When the book market opened up in East-Central Europe after the changes of 1989, readers naturally gravitated toward the books they’d been previously denied. Banned books became bestsellers. In Hungary, for instance, “everything that could not be published since 1948 was printed and sold in huge editions. Neither the ‘official’ publishing houses nor the ‘official’ distribution system could cope with the demand. Hundreds of new publishers appeared and books were sold by street vendors instead of bookstores.”
Foreign publishers began to make inroads. The Soros Foundation financed translations of important social science titles. Readers were eager to get their hands on the foreign books they could only smuggle in before. Popular fiction like Stephen King and Agatha Christie became bestsellers.
But it was not necessarily easy for local writers to break into the business. When bestselling Slovak writer Tana Keleova Vasilkova was starting out in the early 1990s, she had difficulty convincing any publisher to take a chance on her novel.
“When my first book was finished, none of the publishing houses wanted to publish it,” she told me in an interview last May in Devinska Nova Ves, the borough of Bratislava that is closest to Austria. “At that time there was a boom in translated books coming here after the end of socialism. Under socialism, it was very difficult to get these foreign books, so everyone wanted to read them. For three years, no one wanted to publish my book. During these three years, I finished another five books! So, I started to become a little bit angry about the situation. My father helped me. One very little publishing house published my book. It put out 500 copies.”
But the publication of her first book didn’t make matters any easier. “When I came to all those publishing houses again with the second book, I thought I was in a better position,” she continued. “‘Come on,’ I told them, ‘I wrote and published the first book. I’m a writer now. I have to have a better contract now.’ But the situation with the second book was the same.”
Frustrated, she tried something different. Her husband started his own publishing company. “And my friends collected money for me,” she remembered. “And the second book was published. Excerpts of this book were published in Slovenka magazine, which at that time was the most read magazine in Slovakia. Immediately every woman knew about me and wanted to read my other books. After that, the publishing house with which I cooperate until today realized that Slovakia has had enough of translated books and we should begin publishing some good local literature.”
Today, she is Slovakia’s best-selling female author. She has published 24 novels that, together, have sold more than a million copies. Her books have appeared in Czech, Hungarian, and Ukrainian. And she hopes that they will appear in English soon as well. “My books are full of love, but they are not pink books,” she hastens to add. “There are a lot of problems, pain, and crying — everything that life throws at us. But also, the books are full of a belief that there will be better time. But, and this is a big but, nothing will change if we just sit and wait and believe that things will change by themselves.”
We talked about her early days as a journalist, what men can learn from her books, and what’s missing from Slovak political life today.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was 25 years old. It was one year after I finished journalism at the university. I was a greenhorn working for one of the newspapers. Of course we all saw this news, the Wall falling down, in the newsroom and also at home. And we couldn’t believe it. Because we were so shaped by socialism and life under the system, we didn’t believe that it could change.
One week later was the Velvet Revolution. Was that also surprising to you?
Yes. Until today, I remember that we were screaming and crying when we saw it on television. However, I didn’t even know what really was going on. I was young and I had a small baby at that time. I was not in the group of organizers or even among the people who knew what exactly was going on. Somewhere deep inside, I believed and felt that a breakthrough would happen. But I couldn’t imagine at the time how that would happen.
What topics did you cover when you were a journalist in 1989?
I was alone, on my own with my baby because my husband had to go for one year into the military after university. I decided to work at a bi-weekly newspaper, a boring one. Its general theme was education. From very early childhood, I always knew where my place would be. I knew that this was the place I should be at that time, because of my family. Of course, it was just a starting position for me.
Did you always want to be a journalist?
I’d been told that I would never have children. And I always wanted to be a journalist. So, I told myself that I would be like Egon Erwin Kisch. He was an amazing Czech journalist who was always at the epicenter of events. He was my hero. I told myself that I would be like him — but in a skirt. But after that came my second child and then the third child. My children were growing up, and I really wanted to be there with them. After that, I knew that I couldn’t be like Erwin Kisch. Children are always in the first place for me. But I wanted to add something more, though I knew that taking care of children would be no small job. So I started to write books. I could connect my job with taking care of my family. And no one was left short.
I understand that your father traveled all over the world. Was that interesting for you as a child?
No. It was not interesting because my father was seven to eight months away from the family every year. He was not with us for Christmas or my birthday or my graduation party. So, for me, it was sad. Of course, when he came back from his trips, I was just eating up all his stories, and I was glad that my father was close to me again.
When I was 13 or 14, I knew that my father had managed great things because no one could travel during socialist times, and he went everywhere. His trips always made Slovakia popular around the world. I was always grateful, and I wished him all the best. I was never envious. But I always missed him. Our relationship is great and always was. All the time, we spoke many hours about his trips. But I was always missing him. My mother tried to replace my father, but she was very sad herself, so it was not easy.
Did you ever go on a trip with him?
No. I should have gone with him to Iceland. I had bought the plane tickets. Then we realized that we were waiting for the birth of my child, Michal. I didn’t want to lose Michal, because the doctor said that before I had problems. Of course, I was always fond of traveling, and I wanted to travel. But I told myself that I would travel together with my children. Well, it was completely different after the children were born. In the first years, we only had money for food and housing and nothing else. Now it’s better. But Michal is grown up. It’s just our daughters who are traveling with us.
You said that you always wanted to be a journalist. Did you also always want to be a novelist?
I was always fascinated with words, ever since I was six years old and I first started to read. I was reading everything. I knew that I wanted to work with words. I realized that words, spoken or written, have a lot of power. I knew that we can help with words, but we can also hurt. So I wanted to work — but journalism didn’t fulfill my needs in the end. When I was a journalist, I had a boss who determined the theme, the length of the piece, and the deadline. Books mean great freedom for me because I never have a deadline. I have great freedom playing with the words. I can write for however long I want. It’s a game for me to write books, which I love. It’s freedom for me, because I own my art.
Tell me about your first novel. What inspired it?
It was like this. At that time, I was with my two children at our cottage in the countryside for the whole summer. My husband visited us every weekend by bus. And he always carried some food and some books for me. On one beautiful day, he said, “Stop just reading these books and write one of your own!” He said it while I was waiting for Michal to be born, and I was still studying at that time. So it was studies, marriage, and children. I wanted to write about it all. So I started writing. I said to myself, “I want to write even if I don’t know if it will be published or how it will all end up.”
When my first book was finished, none of the publishing houses wanted to publish it. At that time there was a boom in translated books coming here after the end of socialism. Under socialism, it was very difficult to get these foreign books, so everyone wanted to read them. For three years, no one wanted to publish my book. During these three years, I finished another five books! So, I started to become a little bit angry about the situation. My father helped me. One very little publishing house published my book. It put out 500 copies.
When I came to all those publishing houses again with the second book, I thought I was in a better position. “Come on,” I told them, “I wrote and published the first book. I’m a writer now. I have to have a better contract now.” But the situation with the second book was the same.
My husband did something completely different. He started his own publishing company. And my friends collected money for me. And the second book was published. Excerpts of this book were published in Slovenka magazine, which at that time was the most read magazine in Slovakia. Immediately every woman knew about me and wanted to read my other books. After that, the publishing house with which I cooperate until today realized that Slovakia has had enough of translated books and we should begin publishing some good local literature.
That’s a wonderful story!
And I’m very happy about this. This story is all about friendship and love.
You published your first book in 1997.
So you wrote it in 1993.
Yes, when my daughter Veronika was one year old. It took me much longer to write it. But after that, I learned to write fast. During the autograph sessions, women ask how I manage to write with three children. I always say to them, “I don’t watch TV or use the telephone — so I save a lot of time.”
How long does it take you now to write a book?
When my children were growing up, they were at school during the day. So, I work from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. And I write every day except the weekend. It takes me about 9 months to write a book.
Nine months is the same amount of time it takes to create a child.
Yes, bingo! I never realized that until now!
Are most of your readers women or do men also read your books?
I have an overview because I meet with readers a lot. Most readers are women with only a few men. But the men always say that they should read my books because after that they will know how to behave toward women.
Your books are a guide.
Not really a guide — but, let’s say, some suggestions. I remember when an 88-year-old man wrote me a letter. If he’d read my books sooner he would have behaved differently and less hard toward the women in his life, his wife and children.
Your books should be assigned in school.
From the moment that students would have to read them, no one would love them because no one likes to read what they have to read. Some directors of gymnasiums or high schools even put me as a question for the final exam in literature. And when I heard about it, I personally went to meet them and pleaded with them not to do this, to take me off the final. I know from these public meetings that teenagers of 13-15 are my readers. If they had to read my books as obligatory reading, they wouldn’t do it.
How would you describe your books to someone who has not read them before?
My books are full of love, but they are not pink books. There are a lot of problems, pain, and crying — everything that life throws at us. But also, the books are full of a belief that there will be better time. But, and this is a big but, nothing will change if we just sit and wait and believe that things will change by themselves.
That seems to apply equally to relationships and to society in general.
I agree with that. There is love not just among men and women, but also love among people, love of nature, of land, of children. Basically, love of children is in the first place in my books. And I am absolutely against abortion. Even our priest in Devinska Nova Ves, who read my books, said that I could even read some of the parts during Mass. At these times, even with contraceptives, women mess up their lives with unwanted children. They don’t want to be pregnant, so after they have the baby, they can’t face life or their relationships as they want to.
If women don’t want to have a child, abortion is often an option. But you are against abortion.
Yes, I’m against abortion. Because from the experience of my life, I can say that children are never a burden but a gift. Women who are pregnant and don’t want to be, after they read my books, they decide to keep their babies. That’s what I’ve heard. I also know that people many times screw things up in marriage and relationships. But married life can be a great thing. You just have to try a little bit, and life can be full of happiness for both partners.
Is there a writer who is a role model for you?
Until now, I always go back and read Jack London. He’s not really an inspiration, but I like him. I love Stephen King. Also Joy Fielding, the Canadian author, with whom I had dinner two months ago. In general, over the last five years, I’ve been reading fantasy novels.
Have you thought of writing fantasy novels too?
I’ve been thinking about it. But I don’t think I’d be as good writing fantasy novels. It’s exactly what I said before: everyone should know what his or her place is. In general, if one doesn’t know one’s place, one can be very unhappy.
Your books are written in the Slovak language. Is there anything else that make your books particularly Slovak?
They’re not really Slovak even though the stories take place in Slovakia. They are about love, friendship, family, and these things are experienced everywhere in the world. I think my books are loved so much because they are so simple and clear to people. I don’t use complicated language or long sentences in my books.
On April 15, one of my books was published in Budapest by a big publishing house. It was translated into Hungarian. Also, Hungarian journalists were visiting me here to do interviews. After that, they were blogging about my book. And there was one literary critic, a woman, who decided to choose one bestseller in Hungary to read. She put aside all the other books, and chose mine to read. She said at first, “Oh my God, what do people see in this book? It’s so simple!” But she didn’t get to bed until 4:30 in the morning because she wanted to finish the book!
Do you have plans to have your books translated into English?
That is my dream. They are translated into Czech and Hungarian. And any day now one of my novels will be published in Ukraine. There were plans to make films from my books, but I don’t believe that the films will be as good as the books. So, I rejected all the film offers. I prefer to stick with the books. But I would be very happy if the books would be in all the world’s languages, or as many as possible.
Do you have an agent here in Slovakia?
My publisher is my manager and my friend. We drive together in the car and meet the public together. Besides that, she’s the head of the publishing house, one of the biggest and most successful in Slovakia. She’s always busy, but she always travels with me.
I need to stress that these are not pink novels. They are from real life, often with tragic endings. There are some readers who love happy endings. If the book doesn’t have a happy ending, they ask me why.
What’s your opinion about what has changed in Slovakia since 1993? Do you think that it’s been positive? Are you unhappy about certain trends?
I am disturbed by Robert Fico, the prime minister. But I think in general things have gone well. We have more freedom. There are more possibilities than there were. I like that when I travel in Europe I don’t have to change money or get visas. There is such a unique feeling that we don’t have borders with Austria, which is just over there, a few meters away. It’s great that when we’re on a walk with the dog, we can just cross the bridge over the Morava River and be in Austria without borders or visas.
I love McDonald’s ice cream — vanilla with topping. Always when I’m eating this, I’m telling my husband that it’s great that we can eat exactly what Americans are eating, what people are eating all over the world. We are all connected through ice cream!
But of course, on the other hand, when I was talking about freedom and possibilities, there is also a large percentage of people without money. These people can’t enjoy the freedom and the traveling.
What could have been done better in the transition?
I’m not interested in politics so much. When I was interested and I watched the news and followed political issues, I became sad. When I need to know the situation, my husband is a great source of information. We discuss everything. There are two basic things that are bad. Slovakia is missing big personalities who can enter political life. They don’t exist here. There are just figures, puppets. The second problem is that it’s not good management with public money. Of course, the construction of the city and restoration of some sites, statues, and the historical center, that’s all great. But…
What don’t you like about the current leadership?
I don’t like Fico because he decided that we are all rich. I don’t know how much you know about the Slovak political situation. But it seems that people who have family houses, it doesn’t matter if they inherited them or not, they will be paying very big taxes — just because they own the house. If it will really happen, people in Slovak will become really poor.
Do you think the status of women in Slovak society has gone up over the last 23 years, gone down, or stayed the same?
I think that women are capable at all levels. But recently they have a problem because they’ve forgotten their place. They want to be fantastic and 100 percent in everything — career, salary, relationships, free time, children. On top of that they want to be able to hang pictures too! They don’t realize that they can’t be great in everything, that they can be great only in one or two things.
In society or in relationship or in families, not really much changed when we are talking about now and the past. Women are working as well as men. Men come back from work and are tired, but women are not – they have to do the housework, take care of children, cook, wash up. And the guys just watch television and play tennis. Recently society puts a lot of pressure on women, much higher pressure than women can bear. I’m a fan of the classical hierarchy: my husband and my children are in the first place and, if I can manage it, I can do something else. But I managed it quite well for myself because I am writing my books and working at home. I am always there for everyone if there is a problem. My children or husband always know that they can find me at home if they need me. And that’s super.
Of course many people envy me. They think I live in some beautiful castle with servants all around me. But it’s not like that. I have a normal life with normal problems. Today, when the painters left, I tidied up our flat on my own.
Has you worldview changed at all in 20 years?
In the first place, when we began our married life, my husband and I didn’t have money even though we both had university education. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the socialist times, our work received better pay. We are more free, and with this freedom came money — but money is not in the first place.
The last three questions are quantitative. If you look from 1989 until today and everything that has changed in Slovakia, how would you evaluate those changes on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied.
The same period of time, same scale: your own personal life?
When you look into the near future and you evaluate the prospects for Slovakia over the next 2-3 years, 1 is most pessimistic and 10 is most optimistic?
Bratislava, May 2, 2013
Interpreter: Pavol Kuštár