Robert Fulghum’s tango for one in Prague

Robert Fulghum, photo: Argo publishing

The best-selling American writer Robert Fulghum has such an enthusiastic following in the Czech Republic that he has published several of his books here in Czech translation before they have even appeared at home. That includes his latest book, “If You Love Me Still, Will You Love Me Moving?” Its subtitle “Tales from the Century Ballroom” hints at its theme – that most passionate of ballroom dances, tango. Last week Robert Fulghum was in Prague to promote the book, and found time to pay a visit to the radio. David Vaughan met him.

Robert Fulghum,  photo: Argo publishing
Robert Fulghum shot to international fame at the age of fifty having already enjoyed a varied career as pastor, teacher, painter and even singing cowboy. His collection of stories and essays, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” was published in 1988 and was an instant bestseller. The book captures his seemingly simple philosophy of trying to see the world through the eyes of a child, and has since been translated into over twenty languages. Fulghum’s subsequent books have the same life-affirming, cheerful take on life, and they seem to have struck a particular chord with Czech readers. He has become a regular visitor to this country and if you visit his website, you’ll find much that he has written about the Czech Republic.

If Czechs have a soft spot for Fulghum’s writing, their feelings are requited. He describes Czechs as standing “on an underlayer of toughness of spirit and dark cynical humor that separates survivors from losers,” and he points to “The Good Soldier Švejk“, Jaroslav Hašek’s famously irreverent comic novel of the First World War as a source of inspiration. A rather more surprising inspiration, as we’ll be hearing in this programme, is Jára Cimrman, the universal and completely fictitious Czech genius and folk hero, brought to life by the two brilliant writer-actors, Zdeněk Svěrák and Ladislav Smoljak.

Robert Fulghum’s success in the Czech Republic owes much to Eva Slámová of the Argo publishing house, who, until her death at the end of last year, promoted, edited and published his work. It was under her initiative that his novel “Third Wish” was published in Czech in 2004 before it even appeared in English. In the same spirit, his latest book, “If You Love Me Still, Will You Love Me Moving?” has also just been published in Czech. A few days ago, Robert Fulghum came into the studios of Radio Wave, here at Czech Radio, and I took the opportunity to talk to him. We began by talking about his new book:

'If You Love Me Still,  Will You Love Me Moving?'
“Basically, I am a storyteller and if you look very carefully at the new novel you will see it is a series of short stories. The subtitle is “Tales from the Century Ballroom”, so it’s really the short stories holding it together.”

Does the Century Ballroom really exist?

“Yes. In fact the novel begins with a photograph of the front door of the Century Ballroom. It is the most famous place to dance in Seattle. And many of the people in the book are also real.”

And I understand that you are a regular visitor to the ballroom…

“Yes, I’m there two or three nights a week, and when I began writing the novel, the owner gave me essentially the freedom to go anywhere in the ballroom, any time of day, behind the scenes or out front.”

Is the protagonist Aristo your alter ego?

“Well, for anyone who writes this sort of book, it’s autobiographical. I had the experience of not knowing and learning to dance tango, so in that sense, so in that sense it is very much autobiographical. He’s much better looking than I am, of course! And he met the love of his life while learning to tango, and I met the love of my life, my wife now, while learning to tango. She is the one who did the illustrations for this novel. Real life is mixed up in fiction always.”

You are best known for your book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”. With that as your philosophy, how do you go on writing? How do you find new things to write about, new ways of writing?

“Well, I walk around in the world with my eyes and ears open, and the stories are there because I write about the stories of people. And if I don’t see a story, I will ask someone, ‘Tell me your story,’ and the stories go on.”

You have had many different jobs, including being a barman and a pastor. Did any of these jobs help you in this particular novel – for example, your experiences as a barman?

“Yes, the character of Frida the bartender in this novel is based on my experience when I was a bartender when I was very young. You learn a great deal about people when you’re a bartender.”

In the book you often write that tango isn’t just a dance but a whole way of life. In what way is that the case? Is it because it is to do with migration?

“It has to do with immigration. It began as the music of the poor – men dancing with men – it has to do with yearning for a better time. If you listen to the lyrics of the tango songs, they’re all about wanting love and wanting a better future and it’s the soul music of Hispanic and Italian culture. There’s tango poetry, there’s tango orchestral music, there’s a very wide culture of tango.”

When you started listening to tango, did it begin to mean more to you than North American singer-songwriters, people like Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan?

“When you translate the words into English, they’re like American country and western music: ‘I just got out of prison, my dog died, my girlfriend left me, woe is me.’ It’s the same music. It sounds better in Spanish.”

And what are the roots of your strong relationship to Czech culture?

“People always ask me, ‘Why do the Czechs like my writing?’ and I say that my editor and my translator are better writers than I am. But I know why I like the Czechs. The Czechs are like a really good dark beer: dark, bitter-sweet and the next day after you’ve had Czechs you feel a little strange but happy. And the women are like the beer – full-bodied!”

I know that you’ve read Hašek’s Švejk – in fact you’ve read it twice. Why is that?

“Well, because that is the book that was recommended to me by my editor as the first one to read if you want to understand the Czech mentality. And then I learned about Jára Cimrman and put it together – and I get it. In fact, the Czechs don’t know this, but Jára Cimrman invented tango, but he thought it was a dance for one person!”

Your books are known for their warmth, and they are also very optimistic. You avoid politics and you don’t have many nasty characters in your books…

“I’m not an optimist and I’m not a pessimist. I’m a realist. And I know that life has the dark side and many people write about the dark side. Not many people write about the other side, the lighter side. So that’s what I focus on. I know about death and fear and war and sorrow and pain, but that’s not what I write about. My quarrel with the church is that they never show Jesus laughing, and if he was a whole human being, then he must have laughed. So I don’t want to deny that part of being human.”

I’ve heard two things about you – one is that you’re writing another book called “Kindling for the Fire” and the second thing is that you are digging your own grave… literally. How should I interpret these two rumours?

Robert Fulghum,  photo: Standa Soukup
“The book is called ‘Kindling for the Fire’. It’s coming. I’m also writing short plays. I am not digging my own grave, but I own my own grave. I know where, and I have made a box to put my ashes in. I asked my children what they want when I’m gone, because I don’t care. And they said, ‘We never know where you are when you’re alive. We want to know where you are when you’re dead!’ So, sometimes I visit that place to remind myself that life is short and I must keep it alive as long as I can.”

This interview was first broadcast by Radio Wave.