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Interview with CORNELIA GOLNA

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Interview with CORNELIA GOLNA
SPECIAL FEATURE: Clare Potter comments...
Success Stories

Cornelia Golna, translator and self-published novelist, tells of her hopes and disappointments

Deborah: Let’s begin with your novel, City of Man’s Desire. It’s set in Istanbul, or Constantinople as it then was. What made you choose that location?

Cornelia: I’d been toying for years with a love story, rather a story of doomed love, of passion and heartbreak. But whenever I tried to put it into words, set it down on paper, it slipped through my fingers, became something lifeless, a pale reflection of what I had imagined. Worse, it became banal. Dispirited, I would put it aside, despairing that I would ever write it. But I couldn’t quite forget it – it would not let go of me. There must be an element missing, I thought, an ingredient I needed, something to bring it to life. One day it came to me. What if I placed it in the past, I asked myself. I’d always had a soft spot for historical novels. Perhaps it was time I wrote one. I no longer remember exactly when it occurred to me to set it in 1908, the time of my father’s birth. He was born in a village in Macedonia, now in Greece, but then a province of the Ottoman Empire. I decided to set my story in Constantinople, the capital of that empire. I quickly realized that 1908 was also the year of the Young Turk Revolution – a last ditch attempt to save the empire by reforming it from within. Now I had something I could sink my teeth into, I thought, a revolution – action, conflict, the stuff that novels are made of.

Deborah: Exactly how long have you been working on it?

Cornelia: I began writing in 1986. A year later, something unheard of happened. Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, introduced glasnost and perestroika, openness and reform, into a society that until then had been strictly controlled and directed from above. History seemed to be catching up with me: an imperial system no longer viable, possibly on the verge of collapse, tries to reinvent itself in order to survive. When the communist world started coming apart a couple of years later, I knew I had stumbled upon a pivotal moment in the lives of empires. There may have been great differences between the situation of the Soviet Empire of 1987 and the Ottoman Empire of 1908, but the similarities were just as great. I was filled with excitement. I had found the perfect backdrop for my love story, a world nearing its end, distant and exotic, yet whose situation was familiar and relevant now too.

Deborah: And to what extend were you influenced by your father?

Cornelia: My father would end a discourse on the past, his past, with the words, "Of a world that is no more". They are from a poem by the 19th century Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu, called Venus and Madonna. The whole stanza goes:

Ideal lost in the night of a world that is no more

A world that thought in fables and spoke in poetry

Oh, I see you, hear you, think you, sweet and tender tidings

From a sky with different stars, different heavens, different gods.

My father’s past was complex. He never knew his own father, who was murdered in 1908, the victim of intrigues related to the Macedonian Struggle. His eldest brother fled to America to avoid meeting the same fate as his father; two others followed soon after. My father was left behind with his mother, grandmother and sister. As a small child, he lived through two Balkan wars and a World War. He often spoke of the French soldiers who occupied his village, and who taught the children to sing the Marseillaise in return for a bowl of stew.

In 1929 or ‘30, in the midst of the Great Depression, with $20 in his pocket, sent to him by his brothers in America, he went to Romania in search of a better life. He was twenty two. He worked hard to create a business only to lose it twenty years later at the hands of the communists and be forced to move again, first back to Greece, then to another strange land – America – where he once more faced the daunting challenge of making a life – this time at the age of 47, with a family to support. Thirty years later he returned to Greece, at the age of 78, to spend the remaining nine years of his life in retirement. Thus his life was divided into separate blocks of around twenty or thirty years; different lives, separated in time and place – you could almost say into separate and distinct historical epochs. For me, growing up in a peaceful, not to say monotonous, rural America, that’s how it seemed. He – and my mother, a Romanian – had lived entire alien lives before I was even born, exciting lives, lives that had nothing to do with me, which included places I had never seen and people I had never met, among them relatives – aunts, uncles, grandparents, such as most of my schoolmates had and took for granted but for me were exotic beings about whom I had heard but whom I had never seen. My parents would reminisce about the past, then sigh, and say, "of a world that is no more." Of course, it was also their own youth they remembered, a world unto itself when, young and hopeful, they were making plans for a future still unknown to them.

Deborah: Have you ever thought of writing his biography?

Cornelia: I’ve thought about it, but his life still feels too closely linked with mine. We shared 44 years on earth together, and I feel he is a part of me. I think to write well, you have to be able to take a certain distance from your subject to be able to analyze coolly what you see. I may feel ready to do it one day, but not yet.

Deborah: And why did Constantinople hold such an appeal for you personally?

Cornelia. I saw Constantinople for the first time very early in life. It was after we left Romania, in 1951, from the Black-Sea port of Constanza, on a Greek cargo ship filled with grain bound for Egypt. We had little more with us than the clothes on our backs and were facing an uncertain future, about to start on the third of my father’s many lives. There were several other families on board too, all of them like us, with a claim to Greek nationality. I must admit, I don’t remember much about the trip – I was 7 months old at the time – but my mother told me how we stood on deck (I imagine I was in her arms) as the ship slipped through the Bosphorus, and we watched the city pass by on either side of us at dusk, covered in lights.

I knew that my father had an uncle who had worked in Constantinople as a tailor for the Sultan’s army – it must have been at the turn of the twentieth century. And there were others from my father’s village who had had business dealings there. My ambition was to try to recreate this city, not as it is now – but as it was, in 1908. The past, they say, is another country. Things were different 97 years ago; Constantinople was a conglomerate of cultures and religions then, the capital of an empire. In a way, the writing of this book was an act of self-indulgence – I wanted to create a city, a past, to suit me, in which I was master – a world in which I, a stranger, could feel at home, could say I belonged.

Deborah: How exactly did you go about re-creating it? It must have called for a huge amount of research and hard work.

Cornelia: Before I could start writing my novel, I needed to familiarize myself with Constantinople. To begin with, I needed the physical elements – the bricks and mortar, so to speak, the architecture, the street plan. In Constantinople in 1908, for example, I found out that there were no telephones (by decree – the sultan forbade them as possible tools of conspiracy), there was no electricity – gas lights illuminated the streets at night, the trams were horse-drawn; there were Byzantine-built land walls and sea walls surrounding old Stamboul – the original Constantinople – erected to protect it from invasion; among the elite, French was the second language. I became familiar with the neighborhoods: in Stamboul, Phanar – the old Greek neighborhood, and Balat – the old Jewish quarter; across the Golden Horn, Galata – once the home of Genoese and Venetian traders, in 1908, mainly occupied by Greeks, and Pera – the fashionable, modern quarter, where the embassies of the Western Powers were located. I learned the topography – the lie of the land – like Rome, old Constantinople was built on 7 hills, though much steeper. It was flanked by the Golden Horn to the north, the Sea of Marmara to the south, and to the east, connecting the Marmara to the Black Sea, was the channel called the Bosphorus. And, of course, the history – I needed to study the course of the revolution between 1908 and 1909. All these elements had to become second-nature to me if I was to imagine myself physically in the past.

This information was crucial, providing an underlying structure, a frame, so to speak, upon which I could build the novel, reminding me of the realities I had to respect, giving the story, hopefully in the end, a greater authenticity, believability. But there was more. Constantinople was a city of layers: once a pagan city, then a Christian city, finally a Muslim city; the capital of two empires which together spanned 1700 years, from the founder Constantine to the end of WWI and the establishment of the Turkish republic. I had to try to understand the relationship between conquerors and conquered, how each thought, how they had managed to live side by side for so long and what happened to disturb the balance; finally, I wanted to see how the city – the empire – tried to reinvent itself – through revolution – to regroup, to find new solutions to its problems before they destroyed it.

I wanted to describe this end of an era, and the uneasy beginnings of a new epoch, to explore the effects of these changing times on people. The question I asked myself was, how do people adapt to new circumstances, how do they change? I placed a group – my characters – each with his or her own personal life, problems, and preoccupations inside this changing world.

In 1991, I went with my husband to Constantinople – Istanbul – in service of the novel. We spent ten dynamic days exploring the various settings where the action would take place. We took boat rides on the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, we walked along their banks, we visited mosques and churches, old neighbourhoods and new, and we climbed so many hills that my ankles swelled. We wandered through the Phanar, asked a passer-by for directions to the Pariarchate and were advised that there were better things to see in the city. We took countless pictures and I took furious notes, trying to encompass it all, engrave the city in my mind. We bought an entire collection of old postcards from the turn of the century, in search of atmosphere. But there was no escaping the fact that we were in modern Istanbul, then a hectic city of 11 million people, now, I’ve heard, of 14 million. Somehow, I had to learn to look through Istanbul to find Constantinople.

Deborah: And in spite of the differences in time and place, most writers can’t help introducing an autobiographical element. How did you draw on your own experience?

Cornelia: I’ve never had a clear sense of what it means to be of Greek or Romanian descent. After my family’s first few years in America, during which time we moved around a lot, as my father struggled to find work and provide for his family, we settled in New York State, on a dairy farm, among people who could boast that their ancestors had come to America in the 17th century, that their mothers were members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, that their fathers belonged to the Rotary or Kiwanis club. They had never heard of Romania – barely heard of Greece. I found myself out of context, belonging to a club whose only other members seemed to be my parents and my sister.

My parents did their best, as adults, to adapt to the situation they had chosen; my sister, who was born in the States, was naturally absorbed and became part of the world in which she found herself. I remained with a persistent yet incomplete memory of another world, vague and confusing, one that gnawed at me and did not give me peace.

The past is a different country. For me it is doubly so. Over the years I have done my best to learn about and understand this past from which I have always felt cut off. In many ways this has been a fruitful and rewarding quest: I have learned and understood many things. But the truth is, I can never create a sense of continuity where none exists. I cannot become what I am not. What I can do though, and what I have done, using my experiences, is imagine a past, make it up.

Deborah: With such a massive piece of work under your belt, what next for Cornelia Golna?

Cornelia: I’ve got a plan for a second book, but the fate of my first one is still too much on my mind right now to allow me to begin on the creative process again. I have started tentatively to do some reading as part of my research though. We’ll see where it leads.

Deborah: Your work came out in the Netherlands first, didn’t it? Do you have any advice for other writers hoping to self-publish?

Cornelia: For me, my writing is very much involved with one particular book – the only one I’ve written so far. I think many writers start off with a Bildungsroman, and though my novel is set in the past and includes many different elements, it is nevertheless that – a coming of age story. I guess those are the ones closest to our hearts. I wrote my book because it was my dearest wish to write it – and I promised myself after I began that I would be a good role model for my daughter and finish what I had started, which I did (she was three years old when I started, she was 18 when I was done). In the process I was not at all practical-minded. I thought, if the novel is good enough, it will find its way – and I was convinced it was good enough. I suppose if I had known and contemplated the difficulties of getting a book published – if I had known then what I know now, in other words – I might have lost heart and never written it. And, despite the bitter disappointments of the past couple of years, I would have been the poorer for it.

Anyway, after living the life of a manic depressive for two years – my hopes constantly raised and dashed as the rejection letters rolled in – some of them extremely kind, urging me to keep on trying: the novel was well-written, but it was not what they were looking for, they just couldn’t fall in love with the characters, etc., I decided I couldn’t go on like this and we turned to Plan B – publishing the book ourselves, which has brought with it its own new set of problems.

Deborah: That certainly strikes a chord with me. But I think many readers would look at a person like yourself, with your experience as a translator, for example, and would wonder how you could doubt your own success. Your book looks absolutely great, and it would take a very observant person to recognise that it had been self-published.

Cornelia: The fact that I published my book in a non-English speaking country has formed a barrier between it and those it was meant for, but as I live here and circumstances were such that I was ultimately unable to find an agent or a publishing company in the English-speaking world willing to take it on, I had little choice. Writing the novel, though it took me over ten years, seems to me now a lot easier than selling it. In some respects, of course, I have had some success. I’ve managed to get several reviews in various Dutch newspapers and magazines. The Volkskrant review (which is now on your site) has been my greatest coup.

Deborah: Maybe your greatest so far, but I suspect it won’t be your last great success. Thank you for being so candid about your experiences.

Read a review of "City of Man's Desire"

Read an interview with Terri Von Reiman

Read an interview with Byron Merritt