This week, Kafkadesk spoke with James Silvester, a British writer and author of a fascinating series of thrillers set in modern-day Czech Republic and Slovakia that reexamines, through fiction, both countries’ recent history and political developments.
Hi James, thanks for sitting down with us! Could you briefly tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi Jules! I was born and raised in Manchester, growing up in the 1980s and 90s. I’ve always been a fan of blues music, and for a few years I was a DJ for Modradiouk. I originally trained in politics and modern history, with the idea of pursuing an academic career, but that fell by the wayside in my early twenties, and I drifted into a career of jobs that paid the bills but didn’t really satisfy me. Eventually, after a bad day at work I finally sat down and started to write the book I’d always promised myself I’d get around to. That eventually became my first book, ‘Escape to Perdition’.
I met my wife in Prague, at a friend’s wedding, and as she is Slovak, I’ve spent a lot of years getting to know both Slovakia and the Czech Republic. After my first book was received quite well, I wrote the sequel, ‘The Prague Ultimatum’, and more recently wrote the ‘Lucie Musilova Thrillers’ about a half-Czech spy fighting for a country that rejects her. The new books have a strong anti-Brexit theme running through them, which reflects my own personal views on the subject.
How did you first get the idea to write your Prague thriller series?
I was always a fan of Cold War thrillers, and my main intention was to write a modern spy story that captured that Cold War era feel. It might sound quite snobbish, but it felt to me at the time that the spy genre was being dominated by what was happening in the cinema, with the Bourne movies, for example, or Mission Impossible. Those are great, massively popular franchises, but they never, for me, felt authentic or real.
I wanted to write a story that felt closer to reality to me. I’d studied historical events such as the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, even before I got so personally involved in these countries and was fascinated by them, so once I visited and fell in love with the place, I knew it was where I had to set my stories. Czech and Slovak modern history is such a rich area that I was surprised it hadn’t been utilised more in the genre.
‘Escape to Perdition’ is set against the backdrop of a possible reunification of the Czech and Slovak Republics. Is that something you personally wish for, and believe possible?
A tricky question. I suppose from one point of view, it’s none of my business, but I do think it a shame that Czechoslovakia broke up. From what I’ve read, and from speaking to people, I don’t think there was ever a huge appetite for it; people were perhaps in favour of decentralisation from Prague, but to the point of separation? I’m not so sure. There was no referendum, or election on the issue, it really did seem to be a stereotypical case of men in smoky rooms dividing things up to suit themselves. As for reunification; who knows? Personally, I think I’d like to see it, but there doesn’t seem to be a huge demand for it to happen either. I think that if people want it, then it’s a possibility; remote, perhaps, but there.
Your books re-examine Czech modern history and politics through the lens of fiction. How come did you feel such an interest for Czech/Czechoslovak history?
I first studied Czechoslovakia in high school, and remember reading about Jan Palach, and looking at those famous Josef Koudelka pictures. The Berlin Wall had come down just a couple of years earlier and I’d watched on TV in November 1989 as Central Europe changed before our eyes. I was captivated by everything I read and saw. In later years, figures such as Dubček and Havel became increasingly important to me, and I began to study their backgrounds.
From a fiction point of view, there is so much about that history that lends itself to the espionage genre. Who, for example, was really behind the separation? Did we ever really learn the truth behind Dubček’s death? The more I thought on and researched these topics, the more irresistible the thought of writing about them became.
In ‘The Prague Ultimatum’, Czechoslovakia has been reunified. What kind of threats and challenges does this fictional new state face?
In the book, one of the biggest challenges the new Czechoslovakia faces is isolation. It finds itself cut off from NATO and the EU, with an expansionist Russia working its way through Ukraine towards them, and fears of being trapped behind a new Iron Curtain, rising. Internally, it also faces the dual challenge of international terrorism and the rise of the far-right – something which many European countries, Britain included, is facing at the moment. America and Russia both want to take advantage of the country’s new position, and resisting that is what frames the narrative.
How did you happen to feel such a strong bond to Prague and Czech Republic? What’s your personal relationship with the city and country?
I quite simply fell in love. From the moment I first arrived in Prague, it felt like I’d come home. The ambiance of the city got its hooks into me and I felt strangely satisfied being there, in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Having met my wife in Prague, the bond has grown through our family and friends, and I straight away found myself caring deeply about the city and the country. Oddly, I feel the same way about Bojnice, in Slovakia; a place which couldn’t be more different to Prague if it tried.
What do you like most about Prague and the Czech Republic?
That’s a really hard question to answer… I suppose ultimately, it’s a place where I can be me. I can sit in a jazz bar in Prague, with a beer, and music playing behind me, and no matter what’s going on in the world, I can feel at peace. It’s like a marriage, where each party knows the other isn’t perfect, but offers them unconditional love anyway. Sorry if that sounds a bit pretentious, but it’s true.
What’s your personal take on Czech literature? Do you have any favourite Czech authors, past or contemporary?
‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ by Milan Kundera, is a book I think everybody should read. It was given to me by one of our Czech friends many years back, and it’s stayed with me ever since. It’s great to see Czech authors getting more prominent these days, from a variety of genres. A couple of years back I went to the launch of ‘Spaceman of Bohemia’ by Jaroslav Kalfar, in Manchester. Kalfar is a lovely guy, and his book is an extremely intriguing one, if very different from the stuff I like to write.
Your newest series isn’t set in Prague anymore, but still has some Czech remnants?
The newer books feature ‘Lucie Musilova’, a half-Czech spy in modern Britain. The first one, ‘Blood, White and Blue’ did actually feature Prague as well, but the main focus is on an EU citizen fighting for a Britain that hates her, as the chaos of Brexit unfolds. Brexit, aside from being a disaster, has led to a steep rise in racism and hate crimes against foreign nationals, and the Lucie series is my reaction to that. I’ve lost count of the number of friends and family – some of whom work in the emergency services – who have been racially abused, or told to ‘f*** off home’ since the referendum, and I can’t tell you how angry it makes me.
That’s where the idea of Lucie Musilova came about – someone working flat out, putting her life on the line for Britain, only to be rejected because of the racism Brexit has enabled. I dedicated the second book, ‘Sealed with a Death’, to the campaign group ‘The3Million’, who do so much brilliant work in highlighting the treatment of EU citizens in Britain. I strongly encourage people to find out about the group and support them.
As a side note, I’d originally planned to call the character ‘Romana’ (because I’m a Doctor Who fanatic), but changed my mind after seeing the famous picture of Lucie Myslíková, the Scout who faced down far-right activists in Brno. The image of a young woman refusing to buckle to the threats of racists, stayed with me, so, ‘Romana’ became ‘Lucie’.
Do you have any other Czech or Slovak-related projects in mind?
I’ve started writing my next thriller, which will feature a Slovak musician caught up in a conspiracy. I think I’ll always return to Czech and Slovak inspirations in my writing, because both countries are such important parts of who I am, now. I also wrote a Doctor Who short story, which was published in an unofficial, unauthorized charity collection (The Temporal Logbook), and featured the Golem of Prague!
As a slightly different project, I wrote a pilot comedy script a couple of years ago, about a British/Czech family living through Brexit. It got a bit of interest at the time, which ultimately didn’t go anywhere, but some friends and I are talking about making a low budget version of that. We’ll see!
Thanks James! Anything else you’d like to add?
Nothing other than to thank you for taking the time to get in touch and ask the questions! Prague will always be in my heart, and I just hope that my writing does it justice and gets across to people just how important and special a place it is.
If you haven’t read them yet, be sure to check out James’ novels and immerse yourself in enthralling espionage conspiracies set in modern-day Czech Republic and Slovakia!