Anna Fodorova: "I had to fill in a space for everyone who was dead"
Anna Fodorova is the daughter of the well-known Prague Jewish author Lenka Reinerová – but is a successful novelist in her own right, as well as a practising psychotherapist and former animator. On a recent trip to the UK, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anna in her home in South London.
Anna's new novel In The Blood comes out at the end of this month. Described as a semi-autobiographical twentieth-century family saga, the book explores topics such as grief, identity, longing, mother-daughter relationships, and inter-generational trauma. Set against the backdrop of late '80s London, Prague and Munich and the fall of Communism, it tells the story of Agata, who grew up believing that the majority of her family had perished in the Holocaust. When she discovers that some of her relatives may still be alive, she becomes obsessed with finding them.
My and Anna's interview centred around the novel but also touched a lot on her family and her own life. We were especially thrilled to meet each other because it was a first for both of us to meet someone with exactly the same name – aside from the suffix -ova, we have identical first and last names. We are not related as far as we can work out, but naturally, my first question had to be about that...
Since we share a surname, I have to start by asking – where did your surname come from?
"My surname comes from my father, who was born near Belgrade in Zemun in former Yugoslavia. That was his surname, but he didn’t actually use it very much because he was a writer and he used a pseudonym. But Fodor was his real name – although, because he was a Jew in Serbia, I discovered that his actual real name was a different one – Schlesinger."
Your father was from the former Yugoslavia and you were born in Belgrade – do you feel any connection to the place?
"Yes, I do. What was funny was that my father spoke Serbo-Croat to me, so it was our home language, and it was a big shock when I went to Belgrade to realise that everyone speaks in our home language. To my mind it was just the language of the three of us, and suddenly everybody on the street was speaking it."
So you didn’t speak Czech at home?
"I answered my father in Czech. Although a childhood friend of mine told me recently, “No! You spoke in a different language and I didn’t understand you when we were little.” So I had forgotten that."
Your mother wrote in German – are you able to read her books in the original language?
"Unfortunately, I do not speak German. I mean, all her books came out in Czech published by Labyrint – but no, I can’t read German."
Where and how did your parents meet?
"My parents met in Prague very briefly when my father left Berlin when Hitler came to power, they had many common acquaintances. And then they met in Mexico where my mother went as a refugee. And that’s where I was conceived."
Moving to the book now – the novel is described as being semi-autobiographical. Some elements are clearly taken from your own life, like the fact that the main character, Agata, grew up in post-war Prague and works in animation. But did you also find some long-lost relatives as an adult?
"Yes, I did find my long-lost relatives and some of the descriptions in the book are autobiographical, although it’s a novel, so the events are fictionalised. But I found relatives and similarly like in the book, I was very surprised that no one was actually that keen on getting together."
Was your own mother as against the idea of getting back in touch with relatives as Agata's mother is in the book?
"She wasn’t as negative or as scheming as it were, but she wasn’t all that interested either, because she felt that the people she was most close to were dead and these people were a little bit like a substitute. She wasn’t that interested, no."
Did your relationship with your mother bear any resemblance to Agata and Dora’s relationship?
"In a way, it did bear a resemblance. The resemblance was in a very tight closeness – not quite a desperate closeness but something like that. Because, again I realised later on, I had to fill in a space for everyone who was dead. And therefore, as I also described in my book about my mother, Lenka, to leave or separate from someone who has lost everyone is very difficult."
In the book, Dora’s a very no-nonsense sort of character, sceptical of dwelling too much on your feelings or the past. Was your mother the same way? What did she think of psychotherapy?
"My mother didn’t very much believe in psychotherapy because I think she felt that she went through such hardships and she had to deal with them by myself. And she was of an opinion that one needs to face life and deal with everything and be self-sufficient, because that’s how she survived."
Do you think people of that generation were somehow just tougher? How did she get through everything she experienced?
"I’ve no idea whether they were tougher. I cannot imagine how she got over whatever life threw in her way. She became a refugee at a similar age to when I came to England – she was 22. But in comparison, she had nothing, she had no one, she had no money – she survived. I had it much easier."
How did you get to England?
"I was in England as a student in 1968 working at Butlin’s holiday camp in Bognor Regis, which in itself was a great shock. To find myself in a kind of concentration camp for holidays, with barbed wire, searchlights, security with Alsatian dogs – all those things were very shocking to begin with. And then there was the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 and so I stayed on and started to study."
What were you doing at Butlin’s?
"I was serving tea – I didn’t speak any English at all – and now and again I had to secretly get rid of a cockroach. I was told the customers mustn’t notice so you had to somehow discreetly get rid of them."
So speaking English wasn’t a requirement for the job?
"No – as I say in my book, I felt the requirement was that I was young, I had long hair and I had miniskirts – I was very fit for the job."
Did they recruit a lot of Czechs?
"It was the first year that they had recruited students from the East – there were many Yugoslavs, Slovaks, Czechs and so on."
After 1989, did you ever think about moving back to Prague?
"Not really, no. I mean, I spend a lot of time in the Czech Republic – we have a house there, and I can’t imagine not going there. But to move, no."
Agata has a daughter, Lily, who doesn’t speak Czech. Is this the case with your own daughter, and if so, why? I have a theory about Czech emigres of my parents’ generation, so I’m curious to hear about your experience.
"Yes, it’s also based on my observations. In fact, I am now much more aware of the difficulties and complications of having foreign parents because my daughter talks to me about it. Now I realise much more than when she was small that it is a real issue and that it’s something you have to square up in yourself. In fact, your own life in a way is proof that when you’re born in England, you’re not really English if you have foreign parents."
Did you encourage your daughter to speak Czech?
"I encouraged her, but at the same time there was this feeling that it would be good if we were somehow – because every child wants to be like every other child. So yes and no."
How much of Agata’s inner thoughts and feelings were borrowed from your life?
"That’s hard to say – every writer puts something of themselves into each of the characters, so in fact each of the character’s feelings are a little bit mine."
You’re also a psychotherapist, which I’m sure informed the scenes between Agata and her counsellor. From reading the book I got the impression that Agata wasn’t very fond of her counsellor’s CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) method, and I’ve read that you yourself practise psychoanalytic therapy – so is it fair to say that you’re sceptical about CBT?
"I was sceptical to begin with. I think CBT is very good for certain things, but for Agata’s problem in the book, CBT is not sufficient. CBT is based on trying to change someone’s mental habits, so with a deeper trauma, to meet with someone a few times and to try to change their mental habits – in my opinion, that doesn’t really work. And I do see people who have had CBT before, and they feel that maybe after that, they’re ready to delve a bit deeper into themselves and their family histories."
Why does Agata continue with her therapy sessions – to me it seemed like they weren’t very effective for her?
"I think that for every person, no matter what therapy you go to, it’s actually very powerful in itself that there is someone who is there for you and who is focused on you, and she also feels in the book that there is hope that someone will get it, someone will help her to understand why she is the way she is. And also, gradually she gets much fonder of her therapist."
Is writing a kind of therapy for you – a way of working through personal difficulties or trauma?
"I don’t think it’s therapy at all, but I think, like I’ve heard many writers say, it’s a way of finding out how you feel and what you think. It's a way of thinking about issues and your own life, but it’s not therapy, no."
You started off your career working as an animator and then moved to psychotherapy and you’re also a novelist. Why did you only start publishing novels later in life?
"Because I had an art education and I worked in animated films. I actually published and illustrated a children’s book much earlier on in England, called Carlo the Crocodile. I felt at that point that it was very difficult to grow up in a family of writers and I somehow felt that maybe I could write for children – that was somehow lesser. But when I wrote that children’s book, it was the first time I realised that in fact, I am more able to think about, conceive, and change writing than I am artwork. So I actually moved gradually – I started by writing scripts. I wrote a script for a BBC film – the programme was called Screen 2, they were a run of independent single films. And then I got a contract for another script and so on. So gradually I moved from animated film into writing for children into writing scripts."
Do you still do any animation at all? Or anything related to art?
"Not at all. I spent my whole life teaching in art colleges but no, not at all – it’s all gone."
Why do you think that is?
"Because writing is such an all-consuming activity – you have to concentrate, at least I have to, and it’s such hard work, and it’s all-consuming."
What made you decide to become a psychotherapist?
"I always had issues and problems and I myself went to therapy when I was quite young – it didn’t help me then, but I was always intrigued. I also liked reading Freud, I thought they were wonderful stories, and then gradually when I went to therapy I was thinking, “What does the other person listening to me know that I don’t? I would like to know that too." And so I needed to discover what it is they know."
Do you think you have discovered it?
"It’s a good question – I’ve talked about this many times before. Not quite like that – I have discovered something but you can’t pinpoint it. I’ve had education and training so yes, you learn many things. But basically, I wanted to be in the other person’s chair rather than in the patient’s chair."
Do you see any more big career changes in your future? You’ve had three careers already…
"No, I think at my age that would be crazy. But it’s very difficult to come to terms with one’s age because sometimes I listen to the radio and I hear about somebody doing some kind of work and I think, “I wonder how that is, maybe I could try that out.” But no – I mean, I’m at the end of my career of being a psychotherapist as well."
Why did you choose to set the book in the 1980s as opposed to the present or some other decade?
"It’s set in 1989 when the Communist world is crumbling and the Berlin Wall is coming down. So it’s a very turbulent time of change, when all the old dogmas and untruths are kind of falling down. And I thought that was quite an interesting parallel to what is happening in Agata’s life, where the old dogmas and the things she didn’t know, the untruths, are also crumbling."
Was the publishing date of 27 October picked on purpose to be on the eve of Czechoslovak Independence Day, or was that just a happy coincidence?
"It was picked on purpose by my publisher – nothing to do with me. She thought it would be a good idea because she is very thorough and does a lot of research."
Why did you choose to write the book in English?
"I live in England and I write in English – I’ve published another novel before which I wrote in English. Because when I live here I want to be part of the fabric of this country – I’ve lived here for such a long time. But it’s a complication writing in a language which is not your first language – it’s very, very difficult."
You’ve said that writing in both English and Czech contains elements of struggle – what are the particular struggles of writing in each language?
"I can speak Czech very well but writing and speaking are two different things. My previous book, that I wrote about my mother, was the first thing I ever wrote in Czech, and it is a struggle. I now realise that in fact, it’s a struggle in both languages – but in some ways, I inherited something of it: my mother was brought up in Prague but wrote in German, my father was from Yugoslavia, and he also wrote in German – he eventually didn’t have any language which was completely his own. Which is a really difficult issue for a writer."
For me the book resonated a lot because I grew up in England with Czech and Slovak parents, I’ve since lived in Prague, so all the references were familiar to me. Did you find it difficult to target the book to an English-speaking audience who aren’t so familiar with Czech culture? And was it hard to find a publisher for the same reason?
"I don’t think that’s the reason. It is very difficult to find a publisher in England – it’s an immense industry here. I didn’t think about targeting any audience really, though."
What about editing – do you have a Ford Maddox Ford to your Joseph Conrad?
"No, unfortunately not. I tried to encourage my publisher who is also a writer to edit more, but I don’t think she did. She edited the English, but I would love to have a proper editor."
I also noticed that you thanked your writing groups in your acknowledgements at the start of the book. How much did your writing groups help you in the writing of this book?
"Enormously. For me, it’s really important to be able to read what I write to other people. The moment you read to other people you can feel, much more than if you read aloud to yourself, where it works and where it doesn’t work. And then the other people have observations, which I find very helpful."
Did you read all of the book to them?
"I don’t think I read all of it but I read a lot of it. It’s funny because even now when I look at the text I can remember their reactions. Often it was for the reason that they didn’t get it because they’re English."
What is the demographic of your writing group – is it very diverse?
"I had two writing groups and I was the only foreigner in both, so I’m a bit of an oddity. It actually took me a long time before I dared to start reading to them – I think it took me about a year. Because of course there is this feeling like, how dare I write in their language – and English people are very much into writing, literature is very much alive in England, and many people can write very easily, and I can’t."
Did it take you a long time to write the book?
"Every sentence takes me a long time. In one of the groups we used to write while we were there – we would pick a few words and then we would have ten minutes to write, and for me, that was absolute torture. Whereas they could knock off a whole story."
How was the process of writing this book compared to your previous one?
"With The Training Patient I was very aware of my family history and of my parents as writers, and so I very deliberately wanted to write something that had nothing to do with any of that. I ended up writing a book about a Czech patient which takes place in between London and Prague, but the therapist is English. Of course, there are again some things to do with my own life, but it was a conscious decision to write about something very different."
What made you decide with the second book to aim more squarely at your own life?
"This book, In The Blood – well, the title says it in a way, it is in my blood – it’s a book I’ve been writing for many years. I would do something in between and I would come back to it. I started it years ago and then I kept re-writing and changing it, putting it in a different historical context and so on."
So in a way it’s the book you’ve always been meaning to write?
"Yes, I suppose so."
What is your next book going to be about?
"My next book is about sisters – I don’t have a sister, but one could also say it’s about friends. I realised when writing this book that in fact, all my books are about the same thing – someone is looking for someone, and they don’t quite know whether they are alive or dead. So the book I am writing now is on that theme again."
In The Blood will be released on 27 October, published by Arachne Press. The book can be ordered directly from the Arachne Press website and should also be available in all good bookshops. EU customers are strongly recommended to order a copy through their local, independent bookshop, in order to avoid incurring UK customs fees.