Writer, translator, publicist
Awards: BBC Book of the Year (Felix Austria), Joseph Konrad-Kozhenyovsky Literary Prize.
Quarantine has hit the cultural industries hard. However, it seems that writers – I will say cautiously – could benefit from this. This motivates writers to certain reflections and possibly to a new turn in their work. How do you feel about this period?
No quarantine itself can be the engine to create something new. It all depends on the person and how he or she perceives and experiences this world. In someone's case, so many prohibitions and restrictions become the impetus for searches and discoveries. Any deficit always means the possibility and necessity of compensation. But someone may completely lose the main habitual sources from which he or she draws material and strength, and not be able to find or invent new ones.
On the one hand, what is happening with the beginning of the pandemic is a logical process. The world is confidently moving towards such a regime. The virus is just a compelling excuse. On the other hand, nothing has changed and does not change in the essence of human life and the nature of human relations. The form of communication changes a little, the threat of alienation and distance becomes greater, people get used to physical distance, it begins to seem that there is no need for physical presence, and there is no need forthose manifestations of elementary openness and friendliness that have existed since the beginning of humanity. Perhaps this makes the longing for intimacy more pronounced – but does it become greater? Perhaps its obviousness, on the contrary, contributes to its awareness. At the same time, nothing changes dramatically. Such processes always only slightly highlight the laws of human life.
Quarantine did not affect my personal life too much. I used to work at home. Several important trips were canceled, and the processes connected with the decisions of publishing houses were slowed down. But this uncertainty does not outweigh the need to continue doing my own thing.
Is that because meeting readers in real life is a feeling of belonging to the author's world?
It so happened that my new novel "Amadoka" was published in March, at the beginning of quarantine, so I was deprived of what authors usually receive when a book is published. I had to adjust and conduct online events. It was useful and gave me a lot. But at the same time, I felt that such a remote format absorbs much more energy, but your efforts are simply scattered, lost somewhere, and only a small part of what you invest reaches those who are interested. At the same time, of course, it is much better than nothing.
Do you get a lot of feedback on social networks?
I'm not really looking for such feedback. For example, I am not present on social networks. I have a Facebook page, but I never go there. I use only messenger. That's why I get some part of the feedback, mostly through my husband Andriy Bondar, who keeps track of these things more. But I even ask him not to report too much. If these were live meetings, I would not and could not cut them off like that. I appreciate it much more when I hear a human voice and see the expression in their eyes. This makes more sense to me.
Did this psychological challenge affect your willingness to write or the amount of writing you do?
It is too early to talk about this. Each author has his/her own rhythms of work on the topic, on the text. Of course, external events greatly affect them, but there are internal processes, their own tendencies and abilities, which can not be dramatically changed. Until now, my books were born about once every 6-7 years. This is the time needed to search for new languages and intonations – to reboot and transform. New topics appear, but the main problems remain the same. Each of us solves the same problems throughout our lives. This is normal. It is important to find new solutions.
In your very old interview, when asked what the writing process means to you, you answered that it is quite simple. Has nothing changed in this perception since then?
Now I am surprised that I could once say that the process of writing is simple. In fact, it is very difficult at all levels. Even at the level of coming up with an idea. Once you know what you're going to write about, you still can't start until the idea is ripe. There are no visible landmarks to follow. These things are so difficult to verbalize and clearly grasp that most of the time people who are creative are in a sense of a kind of suspension and lost in unlimited space. Over time, when the idea becomes overgrown with specifics, personal experience, emotions, and additional findings, this path becomes more certain. But until the last sentence, it is always uncertainty.
To the last sentence? .. That is, you write the text linearly, part by part. You don't write the ending first or any key points inside?
It can be different. Sometimes there are fragments that later appear at the end or in the middle of the text. This is a planned work, but at the same time these plans are as open as possible. I always have a lot of plans for the text and its parts; I have a lot of notebooks with quotes, thoughts, ideas, a sequence of scenes, direct speech or phrases of the characters. But often I don't even open them during the writing itself. That is, to a large extent, they are in my head, but the process is so entailing that these plans often lose relevance.
Is writing for you more of a craft or self-knowledge through inspiration?
A combination of the first and second. I am very critical of my craft skills, although I respect such things very much. The concept of craft for me is associated with certainty with a very clear understanding of the interdependence between tools and their functions, with planning, thoughtfulness, predictability, technical construction of a design, and engineering. In fact, in the case of creativity, it is a utopia. The meaning of creativity is that it is impossible to control. You can only make an effort to be more aware. You have to design and build, you have to make sure everything works, but at the same time the main unexplained focus of creativity is where you give up, let go and trust.
The novel "Felix Austria" has already been put on screens. When the work on "Viddana" began, you said that you pay tribute to that fact that the film is a different work. Did you manage to let yourself be detached from this work?
It worked because I understood that this is an area in which I have little understanding in a practical sense. When I was shown the whole production factory, I realized that my fantasies were very far from a cinematic way of expression. This realistic perception helped me stay at a certain distance. I was very lucky with the people who did it. It was a very useful experience. In addition, it had a good effect on the sale of the book. Therefore, it was mutual support and benefit.
You are listed as a co-author of the script. Did you take part in the direct work on the script – because it is basically a different genre?
So, I refused at first. Alina Semeryakova completely wrote the basis. But I was asked to take part in the preparation and adaptation of the dialogues. We met a lot in the studio, where line by line passed every line of the script, every scene. It was terribly interesting: to analyze the characters and situations from a different point of view, to talk about the motivations and course of events in different perspectives, given the completely different practical preconditions for their existence. This time my characters had to exist on the screen, they had to have a specific look, a specific voice. They depended less on the imagination of the reader or viewer. What I suggested in the script, in many cases, turned out to be literature that could not be used in filming. I rewrote again and again. It was a useful training.
“Felix Austria” is a novel largely about illusions and self-suggestion. The main theme of the film, it seems, is the emphasis on relationships. Wasn’t there dissonance?
Of course, I saw it at the level of the script, but I realized that for a number of reasons it could not be done otherwise. Realizing this from the beginning helped me not to be frustrated by it.
How does a writer feel when he/she is approached with a proposal to turn his/her work into a movie?
A mixture of different feelings. On the one hand, it is extremely pleasant and exciting. But there is a fear that your work will be very spoiled. And that's why the experience with “Viddana” turned out to be the middle ground. I imagined a film based on “Felix Austria” in a completely different way. “Viddana” is just a different genre, a different view, a different world. I would say that this is the top layer of the novel – a carefully retold plot.
Some writers do not agree in principle to turning multifaceted works into movies, which they consider cannot be transferred to the screen. Is an “Amadoka” film possible?
Absolutely, but this task would be much more difficult. It could be a TV series. And probably a lot of experimental techniques should be used to emphasize three different parts. And, perhaps, it would be necessary to adapt the story very much. Much of what is in the text could not be included, because when I was writing “Amadoka”, it was important for me to play with different genres. The part about neoclassicists, for example, is essayistic, and essay writing cannot be made into a film. And this is very important: that each kind of art has its own means, which you do not use and do not reproduce into another kind of art. These are different languages that tell the same story. At the same time, there is translation. It is possible and necessary to make films about neoclassicists.
You continued the family literary dynasty and when asked what shaped you, you answer that the very creative atmosphere from childhood contributed to yourearly decision to study literature.
It so happened that I was formed by my relationship with books. And here it is not even so much about the reading itself (although about it, of course, as well), but about the phenomenon – the phenomenon of the word, the creation of the text. It’s about physical proximity to shelves with books. Books have become the main source of knowledge about the world, relationships with people, other people, and yourself. First there was reading, and then the experience of all other life, and other people. Thus the perception of life, even the most ordinary things, was dictated by such a prism. For example – you can call it a kind of professional deformation – I can not feel the fullness of life without translating into a certain text what is happening to me. I have to imagine and experience it as a text in order to fully experience the events that are happening to me or that I am watching.
You went to a natural science school. In your works, in particular in journalistic things, there are references to biology. Can you reference this information within yourself automatically thanks to such a base, or do you specifically refer to encyclopedias?
At first, that school was called an "experimental school-laboratory," and I entered a humanities class where there might be more language and literature. A year after my studies, the management decided that the experiment had failed, and turned this school into a natural lyceum. Our class was the only humanitarian one.
I definitely dig into the reference literature, and it is also an additional source of creativity for me. I find it more interesting and somewhat easier to write when I use additional sources. They are dictated by plot twists, but they are mechanisms that launch new artistic means that give additional meaning.
As for “Amadoka”, there is a temptation to trace your movement to such a polyphonic novel. "Felix of Austria" has its own polyphony and versatility. However, “Amadoka” is a large-scale temporal and semantic work with a dense interweaving of metaphors: the modern Russian-Ukrainian war, the Holocaust, the repressions of the 1930s and self-awareness through the centuries. So the question is: how did you come to this?
It is impossible to feel the first point from which it arose. “Amadoka” has several large layers, many smaller lines and time periods. This maturation process lasted quite a long time. There were several great parallel interests that disturbed and did not let go, I went from immersion in one topic to immersion in another. There was a time when I read exclusively neoclassicists and everything connected with them: criticism, memoris, memoirs. I did it on purpose, because I was really looking for opportunities to write about them. Instead, the subject of the Holocaust turned out to be (and continues to be) a terrible magnet that seemed to attract me against my will.
I never imagined that I would dare to write about the Holocaust. Neoclassicism was the motive I was going to start with and limit myself to in this novel, but I did not find the appropriate intonations. Topics of the literary process and repression of the 1930s were insufficient. This may sound immodest. The point is not that there is not enough material or space. On the contrary, this topic is too complicated, and I think that what I managed to do is only a small part of all the possibilities of disclosure.
Speaking of "insufficiency", I mean certain features of me as an author such as the organization of mental space. It is an inner world, which consists of very different parts, different qualities and inclinations, which are in a complex relationship with each other. The connections between them are not always obvious. Sometimes these parts contradict each other. It complicates life, but also adds new opportunities. The decision to combine different times, themes and ways of speaking these topics in “Amadoka” is my own way to combine separate parts and to bring them to light in a common space. This can be seen as a metaphor for the combination of different parts of our common history, which we often perceive as fragmented - the history of our country and personal history. I combined different parts of myself with Amadoka and couldn't do it any other way. This is one of the answers to why I combined these three parts in one work and didn’t make three separate novels. I just couldn't help but do it physically. And it worked.
Lake Amadoca itself is a strong general metaphor. You have repeatedly explained that it symbolizes the whole complex of deep memory, real or false, inspired or forgotten… To what extent can such a text be a therapy for the individual, and if we are talking about large communities, then how about for the nation?
It is difficult for me to judge, because this text was created by me. So I can only say what I wanted to do with it. I wanted to offer solace, to find a way to speak complex topics, to tell the truth, to meet the complexity of life and the impossibility of simplification. I can talk about how the appearance of this text affected me. I draw conclusions about similar novels and texts – how they work. For example, if we talk about the "Museum of Abandoned Secrets" by Oksana Zabuzhko or the works of Martin Pollak and in general about books related to painful traumatic topics, on the one hand, they cause a lot of pain, on the other hand, they always transform me. These topics force me to go through very difficult states and encourage me to accept that there are things that cannot be changed. There is an unchanging human evil that does not disappear anywhere. At the same time, accepting these things helps us understand that we have and can do a lot in the sense of good.
Such extreme dilemmas of good and evil in your works are veiled and often manifest themselves in unexpected moments and things. Additionally, the manifestation of love or hate is not described in the classical sense.
The art is to exaggerate some things in order to make them more visible. But at the same time I am talking about revealing nuances and subtleties that we do not always notice in everyday life. That is, I use writing to describe such insignificant things. I pay attention to this in the works of other authors. Literature teaches me to notice and be more aware.
For the third part of "Amadoka" – about the neoclassicists and Victor Petrov – you consciously chose the method of changing the literary style, written in a formal journalistic style. Looking at the reaction of readers, not everyone understood this. What was the effect of such a change in the manner of writing in one work?
I didn't think about the effect. I understood that this method will definitely make perception more difficult. At that moment, I knew I could not do otherwise. It was interesting for me to try this genre: it offered a different distance, and at the same time allowed more subjectivity, gave space for speculation, versions, reasoning, speculation, and unanswered questions. I love unanswered questions because for me they mean freedom, incompleteness, joint creativity, and a common process of thinking. At the same time, this approach seemed appropriate to me in the story of Victor Petrov. Among his texts, fictional biographies and essays are closest to me. This part was extremely difficult to produce ; it required constant internal effort. But at the same time I had no questions about the process. I understand that someone may stop reading the book at this point. I'm sorry about that, but I'm aware that this part of the journey is a bit complicated.
Any text is a journey, and I believe that this journey does not have to be smooth and flat. As a reader, I am attracted to challenges. I like to overcome myself, my own expectations, and to shake my ways of flowing thoughts. I like to set myself up as a tool when I read such difficult-to-understand texts as the works of W. G. Zebald, Thomas Bernhard or Klaus Goffer.
As a writer, I wanted to create a challenging journey for reader-travelers. Some parts of it are fast and rapid, some are extremely emotionally complex, and this complexity is facilitated by the meekness of the text, and there are parts that have to be traversed like tackling the river against the current.
I came across reviews from some readers about “Amadoka” in which the reading process was compared to a sexual act. This is a very accurate comparison. The act can be predictable, pleasant and short-lived. it can have many stages, some of which will border on failure, others will approach the terrible discoveries of the unconscious, some will require hard work, others will occur easily and naturally, by themselves. The act does not end with an orgasm, because there is still too much going on. All this is about self-knowledge and about knowing one another and about the joy and value of difficulties and efforts.
Now in Europe there is a certain boom in such complex multi-layered stories. There is a regular demand for large family chronicles or large-scale epics. Almost every generation has its own in the form of written volumes or long series. Why a new surge now?
Perhaps this is due to the fact that information technology has filled the space around us and requires a person to change the work of his brain and perception. We are less and less able to focus on one thing; it is happening to all of us. Perhaps long novels and texts are a response to this phenomenon - a kind of compensation and to some extent, an antidote.
You tell the story through the technical means of the modern digital world - the heroine, Romana, posts on Instagram. Is it a reception of a certain emphasis or a tribute to the positioning of the novel in the present?
This technique makes sense because one of the themes of the novel is both imaginary and real. What can be very convincing on the outside has another side. Social networks are an acute manifestation of such processes. It is very easy to demonstrate and show off what you want to demonstrate and show off; it is very convenient to control the image and model it. Just hide the unwanted. It is one thing when this tool is used by an individual. It is much more dangerous when it is used for deliberate manipulation of the mass consciousness.
These new tools shift the emphasis of living life. Today it is not enough just to feel, see, and meet. It’s not enough to eat or travel. Today, none of this happens if every step is not reflected in the network. You didn't eat unless you showed a photo of your food on Instagram, and even if you showed it, but did not get likes under this photo, your body will not accept the nutrients of the dinner.
Therefore, it seems that there are really only those who are present in the network, whose presence there is evidenced by the digital attention of many people. I'm interested to look there. Sometimes I check online broadcasts on one of the social networks. In an instant, 10,000 people are watching in their smartphones as someone in a remote corner of the planet is feeding chickens. The next moment, 7,000 people switch to a bearded man who paints on canvas while running on a training treadmill. All this is too easy to fail, because it is about totality and mass, about speed, dependence and passivity. At the same time, the trick is that the whole unattainable space of life does not disappear anywhere. We are disappearing from it, allowing ourselves to be increasingly limited to the digital world. But life remains, all its possibilities remain.
You said that in your works you are interested not so much in love as in absolute love in a broad sense. And you also pay attention to the extreme manifestations of love.
I am interested in finding love in such configurations when there seems to be no place for it. For example, in the relationship between an executioner and a victim. These are very abnormal and distorted manifestations. In the part about the Holocaust, I tried to bring out a situation when a very clear, natural and sincere love due to the pressure of external circumstances, war and violence is so refracted in the minds of the characters that they begin to interpret this feeling completely wrong. The world around is so broken that the heroine considers her love broken and decides to act in the opposite way than usually dictated by love. And this topic allows you to understand a lot about man and his centers of gravity.
Is the topic of the Holocaust little written in Ukrainian literature?
Very little. I hope that this topic will arise more often. Until now, we have hardly spoken on this topic. This is a kind of catastrophe, because Ukraine is a territory where the Holocaust took place to a greater extent. This silence is explained. But there is a need to shake this silence.
We know how painful it is sometimes to correct the memory of Soviet repression and pressure in the USSR, or how problematic was the discovery of the truth about the Holodomor. You traveled to Holocaust memorial sites. How ready is Ukrainian society to realize this tragedy?
Even from the reviews of this part of “Amadoka”, I can say that the younger generations have a great readiness, for them it is even a need. It seems that many people have long sought to read, think, talk about this topic - but not always even guessed it. There were even responses when people said that the Holocaust was something distant to them, something that was happening in distant concentration camps, and that it was the first time they realized such closeness. If we talk about specific places related to the injury, especially away from the center, we can observe much less such readiness and need among the older generations and those who are physically close to these places. This is understandable because they are closer directly to this pain. They received a sense of danger from their parents from stirring up these topics.
Is it the fear of acknowledging certain things or being punished for that knowledge? How to avoid the feeling of general accusations – what is called collective responsibility?
It is an irrational fear that when you learn and admit certain painful events witnessed by your grandparents, it will automatically mean your guilt and therefore some punishment.
It must be understood that each situation in such a great tragedy is at the same time individual. There are too few unambiguous manifestations of outright evil or indisputable self-sacrificing good. The most difficult thing is that most of these cases are very contradictory. And this is also what I tried to reproduce: the motive for saving a person can be selfish, mercantile considerations; someone else may sacrifice their own life out of guilt over terrible wrongdoing. Only an attempt to learn as much as possible, an attempt to hear different voices, to go beyond one's own position can bring at least some understanding closer.
The novel has an understanding of the context of the current situation in Ukraine. The current war has remained in the background, but it is clear what it is about. The threads of solution and hope for all three stories are the theme of those who have already been named the three sages. Gregory Skovoroda, Baal Shem Tov, John Pinzel. Are they our saviors today?
All three are a symbol of wisdom that exists beyond time and beyond events. Each of these sages surpassed human nature in the way he found to realize himself. Everyone's path testifies to the universal love that is above sex and relationships between people. And each of them shows that a person can become something bigger than who he was born.
"Amadoka" talks about love, about many different manifestations of love. In most cases, this love is born in its purest form, but under the pressure of circumstances that deform the person and his destiny, love is "wrong", twisted on the opposite side, sick or even poisonous. Skovoroda, Brush and Baal Shem Tov for me - these are the ones who managed to cultivate love of pure quality. Who succumbed to it and allowed it to transform themselves.
These figures in the novel are an example of the unplannedness I was talking about. I even tried for a long time not to let them on the pages of this text because it was already growing a lot. At the same time, each of them is directly connected with one of the parts, with the place of action, with a specific character, each embodies a certain ideal, which turned out to be unattainable for the heroes of the plot. I could think as much as I wanted that I am the only one who decides whether to write about them or not. In fact, they decided.
Translated by Kateryna Kazimirova
Photo by Valentyn Kuzan
Writer, translator, publicist
Awards: BBC Book of the Year (Felix Austria), Joseph Konrad-Kozhenyovsky Literary Prize.