IFOA: What kind of research did you undertake to write about the Hungarian revolution?
Joseph Kertes: Certainly I did quite a bit of reading about the period and what led up to the period, but The Afterlife of Stars was inspired by personal experience. My family did flee the Russians in the fall of 1956, when I was just four, so I have a few vivid memories of that time. One was that my grandmother came to get me out of playschool, though we had just started our day. We made our way to a central square in Budapest, where I looked up to see a Hungarian soldier hanging from each of the lampposts. I remember being horrified and fascinated by the sight of these men, especially the one nearest us who looked down at me but with eyes that were no longer taking in what they saw.
I remember, too, that we fled on foot by night across the border into Austria and bombs kept going off. My older brother Bela would stop to look up to see who was dropping the bombs and anxiously asking, but it was not until we got to the other side that our grandmother told us that we’d been running (along with hundreds of other Hungarians) across a minefield.
IFOA: You mention that you narrate the story from a relatively innocent point of view, though you occasionally temper it with adult reflections. Does this retrospective inclusion speak to your own creative process writing the novel, and how we may approach and understand significant events belatedly (even if we lived through them)? You yourself were very young when your family fled Hungary.
Kertes: I was not yet five when we fled Hungary, but I wanted to tell the story from an older boy’s perspective (just under 10) and yet “cheat” by throwing in mature observations about the world. Certainly, the conceit of most novels written in the past tense is that we are beyond the time of the novel, so we are looking back with the added wisdom of hindsight. What I love about the boy’s perspective is that it combines horror with wonder, innocence with the surprise and shock of experience. My character uses a tongue-in-cheek method by looking out at the reader occasionally and saying, “the baby psychologist already growing inside of me could tell that this was not going to turn out well.” The comic technique allows me to tell the story from the boy’s perspective but with the adult’s ability to reflect added in.
IFOA: What compels you to write historical fiction?
Kertes: I love the thought of gazing back over a period that is already locked away in time simply to ask what it all meant. The reason I write at all is to slow down experience or relive memory or to see experience from another person’s vantage point altogether. It deepens and enriches my understanding of the present.
IFOA: How do you manage between administrative duties as the Dean of Creative and Performing Arts and your own creative writing?
Kertes: Being an administrator full time is the best thing for a writer to do because the writing becomes a place to flee the bureaucratic and mundane activities of my life—not that they all are. I got to create the creative writing and comedy programmes at Humber, so I can be creative at work too. But having a novel going becomes an oasis to travel to in the wee hours. It is a kind of wonderful refuge, actually, one that I know is always waiting.
IFOA: Was there a book or author that made you want to be a writer?
Kertes: I’ll cheat and say that the two books that showed me what literature was capable of were Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the 20th century’s answer to that same book: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Mark Twain said he did not write Huck Finn until it was ready to write itself. I didn’t know what he meant until now—until I wrote The Afterlife of Stars, which wrote itself too. What an experience!
Joseph Kertes founded Humber College’s distinguished creative writing and comedy programmes, and is currently the Dean of Creative and Performing Arts. See Joseph on November 2 as he discusses, with other authors ,the ways in we’re shaped not only by our contemporary lives, but by the past of our country.