by Mark Stroup
This interview has been edited for order, clarity and length.
MS: How would you describe the Globe’s Creative Writers Group?
DB: The group that meets at the Globe is always changing. It’s just the nature of being a mainly expat group. Mostly it’s American expats, but we have and have had many European and international writers: Czech, Slovak, Polish, Slovenian, English, Irish, Swedish, Chinese, Bangladeshi and Vietnamese. We have submissions in all genres: poetry, realist, magical realist, speculative fiction, historical fiction and journalism, all in English. I think of myself as a facilitator to guide the discussion. I manage the time and kick it off, if need be.
MS: Why publish an anthology?
DB: I liked the idea that there would be no one in between in the publishing process. I was also inspired by other Prague creatives to do another edition of the anthology. After Marko Thull, a locally-based French poet who hosts a multilingual poetry reading, started putting together a collaborative poetry anthology, I thought, “We could do that.”
MS: Did your experiences in other workshops for writers shape your approach to the Globe group?
DB: My teachers made sure everyone had a chance to speak, which is not something that I necessarily do, because our writers’ group is smaller and a lot of our people are quite talkative anyway. But sometimes I summarize, sometimes I make sure that everybody gets the gist of what the critique is about. Definitely some of the most spirited discussions are when people disagree. People can get a bit impassioned. It’s a sign that the work is good. For me the first thing is people’s impressions of the piece and their interpretations of it. It’s less important to have the writers speak their intentions behind it before people speak. In the traditional American workshops, the writer is not allowed to speak at all. We don’t do that, but I think it’s more fair to let people share their interpretations of what they read first before having the writer explain it. In a way, that’s all that matters in the end, what the readers thought of it.
MS: There are a lot of English language teachers in the group and then there are some English language learners. Does that affect the conversation?
DB: To some degree, but not that much. The ones who are non-native English speakers write quite well. And the grammatical stuff is not a huge point of discussion, not really pertinent unless it really bungles the meaning. These are early drafts and everyone makes grammatical errors. It’s more of the big picture stuff: “Do this character’s actions make sense? Are there details that could be added or removed? Is there a logical progression with the plot or what happened in this part?” I like plot and character focus questions and descriptive things as well, because I often like more details.
One thing I like about the group is that most everyone is respectful and not authoritarian in their critique. Not: “Oh, it should be this way.” It’s more like: “This is my impression, and this is what I think would make it better.”
MS: What are your own interests in literature?
DB: I read pretty broadly. A book of any genre that has an interesting premise will get on my list. I’m a fan of the modernists and the use of stream-of-consciousness. Before reading Ulysses, I was told a lot of things, that it would be hard and obscure, but not how funny and powerful it would be.
MS: What about your own writing?
DB: I try to write at least an hour a day, five days out of the week, because I give myself some leniency on weekends. I used to write all my first drafts on paper, but since moving abroad it became a bit impractical to have to keep buying notebooks all the time. So I mainly write on my laptop, although sometimes I still write in notebooks and sometimes on my phone if that’s what I have on hand. I will write on anything I have on hand if something comes to me. I’m a bit less guided by inspiration these days in terms of when I write. It’s a habit for me now. But sometimes I get really struck with inspiration and I just want to run home and start writing. I sometimes write in the municipal library, or the Academy of Sciences Library. It’s very low cost to go for one day or even have a pass. There aren’t a lot of random people milling around, so it’s quieter, and there’s lots of natural light during the day. I can also write in cafés. You just need to buy a drink.
MS: You write about some heavy stuff: sexual abuse, sexual taboos and murder.
DB: I write about what interests me. Sometimes I go to dark places.
MS: How did you decide on the setting of your novel, The Favored Sister?
In the novel, two recently orphaned sisters arrive, having run away from a shared dark past and the abuse they endured at the hands of their father. The older sister, Emilia, tries to move on by joining the Viennese coffeehouse culture. The younger sister is a child prodigy, very quick at languages and very good at mathematics. She was the apple of her father’s eye, but also something else. She’s trying to deal with that and decides to get into the women-dominated world of fortune telling. The story has a very dark tone, but there are lighthearted moments, including a love story. Even though it’s a historical novel that takes place in central Europe, it’s actually quite heavily inspired by Elena Ferrante and especially the first two books in her Neapolitan novel series. Vienna was still very much informed by a Victorian sensibility, very sexually repressive, but there was also a kind of decadence that was going around.
MS: What does “decadence” mean for you?
DB: Excessively luxurious. But of course this was Viennese high society. On the other side of society, beds were being rented by the hour; people were living in the sewers. In 1911 there were riots after an increase in the price of bread. For ordinary working-class people, even though there was a lot of work to be found, Vienna was an expensive city to live in at the time.
MS: Sex, power and politics also played a role, I suppose.
DB: The fight for women’s suffrage was escalating. Women had been fighting for their rights for centuries, but the struggle was really heating up at this time. In England, the Suffragettes practiced civil disobedience and got violent at times, throwing rocks at politicians. Suffragette Emily Davison died after she was protesting at a horse race and stepped in front of the king’s horse. There was a lot of social turmoil. Writers and artists should be attuned to this.
MS: How do you address that?
DB: The book’s original title was The Fortunate Ones. I decided on this title initially because one of the sisters becomes a fortune teller. But also in a way they are fortunate not to have family pressures–because, as orphans, they don’t have an immediate family. Both of them are more free to make their own decisions about the life they want. It’s just the larger societal pressures that influence my characters.
MS: Do you find Prague inspirational?
DB: Every day, even when I’m not expecting it, I see something beautiful, whether it’s a building or something in nature.
MS: In the world of Central European literature, what do you find that’s pushing the boundaries or just enjoyable?
MS: What kinds of literary events would you like to see more of in Prague?
DB: Bring everybody together a bit more. I want to see more cross pollination. Writers, poets, musicians, playwrights, actors and visual artists can all learn from each other, and I think some of the creative people in Prague do many of these things. There could be some different kinds of workshops, not just writing workshops, but maybe for a performance or to create something within an hour or an hour and a half, working together as a group or in multiple groups rather than just by themselves. Cross pollination would be more likely to happen if people are encouraged to interact with each other, which doesn’t happen if you’re just sitting in a room.