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Yulia Lyshenko

[Interview] Andrew Kokotyuha: Reading As Fashion, People As Readers

Andrew Kokotyuha, a writer, journalist, screenwriter and winner of multiple awards of the literary contest “Coronation Words”, shared with Eastbook his thoughts on modern Ukrainian literature, spoke about readers’ tastes, language issues, piracy and much more.

Андрей Кокотюха на презентации книги

Andrew Kokotyuha at the book presentation

Julia Lyshenko: Andrey, when did you realize that you’re going to be a writer?

Andrew Kokotyuha: If a writer is not considered as the ruler of the minds, but as a person who tells fascinating stories and just records them, then since the age of seven. I still keep my paper notebooks where I wrote down my first fairy tales, and later – stories and novels. There is even a “three-volume edition”. Actually, the last time I used a notebook was about twelve years ago. I studied in the USSR, and in Soviet schools there were more male teachers than in modern educational institutions. Like all men, they often drank. It was a problem to conduct a normal lessons and not to completely disturb the studying process. I was frequently called to the blackboard and had to hold the attention of the whole class for 45 minutes just telling a story. At the beginning I was retelling the books I had read, then I began to tell my own stories. Finally, in high school my manuscripts were already circulating among the most literate classmates. I was not a good artist but still was drawing comics on the lessons. Still they were popular – the most interesting thing was a plot itself, not the drawings, which were quite bad. Though I’m still not a full-fledged writer, just a journalist who writes books and scripts.

JL: Some people claim that an author ought to write about things she or he knows well. Only such texts have a chance to be published. Do you agree?

AK: In a part, yes. If a person describes the real life experiences, such it is to be in jail or, let’s say doing business or having sex, it will be interesting for some people. However, the second book of this author will be about the same issue. After all, you get experience only once. And if each book is about imprisonment, it’s gets boring. For the same reason people today are fed up with reality shows. The spy effect disappears after about the third edition. It is not important to know the life itself. A writer is a person who can model the reality around him, so readers are able to recognize it. And, what’s more, believe in it: that’s how it is. This also applies to science fiction writers: a lot of people believe in Martians and goblins, as they perceives reality through the prism of fantastic stories. The main thing is to be able to see an orientation sign in life. If a writer is to offer a reader a kind of situation that the reader is able to apply to himself, this means that the author knows what he writes about. Jules Verne has traveled all over the world without leaving the office; yet millions believe him, regarding him as a great explorer. A writer is a professional liar, but his lies are not harmful to anybody. People are happy while being deceived – they love with their eyes and ears. The one who tells stories in the most interesting way is in reality quite truthful. However, if a person who has knowledge about theoretical physics or quantum mechanics will write a book about these subjects, it is most likely that they will be not sought after.

JL: What are the main components of a good, exciting book?

AK: Again: surely, there are hundreds of fans of quantum mechanics. The book on quantum mechanics will grip their attention, and they will consider the book good. Tastes are a very individual matter, as well as the term “good book”,  and food and sexual preferences. For me a good and exciting book is “The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Arthur Conan Doyle. But there are hundreds of thousands of snobs that don’t like this story. Just as I do not feel good and excited about books of Joyce, Proust, Kafka and Zabuzhko, and here those who called themselves intellectuals want to fight against me. For me a good book is the one you bought, have read and have not regretted the purchase. If millions all over the world buy this book, it means that it is also exciting.

JL: Do you use in your work stories from your own life, family and friends? Your heroes – are they original, made up characters or do they come from real life?

AK: All the stories created by a writer in a way show his experience. And most of the characters were copied from real people. The skill of a writer is not to show a prototype called by his real name, but to re-think what he or she saw, heard, and read in an artistic way. Everything I write can be traced back to real events and people. For example, in the novel “The Anomalous Zone” there is a story about a major who hits a girl with a car and avoids any punishment. Did I invent it in 2009 or not? Another example: in the novel “The Legend of the Headless” the heroine’s appearance was copied from my colleague, the writer and lawyer Larisa Denisenko. And, actually, she didn’t mind for the behavior of that heroine had nothing in common with the behavior of the real person. After all, everyday life is boring, but the people you see every day might be interesting. And if I can borrow a detail from them, I just do that. Some readers even recognize in these characters their neighbors and write to me letters.

JL: Why do people read less? What is the reason in your opinion?

AK: People do not read less. In the Moscow subway every third reads, I saw it for myself. Bring the book shops back to the city centers and then we’ll see whether this is true. People began to get more information, they do not need books to respond to everyday life. However, the book remains the model of real situations, conveying thoughts. So, the news on the Internet is a starter but the book is the main course. The problem is that you don’t know where you can get the book. If reading was in fashion, people would become readers .

JL: What is “in fashion” in Ukraine now? Which themes are most interesting for the Ukrainian reader?

AK: Ukrainian readers are still forming. More likely Ukrainians are ready to go to the store and buy a new product – an overseas detective story, published in Russia. But if they are offered a Ukrainian detective, they will take a step back: why do we need it? The literature from table countries, with an established state ideology, are more familiar for, even more loved by Ukrainians. Their countrymen’s models and concepts of their country, stories from their own lives, can be a trial. For them it is easier to read foreign books and completely agree with the author than to risk discovering works of a compatriot and to be somehow forced to agree that he or she writes the truth. As soon as we have a common understanding of where the country is moving, and where we are going, a genre literature, the basis of the market in developed countries, will become popular in our country. In the meantime, Ukrainian reader is ready to read only those books of Ukrainian authors which contains not stories but rather reflections. That is, what is seen not with the mind but with the heart, not logically, but on an emotional level. And, of course, the books of someone who considers him- or herself an intellectual, will also be read. Even if a book is boring, the reader will call it intelligent and comprehensible only by him – the reader is vain and loves to show off with as a person reading “smart” literature. In other countries, people prefer reading not foreign works but books authored by their fellow citizens.

JL: A reader and a buyer of books – are they two different people in our country?

AK: Yes. I’m sure for 110% that the buyers of Oksana Zabuzhko’s books, Vladimir Eshkileva’s ones and a few more “clever” writers are not their readers. This is a prestigious gift, and the one who receives it, puts the book in a prominent place at home. Or the best – in the office, so that visitors can see it on the shelves and figure out how smart it’s owner is. But this is a question on which one can debate for at least two hours. I think the essence does not change. To give just one example: my friend asked me to buy a book from the category of “pop” literature for him, so that none of his friends could see what was his real interest.

Украино-польский дуэт писателей – Андрей Кокотюха и Марек Краевский

Ukrainian-Polish duo of writers - Andrew Kokotyuha and Marek Krajewski

JL: How do you feel about “piracy”? Is it possible to overcome the “plundering” of authors’ works in the country?

AK: In our country, there are very few pirates. Piracy is an indicator of popularity. And I would, at this stage, when there is no book stores, and the market has not been formed yet, encourage piracy. There are still not so big turnover, and they steal, as a rule, the non-Ukrainian authors. As soon as the pirates will create additional advertising, book circulation will grow: today normal people do not want to read bootleg. And then the publishers should begin to introduce a system of discounts, programs and other bonuses for those who want to pay for legitimate content. This is cool – to pay!

JL: Do you like the modern Ukrainian language and what do you think about the current trends to change it?

AK: I do not understand the question. What do you mean – like or dislike the language? There is no bad language, there are bad informants. In Ukraine, the language is the same problem as the national and state self-determination. You get as many spelling rules as we have linguists. There should be some basic rules but the language is dynamically developing together with the world, for language serves life. That is why I welcome any renunciation of conservative approaches to the language use. Another thing is that Ukraine should have the work flow and computer software in Ukrainian. Then our language will undergo a truly revolutionary and positive change.

JL: What do you see for yourself as the top of a writer’s career? What does a new, promising, strong author long for?

AK: The top of a career for me is to write books, scripts, receive adequate money for that and have nothing else to think about, except new plots. And yes, I want people to read my books everywhere – on planes, trains, subway, buses, in public transport, and in shops; and sell the books in all kiosks as a by-product.

JL: Which five books would you recommend to every self-respecting reader?

AK: It’s up to a personal taste. There is no sense to recommend Dumas or Mayne Reid to a snob. So let me mention just five of my favorite authors: Nikolai Gogol, Sergei Dovlatov, Vladimir Vysotskij, Charles Bukowski, and Raymond Chandler (Classic American “black” novelist). I can read everything from them.

Translated by MA

The featured image by  Volodymyr Pavlyuk, source: Flickr

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