Latvian writer Janis Jonevs, a winner of the European Union Prize for Literature in 2014, sat down with The Baltic Times culture editor Jayde Will to talk about his novel Jelgava 94 and the flurry of activity he’s had over the last half year.
You’ve had a very busy year - first the European Union Prize for Literature, then a nomination for European of the Year. What do you think of all of this now that a month or two has passed since these events?
The time when I was writing this book was more important and busier than the year where I received prizes. That part was nice and nervous, but I hope it has not affected my life too much.
You also published a children’s book just before Christmas - how did that come about?
My friend Reinis Petersons, who made the cover for Jelgava 94 asked me to write some very short and simple story for pre-school children he could illustrate. That’s how the story was made, just as an occasion to make illustrations.
Even for an adult reader like me, I enjoyed the story a lot - I would think that it’s hard to write for children, as their world seems to be very different from an adult’s world
It was weird for me, because I have no children, I just tried to remember how was it to be a child.
On top of that, you also published a few short stories this year, with one of them (Telephone) among the most read pieces on the website www.satori.lv this year - is your approach to writing a short story different than writing a longer piece or novel?
Sure. But how... I’m not so experienced in fact to tell you clearly. I wrote this story in two hours or so, but I was thinking about it some two weeks before.
In comparison, what was it like with Jelgava 94? When did you get the first idea to write something, and how long did it take you to put into the form of a novel?
It was very slow with Jelgava. I had no deadline, nothing. Almost no one even knew that I was writing something. The idea came after an unplanned visit to a death metal concert. Suddenly I saw again my life that I have quit. Or maybe rather understood how time has passed.
And then it seems that a lot of people in Latvia had similar memories, as your book was warmly received
It seems that a lot of people were sensitive teenagers. And again we felt that we were unique, and once again it turned out that we were wrong. You see, I can find some light sadness in everything, that’s my superpower.
Though it seems that this light sadness is told with a sense of humor at times - would this be an accurate observation?
I hope so. But not sarcasm. I don’t like sarcasm. Sadness just happens to be funny often and fun happens to be a little sad even more often.
One thing that stuck in my mind in one of your interviews was when you talked not only about underground culture in Latvia, but about the “minor horrors” of the country - do you remember that? It seemed you were referring to the chaos of that period, but were you thinking of something in particular?
Minor horrors… of the 90s?
Yes, it was chaos, but this chaos was freedom. I’m not telling that it was better. But there was some beauty in it, worth talking about. And embarrassment, and poverty and dreams. The country was like an impersonation of a teenager.
I am happy that you wrote a novel about this period, because it’s a period few authors in the Baltic have written about. Is there an aspect of the early or late 90s that you think might be worth writing about in the future?
I think the people of the 90s have just sit down at their desks. There are big aspects left. The beginning of our state, for example. A mysterious, sensitive, romantic and bitter matter.
It seems like a topic that would certainly provide fascinating stories
Yes. I consciously avoided touching this topic in my book. It’s another story, which demands great research and great love.
I know that there are parts of the novel translated into English and Estonian so far - are there any translations in the works for the near future?
French. Maybe Norwegian. It’s too soon to say, I guess. But sure, I’d like to see how others see our stories, that seemed so local and unique to me.
Thanks a lot for taking the time out to talk.