Your biography sounds impressive: already your studies brought you to both sides of the Atlantic, later on you also taught in the US and right now you are living in Lyon. Was this “cosmopolitan lifestyle”, if I may call it like this, intended? Was there always a will to get to know the world? And why are you living in Lyon right now (not just because of the beautiful landscape, right)?
I guess every biography looks impressive, if you present it the right way. When you look closely, it is a different story.
I finished high school in 1990 and left immediately to United States and than to England. Everybody was quite eager back than to welcome people from behind Iron curtain, so I was able to get scholarships in both countries. Later, while studying philosophy at Charles University, I pursued a parallel “career” in acting, which brought me to Franco-Czech theater company Na Voru. I performed in French, traveled to France a lot. Than I was for ten years in relationship with a man from Croatia and when I was on maternity leave from my job at the newspaper Literarni noviny, I lived with him all over ex-yougoslavia: Beograd, Sarajevo, Lublan, Zagreb. Than we broke up and while being back in Prague and working for the newspaper Respekt, I fell in love with a Czech living in New York. Of course, I didn´t have to follow him. I could have said: You come to Prague. I have my work here, my family, my son… Instead, I packed my son, left everything and went to live in New York. And with that same man and our three children, we now live in Lyon. Officially, we moved here for his work, he is a scientist, but actually it was me, who wanted to return to Europe. I missed it. Not Czech republic, but Europe, which proves, that there is such a thing as an European identity.
So, to answer your question, there was no project of “cosmopolitan life,” Instead, there was succession of many small decisions based on momentary desires. But of course, those desires were probably driven by a not-so-subconscious urge to get out of the Czech Republic. Be out there – at least with one foot. Since probably the age of fifteen, I felt it was vital for me to be able to change the perspective. The small, homogeneous countries can become very oppressive, they suck your life out of you, don´t you think so?
You taught a course on Kafka in New York. I suppose, this was not only because he is probably the most famous Czech writer…
Before teaching in New York, I taught a course on Kafka at NYU Prague. It wasn´t really my idea, to start with, I just picked up the challenge. For me, Kafka is a journey, which started more than 10 years ago and I see no end to it. He is measure of truth in writing but also in life, which comes out best in his letters. I don´t think anybody in literature matches Kafka´s lucidity when it comes to self-observation and also observation of others. In a way it is a pity his dreamlife took so much over his writing; or no, it is not a pity. It would be just very interesting to read a “real life” flaubertian or tolstoian story by him.
Even if it seems your style of writing is very different from his, would you say Kafka influenced your development as a writer? Who else did, which books would you say are the most important ones for you?
I loved many writers in different stages of my life. I guess now, I feel very close to W.G. Sebald or Curzio Mallaparte. I get always excited when I see writing balancing on that tricky edge between documentary and fiction. I also really like Thomas Bernard, he amuses me immensely. It doesn´t mean I read those people, in fact I don´t, I know about them and that´s enough.
To see what really influenced my writing, I would have to go much further back. To my childhood and adolescence reading, to Maupassant, Tchechov, D.H. Lawrence, the Brontë sisters, Herman Hesse, Gabriel García Márquez and even further down to children´s books. You know, now, that I am reading some of them to my kids, I make some funny revelations. I stumble upon a sentence or an image which seems very familiar and I realize I used it in one of my books. I thought it was mine, but no, it comes from The Adventures of Little Mouse, Marinka´s Childhood, Tom Sawyer or some other book I must have read between age five and thirteen.
Your mother is a writer as well, she probably also had a big influence on you (and might have pushed you a bit towards literature…?)
She was always checking on what me and my sister are reading (we had to hide some books from her) but apart from that, she didn´t really push me in any direction. I would even say the fact that she was a writer, kept me for a long time from admitting that I want to become one myself. One writer in the family seemed quite enough.
Your novels, although frequently focusing on eternal topics as growing up or dealing with one´s past, often explore the connection of the big political events, mostly of the 20th century, with the individual lifes. Do your novels also try to transmit a political message – or what is the central purpose of your novels?
This is a tough question. I am not sure my novels have any purpose, so to speak. I write about things and people I passionately care about. Caring is not enough, there has to be passion, otherwise you cannot go the whole way. It is true, I always felt very attracted to history, I even wanted to study it at the university at some point. I like doing research, to collect as much of “hard data” as possible, even if I don´t use them later. I like to push my imagination and intuition to fill the gaps. The most exciting thing about this kind of writing is, that sometimes, you meet reality half way. You make things up and later on you find out, that this is how they really happened. This gives me shivers.