Today, I’d like to tell you about a book called Kafka's House, by Gabriela Popa. It is a story about everyday life in late 1960s Romania, leading up to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, told from the perspective of a young girl named Sylvia. I very much enjoy Gabriela Popa's writing style, and I was immediately immersed in this story.
I walked with Sylvia down the streets of Bacau in Northeastern Romania, and joined her in greeting and analyzing a cast of fascinating and troubled characters. At the end of her father's workday, I sat at Sylvia's table eating the stew that her mother had started cooking before going to work. I went to school with Sylvia and struggled through math class with her. I rejoiced with her when she was allowed to go on a special school trip, one of the few things she might look forward to in a bleak life, and I suffered with her when that dream was threatened.
Kafka’s House is a lovely story, full of hope, despite depicting the struggles of the Romanian people at a bleak point in the country’s history. If I have one complaint it is that the story ended too soon, but I enjoyed the way in which we left Sylvia in her home surrounded by the things that matter most.
Please enjoy my interview with Gabriela below, and consider picking up Kafka's House. It’s just $0.99 at the Amazon Kindle store!
Interview with Gabriela Popa
Cookie’s Mom: Gabriela, thank-you for allowing me to interview you today. Can you tell readers something about yourself?
Gabriela Popa: It is such a pleasure to visit your blog. I am born and raised in Romania. Now I live and work in US, in St. Louis, MO. I have worked all my life in biological sciences, in various functions, including research and teaching. Science appeals to me, because it relies heavily on imagination, as does writing. How curious that science and literature are different ways of looking at the same thing, this world we all live in. Like taking a photograph from different angles.
Cookie’s Mom: I understand that you grew up in Romania during the period of time described in the book, that of the soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Despite the anxiety and unrest that Romanian’s must have felt, the book, Kafka’s House, has a very light-hearted feel for me. The family depicted has great strength to do what needs to be done and a steadfast love for one another that seems to carry them through it all. Is this how it was for you growing up?
Gabriela Popa: I believe you have captured the very essence of this book. As I look back, I realize how powerful a cocoon, in the best sense of the word, the love of our parents has been for me or my friends at the time. I believe one of the most unexpected challenges our parents faced, as we children grew up, was not the lack of staples in the 80's, for example, when mostly everything Romania manufactured had to be exported to pay off the national debt (leaving shelves in the grocery stores empty and people literally starving) but raising your children in a society governed by absurd rules. A good challenge, reasonably applied, makes us stronger, if we are to believe a certain philosopher. But absurd - in its many forms, is alien to us, and distorts our souls.
Cookie’s Mom: Did the process of writing Kafka’s House provide any kind of spiritual or emotional growth for you? What was it like to revisit that time of your life?
Gabriela Popa: I wrote Kafka's House in English, because I wanted to tell my writer friends here in St. Louis about life in communist Romania. I wanted it to be a simple, easy to read narrative; almost a tale. But even when you tell the simplest of the stories, the characters (you know, that bizarre old lady you were terribly scared of as a child; the bully of the neighborhood; your first love; your first teacher; your young parents) suddenly come alive around you. And so, yes, for me, the simple act of writing this book proved to be a spiritual experience because time became immaterial as I was writing.
Cookie’s Mom: You were awarded a fellowship to study cancer research in the United States, is that right? That must have been fascinating work. Were you also a writer at that time, or did you become a writer later on? Was there any particular event that inspired you to begin writing?
Gabriela Popa: Yes, while working in Bucharest, Romania, as a Pharmaceutical Sciences researcher I applied for and was awarded a NIH grant here in US to perform cancer research. It was the event that changed my life. I was a published writer at the time (even gotten an award for one of my short stories one year before leaving Romania.) I was writing exclusively in Romanian at the time. After coming to US, for more than 10 years I completely immersed myself in science. Everything was new for me: the language, the culture, my work environment, the food, my neighbors. Even dogs looked different at the time. It is only recently, in the past 5-6 years, that I seriously picked writing again (out of some slight infatuation with times past, I suppose, or maybe because my present started making sense.)
Cookie’s Mom: What inspired you to write Kafka’s House when you did?
Gabriela Popa: Romanians have a word that expresses a concept not found in other cultures: dor. Dor is a yearning, a sweet longing for something long lost but vividly alive in your heart. So I believe I started writing Kafka's House when I felt dor for Romania. At the same time, I wanted to tell the story of a beautiful land fallen under hard times. My American friends told me how life was here in the US in the sixties. And I told them about the sixties in Eastern Europe. I thought that that was a story worth telling.
Cookie’s Mom: I agree that it’s a story worth telling, and I felt so priviledged to read it. I have spoken with you before about why you named the book “Kafka’s House”. Would you share your answer with all of us here?
Gabriela Popa: I just felt that Kafka’s House in Prague (the tiniest living space I have ever seen) could be a suitable metaphor for the confining space that Romania had become during the sixties.
Cookie’s Mom: Many readers like to know what their favorite authors are reading. Gabriela, would you please tell us some of your favorite authors? Can you share with us what it is that you have enjoyed most about their writing?
Gabriela Popa: I love Dostoyevsky more than any other writer for the profound humanity of his characters. For his compassion, his merciless critical eye and the unforgettable characters he created. I also love Herman Hesse because after more than 20 years, his
The Glass Bead Game still haunts me. There are so many American writers from whom I learned a lot and whose books I devour as soon as they appear on the shelf: Paul Auster, Michael Cunningham, Lorrie Moore, Rick Skwiot. The classics of course, with Capote and Faulkner at the very top. What I look for in a writer is that mysterious ingredient that gets you hooked and thinking long after you smack the book closed.
Cookie’s Mom: Thanks so much for speaking with me today, Gabriela! I truly enjoy your writing voice, and thank-you for writing Kafka’s House and for sharing it with me.
Gabriela Popa: Thank you - it's been a real pleasure.
Kafka's House is a Kindle formatted e-book, available at Amazon.com and Smashwords.com.
Casa lui Kafka (Romanian Edition), is available in Paperback at Amazon.com.
Gabriela Popa also has an English short story called When The Moon Had Feet, available at Amazon.com and Smashwords.com.
Welcome to Cookie's Book Club! If you're new here, you may want to SUBSCRIBE TO MY RSS FEED to be the first to learn about new book reviews, interviews, book buying tips, and giveaways! You can learn all about Cookie's Book Club and its proprietor here: About Cookie's Book Club. Thanks for stopping by! Grab a book from the shelf, pull up a comfy chair and rest a while, won't you?