Friday, June 20, 2008

Author Snapshot: Dan Vyleta

Some readers will have noticed that I’ve had trouble shutting up about Dan Vyleta’s debut novel since I read the book early in 2008. As I said not long ago, Pavel & I is nuanced and practiced and intelligent and brave. And when I talked about the “gritty majesty” of the book in this space earlier this year, here is what I said:
Vyleta’s biography alone sets the tone: he holds a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge, lives in Edmonton, Alberta and is the son of Czech refugees who emigrated to Germany in the 1960s. He understands, he knows, he sees, he wants peace. None of that is what Pavel & I is about, but it sets the stage.

Vyleta’s gorgeous debut takes place in occupied Berlin in 1946. Pavel Richter is a decommissioned soldier who is ill -- perhaps dieing -- from a kidney infection that he’s been unable to treat. The infection, as well as the unexpected arrival of a corpse in his apartment, set in motion a series of events and introductions that push our story towards disaster.
It astonishes me that we’ve not heard more about this book: it’s wonderful. Vyleta calls Pavel & I “a broken sort of love story,” but it’s so much more, as well. If you like classic cold war thrillers with a tough, literary edge, Pavel & I is one you’ll not want to miss.

A Snapshot of Dan Vyleta...
Most recent book: Pavel & I
Resides: Edmonton, Canada
Birthday: July 15th

What’s your favorite city?
Tough one. Barcelona ranks high. Prague, minus the tourists. New York, when I’m feeling flush. Vienna.

You only have six hours to spend there. What do you do?
Let’s say Vienna then, on a late summer’s day. Get up just before lunchtime, have a melange and a piece of strudel at this little bakery I know, in the 8th district. Go for a walk through the city, heading for the Naschmarkt, the open air market. I'll buy some sour gherkins there, and a bottle of beer from a cornershop, walk up to the Art University’s gardens, sit in the shade, read a Chekhov story. It’s not far to the museum district from there, so maybe I will head over, stare at the Schiele paintings for half an hour or so. Head up to a cafe, have some Austrian bread with speck and horseradish, and another beer, then jump on the tram and head out west, where there is a wonderful outdoor pool under the trees. Mostly, though, I will just walk. There is nothing quite like walking in a beautiful city, especially at night.

What food do you love?
Olives. I mean I love a thousand kinds of food, but I’m not sure I could do without olives. And sardines, anchovies. Salty stuff.

What food have you vowed never to touch again?
I’m not into food chastity, to be honest. I suppose I am not keen to return to student fare, plastic cheese and sliced economy loaf, but when push comes to shove that will do, too.

What’s on your nightstand?
Don’t have one. But there is a pile of books on the floor next to my bed, the manuscript of a friend’s novel, an IKEA alarm clock and probably a pair of old socks. And a cat, more often than not, curled up and sleeping.

Tell us about your process.
More computer than pen, though I take sketches and notes by hand. Working out everything about the plot ahead of time kills it for me. It needs to start in language rather than in some abstract idea, however sexy; I don’t like the feeling that I am merely putting words to pre-existing ideas. I used to write only at night, but it turns out any time is good. What I need is a strange mixture of inspiration and bloody mindedness. Sometimes it’s best to let it sit for a day, until something moves me. And sometimes I just have to buckle down and keep on pushing, no matter how dull I feel.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
A window. A bunch of small trees, newly in leaf. A courtyard, and the apartments on the other side, nine little balconies with garden furniture. Not a soul stirring today, apart from the woman who comes out to smoke.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I read a lot as a kid, and it probably occurred to me then that it would be cool to be a writer. I didn’t do much about it then, however. When I started writing in earnest, I shied away from thinking of myself as a writer. It sounded pompous. But I knew right away that this was what I wanted to do with my life.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
Selling your first book is a big deal, because up until then you barely dare to hope for fear that too much hope will jinx it. Then you get the phone call from your agent that it’s time to get the bottle of bubbly out of the fridge. It took me a long time to digest. My publisher sent me a bottle of Scotch when the book was finally on the shelves. I think that’s when it really hit me. It made me very happy, opening that bottle.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
Sitting around, taking notes. Notetaking is great. You don’t yet have to commit to anything, there are no decisions involved, and you have the thrill of creative discovery. Writing is fantastic too, but is tinged with anxiety -- you lose yourself in the moment, but the next morning you wake up, read through your chapter and are beset by doubt.

What’s the most difficult?
Doubt, rejection, being made to wait. On the page, you control every single nuance of your story, but the moment you pass it on, you lose all control what happens with it.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
English isn’t my first language, so that comes up pretty regularly: why is it the language I write in? I am still working on an answer with real polish to it.

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
How about: “Would you consider selling the film rights?”

What question would like never to be asked again?
“Does the protagonist have to be such an asshole?”

Please tell us about Pavel & I.
It’s a broken sort of love story: a boy is looking for a father, a woman finds a man she thinks she can trust, and the narrator is convinced that he’s identified his soul mate, a man he can talk to, get to the bottom of things.

The book is set in post-war Berlin, in the winter of 1946/47. The city is in ruins, there isn’t enough food to go around, and everybody is cold. In part, it is a Cold War thriller, in part a look at life at a time when civilization has grown threadbare; all told through the eyes of a man who loves a good story, perhaps too much so.

Also, there is a monkey, and a frozen midget, and an English Colonel who likes to wear mink.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great interview! And if he hasn't sold enough books that he cannot afford a night stand, I think I'll go and buy the book!

Sara S.

Friday, June 20, 2008 12:47:00 PM PDT  

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