Czech novelist Petra Hůlová (b. 1979) vaulted to fame almost a decade ago with the publication of her debut novel All of This Belongs to Me (Paměť mojí babičce, 2002). Since then she has written five more novels in Czech, and in 2009 saw her much acclaimed first novel published by Northwestern University Press in an English translation by Alex Zucker.
While most English-language readers do not have much in the way of preconceptions of what a Czech novel should be like, a story set in Mongolia narrated by Mongolians probably counts as something of a surprise. “From the marketing point of view it’s quite puzzling for readers abroad that there’s a book set in Mongolia by a Czech writer,” Hůlová said.
While she realizes that your average reader might prefer a book by a Czech writer to be about contemporary Czech society and a book set in Mongolia to be written by a Mongolian, she did not go out of her way to point this out to her US publishers. “I didn’t want to talk them out of it,” she said, laughing.
Mainstream critical reception was limited, though the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) awarded it the 2010 National Translation Award .“There was a big review in the London Times literary supplement, which is quite a prestigious review for me. I’m actually the first female Czech author ever reviewed there. But that’s more or less it.”
The novel has also been translated into Dutch, Hungarian, French, Polish and German, and there is an Italian translation in progress and a Turkish one set to be undertaken as well.
Hůlová says she is not working on anything right now, though if she were she said she wouldn’t talk about it. For her, writing is not something that can be slotted into her everyday life.
“Actually most of the time I don’t write. I’m not the kind of writer who has a routine of writing four, five or six hours a day. I just live some kind of life and when I feel there’s something inside of me that wants to be told and that enough material has been gathered I take a kind of bubble of time where I am just writing. Usually I go abroad to write, where I’m not disturbed by anything else and then I come back to my daily routine without writing.”
Now that she has two small children the challenge of finding the time and space to write is that much harder. She wrote her most recent book when her husband took a six-month parental leave from his job and she rented a small studio where she could write in peace.
“I think this bubble of complete privacy is so important, and people don’t understand in a way that, for example, when I’m in my flat without any disturbances and someone calls, even for only five minutes, to get back into the flow of the story can take another half day, or at least a couple hours.”
Trying to explain this to people who aren’t writers can prove difficult too, Hůlová says, making you look over-sensitive and mean. “That’s why it’s better to be completely away for me.”
From The Call of the Wild to Greed
While some novelists switch their attention to short stories in response to having less time or only as a change of pace from a longer work, Hůlová does not see this as an option.
“I can’t write short stories. I think it’s very difficult. It takes me a lot of time to get immersed in the story, to get the characters down well, and I’m slow with that. So with a short story you have to be very fast and the story has to be very pointed and focused. That’s not what I do with my texts,” she said. “For me it’s about the feeling of having enough material and the urgency to write.”
Asked about their influences many writers prefer to stick to generalities - a list of names, or out of fear of having their originality questioned, no names at all. Hůlová, on the other hand, is extremely specific: “I always have one author I adore in every period of my life. In the past it was Jack London, when I was very young, then Franz Kafka, then Toni Morrison and now it’s Elfride Jelinek.”
In contemporary writing her attention has been attracted by the Czech Republic’s neighbor to the North. “Poland is very interesting for me from a literary point of view. It’s a much more vivid scene than here in the Czech Republic. I even began to learn Polish some time ago to be able to follow it.”
This is not necessarily a matter of literary affinity though. “In Poland I think there are many progressive young authors doing Postmodern kind of stuff, which is not the style dear to my heart. I am, in a way, quite a conservative author.”