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Reader volumes are increasingly less related to quality

Interview with Writer Ivan Klíma

“It’s important for people to read. Reading develops a certain type of brain activity that is irreplaceable. Should it be replaced by television, it won’t be good for the development of the human brain,“ says the most translated living Czech writer – Ivan Klíma. He was born in Prague and during WWII spent three and a half years in the Terezín concentration camp. Among other places, he worked as a guest professor at Michigan University in the USA. Upon his return to his home country he was a forbidden author and only able to publish in samizdat and exile.

 First I’d like to thank you for making time for the readers of Leaders Magazine and inviting us to your home. The first thing one realizes here is that it’s quiet and nature is close in reach. Is this basic to your profession?

I must say that whenever someone visits, they notice how peaceful and quiet it is here. That was always my idea. If I were to live in Prague, then it would have to be near the forest. I loved the forest ever since I was a child and when we came back from Terezín, my first wish was that they drive me to the woods. My cousin took me to Motol and I still have a special relationship with Motol today. Later we used to go there for mushrooms... 

When hunting mushrooms - is that when you search out inspiration?

Not really. You are alone there. When you begin the search, your mind is grinding. That is, if you have something to grind. But it’s true that as you hunt for mushrooms, your head is more full of brittlegills than thoughts.

But the thinking process is an integral part of your work. In one interview you said you write about ‘the world as it is.’ From where do you observe what it’s like?

When I was younger, I met a lot of people. That’s the most important thing. I worked in newspapers, which were very lively. But that’s a long time ago... when I was about forty. I had to end because that’s when freedom ended. But I still met a number of people. Even back home, after returning from America,
I organized big meetings. Sometimes we’d have forty guests at home.

You are familiar with working in the media. You worked at Literární noviny, Květen, Plamen and Orientace magazines. You write for Lidové noviny. How do you see today’s media world?

It’s truly a different world and the subjects are particularly different. Back then it was a certain form of criticism of the regime and a fight with communism. Current journalistic work is similar, with the difference that we had to think about censorship in order to get things through. The Literární noviny back then might be compared to Respekt. They had a social section, but they were different in that half of it was purely about visual arts, literature, critiques...

What do you think about the opinion that there should be a certain form of censorship in society? That some works are on the very edge of morality...

I spent my whole life fighting censorship. It’s not a good thing as an institution. There should be a freedom of expression, possibly limited constitutionally, for instance in case of promoting violence. But if someone decides to write something that is not in conflict with the constitution, then they should have a guaranteed right to at least publish it themselves.

And what about professional literary magazines?

I think that aside from Literární noviny and Host, there is nothing else being published for the wider public. I prefer to read books to magazines. At a certain age one considers what to read and what he may not have the time for.

So you wouldn’t say that the Czech market is missing a title professionally devoted to literature?

This is not a matter of professional publications. For example, I just wrote several stories and I don’t have many places to offer them.  But that’s not a complaint, I write because I still haven’t tired of writing.

You are the most translated living Czech author. What must one do for that?

You can’t do anything for it except to write in a way that it’s worth reading or somehow interesting or thought-provoking, the agent takes care of the rest. For years I had a Swedish agent, the new one is an American. My Crazy Century was published in English quite quickly.

Is there still a language to which you weren’t translated and would personally appreciate it?

I think within Europe, I’m still not in Finnish or Portuguese. In a number of countries, all my books were published. Sure, one is pleased by that but I don’t focus on it in any way. Many times I’ve been asked whether I think of my foreign readers when I write. Certainly not. One thinks about expressing oneself clearly and hopefully, persuasively. That’s all.

How busy are you these days? I assume you write stories when you have an idea. But it’s not easy to plan that ahead.

This year, on January first, I decided that I no longer have any responsibilities or schedule, that I’m eighty-three and retired. I’m retired now for nearly a quarter of a century, so I can finally enjoy it. It’s a rather nice feeling to wake up in the morning and not have anything to do. But then I start dealing with the correspondence, maybe write something for a magazine… But it’s the first time that I’ve allowed myself to sit in the afternoon and read.

What are you reading right now?

Václav Cílek’s book, about people who were tried as Nazis. It’s a subject I read about quite a bit. I have a shelf of books related to Hitler, Goebbels, Göring, with Lenin, Stalin, simply Nazism and communism.

Yes despite that, this subject doesn’t seep into your books.

It’s more an interest to read about, not write. But I remember that when I came back from Terezín, I collected memories from concentration camps. I don’t know why I did it back then, whether it was self-torture or curiosity about how it was elsewhere.

I know you don’t like to talk about it, but do you have favorite contemporary authors? Competition?

No one from my generation is my active competition. As far as I know, my contemporaries don’t write anymore. I mostly just cross my fingers for the young ones. Perhaps the most interesting to me seems to be Emil Hakl. But as you said, I don’t like to be in the role of an evaluator.

You already received several lifetime achievement awards. Frankly, most of us never manage a lifetime achievement award. What is it like to receive it? Do you go back to the beginnings with your memories?

My strongest emotion was when my first book was published. That’s over fifty years ago and I invited the editor, who was also my friend, to a Chinese restaurant. Back then there was only one in Prague. It was truly refined. We had some Peking-style meat and celebrated the book that way. Then it sort of gets you when the first translation is published. Then you don’t celebrate anymore, because it would just take you away from work.

I was more pointing to the feelings of what it’s like to get such an award?

A lifetime achievement award is, at the same time, a challenge not to quit writing. As Philip Roth said, one should stop at eighty. And it’s more or less true. At this age you have a ‘tired’ mind.

Perhaps that when mental activity is needed.

That’s why I still write, even if I may not offer it for publishing. I enjoy writing. I write aphorisms, that’s not a genre which I know and stories. I don’t know whether that’s a rule that in an advanced age, one starts writing briefly. For example, Graham Greene, who wrote truly rich stories, has works toward the end of his life that seem to be brief. My current stories are two to four pages long and I used to write twenty-page stories. You scratch out useless words. That’s why I was impressed with Hemingway with his factual, concise sentences. They recently wrote me from Germany that they intend to publish the Hour of Silence. I was horrified, because that’s fifty years old. I read the novel after many years and it seemed that it’s fine to be published, but that the language in is considerably more patulous than what I use today.

And now on a different subject. You have experience with university studies in the Czech Republic and in the US. Is there a fundamental difference in the approach between Czech and American students?

I don’t know today’s students. In our times, there was a free regime in the university. Who wanted to go to a lecture, went and who didn’t want to, didn’t. On the other hand, in America, as long as they paid for it, they went to lectures. If they couldn’t, they always excused themselves. One time they went to Washington to demonstrate against the Vietnam War, so they came to see me and asked whether I wouldn’t mind and if I would change the date of the lecture. Czech students would never do that. Their interest in what they studied astonished me.

Do you still have ties to the US?

The last time I was at the university was a few years back.  I sought out my student there, who is now a professor. I was in America about two months ago and I’m going there again in May for the Pen Congress. I think this will be my last trip to the USA. Travel no longer pleases me.

If you were to give a piece of advice to a beginning writer what is, in your opinion, the most essential?

Mostly that they shouldn’t blather (laughter). Whatever they write should never be published immediately after writing. They should give themselves a few days and read it at a distance. The text should be read so many times that the author deletes everything useless. Hemingway said, “Write standing up, edit sitting down.

Is there actually some particular ‘leader’ among writers? What does he or she look like?

Among writers, some are more, some others are less successful. But that’s not the only measure. There are those more and less original. Even the very successful ones are often not all that good. The success rate in literature is given by reader volumes and reader volumes are increasingly less related to quality. Another measure of success is fame abroad. For instance, Karel Čapek was successful in the world and quite a bit even here, although that’s a rather unusual phenomenon.

You wrote a monograph about him.

I like him and I think he’s our greatest writer of the between-war era, if not the most successful Czech writer ever.

Current most successful writers are also celebrities. Was it always so?

That’s only in modern times and it’s different nation to nation. There are countries where, if  writers were successful, they were sent into exile in Siberia.

Did you, personally, ever feel that way?

A writer mustn’t be a celebrity. That’s a model for entertainers or, in their own way, even a successful politician. The issue is whether you are a celebrity as the accompanying evil or a life goal. I must say that in order to be or not be a celebrity, there is a lot that can be done. You either avoid certain types of publicity and interviews and you don’t push yourself in the media or you do. Nonetheless, I never gave an interview to a tabloid daily.

Actually, what will your 2014 look like?

I have the embryo of a short story collection, but because the prose pieces are short, the book is still too thin. I’d like to write short stories. I don’t intend to write a novel. Many people ask me whether I will publish the third part of my memoir and I answer that definitely not. Also my collected essays are being published, so I need to do through proof-reading, which I see as possibly the last chance to do some edits.

And do you have specific plans?

I have lots of short story collections. I thought I would make a selection of the stories I consider the best. A short story collection is always a risk for a publisher, they don’t like it. If you do a selection, they will feel that it would be easier to offer in the market. I’d like to do that. But that’s editorial work, not creative.

So you provide yourself with feedback?

I usually have it from myself. Perhaps I’m a thorough author and I worked for a while as a publishing editor, so I give the feedback to myself.

Thank you very much for the interview.

Source: Leaders Magazine - Jaroslav Kramer
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