Jan Velinger's guest in this week's One on One is Iva Pekarkova, Czech journalist and renowned author of acclaimed novels that include Truck Stop Rainbows and The World is Round, both set in former communist Czechoslovakia. Iva's 3rd book Gimme the Money, was inspired by her extensive and incredible experience as a taxi-driver in New York City. Her latest books include The Scarz and Thirty-Two Khwan. Some of the topics discussed in the One on One interview: Iva's beginnings as a writer, her reflections on writing and character, and her thoughts on the magnet that is New York.
The first thing I wanted to ask you was how old were you when you first began to write and do you remember where this first impulse came from?
"I think I was maybe three or four years old and I just felt like I had to write down what was happening at the moment and of course I couldn't really write, so my grand-mother would tell me the letters one by one and then I would write my diaries that way. But, it wasn't very serious at that time and nothing got really published yet. (laughs) But then, I think I was thirteen or fourteen and I started feeling like I want to write down what's happening around me and other people... I think this was because we lived at a time when we felt like we had to do some kind of documentation - let's say if you could get hold of a 1968 newspaper it was a great thing for us, so we felt like we should keep this information somehow. So, I think this was the first impulse, and I was really lucky because my father, who is a physicist and who wanted me to be a biologist and have some kind of safe politics-free kind of job, he just absolutely hated the idea that I am trying to write. He would lock away the typewriter from me, and yell and scream at me tell me I'm gonna go to jail if I keep writing like this, so of course, being a rebellious child, I did whatever I could to write, so, I should thank my father for actually helping me."
Do you remember a first piece that you wrote where you realised, you know, 'this is something I could do', that you realised 'this is something I could really even make a living at', although I realise this was not the primary impulse?
(wry smile) "It just hasn't happened yet, but maybe one day it will happen, who knows... But, if I can tell you something else - I think the best criticism I ever had of any of my stories was when I was maybe seventeen, eighteen, I wrote a kind of strange but I think also funny little story, or novella you can call it, which was titled "Double Sex is the Motto", which was about how the government decided to make everyone a hermaphrodite, so that all people would be perfectly equal under communism. And of course I wrote it and typed it several times, with several copies, but then of course I couldn't sign it because I suppose then I would go to jail, or at least be expelled from my school. Then, one day, I am hitch-hiking some place and these two guys picked me up and we were going to Prague and they were telling me about this story and laughing, and I didn't tell them I was the one who wrote it. But, I thought this was the best criticism I ever got of anything I have ever written."
During the communist regime still: what kind of community did you eventually get around you, people who were like-minded or who were doing similar things? Or, were you on your own?
"I was actually lucky because I did have a couple friends, usually not people I went to school with but people who kind of thought along the same lines, so I did have five or six good friends I think, two or three very good ones, so it wasn't so bad. This was exactly what was happening, we had to find some kind of little niche to hide away in, otherwise you couldn't know who you could trust, when it was possible to talk to people and better to shut up. You simply didn't know."
I was looking for a copy of 'Truck Stop Rainbows' in English...that was the first book that you published or your second?
"This was the first book that I published and it came out originally in Czech under the title 'Pera a Perute', which doesn't quite translate into Truck Stop Rainbows, but it wasn't translatable, and it came out in 68 publishers, which was headed then by [Josef] Skvorecky and his wife, and it actually came out in November 1989, because it was sitting around for a while, so it came out exactly when the [Velvet] revolution happened."
The main character Fialka is a young woman, who is travelling around, she's hitch-hiking, and she's looking for some means of escape...
"This was just about, just about it, and I thought actually I had a much nicer reaction to it in the United States when it came out in English, many people said 'Well, you know, finally a book about living under communism which we can relate to, because while it was very crudely written in some parts and sometimes I over-explained things, it made it much easier for Americans to know what was going on. So, I think this was easy enough for them to understand, so I thought it was fairly successful, it got good reviews and everything."
Let me ask you about the process of writing, I know that in past interviews you mentioned that you work in kind of blocs where, when you're writing you're not doing anything else. Is that correct?
"Yeah, well this is the problem of my life because I don't think I can possibly ever have a job for very long because then I won't ever write anything anymore. Right now I'm working as a journalist and, indeed, except for a couple stories published here and there, I haven't done anything for like three-quarters of a year. I mean besides being a journalist. And now I'm actually thinking should I keep working and actually having some money, making a fairly easy living, or should I quit and try to write again..."
There's this quote of Ingmar Bergman's from years ago when he said that when he began writing he always had only a little germ of an idea which he began to unravel like a thread and pull at until some kind of structure began to take form, almost on its own and then he would develop it and build it; do you start with an impulse like that, or is it with you different that you're building on experiences that you've gone through, that you accumulate over time, when the work is already taking shape?
"I usually can't say that I'm going to sit down tomorrow and start writing, but I think I have kind of experienced both and I know in the first book 'Truck Stop Rainbows', when I didn't know whether I was capable of writing a novel and I just quit my job, you know - typical - I just sat down and tried to write it. What happened was that the main character, she becomes a highway prostitute and at the same time I kind of didn't like the idea that she became a highway prostitute and at the same time I thought well, hey, she is basically talking back to me, she tells me - the author - that SHE wants to be a highway prostitute, so I must allow her now, you know? And I was kind of happy because I thought once the character starts talking back it kind of has a mind of his or her own, and it must mean it's a real character. So, I was kind of happy when this happened because then I told myself well, Iva, you just have to describe what she wants you to describe because this is the way she is. She's not you, she's herself... I just remember now I was translating a book by Stephen King "On Writing" and I know he says stuff like 'if you want to write you have to get a desk in your room, and close the door behind you and start writing, and he seems to be quite convinced that it has to be this way. But I have exactly the opposite experience. If I want to write something, to dig something out, not polished text, but to dig something out from within me, I have to maybe sit on a bench in a park, or go to a pub and have a beer and write something, and this way I can actually function, but, behind a closed door I don't think I would write much."
I wanted to discuss "gravity", because it's important to 'Gimme the Money', [Iva Pekarkova's 3rd book, set in New York City], and your description of the gravity of cities, the way it attracts inhabitants. How did you conceive of the Big Apple before came you there, what was your own 'drawing-in' like?
"When I came to America I was very lucky because I kind of held my imagination in check, if you know what I mean, so that's why I wasn't really disappointed or anything because I just simply waited to go there and see it. First I was living in Boston and I was kind of thinking about New York and maybe visiting one day, when a friend came to visit me in Boston, and he lived in New York then, and I drove back to New York with him, stayed there for three days, went back to Boston and decided New York is the city I am going to live in no matter what! In another month I packed up and found a job in New York and actually did move there. So, I just decided I had to live there because it was the hub of whatever I ever knew and it had this power, this great power, and I simply couldn't, couldn't leave it."
What was the first thing that made the impact though? Was it the diversity of the people, was it the architecture, was it everything rolled into one?
"I think it's basically when you come into the city and you keep getting closer and closer and you see the bridges and the lights, the lights on everything, I really did like it, maybe I fell in love with the skyline. Sometimes I needed just to see the skyline and then you come closer to it, and you touch it and maybe everything is not as beautiful as it seems from far away, but it still was very powerful for me. But, yeah sure, if you think about the diversity and everything, this melting-pot quality that everyone talks about, it was great. But I still think the primary impulse was the skyline. And the beauty of it."
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