Olga Tokarczuk is today’s Author of the Day.
Nicholas Clee caught up with her in the run up
to the Fair.
NC: Have you visited the London Book Fair
before? Any book fairs?
OT: Yes, I have been to London on the
occasion of promoting one of my novel’s
English editions and I have also visited many
other international fairs. I think they all seem
alike. If there is life after death, then a purgatory
for writers would resemble the book fairs: huge
halls, crowds of people and hundreds of
thousands of books. Writers are usually introverts, they work in
solitude and, in a way, hold a feeling of uniqueness. That is why
such fairs can be a challenge for the authors–they find out how
many other people also write, and what a big business it all is.
NC: What’s on your schedule for Wednesday?
OT: At 11:30 in the National Hall Gallery Club Room I will
speak with other Polish and British female writers about the
situation of women in literature. At 14:30 there will be a Q&A
with me at the English PEN Literary Salon. There is so much
going on during these three days at the Fair. I assumed I would
have a chance to roam around London, but it seems quite
NC: Do you hope that your presence at the Fair, and Poland’s
status as Guest of Honour, will help raise the profile of Polish
OT: I think that, from time to time, it is worth presenting to
English readers something different, originating in this part of
the world, in which, it seems, they do not take much interest. I
know that on the British book market there is only a few
percent of foreign translations.
NC: You trained as a psychologist. How has that, and
Jungian psychology in particular, influenced your fiction?
OT: I think that studying psychology is a good way of preparing
oneself for writing. First of all, you learn to look at the seemingly
obvious things from unobvious points of view. Secondly, you
always pay attention to the detail–and that is crucial in a writer’s
work. And last, but not the least, you learn how to listen to
other people. A lot of my stories come from listening to others.
NC: You write in different genres. Do you find that you have
to transcend genres in order to encompass your themes?
OT: Genres come into being in accordance with the specific
needs of their time. They are only a form for the story. Some
writers can bring specific genres to perfection. However, I think
that a genre is sometimes insufficient, too formal, limiting. I
was never interested in writing a crime novel just to find out
who committed the crime. It is a waste of paper. I try to expand
and change the genre frames so that they suit me better.
NC: After a period of liberation and hope
when the Soviet Union collapsed, we appear to
be seeing freedoms under threat again. How
worried are you about the political climate?
OT: Yes, I am concerned. I feel that we are on
the verge of a huge change. The world we live in
has changed so abruptly in the last 70 years and
it continues rapidly to do so. I mean mostly the
information revolution bringing a fast access to
knowledge, the speed of communication, the
vast impact of media, climate change, wars, the
new human migration. Altogether it makes
people feel frightened and wishing for a return to
a more stable, safer world, where things are simple, traditions
permanent, and people know their place in the social structure.
Such a need for regression makes people crave a more black and
white reality. There is a point of struggle, also on display in
politics: between openness and seclusion, between a simple vision
of the world and a complex one. Literature has a role to play
here. And good literature is always on the other side. ■
Translated by Iwona Łopacińska and Ewa Ayton. Olga Tokarczuk will be
in conversation with Deborah Levy at London Review Bookshop on
Thursday 16th March for London Book & Screen Week.
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