Interview with Kaśka Bryla

Sheridan Marshall spoke to Kaśka Bryla about becoming an author, her work across different literary genres, and the contemporary Austrian literary scene.

Kaśka Bryla is a novelist, playwright and co-founder of the literary magazine and author network PS-Politisch Schreiben. Her second novel, Die Eistaucher (‘The Ice Divers’, Residenz Verlag, 2022) is recommended by New Books in German, with translation funding guaranteed by the Austrian Federal Ministry for Arts, Culture, the Civil Service and Sport. You can read the opening of the novel, in Sheridan Marshall’s English-language translation, here.

Sheridan Marshall: It is so lovely to meet you, Kaśka, thank you for agreeing to the interview. Can you tell me how you came to be a writer? I know that could be a long story!

Kaśka Bryla: It could be a long story, if I really think back to the very beginning, but I will skip the parts I mention in the essay in The Austrian Riveter, and fast forward to the time when I really took the idea seriously. This was during the time when my Dad was very ill, and then died. I was near the end of my economics studies, finishing my Master’s thesis, and decided that I didn’t want to work as an economist. We were living in this privileged era where it was possible to study without getting into huge amounts of debt, so it was possible to acquire knowledge without having to pursue a career in that field. I really wanted this knowledge. I was so interested in how it is possible for the world to be so unjust, and I thought that the answer must lie in economics. That is something that I still believe, and that my years of studying economics have proven to me. It has shown me that this is where the answers lie, but I also no longer see the capacity to change things in this way.

That is sad, because I don’t think there are enough economists who go into economics with that perspective, and those people could make such a difference.

I have decided that I want to make this difference as a writer who has that knowledge. I am constantly bringing that knowledge into my writing. There is always an economic perspective in my writing. That perspective is so often absent in literary writing.

Yesterday on the panel at the British Library we had this discussion about why it is possible to write in Viennese coffee houses. That is an economic question. When they let you sit there for five hours without having to order a second coffee, that sort of thing becomes possible.

There is always an economic perspective in my writing. That perspective is so often absent in literary writing.

Kaśka Bryla

That discussion made me feel quite emotional, because I too lived in Vienna and experienced the hospitality of Viennese coffee houses. And yet last month I was in a restaurant in London working on my laptop, having bought something to eat that I didn’t really want, and after about forty minutes the waiters brought the bill. I had only been intending to stay another twenty minutes anyway, but the waiters were so rude, they kept coming over and they wanted me out of there. I will never go back to that restaurant! It is a gift if you are made to feel welcome to stay in a restaurant.

So, I’m coming round to answering your question! Death – especially that of a close relative – always makes you question your own life and where you want to go and what you want to do with this life, which is so precious and can end so fast. So, when my Dad died, that was when I decided that what I really wanted to do was be a writer. I knew that whatever that meant economically, I would never be rich or even wealthy, but I wanted to try it.

I went to a library and borrowed a bunch of books about storytelling. I studied these books and started to learn how to build stories, how to build characters. I went on a fantasy writing forum to exchange ideas and texts with other authors. We would give each other feedback. That is how I started!

That is a wonderful answer! I never expected you to say that!

Yes, I have to laugh because I know that writers are supposed to say they write because they can’t do anything else – because they’re gripped by divine inspiration. It never has anything to do with craft, it just flows into you and then flows out again into the computer. It is definitely because of my study of economics that I learned to see things more in terms of craft than I did before. I was always writing – I used to write poetry when I was young – but then I realised that writing is a skill that you have to learn, and that it is one you can learn. You should learn as a writer so that you have the choice to do things or not. That is where I started.

The second thing that I thought would be important for a writer is a network. And since I don’t have one through my background, I needed to get one via one of the literary schools. So, I applied in Leipzig.

And you set up your own writers’ network. You didn’t wait to join one.

Yes, maybe because I was also older – I was already over thirty – I had a clear vision of the sort of network I wanted to have, and of the kind of people I would like to work with. This applied to my life in general. I knew that it would be the people I worked with that would ensure my quality of life.

It is so important to work with people that you like and that you get on with – people that you value. How did you go about surrounding yourself with those people?

First of all, I looked at my co-students and I found two people! We founded a magazine that is also a network called PS – Politisch Schreiben (‘Political Writing’). At that time, in 2015, that was really out – political writing as a concept meant bad writing. Craft as a concept and anything that had to do with genre was seen as a lower form of writing. We said no to that – we don’t think like that. We wanted to find other people who thought like us, and gradually we did. We wanted to publish different voices that weren’t part of the literary scene at the time. We still do that, and the network is growing. And we are surrounded by people that we like.

So did the PS project come before your writing, or at the same time?

It came at the same time as I was writing. But because it is so time-consuming building a network, it kind of postponed the publication of my first novel. It came out later than I had originally planned. But on the other hand – and this proved to me how important it was to have a network – when the novel appeared, there were a lot of people helping it along. It appeared during the first year of Covid, so the internet was a really important part of its publication. There were a lot of people who really helped the book get attention.

Roter Affe was published in 2020 by Residenz Verlag – your debut novel and your first significant literary publication. But you also write across the genres, you have published plays, short stories and essays. No poetry?

I think I will skip poetry! I have a lot of respect for poetry. I think it is a whole craft in itself and it is not easy to write. You also need to work with the whole history of poetry to generate interesting poetry – that’s my opinion, at least. I would like to make interesting poetry and I don’t have the time to go into that.

In which literary genre do you feel most at home?

I really like long prose – the novel is something I love. I also really like essays, especially literary essays. That is something that came with the magazine and has grown into something that I find extremely interesting as a form. It started more or less as the place where I earn enough money to make my living, but grew close to my heart.

This is the humiliating side to writing. Not a lot of writers can live off their writing, so many writers are only able to afford to do their job by working other jobs. That makes everybody sad because everyone would really like to live by doing what they want to do.

Can we talk about your plays?

My first play was Kurze Interviews mit Freakigen Frauen (2015). It was kind of my answer to David Foster Wallace’s Kurze Interviews mit fiesen Männern! I did that with friends on a stage in a squat in Vienna. The first play that I was commissioned to write was Das verkommene Land (2021). I had a lot of liberties – the only things that were given to me were the title, and the fact that it was supposed to focus on the concept of the past and Medea. I remember when they said Medea I rolled my eyes multiple times. I mean, how many times do we need to focus on this female figure?! If you want to go with Greek mythology there are so many interesting characters. Why this one?!

So, then I thought, if I have to do a play about Medea, let’s have Noah there too, and they can talk to each other. And that was one level of the play – the discussion between Noah and Medea about who should go on the boat. The other level was three women who were standing on the shore while the world was burning. Then a canoe comes along with a guy in it who was sleeping. That was my answer to the fact that the people commissioning the play added this guy in. The play was always supposed to be about three female characters, and then at some point they said that there had to be a guy too. I didn’t like that so much, so I wrote the role for the guy lying in the canoe asleep, completely passive. There are so many plays with mute female characters, so I thought, well, a guy could do that for a change! Of course, they didn’t put a real person in the canoe, they just played snoring sounds!

The third level of the play was the personal histories of the actresses. As the play was about the past, I thought it would be good to bring that in. These three levels were mixed together against a baseline that consisted of the poetry of Audre Lorde.

How was the play received?

We played in Leipzig first and then in Bonn. It was all in independent theatres. Then at the festival in Dortmund. The group made something really beautiful out of what I had written. I liked the way they interpreted it a lot.

Were you involved in the rehearsals or the direction?

I went to some of the rehearsals and made a few suggestions. I didn’t go too often. I think actually as the author you can interfere too much with other people’s ideas about how to interpret the play. Of course, as an author, I have a pretty clear concept of what is happening on stage. But just like when you write prose you need an editor to tell you things and point out your blind spots, I also find that as a playwright you need a form of editing that sees something different in what you write.

You have learned to set your playwriting free into the world?

Yes, when I trust the cast and the director. I think that is an important part of the story. At the end of the day, no one will criticise the cast regarding the play, they will say, ‘Who wrote that crap?!’ This is something I am painfully aware of. I am not worried about the artsy part of it, but really about the content.

Your third play, Im Herzen der Krähen, is premiering tomorrow in Vienna – congratulations!

Yes, it is really special because it’s the place where I grew up. Somebody once asked me how important it is for me to be recognised as an Austrian author, and of course I have a very biased feeling towards that. On the one hand I don’t care, but on the other hand I want that recognition. So, having my play premier in Vienna does make me proud in a way.

It will be an emotional occasion, in your home city, with your home crowd, and your network. I do want to move on to talk about your prose, but I am also fascinated by your theatre work, so please can you tell us about Im Herzen der Krähen?

It is the second part in a trilogy of plays: one about the past, one focusing on the present, and one about the future. This is the play that looks to the future, looking at the figure of Cassandra – which made me much happier than focusing on Medea! I also didn’t feel the need to have a strong countermovement. I have always found Cassandra one of the most interesting figures in Greek mythology, so I was glad to work with this idea.

Again, there are three female characters on stage. There are no men at all – not even sleeping ones! They meet each other there and they are waiting for a bus, although we are not sure whether the bus will arrive or not. I can say that crows play an important role, as well as wolves. It has something very dreamy about it and crosses over into the fairy-tale genre.

It sounds like a fantastic mixture of Samuel Beckett and ballet! Very best of luck for the performance tomorrow night.

Your second novel, Die Eistaucher (Residenz Verlag, 2022), is one of our recommendations at New Books in German, which means that any publisher who wants to publish this novel in English would get translation funding assistance for the book. Our review, as well as my sample translation from the beginning of this wonderful novel, are on our website here.

The Ice Divers is a rich, complex novel with a thrilling plot. How did you come to write it? 

In a way it was a long-term project. The first novel I ever started to write was a sci-fi novel called The Ice Divers, and it was about a group of young people who were travelling around Europe. It was really a sci-fi story, a dystopia. I dropped that book – deciding at some point that I wouldn’t finish it. Then after I had written Roter Affe I wanted the challenge of writing from many different perspectives. With the first book I decided that it was too much, that I wasn’t able to do it yet. But for my second book I wanted to write a novel about a group that included as many perspectives as possible. When you have this idea at the beginning, you don’t realise what it actually means in terms of craft, what it means to have many perspectives that have to really alter in subtle ways, and still capture everything. With the second novel I thought I was at the point where I could actually do it. I had had many years of learning the craft of writing at the Deutsche Literaturinstitut, so I decided to go for it.

I spent twelve years in a private Catholic school, so I chose surroundings that I knew well. I also learned that that’s important. It is important that the person writing knows what they are writing about: you can feel it when you write, and you can feel it when you read. You can acquire that knowledge via research, but I find that research always has its limitations. In both Roter Affe and The Ice Divers I chose a background that I knew well, and backgrounds for the characters that I also knew well.

[…] for my second book I wanted to write a novel about a group that included as many perspectives as possible. When you have this idea at the beginning, you don’t realise what it actually means in terms of craft, what it means to have many perspectives that have to really alter in subtle ways, and still capture everything. 

Kaśka Bryla

So, the ice divers are a group of young people who meet at a school where none of them really fit in.

Yes, but the point is not really that these people are outsiders, it is that they start to find each other interesting because of the adventures that they have. That – as well as chance – is what brings them together. If we are honest, there is a large element of chance in all our connections and friendships, although, of course, people’s backgrounds also bring them together – when there is something familiar that you are drawn to. That is also something I wanted to explore in The Ice Divers

I like to work with tension. Tension is something I enjoy when I am reading, so I also enjoy tension when I am writing.

I like to work with tension. Tension is something I enjoy when I am reading, so I also enjoy tension when I am writing.

Kaśka Bryla

This is a beautifully tense book, largely I think due to its unusual and aesthetically pleasing structure. Can you describe that for us?

It comes from two points in time where the book starts. One is in 1996 when the whole group are youngsters – they are all fifteen. The other point in time is 2016, where one of the group starts to remember the things that happened back then. These two perspectives get closer and closer to one another, until they finally mingle. They are held together by a tool that works as a time machine. It is a tool and an idea that is also being torn apart throughout the novel. It is a longboard that one of the protagonists, Iga, is riding in 1996, and then her best friend, Saša, uses it in 2016 to go back to certain moments in time. These moments are the turning points.

I think that your novel would be very enthusiastically received by an English-language readership because it is so exquisitely plotted, it is very character-driven, there are characters that are so relatable to an international readership. Did you ever imagine the book in English when you were writing it in German?

I think I always do that, because my writing is so heavily based on my English reading. I have always really liked that English literature – unlike German literature – does not pretend that craft does not matter. I have always leaned towards English literature for this reason. My big heroine is Jeanette Winterson. She is the living writer whom I most look up to. My other literary heroine is the poet Audre Lorde. So, in a way I have always imagined an English version of my work, and it would be wonderful.

Can you talk about any of your contemporary writers whose work you are excited by when you are reading in German?

There are so many! My writing – and I think any author’s writing – lives off the writing of others, because we inspire each other, and it would be sad not to use that tool. I love Caca Savic’s poetry and Sabine Scholl’s writing. I also really enjoy writing by my colleagues at Residenz Verlag. I like Elisabeth Klar, who just published Es gibt uns. Her novel Himmelwärts was wonderful too, but this one goes even further when it comes to leaving gender behind as a concept. I also really enjoy Barbi Marković. Her latest book, Die verschissene Zeit, but also her first book Superheldinnen. I love them both, but Die verschissene Zeit is ground-breaking in form and language and everything, like the title itself. It’s so great! And she and Elisabeth are both great people. 

Then of course there’s my writers’ network from PS. All of us editors at PS are also writers. So there’s Yael Inokai, a Berlin-based writer, Eva Schörkhuber, who is a Viennese writer, Olivia Golde, who is now also doing her MA in Vienna but is originally from Leipzig, Carolin Krahl, who’s a Leipzig-based writer. I could go on forever!

It is an exciting time to be a writer in Austria right now. Thank you so much, Kaśka, for sharing so many insights with us in this interview.

For more information:

Read more about Kaśka:

For more about Politisch Schreiben:

Kaśka Bryla’s second novel is a pitch-perfect coming-of-age story about a group of friends and the dark secret that haunts them. ‘The Ice Divers’ is a universal tale of teenage misfits confronting topical issues such as mental health, the school system, immigration and police corruption.

Read more about this New Books in German recommendation here.

Watch Sheridan Marshall reading her translation of the opening of Kaśka Bryla’s Die Eistaucher for Translators Aloud.