Natalie Kocabova - blood, gore and Baptist summer camps

Natalie Kocabova, photo:

Although she is still only 22, Natalie Kocabova already has two albums to her name as a singer, two collections of poetry and two published works of prose. She also has a young son, Vincent, who is now three years old. It is rare for a writer to be so prolific so young, but Natalie is already well established on the Czech literary scene. She told us more about her life and work.

How have you managed to write so much in such a short time?

"I'm not sure, but I kind of feel like I'm slowing down now, because I really spit out everything I could. I always wrote a lot. I've been writing since I was about twelve or maybe earlier. It's something I do all the time, so I'm not that surprised."

One thing that anyone talking to you notices straight away is that you don't speak English with a Czech accent. That's because you are half American, isn't it?

"Yes. My mother comes from North Carolina, so it's not much of a problem speaking English."

You were five years old when the communist system collapsed here.

"Yes, I was five years old. That's right, so I didn't realize much of it. But I did notice some things. They threatened our family a lot because they didn't like Dad..."

Your father, Michael Kocab, is a very well-known rock musician here. His band "Prazsky vyber" had a cult following in the 1980s.

"Yes, their lyrics were against communism, so they were not allowed to play for so many years. That's why it was dangerous for all of us to walk out alone. That's the only thing I realized - that it wasn't safe. Otherwise I didn't realize much of it."

So, your father is a musician and you launched your own musical career very, very young. Your first album "Fly Apple Pie" was released in 2000, when you were still only fifteen. How did that come about?

"Dad just came up with this idea of making a CD. I was fifteen and I thought it was great. I was sort of counting on this happening because I was actually raised in a music studio. So I thought it was automatic that I would become a singer. I wasn't surprised when he came with this idea. He did, and we made a CD, and it is only now that I realize it was really early. But back then it was normal for me."

Last year your second album, "Hummingbirds in Iceland" was released. Given that this is a literary programme, I'd like to ask you about the texts of the songs on the album, because you wrote some of the songs in English together with your mother.

"My Mom wrote most of the lyrics. I think she's awesome in writing texts. I tried to write some - I wrote about six - but I realized it's not something I can actually do. It's just a different way of creating a text."

Is that simply because you grew up writing Czech and therefore it's the natural language for you to write in?

"That was a part of it, but not the whole thing. I mean what's hard is that I write really automatically, but writing lyrics is something so non-automatic. It was very hard for me - not for Mom, but for me."


My life has been built and I...

I can't choose my way.

So I dream of what I can...

I used to be thrilled, but now,

It seemed to fade away.

I'm losing all I can.

My life has been built and I...

I can't choose my way,

So I dream of what I can,

I'm leaving this life for good,

Going to Neverland,

And I'm grabbing all I can....

[Neverland - lyrics by Natalie Kocabova, from the album Hummingbirds in Iceland]

I'd like to move on to your writing. Much of what you have written has been greeted with critical acclaim. In your two collections of poetry, many people have pointed to your very rich use of language, and to your ability, in both your poetry and prose, to speak for the "rebellious" teenage generation. You've already said that you write in a way that just comes out of you, and you are not systematic in your writing.

"I'm not. I just sit down and it comes out. But I've figured out that I can't do this for a very long time, because this way of writing suits just some forms of literature, which I have been doing until now. But now I've finished a book called "The Roses", and I've said that's enough, so I think I'll start writing differently now."

The two works of prose that you've written so far, "Monarcha absint" (The Monarch Absinthe) and "Schola alternativa" - they are both full of anger, they are quite brutal in their language. It's as if you are battling against an enemy that it is hard to define.

"I always use cuss words. That's the first thing that a lot of people have a problem with. It's quite - or very - vulgar. So that's why probably most teenagers can identify with it. It's the language. And then, I can't really explain why it's so aggressive. I'm aware of it."

For your parents' generation it was very obvious who they were fighting against. There was a clear opponent in the oppressive political system. For your generation it's much harder in a sense, much more ambiguous.

"I've been thinking about this a lot and I think it was a lot easier doing something in the arts during communism, or under some system that repressed you, because everything was so obvious. Now we're the first generation here after centuries and centuries of not being free to be able to do anything we want. I think it's not that easy. We don't realize it, but there's this boredom that came up. You know, we don't have anything to fight. So I think it's this feeling Americans and many other countries went through a long time ago - in the '60s, and we're sort of going through it now. But it might just be me [laughs]!"

With this rebellion and this brutal language - it's very overt and full of drugs and blood and death - what do your parents think of your writing?

"[Laughs]. That was quite bad. I wrote the first book 'Monarcha absint' when I was seventeen. I called them and I said, 'My first novel will be published', and I was thrilled. And they said, 'What is it about,' and I said, 'Well, a whorehouse.' So that's when our little private war started. It lasted two or three years. It was bad, but I understand it. It really depressed Dad."

On the other hand, your parents were used to rebellion, because they had been rebels themselves. In fact your father is still perceived as something of a rebel. But there are also other influences in your family. Unlike many Czechs you grew up with religion playing quite a big role in your life. Your grandfather is a pastor, and I've noticed in your writing there are a lot of direct or indirect religious references. Clearly some kind of spiritual search is very important to you.

"That, I think, is another part that is a great influence. My whole life I've been going to - even Baptist camps every year in America. It is a really religious family that I came from and maybe that's the reason why I had this crisis, still have and probably will continue to have, and that might be where part of the aggression comes from. But there is one other thing too. I realized that the rapper Eminem had a lot of influence on me too - rap. I've been listening to him ever since he became famous. I never really realized it, but I do now, that the way he speaks, or any rapper speaks, that I kind of use that way too."

I've just been reading your second prose work, "Schola alternativa". I must say that I loved it because it's so refreshingly different and very fast. I noticed that on your own website you dedicated the book to the school [in Prague] that you went to. I think if I were the head teacher at your school, I wouldn't go around too much drawing attention to the fact, because the book is full of drugs, suicide, blood and gore, and it's really quite a morbid book.

"Yes, that school was a great deal to me. I went there for seven years from when I was twelve, and the school went through a big journey. It looks good today, but when it started it was kind of a tough time. And I remember the bathroom was so ugly - it was old, the doors were crooked and all that. Every time I went to the bathroom, I thought I will write a book about the school one day."

In fact the bathroom plays quite a big role in the book...

"[Laughs] Yeah, it does. So I wrote a short drama about the school and then I wrote the prose, but it was something that was pushing me for a very long time - the idea."

Your son Vincent was born three years ago, when you were still nineteen. It's a very early age by today's standards in this country to have a child, although under communism it was very common. Do you find that having a child has made you maybe less rebellious and more responsible and grown up?

"Well, you can actually find out if you read this book I've just finished. It's coming out in July. I think that what happened to me, after the hormones got back, it didn't change my nature, but it changed the balance of different parts of me."

And where do you go from here? You have a lot of things that you're juggling with. On one hand you're a prose writer, at another level you're a poet, at another level you're a singer - a very successful singer. You're also mother to your child. When you look forward to the next five or ten years, do you gaze into your crystal ball and wonder what you'll be doing, or do you prefer not to?

"I know I'll be writing my whole life. I'm positive about that. And I hope I will be able to sing in ten years. I think you can do both things."