Bedside Table #10. Wojciech Chmielarz: I am not ashamed of popular literature
Writer Wojciech Chmielarz talks about Marek Krajewski's merits for Polish crime fiction, admiration for Zygmunt Miłoszewski, writers who broaden the boundaries of genre literature, as well as why righteous views bring harm to crime fiction.
What are you currently reading?
I am about to finish Dobre miasto (“Good City”) by Mariusz Zielke. It's a very nice crime story, I'm very curious about how Mariusz will develop. Chabon's Moonglow is on my list. I think I'll go for it next. I have loved him since...
No, I actually didn’t like Wonder Boys.
The Yiddish Policemen's Union?
Yes, amazing novel. Wonder Boys is something I don't like, such autobiographical blabber, to use words that my daughter may hear. An academic novel written by an academic for academics.
Komeda by Grzebałkowska is also in the queue. I have a lot of books that I should read, and I have no idea when I will do it.
From high literature, I have recently read - I will boast to promote my image as an intellectual - Lincoln in the Bardo.
I liked it. This is a difficult novel from a formal perspective, but there are a few painfully real images when these spirits tell their stories. And there is essentially a nice storyline. This vision of history, in which a possession by a black slave is responsible for Lincoln's actions, is a very interesting thing. There are also two other things that I have to read, and I am ashamed that I haven't done it yet, namely Był sobie chłopczyk (“There Was a Boy”) by Winnicka and previous Nike Award, Żeby nie było śladów (“Leave No Traces”) by Łazarewicz.
Have you recently come across a book that could delight you?
I was really taken by this Lincoln in the Bardo. I liked Tahar Ben Jelloun's novel This Blinding Absence of Light about the prisoners of a Moroccan concentration camp, a kind of a concentration camp novel, only from the perspective of the Islamic world. This is very interesting in comparison with what we know from Polish authors. Poetic prose with an important element of some mysticism.
These are also completely different camps.
The story takes place after an assassination attempt on the King of Morocco. Ordinary cadets took part in it. One day, they were packed on trucks and ordered to attack the royal palace. They didn't really know what was going on. Then, they found themselves in tiny cells where they could barely lie down. And they were kept there for twenty years in nearly total darkness and with no chance of going outside.
What else truly delighted me? Oh, there was this comic book Scalped by Jason Aaron and R. M. Guery. This is a crime story that takes place on an Indian reservation somewhere in Dakota. A fantastic thing, a crime story written from a completely different perspective. A very dense, exhaustive story.
I also very much appreciate Król (“King”) by Twardoch. I think it is an outstanding book. Apart from these whales.
Talking about Twardoch, what Polish writers do you read with the greatest pleasure?
Probably Miłoszewski. I am a great fan of his novel Jak zawsze (“As Always”), it made a great impression on me, and I think that it is a bit underestimated, mainly because Miłoszewski dared to tell us something about Poles that few people in literature dared to say. I have the impression that there is an approach that dominates, that the whole PRL (Polish People's Republic) was done by them. Some “them”, Russians in general, plus a handful of Polish traitors. There were two million people in the party at the end of the PRL. Let's add to this family, it gives 10 million, which is a fourth of Poles. In As Always, Miłoszewski has the courage to say, "Listen, it is not “they” who did it, we did it to ourselves, and we have to face it.” Of course, he goes too far into current journalism, which weakens this novel. But he says an important thing, that what was wrong in this country was not only done by strangers. And, additionally, it is presented in an attractive way literary-wise.
I value Łukasz Orbitowski, especially his Inna dusza (“The Other Soul”). The most interesting new name in Polish crime fiction for me is Anna Kańtoch.
New only in crime fiction, let’s just add.
Yes, apart from that, her first crime fiction came out two or three years ago, which is somewhat indicative of this genre in Poland.
I think we generally have a crisis, not many new interesting authors appear.
I am not going to talk about it, because it’s not my thing, but, undoubtedly, there is a dry spell in crime fiction. At the moment, there are three literary awards for the crime fiction...
And everyone has already received them.
We could joke that the second round is coming.
But it’s only half a joke, because that's basically the case.
It’s definitely true somehow, because we have three awards – Kryminalna Piła, Wielki Kaliber, and Złoty Pocisk - granted by three completely separate groups, the jurors do not overlap, but, in the nominations for each of these awards, generally the same names appear. One or two names do not repeat elsewhere. This means something, especially since these are the names of authors who have been present on the market for several years. This is something disturbing given the boom in crime literature in Poland. If we are not able to find any new authors who would stay in this market for more than a year, which is actually more than a debut, then something bad is happening. And this fills me with anxiety.
Talking about crime fiction, did you have any idol? Or someone who has influenced you?
Two, maybe three authors have had the strongest influence on me. For a long time, Marek Krajewski was an idol for me, but, at that time, I didn't write crime stories yet. Undoubtedly, he has great historical merit, because he showed us two things. First of all, that a Pole is able to write a good crime story, which was not so obvious, because, perhaps, there were even good Polish crime stories in the 1990s, but they did not break through. And the second thing Marek Krajewski showed was that good Polish crime fiction can sell well.
After Krajewski's success, each publishing house wanted to have its own crime fiction, preferably one the plot of which would take place before the war, and also on German lands. Everyone had to have their own German. In the long run, it was unbearable, but it lasted for some time. There were probably as many as three series about Wrocław itself.
So: Marek Krajewski, whose first four books I loved, and then – besides, I'm talking about the authors I'm still following attentively - Jo Nesbo, a Norwegian who, for a long time, had the best intrigues in the world of crime. This is very important, because I have the impression that crime literature, not only Polish, got misguided.
With social issues?
Yes. Suddenly, after the success of the Scandinavians, every author of crime stories believed that he had to go into social issues and say something important about the world.
He is primarily a writer, and secondly - an author of intrigue. Without denigrating anyone.
We can say so. This is not about denigrating, I have no problem with it. I know that I am the author of popular literature and I am absolutely not ashamed of it.
As a result of this turn towards social issues, the intrigue is pushed into the second, or even third place. And suddenly, it turned out that there appear books which are exactly alike, and boring.
Moreover, they don't say much about the world.
They all say the same thing. Swedish crime stories told us that Swedish society is in crisis, that there is racism and xenophobia, that there are immigrants who are a little bad and a little good. And there were also issues related to...
Olof Palme, too, obviously. But above all feminism, gender equality, and so on. They are all important issues, they need to be addressed, and the problem of violence against women is best described in the Swedish crime story by Stieg Larsson in the first volume of Millennium, but why? Because there was a decent intrigue. If we want to say something sensible about the world in crime fiction, we must first have a meaningful intrigue that uses these elements. And other books on the same topics - I don't want to mention titles - were simply boring, and boredom is the worst thing that can happen in crime fiction. You wanted to quit them halfway through, because there was nothing interesting in them. They were only righteous. The crime story as a genre fell into the trap of righteousness, and this is not what we do – what we do is give people good entertainment, and this entertainment can be wise, but, above all, we must remember to provide it.
Jo Nesbo remembered that there must be a good intrigue, the book must read well, it must be addictive, it must have an interesting character. For a long time, I watched how he does it. It was endearing to me that, at some point, he started to create intrigues at the meta level, based not so much on the plot as on the reader's expectations of the genre. In one of his books, Harry Hole meets a suspect and thinks to himself, "This is this guy. He did it, he is guilty.” The reader thinks then that it's the middle of the book, so someone else is to blame. It turns out that Hole's intuition from the middle of the book is true. It was very refreshing.
Another author whom I value incredibly is Dennis Lehane, who can write very good, typical crime books about a pair of detectives from Boston. Decent intrigue, good structure...
Besides, Lehane was very successful, only not in Poland.
He was, but not with this Boston series. But, from time to time, he can nail such a book that goes beyond the crime story. Or in other words: not so much goes beyond, but extends the boundaries of the genre and shows that there is room for something else in it. Such a book is, above all, Mystic River, an obvious masterpiece, a magnificent, poignant portrait of the Irish community in Boston. Whenever we come across an important novel that touches on crime fiction, or even is, critics say: no, no, it only uses the tools of crime fiction, it suggests that it is crime fiction, but it is something else. This cannot be done here. It is so pure in terms of genre that it knocks out arguments from the hands of critics. To me, Mystic River is kind of a signpost. I like to remind myself about this novel and think: it can be achieved in this genre. If you asked me how I imagine my future, I would like to have the future of Dennis Lehane: a guy who regularly writes cool crime stories and, from time to time, is able to do something like Mystic River. If I could achieve that, I would be satisfied.
And was there a novel after which you thought: I would like to write like this author? Or a novel after which you decided to become a writer?
I have always known the latter. It's a kind of childhood fantasy that has come true. Since I was a child, I wanted to write books and make up stories.
And as far as a role model is concerned, it was at the beginning of my literary career. I was impressed by Jo Nesbo, Dennis Lehane, Lars Kepler, and especially Henning Mankell. Robert Harris with his Fatherland made a huge impression on me at some point. These few authors made a vast impression on me, and I was wondering if I was able to write like that.
Oh, I have Richard Flanagan here, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I would like to be able to write like this.
Flanagan was my last such discovery. In the past, definitely Raymond Chandler, but, for a long time, I haven’t had such moments that I would think, "Yes, I would like to write like this man.” I would very much like to find a book after which I would feel such pure writing jealousy that it wasn’t I who wrote and invented it.
So I understand that it almost doesn't happen to you anymore.
No, maybe I have read too much. Over time, it becomes more and more difficult.
I have to bring you Marias one day. There are also those criminal-espionage motifs there.
I have nothing against high literature.
I didn't suggest that, but talking about it, do you avoid some genres?
Chick-lit. I don't see anything in this genre that would attract me. It's not that I consciously reject it, but I haven't found a book that would reach me.
Are you reading this biography of Attenborough that lies just here?
No, my wife’s reading it. But I like such things. I have here The Emperor of All Maladies.
From Mukherjee, I only read The Gene. Here, it is the subject that somewhat puts me off.
I love this book's anecdote on how evidence has been obtained that smoking causes cancer. This was only possible because the UK has such a bad health service. The researchers who were handling this sent questionnaires to all the doctors they had in the system. One question concerned smoking. Five years later, they repeated the research with the question of how many of them had cancer. The correlation between smoking and cancer morbidity rate was evident. Besides, the guy who carried out this research was a smoker himself. He quit immediately, but it was too late.
Let's go back a little bit in time now. What books were important to you in your childhood? What did you read with passion? Or maybe you didn't read with passion?
I did. In general, I spent a large part of my childhood in the library, because my grandmother was a librarian. I lived far from school, my grandmother used to pick me up and we used to go to her work, a hospital library. There, I would read books and look at patients who came to borrow something. A very strange experience when I think about it now.
The first most important authors for me were the classics of youth literature: Bahdaj, Niziurski, Ożogowska. Then came the time for more serious stuff and a very long period of fascination with fantasy, which has not left me, by the way.
To this day I like to read e.g. Dan Simmons, who is an absolutely outstanding author. The adventure with fantasy began, as usual at this age, with Tolkien. This reminds me of one of my favourite literary jokes: a young man during a period of fascination with literature can read two books that will change his life. The first one is The Lord of the Rings, and the second one Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. One of them will make him live in a fantasy world filled with unrealistic expectations and imaginary men, and the other is about the Hobbits who go to destroy the ring in Mordor.
After Tolkien, there came a long period of deep fascination with Philip K. Dick. Dick wrote a lot of books, some are bad, some are outstanding, such as The Man in the High Castle, Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, or Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.
Weren’t you tempted with this direction?
I was, but in my teenage years. I wrote a few stories, they were not too good, because most people of this age are not able to write well. You could see in it the fascination with Dick, but because I didn't have his experience and this prose was dishonest, nothing good could come out of it. Besides, as an author, I made my debut in "Nowa Fantastyka"(Polish fantasy and science fiction magazine).
Then came the discovery of world literature. At the end of high school, many people go through it, you race in reading smaller and larger classics, but not those which are read at school. American literature, Garcia Marquez, Heller, and so on, and so on. Along the way, there was also crime fiction and admiration of Raymond Chandeler, especially The Long Goodbye. I believe that this is the first novel, so outstanding, of this genre ever written.
Fiction or non-fiction?
And when you write, do you devote a lot of time to research?
Let me say: as much as necessary. I am deeply attached to the fact that I am the author of fiction. Therefore, I can take the liberty of doing more, and the quality of the plot allows me to go for some simplifications in relation to reality. Moreover, these simplifications can help. I believe that sometimes fiction can be more true than reality. Reality can be complicated, and, if you simplify it properly, take a closer look at some phenomena, then, they are more noticeable. Thanks to this, we highlight them, we show them fully. This is a great role of fiction.
But there is no doubt that in order for readers to believe in my stories, they must be credible, and in order for them to be so, I must have enough information. And even if I lie, simplify, invent, I have to know why I'm doing it, why I don't stick to the facts.
Let's go back to childhood, from a different perspective, though: what do you read to your children?
My daughter now reads mainly by herself. But, for a long time, we read to her Nela, mała reporterka (“Nela, the Little Reporter”).
She is a TVP ABC (TV channel) star.
Yes, they are very good books for children. I am absolutely delighted with them, because they are nicely made, interesting, colourful, and, at the same time, wise. They do not go for simplification where it is not necessary.
To my younger child, I am now reading Kici Kocia (“Kicia the Kitten”), they are also very good books.
And are there some books that you would like to point them towards?
Not yet. I try to listen to their needs. Of course, within reason, not to point them towards books inappropriate for their age or sensitivity. But I try to listen to them, because I think that children need to be taught to read. I mean, taught to read for pleasure. Infuse them with a thought that literature, books can be something pleasant.
Do you have a way to do this?
Exactly that. Listen, don't do it by force, think about what they want to read, suggest it, and react. When my daughter grew out of Nela, I stopped buying Nela for her. Now I'm looking for other readings for her, mainly about nature, travel, and science.
Interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik
Translated by Justyna Lowe