Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.) —Whitman
Born in Prague in 1947 to parents of Russian descent, Eva Chapman’s story reads like an odyssey. From Prague to Adelaide, through Paris and London, and back to the shores of Adelaide again. Against the backdrop of these ever-changing cities, Eva mastered the art of reinvention and embraced her many and other selves. Yes, Eva contains multitudes; she’s a regular Russian nesting doll. Go ahead — twist and take a peek…
Who are you?
I’ve spent many years and hours of meditation pondering this profound question and eventually came to the realization “I just am.” But on a more mundane level, who I am has expressed itself in a variety of roles. After being a secondary teacher, psychotherapist, researcher and academic (gaining a Ph.D. in 1987), I was then a successful business woman in my husband’s energy efficiency company, before finally becoming an author. Add to that a wife (3 marriages), a mother (of 4), a grandmother (of 4), and a daughter (of 2) crazy (literally) Ukrainian parents. It was in trying to unravel that heritage, that led me to write Sasha & Olga, my first book. That task took me to Ukraine and Australia several times. The upshot was I healed a 33-year bitter rift with my father Sasha, who unburdened his horrendous story and died a happier man.
Well it was two books (I often have several books on the go). The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge, totally extraordinary, beautifully written and translated, about the ghastly web that people found themselves trapped in, during the Stalinist purges and how both ordinary and influential people responded to accusations, mock trials, and death sentences. And The Island by Aldous Huxley, an amazing crystallization of Huxley’s thought.
As a former psychotherapist, who is the most astute psychologist among novelists, living or dead?
All good writers I believe are psychologically astute. They have a handle on what makes people tick. Susan Howatch in her excellent series of Church of England novels, cleverly and thrillingly, uncovers unconscious motivation in how people act in the world. Salley Vickers lets her career as a psychoanalyst inform the unfolding of the development of her characters, and in her later novels, tackles the thorny problem of how to treat mental illness. Charles Dickens observes people’s psychological foibles accurately and often hilariously, e.g., the cloying obsequiousness of “umble Uriah Heep” and the kindness of Joe Gargery who doles out more gravy on Pip’s plate every time Pip is insulted by Joe’s shrewish wife. I think it may be an interesting exercise to see what stands out for people in novels. For instance, I can see strands of Uriah Heep in myself, and I would have loved a supportive Joe Gargery at my own childhood dinner table.
Let’s do a round of free association. I encourage you to riff however you like. Ready?
I was gripped by the world Kafka created in The Trial. I discovered it was not so far fetched, when I had a similar experience in Australia; I was taken to court, twice in 2007-8, and put on trial by social workers about my mentally ill sister. This Kafkaesque nightmare lasted for over a year and much of the time I didn’t know what I was being accused of. It was horrendous. If I can bear it, I will write a book about it. I loved Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which Milan Kundera described a similar entrapment, and I was grateful to my mother for escaping from Communist Czechoslovakia in 1949, with me in tow.
Brothers Karamazov like The Trial appeals to my crazy Russian paranoid persona.
—”All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I am in raptures over Tolstoy, Anna Karenina being my favourite book of all time. I’m not sure I agree with Tolstoy’s first line. I think there are very few happy families, and the ones I have heard of are unique “and happy in their own way” and I love hearing or reading about them. I think it takes a lot of hard work and effort to create a happy family, and perhaps there should be more examples of that in literature.
What five books should everyone read? Why?
I’d like to reframe the question as I don’t think everyone should read a book. For me books have always fallen my way – often quite serendipitously – and it has turned out to be exactly the right book at the right time. At University, when I read English, there were a lot of shoulds and that often spoilt the reading experience for me.
So five extremely important books for me have been:
Structures of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn. This opened my eyes to the relativistic nature of Scientific truths.
The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. This extraordinary book about Corrie’s experiences in Nazi concentration camps taught me what real forgiveness is.
Silas Marner, a tale of love, hope and redemption, introduced me to the fabulous novels of George Eliot and the extraordinary way she invokes the era in which she lives.
The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami, just breathtaking in its originality and provides an insight into the viewpoint of Japanese people going through profound cultural change.
The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore, well written study about power and Stalin, showing how whacky and poisonous he was.
What are the most important works in American fiction in the last 25 years?
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, such an exciting book in that it experiments with the novel form in breathtaking ways. Chabon’s stunning descriptive passages, I think, take a lot of beating. However, I have not read a lot of recent American fiction. Suggestions welcome.
When it comes to books, what’s your greatest pet peeve?
Books which are so obviously products of writing courses. Many of these books have their own artificial strait jacket, e.g. , all show and no tell – ridiculously obtruse ways of weaving in a backstory – no adjectives – strictly no cliches. This drives me potty. I’m so distracted by the political correctness of the style that I can’t follow the story!
Kindle, audiobook, or good, old-fashioned paper pages? Why?
I like the musty smell of books in basements of libraries and the crisp newness of books in shops. But would like to get a Kindle as I could make the typing big and not have to wear glasses. I can also see the potential of Kindle and its ilk, for multi media applications, e.g., switch the screen to audio if I need to get on with a task and listen to the next bit of the story – or switch to photo albums or videos attached to the story. There is also the potential for cyber-bridging between reading and watching films or videos of the characters and part of the action in one novel. This would require collaboration between artists. However, that would detract from immersing myself in the written word and entering the world of my own imagination.
Have you had a freakishly bizarre epiphany while under the influence of a novel?
Yes, I was in the mediaeval town of Taroudant, South Morocco, reading Carlos Castenada’s The Teachings of Don Juan and came across a passage which contained the phrase “Let death be your advisor.” At that moment, I dropped the book over the side of the iron bed, we were sleeping on, when I noticed a live electricity wire just millimetres away from the iron bed leg. We were so close to being eletrocuted that I now take Castenada’s piece of teaching seriously.
Is there a book you want to consign to the flames? Explain.
Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Couldn’t stand his boring style. And yes I am jealous he’s made millions!
Why do you read?
To glean what another person who writes well, makes of this thing called life. To lull me to sleep last thing at night.