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Interview with Dmitry Glukhovsky (part I)

During his visit in Poland, Dmitry Glukhovsky – the author of “Metro 2033”, “Metro 2034” and “It’s Getting Darker” (Czas zmierzchu) – sat down with our editors, Anna “Mysza” Piotrowska and Anna “Yenfri” Siczek. This resulted in a extensive interview, the first part of which you can read today (both in English and in Polish).
Text and translation by Anna Piotrowska; photos by Anna Siczek.

Kawerna: November 9th marked the premiere of your newest book “Czas zmierzchu”. It’s a whole other literary genre than “Metro 2033” and “Metro 2034”. How did you feel writing something so different?

Dmitry Glukhovsky: Well, I feel absolutely urgent about writing something different. First I wrote “Metro 2033”, then “Czas zmierzchu”, then “Metro 2034” and by the time I started writing “Czas zmierzchu”, I had already spent 5-6 years down there, in the metro, so I really wanted to do something different. One of my nightmares is actually to become J. K. Rowling or Arthur Conan Doyle, who for the rest of his life was handcuffed to Sherlock Holmes and Rowling is handcuffed to Harry Potter and they can’t get anywhere. She can write a beautiful novel about ancient Rome and then everybody says “What the fuck? Write about Harry Potter, we don’t want to read about this crap. We have other authors to write about this. Harry Potter! Give us more!”

 

I thought that if I don’t switch – from the very beginning – to different things then I will be doomed to stay down there, in the subway, forever. And so I decided to write something completely different. Plus it was something that I was passionate about. I wanted to crossbreed the romantic times of the Spanish conquest – conquista – of South and Central America with the romance of Old Moscow. It’s kind of a weird mixture, yet these were two things that intrigued me a lot. So I decided to create a character who is… kind of… living for a journey in the Latin America, while translating an old journal of the conquistadors.

I pretty much started the first chapter of “Czas zmierzchu” the following week after finishing the last chapter of “Metro 2033”. The books are different, but not because I became a different person in the meanwhile. For me the main character always defines the style – if I choose a character who is young and inexperienced, then definitely my language cannot be a language of someone who knows everything about this Earth. If I pick a character who is old and disappointed, like in “Metro 2034”, then the language cannot be so excited, and the vocabulary and the style are different. For me the character always decides. In “Czas zmierzchu” the character is a guy who is 35, single, not very successful socially, who sits enclosed in his Old Moscow apartment, which he inherited from his grandmother. And that’s how the book’s going to be, because that’s his vision, that’s his disappointment, that’s his inability to meet people, etc., etc., and that’s his need to replace his own lacking life with the real life that happened to someone else 500 years ago.

The book is very different, because I don’t want to repeat myself. My problem is that if I am repeating the things I have already done before, I cannot get the pleasure from writing any longer. My idea is to let people enjoy reading the book, I absolutely need to enjoy writing it. And when I’m repeating the things that I’ve already done, I cannot be reliving these feelings all over again. I need to do something new, to keep it fresh for myself, to experience it, explore it. When I’m assembling the same construction from the same pieces, once again , it becomes mechanical. It brings no emotions. And after all, all the good stories are about emotions.

 

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So the character in “Czas zmierzchu” isn’t your alter ego, being antisocial and closed off? You don’t seem like that kind of person.

No, no. But I think there’s  a bit of a jerk and a nerd within everyone (laughs). It’s a part of our personalities. Sometimes you let out one part of your personality, then another. To be clear: some of the book is autobiographical. I spent a part of my childhood in my grandmother’s apartment in central Moscow, in Arbat. It probably didn’t have a 4 meter ceiling, but like 3,70 meters… the old furnishings I described are real and the mirror that hangs on the wall in the book is a real mirror that still hangs in my apartment. Same goes for the dreams of a dog that is coming in the night and you have to walk it, even though it’s dead, but doesn’t want to think that it’s dead… It’s a personal story. Then again I think everyone who has ever lost a grandmother, or parents, or even an animal that he loved and cared for… knows that from time to time you have these dreams, that they return and they don’t know they’re dead and if you don’t tell them that they’re dead they’re kind of still alive… And it’s a thing that happens to many people, I think. So my character borrowed this chilling experience, this dead dog, from me and he was allowed to walk this dog in his dreams. And all in all when you give these parts of your real life to your character, your character takes on a new life and becomes a living person.

You cannot replace things that you lived and you felt with things that you construct, imagine. They cannot be that realistic and that true and as emotional, as things that you’ve really experienced. The things that you invent… you need to borrow them from somewhere. You think that you invent them, but actually you recombine things that you saw in movies, read in other books, and so they are very schematic. Only the things that you really have gone through feel unique and true. And so it’s very important to make your character “stand up and walk”, to share your own life with them.

So were you always interested in ancient civilizations… in, for example, the Mayan culture?

I wouldn’t say so. At first the idea wasn’t about Mayans – I wanted to make it about Ancient Babylon. But then I discovered a couple of details about the Mayans and decided to switch. The Mayans are definitely more inviting when it comes to fantasizing, because no one actually knows anything about them, except for a couple general things. And you can lie, say anything about them and people will go: “Really”? (laughs). And you say: “Of course. Anything’s possible”. Babylon is a bit more boring, because it’s quite well explored and not so mysterious. Anything that’s already been explored doesn’t really stimulate your imagination.

I can’t say I’ve had a huge passion for “ancient” things, but definitely the Spanish conquest of Yucatan, or Peru with the Incas, or Mexico with the Aztecs… is an emblematic thing. It’s very romantic – a clash of two worlds: on one hand the western Catholic civilization, armed, equipped with powder and horses, well prepared… and then something completely out of place: people who have for thousands of years cultivated their own weird, cruel, unearthly culture… and then you have a clash of these two worlds and no one really comes out looking like a good guy. There are only bad guys: those who sacrifice human beings, cutting their heads off, and those who just carnage the local population with all the technical means available to them… It’s an amazing thing to follow, so I chose it as a setting.

So far you’ve written a post-apocalyptic science-fiction with “Metro 2033” and “Metro 2034”, as well as a historical thriller with elements of fantasy with “Czas zmierzchu”. Is there any particular genre you’d like to try writing in the future? Do you have any book plans you could tell us about?

There’s a fourth book that will be translated into Polish next year, which is a collection of political satire stories, also using some absurd or sci-fi or fantasy elements. It’s called “The Stories of Motherland” – it was published in Russia last year. I’m still experimenting with genres and the next book I’m planning to sit and work at is going to be pure sci-fi. Well at least I see it right now as pure sci-fi. We’ll see how it works.

So getting back to the massive success of “Metro 2033”… the story of its creation was quite complicated. Where did you actually get the idea about writing a book set in the subway system?

From my life. Where else? (laughs) I’m from Moscow – I was born in that city, I’ve grown up there. My apartment was located quite far from my school, to which I absolutely needed to go. First, because my father and grandmother went there, so it was kind of a dynasty thing. And then because I just loved it – the atmosphere, all the classmates… Because my parents lived in the outskirts of Moscow, but my grandmother lived in central Moscow, for the first three years I lived with her, among the streets of Arbat. And then, when I grew up a little bit, my mother decided I needed to come back home. After all, my parents were alive, so why would I be living with someone else? So from the age of 10 I started taking daily metro rides – it’d take one hour to get from my home to my school and one hour to get back. Actually Artiem, who’s the main hero of “Metro 2033” duplicates my daily ride from home to school and back. VDNKh was the station I lived in and Arbat was the place where my school was located. It was kind of a trick and a hint for those who know me.

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So it just came from riding every day to school and back? Just from that ride?

Yeah. From this and from my passion for “Fallout”. I used to be a fan. I didn’t play the third one – I installed it, but I didn’t find the time to play it. But I played the first two games. Then, one day, came the discovery that the subway of Moscow is the worlds’ biggest nuclear shelter… it came as a surprise. The metro is something that you’re very much used to seeing every day and then one day you just discover that no, it’s actually something completely else.

When did you discover this?

About the age of 14-15. We started having all these TV reports, saying: “Look at what we’ve found.” And then the older you get and the more information you try to collect the more surprised you become, because you not only learn that the Moscow metro is the worlds’ biggest shelter, but that each station is equipped with these doors, that seal it off in case of a nuclear attack, turning it into a hermetic bunker… and that they also have these Artesian wells with clean water, and air filters to clean the air in case of nuclear contamination. And then you discover that there is this Metro-2 system. You have special, secret metro stations under the ministries, under Kremlin, under the general headquarters of the army and they’re all linked together… they’re also under the university, under the Lenin library, in order to save both the ruling elite and the security services, as well as the intellectual and scientific elite. So the metro actually has two separate lines – one for common people and one for the rulers and the elite. And this was quite a shock to me.

And then you learn that part of Metro-2 are these huge bunkers, that link to the normal metro system. So you’re riding through a subway tunnel, you see a little door, and behind it is a small tunnel, which leads to this huge thing, 7-8 thousand square meters, with 2000 officers on duty every day. At least it  was so during the Soviet times. And there are about 200 of bunkers like this in Moscow and outside Moscow, all of them linked with Metro-2 and with Metro-1. And that’s quite disturbing. It’s as if you learned that here in Warsaw your buses are actually military aircrafts that in case of attack, can like, fly, intercept Soviet missiles…you know? That’s a very strange thing to learn and it’s very fascinating.

Unfortunately no publisher would sign your book, because in the first version the main character dies at the end. But then you posted the story online and gained a huge following. When the fans started to ask you to bring Artiem back to life, was it a hard decision?

No. Well… I was at first reluctant to do that, because I thought “that’s my artistic vision. If you don’t understand my idea then fuck off”. But then I started becoming bored with my job as a journalist and I really needed some refuge from it. The first year that I worked in France for Euro News was amazing – I met new people, explored the profession… During my second year I started getting the feeling that I’m basically repeating myself. The third year I was ready to hang myself, because again and again and again I was doing the same things, seeing the same faces… it was non-stop routine. And that’s when I thought I probably needed to get back to my writing, because that’s where I can find the excitement again.

After you finally gave up to public demand and rewrote the story, what did your cooperation with the fans online look like? I think in an interview you called it “literary beta-testing”. What did you mean by that?

The first version of the text remained unchanged, except for the fact that I revived the main character and let him continue his quest. But then I started publishing the new version chapter by chapter. And as soon as it was published I started getting feedback and reactions on what I did. Some of the reactions were not actually positive. They said: “you are not very precise here, and you are inaccurate there, and you cannot use a flamethrower in the tunnel cause you’d be the first person to die from it”… well, you can but it would have to be very short usage (laughs). There were many other comments: “the sniper rifle doesn’t have the ammo of this caliber – you need to change it”; “the tunnels are not constructed this way, they’re constructed this way and that way…and actually, you know, there is a secret passage between this line and that line… it’s not on the map, but it’s still there”; “in 20 years no mutation can happen that quick to create a new species”; “you know your economy system based on ammo will not function 20 years after, because ammo is a exhaustible resource. So you need to replenish it. I’m an economist, I made an analysis of your system…”

People were getting really into it. They were living in this world, even more than I was. It was quite surprising, but a good thing too. The most obvious example of their influence on the novel was reviving the hero. But then they became, kind of, voluntary editors of the book, where they contributed to the accuracy as much as they could, because the world itself is quite crazy and fantastic… So they became editors, with aspects of both beta-testing and interactivity.

We heard that, as well as in the case of “Metro 2033”, each chapter of “Czas zmierzchu”  was also published online as you wrote it. What was the fan involvement there? Was it similar?

“Czas zmierzchu”  is a very different thing. In “Metro 2033”, you’re describing a whole world, lots of characters, factions, religions and ideologies, and it’s a world that invites people to play along… it’s an RPG thing. “Czas zmierzchu” isn’t. So I discovered that the involvement of the readership was much smaller. They were just following a thriller story – there is nothing actually you can do. You can guess what will happen next, but that’s it. You’re not identifying yourself with Commies, or Nazis, or Occultists. It’s a very different kind of a story – the possibility of co-creation, co-developing, co-writing, co-inventing was much less possible. I preserved this experience of posting each chapter online, but the readers were no longer as active in the creating process.

Considering that you’ve posted most of your works online, at some point or another, what is your view on the Creative Commons license? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Because it’s very much disputed between different writers and authors.

The decision always needs to be taken by the author. You cannot introduce a law that will abide everyone to publish their work for free, or a law that will forbid just that. I think that for me having my texts online for free worked perfectly well. But if, on the other hand, everyone starts doing that, it’ll be like a jungle – too much noise and strong competition. It’s not just one single message coming from outerspace and everything else is silent, as it was with my novel 9 years ago. Nowadays it’d be like a huge noise – you’d need to get through it to get noticed; you’d need something to distinguish your work from thousands of others. I think the jungle analogy is valid also because – as you know from Mowgli – the strongest win. Darwin said it too. On the Internet it’s not necessarily the best book that wins, but the most interesting one. The one that has the viral potential.

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When you posted “Metro 2033” on your blog you posted links to various music people should listen to while reading. And “Metro 2034” actually has an original soundtrack created by the Russian performer Dolphin. Why is the type of music people listen to while reading your work so important to you? Where did that come from?

I’m not a big music fan. Every other kid in my class was listening to Queen and Metallica and I was like… (makes a confused face). I tried to listen to music but I just thought that I didn’t need it, because I had music playing in my head all the time anyway. I was always singing something. So I don’t need it. But when I’m driving or when I’m writing – those are two states when I need to be listening to music. And when I’m writing I really need to listen to music that sets the right mood. First of all, the state of writing is very intimate and it’s definitely not your usual condition. You can probably already see the difference between me as a real person and me as an author. So I need to become that person. Music helps.

You need to tune into a certain wave, get the right mood, pick the language, become one with the story, get into the characters, see the world around you… it takes time. Sometimes it takes months till you can really drop off all the external things and get into it. Music definitely helps. And then I discovered that when you are writing things with certain music the impression is much stronger. And I didn’t want the readers to lose this experience. It can give you the creeps, actually, when you’re writing the right text to the right music. And if you’re just reading it without listening to it, it can leave you somewhat indifferent. But when you got the right soundtrack, the same one I used while writing… it’s a whole different situation.

I can waste hours picking music that really ignites me when I’m writing a particular piece of text. When I find a match I can easily listen to it on repeat for hours and hours. And it happens to me all the time, because it just makes me feel right. It gets me to that place and helps me choose the right words, the right style and the right ambience and the right emotions. So logically it’s very good to listen to the same music when you’re reading the text.

“Metro 2033”  and “Metro 2034” were created during a long time span –  almost 10 years. How did you change your perspective and how did your approach towards writing those books change?

I just basically grew up (laughs). Or got older, depends on how you look at it. When I first got the idea for “Metro 2033” I was 15 or so and I started writing it around two years later. When I first started writing “Metro 2034” I was 28; I finished it when I was 29-30. And you can feel it, because I was very much anticipating my 30th birthday, which is the end of youth, the threshold of old age and death… or so they say. So I was very much feeling like an old man. It probably sounds like a joke, but you will know. When you’re nearing 30 it’s like “okay, so the youth is gone and now it’s the so-called middle-age, which is a pain in the ass, it’s all about your kids and then your parents getting older and dying, and then you will die too…” The best part of your life is already gone. That’s very much the mood of “Metro 2034”, where I picked an old man as the storyteller.

The first chapters of “Metro 2033” remain unchanged from the way I wrote them. I wanted the books to be the imprint of my personality. I’m writing also for myself, you know, not just for others. If I wrote that way when I was 18-19, let it stay that way, because that’s the way I thought back then… That’s the way I could use the language back then, or I thought it was cool to use language, or that’s the ideas I had back then. Whether they are naïve or primitive, who cares – that was the way I thought. I’m in constant development, I’m a living being, you know? And every book is written in its time, in a certain vocabulary or a style and it’s just interesting to see how I developed… even just for me. So it wasn’t an artificial process, something planned. In a way I just changed as a person.

Both “Metro 2033”  and “Czas zmierzchu” chronicle rather awful events: if not a nuclear blast, then the cataclysmic involvement of Mayan deities and gods. Is there a reason you’re so fascinated by these kinds of destructive events? Is it in any way connected to how people react to them and how they deal with them?

First of all, I’d like to distinguish “Metro 2033” and “Metro 2034” from “Czas zmierzchu”. A nuclear war in the first two books is just a pretext to reincarnate the heroic fairytale of the Middle Ages. I am actually guilty of romanticizing the nuclear war. It’s horrible what’s written there, but after all, it’s quite a soft world. It’s not like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” where people are just killing and eating each other during the entire book… I not only romanticized the hero’s journey throughout the book, but also the world which is unexplored, wild and unknown. Like the New World.

But it’s not “zombie trash”… you get lots of mystery, the unknown, philosophical issues, ethical issues to discover…The important subject you’ve raised is ‘can a human being still be human when civilization dies?’ We will definitely survive a nuclear cataclysm as biological beings, but when civilization collapses, everything else collapses as well: culture, religion, ethical norms. Will we still be humans or will we just be animals, roaming through the ruins of the world, eating each other? What makes us human? Definitely “Metro 2034” – not in a very successful way (laughs) – and “Metro 2033” have both tried to explore these issues.

To be continued