Bedside table #49. Olga Gitkiewicz: I like books that I have read before

Olga Gitkiewicz, reporter and prose writer, talks about reporters who impress her, about what delights her in literature, about ‘book binge-watching’, Lincoln in the Bardo and Normal People; she also reveals when she cannot read anything and what her next book will be about.

What was your first encounter with books? And what were those books?

What a fiendish question! They were always in sight; there is no particular moment that emerges from my memory that I noticed that books were there. It must have been at an unaware age. This does not mean that I come from some intellectual family with oak bookcases; simply, books were read at my parents’ house, and I used to see people with books in their hands. I remember the shelves with classics, blandly-coloured The Diary by Samuel Pepys, but also the dachshund and silver key book series (‘Dachshund series’ and ‘Silver Key Club series’ were two large literary series of crime novels published in the years 1950-2000 – translator’s note). And an extremely fascinating book entitled Taniec marihuany ("Marijuana Dance") with a needle stuck in the foot on the cover. From my pre-primary-school childhood and typical children's readings, it was Czarka by Ludwika Woźnicka that clearly stuck in my head, maybe because I wanted to have a cat, and two books from the ‘Poczytaj mi, mamo’ ("Read to Me, Mummy") series: Przepraszam, smoku ("Sorry, Dragon") and one about gorillas eating dates, I do not remember the title. I could watch them over and over again (I guess that's what it was all about, they were read to me so often that I knew them by heart, and then, I looked at the pages ‘reading’ them myself).

It must have been the time when I relied on the books that others suggested to me. In primary school, probably around the third grade, I discovered libraries, and I was looking for things to read by myself, following the snowball method, with varying results.

My most discernible book-related recollection of those years is related to the lack of books - it was in the third grade that a new girl came to my class, I went to visit her at her’s, and there were no books whatsoever, not even one, in her room neither. I asked where they were, and I heard that there aren’t any, there just aren’t. And it's not that I was somehow discouraged, appalled, not at all, but I remember that I didn't know at all what to think about it, what to do with this information.

You mentioned books were suggested to you. Are you now influenced by suggestions or do you rather choose books yourself?

I think I'm using some kind of hybrid system, that is, I'm influenced by, for example, the opinion of my close friend or a few people who read books professionally and whom I value, but in the end, I rely on my choice, an interview with the author or an excerpt. There are too many books published, too many more masterpieces and must-reads for me to be able to keep up with the suggestions. And I also read a lot of pulp, crime stories, some young adult, plus books I need for my current work.

How does this work out for you? Do you read mostly for work or do you find time for pleasure? Why do you reach for pulp or young adult?

I'm now trying to finish my book, so I've intensified my reading for work, but there are also pleasurable things in these readings, e.g. I now read, with pleasure, Powstanie umarłych ("The Rising of the Dead") by Napiórkowski and Czesałam ciepłe króliki ("I Combed Warm Rabbits") by Zaborek. And simultaneously, I read Atwood's stories on and off, because I like to take my eyes off the scans from the archive and those typically bibliographic books. There is also this stupid moment during writing, at the end, when I can't read anything, because all the books piss me off after three sentences. It always seems to me that everyone has already written everything, so why else should I do it?

Besides, there are weeks that I am tired, and I do not read anything at all. Or maybe months. And that's when I need some kind of a Nesbø, something popular, The Hunger Games. It's a binge-watching kind of entertainment - there's a story, somebody tells it somehow, I can read it in one day, get more or less involved, and then forget it.

What are you writing about now, if you can tell?

I am writing about Halina Krahelska and other women with that name (Krahelskie to the power of). I don't think it's a biography; I rather look for an activity gene in them, and I'm wondering why we mythologise some people.

How did you come across her? So far, at least in terms of books, you have focused on broader social problems in contemporary Poland.

I have other ‘systematic’ books on my mind, but when I was writing Nie hańbi ("No Disgrace") and documenting the case of the murder of the linen factory director, I found out, in several sources, that the ‘legendary labour inspector Halina Krahelska’ was also being tried in the Żyrardów case. I thought, haha, legendary, but I started to look her up, and she started to annoy me. And so, I was digging into her biography, and in the process, I found out about the other Krahelskas and false clues. I am aware that many people may not care about these biographies, because they are quite monotonous in their legendary nature. In general, I wonder why people write biographies - I write this one for myself, without a contract, without a deadline (I mean, with my own deadline in my head, but it appeared only recently). If someone else sees something in this book, I'll probably be quite happy about it.

So, we know now what you are interested in in the books you write. And what do you look for in the ones you pick for reading?

Very basic things: some story, some phrase, some language. When I say a ‘story’, I don't necessarily mean action, twists, complicated relations - I want someone to tell me about something, let it be sitting all day in one room, but let it be described somehow. I like to be delighted with how someone sees something and how they find the language to talk about it. I don't read much reportage; anyway, I'm not really interested in the subject in non-fiction either. I'm more interested in the realisation, structure, language, and decisions of the authors.

Who impresses you with their non-fiction writing then?

It's a very difficult question, because it changes. Maybe I would answer differently next month. But it would be Andrzej Muszyński. When I read his books, I usually think: oh, that's what I will never be able to do in my life. I have a weakness for Małgorzata Szejnert and Włodzimierz Nowak. For Maciej Zaremba Bielawski. There is a problem with foreign books because a lot depends on translation. I liked Le Duff's Detroit, I thought it was something fresh, but for example Sh*tshow! annoyed me and I tossed it aside. There is something about Elisabeth Asbrink. Also, something makes me remember Colin Thubron, although travel books do not interest me in any way at all.

I like Muszyński, especially his debut. As for LeDuff, I agree, I did not finish Sh*tshow! either. And what was the last thing that delighted you?

I will treat ‘recently’ a little more broadly, because it is easier for me to be disappointed than delighted. The most obvious delight is Lincoln in the Bardo - maybe on the wave of love for the Spoon River Anthology, or maybe on the level of admiration for the game of form.

I liked Pustostany (“Voids”), I think warmly of it, I like these spiralling sentences, sometimes some kind of slip-up, a stumble in rhythm. At first, I thought I would edit some broken sentences, and then I felt that no, I welcome them in this shape. And that's basically an ordinary fiction idea, everyday observations, everyday heroines, ordinary backgrounds, and I'm entering this story.

And Normal People, about which I am not sure if it is not too close to pop, but actually, it doesn't matter - I like books that I want to read all the time, and that I feel sorry to finish reading, and that was this kind of book. In addition, when I finished it, I called a few friends with the information that they should read it immediately. A normal story, very Anglo-Saxon, some Eugenides resounds there, the characters are sometimes annoying, I found sticking in some class topics a bit funny at times, because they were supposed to situate this book in the ‘contemporary novel’ section, not ‘romance’. But when you ask me what delighted me – it would be this book that comes to my mind without much reservation.

Rooney made a big impression on me. Pop in a way, but there's more under the surface, and it's not just about class awareness. I like this association with Eugenides, it matches his less fresco novels, I think. And was there a book after which you thought you wanted to write? Everyone rather associates you with reportage, but fiction came first.

Now I'm going to say something I think I have never said before - I always wanted to write. There is something indecent about it, I think, that I do what I thought, as a girl, I would do in the future. At the beginning of primary school, I don't remember when, when asked about my dream job, I answered that I would be a writer, maybe a poet, I was a little labile about it. And I don't really know which book could have caused this, but probably fiction like Niziurski or May (I read Winnetou pretty early and I was wrecked by the fact that the main positive character might die). It wasn't until high school that I started to migrate to architecture/ASP (The Academy of Fine Arts – translator’s note), but that wasn't really thought through. And I really started with fiction, but I got a little burnt. But the thing is that it's not reportage solely now - reportage has its boundaries beyond which I just won't leave and that’s it; and I do have some fictional ideas, and I think about them intensively.

Since we are already at childhood readings, what has stayed with you the most from this time?

I feel like I'm in the waiting room at the GP’s, we're in our eighties, and we name our ailments. And it is not age that I mean, but about the level of personal information exchange.

When I quickly look for those childhood books that have stayed with me in my head, I remember most strongly Niziurski, Bahdaj, Pan Samochodzik (“Mister Automobile”) series, Kaktusy z zielonej ulicy ("The Cacti of Green Street") very, very much, and Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter. And there was this Soviet book without a cover and the first few pages missing, I found it at my grandmother's, it was about a group of kids who found some eggs and built an incubator for them from a box and lamps, and hatched those eggs. When I was very grown up, I found the title of this book with a superhuman effort of will, but I don't remember it again.

However, I remember most vividly the books I read at the age of 14-17 years -  attention now, reflux and colic - I had the Universal Encyclopaedia, and there was something like a list of masterpieces of world literature from antiquity to the years, probably, '70 or '80 of the 20th century, and I worked my way through this list. There was something like, I remember, Prometheus Bound or The Man who Was Thursday. I didn't manage to borrow everything, and I don't remember many of the titles, I wasn’t able to read a lot of them. But that's where I came upon - and still read today - Kristin Lavransdatter, there was Mrs. Dalloway and The Great Gatsby, Remarque, Hemingway, and then those books that are called ‘formative’ at the age of 15, i.e. The Catcher in the Rye, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Slaughterhouse Number 5, Hopscotch, etc. Today, I hardly think about them, but it was there that I found Sigrid Undset and Steinbeck, the Strugatsky brothers, and Le Guin; and these are the books that I like to have on the shelf regardless of moving houses. I don't get attached to books, I lend, give away, sell to make room for other ones, but I leave these ones, so they stay with me. I have two sons, who have inherited from me Naprzód, Wspaniali ("Forward, the Glorious!") by Niziurski, several Pan Samochodzik books, Ronia, The Brothers Lionheart and Wyprawa Tapatików ("The Tapatian Expedition"). I'm not sure if these books are as important for them as they are for me. I don't really think so, Niziurski and Nienacki, in particular, they are tripe from their perspective, the system really drips there from every side. Well, let them have it.

Do you return to these old literary loves?

Absolutely. I have some comfort rituals, in winter I read Dune and Roadside Picnic. Sapkowski until recently, the whole saga, but on the occasion of the TV series, I refreshed it once again and decided that that’s enough, it got old after all. I read Kristin Lavransdatter maybe not every year, but every three years or so. East of Eden – often in the summer. Until  the TV series, I regularly read The Handmaid's Tale, because it is this kind of formative book of mine, but now it feels a bit silly to, besides, The Testaments disappointed me very much and I probably won't get over it for a while. I have to read something by Woolf every year. I have this childhood memory when my grandmother, who raised me for some time, sits in the kitchen, looks at me, and says, "Ola, I think you've already read this book," giving me this look as if she was saying kindly and clearly, “I think you forgot to take your medication.” But, to this day, I still like the books that I have already read before. Yet there aren't too many coming, I mean, not many new ones are added to this collection. Christensen, not all of Foer, maybe Rooney.

And now, for example, I'm re-reading The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, just on a whim.

You mentioned Atwood as a formative author for you. What else was so important to you?

It is a difficult question; I need to think. For me, formative reading is one that has moved something inside my head. So, for sure The Handmaid's Tale, not very original, but I guess I won't be original at all. Also, The Bell Jar by Plath. And one of the Baldwin's novels, Giovanni’s Room, I don't remember exactly all the nuances or what language it was, but a long time ago, a friend of mine, a closeted gay, told me to read it, and then we talked about it. I was a small-town young’un, and this was the first gay novel I read consciously. A very good novel; in general, there was a lot of good in this KIK series (Klub Interesującej Ksiażki – Interesting Book Club series – translator’s note).

I think I should also mention Children of the Arbat, I can still see it, this Sovietness, these blocks of cramped flats, the protagonists struggling. Hmm, I haven't read it for a long time, I have to look for it in the library.

From Polish books, my formative ones were Słoneczniki ("Sunflowers") by Halina Snopkiewicz and novels for girls from the series ‘Portraits of Names’, or something like that. Each book’s title comes from the name of the main female or male character. There was a lot of social background. It seems to me that my formative books were about trying to cope with the system.

To end, I would like to ask what your current reading plans are? And to top it up: the books by which authors are you always waiting for?

I am very inconsistent in such waiting, because I often think that I am waiting for something, and then I don't read it at all. But I can say with confidence that I wait for Majgul Axelsson's books, for Atwood, of course, even though she has disappointed me a few times recently, for Lars Saabye Christensen. And for Myśliwski.

My plans are very precise: I have to trace and read Wspomnienia skarbowca ("Memoirs of a Treasurer") by Aleksander Ivanka and Dziewczęta ze stalagu VI C Oberlangen ("Girls from Stalag VI-C Oberlangen") by Felicja Bańkowska. And then, I would like to read Dzika rzecz ("Wild Thing") by Rafał Księżyk. It was published at the end of September, and it should have been me who wrote it, damn it! And Talita, Pawel Huelle's new book.

Interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik

Translated by Justyna Lowe