The laws of good writing
When you look at Blanka Čechová‘s biography, you may wonder, how is it even possible that you haven’t heard about her before: her first book got published when she was nineteen. After graduating from law, she launched an impressive career at the European Court of Human Rights and then at a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. Later, she got admitted as the first non-native speaker to the Master in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford. As a writer, she worked with Ladislav Smoljak, Jiri Menzel or Juraj Jakubisko, she taught writing to lawyers and bankers, and along the way, she wrote another four marvellous books.
Question one: how did you manage to squeeze all of the diverse and demanding activities into your life so far?
Easy: I was doing things, not making connections. Which might have been wrong in many ways, but I simply followed my passion and I stubbornly wanted to make a difference, no matter how much of a cliché this sounds. I don’t deny that this required certain sacrifice. I missed uncounted trips, parties, coffees and grand-openings. You may know the famous Oscar Wilde quote: he was once approached at a party by a lady, who asked him “Why is it that the poor writers are always so entertaining while the good writers tend to be boring?” And Oscar Wilde replied – “This is because the poor writers live the life they cannot write about, while the good writers write about the life they cannot live.” Writing is an incredibly time consuming activity, and it requires a lot of courage, if you are serious about it. Even that kind of courage to face a lifetime of being misunderstood, years of failure.
You were a successful lawyer before your fulltime writing career, though. Looking back, how do you feel about your years in international organizations?
I was blessed to get to relatively high-profile jobs at a very young age, so my naivety about how the world functions was tested and crushed early in life. Which was great. Experiencing ruthless bureaucrats and rives of public money going the wrong way tries one’s idealism and motivation, it forces you to see the thin line between a moral compromise and a moral failure. Everybody reacts in a different way to this, but it is true that only few give up the salary, benefits and status. Of course, there are great projects and fantastic people, too, but mostly on the ground level – the minds of the chief officers are too often corrupt and self-indulged. It is zero responsibility, great income and countless privileges. For me, the disillusionment was devastating, particularly in Kosovo, where I saw so much injustice, crime and poverty, and no matter how much I tried, I was completely powerless. Finally, I resigned and to turn my experience into something constructive, I wrote Total Balkans, a bitter humour novel that explores the topic of individual versus an institution at a field mission and poses the heretic question whether democratization, as we know it, makes sense at all. The positive response I keep getting from my readers, is actually overwhelming. I am honoured that some very distinguished and well-read people have ranked the book among their top ten. It is one of the favourite books of Zdeněk Svěrák.
After you quit your job at the Kosovo mission, you worked as assistant director to Ladislav Smoljak in the Jára Cimrman Theater. How does a lawyer get a job like this?
Through the law faculty, in fact. For years, I had hoped to make an interview with Vojtěch Cepl, the former constitutional judge. He kept refusing to talk to me, and finally he said – I won’t tell you anything, but I will introduce you to someone, who is absolutely worth to be interviewed. The next day, he took me to a lunch with the renowned actor-director Ladislav Smoljak. We became friends and close collaborators, Ladislav even wrote a letter of recommendation to the University of Oxford during admissions to the creative writing program. He was a fantastic, strict and attentive mentor. In return, I kept interviewing him for almost five years and finally published a book of our talks on theater, politics and life.
You mentioned Oxford and your creative writing studies. How did it help you develop as a writer?
Immensely. The major difference of the Oxford program from other writing courses is that you are forced to write one of the major assignments in a genre that you would normally avoid. This way, I had to write a collection of poetry. A huge, incredible challenge, countless nights up, shelves of books I had to read and re-read, poets I had to explore, understand, and fall in love with. It has incredibly enriched my prose writing, even my screenwriting skills. When I coach people who want to improve their writing, I insist they read a poem a day. In ten days, you see a difference – in their writing and, more importantly, in their mindset.
So you believe that writing can be taught?
Absolutely. You can train the skill, you can expand your vocabulary, you can even improve your language sensitivity. Of course, you can’t improve talent, you are either born with it or not. It is like in music: although you can’t learn to have a perfect pitch, you can train the fingers and the ear. And, what is more significant, you can build your confidence. I experience this in my courses of administrative writing for judges, lawyers and bankers: I use adapted methods from creative writing programs, so the people, who normally write only annual reports and judgments feel like real writers for a while. Primarily, though, I teach them how to write well and fast, how not to get stuck and how to like the writing process.
Can you actually live off your book writing or do you have to keep a job on the side?
Some of my books sold reasonably well, my latest book – The Return of the Adriatic Bride – was actually a job I did in collaboration with a travel agency, that liked the genre, and wished to pre-order my new book as their gift to a number of their loyal clients and partners. It worked fantastically: I got a deadline and an immediate motivation to write, and I got the money, so I could afford to write for several weeks and decline other jobs. This was exceptional, though. Otherwise, I do all sorts of things. Apart from the writing coaching, I play the violin at a Dalmatian folklore ensemble in Dubrovnik, where we spend most of the year. At one point, I used to sell dumplings at a farmer’s market, to pick olives and grapes during the harvest. Now I am hoping to get hired to act as one of the angry village women among the extras in Robin Hood: Origins, a movie produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and filmed in Dubrovnik. A very diverse work experience that you can’t really put in your CV. But it does make one a more versatile person and writer. But to answer your question: no, unless you publish a bestseller, preferably on the English-speaking market, you can’t comfortably live off pure writing. I just put the English translation of Total Balkans on Amazon, though, so let’s see what happens now.
You live near Dubrovnik, but you often travel to Prague. Are Croatians and Czechs very different? And why is Dalmatia so attractive for Czech tourists?
The “near Dubrovnik” is very significant: we live at the village, where my husband was born – a very traditional, conservative and rural environment. And, you know, I used to be a city girl, so when I got asked to go collect the eggs from the henhouse or to pluck a wild quail, I panicked. At my readings for Czech tourists during the summer, I often say, that we love Croats and Dalmatians because we get mislead by our similarities – our languages are similar, as is our sense of humour, we share the same experience with communism. But try to come here off season and stay several months: you will see that Dalmatia is so mysterious and distant from us like, say, Iran. You’ll get shocked every day, in the most positive and the most negative way, and at the end you will either run or stay. I stayed: I feel connected to the sea and to the people, who are both irritating and authentic, over-traditional and brotherly, complicated and cheerful. I like the slower pace of life in Dubrovnik. In fact, one is kind of required to slow down here, as being a workaholic is considered rude and inappropriate. You are required to have time for life – be it family parties or staring at the sea out of your fishing boat.
Any tips prior to the season?
If you take the A1 Croatian highway to get to Dalmatia, stop by the yellow Tifon gas station and buy the Adriatic Bride books. J And if you get all the way down to Dubrovnik or Pelješac, drop me an email – I love meeting my readers, and actually I like to say that I am such kind of writer who knows most of her readers personally.
What is your next chapter?
I am the mother of two wonderful little ladies, so above all, I need to learn how to make a Dutch braid, a Lego-shaped birthday cake and to learn the lyrics of all the songs from Frozen. In the pauses, when I don’t hop between blueberry pancakes and playdough castles, I would like to finish the third part of the Adriatic Bride series and see Total Balkans sell in its English and Serbian versions.
By Linda Štucbartová