Writer and journalist Anna Kaminska talks about ruining the books she reads, her love of Russian literature, compulsive notetaking, and her contact with readers during the pandemic.
What books do you have on your bedside table?
I usually have two types of books on my bedside table. The ones I need for work, and they are usually completely ruined, i.e. with colourful sticky notes stuck on each page, with bookmarks torn in half, bent pages, full of pencil scribbles, etc., as well as those I read for pleasure. My high school Polish teacher taught me how to attentively work with books in such a way that no one later, at any university or any other school, taught me so well: the art of taking notes, writing comments in a book in pencil, marking important things in the margins of a book with arrows, drawings, underlining, etc. And this habit has also somewhat carried over to the books I read for pleasure, although I don't cause as much havoc to them as I do to the first ones, which lie in ruins (laughter). That's why I can't stand audiobooks or e-books, because how am I supposed to work with them and how do I keep forever those important reflections on the books I read! In high school, it was thanks to this Polish teacher who whetted my appetite for books and advised me to reach for plenty of things that weren't on the required reading list, to keep extra notebooks with a list of those extra books (as well as of the plays and films we saw) that I developed this habit, and I don't know how to read in a different way. I also love paper because of the feel, because of the smell, because of the covers (I prefer them more matte and rugged than slick), and even because of the endbands! That's more or less what it looks like.
And if you're asking about titles, these are the books on my bedside table right now: Hirszfeldowie. Zrozumieć krew (”The Hirszfelds. Understanding the Blood”) by Urszula Glensk, AIDS and its Metaphors by Susan Sontag, Crime and Punishment because I'm experiencing some unusual, renewed admiration for Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Poezje ("Poems”) by Miłosz, which even surprises me because I hadn't read poetry on a daily basis until now, but the pandemic has caused a lot of surprising things when it comes to my reading.
Can you give us a selection of recent reading delights and disappointments?
I am rarely delighted, to be honest. I mean, I love Russian literature. It is with great pleasure and admiration that I engage with Bulgakov, Gogol, or Chekhov, for example. This is such a type of literature and storytelling about human nature that delights me every time, but I'm less delighted by the contemporary stuff. Of the things I've read recently, I'll list maybe the ones I simply enjoyed: Ludzkie sprawy (“Human Affairs”) by Wiktor Osiatyński, Chronicles by Bob Dylan, or Marek Hlasko’s biography by Radoslaw Mlynarczyk. I won't talk about the disappointments or maybe let me say: I imagined that the book Wszystkie języki świata ("All the Languages in the World") by Zbigniew Mentzel would be a book that would delight me, and it didn't happen whatsoever. However, that doesn't mean it won't delight me in ten years, because that's been my experience with more than one book.
Are there books that you could say have shaped you?
The books that shape my technique, that’s definitely American literature. In terms of the readings that somehow influenced what I wrote, it was definitely anything by Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, Ken Kesey, or Truman Capote. As for the books that shaped me as a person, I'll keep them to myself, these are always changing anyway. Maybe I will answer this way: it happened that I found some answers to various questions in Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz's books. I think that books by American journalists relating to how to work, for example The Art of the Interview by Lawrence Grobel, which fell into my hands one day, also had quite an impact on what I do today.
When you read reportage, do you do so as a professional, or are you able to switch off and read for pleasure?
When it comes to non-fiction, I can't switch off and not think about the technique and stop myself from taking notes or writing comments about the form, etc. Even when I read newspapers for pleasure, I also happen to cut out an excerpt and glue it into my daily planner. And if I read prose, sure, I get carried away at times and don't plan to jot anything down at first, but after a while, it turns out that I find something for myself and I also try to mark it, and then there is a compulsive search for a pencil, a yellow sticky note, or a piece of paper to make a note of something if the book is from the library. I don't scribble in library books. I rein myself in. I also try to make sure that whoever borrows the book after me doesn't find my train ticket, chocolate wrapper, or doctor's prescription in it, which still happens to me.
What are your ethical boundaries when writing a biography? What would you not write about your protagonist?
I never depict a character stripped of their privacy, naked, just for the sake of it. It's obvious that I know things about my protagonist that I could write about, but I don't think it's necessary to reveal it if it didn't affect their fate. I believe common decency dictates that we, authors, set such boundaries on ourselves, and it's understandable, because none of us - author or reader - would want to be completely stripped of privacy. I simply ask myself how I myself would feel if something I wanted to write was written about me by someone else, and how relevant that is to a particular biography.
And who influenced your reportage techniques? What masters did you have?
You know, I could say, of course, that I passionately read Hanna Krall, Krzysztof Kąkolewski, and Ryszard Kapuściński, because it's true, and I certainly learned from their books to some extent. But for me personally, it was more important to meet people who I had direct contact with and who changed something in me when I tried to write. And it was Marek Miller, a reporter at ‘Laboratorium Reportażu’ (Reportage Laboratory), who I got to know during my studies, Maciej Drygas, with whom I discussed some text, or Remigiusz Grzela, from whom I learned the art of the interview rather than reportage, which is often a much more difficult art. Without the ability to do a good interview, there is no way at all to write biographies like mine, which are based on conversations with people. So, without personal experiences with people who saw some potential in me and gave me some guidance, I think that all those reportage books I read probably wouldn't have been of much use.
You are the author of three biographies. Finishing a book doesn't seem to close the topic. What's going on with your female characters?
Two films are currently being made about Simona Kossak: one feature film, so we will see Simona on the big screen, and a documentary to be shown in arthouse cinemas. There is also the pending case of the house where Simona lived in the Bialowieza Forest. The house where she lived in the woods may be placed under preservation maintenance. I know that many readers of the book have been going to see this place, and for many, it will be good news. On the other hand, a feature film about Wanda Rutkiewicz is being made and, as far as I know from the producer, in the story told on the big screen, Halina Krüger-Syrokomskaya, i.e. ‘Halina’ from my book, will also appear there together with Wanda. As you know very well, their fates are inextricably linked not only by their life stories, but also when it comes to the history of so-called women's mountaineering or mountaineering in general.
I certainly agree with you, finishing working on a book obviously doesn't close the subject. I believe there is no such thing as the end of working on a biography because you can always learn something new, meet another interviewee, etc. The story of a person is a never-ending story.
My heroines are still close to me, I would even say they sort of work in me. I'm built of the women I've had a chance to write about, certainly the many years I've spent in their worlds have left quite a mark on me.
I believe working on a biography is conducive to learning something about yourself.
Working on a biography is a grind and there are times when you really feel like crashing out of it, so if it weren't for the fact that I felt like I was getting a lot out of the stories I was describing, I definitely wouldn't have finished it. I always have this feeling that the more commitment I give to a character, the more I get from them.
Do you happen to act as an expert on Wanda, Halina, or Simona? Do you recall any interesting or bizarre situations in this regard?
Yes, but I think every book author has had those situations happen. It happens that someone calls me and says, "Ma'am, I read your book about Simona, I liked it, and I went to school with Simona, and I found a picture of her, maybe you can use it? Be sure to visit me, we'll talk. I'll give you my address, write it down. So, when are you coming to see me? Please come as soon as possible!". I heard many good things about my books from mountaineers, I got an award from mountain men, I heard that I am a Polish Bernardette McDonald. It's a lovely compliment, by the way, because Bernadette is a wonderful person with extraordinary knowledge of mountains, a hard-working author, kind, with a kind of elegance, classy. Many people call me to suggest that I continue to write about the mountains, yet I'm not as interested in the mountains as many of my fellow book authors who have much more experience and knowledge of the subject.
If you could turn back time, under what circumstances would you want to meet your subjects? A coffee with Wanda, a walk in the woods with Simona, something stronger with Halina?
I think there could be no other circumstances to meet my subjects than in nature, in the mountains or in the woods. If I could meet my heroines, it would only be under such circumstances, not in a coffee shop after all! I have dreams related to my heroines, and in one of them, Simona and I were sitting at Dziedzinka in Bialowieza Forest (a forest lodge where Simona Kossak lived – translator’s note), I think there would be no better place for such meetings than just out in nature or their homes. Just like all my heroines, I prefer to have roots under my feet rather than cobblestones. I would also love to invite my heroines to my house with a garden, because I think if we sat on the grass, they might enjoy such a meeting too. Yes, they would certainly all love to sit in the garden.
Doesn't the label ‘mountain literature’ sometimes do the book a disservice?
I don't think so, after all, there is a mountain book festival, a mountain book competition, mountain press. I don't think that my books about Wanda or Halina are typical mountain literature, and we all know that there are many such books. They are limited to the typically mountainous aspects of the expeditions or the characters described, and people like them, so calling them by their name is ok, I guess? I am not a fan of pigeonholing books or anything else, but if a lot of people want to be specific and reach for something that is predictable, then go ahead.
Do you have your diagnosis of the popularity of all sorts of biographies?
People will always be interested in other people's lives, which is, after all, the reason for the success of the colourful press or Internet sites reporting what someone had for dinner, where, and with whom.
How did you take the conquest of K2 by the Nepalese?
This is such a beautiful story of how history has come full circle or rather topped all the attempts to climb K2 by those who have remained in the background until now, allowing mountaineers from our cultural background to shine in the foreground, that I find only one phrase that I can comment on it with: I’m moved. The ascent to the summit by the Nepalese who waited for each other is one of the most beautiful scenes in Himalayan history. I also remember what Wanda Rutkiewicz said about Sherpa people who supported her during the ascent of Mount Everest, unlike her German colleagues who only put the skids under her. That's why this conquest of K2 by Sherpa people in winter moves me many times over. It also fills me with hope for the kind of writing and talking about the mountains that Wanda proposed at one point: with humility, love of the mountains, and in the spirit of experiencing mountain adventures in community. And not in the form of a one-actor spectacle and athletic rivalry the purpose of which is plaudits.
Has the pandemic changed your reading?
The pandemic has awakened me in terms of reading, and I began to reach for Russian literature, German literature, and poetry more often than usual. I didn't get to finish everything (this includes The Magic Mountain), but I still read some books that I didn't have time for before.
Do you miss meeting your readers?
I like meeting people in libraries or at festivals, but there is also an introverted part of my nature and I like to spend some time in seclusion. I think it would be difficult for me to write without it anyway. So, I am able to enjoy the time when these meetings with readers take place online. You just can’t compare it. Now, people do not come up to you with a book to talk about something, like at library meetings, you can’t see them, you can’t smell them, and you can’t look them in the eye. It's certainly a huge loss, but, on the other hand, I've noticed that readers write to me more willingly than before, perhaps because of the lack of such meetings or conversations, indeed. And these letters are important to me too. I read them with more attention now than before, when I read them rushing from one meeting to another.
Do you happen to get interesting, important, inspiring feedback from readers?
Surely. It was exactly at such meetings with readers or mountain festivals where someone came up and talked about something they had noticed. I still remember many such meetings. I will never forget those hours we spent talking at mountain festivals with Wanda Rutkiewicz's friends who suddenly appeared and shared their impressions after reading my book, or the reactions of readers amazed at the fact that a mountain book can start like a crime story. If you reach out with a book to people, anything can happen. It is the most beautiful, of course, when someone has hardly three books in their wooden cottage in Podlasie region, and among them stands Simona. I also really like those incidents when I ask to interview someone for my new book, and they say, sure, they agree to the interview because they've read my Wanda, and they quickly give the address of their home. This was the case, for example, with the mountaineer Leszek Cichy, who knew me as an author because he knew about the book Simona. It was mainly thanks to this that there was actually no trouble to arrange a meeting about Wanda Rutkiewicz.
It's been a while since your last book was published, what are you working on now?
Halina came out in mid-2019, that's pretty recent! I'm not an author who publishes one book a year, and I never want to be one. I'm now working on a book that will be more of a biographical essay than a typical biography, and it discusses someone who was a phenomenon in every way when it comes to social action. The action takes place in a mental hospital, and then in other places, often very close to nature, there's even some mountains, but it also takes place on the road and in the city. I show my protagonist in different places on the map and surrounded by other people and their problems, because that's the only way to show his work and greatness, but I think it also comes out as a road book. The person I am writing about has unconventional ideas, is exuberant, and brings help to people, sometimes breaking the law or allowing himself various extravagances that, in the case of other people, could not take place. That's the only thing I can say about it today.
Interviewer: Andrzej Mirek
Translated by Justyna Lowe