Occupation: writer, Ukrainian PEN Club member
Awards: BBC Children’s Book of the Year, Shevchenko National Prize in Literature
This should be an interview with an emphasis on your lifestyle, so I’ll ask right away, how do you live?
I live well and once upon a time I even thought to myself: the intensity of literature, I mean the intensity of writing, from my youth, is associated with the quality of life. That is, the better I feel and the fuller life is — it does not mean sweet or bitter, or hard — and the more offline, this real life, the less I want to write. I realized that in my case literature is more of a sublimation. This is not only about some kind of sexual energy.
I really liked the way Volodya Eshkilev explained his literary fertility at a certain time. He said that up to the age of forty he was very sexual. There was this energy and everything, and he was full of that sexuality. Then, after hitting his forties, it dropped off and he suddenly wrote several books. And I'm not talking specifically about sexual energy, although if I have already remembered this, and if it fits the lifestyle, then I must say that over time and with age I feel that there is not enough of an erotic element in my approach to the world. If there is eroticism, there must be also some kind of intrigue, something like a spring bursting open. Although here it is not at all about the effectiveness of this eroticism. It simply gives some kind of vitality when Eros is seen in everything, but with age, it somehow eventually stabilizes — if we can speak in such Ukrainian political terms. As a result, there is no longer that spark. Stabilization is actually a recession.
But later literary works sometimes have such a rich taste, as if more aged. After all, in older years you have accumulated a larger number of sexual experiences.
I think these are just two different varieties, or, as we were taught in botany, subspecies — not even full-fledged species — of this process of writing. It is obvious that literature, or art in any case, has a very great value in itself and, again returning to some physical concepts, it is certain condensed energy. Accordingly it is like a long feed or some kind of a transformer that transmits this energy. Herefore, this young literature has its own thing, since it contains questions, energy, pressure, really interest in the world, idealism, faith, through which it works.
But I think there is also older literature. About ten years ago, I said that I would like to live to old age because it seems to me modern Ukrainian literature actually lacks such elders, ninety or eighty years old, or something else so old. Old age is generally being ousted from modern public discourse, and now I see: the most important thing that comes with age is the idea of the duration and the passing of time — not wasting, but simply about this function of it and that it is moving somewhere. Knowing, or first of all understanding, how everything happens over time is the greatest ability of the older writers, since the young cannot have it because they do not know how this evolution takes place.
Here I will resort to self-quoting from some of my early stories: when you take, for example, a bag of apples, you feel it, you taste it, you know how much it weighs, you know the movement with which you will throw that bag over yourself, and it seems to you that everything is fine... Then, when you have already covered one hundred, two hundred, four hundred meters, two or ten kilometers, your connection with the bag begins to acquire new, unknown, unpredictable features. Your relationship with that bag of apples develops, and it turns out that it is not so easy. It is more and more difficult for you to hold it, and, in the end, some apple will definitely come out of that total mass and will definitely press on one of the base cervical vertebrae. Then you will not raise your head, and in the end you become so stooped when the neck gradually lowers. You look from under your brows, and this is all pinched, and the point is that you cannot know about this in advance, even just trying — whether you move that bag or not. But age, including the age of the writer, gives this access to an understanding of duration.
And what if one day the themes for great love stories end or the world becomes some utopian ideal of equality and freedom, and accordingly the experience of elders will be the same as the youthful one?
Once my friend Yuri Andrukhovich gave me the only advice on writing and literature, which is essential here and now. I was still very young at the time and asked Yurko, who was still older than me, what he thought was the best for me to do in the text — it was about solving some topics or something like that — to which Yuri said, “You know, it doesn't matter. It can be that way or other way. The main thing is to write it well.” For me that advice was on the one hand a disappointment because I already knew that the main thing was to write well, but it was still a great lesson.
Now I really know it, and again a self-quote, "When there is nothing to think about, you can think about the fact that there is nothing to think about". You can write a wonderful story about the absence of something.
But here I mean, is literature possible without struggle?
Actually, it is possible. Here you ask how I live, and I am still confused in some ways. I understand, but I don't know if I'm using it correctly. And so, let's say, literature is like a simulacrum, some work; it is a thing made of something. Literature and reality are very relatively connected because literature is not a reflection of some reality; it is a thing in and of itself.
In my experience, and for me as an author, when I write and try to convey it as plausibly as possible, and then I think — no, it doesn't matter and I can't convey it the way it was as a whole, then I start to understand that it's really just as if I were a carpenter and made another table or if I was knitting. Also, with each text it is necessary to understand that it is a separate work and for general life, mine or someone else's, does not matter so much. It is simply something made according to its own laws and is also, above all, a linguistic phenomenon because especially in fiction it is very important how a word stands next to another word.
How do you feel about the fact that writing and reading texts has become an end in itself for many people? That is, when after one book, you take the second at once and do not even always have time to think at least a little about the content of the previous work. Or, for example, when instead of living, you either just read or just write all the time.
Yes, but you see it's more noticeable now because more people are doing it. Although from the very beginning of writing — especially in the 19th century in Europe — there have always been such book-writing people. Remember how many different monographs have been written and how many professors have been sitting there around the clock because it was actually their life. This once again confirms that literature is its own separate world with, as someone has said, the eternal rewriting of books, when reading turns into writing, then back into reading and writing and so on. There are and will always be people for whom literature is not just work, but passion and their life.
I remember, when Yuri and I were young, my mother predicted that we would both go down the wrong path in life because we had read Balzac’s 10-volume edition when we were 12 or 13 years old — that’s when the Ukrainian translation was issued. She said if we had this image of the world, we’d be doing a lot of things that weren’t mean, but we’d just be demoralizing ourselves completely because Balzac was able to paint this whole human comedy so. It would be a bad thing to have such a life in the mind of a child as normal. At about the time, when I was still having a child’s experience, but I had already read these things, I was fascinated, surprised, frightened and amused at the same time by the notion of "book worm".
I couldn’t really figure out what the worm was, and for better or worse, was it a handsome person, or maybe not so much. Because on the one hand, I was familiar with earthworms, and they were wonderful. But, I also saw a lot of visual agitation about the roundworms, the beef tapeworm, and it seemed creepy to me. When I was a kid, the worms were more visible in the public space, so we all knew about cat fluke, pork tapeworm and all that stuff. There was a huge amount of material about it everywhere you went; there was a hand-made poster published by the therapeutic department doctors or some city clinic, and it had all sorts of terrible things on it. There were also a lot of publications about how when you went to play in the garden, pulled out a carrot, ate it, and then you got something going on there and it was over for you. We knew about the transiting parasites, and not the non-transiting ones. So, if it is from a puppy, a kitten, a piglet, a parrot, it's one thing, and if it comes directly from the ground, that’s another. Here were these book worms in parallel, and I couldn’t make up my mind at all, so I finally chose a life where literature and writing didn’t take precedence.
So it wouldn’t have to be like a worm?
Something like that, yes. You know, by the way, I’ve been thinking lately that I’ve been living my life so long; I’ve been writing really cool novels from all walks of life and all sorts of experiences. I kept thinking that whatever my experience was, it could still be used someday, until at some moment I realized that all those decades of experience had been unproductive because I had never written it all.
By the way, over the last two or three years, I’ve heard several different versions of what your next novel should be. So I have to ask you, are you finishing a prose piece, or have you just finished it, or are you just sitting down and writing it?
No, I just left this. I wanted to and even started, and I did quite a lot about Michael Winch — this is the kind of English reporter that we have in certain circles known through the single published book "The One Day State". And so I was very interested in doing not just alternative, but a fantastic story about him. I thought of all sorts of things, and there had to be something about intelligence, and of course, how an Englishman should behave in the East. That is, on the one hand, to carry the fan of the empire with dignity, and on the other hand, in the East it's impossible not to lighten up or not to snap. At least that’s what I thought. I mean, it was supposed to be like this, but for now I put it off and talking about some future book for me is almost traumatic. Because I’ve said so much in my time that even Roman Malinovsky has written such a story that may or may not be in his first collection of stories — actually about this process of delaying, about these declarations. And I realized, especially when I saw a long-standing collection of interviews that Karpuck had published at Discursus, that almost every one of them was about some new idea. So I stopped talking about it. But one day there’s going to be something about the lifestyle, about the attitude for it, and about the experience.
I feel like I still have to go through something to make things right, make a conditioned circle to close and that conditioned structure to work out.
I’ve always had, how to put it, perfectionist flaws or something. I never wanted to write much; I wanted to write something, but something that I was happy with and something that had to make sense. Because, again, as a long-term and very intense reader, especially in childhood and adolescence, I know how many good books there are, and so, you know, I don’t want to add hastily just another book.
I like the way Andruhovich writes, who could with his talent and ability just write and write novels, if only he wanted to be on this path. But you can see that he is not interested in writing typical things. Anyway, I would like to say that every novel of his is also a professional find.
You know, I’m looking at my now middle-aged son, who is an architect, but now he’s doing various carpentry products, and I see this engineer’s joy or the master’s joy when he finds some new spatial-constructional solution that has never existed before. It brings aesthetics, technological efficiency and functionality together. And so when he finds it — and this is hard to find in a way that makes it super-duper — that’s the great joy of creativity. So I’ve always wanted to write things I don’t know, to invent something, and in this sense I admire Andruhovich’s literary approach.
I totally agree with you. For me, you have to publish a book only if you can change the world with it, or if you think you’re gonna get a Nobel Prize for it. And what do you see in the future of literature? Should the style of writing or the approach to text construction change?
See, again, I divide literature into two broad categories. There is and always will be reading literature: literature recognizable. It’s going to be squeezed by all sorts of TV shows and things like that. I even think that the current TV series are a certain kind of literature. Just as in, say, the 1940s or 1950s, there was a separate approach to radio drama and radio literature where people wrote consciously to make it sound good on the radio. I think the current approach to creating TV shows is also another manifestation of literature, just with the addition of some new features. And these kinds of books like crude novels are still popular and will continue to exist because in addition to this book, people also buy being in a certain microclimate and ecotope. And then there’s the conditional couture literature, and I think we should be aware of when we’re talking about one or another expression of this literature. Because it is, as the bolshevik critics would say, art for art’s sake, ivory tower and so on. That is, there is a development of professional literary thought similar to a machine, which invents each time a new form, and therefore you should expect from each of these parts only what is contained in them.
But what exactly would you like to change?
I don't want to change anything, really. Because I believe that literature itself must change something very big, and those who are serious about it feel that it is in fact a structure to which something can be more and more completed, plastered — in the end at least attach a new balcony or air conditioner to the facade without destroying anything.
What kind of air conditioner would you hitch?
From the very beginning of my writing work, I understand how much literature is actually a termite mound. How much each of us, those who write, are not really alone, how much we are involved in the process of creating this common, huge termite mound. However, despite this, each of us remains that individual termite, which has its own allotted time to gnaw, process and sculpt.
In the magazine Universe in ‘89 or ‘90 the novel "Death is a Lonely Business" was published, the title of which can be paraphrased, and it is fair to say: literature is a lonely business. Because, on the one hand, there is such a group — bees, ants, termites, — and on the other hand, as a result, everyone still remains that ant, termite, etc. So I do not set myself goals to drill or reborn that termite mound.
That is, it turns out that all literature is a world of various types of worms and insects, in which you have to be either only an earthworm, or just a reader's worm, or in general some kind of worm ...?
A lot about worms today. But by the way, it is very important to know your place in literature and understand that you only have one specific place. In one of my first texts published in the magazine Thursday, it was something like this, "I want — then some set of what —... to cover everything." And first you need to spend some time there to understand and finally realize that you cannot embrace everything, and you cannot really turn anything over. But at the same time, a couple of centimeters of your stroke in the stone will be added as a result to the branching of the whole system. For many years now I have been really interested in what I am doing — short prose, I mean, which physiologically was like a chain reaction. As the Russian poets of the sixties would say — "a breath of fresh air." So in short prose, I would like to find a physiologically justified dose for this, both minimal and capable of transcending, acting, and reaching the threshold of sensitivity.
And if you are so into short prose, then we cannot really expect a novel from you soon?
Yes, because a novel is already a course of therapy, and I love something like citramon in tablets — you keep it somewhere close and just use it when you have a headache or something insignificant.
By the way, various psychotherapies, psychoanalysis, etc. are now very common, however, your brother is also a practicing psychoanalyst. But do you yourself believe that a person should go to specialists to heal somehow? Or is he able to cope independently with the help of his own life experience, self-examination, self-reflection? As far as I understand, you don’t want to take a course of therapy?
No, I do not want to take it because before that I spoke about the course of therapy not for myself, but for consumers. But at the same time I know that all therapies and all practices eventually lead to work on themselves. Also a person should know that this self-reflection and all these practices are possible, that it is possible and even necessary to work with oneself. This inner work is perhaps the most important part of the biography, but here, as with literacy or hygiene, many people need someone to say and show that this is really possible.
There was in my childhood some kind of German program on TV "do as we do, do with us, do better than us." Sometimes someone has to tell and show because there are people who are unable to reach this simple conclusion without any help. However there are people for whom different signs, different circumstances, different phenomena in themselves are those advisers which say that this is possible and these indidivuals come to think that they can work with it, and it’s wonderful.
And the last: You've had a lot of interviews, conversations, public speaking, and so on in your life. Sometimes it seems like you've talked about everything in the world. But what would you like to have for your last conversation, just before death?
There is such a thing that it is very difficult to prepare for even in dreams. Because simply when there comes a moment about which we know nothing, we cannot predict what we will be then, in what state we will be and what we will feel. So everything prepared in advance or imagined about ourselves at that moment is mostly completely false.
When someone asked me what I was most afraid of, I always knew and thought to myself that I was most afraid of fear itself. Because it seems like I'm not afraid of anything, I'm not afraid of spiders, but no no no, stop, no spiders here! In general, I am not afraid of this, that, that and that, but I am afraid that at the moment when I encounter something, it will frighten me and all my fearlessness will suddenly simply disappear. Similarly, I do not know and cannot know what I will be like before I die. I would like to keep my inner peace, to say a few practical things, what and where certain things lie, what needs to be fixed, something like that. That is, no conceptual conversations, no, instead such small, practical things are better.
This is probably the best characterization of the state of completion because you seem to have managed everything and what you only need is to tell in which stash the dried mushrooms lie.
Oh yes, yes. Because in fact this is the most important conversation — where are the mushrooms.
You know, I sometimes think that I have such a mental illness — I don't know what it is called - that I give too much importance to my participation in solving the problems of my loved ones. It seems to me that when I am not there, then something will be wrong or they will not know where stuff lies, such specific things. Although I have experienced so many deaths of loved ones and saw that all these things after someone's death have almost no meaning. Over time everything gets along fine. That is, life is developing. Sometimes it is very difficult afterwards, I mean not mentally, but when the person who did everything or something like that is gone. But in general, this is my invention about my need to be somewhere at a certain moment, to decide this and that, because otherwise it will be hard. No, it won't be hard, and therefore I would like to die in peace, knowing that every death, despite all the tragedy, drama and tension, carries with it a small element of relief for those who stay.
Occupation: writer, Ukrainian PEN Club member
Awards: BBC Children’s Book of the Year, Shevchenko National Prize in Literature