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Interview with Czech writer Petra Hůlová

Publisher MICHAEL TATE talks to an award wining writer PETRA HŮLOVÁ about an upcoming English publication of her book Three Plastic Rooms, gender, and commenting publicly on current social and political issues.









English readers will find parallels between Three Plastic Rooms and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Was that intentional or just a happy coincidence?

 I feel like Virginia Woolf has always been part of my life because she is my mum´s favourite writer and she encouraged me to read her books when I was a teenager. To be honest though, at that time, her books got on my nerves quite a bit. I tried to read Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, but didn´t get very far. Then, completely by chance, when I was 15, I came across the collection A Haunted House and Other Short Stories. I cut out one story from that collection and sent it to my first boyfriend because I thought it described the idiosyncrasies of our relationship so accurately.

 

Is the narrator, a foul-mouthed Prague prostitute, in ‘Three Plastic Rooms’ based on anyone in particular?

It is me wearing a mask. I visited whorehouses with a friend and some of the narrative is based on what my male friends told me about their visits. However, the basic character is me - with a mask of self stylisation enabling me to keep a distance even from myself, to be harsher and more radical. The character is a lens, the eyes are mine.

 

How did you get the idea for the book?

 I had been thinking about writing a novel about sexuality for a long time.  The idea just lived in me. In the end though, the writing was very intuitive. Earlier in my writing career, I preferred to write away from home, in other countries. So I went to St Petersburg and wrote the novel there. I had the very romantic idea that I would write in the city of Dostoyevsky. Also, while I was studying in New York, a Russian friend put me in touch with a family who had a room to sublet. I actually travelled there to finish another story, but ended up struggling for days with no progress. I got depressed a lot and then one day I decided to finally stop writing the other dull story and went out to walk along the famous canals to smoke and get wasted when I suddenly  heard the narrator’s voice in my head. A very intense voice. I literally heard her saying the opening lines from the book, exactly the same as they appear in the text now. I rushed back to the apartment and started to write like crazy, just listening to the voice. The first draft was ready two weeks later. I didn’t change it much afterwards.

 

The book was also turned into a play. Can you tell us how it happened?

 I was approached by the theatre director Viktorie Čermáková and actress Eva Salzmannová with the suggestion and I agreed. When I wrote the book, I didn´t imagine it as a stage play at all but the result exceeded my expectations. It worked wonderfully and won a Next Wave Festivals’ Project of the year Award in 2007.

 

Were you involved in the adaptation in any way?

Not really. I liked Viktorie’s idea to change the narrator’s character into more voices that would interact on stage. I was invited to rehearsals and was asked for my thoughts, which was very kind but the piece is really Viktorie’s work. I was very apprehensive at first but later I was immensely proud to be approached. It was my first theatre collaboration.

 

Have there been any more plays since?

I started writing plays just over two years ago. I was approached by the Švandovo Theatre in Prague to adopt Ian Mc Ewan´s Atonement. I was over the moon because I love the book and my personal life was a bit troubled at the time. So it became a wonderful distraction to be immersed in the pathological world of four kids and their mother buried in a cellar. I was really grateful for the opportunity and it proved to be another great success.

Then, a year ago I wrote the play Cell Number - a dystopia where Czech intellectuals work in cells to define Czech national identity. Cell Number was among the five titles  chosen from the total of 286 plays  from all over Europe to be presented by Berlin´s prestigious Stueckemarkt competition, which is a part of Berlin Theatertreffen festival. In Prague it was staged in Studio Hrdinu by Michal Pěchouček and Jan Horák. And just recently, another play "A Gorge" was launched both in Prague and in Brno. It is an adaptation of my last novel and the play was directed by the fabulous director Kamila Polívková.

 

In addition to all your writing, you have deliberately chosen to be an activist for change and to comment very publically on social, political and cultural issues in the Czech Republic, particularly in the last few years. Do you think that you have been perceived as controversial at times?

 Well, I was shocked at the negative reaction I received after my intervention during the migration crisis in the 2015. In the Czech Republic, there were – and still are - two opposing groups, same as in other countries:  those very sympathetic and those who are radically anti-refugee. I am automatically perceived as a member of the first group, but I don’t feel at home in either. I felt it was my duty to remind those who symphatize with migrants and are comfortable in their sense of the superiority of their own humanism humanity, that no one ever eradicated fear by mocking those who are afraid. I also made it clear that I think the role of public intellectuals is to mediate mutual understanding and not to foment further fear or widen the gap between those holding opposing views. I still don’t think my intervention was particularly erudite or original but the strong reaction only showed how entrenched the two sides had become. I was even asked by my fellow ‘left liberals’ to ‘state which side I was on’. For example, was I with ‘them’ - the stupid masses or with ‘us’- the smart intellectuals. This rethoric could just as well be linked to the Brexit debate, the gap between Western and Eastern Europe and so on.

 

The other book published in English, All This Belongs To Me, is about three generations of women and is set in Mongolia. Like in Three Plastic Rooms there is a strong element of ‘gender’ going on there. Are you particularly interested in writing about ‘gender’?

 I think I am. What appeals to me as a writer is that ‘gender’ provides a limitless source of obstacles. I am a feminist but I can also be very critical of feminism. In general, I like to shake trees, cause discomfort (to myself as well) and ask questions that are not often posed. Writing about gender offers a chance to challenge.  And I would say that my narrator in Three Plastic Rooms does exactly that. Actually, so does the narrator in my next book, which is the journal of a female guard working in a concentration camp for ‘the last’ misogynistic men. 

 

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Petra Hůlová is an award winning writer and a regular commentator on current events for the Czech press. Her eight novels and three plays have been translated into more than ten languages. Three Plastic Rooms is her second novel to be published in English after All This Belongs to Me (2009, also translated by Alex Zucker).

Michael Tate is a founder of Jantar Publishing specializing in publishing high quality English translations of literature from Central and Eastern Europe.

Petra Hůlová´s Three Plastic Rooms translated by Alex Zucker is published by Jantar Publishing on 21st November 2017

The book launch will take place in Waterstones Gower Street on 21 November 2017 from 6.30 pm.
More information about the event

The launch is part of the 21st Made in Prague Festival
8 November - 6 December 2017
#MadeInPrague