PLUME INTERVIEWS: ADÉLA KNAPOVÁ
Adéla Knapová is an award-winning Czech novelist, short-story writer and journalist with accolades for both her fiction and nonfiction reportage. Her fourth and most recent novel, Předvoj (meaning ‘vanguard’ in Czech), set in a universe of chipped humans living in a machine-driven society, was released in 2019 to great critical acclaim from national audiences and has been nominated for the Czech Book Award. While Knapová’s oeuvre is yet to be available in English translation, her short story Jura, translated by Nathan Fields, will be published in Project Plume’s upcoming Issue Zero. In this interview, she reflects on her work as both a novelist and reporter, as well as the questions she seeks to explore through her writing at large.
You have been working in print media since you were eighteen years old and still write a popular column in the political Czech magazine Reflex. What drew you towards a profession in journalism at such a young age?
Journalism was for me a way to become a writer without struggling with my parents. I come from a family where no one has anything to do with art and when I [said] I want to be a writer, I was told to forget it: just study something useful and find a reliable job, you can write in the evenings as a hobby, right? I did not have the courage to go against my family. Journalism seemed to be somewhere in between what I wanted and what my family saw as acceptable. So as soon as I started my studies at Charles University [in Prague], I found a job as a reporter. And I was really lucky because right from the start I met experienced journalists who did see some talent in me and allowed me to write in my own way. And this luck in my profession as a journalist [stays] with me until now.
Storytelling confirmed my own existence and, from an early age, I felt that it was possible to be in the center of living and, at the same time, be a little out of sight and observe.
What are some of the topics you tend to focus on in your journalism work?
That’s extremely diverse. I simply write about things that I find interesting. My editor has been giving me great freedom. So it can be a murder, a trial, a social theme, an investigative report, politics, a written postcard from Ukraine, a text about the Yellow Vests in France, or just literary reportage from a lost village in the Czech border zone, or an interview with an overlap…
Do you experience any challenges or opportunities in being known as both a journalist and a fiction writer?
The fact, that I´m a journalist in a bestselling Czech weekly (Reflex), has – to my surprise – become a problem for a lot of people from the Czech literary world. Some of them have even told me directly that, according to them, I cannot be a good fiction-writer when I write at the same time for the magazine. I must confess, I don´t get it. But obviously I don´t fit into their boxes…
For me as a fiction writer and a novelist, journalism is both a benefit and a complication. The benefit is that as a journalist I enter the lives of others, they tell me their stories and I often witness their hidden motives and secrets, which is quite unique source of knowledge. I don´t need to imagine it, I know how real people behave, even at the edge of their existence.
On the other hand, I fight with what I call “word fatigue”. It´s almost impossible for me to write for the magazine and at the same time to work on a novel. I have to separate these completely different universes. Which means I usually write fiction about three months a year, mostly when I´m in our little house in Greece. And I write all my fiction by hand, while journalism [I write] directly on computer.
You are the author of four novels published between 2003 and now, as well as various short stories (one of which, Jura, will be published in English translation in Plume’s Issue Zero). Since when have you been drawn to writing fiction?
My friends say I was always telling and writing stories. The truth is, I´ve been fascinated by stories for as long as I can remember. I invented them based on what I saw, read or just felt, and even the adults did listen to me when I was telling them. So I felt like I´m doing the right thing; storytelling confirmed my own existence and from an early age I felt that it was possible to be in the center of living and, at the same time, be a little out of sight and observe.
Writing and storytelling was and still is my way of trying to understand the world. Even when I was walking through the woods as a child, which I loved – to be alone, without my siblings, parents, friends – I told myself stories. Plus, I was an avid reader since I was six. I also drew and painted well so sometimes I tried to tell stories through pictures.
For me as a fiction writer and a novelist, journalism is both a benefit and a complication. The benefit is that as a journalist I enter the lives of others, they tell me their stories and I often witness their hidden motives and secrets. … On the other hand, I fight with what I call “word fatigue”.
Is there any theme which you find yourself coming back to again and again? In other words, is there a common theme/question or ‘red thread’ that you can identify across your body of work?
I would say that my main themes are existence, being and the concept of truth. What is truth and is there any truth at all? I question the way we treat our lives and hence death. How do we cope with life and with being alive – and what does it mean to be alive? What does it mean today? What is time and does time exist? Can we say what is real and what is not? What is life and why we live, what is soul and consciousness… Is it possible to understand what we are, why we are? And how much the environment we grow up in influences and shapes us.
How do you usually approach a new writing project? Or what is your writing routine, if you have one?
As I´ve mentioned, I write all fiction by hand. And I mostly write when I´m alone in Greece. I´m a morning person, I wake up before the sun, make my tea and write. Usually I work a maximum of five hours a day, then my hand is really tired. While in Greece, I try to write every day. Once I´m in the reality of the book, it´s a pure pleasure, and I can be pretty rude when someone disturbs me.
Your latest novel, Předvoj (Fra Éditions, 2019), deals heavily with science-fiction elements such as machine-driven society, chipped humans, and the genetic failure of a giant greenhouse full of quick-dust. How did you start creating this dystopian reality, or did it come to you?
For me it´s not a dystopia, it´s the reality we live in now, we just don´t see it or maybe don´t want to see it. This blindness of the human race is a hallmark of our existence. And especially now, we are so arrogant when we believe we are a superior element not only [to the] Earth… so we don´t want to subject the quality of our being to a critical perspective, we prefer to pretend and to lie to ourselves. Which logically leads to blindness – we don´t see the world we live in, we see what we want to see.
I write all fiction by hand … I work for a maximum of five hours a day, then my hand is really tired. Once I´m in the reality of the book, it´s a pure pleasure, and I can be pretty rude when someone disturbs me.
Your first novel Nezvaní (The Uninvited) published by BB was well-received and yet, you consider it to be ‘invalid’. Why?
The book, as it appeared in 2003, should have never been published. To make a long story short: I had no idea how the publishing world worked, [nor] how to work with an editor, so I did not care what they did with my manuscript. I was so happy to be recognized as a writer that I just didn´t care. And when I later saw the published book, it was too late to do anything. It was such a big disillusionment that I decided not to write anymore. And I really didn’t write anything for almost nine years after this happened. By the way, this deep disillusionment is one of the reasons why I avoided publicity until this year, I did not give interviews, refused invitations to festivals, radio or television.
What are some of the books or authors in translation that have had the biggest impact on you as a person?
When I mention some, I will miss many more. Just randomly Edna O´Brian, Don DeLillo, Agatha Christie, Hemingway, Salman Rushdie, Thomas Bernhard, Virginia Woolf, Françoise Sagan, Joseph Conrad, Shakespeare, John Fowles, Lawrence Durrell, Herta Müller, Charles Bukowski, T.S.Hunter, Paul Auster, Dostoevsk, Tolstoy, Joseph Roth, Gombrowitz, Marquez, Cormac McCarthy, Henry Miller, Gérard de Nerval, Céline, Borges, Capote, Camus, Simone de Beauvoir…
Who are some of the Czech women authors you believe English readers need to discover?
The short story Jura by Adéla Knapová, translated by Nathan Fields, will be published in Project Plume’s forthcoming Issue Zero.