Věra Chase: the frustrated astronaut who became a writer

Věra Chase has had six books published. They include poetry and prose - both short stories and a novel with the intriguing title, “Passion for Peaches”. Věra hails from a Prague literary family and says that she identifies closely with her home city, although she has travelled widely and lived for some time in London. Her grandfather was one of the many journalists thrown out of Czechoslovak Radio after the Soviet invasion of 1968 and the family was deeply mistrusted by the communist regime. Refusing to succumb to stereotype and convention, Věra Chase continues the family tradition. She is a writer with a strong and distinct identity, and although many critics have tried to define her work, she continues to defy typical literary categories. To talk about her work we met in her flat just round the corner from the radio in Prague’s Vinohrady district. She began with a poem in English.

A SKATING ACCIDENT

As soon as you were done in Alaska
an engagement week in Finland
—exquisite manners: summer thus spent with me...
and winter yet elsewhere
near dark lakes of frozen Eskimo sighs

Vigorous skating till very late hours/ vigorous skating day after day...day
Together endlessly kissing and freezing
freezing and kissing
Vigorous skating
skating so long
... so long my... was spinning... never
noticed you falling...
Across the ice your head
rolling
its red ribbons
the white richly decorating—
to the point of random
melting...
—curious manners: in winter thus leaving me

That was a poem from your collection “Bodypainting” (Tělokresba). You write your poems in both Czech and English and translate them yourself.

“Yes. That’s what I do. Sometimes I write it first in English and sometimes first in Czech. It really depends which language prevails at that moment in my life.”

Do you translate them into the other language or do you rewrite them?

“I translate them and then I try to get the best feeling. So I rewrite. Everything that I write actually, I rewrite and rewrite. It’s the way I work. It doesn’t have to have the same amount of lines – although it’s usually pretty close – but the feeling, the message, the atmosphere should be the same.”

And how did you come to be so confident in English to be able to write so well?

“But I am not so awfully confident. I like to check everything, both Czech and English, with other people. I always have a lot of notes and then I come to a person and ask, ‘Does this word have this feeling?’ or ‘Would you ever put it together with something else?’ and that way I try to edit it.”

So you’re not one of those writers who are very private and possessive of their work. You like to share it, and to share the creative process to some extent with other people and to exchange creative ideas.

“When my part is finished, then I open the door to an editor. I have to be totally open and believe in this person. And then, when this person is finished I again close the door. So that’s it. Don’t touch it. I don’t like it when people take lines out of your poems. It just happened a couple of weeks ago. There was this article about poetry, and they just cut a piece from the poem. This may sound funny but I thought it was like cutting out the eye of the Mona Lisa and saying, ‘This is an interesting eye!’”

And the poem that you have just read is called “A Skating Accident”. The very title gives us a sense of danger. What is this poem about?

“Well, it’s about two people who really like winter. It’s something that holds them together and keeps them enamoured.”

And the accident?

“Well, it’s just an accident, you know. When you skate so vigorously, it can happen that your blade goes over the neck of your beloved…”

You have been writing since your childhood, haven’t you?

“Yes, I wanted to be a writer because I wanted to leave a footprint. I also wanted to be an astronaut, but somebody told me that astronauts can’t have fillings in their teeth. I have had them since my childhood. I knew that I would just have to dedicate everything. You have to dedicate all your life to what you want to do, so I dedicated all my life to writing because I had those fillings. Otherwise I would have been an astronaut.”

And you have always written both poetry and prose. Is your prose writing in some way inherently different from your poetry, or do you find that the creative process is much the same?

“No, it’s totally different. I am sometimes in a phase where I can only write poetry, which is the case now, and I can’t even begin to imagine how it is to write something in prose. It seems to me so removed. I also translate and interpret. When you interpret you think - how the hell do people translate? – there’s so much sitting down etc. – and then you go through another phase and you’re thinking - I will never be able to stand up in front of people and interpret.”

You have had a lot of your stories published. Let’s hear you read one of them.

MY FRIEND, THE UNIVERSE AND A STRANGE HOLE

My friend had had plenty of drinks and plenty of grass that night. He left the bar at an early morning hour. Walking by foot, in no hurry to get home, he took the long way, through a park overlooking Prague; to get himself a glimpse of the city's night charms.

Half way, while walking among the trees a building halted him. A modest-size ruin. It halted his walking as much as his thinking, attentive contemplating about livers, kidneys, bladders as well as other professional matters. So he wandered in, entering through the window—both because he could and perhaps even should. He entered and stopped right there. Ankle deep in garbage he was looking at walls covered with graffiti and also the hole that was gaping in the midst of it… Just – like – that; in the centre of the universe. Unignorable. It stared, in as weird a way as he did.

He had been standing there for quite a while when the poodle ran inside. It sniffed his trouser leg for a bit, then tried to hump his calf... well, until its master walked in. He stepped in the doorway, yelled at the dog to stop and then stared at my dear friend gazing at the hole that gaped out from the midst of the damaged wall... He stared and stared and stared, but could not think of anything.

For one very long moment they all stood there, thinking hard about weird things and the mysteries of the universe in general, till they finally realised that this would go nowhere and peacefully parted, at that early morning hour, in the park that overlooks the city of Prague.

Your prose is hard to place, coming between realism and surrealism. Is this the idiom that comes naturally to you?

“Yes. I think this is a real problem, especially in this country, because we love to label people. So for twenty years I have been a young, beginning writer [laughs]; when I worked as an editor at the magazine “One Eye Open” I was a feminist – but I think that feminists would never call me a feminist; for some people I write science fiction, and these days, because we are really in a shallow phase of Czech existence - selling everything that is tabloid - now everybody is looking at my stuff because there are some erotic moments, so suddenly I am maybe even a porn writer. People will come to you and label you: science fiction writer – no – now you are a feminist, now you are actually an erotic writer. Why do we always label things?”

Let’s move on to another of your poems…

“I was in India… on a grant given to me by UNESCO. You would go there for three months to stay at this really beautiful resort. It was the grounds of a museum. You would stay there and meet other artists who travelled through there. You know, India is so full of people and these little grounds where we lived with our studios were totally deserted. There were just two or three people, and it was very rare that more people would arrive. And one day this girl came to me and said, ‘It’s so funny that we live here, just the two of us, and it’s totally deserted, we just create and are here totally alone. And I said, ‘Maybe you didn’t notice, but in this garden there are twelve men living here – totally hidden, you wouldn’t notice them really – servicing us. So when we went to eat, they would go and clean our studios, but we would never see them. At night the guard would walk around through this beautiful garden.

AN AFTERNOON ON A MEADOW

Larks, blackbirds, sparrows as well as tits have gathered on the meadow
a chain of wings, lifting their feet, left right left…
synchronically opening their beaks: ooh–ooaah–ooh
Even the grass sways in the rhythm of love
and the trees sigh—leaves all loosen
When the two of us meet on a meadow
and there with love
care-ful-ly
—the way you would pour honey into milk—
get down
there-and-back
inhale-exhale
to it

for Filípek

Did you find literary inspiration in India as well?

“I found inspiration for my life there. Its colour, love for love and a pace that is so different that you don’t have to think about why you exist, because you slow down enough to enjoy your life.”

You say that you have been a young Czech writer for the last twenty years. For the next twenty years do you see yourself continuing to be a young Czech writer?

“No, I think that I will be discarded [laughs]. I think that I am much more appreciated abroad than in this country. So I think that what I shall be reading for the next twenty years is how I have disappointed everybody.”

“I would like to try a couple more pieces, but the day I find that I write badly, I would like to stop.”

Our listeners are all over the world. Is there any way that they can get hold of your books of prose and poetry?

“There are two bilingual books. One is called ‘Eyeberries’ (Bobule) and the other one is ‘Bodypainting’ (Tělokresba). Then there are four books of prose which are in Czech – in most cases there are still some copies available. I think you could contact one of the internet bookstores, for example Kosmas (www.kosmas.cz).”