fot. Mikołaj Starzyński

Bedside table #8. Anna Kańtoch: I have a weakness for books about murders on the moors

Writer Anna Kańtoch, five-time winner of the Janusz A. Zajdel Award, talks about books that have made an impression on her in recent years, militia crime stories read in her childhood, debt to Agatha Christie, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Andrzej Sapkowski, and reveals which masterpiece of Polish literature she was not able to struggle through.

What are you currently reading?

I usually read several books at once. Sadly, because this is probably not a good habit. Recently, in order to tune into the mood for writing Pokuta (“Penance”), they were mainly crime fiction or gothic novels.

And more precisely?

Among others, the book in which the main character fights with a haunted rucksack in the Himalayas, that is Michelle Paver's Thin Air, as well as a great, entertaining crime story by Anthony Horowitz The Word is Murder, and a few more novels by Arnaldur Indriðason.

Any delights recently?

It depends how we define “recently”.

So I understand it’s rather a „no”.

I like some books, some even very much, but I'm already at this age that delight and admiration are rare.

What about something outside of fiction?

I was very impressed by the reportage Był sobie chłopczyk (“There Was a Boy”) by Ewa Winnicka, but in this case, there is no question of delight or admiration neither, because it is not a book of this kind - it is the subject that makes an impression, not the way of writing.

Polish novels?

The last one that made an impression on me was Ciemno, prawie noc (“Dark, Almost Night”) by Joanna Bator.

A couple of years ago indeed, Joanna Bator received the Nike Award for this book in 2013. Let's move on to reading habits: do you have to finish, after you have started, even a bad book?

Definitely not, I start more books than I finish. And these are not necessarily weak books, because it happens to me to quit even those potentially good ones, which, for some reason,  turned me off.

What has recently turned you off?

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, who annoyed me so much with her style that after the first dozen or so pages I wanted to kill all the heroes with a spade, and finally the author herself.

What drives you in your choice of books when entering a library or bookshop? Reviews, translator, reputation of the publishing house?

I try to choose carefully: I usually buy authors who are already proven, or at least those whom I have been recommended to by trustworthy people. In libraries, however, where I don't spend my own hard-earned money, there are no restrictions - I take whatever catches my eye. And I must admit that I have a weakness for books about murders on the moors. If the words 'corpse' and ‘moor’ are in the blurb of the novel, I will obviously want to read it.

Do you read books in foreign languages?

I do, mainly within the framework of language learning. Recently, I have been struggling with Lethal White, the fourth part of the series about Cormoran Strike by J. K. Rowling.

How is this struggle going?

This is a good word, because the book is unfortunately much weaker than the previous ones from the series – I have read more than a third, and the action is still standing still.

Do you read on paper or maybe on an e-reader?

When not at home, I try to read on an e-reader, because it is smaller and lighter, and at home - on paper. In practice, this is not always the case.

Is a book a good gift?

I give books as gifts to my mother and sister. My sister likes fantasy and youth novels, which is more or less what I like; my mother prefers crime fiction, novels of manners, and romances - I know nothing about the latter, so I usually give her crime fiction. Well, unless she gives me the title that I am supposed to buy, because this happens as well.

You are connected with the world of fantasy. Fandom is probably the environment which discusses books the most vividly in Poland.

We talk about the books we read at meetings of the Silesian Fantasy Club or simply on the occasion of social meetings.

And on the Internet?

I try to avoid Internet forums because they consume too much time.

Do you remember your first childhood readings?

I started reading quite late on my own, probably in the second year of primary school; however, I skipped the stage of reading fairy tales and children's books, and I started right away with those for slightly older kids, so the first books that I remember were adventures of Winnetou, books from the series about Pan Samochodzik, and other books of this type.

Did your parents read at home?

Books have always been present at home – my Mum is a passionate reader, Dad - a little less, but he also used to read and still does. From my childhood, I remember that they read Bajka o żelaznym wilku (“A Tale About an Iron Wolf”) to me, which I loved very much.

And how did it go with required reading at school?

I read the vast majority... let's say. My problem was that sometimes I read these books earlier than they were in the curriculum.

You could feel as if you were falling behind in development during such lessons.

It was the case with W pustyni i w puszczy („In Desert and Wilderness”). It was a required reading in the fifth year, and I had read it two years earlier, and I didn't feel like rereading it. As a result, the teacher asked me about some detail, I didn't remember it anymore, and I got an F in Polish class... And I didn't read Pan Tadeusz...

No way.

I tried, really, but my brain, for some reason, does not assimilate something that is rhymed and fictional at the same time. I read it, and I immediately forget what it's all about, so I read it again and forgot again, and so on. In the case of Pan Tadeusz, I gave up after the first few pages.

And the first "adult" readings?

Early, still at the beginning of primary school. And nobody ever supervised me, I could read whatever I wanted. As a result, I started with militia crime stories and short stories by Stefan Grabiński. I remember well Kochanka Szamoty (Szamota's Mistress”).

"In front of me, in the fuss of lace and satin, there it was, scattered shamelessly, bare to the belly line, a women's torso - a torso without breast, without arms, without head..."

When read at the age of ten, it really makes an impression.

Do you have any life-changing readings from that period? The books that changed you, shaped you?

Of course, books shaped me, like any reader, but I don't remember one particular one that would change my view of the world or something like that.

Thanks to whom did you discover crime fiction?

For this, I have to thank Agatha Christie – it was thanks to her that I fell in love with crime fiction.

And fantasy?

Thanks to Tolkien and Sapkowski, who showed me that fantasy can be written in a completely different way.

Any books, your fascination with which you recall with a bit of embarrassment?

I once grabbed John Cleland's famous Fanny Hill Memoirs and started reading with flushed cheeks, but halfway through, I blew it off. Even my fourteen-year-old self, very interested in sex, couldn't cope with all these idiocies.

Are any of the classics particularly important to you?

I have always liked English and American novels of manners, such as Henry James. I also consider the creators of gothic novels to be important to me.

Some of them got very old.

I know, some of it is just pulp today, but I still have a weakness for Sheridan Le Fanu or Bram Stoker. Sometimes, I even go back to Matthew Gregory Lewis' The Monk - although he is probably the weakest one of the three. I used to like Ann Radcliffe a lot, I don't think I would risk reading it today, though.

So you do return to your old readings.

Only to certs, about which I know that they will not disappoint me. Sometimes, it happens to me to have a sentimental look at an old Polish crime story, and I am surprised how clumsily it is written. Translations are also disappointing: I used to ingest Agatha Christie without fuss, because I was mainly interested in the intrigue; today, I can see that some of her books are written in a poor language, and I assume that it is the fault of the translator, not the author.

Do you have authors whom you look at as if they were a model, with the ambition to write as well as they do?

When I started writing, I had a cheat sheet on which I wrote: the style of Henry James, the mood of Ian R. MacLeod, dialogues from Chandler... What came out of this can be seen in my books - I will just say that there is neither James, nor MacLeod, nor Chandler. If I were to aspire to someone else's style today, I would like to write like Catherynne M. Valente, but, taught by an unpleasant experience, I don't even try.

Would you like to meet any writers in person?

Some writers are of course interesting and worth getting to know, but it is not that I read an interesting book and think, "Oh my, I have to get to know the author". A book is a book, and an author is an author.

Do you follow the activity of your fellow colleagues in Poland?

Not really. To be honest, I prefer to read foreign authors, because it is simple with them: I like them, I can praise them publicly, I don’t like them, I will let steam off by writing a malicious post on Facebook. With Poles, the situation is more complicated, because if the book turns out to be good, it's great, but if it's bad, then what?

There is this beautiful reviewing rule: to compliment as if you're reprimanding, and to criticise so that it sounds like praise.

It's not appropriate to be malicious nor to write a negative review, and social meetings - because I meet Polish authors on numerous occasions - are also awkward. That's why, in the case of Polish authors, I try to stick to proven names: in crime fiction, this is Wojciech Chmielarz, for example.

This seems to be a mutual recognition, because when I met him, he recommended your novels to me.

Recently, I also took the risk with Robert Małecki's Skaza (“Flaw”), and I was pleased.

You studied Arabic Studies. Do you return to literature from this cultural circle?

No. I have very nice memories from my studies, especially my one-year scholarship stay in Jordan, but I realised quite early that Arabic studies will not play an important role in my life.

Are there any genres that you do not read by definition?

I don't like romance, military novels, or fast-paced books - they all make me bored, and military aspects make me stop understanding what I am reading about.

Finally, the most difficult question: your favourite, most important writer?

Oh my, I have no idea.... There are many of them. Besides, the most important and favourite one can be two different categories. I like Cathedrinna M. Valente, because I massively like her style, I like Stephen King, because I rest while reading his novels, important books for me are The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov, The Name of the Rose by Eco, The Dumas  Club by Artur Pérez-Reverte, or Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny... I can't choose, really.

So let's just talk about your nearest reading plans.

I want to make it to the end of this unfortunate Lethal White by Robert Galbraith/J. K. Rowling in English, but if I can't, I'll probably start Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart, because a lot of people have already recommended it to me.

And in Polish? Who is closest in line?

I plan to read Valente's novel The Habitation of the Blessed, I only have to buy it first. Or wait for my birthday, maybe someone will make me a gift - but will I last until the end of December? And there will probably be other books along the way, today I'm going to the library by the way, and maybe I'll take something interesting.

Interviewer: Marcin Kube

Translated by Justyna Lowe