The Pieper at the Gates of Prague

Liam Pieper, Kateřina Bajo, photo: David Vaughan

Prague has a long history of inspiring visiting writers. The list includes novelists and poets as diverse as George Eliot, Pablo Neruda and Allen Ginsberg. So it seems apt that the City Library has just launched a programme inviting writers to spend two months absorbing the atmosphere of the city. The first writer-in-residence was the Australian novelist and essayist Liam Pieper and last week, just as his stay was drawing to a close, David Vaughan caught up with Liam and the programme coordinator, Kateřina Bajo.

Liam Pieper,  Kateřina Bajo,  photo: David Vaughan
To talk to Kateřina and Liam I have come to Prague City Library on Mariánské náměstí – Marian Square – in the heart of the Old Town. Kateřina, tell us how the programme came about:

KB: “The Municipal Library is the coordinator of the project Prague City of Literature and the main goal of the project for this year was to create an artists’ residency in Prague. Prague has been part of the UNESCO Network of Creative Cities of Literature since last December. It is a network of cities which want to promote their authors and their creativity, as well as the cities themselves. It includes cities like Edinburgh, Dublin, Melbourne, Iowa City, Krakow and a few more cities…”

… but mostly in English-speaking countries…

KB: “At the moment it is English-speaking countries, except for Prague and Krakow, and Heidelberg in Germany, but every year new cities are joining, so maybe next year there will also be some other European cities.”

So tell me more about the writers’ residency programme.

KB: “We started offering the programme in October 2015 and we offer a two-month stay in Prague. We pay a grant, accommodation and travel costs. We are inviting authors interested in Prague literature or Prague history, or who are working on a project connected with Prague and the atmosphere of the city of Prague.”

And this is a good moment to turn to Liam Pieper. Tell me more.

LP: “Well, I was pleasantly surprised to be offered this residency. It’s a wonderful opportunity. It was very hard not to be inspired by Prague because everything is a magical fairytale.”

Have you found inspiration?

LP: “Absolutely, but in none of the ways I intended. I sat down to work straight away and I burned through a lot of drafts in my first couple of weeks. I’ve had some creative blockages on the way. One of the problems is the beer here. It’s cheap and wonderful and in an effort to access the culture of a language I don’t speak, I start drinking at lunchtime. And so that has probably been the major impediment to my creativity here. But apart from that there is a place called the Libri Prohibiti….”

… the library of books that were prohibited during the communist period.

Liam Pieper,  photo: David Vaughan
LP: “I love just going there and seeing all these books that exist – all these banned publications. They give me a lot of hope that literature can survive even against a tyrannical censorship.”

There was a thriving samizdat culture in Czechoslovakia of books being published illegally and secretly throughout the 70s and 80s, and this library brings together these publications, including many of the best Czech authors, who weren’t allowed to be published, as well as translations of authors who couldn’t be published in translation from other languages. It is a wonderful library.

LP: “It really is and I really do think that samizdat was a key creative force in world literature, because, if you force something underground you don’t necessarily kill it, you just make it sneakier. It mutates. So Czech writers and writers from all around this part of the world, but I think the Czechs did it better than most, found ways to get around it. They wrote in metaphor, they wrote in exile, they wrote in secret, they hand-wrote, they made facsimiles of things. And that spurs a kind of creativity in response to draconian censorship, which then breeds technique and new ways of thinking and new ways of story-telling. Then, when the censorship has relented, that is released back into the world and this underground lab of literary super-soldiers is unleashed onto the world and periods of intense creativity can come out of that sort of thing.”

There is also a danger of being nostalgic for the period of the “muse of censorship”, because censorship had some pretty dire consequences as well.

LP: “Absolutely. And it continues to be a problem these days. Luckily, with the internet, it’s very hard to censor anything. Look at what happens in modern-day India a lot of the time. With an increasingly reactive and intelligent intelligentsia of people who are connected online, censorship is so much harder to get away with these days.”

I haven’t yet asked you anything about your own background. Given that you’re still young, it’s very interesting that the book that has brought you your greatest success so far is an autobiography. Normally, you would expect that to come much later, but you had a rather unusual upbringing.

LP: “Yes, I did have what I guess you could call an unconventional upbringing. I grew up in what was roughly a hippy commune, an alternative echelon in Melbourne, Australia. My parents were very much enthusiasts for the counter-culture, and my first book, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year, which is currently out through Penguin Australia, explores the adventures I had growing up as the child of parents who were pot-smoking and free-loving… well, not in the swinging sense, but let’s say that they were very into Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen. These were my key formative influences as a child. So we left the commune when I was about ten and I had to reintegrate into civil society in an Australia that was quite conservative at the time. So I suppose that my upbringing has quite shaped me as a writer in that I’ve also felt a little to the side in society. I think all writers do. We’re generally the creepy loner in the corner at parties.”

Kateřina Bajo,  photo: David Vaughan
And so, in a sense, I can see why you feel an identity with samizdat here. I don’t want to abuse the term, but you and your family were in a sense “dissidents” in Australia.

LP: “Well, the word dissident implies some kind of heroism, which is not true. They were just civilians who happened to enjoy one habit that broke the law, which these days seems to be non-controversial. In many, many countries around the world you can smoke a bit of cannabis now and again and there’s no great damage done, beyond that it might make you kind of dull. My family did face a lot of difficulties as I recounted in the autobiography, but I think that they wouldn’t today. I think that society has evolved a little bit. I’m by no means an evangelist for decriminalization or whatever, but you look out in the street and here in Prague, where I think pot is decriminalized, and society has not collapsed!”

You didn’t react against your upbringing. You didn’t become a member of the Young Conservatives…

LP: “No, no. I guess the way to rebel would have been to become a corporate lawyer and make a packet of money, but I stayed in a reliably impoverished profession.”

Let’s have a taste of your writing. You are going to read a bit from a story in your collection Mistakes Were Made…

LP: “… which is a short collection of essays roughly detailing how my life fell apart after I wrote the memoir. This is the opening of an essay called Fame! (I’m Gonna Live Forever):

I was famous, for a week and a half, in the middle of my thirtieth winter. My book, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year, a memoir about my adventures as a flower child turned teenage miscreant, had just come out, and the media had, in its own modest fashion, gone bananas. It was, in a way, a dream come true. I’d always wanted to be a writer, as far back I can remember. Before I could write, certainly before I could write well, even before I could read, I would listen to my father read me The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and know that I wanted to be part of that. Later, I worked my way through the classics, taking wisdom from the library. Every so often I’d find a book that felt like beheading a highlander: I would finish it and know that I’d gained something powerful to see me through life. When I should have been making friends, I was reading Camus. I read Hemingway when I should have been learning how to talk to women. On the Road came along at precisely the wrong moment of my adolescence and fell on me like a daisy cutter, levelling any ambition to lead a life as a valued, productive member of society. From the middle of the canon I examined the lives of my literary heroes, the syphilitic, alcoholic and suicidal – but immortal – sociopaths who had raised me, and said, “Yes. Give me some of that. That’s the life for me.”

LP: “I write in a very Australian vernacular. It’s a very dry tone which is perhaps a little colloquial or a little stranded down on Prison Island in terms of humour. But then I think there’s maybe a certain parallel between Czech and Australian humour in that there’s an appreciation for the grimmer things in life that runs through the cultural viewpoint. At least I’d like to hope so.”

You say that you’ve found inspiration during your stay here in Prague, so I hope that before long we’ll be able to read something you have written that is set in Prague or inspired by Prague.

LP: “Yes. Absolutely. I’ve actually ended up somehow with two stories about Prague. At a certain point, halfway through the manuscript which I had come here to write, I realized that I was writing two stories that needed to exist co-dependent of each other. One of them is more or less finished and should be out in Australia in June 2016.”

What’s it about?

LP: “I don’t want to jinx it just yet, because it will go through a long process, but basically it’s about an Australian family living in Melbourne, my home town, whose grandparents came over from Czechoslovakia around the time of the Prague Spring. Without giving too much away, there are atrocities in the past. I was very inspired by this community in Melbourne which I grew up around – I was friends with the children of these people, who had escaped as political refugees, who had come to Melbourne and started new lives. They had terrible things in their past. They had either been the victims or the perpetrators of atrocities and had just never mentioned it again. Everyone just got on with their lives. I was very interested in what that does to a family. So in a nutshell, that is what this book is about.

Then there’s the other book that kind of split off half way through that, which is still in its very rough draft at the moment. It’s about the samizdat tradition that we were discussing earlier. It’s not inspired by samizdat art but about the idea of making it. So it’s about a Czech artist in exile, trying to understand a new culture. That is very much me in Prague too. I have no idea what’s happening any of the time. I’m forever on the wrong train. The Kozel [a make of beer] has gone to my head. You know, I think it’s good for someone who lives more or less entirely in their own head to be occasionally out of their depth completely. And so that has been one wonderful formative experience of my time here in Prague, along with all the inspirational architecture, history, samizdat and Kozel!”

And to finish, Kateřina, this is the beginning of a programme to invite writers to Prague. Can you tell me a bit more about what we have to look forward to?

KB: “Liam is leaving now and the next author is coming in January. We are really happy that we can continue with this programme next year. So the first author coming in January is Sarah Perry from Norwich. Afterwards we will continue with the programme. We are already speaking with authors from New Zealand and Ireland, and we will continue through the year. So we hope we will invite six authors to Prague in 2016.”