You said somewhere that the success of Rok kohout (Year of the Rooster) had paralysed you. How long did it take for another book to mature within you and for you to be ready to write?
A couple of years. But I don’t think I wasted them. I went round the country giving readings and attending forums. When I wasn’t on the road I took advantage of the peace and quiet at home. Home without the rifling through pockets and yelling, where you aren’t constantly being cheated and disappointed and a police car isn’t outside the door every week – I never had that a couple of years ago. But then came the irritability and the urge, the need to create – but at the same time the fear that I don’t know what and how to write and if there is any point to it at all, and why try for anything else…? I go through this repeatedly and it was no different this time. But perhaps I have to work through everything. Even for the right time to write.
In what way was writing short stories new for you?
For the first time in my life I really invented stories, which is tremendously liberating. You just have to look more into the psychology of the characters and the truth of the situation that you have thought up for them. Rok kohouta threw me back into depression and a feeling of futility. Of course, I didn’t feel this as I was writing the stories, but then again I had to imagine myself in situations that I have never actually known and that really exhausted me emotionally. Přes most (Across the Bridge) was the most difficult. I had to imagine the feelings of characters whose son had killed himself and I was terribly afraid I might bring something like that about in my own life. Then I had to intricately pull myself round from that stream of emotions.
It is clear from your narrative that in a way writing saps you. Have you ever considered stopping?
I keep stopping. And then I start again…
Your stories are about things that people fear and that keep happening again and again over the millennia. Why have you chosen such “known” losses as your subject?
I tried to give each story its own unmistakablesingle main subject, which interested me. And I also tried to write them so as to interest the readers and draw them in. I certainly thought a lot of things up, as I said, but like everybody who lives in a long-term relationship, I know how difficult it is not to get burned out. And I also know what it’s like to lose friends quite needlessly. And I have also experienced a mad urge to have a child – even if it was under different circumstances. I was fascinated to write these simple, ever-recurring stories in a way that sounded new, unique and moving.
In your latest book you remain mostly hidden. This is a change from Rok kohouta, which was very personal. After reading it, people often had the impression they had got to know you well. After that did you not think that you had gone too far with the honesty?
Yes, a lot of people wrote to me who had the feeling they knew me. And that I had described their lives, even if they had never adopted any children. A lot of people also wrote who had similar families and who had lived through the same thing. They were glad they no longer had to explain the unexplainable.
Only I know what and how it really was and only I myself can decide what and how to write it. That is the author’s right. The reader has to believe him. If he doesn’t believe then he wrote something bad. It will be seen in fifty years if Rok kohouta is also of literary quality and its success is not just based on the topical, previously taboo subject of adoption and the Roma. I put a lot of work into making sure my novel crescendoed. I put that strength into it. I considered the extent of honesty very carefully. But then ultimately it became evident that if you are as honest as possible with yourself then you can let yourself be honest with others too.
Did it occur to you before you started writing Rok kohouta that somebody might interpret it as proof that Roma are ineducable?
People can always misinterpret you and give you big problems. Fortunately or unfortunately, this had happened to me before I started to write Rok kohouta, in a Respekt article by Jáchym Topol – Prokletí nechtěných dětí – The Curse of Unwanted Children. Paradoxically this only strengthened me later in my resolve to write my story. Let readers consider just how they would have borne up in my situation.
The writer Rudolf Sloboda is often mentioned in Rok kohouta. In what way is he close to you?
The way he wrote in a killingly honest way. I really liked his novel Rozum (Reason). It really spoke for me. I read it at the right time and I was in tune with it. I also really liked Rubato, which I translated into Czech, even though I think that Slovak should be read in the original. And Uršula a Láska.
I read through your blog at Aktuálně.cz and the readers’ comments. People were calling you all sorts of names.
Internet discussions are to a large extent the product of hung-up idiots who can only call you names. And they don’t even have the courage to sign their names. Our nation has always had a handful of heroes and a horde of people who called names and insults and didn’t do a thing themselves. Heroism, like cowardice, is a genetic predisposition. Nothing to be done about it. I dealt with it by writing my opinion to those abusers. As always I signed my name and then stopped dealing with them in my blogs. I do not need that adrenalin in my life.
You are one of the few authors who lived through the revolution and who reflect the old regime very strictly in their work. Is it just my impression or is recent history really being rubbed out and removed?
The old regime is in me – it’s hard to clean it out of my writing. History has always been interpreted expediently and it will never be any different. And here unfortunately a thick line was drawn straight away in 1990 – by people I wouldn’t have have expected it from. So now it is coming back at us.
In this context we cannot forget your screenplay for the film Zemský ráj to napohled (An Earthly Paradise for the Eyes). This was highly acclaimed by some, while others complained that it blurs and disparages.
My screenplay is no dark drama. Even though the period following the occupation was awfully hopeless, it wasn’t a question of life or death. People were dreadfully humiliated and demoralized, but they still carried on living their lives full of affairs, infidelities, separations and embarrasssing parental failures. It was also a time of fine friendships, lots of adventures and laughter. We really had a great laugh even though we were desperate. What I liked about the plot of my film was the brave ones who weren’t afraid to stand up to the regime, but they could be – and often were – quite cowardly in their personal and family life. A fine balance between the large and the small.
How do you see the current social atmosphere? People are frustrated and “nostalgic optimism” is cropping up. They are looking for those to blame for the present state.
I’m afraid people are people and they aren’t going to be anything else. Where do you find an elite in politics, for example, when they are so scarce overall? And when the nation votes, who are they voting for? I would be very glad to be proud of the representatives of this state. But I’m not. When I am really fed up then I think back to the times that people are so nostalgic for and I am glad it is behind us. We live in freedom and everybody can show what they are capable of. Nobody is preventing you from studying and developing your talent, travelling or even using abusive language. It’s freedom and it’s marvellous.
Interviewed by Zuzana Kůrová