Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies. Today: Czech writer Jaroslav Kalfar on his debut novel Spaceman of Bohemia.
What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?
I’d say, “As the first Czech astronaut embarks on a solo mission to Venus, he receives the news of his wife’s mysterious disappearance, and begins a conversation with an alien arachnid / philosopher who may or may not be real.” Then the elevator stops due to service malfunction, and the poor industry person has no choice but listen to me ramble on beyond the constricting pitch: “But really, it’s about…”
What you tell your relatives it’s about?
[They ask me], “Wait, are you telling us this writing stuff actually worked out?”
How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?
The initial idea was a short story about an American astronaut stuck in orbit when his wife calls to say she wants a divorce. More of a punchline, until the astronaut became Czech and everything clicked. It took about two years of writing, and a year of revising while also putting it out into the world.
Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.
The Sun Also Rises. I’ve tried a few times, but it’s so emotionally stunted. Some readers see power in that, but it just doesn’t ring my cherries.
Name a book you’ve read more than twice.
I re-read The Unbearable Lightness of Being every year, as it’s one of the books that shaped me and forever speaks to me. I even force it on my students, the poor souls!
What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?
I always have The Office on when I’m cleaning or doing other menial tasks at home. Michael Scott is the master of language parkour: I’m not superstitious, but I’m a little stitious. Lately I’m also re-watching The West Wing, the liberal’s ultimate comfort food, a world in which most people are essentially good and bipartisanship CAN work if we all try hard enough. It soothes me and prevents more ulcers as I watch Europe and America self-destruct.
What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?
Moonlight. I wish I could watch the movie on a loop indefinitely. It’s beautiful beyond words.
Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?
I mostly write in silence (my neighbor is a music instructor, so often the silence is paired with flute / tuba sounds from above, which is actually wonderful), but during difficult days, I usually blast The Lord of the Rings soundtrack. I need the music to be wordless but majestic, and majestic IT IS. ‘The Bridge of Khazad-dûm’ track? When the Fellowship runs out of Balin’s tomb and flees through the swarm of orcs surrounding them? Hot damn.
Who is your fashion icon?
I haven’t any, but I will use this opportunity to insist that men should not, under any circumstances other than sports, gym or swimming, wear shorts. It’s an argument I’ve been having for years with a few guy friends and I think I just won a point.
If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?
I’d buy a house in New York, rent it out, and use the money I’d make to travel and write all over the world. If anyone wants to get in on this scheme, hit me up.
What did you initially want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to own a dog park — as in, a massive space with a dog restaurant (dogs and owners could eat at the same table, or dogs could eat solo), a dog groomer, dog hotel, dog taxi. Pretty much a place where dogs could hang out and have the best time of their lives even when their owners are busy or away. Then I wanted to be an astronaut, sitting in cars fiddling with the radio and pretending they were spaceship controls. I decided to be a writer when I was six years old, so I didn’t get to form many other ambitions, after.
Did you have a New Year’s resolution for 2017? If so, what?
Read far more books – 2016 was bad for it because the election had me just wanting to unplug at the end of the day, cease thinking altogether. Help in any way I can those people who are most endangered by the presidency. We’ve got to really take care of each other now. My friends have already been attacked by emboldened supremacists and that just won’t do.
What freaks you out the most about four years of Donald Trump as US President?
Normalization. Anyone who comes from a country previously under authoritarian rule knows how scary and possible this is. People are outraged, but then the ridiculous stuff keeps happening, becomes overwhelming and numbing, and the resistance slackens due to fatigue. We have to be incredibly vigilant and let nothing slide, especially since Trump has the enabler Congress and people similar to him are being elected in Europe as well, even in the Czech Republic. It’ll all be exhausting but crucial for our future.
Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?
Silent library, always! People come to coffee shops to “work” but then you just catch them stealthily watching YouTube or sipping from a flask or trying to flirt with strangers. And then you catch yourself watching them watch YouTube or flirt. Coffee shops are for revelry, hardly for work!
Do you write at a desk, bed or couch?
A desk. For the first time in my life I have a real writing room, not a desk crammed in an unfriendly space, and I am riding that wave as much as I can.
Is morning writing or late-night writing your go-to-time?
I usually write until 3 or 4pm, take a break to run errands and see friends, and then write into the night. Rarely you’ll see me in bed before 3am — the night is a trusty friend.
Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?
A big messy draft all the way. I write in bursts — once I have the real idea, the book or story I really want to write, I do a 1,000 words minimum daily. I don’t go back and try to fix anything until I have most of the first draft completed, because I’d lose the moments of spontaneity, and those moments make writing something that’s not a choice but a necessity for me.
How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?
Mostly through my work in international espionage and general intrigue.
What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?
It’s tricky, but I manage to get a lot of writing done between missions, say, during the time I spend sitting in a Black Hawk helicopter carrying me to a covert operation. Zero Dark Thirty? More like Zero Dark I Just Spent Thirty Hours Writing Pages Of Garbage. James Bond? More like James Is Unable To Bond With His Father. In all seriousness, while I wrote the book, I mostly lived on a diet of canned tuna and bananas, and paid rent by writing for one of the most awful corporations in existence. I can’t really recommend this approach to anyone, but if you love the book you’re working on, you just try your best not to weep into your tuna and get it done.