In December, 2009, I visited Poland, where I appeared on five television shows, one web cast, and was interviewed by 2 newspaper and 3 magazine journalists. I also gave a press conference at the Camerimage Film Festival in Lodz, and had two book signings at Empik bookstores in Warsaw and Krakow. The book I was promoting was my first novel, and how the “world premiere” (as it was billed on posters and in ads) wound up being translated and published in Poland is a story unto itself.
Three years ago I was invited to serve on the grand jury for the Camerimage Film Festival, which honors cinematographers. I wasn’t sure why I had been invited, as I am not in the film business, though I do write about people in that business. I politely suggested to the festival’s organizer, Marek Zydowicz, that he might have mistaken me for someone else, but he assured me that he knew who I was and that he very much wanted me to be on the jury. I agreed and flew to Warsaw, where I first met with the publisher of two of my books there. She asked me what I was working on and I mentioned that I was finishing a novel about an actor who had fallen on hard times and was trying to get his life in order. She asked if she could read it and when I returned to the States, I sent it to her. When she asked, a month later, if she could publish it, I was surprised. I told her that I had yet to submit it to an American publisher (mainly because my agent told me he didn’t want to handle fiction, it was just too hard to place). But then I thought, why not? Better to be published in Polish then not published at all. And who knew what might happen after it came out?
So, I owed my getting my novel in print to the fact that the organizer of the Camerimage Film Festival invited me to serve on their jury. But how did Marek Żydowicz come to invite me in the first place?
I asked him, when he was visiting Los Angeles to work with Frank Gehry, who is designing a $250 million building for Camerimage in Lodz. “Why me?” I wondered.
“It’s a better story than you can imagine,” Marek said, and he proceeded to tell it, in Polish, as his co-organizer, Kazik Suwala, translated. “In the mid-1980s, while we were still under communist rule, I wanted to go to film school, but could not get accepted. It was a terrible time. Earlier, the Communist Party had declared martial law and crushed the striking ‘Solidarity’ trade unions, arresting most of the leaders. By the time I was applying for film school, around 1985, the government had released many political prisoners, though they continued to harass the Solidarity activists. Independent publications critical of the regime were either censored or banned, as were many foreign books.”
The army tried to draft him but he managed to get it postponed. He returned to his home town of Swiecie, in the north of Poland, where he first got a job as a livestock classifier, sending animals to the slaughterhouse. “It was, to me, like sending them to concentration camps, I couldn’t do it,” he remembered. Swiecie was surrounded by forests and Marek found a job at the cellulose paper factory. It was there that the censorship board sent banned books to be turned back into paper pulp.
“This was truly horrible, because I loved to read. Books came in by the truckload—books written by Solzhenitsyn, J.D. Salinger, Sartre–all banned and destined to be destroyed. It hurt me to have to shovel such books into the fire. Every once in a while, when no one was looking, I would rescue a book I wanted to read. It was pretty difficult to smuggle the books out of the plant but sometimes it could be done. You just had to know which guard was best to risk smuggling. And one day I saw in the burning pile your book, Conversations with Capote, and I pulled it out. It was singed and starting to fall apart, but I took it with me that night and read it. It was so wonderful, to see how you got him to talk about things in such a free and open way.”
“Was it in Polish?” I asked.
“Yes, in Polish,” Marek said.
“This is news to me, since the book wasn’t officially translated into Polish until 1997. It was a pirated edition.”
“Maybe so. I still have it. And when, five years later, I saw your Conversations with Brando book, I immediately bought it and enjoyed it as I did with Truman Capote. How were you able to get these men to say the things they said? I felt I wanted to get to know you. But I didn’t know how. And then I organized the film festival and we got to invite so many interesting people to come to Lodz: Oliver Stone, Julia Ormond, Charlize Theron, Willem Dafoe, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, David Lynch, John Schlesinger, Peter Weir, Roland Joffe, Andrei Konchalovski, James Ivory, Norman Jewison, Neil Jordan, Istvan Szabo, Wim Wenders. I was able to listen to what these people had to say, it was like reading one of your books. Then, when I saw your Al Pacino book, I knew I must invite you to come. Even though you are not a filmmaker, you understand filmmakers, you know how to talk to them, so I thought you would be a good jury member, with a different point of view.”
Yes, I thought, this certainly was a good story. I had no idea my Capote book was translated into Polish the year after it had come out; no idea that it was banned and burned under the communist regime. Had the book been tossed onto the pyre at a different hour, Marek might not been there to rescue it, I would never have been invited to go to Poland. I would never have met my publisher. She would never have asked me what I was working on. My novel manuscript would still be sitting on a shelf in my office. One small act, saving a book from the ash heap, has rippled into so many subsequent acts, leading to my own renewal of faith as a writer. James A. Michener once chided me when I told him I had turned down a book offer because the advance was too small. “Never turn down a chance to get a book published,” he said. “You never know what might happen once you get the book on the shelf.”