The Beatrice Interview

Tibor Fischer

"If you can't have fun with the language of a Cambridge philosopher, then when can you?"

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Articles about Tibor Fischer from the publicity for his second novel, The Thought Gang, alleged that he was an extremely difficult interview, and I was extremely nervous about interviewing him after a reading from The Collector Collector, an unusual novel about a millennia-old sentient piece of pottery that comments upon its latest owner and her surroundings, as well as sharing a few stories from its cluttered past. But I found Fischer to be more than willing to talk about his craft when we settled down in his hotel room to chat. I started off the conversation by asking him about a rumor that he had read several months' worth of art history in preparation for the novel.

TF: I think research is a ritual; in my case, it seems to be something I have to do just to make sure there's nothing I can use. For The Thought Gang I spent about six months reading up on philosophy. I'd read some standard works, some Plato and so on, in the past, but since I was making the central character a philosopher, I thought I should be thorough. So I spent six months, and almost 99 percent of the reading wasn't useful in any way. There was only one percent that sneaked into the book. But the history of art reading I did for The Collector Collector was shorter, it was down to about three months before I saw the light. I think in the future I'll keep it even shorter, because I'm coming to the conclusion it's much easier and more authentic just to make it up.

RH: The real fun for you seemed to be the bits where you just cut completely loose and let the stories get wilder and wilder.

TF: Well, certainly so far, The Collector Collector is the most extravagant book I've written. The Thought Gang linguistically was probably more extreme, but that's because I have a Cambridge philosopher as the central character. If you can't have fun with the language of a Cambridge philosopher, then when can you? Whereas I think the language everybody's speaking in The Collector Collector is much more down to earth, but the content is wilder. There's only one really exotic word in The Collector Collector which is "lugal," which everybody thinks I've made up, but in fact I haven't. It's the Sumerian word for king, ruler, lord; it means literally, "big man." I was reading about Mesopotamia and came across this word and liked it, so for any potential readers out there, that's what it means. Don't go to the OED trying to find it, because it won't be there.

RH: As you were developing the concept of an immortal, shape-shifting pot, how did it coalesce into a actual story?

TF: In first-person narration, I think the most important thing is that the character is engaging and that you want to turn the pages, you want to hear more from the narrator. It really took off once I hit on the idea of first-person narration by a ceramic object. And then I was just sort of going on; I wanted to see if I could keep it up, and I gave the bowl more and more in the way of supernatural powers.

The one drawback to having a bowl as your central character is that it's rather immobile and can get quite dull just sitting on a shelf. So naturally, I came to the idea of having these episodes from the past where lots of things happened, so the fact that the narrator is pretty much immobile doesn't really get in the way. But that was part of the challenge or the fun of writing the book.

RH: What's the reaction been like in terms of the changes that your novels have taken? You started out with a fairly realistic, although comic, novel about Hungary between the war and the revolution. Now here you are with a talking bowl.

TF: Well, there's some common ground in the three books and the humor. It's true that I'm not interested in writing the same book again, because I just don't see the point of that. It's just more interesting for me to try and do something new. It's more stimulating. Some people seem to have a problem with you doing different things; some people who read Under the Frog were a little perplexed or unhappy about The Thought Gang because it is so different.

But after I wrote Under the Frog, I deliberately set out to do something completely different because I was tired of Eastern Europe. I mean, just personally I'd had enough of it; I felt I had covered the subject thoroughly, and I didn't want to become known as "the man who writes novels about Eastern Europe." So that's one of the reasons why I set The Thought Gang in the south of France and I think the only mention of Eastern Europe is a bottle of Polish vodka on page 170 or something. I also set it in the south of France in case I had to do any research. I thought, well it's about time I got to spend some time in a decent part of the world with good hotels and good restaurants.

I had comments from some people who did enjoy The Thought Gang a lot but at the beginning they were somewhat disorientated by the fact it was so different, but then after a few pages they got into it and enjoyed it. And I think there isn't so much difference between The Thought Gang and The Collector Collector. There is a sort of zaniness, although in The Collector Collector I've sort of gone beyond the limits of accepted physics and all that.

RH: Who are some of the writers who in particular sort of shaped your sense of humor?

TF: Well, I think the Americans have a lot to do with it, because when I was younger I read a lot of American stuff. I was obsessed with Marvel Comics when I was a kid, and then American novelists like J.D. Salinger, Bernard Malamud, Tom Robbins, Tom Wolfe, they had a lot to do with it. I also read P.G. Wodehouse when I was a kid, I used to like him a lot, although I'm not sure that his sense of humor is so close to mine.

I suppose when it actually comes to humor, it's probably television that had a bigger impact. Certainly Monty Python when I was growing up. We all used to act out scenes from Monty Python in school the day after, because that's when they were at their height of their powers and their popularity. So that had a big impact on me. And also maybe the Hungarian heritage has a role to play. Hungarians are--maybe it's changing now that the political system has eased up, but certainly in the bad old days, jokes acted as sort of a news service bulletin board safety valve. Whenever Hungarians would meet, the first thing they'd do would be to exchange the six latest jokes. It's interesting that that slowed down almost within minutes after democracy arrived in Hungary, because then the joke just doesn't have the same significance because people can actually buy proper newspapers and listen to proper news broadcasts on TV.

RH: Even though it's been awhile since you've been there as a reporter or written about it in books, do you still keep up with Hungary?

TF: Apart from my parents, all my family live there; I have some friends there, and so I still have an interest. I enjoyed living in Budapest. The reason I don't go back there so much is not because I have any objection to being in Hungary, it's just that I spent a lot of time there and it's a big world and if I'm traveling for pleasure or whatever I'd sooner go somewhere where I haven't been before and see something new.

RH: As you're traveling around America on your first national book tour, is it striking you funny? As a writer, are you seeing things that you could use in stories?

TF: Not that I'm aware of. The thing about these tours is that you do a lot and the schedule is quite tight. It's mostly hotel rooms and airports. I haven't that much time to look around. I had a few days off in New York but I'd been there before so it wasn't such a novel experience. The nice thing about this tour is I got to see some places that I hadn't been to before, such as Minneapolis. I had never been there, and it was nice going there because I ran into this bookshop called The Hungry Mind, a wonderful bookshop, but more importantly, they have a great restaurant there, which is something I've only come across once before. There's a bookshop in Barcelona that has a restaurant. I think it's a wonderful idea. I mean, I was quite tempted just to stay in that building for three months, because all my needs would be taken care of. I could just sort of sleep in a corner and read and eat good food.

I'd never been to San Francisco before, either, so again, it's nice to have someone paying your way to see a new place. But you're busy while you do this, so I haven't got much time to look around. But you know how things sink in without you being aware of it, and maybe in five years time there was something that happened here or something I saw, something I heard that will venture out into my fiction.

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