I reviewed the delightful Elza's Kitchen yesterday but I've been a fan since his first novel, Valeria's Last Stand, came out in 2009. Marc was kind enough to answer a few of my questions so I could share the answers with you.
You’ve said that people have very strong reactions to your books. What have those reactions been and why do you think this happens?
I think people who read my books don't really know what to expect beforehand. They begin and they recognize an off-beat and breezy narrative and think it’s going to be a light comedy, but then they realize that the characters and their situations are terribly flawed. I think there's an incongruity between the light narrative style and thematic heaviness that people either respond to or don’t. But I like to imagine that the hints are always there and that the characters I write are psychologically real. I think Billy Wilder does this sort of thing expertly. Same with the Coen bros. I like the idea of someone sitting down to watch something like Friends and maybe getting into it when all of a sudden – but not really – Monica attacks Phoebe with a frying pan. I don’t know. I’d like to see that, I think.
One critic in the UK wrote that I was like Marmite. A critic in the States wrote that I was like Prince. I don’t know. Take that as you will. I think it means readers will either like my work or they won’t. Considering the opposites are Nutella and Justin Bieber, I’ll take Marmite and Prince any day.
You lived in Hungary for a number of years and both of your novels are set there. Why did you choose Hungary as a place to live, and what is it about the country that has inspired you so?
I lived in Hungary for five years back in the nineties. I was young and looking for a good time. And the idea for what I’m calling The Paprika Trilogy came from film. I wanted to create something like Kieslowski's RED, BLUE, and WHITE films but I wanted my project to span the period of time from the end of Soviet communism until today. I wanted to explore the mindset of three women as time passed and the country transformed. Hungary is perfect because it embodies the qualities of lightness and heaviness that I try to put in the book. Mass social transformation is a huge undertaking for any group of people. It’s the sort of process that screams for fiction.
Why do you so seldomly name your male characters? In Valeria’s Last Stand, the male lead was known as “the Potter”; in Elza’s Kitchen, it’s “the Sous-Chef.” Why these choices?
I wanted to keep the focus entirely on the female protagonists. I also wanted to lend the books a fairy tale quality. I don’t think anything is lost in Little Red Riding Hood because we don’t know the woodsman’s name. We don’t even know Red’s name! It worked stylistically, so I went with it. In the finale, I plan on having male characters whose names I will etymologically expound on until the editors beg me to stop.
Your books have a kind of folk-tale feel about them to me, yet their settings and characters are deeply contemporary and steeped in modern political, economic and social realities. Can you explain this contradiction?
I think civilization is mostly absurd and at odds with human nature. Luckily, I wasn’t the first person to have this thought. I don’t know who was -- maybe the guy who lived next door to the guy who invented it -- but I know Freud wrote a book about it.
Don’t get me wrong, I prefer civilization to the alternative. I partake. However, every time I put on a suit, I am conscious of the fact that the fabric of our lives is really cotton…and then mass hysteria. Our context is entirely speculative. At best civilization is a hopeful hypothesis, at worst, an illusion. The only real things, as far as I can observe, are the precarious and existential crisis of the human condition, the capacity to love, and hope. Anything else, any political or economic system especially, is a chimera. So Kundera nailed it, "the great matters of nations cannot make us forget the modest matters of the heart." And my style is entirely concerned with stripping away the pretentions of civilization in order to represent people – who I find endlessly fascinating.
Marc, thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions! Best of luck with your book and I can't wait to read the finale!