Does a writer have to be neurotic? Is a talent just some modifications of our mind, a graceful disease which everybody wants to catch and which costs so much (the price which is unknown for ordinary people)? Opinion talked to Stepan Protsiuk as it is the 30th anniversary of the writer’s literary career. He answered some questions which his readers wanted to ask him and told us about his literary career (it often resembles a battleground which is hidden behind book covers).
He is called the most ambiguous writer of not only Galicia but of the modern Ukrainian literature because Stepan Protsiuk is an author who opens people’s souls, enters the Subconsciousness and invites readers to have a look at characters’ feelings.
You can hardly read any of his books just in a night. Some pages contain a depressive fear, depict people who try to catch at air not to fall into the abyss. Others, vice versa, are full of faith in people who are able to forget about pragmatic existence in the physical world and become free “tightrope walkers”. In this conversation, he is totally different, not the same as in his novels.
The author’s books speak the language of dramatic controversies, perfect love, and deep hatred. It is a search of the truth to the strains of Moirai’s shears.
You often say, “the movement is everything, the final goal is nothing”. Is this phrase your credo?
Actually, I don’t say it often but yes, I like these words. These words are deeper than their first author because they contain love to live, to its variety and colors. It also expresses an attitude to fanatical ideas which were often used in History to substitute the miracle of life with love. For example, the idea of great Russian Chosen People or conception of the “white man’s burden” which was used by fascists.
For me, these words mean being “here and now”, not in the past which doesn’t belong to us anymore, or the future which doesn’t belong to us yet. Moreover, I wasn’t that obedient as I am now. I had many days when I was thinking of some past light moments of my life (however, such memories sometimes have a good therapeutic effect) or dreaming. For example, “What will happen when I…” (basically, this escape from life, in my opinion, is even more dangerous than memories as they are at least based on some real roots of our souls.) We shouldn’t confuse projector dreams with our rational plans which are an important part of our life.
But just one aphorism can’t be my credo.
You have recently said that you feel pity for atheists. What does religion mean to you and your art?
It is an extremely tough question. So I’ll just explain my opinion in some words. I guess there are not many true atheists. Because faith, not taking into account other aspects, is psychological protection for a person.
I, for example, like reading psychoanalytic and fiction books of Irvin Yalom. He often writes about his own atheism. I always shrink from a desperate stoicism of old Yalom… This quotation of a Polish bishop and philosopher has come to my mind for some reason. I don’t remember his name, unfortunately. He said that he doesn’t know another such a desperate cry, such sadness of a tragic God-seeking as Nietzsche had…
By the way, there is a world of difference between agnostics and atheists. I guess religion has a more important place in my life than it seems to me. Well, If I hadn’t started to write books one day, I would have become a psychoanalytic (in some circumstances), but more likely a historian of religion. For example, I get inspired a lot when reading books of Mircea Eliade.
It is easy to notice some elements of psychoanalysis in your books. What impact does this western philosophical idea have on your world outlook?
A great impact, of course. Frankly speaking, these are western as well as eastern ideas. Evidently, a writer often reads something which doesn’t concern his ideas but…
I have even written short essays about Nietzsche and Schopenhauer as well as about French philosopher (he hated this word) Emil Cioran. I also like reading not only St. Augustine but some books of Dalai Lama14 or Tibetan monk-guru Sogyal Rinpoche (for example, his extremely touching The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying). I mean I find something special which is close to me in all these wise books. I can be thinking about some sentence for a long time, come back to them again and again…
Also, I understand even better that I am intelligently limited, my body-mind (an ordinary mind) is inflexible, it walks inside our brain like an old dog around a village house.
I guess these, such different books help me live and in some particular situations be calmer, bearing in mind that nothing and nobody is eternal…
Do you consider yourself a successful and popular writer?
It is a funny question, indeed (laughs). Any of us can consider themselves a high-profile Japanese emperor or successful Carpathian woodcutter. There is a quotation from some writer – don’t be upset that people don’t know you, be afraid of not knowing people.
There are really famous writers. There are some whose talent is intersected with a show-off. By the way, I get it why Jung said that he didn’t like many celebrities (I think because of their soul atrophy, a high-level narcissism, a full dependence on success and people’s opinion). However, there are many great writers who weren’t spoilt by popularity.
What about me, you know that I don’t have many readers, however, these readers live even on different continents. The main thing is they have to understand the Ukrainian language and feel that what I write about is close to them. True love for a writer’s book is a kind of faith.
Natalia, you are also my reader. My books are complicated, sometimes slanted for others, not my fans (and they are partially right), they don’t feel they’re close to them.
So we can’t talk about my popularity. I am a writer who has his readers whose souls are close to me. I guess it is the most honest answer I can provide.
Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland, “we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” Do you feel the necessity to “run” all the time or to outdo yourself or to never step back?
I used to feel. “They shoot horses, don’t they?” – this sentence is wide-known. It is connected with “the movement is everything, the final goal is nothing”. Because where are we running? To heaven? To one more samsara level of suffering? To success? To happiness? To love?
Where? To a spring blooming of the pleasure and luxury kingdom? Where is it? Why outdo yourself? To work yourself to death? If we can be just ourselves, then we are lucky because it is rare for our pragmatic world which is chasing, together with all its material wealth layers, everybody.
When Alexander the Great was dying he ordered to put his hands outside the coffin so everybody could see that the owner of the world didn’t take anything with himself. We are born and die naked.
Stepping back is sometimes even useful. We have everything we need to be happy. The world is catching everybody, me as well. I am not better than others, I am not a moralist, I am not a Didascalos, I have many flaws. However, I realize more often that happiness is inside a person, not outside…
I am sorry, Mr. Protsiuk. I can’t but ask. You are told not to be indifferent to alcohol. Is it true?
Well, and who is indifferent? Actually, a little alcohol can cure because it relaxes a reserved or nervous person. But the problem is that people get addicted to alcohol and this relaxation is easy to get…
Because of my character, I have always been in the alcohol-addiction risk category. I even didn’t drink alcohol for 10 years, from the end of 2007 to 2016. Then, I started to drink again but not that much as I used to when I was younger.
I virtually don’t drink now. The crucial thing here is an inner calmness. Because alcohol is just a desire to fill in some emptiness inside, small or big. That’s why people get addicted, the same with smoking, drugs or love addictions, etc.
Hryhir Tiutiunnyk said he could write only when his “soul was full of pain.” Does only suffering can create a real literary talent?
It is again a dilemma, there isn’t a single answer. When Dostoevsky was asked what a person has to do to become a good writer, he answered, “To suffer.” On the one hand, this idea fits my books, which are full of suffering and people’s neurotic disorders. But…
I have always been wondering if a writer has to suffer. Yes, a soul pain reveals something, gives special peculiarities to works. But it is possible if a writer has a literary talent because many people suffer in their own ways. I guess each of us.
But I realized and I dare to say it for the first time. I saw that my books are slanted in some way, that suffering adds something but grabs at once. A life which results in literature is more colorful than grey and black suffering. Nevertheless, a writer’s feelings and emotions, their self-development and ability to forgive and let some situations and feelings go, matter.
Well, I mean that every author, without a doubt, has to experience suffering as they’re not buffoons. But on the other hand, a harmony of great literature, except for particular cases, is created by variable life. I mean prose because poetry has its own rules.
In Tightrope Walkers you tell about writers’ neurotic disorders. In your opinion, does a writer have to be neurotic?
This dilemma is connected with the previous one. Yes, there are many neurotics among writers and artists in general. For example, Karen Horney who is considered the XX century best specialist on neurotic disorders stated that talent and disorders aren’t necessarily connected.
Moreover, I reckon that neurotic disorders are harmful to talent. They devastate a writer’s soul and make their talent poorer. It means neurotic disorders and literary talent or even genius aren’t necessarily synonyms. Despite a popular book by Cesare Lombroso Genius and Insanity or Max Nordau’s Degeneration which set this synonymic association among people.
How do you fight creative crises? What is your strength and inspiration source?
Oh, I can speak long about creative crises which I call soul devastations as well as about individual ways of fighting them!
In a few words: alcohol used to bother me because it made me write primitively. That’s why virtually everything I have written is written without alcohol stimulation. On the other hand, despite the fact smoking does harm to my health, it helps me write even if it widens my brain arteries. So, literature has its price: health.
After I had an arterial thrombosis on the right leg, I gave up smoking for I guess some years, I didn’t smoke for some months, then I started again. But at last, I gave up, and I haven’t smoked for five years so far. However, sometimes my feelings and emotions make me want to smoke. But it is only memory about cigarette smoke. I also try to drink alcohol moderately.
I do my best to do sports. I try to walk much every day. I guess people in Ivano-Frankivsk, even those who don’t know me, recognize the man with a rucksack who walks much. It is me (laughs). I’ve stopped jogging but I’m waiting for it to become warmer to go on jogging. I also try to meditate. But that is another story.
Besides, it is also crucial to let bad thoughts and emotions go as well as any forms of angriness and jealousy. Well, I have plenty of soul work to do in this regard (I guess as most people do). I can say that I never stop working on that.
Do you like teaching at university? Have you used students as prototypes for your characters?
Actually, I like. Who wants to know something about literature and keep this subjective knowledge in a fiction ivory tower? When I was much younger, I was giving a lecture (I still remember it was about Vasyl Stus), I got so excited citing his poems that one my student… fell asleep. It was a single case of my voice hypnotically making a person fall asleep.
There are two brothers-students Ostap and Nazar Kysilchuk in my first novel Infection. Another novel Destruction of a Doll also tells about students Anna and Ivana. I told about Vasyl Stefanyk’s school and university years in Krakow in my novel The Rose of Ritual Pain. There are many references to students in my books. How can I avoid this topic?
You started your literary career as a poet. Now you write only prose. Do you still write poems?
Yes, I was a member of the 1990s famous literary movement New Degeneration. I published three books of poems. In 1998, I stopped writing poems. Then I even didn’t read poetry for two years, I got a trauma because I quitted the poetry community. Hombrovych even called it “poet-hatred”.
I called it in another way. My second novel was about a poet, it is called Sacrifice. This novel is about fragility, needlessness, and greatness of poetry. Unlike the first novel Infection, Sacrifice was, first, published with difficulties only in five years after it was created – in 2007, by a small publishing Tipovit; second, readers didn’t like it much, except those who fell in love with my prose and read everything I wrote. Some people blamed me, like after my third novel Totem (I have written 10, now I am writing the 11th novel) on naturalism, physiology, etc. I guess they were partially right. However, you should take Sacrifice and Totem, and the fourth novel Destruction of a Doll only as text integrity. Of course, more readers started to read me.
I also started to write essays. I’ve created three books. I haven’t begun writing poems again. I am not sure whether I will always be a writer. There is a time to speak and a time to keep silence…
Are there any autobiographical pieces in Hit Your Head Against the Wall?
I knew you’d ask this question. There is a famous literary aphorism, “Prose is either autobiographical or boring.” In some regard, every prose author writes their own biography. If it is not an autobiography, then it is at least a biography and cardiogram of their own soul (sorry for such a pseudo-pretty statement).
It also concerns me. There are more autobiographical pieces in the tale Hit Your Head Against the Wall. You have noticed that! But it is not a diary. The tale tells about a complicated relationship between a father and a son. It was published by the Lutsk Tverdynia publishing and then by Dyskurs publishing.
Do you have any opponents you compete with?
Yes. It is me. Literature, if not taking into account some narrow egocentric ideas which are obtained, unfortunately, by many writers, has enough space for everybody. The problem is that I guess there haven’t ever been so much graphomania which I call Facebook-literature. Without a doubt, you can read talented poetry or prose even in social networks but if we look at the percentage, the absence of criteria, poor education and inflated ego of some people who call themselves writers are frightening. It’s funny but it’s sad.
They say that the field I am working in, the field of psychological prose and essays, have many talented works but I can do only what I can do. It is not always easy to compete with your laziness, high sensitivity to details, tiredness, certain traits or habits. But I have many literary plans so far. So I guess I will manage to fight to support balance on the scale. The fight with my most sophisticated competitor – Stepan Protsiuk.
I respect all writers who have literary talent. Everybody has their own path.
You quitted the National Writers’ Union of Ukraine which was an echo of the communism past of our country. What consequences did it have?
I only regret I didn’t do it earlier for certain reasons. I should explain that I have an old trauma I got in childhood connected with that.
My father, a former political prisoner, in the 1970s, when I was a teenager, often felt desperate because he didn’t believe that the USSR would collapse one day. We lived in a small way, in all the regards. My father was often saying that some Union’s writers were “playing fool” while USSR political prisoners were tortured in prisons and nut hospitals. Then, after the USSR had collapsed, my father said I should join the Writers’ Union as he hoped it would change.
I was a member of the Union for many years despite this. On March 9, 2017, I quitted at last. I was writing a novel The Grass Cannot Die. Heroes are poets Krylaty and Kryslaty destroy their talent for the sake of comfort. Actually, one of the heroes of the novel is the National Writers’ Union of Ukraine. I felt like I had no moral right to keep on writing this novel if I was a member of the Union, even though just nominally. I’d also like to say that I don’t hate any members of the Union. It was connected, as you can see, with a long story of beliefs built in childhood…
In 2017, a short film The 1970s was shot based on your novel The Grass Cannot Die. What your book would you like to turn into films?
It doesn’t depend on me, Natalia. There is a very long distance between short and feature-length films. A script is being written based on my book. And only God knows when and whether there will be a film based on The Grass Cannot Die. One of the plotlines, by the way, tells a story of a young poet Maksym Tomilenko’s life and death in a nut hospital. Moscow made a diagnosis “manic depressive psychosis based on an obsession with the Ukrainian language”…
You are now working on your novel Fingers Through Sand. Please, tell about the process of writing. Is it inspiration or a thorough work which takes all strength and attention?
(Laughs). Fingers Through Sand is a novel about 1950s. It is 20 years before The Grass Cannot Die. You know, I started to write this novel some months after I had finished The Grass… Last years of Stalin, his impact on life in the Ukrainian SSR in the first half of the 1950s in many chapters, God-seeking, a sophisticated and psychologically complicated love story which has many layers, and which is the keynote of the novel…
What about the process of writing. It will soon be three years since I am into the 1950s (I’ve noticed I have spent exactly this time for writing my last novels). In some regard, it is more complicated material than in the novel about the 1970s. So, it is not only about pleasant days of inspiration. I also can’t boast or complain that the novel takes all my attention or life strength. Basically, it’s impossible in modern life circumstances.
But you know, the truth is somewhere between a through work and rest, joy, creation happiness – inspiration which hasn’t forgotten about me yet.
By the way, I don’t have any contracts on this novel with any publishing houses so I am happy to discuss any offers.
G.K. Chesterton said, “There is only one sin: to call a green leaf grey.” In your opinion, what is the biggest sin of modern people?
Oh, every person has their own relationship with sins if this word is able to reflect all the meanings: tortures, guilt, deep desperation…
Personally, for me, the worst sin is an obsession with material wealth. My sister Oksana and I grew up in the family which didn’t pay much attention to it Of course, I am a son of a new century which I can’t get free from. But I haven’t gained (fortunately or unfortunately?) much wealth. Everybody can make sure of that: you are welcome to be my quests.
Also, the sin of pride is the toughest because it works against a person who has it. It spoils their world outlook and realizing other people. A person who has the sin of pride seems to fail to realize they will die someday. Today, they are demigods or demigoddesses who are admired by everybody but then some time passes, and they are ill and poor. No wealth can save you from death…
A modern person, however, there are a few exceptions, has refused to develop their souls. We are chasing a cover but lose something valuable, even parts of ourselves…
Interview by Natalia Didukh