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Jiri Klobouk

Where did you grow up and where do you live now?

The small Moravian town where I lived for the first 20 years was part of Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). I divide those 20 years into three segments depending on the social-political circumstances: age 0-6 capitalism, 7-12 Nazism, 13 and up - Communism. Discovering jazz after WW II changed my life forever. I improvised blues and boogie-woogie on piano, imagining that my living room was a smoky bar in New York with black girls singing, swinging and puffing on cigarettes. Evidently New York was my destiny. I now live on the Upper East Side.

When did you start writing?

I served in the army, briefly studied medicine, and worked in coal mines. I could not carry the piano with me so I replaced it with a portable typewriter, pretending to play jazz on the keyboard. When I read William Saroyan's "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" I evolved from musician to jazz inspired writer. (My first novel is appropriately called "JAZZ 2:Parents"). Later on, my occupation as a cameraman in Prague television made me visualize the world through a camera lens which influenced my fiction. One critic noted: "In his writing we could feel the rhythm and see things from unexpected angles."

What was your first published work?

It was a radio play aired on Prague radio in 1963. I've always been a devotee of the power of radio drama imagery. Unfortunately, this is now practically extinct. In a different media, as a participant in a contest for a television play in 1965, Vaclav Havel got 3rd prize and I got 4th.

You emigrated to Canada in 1968. What it meant to you, as a writer, to leave your native tongue behind and enter the English language territory?

Your question inspires another question: Is something more important to a writer than language? I was 35 and didn't speak English, except for some jazz related vocabulary. The longer one lives in a country where a different language is spoken the more proficient one becomes - but only to a point. Those years of childhood, adolescence and adulthood can never be relived in a foreign language. The native tongue becomes more and more distant as you continue speaking the new language. Furthermore, the mother tongue continues to evolve with you being absent from the process. In Canada I enrolled in an English immersion class but continued writing in Czech without any prospect of getting my work published in the Communist country I escaped from. Only my radio plays were produced internationally - mainly in Germany, Finland, England and Canada.

But life consists of the unexpected and after twenty years in exile, came the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Communism. I dusted off my old manuscripts and since 1989 my books have been steadily published in the Czech Republic. All together about 12.

Describe your favorite place to write.

For seventeen years I lived on a 100 acre farm in Ontario, secluded from the rest of the world - except for the birds, deer, bears and occasional plane flying overhead. A true paradise for a writer.

Do you write everyday? How disciplined are you?

I don't have to discipline myself to write every day, it comes naturally, and it is an internal necessity. On the farm I walked with my dog and wrote radio plays in my head. I listened to the voices until they had nothing more to say. Then I registered the dialogue on paper. That was the past. Now I fear having a "tempting" idea since I no longer have the feeling of unlimited time needed to complete a larger project.

To which book you wrote you feel most attached.

"My Life With Blondie" is a novel I wrote in the 90's and will be published in Prague for a second time in September. I enjoyed going through the emotional turmoil of the protagonist, Harley Davidson. He is evidently a nutty guy, pursuing his dream to meet the girl he fell in love with at age seventeen after seeing her on a magazine cover in Vienna. Now fifty and married twice, he has two adult children and a pregnant girlfriend. Yet Blondie never leaves his mind despite her advancing age. Harley's story tells us that although we are consumed by daily reality, our parallel life is composed of dreams, which will likely survive until we die.

You had a collection of short stories, "American Wife" published recently in Prague.

Although novels dominate literature and attract the majority of readers, five pages are often more powerful than 500. On a small canvas the short story writer can depict a portion of life in a most meaningful way. Last fall I was in Prague to launch my new book,"American Wife," which covers my short stories from 1968-2008. Many of the stories appeared in English translation in various US literary magazines. For "Winter Wolves", published in Mid-American Review, I received the title of an "outstanding writer" in the 1985-86 The Pushcart Prize edition. I certainly enjoyed the five minutes of fame.

What about your poetry and essays?

My only book of poetry, "Music After Midnight," contains events and flash backs of things past. Whenever I had some "excess" paragraph or sentence while writing fiction, I saved it in a file. I later re-shaped the material into a new form with a different connotation thinking that this would be some experimental text rather than poetry.

The book of essays: "Anti-communist Manifesto (1975)", resulted from the seemingly unstoppable post-war spread of Communism. My frustration culminated in 1975 when Soviet expansionism engulfed most of Europe, South America and Africa. It was also the year of American defeat in Vietnam. The English Edition of this book sells well in the Museum of Communism in Prague. To walk through the display is to step inside a nightmarish past of a nation, which even after twenty years of democracy and freedom has not completely recovered from the trauma. Most rewarding to me was a letter I received from a visitor who came to the museum from Chicago: "I was fortunate enough to enjoy a visit to the Communist Museum in Prague last week, and even more fortunate to choose to purchase your book. I devoured every word and find it the most relevant work even today to someone interested in finding checks and balances and limitations on the anti-terror national security state that is growing daily in America. The price you paid for the experience to know to write your words was very, very steep, and I thank God you understood what was happening and you were able to describe its essence for posterity-and thank you!"

You belong to the Writer's Guild. Has belonging to this benefited you?

I have tended to avoid groups all my life. However, I feel privileged to belong to the Writer's Guild, which is an organization of American Writers. Reading American fiction in my formative years made me the kind of writer I am. I spent years trying to understand how they developed their craft and established a close affinity with many of them - the exceptional masters.

Who are some of your favorite writer's? Why?

After Saroyan comes a list of my literary heroes - Hemingway, Faulkner, Caldwell, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and foremost Salinger. Of course I am omitting many others. Among the Europeans I include Joyce, Beckett, Camus and Kafka. What distinguishes these writers from others is a literary mastery when more is said between the lines than within the lines.

Have you read any of Vaclav Havel's plays? Some of them are strange which I love.

Havel is certainly different, combining elements of absurdity, black humor and his personal experience dealing with a brutal regime. If worst came to worst, the authorities jailed him to shut him up. They simply did not know what else to do with him. I became acquainted with his plays produced on stage and television or from reading.

When the Czech Republic became free in 1989, where were you?

The events shocked everyone. I was living in Ottawa and taped the happenings from the television screen. I no longer posses the tapes. Twenty years later in 2009, the Communist Party is still in existence trying to influence the direction of Czech politics - very disappointing.

On Dec.10th, 1989, Vaclav Havel was sworn in as President. What were your first thoughts?

That after 20 years I would be able to see my friends and my elderly mother and enjoy a Czech meal in a Prague pub. Also that I would hear the sound of the language I was cut off from for so many years. I wrote a letter to Havel that Czechoslovakia, under his guidance, should become a cradle of culture to which artists would come to create and celebrate art. I also wrote that Samuel Beckett, his patron who died soon after Havel became president, was undoubtedly pleased that a former prisoner-playwright was elected. Godot finally arrived and the waiting was over.

I recently published a book of poetry by the Czech poet, Jaromir Horec, with translation by Jana Moravkova Kiely called Anezka Ceska (Agnes of Bohemia). Vaclav Havel read one of his poems during Prague Spring. Agnes of Bohemia is so important to the people of Prague. Would you like to talk some about this. All this is such an important part of history. Do you ever write about this?

Jaromir Horec is approaching ninety - an event by itself! My first encounter with his writing had a connection with music. He wrote the lyrics to many post WW II songs that we danced to. I later came to know his poetry. One can only praise you for publishing of "Agnes of Bohemia." To cope with obstacles and difficulties, Czechs always reach for the great moments in their history. Please forgive me for disappointing you - I am truly a miserable Czech patriot. If I find myself in some kind of "trouble" my preferred Saints I turn to are Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday.

Recently, when Jamomir Horec received his books, he could not understand why a Czech press is in the USA. I know when you queried me about the press, you were interested in why. I get asked this many times. There are many reasons I chose the name Cervena Barva Press. It is to honor the Czech people, the Velvet Revolution, Prague Spring, Vaclav Havel, the fall of communism, and all the wonderful Eastern European writers I have read over and over and have met. The name for me is political of course. I have a strong love for the Czech Republic. The bravery of so many during those Communistic times, I feel in my soul. What are your thoughts when I answered you about my press?

The producer of my radio plays at the CBC in Toronto, John Reeves, literally fell in love with Emil Zatopek. He was a Czech long distance runner and world record holder many times over in the 1950s'. John Reeves not only started running marathons but also devoured everything that was Czech, perhaps including the fatty sausages. To encounter an American publisher who would give her press a Czech name - "Cervená Barva", as you did - underlines your devotion and concern about the fate of a small country in central Europe, which endured so many adversities throughout the centuries. "God bless you!" for all you have done. I wish you all the best in your future endeavors, Czech or American. After all the first Czech president elected in 1918 had an American wife.


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