you to it?
Yes, but I’m not dogmatic about it. I’m my own boss, a nice boss, so I allow myself a lot. Nevertheless, I have some spine, and when I goof off it makes me feel uncomfortable. In ten years I haven’t missed work for a week with no reason. I’d feel really bad about it. For instance, this fall: I always start writing in October, but this time I didn’t start until the beginning of November. I finished the screenplay for a film of Novel for Women, directed by Filip Renč, I rewrote Excursion Takers, changing it from a five-part series to a feature film, and I prepared a libretto for Michal Horáček’s and Petr Hapka’s musical. I put off writing my new book, and it made me nervous. The regularity of my writing became a good habit – and one should stick to good habits.
In the book Three in the Woods, which you, Halina Pawlowská, and Iva Hercíková wrote together, three forty-year-old men try to change their lives’ stereotypes through crazy love adventures. Is the Albert character autobiographical? Have you gone through or are you going through a mid-life crisis?
Complaining would be blasphemy. I’m no longer Albert, I’m enjoying success, while he’s unsuccessful. But at the beginning of the ’90s I was taking home CZK 2,500 as an elementary school teacher. Sometimes at PTA meetings I got the feeling that in the eyes of some parents I could see a bit of ridicule. I drove a used Favorit and we lived on the ground floor of a prefab apartment building in Zbraslav. I can feel for Albert.
You tried working as a trio, and now you’re doing a musical with Hapka-Horáček. What leads you into such projects and what do you get out of such collaborative ventures?
Three in the Woods was a literary experiment, light summer reading beyond what I usually do. I tried it mostly for fun. As for the musical, Messrs Horáček and Hapka came to me, which was flattering. But I couldn’t or even want to write a “serious” novel with anyone else. I’m a loner and I don’t let anyone tell me how to write.
You were originally a teacher, you studied the Czech language and education. Today you lecture at the Academy of Literature, so you’ve at least partially returned to teaching. Can you imagine making a living as an educator rather than as a writer?
I taught elementary school for three years…I don’t know what could make me go back to it. I’ve been teaching at the Academy of Literature for five years, and this year I’m on sabbatical. Working once a week with ten young people who are there out of genuine interest is entirely different from riding herd on thirty twelve-year-old adolescents. Teaching twenty-five hours a week going over and over how a word is formed. I couldn’t stand it.
“Creative writing” is one of the courses at the academy. Can it be learned? Have you found a new Kundera, Hrabal, or Viewegh among your students yet?
Creative writing is one of the main subjects, but this school isn’t a writer incubator. Graduates can find work as editors, on TV, in production, or in publishing houses. Only one student in ten admits to wanting to be a writer. “One can always discuss existing texts,” says the German professor Helmut Treichel. It’s true. Someone writes a story, and you can rate, analyze, and criticize it. If a person has talent it can be of benefit. I’ve had about eighty students in five years, and about four had true talent. This may seem too few, but in the US, for example, where creative writing has long been taught, they’d tell you that’s a relatively high number.
How would you like people to remember you?
Perhaps in the Indian way: Wrote Good Books. I’d like that.
How would you describe yourself in a few words?
Czech, writer, forty-something.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I’ll probably be writing my nineteenth book.