Interview with Olga Tokarczuk on 6 December 2019 during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.
Your parents were both teachers. How did that influence you?
Olga Tokarczuk: It was really a very good beginning for a writer. The books were very present in our house. I saw from the beginning how my parents are discussing books, reading books, buying books and I could spend a lot of time with my father in the library which I remember very good. What I remember very good, and like here we have a shelf and the most interesting books for me were always close to the ground. So, I explored those shelfs very intensively and I think that was the way I really discovered books as a world, as an alternative world. Of course, I think in the beginning, were fairy tales many of them and I do still like fairy tales very much. Even recently I bought a new volume of Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales and they still, I read them as a kind of poetry, but later I think that Jules Verne affected me very much. So, I started to think in this way – crossing borders, thinking about other countries and other cultures, travelling – so that was the very strong idea for me.
Did you enjoy school?
Olga Tokarczuk: I liked my school but rather from social reasons because of my friends and the time spending together. But I was a type of child who rather preferred self-education, so I had many hobbies, many fascinating subjects like astronomy for instance. So, I really spent a lot of time studying for my pleasure. I remember very well my teacher from secondary school. She was biologist and she taught us biology and she opened my eyes for this beautiful aspect of physical existence of every living being.
What did you want to be when you were younger?
Olga Tokarczuk: Of course, as a very young child, I would be an actress like every single girl I think, but later I excepted that the progress of science will be quicker, I think and then I expected that it will be possible to be a physician, but a cosmic physician, so I was thinking about my future profession as taking part in cosmic, oh god, how to say, expedition. So, I remember myself dreaming about to be a part of a cosmic expedition and work in science checking how the human body is relating with cosmic space, it was a very fantastic idea. Of course, I think that I overestimated the time of development of science. Now I can realise that this is the same subject in my books – thank you for this question.
How has your training as a psychologist affected the way you tell stories?
Olga Tokarczuk: I think that it was a good choice to study psychology. Of course, I was temptated by my mother to study literature even if she knew from the beginning that I wanted to write, but psychology taught me very many important things. I think the one, the most important one that there is every single human being is the source of a novel, it’s a source of many stories. So, we are living in a world that like, more or less, five billion of stories, novels, in potential state existing still around us. But the second reason, why studying psychology was a very good choice, is that this training as a psychotherapist taught me how to listen to people. It’s a kind of ability you can really train and then you can be open much more for what people are saying to you.
Which experience has most influenced your work?
Olga Tokarczuk: The most influencial experience which really is strong related to my work is, I think, this moment I decided to move to the countryside and then … because I grew up as a child in the countryside, then after big cities and this kind of chaotic life, I came back to the nature. And then I discovered a kind of different state of mind which was very good for my writing and gave me a kind of concentration, silence, inner silence.
What do you enjoy most about the process of writing?
Olga Tokarczuk: I think that most funny and mysterious thing is creating characters. It looks, in the beginning, that I’m really inventing because I need a character, a personality to the story, to my story. But in fact, it looks rather like those characters are coming from outside to my story, so, they are already existing somewhere and there are the first step is that they look rather shapely, only cloudy, not in a physical way, but there is another step of this process when I can hear what they are talking between each other or when they are talking to me. So, this is the best moment in my writing. It must be special, very deep and special connection, relationship between me as a narrator, me as an author and my characters and for sure they are taking from me many things, but I’m also, I’ve learned from them. Sometimes they surprise me because of somethings I didn’t know about them, so, it’s really very mysterious. I’m going to write about it. And of course, there are many dimensions of writing because first of all you need to make a research or even to invent an entire story, to support yourself by another books, other ideas, to talk with people, to make some notes. And then there is a beginning of writing and sculpturing the entire story. So, it’s so many dimensions that it’s never boring really, and they like it. This is my only one profession, I cannot do anything else, so.
Do you think there are specific qualities that you need to be a good writer?
Olga Tokarczuk: There is one, I presume, which is ability to live in a kind of regime, so, kind of regularity in writing and also, how to say, to manage, kind of management of our time we have to dispose.
Which book of yours would you recommend a new reader to start with?
Olga Tokarczuk: There is no such a book I think, because, first of all, I should ask, who is the reader? If is, if it is young or middle-age, woman or man, I don’t know, introvert or extrovert, it’s quite complicated. But there are some books I like, there are some books of mine I like more than the other and I think there is still one book which wasn’t translated into Swedish, it’s called ‘Anna in the graves of the world’ [Anna w grobowcach świata], it’s like a cyber punk, a little bit, old story based on the Sumerian mythology. So, this book could be nice for teenagers for instance.
Who has most influenced you as a writer?
Olga Tokarczuk: It is also hard to answer, because it depends from in which moment of my life. There were many such a fascination of mine on a special kind of writing, special novels. So, it’s quite fluent I would say, but for sure I do belong to this Central European tradition of writing, telling story and also writing, and discovering the language, I would say. And among those writers from Central Europe, I would underline the name of Bruno Schulz, who was very important for me as a Polish writer, writing in Polish, because he did incredible things with Polish language. But I also like this kind of parabolic writing, also rooted in Central Europe, like Franz Kafka for instance. But of course, when I was young, much younger, as a teenager, I was fascinated by literature of Southern America. I like Russian writers very much, this kind of realism and irony. So, it could be a very long answer, till the evening.
How can we make women’s voices more heard in literature – and beyond?
Olga Tokarczuk: I think that the process already began but we are still somewhere on the beginning of this process. Once I wrote a book about three women, the mother, grandmother and the daughter, and I tried to describe their experiences as really existential, so the human being face to death and all those very demanding experiences in our life. And by the Polish critics this book was described as a saga, saga, is that good expression? I was so disappointed because when they realised that the main characters are women and the author is woman, it must be a saga. Sometimes I think that we need, not only female writing, but also creating the female characters in literature as a philosophical, ethical subject, facing towards the most important challenges, contemporary challenges then, because when we are thinking about a man, I mean a human being, we still have somewhere in the back of our minds, a man, the figure of man. So, this one is very important, this should be, to be changed.
You unmask borders and nationalism in your work. Can you tell us about this theme?
Olga Tokarczuk: The first, the very, the simplest answer should be connected with place of my growing up and also in the places where I used to live and it’s always kind of karma because I was born close to the German border and then I now living close to Czech border. My family was part of this big political changing of borders after the Second war, so they were refugees from one part of Poland territory to the other, gained after the second war. So, the story about borders were very present in my childhood and also in my own life. But also, this subject is fascinating because of, from this abstract site. Borders are a challenge for us but also feel very deeply the deep need to crossing the borders. It is something … I remember myself living in this small village, there was a, there is a still, an old border in the forest and I used to take my dogs and went to the forest just for crossing the border, for clear plain pleasure, for the joy that I’m a free person and the border in fact doesn’t exist in a real sense. And of course, especially in Jakob’s book, I would like to relate to the previous concept of Poland as a multi-culture country, as a society speaking many languages, which we completely lost after the Second war, so, this is also something deep need to rebuild the old image of Poland.
Would you say that travel and movement is a key theme in your work?
Olga Tokarczuk: Yes, it is. I do believe that we, all of us, we have somewhere in our, perhaps genes, our psyche, we have this nomadic instinct which creates our lives. And even if we are living entire life in one place, we’re still thinking about just crossing those places where we are designed to be. And this deep need is very, also very present in my life so, writing Flights I tried to write that kind of monographic of movement on many levels. From this touristic level, site for pilgrimage, for also kind of neurotic, you know, an easiness to go somewhere, to check somewhere, just to also missing places we’ve never been before, which also creates our lives in very, very visible ways. So, I would say this book is just monographic of movements, literary monographic of movements.
How does the issue of sustainability appear in your work?
Olga Tokarczuk: I’m not the type of activist. I’m too neurotic and too nervous to make a speech, you know, to a big group of people. I’m not this kind of fighter but what I can do it’s, I can invent some ideas and I can write down those ideas and I can create a story which will move another people like Drive your plow over the bones of the dead, and after this book many people told me that they became vegetarian so it is really something. So, I’m going to do what I really can do, this is my small field of my activity. And of course, literature is a very specific way of understanding the world and very specific and very raffinated, special, sophisticated way of communication. So, I would like, in my writing, I would like to try just a kind of general ideas of instruction, how to deal with those very dangerous things connected with climate changes. So, please understand that I am not an activist. This is what I’m going to say. I’m going to write about it in my own language, in using my imagination to make our consciousness broader.
Tell us about the foundation you’re creating using the prize money?
Olga Tokarczuk: That was one of the first thoughts after this announcement and after realising that I, in a completely different situation right now. I was always very active in doing something for the small community. I used to live of making some projects for other people and now I have such a possibility, now I can really do so. We are now writing a stated, or how, what is the English word? The plan of the foundation, goals of the foundation and the main goals will be connected with literature, the small residences for writers and translators of course, but I’m also very keen to focus on ecology, especially in our small community, in our village and there are many, many ideas, also animal rights which is also very important things for me.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring writers?
Olga Tokarczuk: It’s a complicated question. I know that there are many kinds of studying, called creative writing for instance and the people then trying to learn how to write, how to live in writing, because for me, writing is rather a psychological process, not just the process of writing on a paper, even not inventing a story, but something which is very deeply connected with our psychological side. So, I think that there is only one advice, to read, to read. I think read and read, and for every single one written page it is always one thousand pages which should be read.
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Their work and discoveries range from the formation of black holes and genetic scissors to efforts to combat hunger and develop new auction formats.
See them all presented here.