Best-selling author Robert Fulghum: all the ‘real’ writing happens when I am doing other things

Robert Fulghum, photo: Filip Jandourek

It’s no secret that American writer Robert Fulghum loves the Czech Republic and that his books, published by Argo, have proven immensely popular here. He has been back at least ten times over the years to promote his work, from his famous All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten to his latest, Memories of One Adventure.

Robert Fulghum,  photo: Filip Jandourek
Czech Radio’s Pavel Novák caught up with Robert Fulghum at the Bookworld international book fair in Prague, asking him about everything from his career, to his childhood in Texas, to life here.

“The first time I came here I met my Czech editor and we became very good friends. She understood what my writing was about, even more, perhaps, than my American editor. She introduced me to a lot of people and the publishing house she was working for, Argo, is a very crazy, wonderful, fun place so I came again and again I think this is the 10th or 12th time I have been here and I don’t go to any other country for my books except the Czech Republic.

“For some reason the Czechs and I seem to fit well together, something I think I realised I first heard the story of famous fictional character Jára Cimrman. I thought ‘Oh, I understand these people’! So it’s little things. When I am here I also feel comfortable and at home and I always have a good time.”

Do you have any particular places in the Czech Republic that you like to return to?

“I think of all of Prague and the Czech Republic as a contemporary museum of culture, sociology, anthropology so I don’t go to cathedrals, I don’t go to castles, I don’t go to battlefields, I like to be out where people are. So I have a flat over in Smichov and I live the same life that most Czechs live. I ride the trams, I ride the busses, I like being in the ‘museum’ all day long, every day.”

What are your feelings about modern technology?

“I say that one of the nice things about being alive in the 21st century is that you can have every kind of possible tool you can imagine. You don’t need the tools you don’t use but you can choose what you want, they are there. I don’t have television, I don’t have a cell phone, I have an email account but I use it only rarely, but I still stay in touch with the world, I like to listen to the radio. There is nothing wrong with any of those things – I have three people who work for me who have phones and email addresses and so on – but I don’t need them. I don’t like new technology, I can live without it.”

'All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten',  photo: Argo
If you still write by hand, how do you put together your stories? Do you eventually swap for a tablet or laptop?

“Well, I say that I am writing 24 hours a day in my laboratory which is between my ears. My writing machine is made out raw meat, three pounds of raw meat which I feed with ice cream and chocolate! There are times when I jot things down in a notepad, I always have one with me and there are times when I walk up and down with a friend and tell him stories. One of the very last things I do is sit down at the computer. The real writing is happening when I am out watering my plants, or even when I am asleep! Even when I am asleep, something is going on in the meat!”

I know that you still have a place in Crete but that, as you wrote in one of your books, you had mixed up terms you greeted locals with, meaning something completely different. How is your Greek coming along?

“This thing has happened: similar to the Czech Republic, in almost any Greek town everybody speaks English now. They like it when I speak English so they can improve and only ask me to speak Greek when they want a laugh, because they think the way I speak is very funny. So the world has changed. When I came to the Czech Republic in 1994 I had to have a translator; today, in Prague, I can speak English I don’t need an interpreter anymore.”

You are almost 76 – but do you feel you are that old?

“No. Sometimes I feel like I’m 12, sometimes 30. My wife is peeking at us, listening in: sometimes she lives with a 12-year-old! I know I am at least 40 because there are things I understand I couldn’t have when I was child but I don’t dress old, act old, think old... A lot of my friends say (in gruff voice) ‘Oh I feel old...’ that’s not me. I dance, I walk, I am lucky – I don’t think there is anything special about what I have done – but I am not an old man yet. Someday.”

Has your tango improved?

“It’s better but it isn’t good yet. It’s like taking up yoga or Tai Chi, something you can work on as long as you live, you can always learn, you can always learn and always get better. If anybody says to you ‘I am a very good tango dancer’, they don’t know what they are talking about. That’s not tango.”

Robert Fulghum,  photo: Filip Jandourek
You were born in Waco, Texas, not far from West which recently saw a horrific explosion that claimed many lives. It’s also a town with deep roots – many of generations of descendents from today’s Czech Republic. Do you know West well?

“Yes, I had been to West many times, it was only 20 miles from my house. We went there to get good bread and good sausage. Willie Nelson, the famous country-western singer was from there. I didn’t know about the Czech connection when I was a boy, though. The accident... every time something like that happens you hear about it straight away and it is reported all over the world and you feel bad.”