photo: Mikołaj Starzyński

Bedside table #33. Robert Małecki: My world began to spin thanks to Holmes

The writer Robert Małecki talks about listening to audiobooks, the latest readership delights, tempting covers, his permanent fascination with Conan-Doyle's books, his conversion to Saint-Exupery, and the book that made him want to become a writer.

What are you currently reading?

I usually have two things on the go at the same time. And here, I need to clarify: I am reading Około północy ("Around Midnight") by Mariusz Czubaj and listening to Gambit ("The Gambit") by Maciej Siembieda interpreted by Mariusz Bonaszewski. The first novel is my bedtime reading, and the audiobook is playing while I am running. In addition, I am in the process of reading several debut novels that made it to the finals of the nationwide competition announced by the Czwarta Strona publishing house, in which I play the role of a juror. So, I can't complain about the lack of texts.

Since you mentioned The Gambit in Bonaszewski's interpretation, do you often choose audiobooks?

Often, because I like them very much, and they are great for running. But not only that. Whenever we travel longer distances in the summer, we buy a new audiobook. We used to pick children's literature, and now we go for youth literature. And what's interesting, we always listen on the way to and from school, because it usually takes us half an hour to get there. This is how my son and I got to know the fate of Kendra and Seth in a series of fantasy books by Brandon Mull about Fablehaven, and we were delighted with the great interpretation of the text by Janusz Zadura. And now, we are currently in the middle of the adventures of Percy Jackson, the novel The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, read by Marcin Hycnar. And this is also a piece of well-read literature.

Have you been delighted with anything lately?

Oh yeah! From the novels I read recently, I would mention Atticus Lish's Preparation for the Next Life, Bianca Bellova's The Lake, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and Sigridur Hagalin Bjornsdottir's Island.

Lish is great, McCarthy too, I haven't read the others. Do you choose your reading from a pattern or are you influenced, for example, by recommendations of your friends?

It varies, but I wouldn't be looking for some kind of a pattern. Sometimes, I' am tempted by the cover. That was the case with Bellova. I assumed, quite irrationally, that such a cover cannot be followed by a weak text. In addition, I simply wanted to check what modern Czech literature offers. Coming back to the question, I admit that sometimes I also use my friends’ recommendations, and sometimes I feel like reading the book after reading the description on the back cover. That was exactly the case with Helga Flatland’s A Modern Family. I immediately asked my publisher, i.e. Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, to send me the book. Yet in this case, the cover is excellent too. In the end, the book is with me. It's lying and waiting on a large pile of books to be read quickly.

What else is in that pile?

A whole lot of literary goodness, I guess. Because there are, among others, Annie Proulx, namely Barkskins and The Shipping News, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Kuba Małecki's Nikt nie idzie (“Nobody Is Coming:”), or Johan Theorin's Echoes from the Dead. And it was just yesterday that I received a review copy of Rana ("Wound") by Wojtek Chmielarz. I am also planning to buy Kult (“Cult”) by Łukasz Orbitowski. By the way, I would like to buy a kilogram of free time so as not to postpone reading these novels any longer.

Let us now go back to your childhood: what kind of reader were you, and which books have stayed with you?

Not much is left in my memory when it comes to my childhood and books. Yes, there were some things from the series “Poczytaj mi mamo” ("Read to me, Mummy", a publishing series of short, colourful books for children – translator’s note) and Andersen’s fairy tales, from which I particularly remembered the one about the tin soldier.

But generally speaking, I wasn't particularly interested in books. They always lost out to comics about Kayko and Kokosh, football, and finally the computer - the famous Amiga. But later, I started reading a bit. Usually this was, of course, school reading. And if I were to reach for something else, it's usually Dr. Watson's stories about Sherlock Holmes. And this reading is completely timeless. Today, I return to Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle's books with pleasure, and still think that they are absolute gems. Besides, I still cultivate the conviction that Holmes was not a literary character. He was a true man, flesh and blood!

I remember that from required school readings, I really liked Sienkiewicz and Prus, Żeromski and Fredro, as well as our national bards, and also Shakespeare and Molière, because who wouldn’t like them, and Dostoevsky. And the rest – I liked a lot less. But, interestingly enough, I also remember reaching for Saint-Exupery's Wind, Sand and Stars. I thought I'd swallow a tiny book like this in a flash and fire up the computer. Oh, my! How I was struggling with it. I fell asleep over the text, I was daydreaming, I couldn't concentrate on anything! It was a bloody nightmare. I called poor Saint-Exupery real bad names. And then, a few years later, when I was taking my entrance exams for philosophy, it turned out that Wind, Sand and Stars is on the list of readings for the exam. I didn't have to choose it, I could pick another book. But I thought, "Damn, it's short, no sense in being picky, and it's worth trying again. Maybe I'll finish it this time." And I did. But that's not all. Since then, I have been absolutely delighted with the way Saint-Exupery sees man in the world of values. He's a great philosophical reporter.

But let's get back to the genre literature. In high school, I liked to go for horrors. This was the period in the 1990s when books, in colourful covers and embossed, were bought at railway stations and from camp beds. That's how F. Paul Wilson's The Keep came to me. And then, after many years, I found out that Wilson is a medical doctor and writes medical thrillers. And that's how I enriched my reading by another genre. Then there were legal thrillers, American sensation, and finally – crime novels.

So, we can say that history came full circle, and my world began to spin not because of Copernicus, but because of Holmes, because it all started with him.

And have you come across a book that made you think: I'd like to become a writer? Or later: I would like to be able to tell/construct a story like this?

Of course. I felt like becoming a writer after reading Harlan Coben's novel Darkest Fear. It was my first novel by this author. I reached for it ten years ago. And I don't think I even really liked it then. Or should I say this: I liked it, only that in the way of narrating, addressing the reader directly, there was something that threw me out of the world of the story and irritated me terribly. Yet, in terms of construction and intrigue itself, it was a piece of tasty American thriller. I put the novel away and then the thought dawned on me that if one such as Coben could do it, why not me? At that time, I was a full-time journalist of Toruń's "News", and I earned my living by writing texts. So, I thought I might as well write genre literature. I remember that moment well. I stood by the window in the bedroom upstairs and looked at our garden, where there was a lot to do. There still is. But then, I imagined that I would write a novel, one, then another one, and get back on my feet. Today, I want to laugh at this romantic approach, because at that time, I had no idea about the Polish publishing market, let alone writing books. But maybe that's a good thing. Because in such moments, the most important thing is enthusiasm and fuelling the fire. I remember sharing this thought with my wife, and soon after, I bought myself a notebook and started to write the plot of a crime story in it. After a few months, I had a novel ready. A very bad one, but still!

I am also answering the second question in the affirmative, because it is true that I would like to be able to write like this author or that author, but the thing is that I would only write like Robert Małecki. Everything else can be a great inspiration and this is often the case. For example, after reading the aforementioned Preparation for the Next Life by Lish, but also after The Hunger by Alma Katsu, which - at least that’s what I think – loses its fiction impetus in the finale, I dreamt about the gift of creating such literature. I would also like to be able to spin a story as Bianca Bellova does in the aforementioned The Lake, telling the reader a simple, intimate story of an adolescent boy, possessed by the search for his own identity.

As far as crime literature is concerned, I would like to be at least in part such an excellent author as Indridason, Coben, May, or Minier.

What impresses you with these four and what are you looking for in literature?

In crime literature, I'm really looking for the same thing as in belles-lettres. A simple story about a man. A corpse is always a pretext for telling the stories of the living, and this is what I will stick to. Of course, a crime story must offer an engaging intrigue, etc., etc. As a rule, however, we usually get a crime story about a protagonist and their life, and only then about evil, justice, and atonement; yet, in the popular reading reception, it may seem that the opposite is true. It is not.

As far as these four are concerned, I value everyone for their technical mastery. Coben writes in a luminous style and takes care of the economics of words. There is no padding, no pumping, no pushing it. And besides, he's got a knack for jumbled intrigues. Indridason, on the other hand, seems to me to be a master of storytelling and a story’s flow. What a thoughtful rhythm he has! And, it's in every paragraph. Thanks to that, one can swim through his novels like through a peaceful lake. As far as Minier and May are concerned, I could learn, in particular, descriptions of nature from them. In this respect, I have the impression that they create real works of art. And from all four of them, I would gladly take some lessons on how to build dialogues.

I love Peter May additionally for discovering the unknown world of the Outer Hebrides and ethnographic verve, for skilfully weaving the customs, culture, and life of small communities into the criminal fabric.

And last but not least: what do you have in mind in your reading plans?

I’m going to surprise you a little bit here. Or at least I hope so.  Well, I recently bought Brunon Holyst's Kryminologia (“Criminology”). And this is a massive brick of a book. Of course, I will read some of the excerpts I am interested in, but I'm only talking about it, because I'm supplementing my "criminal" library with selected scientific literature. And from belles-lettres, I am most eager to get stuck into to these four titles at the moment: Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, Gabe Habash’s Stephen Florida, Łukasz Orbitowski’s Kult (“Cult”), and Kuba Małecki’s Nikt nie idzie (“Nobody Is Coming”). From crime novels, first of all, I'll reach for Bernard Minier's Sisters.  Especially since I have this book with the master's autograph.

Interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik

Translated by Justyna Lowe