Interview with Grażyna Plebanek, author of Illegal Liaisons

We talk to one of the most loved and celebrated Polish authors, Grażyna Plebanek, about her forthcoming book Illegal Liaisons, translated by Danusia Stok. We knew straight away we wanted to publish Grażyna’s book – erotic fiction for intelligent readers – and teamed up with our wonderful translator Danusia who immediately agreed to work with us.

Illegal Liaisons has already received an early praise from a celebrated British author Maggie Gee: ‘Powerfully erotic and intelligent, this novel, set in the political capital of the new Europe, shows risk-taking, glossy young professionals changing lanes at top speed between sex, parenthood and work as they race after love and meaning.’

Grażyna will be participating in Manchester Literature Festival on 19 October. Please check our events page for all events with Grażyna.


Did you always dream of being a writer?

I didn't dare. Under communism we were brought up on excellent literature. Partly because we followed the way of the intelligentsia, which was a way to struggle with communism, and partly because intellectual values compensated for the lack of goods. We didn't have t-shirts or chocolate, but we discussed Virginia Woolf.

For me, a writer was somebody who's ‘a friend of a friend' of God himself. Or has a PhD in several subjects. Monumental. Thinker. If a man - bald. If a woman - stern. I restricted my dreams to becoming a sailor who would sail around the world alone. Or a saxophonist.

The courage came later, when an intimidated student from communist times turned into an unblushing journalist in the newly born Polish capitalism. I worked for Reuters news agency, then for the biggest Polish daily Gazeta. One day I was looking for something to read, but couldn't find anything interesting. I called my friend, who suggested some titles, and finally, irritated by my lack of interest, burst out: ‘Write one yourself!' Several years later I published my first novel.

The setting for Illegal Liaisons is at the very heart of Europe. Why did you choose to set the story in Brussels?

Brussels is indeed the very heart of Europe. And I lost my heart to this city. I loved it from first sight. It’s been almost eight years now and I still feel butterflies in my stomach when walking the streets of Brussels.

How did you come up with the idea for Illegal Liaisons?

The city inspired me. There is a fantastic energy here, both for people who want to participate and create, and for the observers. One has to open up to this energy. Some stay firmly closed like oysters, some open like mussels. Some - too much. Especially people who come to work here for several years only. They leave wives and husbands in their own countries and they suddenly discover freedom here. Their ravenous hunger for adventure fascinated me, this sense of impunity.

Not every writer likes writing about sex and your novel is packed with explicit sex scenes. Was it difficult to write them?

Not at all, this book required it, it was writing itself. It's a story of a passion, where the body and its needs are in the centre of attention - also my attention as a writer. I wanted to give the body its own language, give it back the respect it deserves. I come from a culture influenced by Catholicism, we were bought up in the dualism of the body and the soul. We were taught that the body is always dirty and sullies the soul. I needed many years to understand that this point of view is just a way to control people. That there is nothing wrong with sexuality - on the contrary - neglecting it is wrong. Without sexuality, seen as part of human development, we live a half-life.

It's not only Catholicism that makes a taboo out of it. It manifests itself in the language, in the lack of means to express sexuality. I wanted to give back dignity to our bodies. Find a language which would avoid vulgarity and medicalization. There was a lexical gap in the Polish erotic vocabulary.


Your previous novels have been written from a woman's perspective. Why did you decide to write an erotic novel from a man's point of view?

I was curious about the man’s point of view when it comes to passion. It’s traditionally a ‘female thing’, in life, in art. We have Anna Karenina, who helplessly falls in love, but Karenin stays cool. Nowadays men are closer mentally to her than to him, I think. Western men seem to be more sensitive, maybe because they are more in touch with their kids, wives, families than in previous generations.

My grandfather knew that he had to bring money home, so my grandmother could feed the children. My father knew that although he and my mother worked equally (one of the few achievements of communism: we didn’t have housewives), kids and home issues were left to women (who therefore had to cope with two full-time jobs, in the company and at home). Men of my generation are lost. They are our partners, but they also feel sometime obliged to fill older shoes, to taste the leftovers of the patriarchal, macho dish. They might cut the umbilical cord between their newborns and their women but they are not sure what ‘masculinity’ means nowadays. Women don’t know it either. To be a man today seems to be confusing. I wanted to undergo a mental exercise ‘what would it be like to be a man for a while’. To check how far a stay-at-home dad can go in the search for his male identity.

Jonathan is caught up between love for his wife, Megi, and his lover, Andrea. He is unable to make a decision about which woman to choose. Could you tell us a bit more about the importance of love in the novel?

When it comes to love, I believe one can love more than one person. Of course there is a huge difference between loving somebody deeply and wanting a person, even passionately. What I tried to analyse in this book is the problem of fidelity. The rules of marriage were always strict when it comes to fidelity, but because for centuries a marriage was usually an economic contract, spouses were more afraid of being caught and suffering from legal restrictions than feeling guilty. Today, when we choose our partners because we love them, infidelity is an emotional torture. The unfaithful hurts his/her partner, the problems between the two affect their kids.

But people do it, anyway. Among people I know I could count those who remain faithful on the fingers of one hand only. Is being with one person for 10, 20, 30, 40 years possible nowadays? If we marry because we love a person, shouldn’t we be honest to the end and finish the marriage when love is gone? But there are kids. And the promise ‘…for the rest of our lives’. Or maybe we are just tempted by new experiences? A real emotional-cultural mix up.

Love and friendship define the couple that is Jonathan and his wife Megi. But it is the love affair with Andrea that gives Jonathan a raw taste of passion. We are humans, we are animals – what do we need to satisfy our hunger?

What did you enjoy most while writing Illegal Liaisons?

The last pages when my characters where formed, I felt like I knew them, and I wanted to be with them. I finished my book in Brittany, in summer. Despite beautiful weather, unusual for Brittany, I woke up every day of my holidays to spend ten hours in front of a computer.

I also liked writing the scenes with kids, because of the surreal dialogue.


Megi and Andrea are successful and very ambitious young women focused on their careers whilst Jonathan plays the role of a stay at home dad. What are your thoughts on the changing roles of men and women in the society?

It's a relatively new change, women work nowadays but there is still a glass ceiling. There is not enough social support for working parents (with the emphasis on ‘parents,' not only ‘mothers'), some prejudices need to be overcome. But we are moving forward. On the other hand, one of the side effects of feminism is the uncertainty of men. They seem to be a bit lost, not sure where their place is. From this point of view, women are in a better position - they still fight for their place in society, while men feel like they lose. Some of them saw already that ‘losing' power at work can be compensated by participating more in family life. But it's difficult to overcome the prejudice that the home is female territory, therefore of lesser value.

Of course these changes concern the western world. Woman in religious countries are in a different situation, their lives can be extremely difficult. It struck me lately when I spent one of the last days of summer in a Brussels' park. I was lying there, reading a book, wearing shorts and sleeveless shirt. There were plenty of people around, some women came alone. Nobody disturbed them. I thought: how lucky we are, we can simply enjoy the sun in a beautiful park and nobody bothers us for being women, alone, not covered from the head to toe.


Which of the characters in the book is your favourite one?

I like Jonathan for his very human doubts, his fight to find his own way amid social roles that are written for us. He tries and this is the most important. One can call it social immaturity but I like this rebellious trace in Jonathan's personality, it assures me that he's alive.

You are one of the few Polish authors who live abroad but write in Polish. Have you ever considered writing in English? How does living abroad affect your writing?

To be able to get some distance from one's own language and culture is a very enriching experience. I started to write when I left Poland, I wrote my first novel in Stockholm. When I left Poland - out of curiosity, not in search for better financial conditions - suddenly the world around me became less obvious. Some of my opinions were not valid anymore, because the cultural context had changed.

In Sweden I partly lost my identity of a Varsovian brought up in the tradition of the intelligentsia, coming from a family whose members fought against the Germans during both world wars and later against the communists as members of the Solidarity movement. The fact that I studied Polish literature became diminished by new circumstances. I had to find my new identity, in Stockholm and then in Brussels.

I found my place in this international city, but in a way I still don't let myself to settle. I want to keep my curiosity about others, a certain modesty, which could have easily disappeared if I had stayed in my country and lived a life of a known writer. I like keeping my identity a bit blurred, adjusting to circumstances.

I write in Polish because I can express myself in my mother tongue the best. If I were to write in English, it would be a deliberate adventure in search of new substance. I can't use a different language than Polish simply as a tool, it's more like a door to a new culture, new discoveries. I need to find my way to cooperate with it. Hopefully I will.


What do you do when you are not writing?

I train kick boxing. It’s my passion. The feeling of being alone with one’s own body, checking your limits, both physically and psychically is not comparable with anything else. I also sail, and ski. And meet people – is it a passion or a side effect of writer’s curiosity? People inspire me.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers? Do you ever get writer's block?

To observe, to read. And to live their lives, don’t be afraid to take a risk sometimes. Otherwise, one can write a book that would stand on quotations. The purpose is to be quoted oneself one day, I guess.

Writer’s block – thanks God, I have not experienced it. Probably my nature of a warrior keeps me safe from it.

photo by Stephan Vanfleteren