‘Language is my home’: An Interview with Camilla Grudova

Interviews

By Shawn Syms

First-time author Camilla Grudova’s debut short-story collection The Doll’s Alphabet is one of the most fascinating and compelling books of 2017. Highly readable and accessible despite its rather complex melange of influences both classical and modern, the unusual collection reads like a sequence of dreams from which the reader does not wish to awaken. People transform into… non-people (I will leave it at that to avoid spoilers!) and Grudova conjures a fusion of seemingly realist prose with often surreal and fantastical storylines in ways that baffle and hypnotize as much as they delight and compel. With her use of recurring imagery such as the sewing machine to reflect on women’s autonomy, The Doll’s Alphabet often reads as a queer sort of feminist manifesto—as spoken in tongues, or dictated by a Ouija board. I had the pleasure to ask Grudova a few questions via email upon her return from the 2017 Cork International Short Story festival.


Authors based in Canada are frequently best known for stories about trees, wheat fields, battling snowstorms, and so on. But yours concern the magical and symbolic powers of sewing machines, and the possibilities of inter-species transformation. What’s your take on Canlit and how do you see yourself in relation to it?

I read literature from all around the world. I don’t see my existence as a writer and reader in terms of nationality, but of language. Language is my home.

I find your work highly original—then again, I read a lot of conventional “realist” contemporary fiction where people usually remain in human form and sconces tend to keep their thoughts to themselves. But to more literate readers and critics, your debut collection is a heady stew of Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter and the Brothers Grimm. Since the initial release of The Doll’s Alphabet earlier this year, which comparisons have been most complimentary or thought-provoking for you, and which if any have grated?

No comparisons have grated, but it’s exposed me to new things. For example, someone said The Doll’s Alphabet made them think of David Lynch, but I hadn’t seen any of his films, and now have discovered a kindred spirit.

It’s the highest compliment if one is compared to Atwood or Carter, but dreadfully intimidating too. They are literary revolutionaries, and the comparison creates high expectations, which can lead to disappointment. A lot of writers—in particular, emerging female writers—are compared to Angela Carter, because the loss of her was so immense and left such a large gap in literature.

Her work wasn’t done yet, but it is an impossible gap to fill; there is no one else like her, though the scope of her influence is huge. I think fiction writers working today cannot avoid being influenced by Carter in some way, just as generations couldn’t avoid the influence of Eliot or Joyce. We must re-read her and re-read her, and be grateful for the body of work she has left us.

I have never read anyone whose similes, particularly when describing your characters, are so vivid and completely original—and often hilarious. For instance, I loved your description in “The Sad Tale of the Sconce” of the man who runs the antique store where the long-journeying sconce eventually comes to rest: “The owner of the shop was covered with fleas. He looked like a very small lamb, with glasses.” How do you do it?

Thank you! I don’t know, but similes are what it’s all about for me, writing and reading, they are so much fun, they give me the spine tingles Nabokov talks about. I’m a very visual thinker, similes are like double exposure images that kind of flutter out of the sentence.

In some ways, your work seems both timeless and eerily unplaceable. What current fiction practitioners would you consider your contemporaries, working on similar projects to your own? And who, past and/or present, has influenced your own writing?

Helen Oyeyemi, Donna Tartt and Nicola Barker are all practitioners of a kind of brilliant mystical realism to which I aspire. They each have such a distinct flavour. I am also influenced by László Krasznahorkai, Cynthia Ozick, Yoko Tawada and Jenny Erpenbeck.

TS Eliot is a huge influence on the sentence-by-sentence level.  Carson McCullers is one of my absolute favouritesI worship her. The ancients, of course. I constantly re-read Ovid, Virgil, Homer, Euripides. I’m obsessed with Pliny the Elder recently. Someone recently gave me the work of Margaret Cavendish and she is already influencing what I am writing now.

Charles Dickens, George Perec, Kafka, Edward Gorey, Barbara Comyns, Angela Carter, Mary Shelley, Nabokov, Samuel Beckett, Gunter Grass, Barbara Pym, Mary Norton, Hoffmann, Oscar Wilde, the Brontës, Agota Kristof, Bruno Schulz, Dostoevsky, Hrabal, Tolstoy, Proust, Silvina Ocampo, Borges, Paul Clean, Rilke, Hans Christian Andersen, Italo Calvino, Kierkegaard, Clarice Lispector, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Saul Bellow, Zbigniew Herbert.

My first publisher, Britain’s Fitzcarraldo Editions, has an overall vision into which each author fits with their own variations; I feel I have something in common with every Fitzcarraldo author. The books have very minimalist covers that really contrast with the work inside. I think publisher Jacques Testard secretly has a strange Baroque soul that is exposed through his choices: it’s nice to think each Fitzcarraldo book is like a Baroque pearl in a way.

Outside of writing, what are some other works of art that inspire you in your own practice?

Yes, I wouldn’t just consider writers my contemporaries, but also visual artists like Shary Boyle and Marcel Dzama, and a musician like Grimes, who is of my generation. Many film directors inspire me too, ones like Fellini and Ingmar Bergman and Jan Svankmajer. I studied Art History, so it’s influenced my work quite a lot, not just individual artists, but the way one writes about art. Many theorists I wrote about a lot while doing my degreeMarx and Walter Benjaminare there in my work.

You’ve mentioned elsewhere the haunting impact of your grandmother’s schizophrenia, and also that you experienced deep depression while working on The Doll’s Alphabet. Would you say these legacies and experiences regarding mental health influence your creative process?

Absolutely yes, and there is always the fear that with going too deep into the imagination and not being able to return into the world. It’s a very fine thread that one is hanging on. It’s like what Jung said of Lucia and James Joyce: one is falling, the other diving. Sometimes you don’t know which one you are doing.

Please tell us at least a bit about the “gigantic novel” that you are currently working on. And how did your experience of writing The Doll’s Alphabet influence or affect your process or approach this time around?

My novel is set in real specific places, mainly in the 18th century, which is a big change, but some themes in The Doll’s Alphabet continue, dolls for example, because the questions of what is animate and inanimate, questions of death and the soul are what obsess me. When writing The Doll’s Alphabet, I sent the stories one by one to my editor Jacques Testard, and he gave me feedback as I was writing but this time, for the novel I’m going to keep it to myself until it’s finished, which is daunting, I might write 500 pages that he thinks are utterly dreadful then have to start all over again, but I don’t want to let anyone in anymore.

What’s a typical day in the life of Camilla Grudova at the moment? 

I’ve been travelling which is atypical. I just got back from the Cork International Short Story festival in Ireland, where I was lucky to listen to lots of amazing writers and swim in the very cold sea. “The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea,” as Joyce calls it.

In typical life, I spend a lot of time at the Toronto Public Library, and Moon Bean Café in Toronto’s Kensington Market. I don’t have much of a life. I don’t feel part of life, I’m not noticeable except to cats, more like a ghost just observing things and reading. I do a lot of part-time jobs. Having a body that has to be fed, bathed, clothed, is difficult.

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Contributor

Shawn Syms


Shawn Syms is an Associate Editor of the Winnipeg Review.