By Daniel Ford
I have so many thoughts about Jaroslav Kalfar’s truly terrific debut novel Spaceman of Bohemia, but, alas, I must wait for next Friday’s #NovelClass discussion with Dave Pezza.
In the meantime, enjoy my interview with the author, who graciously talked to me about how he caught the writing bug, listening to his characters shout over each other in his head, and what inspired Spaceman of Bohemia.
Daniel Ford: What led you to storytelling?
Jaroslav Kalfar: I caught the bug early on, when I was about six. My father had an extensive collection of horror and sci-fi videotapes, and those were the gateway to books. I was in awe of how much stories could move and shape a person (even the small, undeveloped person I was back then!), and I wanted to try my hand at creating stories myself. I started with “X-Files” fan fiction, and soon gathered the confidence to make up my own narratives.
DF: You’ve been an avid reader since you were a kid. Who were some of your early influences?
JK: The above-mentioned videotapes and “X-Files” led me to exploring the small library of my grandparents—Robinson Crusoe, any Jules Verne I could find. Those were the early days. Then I discovered Tolkien, Pratchett, and LeGuin in middle school, and eventually reached the likes of Kundera, Dostoevsky, Dickens, the truly “serious” stuff. I’m so grateful now that my reading diet was so varied right from the start. I didn’t care about “genre” or “literary,” I just wanted to get my hands on any good book.
DF: When you actually sit down to write, what’s your process like? Do you outline, listen to music, consult with cosmic spider?
JK: I’m not a big fan of outlining. I mark the spot on the map I need to get to with light pencil, maybe. But the joy of writing for me is in constant surprise and discovery. If I know exactly where I’m going, I will lose interest quickly. As for the physical act of writing, most of time it’s in my office, with shades drawn, and in complete silence so I can hear the characters in my head shout over each other. I absolutely consult with a cosmic spider, even though he eats all my food, the glutton.
DF: What inspired Spaceman of Bohemia?
JK: I’ve always been fascinated with loneliness, its contradictions, how people experience it so differently. It seemed like there was no greater place to study loneliness than within the confines of space. But I also wanted to write about my country, its democratic aspirations and historical hang-ups. Astronaut as character seemed so well poised for both. In space, the astronaut is subject to inconveniences, anxieties, perfect isolation, but on Earth, the astronaut is thought of as hero, symbol, embodiment of aspiration and progress. Within Spaceman were summarized my biggest obsessions, those I wanted in the first book.
DF: Space can offer an endless canvas, but you illustrate perfectly that humans are still bound by their limitations even if they’re soaring through the heavens. How did you decide on the structure of the novel?
JK: The structure was bit of an accident, as it sometimes happens. Initially I was not going to dedicate whole scenes to Jakub’s past on Earth, only include small fragments here and there. But the past became so crucial to why Jakub had undertaken the mission, and it became equally important to me that the Czech Republic and Jakub’s life there was as alive, vivid, and exciting as anything happening in space. There just comes a point when the book dictates exactly what it needs, and everything comes together (this makes the process sound mystical and somehow automatic, but, of course, to come to that point, one must undergo hundreds of hours of frustration and discarded drafts).
DF: Letting go of characters and stories can be hard, especially for debut novelists. Was it tough saying goodbye to them?
JK: The hardest part was making the decision of “this is the final draft, time to take my hands off.” There is always something to fix, a different way to express something about a character. I also had some tough times while writing the novel, personal troubles, health issues, and Jakub, Hanus, and Lenka certainly became a way for me to be elsewhere away from those problems. I miss that, the act of just sitting in a room and talking to them (particularly to Hanus—he provided the same comforts for me that he provided for Jakub, that clever spider), but I am even more excited that their story is out in the world now, existing independently of me. That’s the dream.
DF: You can’t read your novel or your backstory without thinking about the current political situation in the United States. You say in your promotional material that “America felt limitless” when you came here when you were a kid. Do you still feel that way or are you as disillusioned as the rest of us trying to figure this mess out?
JK: I’m grateful for my Czech upbringing, as it taught me to face history with good humor. But I have to say that this is the least good humor I’ve ever had. America is certainly not limitless, in fact, it is victim to its own insistence on exceptionalism. It was interesting to at once watch Donald Trump’s ascent to power, Russia’s new machinations in Europe and Middle East, and the beginning of fragmentation in the EU after Brexit. It’s an unexpected U-turn toward an uglier, messier time, and I was as caught off-guard as everyone else. But I will say one thing about America: the people, the artists, the thinkers who have been coming forward to resist the new political reality are giving me great hope. Perhaps I’ll gain some of that good humor back.
DF: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?
JK: Working on the next one! Focusing on new projects has helped a great deal with the publication anxiety. I’ve two big things on the docket—one a sprawling novel cutting across history (much further back than Spaceman), while the other is a small, intimate book about modern love and the multiverse. We’ll see which one I finish first.
DF: What’s your advice for aspiring authors?
JK: Write the damn thing, then check to see if it’s the best version of itself. If not, write a better version, or write something else. Readers are amazing and we owe them this much.
DF: Can you name one random fact about yourself?
JK: I genuinely dislike coffee. I think it’s just awful. It has been surprising to some people, since the Spaceman cover features a giant beautiful coffee cup.
To learn more about Jaroslav Kalfar, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @JaroslavKalfar. Tune into #NovelClass next Friday to hear our discussion about Spaceman of Bohemia.