Bedside table #2. Rafał Kosik: I read science fiction and fantasy before I knew it was even called fantasy
Rafał Kosik, one of the most important contemporary Polish fantasy writers and the author of the popular cycle for young people Feliks, Net i Nika (Felix, Net and Nika), talks about the books with which he learned to read, his reluctance to read the required reading at school, which almost killed his love of literature, writers he admires and... Moomins as the book that shaped him.
Which book will you take with you on holiday?
To be honest, I don’t have holidays, I try to rest during my professional trips. And because we are going with Kasia (Rafał’s wife, co-owner of Powergraph publishing house – editor’s note) for a book fair in Beijing, I want to get acquainted with local realities and literature, and I am reading two Lius: Cixin Liu and Ken Liu. The first one is Chinese, the second one American of Chinese descent.
Cixin Liu was recommended by Barack Obama himself.
I have just finished reading The Three-Body Problem, and today I am starting the second volume, maybe I’ll manage to read the entire trilogy before the trip.
Are you enjoying it?
Interesting experience, but I don’t think I will become a Chinese fantasy fan.
In Poland, we have fantasy books which are as good, maybe even better. Cixin Liu’s characters seem to be made of paper to me. But then I thought that maybe it is a peculiarity of Chinese culture. Because, as you know, in China, a stronger emphasis is placed on society than on the individual. So maybe this is an intentional act. However, what can be envied is scientific preparation.
And outside of the fantasy genre?
The Nix by Nathan Hill is next in line, a thick tome, so I’m not going to take it on the trip.
Why this one in particular?
Some friends recommended it. Outside of fantasy, I also read The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.
He received the Booker Prize for it. Do you think it was well-deserved?
I had heard good reviews. Someone said it was the best novel they have ever read in their life. It is very good indeed, but I wouldn’t call it the best book in the world.
What else have you read lately?
I’ve read The Marsian by Andy Weir recently. And again, scientifically, it is really good, but literature-wise, so-so. I had an impression that it was a fictionalised manual of Mars.
I’ve had a similar experience with his Artemis – a real guide on how to survive on the Moon, where history was treated offhandedly.
I really liked the technical ideas, as it is difficult to show the fate of a lonely protagonist on an alien planet in a better way. However, there was not enough person there.
Did you enjoy Ridley Scott’s screen adaptation?
Unfortunately, I watched it in 5D. Never again. Air was blowing and chairs were swinging. It bothered me so much I couldn’t watch the film. And recently, I also read Hyperion by Dan Simmons. And it was very good.
So, it’s mainly fantasy.
I’m not going to lie, I like science fiction the most; I take the greatest pleasure in it. But I read various things.
Sometimes, not passionately though. For example, White Fever by Jacek Hugo-Bader.
True, it’s not new.
It’s not that I don’t want to read reportage, but my time is limited, and a long queue of books is waiting, so some selection needs to be done.
Do you sometimes read in English?
I read The Marsian in the original. I do it to practice the language. It only makes sense when you don’t have to check every second word in a dictionary, which takes all the pleasure of reading away. I tried hard with Behemoth by Peter Watts, but I gave up and finished it in Polish.
As a publisher, do you read many submitted texts?
We have beta readers to do this job. I usually read at a later stage, unless I already know the author.
How quickly do you quit reading a bad book?
When it comes to the texts submitted to the publishing house, usually, you can tell after two pages if the text is any good. To be honest, it doesn’t happen often that an unknown author, a completely random person, sends us an amazing text. Most often, a good reading comes from the recommendation of friends or friendly publishers, who do not publish fantasy themselves and they send the author to us. And we do the same thing if someone sends us, for example, a romance.
And from Polish contemporary literature, have you read something that has convinced you recently?
Guguly by Wioletta Grzegorzewska. A very nice story, and I read it with pleasure although it’s not my type of literature. And besides, to be honest with you, I read mainly the books we publish. I really enjoyed Wojtek Zembaty. Last year, he wrote the novel Głodne słońce (Hungry Sun). It is an alternative story of South America that was not conquered. I also read a new book by Jakub Małecki, which will only be published in autumn under the title Nikt nie idzie (No One Is Coming). It looks to be something good. I am waiting for a new Jacek Dukaj, who has not written anything in a while. Starość aksolotla (The Old Axolotl) was very good, I’d love to read his next thing, but I feel that he got somewhat bored with this form of a novel and he writes in a more and more experimental way.
What do you read apart from novels?
Popular-science books. I’ve recently finished a very interesting book, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by two authors, Al-Khalili and McFadden.
What books did you learn to read with?
As a child, I read science fiction and fantasy before I knew it was even called fantasy. I simply liked a certain type of book, and then I discovered that it was a separate genre. Literature for the youngest readers is, after all, mainly fantasy - just look at fairy tales.
What was your attitude towards the required reading at school?
Nightmare... I remember Rogaś z doliny Roztoki (Rogaś from Roztoka Valley). What do I care about some deer?!
And maybe you’ll tell me that you didn’t like Pies, który jeździł koleją (Lampo, the Traveling Dog) neither?
This actually was quite cool, but I am not joking: required reading almost killed my love of literature. I was only saved by the fact that my dad read to me, and I, myself, started looking for books outside of the canon.
First ‘adult’ readings?
I read Stanisław Lem early. Everything that was available. I only didn’t like one book, Pamiętnik znaleziony w wannie (Memoirs Found in a Bathtub). Such a Kafka story, set in an unspecified future. The stylistics of an absurd dream disturbed me. I don’t find it disturbing in Kafka’s, but I do in Lem’s. I like both Kafka and Lem, but combined into one, it came out as something unreadable.
What did you like the most by Lem?
I value Solaris, Niezwyciężony (The Invincible), Bajki robotów (Fables of Robots), Cyberiada (The Cyberiad), I like his novels from the middle of his creative period, when he wasn’t into journalism and philosophy yet. Actually, I have probably read all his books.
And did you have a book that shaped you?
Moomins is very significant to me. I keep coming back to it, it really is a very smart book, for adults as well. And besides, The Invincible by Lem was important to me. A book full of technical descriptions, and, at the same time, enthralling fiction. I was also fascinated by coming across, for the first time, a machine-hero, which was not personified.
Don’t you like anthropoidal robots?
It is too easy for me. Usually, when we come across a machine in science-fiction, it has human features. However, in The Invincible, it’s different – what we have there is strength and non-personalised consciousness, natural like an element.
Any other youthful delights?
I was strongly impressed by The Neverending Story by Michael Ende – a book inside a book.
I could never convince myself about the screen adaptation.
Only the first part is good, the rest is a waste of time. But let me come back to the book. The protagonist is a young boy, a book enthusiast, at whom everyone in the class laughs because he reads so much. And he is so fascinated by the story he reads that he ‘enters’ it and becomes another protagonist. It was something completely new to me. You can read it on many levels.
This is a frequent phenomenon in fantasy, entering higher levels of consciousness and narrative. It is also present in The Matrix and Inception.
You're right, it is actually what fantasy is about - discovering the lining of the universe. It is also good when these narrative games lead somewhere, I do not like formal experiments written for art.
Do you put content above the form?
It’s good when they complement each other. However, I definitely prefer a novel without a sophisticated form, but with a good story. It’s great if there is some style, but the language should not disturb. Probably, most literary enthusiasts would tell you something different. Half of the mainstream are books with a play on form, but the plot is limping. There are positive exceptions, for example Lód (Ice) by Jacek Dukaj. The language from this novel stuck in my head. After reading it, I had to be careful not to write like him. What Dukaj did served the novel well, but generally, exaggerated stylistics bothers me.
And when is the last time you thought: I’d like to write like him or her?
I envy ideas more than style. I was impressed by Peter Watts’s Blindsight, but also Charles Stross’s Accelerando. I also envy some writers discipline.
What do you mean?
For example, George R. R. Martin’s books. He is able to embrace such a number of protagonists and so many plot lines, and it could fall apart so many times. On the other hand, he lives off Game of Thrones only, so he has the comfort of dealing with one story.
Maybe he is managed by editors?
Maybe. What I mean is that I cannot write books following an outline. I get bored. My stories flow, I create them while I’m writing.
Jakub Żulczyk says that he only has the final scene in his head, and the process of writing is somewhat ‘navigating to’ this scene.
I don’t even know the final scenes! Terry Pratchett, for instance, had some key scenes, which he later combined into stories. John Irving, in turn, knows the ending from the start and he just adds everything that leads to it. In my case, it’s just that I keep writing ahead. And so when I see this Game of Thrones, I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to write in such a way. In fact, some critics accuse my novels of having an incorrect structure.
Does it annoy you?
If readers like it, I like it, and I take pleasure in writing in this way, then the structure becomes secondary. When it comes to screenplays, which I also write, it is a different case – they need a perfect structure.
Do you read your own books after publication?
It’s funny, but I do like this moment when I get “Nowa Fantastyka” (‘New Fantasy’ – a Polish science fiction magazine) and I read my own feature. However, after having finished writing, I try to take a break from words.
How do you work it off?
Riding a bike, exercising at a gym. Physical exercise refreshes the mind.
Do you give books as gifts?
Yes, mainly books. Most often, they are our publications from Powergraph, for I believe we publish good books. A book is the best gift after all.
And if the person is not a reader?
Then maybe they will start reading. But to be honest, I don’t know personally people who don’t read.
Did you read to your son when he was a child?
Every day. Fantasy, mainly.
Which moment is the best to raise a child’s interest in literature?
It’s worth reading from the earliest years, as soon as a child understands that we talk to them and they communicate with us, even if they don’t formulate proper sentences yet. Even if the parents don’t read themselves passionately, they should read to their child. It is very developing.
Did you read your own books to your son?
When I started writing the series Felix, Net i Nika, he was my first reader and consultant. I read to him aloud, and the subsequent volumes I gave him to read on his own. He told me where it was boring, where something needs to be changed. Now, he doesn’t read Felix anymore, he grew out of it, he is an adult at university.
Does he read a lot?
He is a weird reader, he can read nothing for six months, and then he devours six books a week.
He reads everything, just like me in the past. When we were in New York, and he realised that he didn’t have internet access everywhere, he read all the books that we took for the trip with Kasia in two days. Then, he went to a bookshop and bought collected works by Edgar Allan Poe in English and he compared the originals with Polish translations, as he is a Poe-maniac. I can see that he generally reads classics a lot, I have recently seen The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.
Does he read printed books or on a tablet?
Printed books, and often in the original. He knows English much better than I do.
I prefer printed books, but I often read on a tablet as well, when travelling or in bed. Besides, I read a lot of things that have not been printed yet. From my publishing house or books by fellow writers. I receive a file, I’m not going to print it and travel with a pile of papers.
Do you like the challenges such as ‘I am going to read 52 books this year’? Does it encourage reading?
It doesn’t make sense to me. What else then? An Endomondo category – who and how many characters with spaces? Reading is not a race.
I’ll end paraphrasing Fight Club: Which writer would you fight?
Ideally a small and weak one, obviously.
Then Lem would be perfect. Jokes aside. Do you regret not having met him? Would you like to talk to him if he was alive?
I doubt he would like to talk to me.
It’s also something else. Maybe it will sound strange, but if I like a book, it doesn’t necessarily mean I am interested in the writer themselves. Anyway, Charles Stross was at Polcon (the oldest Polish science fiction convention); I like his books a lot, but I wasn’t even fussed about bothering him. There was an opportunity to go for lunch somewhere, but I just thought I am not going to impose.
And were you disappointed by any writer during the meeting?
Not really, but I have a lot of tolerance for people. If I don’t want to get closely acquainted with someone, I simply don’t do it. Moreover, I’m trying not to judge people after one personal interaction. I am the same – writing is my domain, and maybe during a lecture or meetings with authors I do not make the same impression that I can create in my novels. With some writers, it is sometimes so difficult to interview them because they respond by mumbling, and then you read their book and you think: genius.
Interviewer: Marcin Kube
Translated by Justyna Lowe