small, Writing from the Dark Side of Warsaw: An Interview with Jakub Żulczyk, jakub_zulczyk_pap.jpg, Jakub Żulczyk, photo: Marcin Kaliński/PAP
In his first ever English interview, leading Polish novelist Jakub Żulczyk reveals how he came through dark days to become a new man, how readers sometimes understand novels better than their authors, and how Poland is a Shakespearean landscape.
MK: Are you a fan of Polish history, its landscape, or is modern Poland more interesting to you, for all its political complexity?
JŻ: I like history, like I like literature, it can offer some kind of vision. There's a lot of symbolism and a lot of messianic elements to Polish history. For me, it can go both ways – it can go wrong, it can be exploited, but it's still something fascinating. Take this Polish writer called Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz, a right-wing writer, the flag-waving representative of today's Polish right – I don't empathise with his views, but I find his logic about our need for bloodshed fascinating. If someone wants to understand Polish history – as Jung would call this collective subconscious thinking about history – they should read Rymkiewcz and his book about Rejtan, a great character from Polish history. When I think of Polish history as a philosophical system or a work of art, something I'm not emotionally attached to geographically, that's interesting to me.
Do I define myself as a Polish person? On a basic level, yes, it's about my language, but I wouldn't consider myself a patriot. It doesn't define who I am – I am a patriot because I don't commit crimes, I pay my taxes, but nothing more. In Polish thinking about history, there is this big deal about giving your life up for the nation, for the last 200, 300 years of martyrology. But for myself, I value my life too much to give it up for some abstract idea.
MK: You're a young guy, a lot books under your belt. Is it a cool thing to be a writer in Poland? Do schools teach respect for books and those who write them?
JŻ: I started to talk about Polish history in an abstract way, but I just want to come back to communism. Communism ended in Poland in 1989 and I was six back then, so I don't remember enough to be an expert. I spent the earliest stages of my life in a village, in a forest, a very small habitat. But I have this experience and it may say something to people from Western countries – one of my first, very vivid memories, I remember it like it was yesterday – eating a banana.
I was four, maybe five, and that was the first time I had eaten a banana. Someone from Germany brought some over, and it was a wild taste, so sweet. I'd never eaten anything like that before. I was familiar with apples and pears, but not oranges or bananas. And drinking Pepsi for the first time, that is a ‘Wow!’ kind of memory.
And about school and writing and teachers, I think that I can speak for schools in general when I say: I don't think the education system in Poland is different to other countries, the flaws are everywhere basically the same, and it looks similar in the West too. It always depends on the teachers.
MK: Did it help to grow up in a house full of teachers and books?
JŻ: My mum was the person at the earliest stage of my life who developed in me a fondness for books and writing, and as a teacher she developed this love in other students. She never taught me in class, so I don't really know, but I don't think the fact that I am a writer now had anything to do with school and my education. I was always a kid who really drifted in thought. I was never a good student, not in high school, I had bad grades all the time, couldn't focus and push myself to learn boring things. Even today, I can only remember the things that interest me.
I had bad grades for Polish language classes too, and I sometimes feel like going to see my old school teacher, putting all my novels down on his desk and saying ‘Now, this should earn me a better grade. Now you can give me an A, not a C.’
MK: And how about going to university? Did that help shape you as a writer?
JŻ: When I became a university student, first journalism, and then my masters in American Studies, I had this one lady lecturer – and unfortunately I don't remember her name – but I attended her class in writing journalism. I was 20, 21 and very shyly I started to write short stories, something like that. We had an assignment to write a column, after doing different genres, and she read my piece and said that I had talent. Wow, she said, you should consider writing fiction, there's something there. I had never considered writing fiction before then...
If I go back a few years, when I was five, six, seven, eight or ten, I wrote a lot of stuff – short stories, novels, plays, copying things I was reading at the time, but it was a hobby. I learnt how to type at the age of seven at home, but I remember saying to my girlfriend during my journalism studies when I turned 20 that I had no idea what to do with my life. She said ‘Maybe you should do something you've been doing all the time. When you do something as a kid, you should keep doing that.’
I'm grateful to this day to these two women, because that is how I got to where I am now. A few months after those conversations, I sent one of my short stories to Paweł Dunin-Wąsowicz [an influential Polish publisher and editor – Ed.] and then called me to say he wanted to publish my first book.
MK: In terms of your reading, what books influenced you? Was it Polish literature, world literature, or a bit of both?
JŻ: When I was 19 or 20, I think I read a lot of American fiction that was popular at the time. Douglas Copeland, Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk, Philip K Dick, Don DeLillo. There are phases, they come and they go, and that was a phase. It had an effect on my writing, but not a crucial effect. All my life, I've read various things, I now have writers who seem to be really important, though I'm not sure if they are more important to me as a reader or a writer. But they influenced me, my view of the world, the likes of Faulkner, Thomas Bernhard, really influenced who I am, though I've recently been reading a lot of Polish writers, because I am under-educated. As a student, I wasn't too keen on reading text books at school and college. So right now I'm catching up on my Polish – the likes of Reymont, Iwaszkiewicz, Miłosz, Buczkowski and so on. A lot of Miron Białoszewski's books are now on my desk.
MK: Are there any tips you can offer people starting out in writing today?
JŻ: Speaking of my reading habits as a writer, I think that bad writing has a big influence, as big as reading the good stuff. I think I need to read bad writing from time to time, and this helps me focus, rather than just reading genius authors. That's the advice I can give to those starting out – don't read only old masters, or the new stuff the critics are saying is promising, but when you read a book you consider bad and you know it's bad, in your estimation, then you can do it better, and you can develop. It's equally important to consider good writing and not good writing. The most interesting thing is, once a year I read a book I think it will be bad, but then it turns out to be good, though everyone says it's awful.
I like to read non-fiction, but I can tell you it's about my ego too, because when I read a modern novel, especially written by someone my age, and its really good, better than what I do, it gets me angry, makes me jealous. Yet when I read non-fiction, it's not my world, so I'm free of prejudices, much more Zen, just reading a book... When it comes to modern writing, I think I have much more fun with non-fiction.
MK: Now you’re a published author, written many books and also active in social media. Your name being so well known, how do you deal with the pressure of everyone talking about you, everyone commenting, everyone having an opinion? Do you find yourself wishing you could just lock yourself away for six months with some good and bad books and just switch off?
JŻ: I like to think I get calmer as years go by. I don't think I react hysterically to criticism, and when I see someone has a point, I humbly accept it. When people talk crap, I get angry, like everyone. But I think as a writer in Poland, and with the reception of my books, I think I’m blessed, actually. I think I have a lot of faithful readers, to whom my books are really important, who put a lot of trust in me. It's a responsibility, because when I start a new book, I don't want to let them down, seeing I have a legion of readers who follow what I do.
Up to now, every time I write a new book or I want to write a new book, I've tried not to repeat myself. I think that's the worse thing you can do as a writer – there are genius writers who can repeat themselves like Bernhard (who copied himself over and over again) or Herta Müller or Faulkner, writing the same book over and over, but these works were genius. I'm not a genius writer, so I have to try new things all the time. And life is too short, you have to experiment. People tend to follow me wherever I go in writing, and in my books they find what they want.
I tested their patience last time, seeing as I wrote a 900-page novel, a crime story with no real riddle, no puzzle to it, or maybe a puzzle that's really twisted, which can be really boring for some, because its about the mundane side of life, the horror hiding behind the ordinary. But the book sold really well and people seem to love it, so whenever I do my best, people sense and trust this.
MK: Are you someone who's afraid of failure, or are you chilled about not being ‘perfect’?
JŻ: When you're a public person, not a celebrity, when your work is out there, it’s natural that you give this work to people to be reviewed, to be judged. You have to be calm about it, it’s normal that you show people your naked arse and it's up to them whether they kiss or slap it for you. You have to accept that...
I know that one day I will fail, I will write a bad book. Nobody is perfect – the best directors, the best writers, they all fail... Name me anyone who did not produce a bad book or a bad film or a bad record during their lifetime?
Joy Division only recorded great albums, but they only managed to put out two records, and then the singer killed himself. I don't plan to die young... though it is getting harder and harder each year for me to die young, so you know you have to accept that.
MK: How do you deal with online haters and trolls?
JŻ: When I was 20, the first job I got money for was writing for a website, and I learnt something really important even then. I don't think I've had a job that didn’t involve writing. Anyway, there’s this very popular Polish band called Kult – about 12 years ago, one of the first texts I ever published was a review of one of their records. It was mid-life crisis for them, you could hear it in the music, you could sense it, and so I wrote something along the lines of: ‘Wow, this is the moment they stop playing for good or else reinvent themselves, because they keep playing the same shit over and over again, and the stench is getting awful.’ I was young and wanted to attract as many readers as I could, so I wrote this really scathing review. I put all my bile and all my evilness into this text – and in the comments section, people annihilated me!
The things they wrote about me, I remember reading and reading those comments and going more and more pale. I had spat on their sacrum, because they had this sacred band and I attacked that. Some guy wrote in the comments ‘Żulczyk's sister is a whore,’ and I read that thinking ‘Yeah, I see what you're trying to say... but I don't actually have a sister.’
That was when I realised they’re not spitting in my face, but on my windshield. That I’m safe behind a certain wall, even if the comments are harsh. To this day, when that happens, I know I’m safe. I am not alpha and omega, I know I can be wrong, but when the criticism is that dumb, I don't give in.
MK: Let's talk about music and film. These are things you’re passionate about. Maybe other pastimes keep you sane? What other things drive you, what other things thrill you?
JŻ: I'm a fan of music, and collect records. All my life I wanted to collect vinyl and now I can afford to do so. I buy a lot of records, so people always ask me what kind of music I listen to, but if we have less than an hour, it makes no sense talking about it, because there’s just so much ground to cover.
Recently, I started putting Spotify playlists up on my Facebook profile. I make them public, and I include anything from experimental electronics and techno, through to jazz and black metal and indie. I like some pop stuff, so it's really a broad spread of music. A lot of people think hip-hop is my music of choice, because for a while I worked for a hip-hop TV show and conducted interviews with rappers, and I know a lot of the people in this community. I still feel attached to it, but it's not like hip-hop is the main sort of music like. It is very interesting from a literary point of view. I recently grouped my records by genres, and the lowest number was in rap records actually. The most I have is guitar music. Which was amazing, because I thought guitar music wasn’t so important to me, and I have a lot of obscure stuff, as well as The Beatles.
But the most important thing, if someone put a gun to my head and forced me to name the most important musician, in my opinion, I would say Aphex Twin. His music had the deepest impact on my imagination, my ideas, my dreaming, my subconscious. That's the music which opens up a lot of doors inside me, on an emotional level. The biggest part of my writing was also conceived listening to his records.
MK: There is such a thing as a ‘Polish language’ and as a writer you operate in that, and it will have a different feel, rhythm, cadence... Is there such a thing as a Polish sound in music – what would you say reflects the Polish soul? Do you think Polish rap could one day break the international markets?
JŻ: I don't want to sound wiser than I am, and I wish those guys international success. Polish hip-hop can have success in Eastern Europe, but with France and the United States, those markets are so big, like books, they're all sewn up. I think in Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary and Russia, Polish rappers can do a lot.
But as to other artists, is there a Polish soul? My first intuition is to point potential listeners to Polish jazz and to 1960s and 1970s rock music, as well as the early 1980s, artists like Jan Ptaszyn Wróblewski, Stańko, Komeda and so on and so on. This is the music which captures some essence and Slavic truth about music.
MK: Do you have any personal favourites?
JŻ: The one everyone should listen to is Czesław Niemen, he was amazing. But go for the lesser-known stuff, not the hits. He tried to record more vanguard, experimental albums like Enigmatic and Marionetki, that's the essence of Polish music, not Penderecki, but Niemen. That unique voice, completely ours, completely original. He also recorded abroad, one album in the States called Mourner's Rhapsody, with John Abercrombie and Jan Hammer (the guy who wrote the theme to Miami Vice), rare to find on vinyl but it is on Youtube, that's a good point of entry. He sings like Ray Charles or Marvin Gaye, but with a Slavic flavour.
The third genre is not for the faint hearted – Polish metal music. Heavy metal, black metal, it’s the only Polish music with songs that is a real success abroad. Bands such as Behemoth and Decapitated, I’m proud of their success. I'm not into heavy metal, but bands such as Mgła are worth discovering – it's black metal, but it's beautiful, songs with real feelings, real despair, something better that can touch your soul. It has this Polish angle to it too. Niemen, black metal and jazz.
Blinded by the Lights
MK: Back to your books, I am working on translating Blinded by the Lights, which is not just a best-selling book, but soon to be a TV series directed by Krzysztof Skonieczny, one of Poland's most promising directors – tell us about Warsaw, how this city feels to you as an outsider? How do you feel about its traumatic history and what inspires you about it?
JŻ: Maybe I will tell you about the book first. I wrote Blinded by the Lights four years ago, released three years ago, I wrote it pretty quick. It came from a dark period in my life. Don't want to get into it, but everyone has their ups and downs and I had my downs then. I lost myself, spent too much time enjoying Warsaw's nightlife, I stopped living ‘hygienically’ for a while. But when I stopped to think about it and cut that lifestyle out, I was okay – when I thought about the stories, people, scenes, as a writer I can deal with that period of my life. And I always wanted to write about the night and the dark side of the city. The specifics of Warsaw and some of the people who live in it. The idea was to create a book which was an ‘atrocity exhibition,’ to quote Joy Division again – a labyrinth my readers would get lost in.
MK: Did you find it easy, writing this book from personal experience, or was it painful?
JŻ: For a long time, I couldn't come up with a protagonist who could guide the characters through the maze of faces and situations and events, and it took me a few months to realise it had to be a drug dealer, a cocaine dealer, someone who enters apartments, sees people from a range of social layers, all of them taking drugs. I'm not a statistician and not a sociologist, but for every person who doesn't take drugs in a big city, there is another person who does. Hard or soft, they all do it. So cocaine, like with other capitals, it's this hidden fuel of the city.
I wrote the book very quickly, and from the beginning I felt I was writing something vibrating, something alive. I was really sure, for me it was obvious, that this book was going to be more successful than my other novels. It was my sixth book, and I had put in my time, as you could say.
MK: How did you find the process of turning it into an HBO TV series? Were there any creative differences between you and the company or crew?
JŻ: I was in the middle of writing when I went to the premiere of a film called Hardkor Disko, a screening for journalists, and I thought to myself, watching it: ‘Wow, I have to do something with this guy!’ I don't remember if I liked this movie or not – to this day, I don't remember actually. But I had this overwhelming sense that I had to do something with its director, and the language Krzysztof Skonieczny uses, the ideas he has, the nerve he has, it was ideal for him to shoot Blinded by the Lights.
MK: Is writing scripts easier, quicker than proper books?
JŻ: The book took half a year to write, and the screenplay for the mini-series – I can't tell you how many episodes there will be yet – but writing that took two years of hard work. But I'm really excited about it, I want people to see it. Krzysztof hasn't shown it to me yet because it's not finished, but I'm pretty sure it's going to be amazing.
I think when you write a book, you're not the wisest person about what it is actually like. A careful reader is wiser, knows more about the story – Krzysztof was that reader, and he said Blinded by the Lights is an elegy for Warsaw. You can call it a hard-boiled noir about a drug dealer who gets into trouble, his whole life going down the drain, but it's also a love poem to Warsaw, a sad love song, and Skonieczny sensed this, wanting to have it in the show.
We had creative differences, like everyone does, but that main thread was something we always agreed on. We wrote a very disturbing, very dark, but also slightly hopeful love letter to the Polish capital.
MK: You mentioned the novel is a elegy for Warsaw, but it's also more than that – the story of an artist who failed to get what he wanted, filled with a sense of impending doom, something we can all relate to, I think. The Achilles heel we all have, some weakness that can get you killed. Could this book have been in set in any other city and have your feelings about Warsaw changed?
JŻ: The hero of my novel is called Jacek – he'll have a different name in the show, but let's stick with Jacek for this interview. I think that the story is really universal, and can be told anywhere, at some level all big cities, all big capitals in the western hemisphere all have their unique histories. In terms of nightlife, nihilism, pessimism, misanthropy – these are universal themes that can be set anywhere. My anti-hero has a dark and nihilistic view of the world, which I try not to share in my own life, and wants to separate himself from society as far as he can get. He wants to do this by having this feeling of power, of being in complete control of his destiny, and it’s money that gives him that power, money which comes from the cocaine trade. Even if you are a direct dealer working with your customers, you make enough money to get this feeling of being an Übermensch. This book is about the falseness of that feeling, how it's wrong, how it can destroy your life, and I do think it has something to do with my own experience.
When I myself stopped drinking alcohol at some point in my life, and stopped taking drugs, some part of this experience is realising that you have to succumb to a higher power. I don't mean that in a religious way, because I'm an agnostic, that's how I'd define myself – a person who doesn't know. But you have to give in to some higher power, a blind faith bigger than you. You don't know what's going to happen in your life. You can have plans, you can have dreams, but you have to remember that something will turn out differently, for better or worse, and that you're never in complete control. At some point, you have to give in and be humble, like Kendrick Lamar said: ‘Bitch, stay humble.’
MK: Is writing cathartic? Have you gotten Warsaw's darkness off your chest, or has it intensified?
JŻ: That's what the story is about, and that's what betrays my hero. I don't want to use big words, but it makes my story more than a simple crime book. That's what resonated with people. This book sold 70,000 copies, I think, which is a lot for the Polish market, and what people liked I think is this mood which comes from Biblical Old Testament stories. My girlfriend says I'm not agnostic, but an old fashioned, Old Testament Catholic, I'm just suppressing it. I take that as a bit of a joke, but maybe it also makes my book universal.
The story takes place in Warsaw because I live here. Do I feel trapped here? I live my life differently, a stable and happy existence, a person trying to live a good life, because I came to a point when I wanted to give myself the chance to have meaning, to live a long and fruitful life. It might sound middle class, but that's how I roll these days. I have a family, I live in a nice neighbourhood – I try to let the sunshine in. I don't feel trapped by Warsaw, but I do have this feeling, as a Pole, as a Warsaw citizen, now around the 10th year of my being in this city, so now I have this feeling, this sense of history. I know I am walking across this big cemetery, which Warsaw is. This impending doom you asked about is written into the core of this town, into its soul.
It doesn't mean you can't live a good life here. Journalists always ask that about Blinded by the Lights: ‘Is Warsaw really like that??!’ And I always say ‘No, if it was, I would leave instantly, fly away somewhere else, but I remain...’ You can't have full control of your life, but I'm pretty sure you can reshape your surroundings. You do that in your own head. This novel takes place in Warsaw, but it also takes place in Jacek's head – his head, his soul is warped, and that's what's messed up.
MK: I can hear echoes of lyrics – Blinded by the Light by Bruce Springsteen, covered by Manfred Mann in the UK... Your last book was Hound Hill, a powerful, massive novel, so different to Blinded by the Lights, but there will be so much more happening for you in the coming years, with films, TV... How do you feel as not a citizen of Poland, not a citizen of Europe necessarily, but as someone who expresses universal complexity – how do you feel about the future and what do you want to contribute with your writing?
JŻ: Well that's a question with a capital Q! I will try to answer philosophically, though I know it might sound like something from Paulo Coelho – you see, we're all going to die one day, it's a sad fact, but thinking about the chances of us being born, they're a trillion-to-one! I said it to my girlfriend today that the most impossible thing that has ever happened, if you look at history and all that we know about the cosmos, is that we were born, that we exist.
So if we've been given this gift, the gift of being alive one way or another, you have to make the most of it, find your way – more banality, coaching talk – but I believe there was this old English gentleman, Aleister Crowley, may he rest in peace, who first talked about the idea of ‘thelema’, a certain magic system – but I don’t think it's a magic thing, everyone has their thelema, this thing they are good at. Your goal in life is to find it and the second goal is to make the most of it, and this is like the most basic philosophy. That's what keeps me going. When it comes to my future as a writer, I don't want to think too much. I want life to surprise me. I hope I have lots of life before me, and for a writer I am still very young. I want to go with the flow and see what happens.
MK: I find many Poles very fatalistic, unwilling to accept positive, even mildly positive views of the future, but you seem charged with healthy energy.
JŻ: The future is a tough topic, it takes a lot of thinking. We live in a time when Armageddon, some kind of collapse, is on everyone's minds. Now, we've come back to Cold War fears – just like heroin in Pulp Fiction, they're fashionable again. But it's not the doom itself, not the gloom that interests me – that will not happen in my lifetime, and all this Armageddon talk is just people dealing with their own fear of death.
I don't think I will see or hear or feel any kind of disaster in our lifetimes, but this fear, this anxiety is starting to become something of a subject for my writing. My next novel is going to be a tale of dystopian future, like Children of Men or Clockwork Orange, only set in a Poland of the future. That's my idea for the next novel, but when it comes to TV and screenwriting, the next two years are going to be very productive. I don't want to talk about it too much and spoil the party, but when it comes to my writing jobs, that's one of the areas that's strong.
Another book idea I am working on is about the 1990s – about the times of my upbringing, my adolescence. It's not going to be about me, Jakub Żulczyk, directly, but the place Poland was then, how it looked back in post-communist times, and that's something I haven't written about yet. I want to do something with that. When I was a teenager, I was living in a dorm, and when I talked to my girlfriend about it, told her about Olsztyn in those days, she says: ‘Wow, so many stories – write about them!’
MK: Are you a fan of any contemporary narratives? Do you think it's easy to tell complex stories in an age of computers, video games, artificial intelligence?
JŻ: On a broader scale, there is this change in the world and Poland, in books and TV shows, especially mainstream pop culture, where telling stories has become a vehicle for saying more subtle and more philosophical and deep things. You have all these shows and books right now which are on the one hand fun ways of killing time, but on the other they are social commentaries, reflections on a deeper meaning, and that is the big change which has been going on the last few years. Basically, something that's in the mainstream can be bigger nowadays. And I want to be part of this process, I want to tell good stories.
That's my prime function, a very basic and ancient role – tens of thousands of year ago, people like me would be sitting by the fire telling stories to other guys. Or in preschool, entertaining the other kids while the teachers snuck out for a sneaky cigarette. Storyteller – that's my occupation.
Interview conducted in Warsaw, Feb 2018