THE BLOG
05/27/2014 09:00 am ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Becoming a Bestseller in Slovakia

When the book market opened up in East-Central Europe after the changes of 1989, readers naturally gravitated toward the books they'd been previously denied. Banned books became bestsellers. In Hungary, for instance, "everything that could not be published since 1948 was printed and sold in huge editions. Neither the 'official' publishing houses nor the 'official' distribution system could cope with the demand. Hundreds of new publishers appeared and books were sold by street vendors instead of bookstores."

Foreign publishers began to make inroads. The Soros Foundation financed translations of important social science titles. Readers were eager to get their hands on the foreign books they could only smuggle in before. Popular fiction like Stephen King and Agatha Christie became bestsellers.

But it was not necessarily easy for local writers to break into the business. When bestselling Slovak writer Tana Keleova Vasilkova was starting out in the early 1990s, she had difficulty convincing any publisher to take a chance on her novel.

"When my first book was finished, none of the publishing houses wanted to publish it," she told me in an interview last May in Devinska Nova Ves, the borough of Bratislava that is closest to Austria. "At that time there was a boom in translated books coming here after the end of socialism. Under socialism, it was very difficult to get these foreign books, so everyone wanted to read them. For three years, no one wanted to publish my book. During these three years, I finished another five books! So, I started to become a little bit angry about the situation. My father helped me. One very little publishing house published my book. It put out 500 copies."

But the publication of her first book didn't make matters any easier. "When I came to all those publishing houses again with the second book, I thought I was in a better position," she continued. "'Come on,' I told them, 'I wrote and published the first book. I'm a writer now. I have to have a better contract now.' But the situation with the second book was the same."

Frustrated, she tried something different. Her husband started his own publishing company. "And my friends collected money for me," she remembered. "And the second book was published. Excerpts of this book were published in Slovenka magazine, which at that time was the most read magazine in Slovakia. Immediately every woman knew about me and wanted to read my other books. After that, the publishing house with which I cooperate until today realized that Slovakia has had enough of translated books and we should begin publishing some good local literature."

Today, she is Slovakia's best-selling female author. She has published 24 novels that, together, have sold more than a million copies. Her books have appeared in Czech, Hungarian, and Ukrainian. And she hopes that they will appear in English soon as well. "My books are full of love, but they are not pink books," she hastens to add. "There are a lot of problems, pain, and crying -- everything that life throws at us. But also, the books are full of a belief that there will be better time. But, and this is a big but, nothing will change if we just sit and wait and believe that things will change by themselves."

We talked about her early days as a journalist, what men can learn from her books, and what's missing from Slovak political life today.

The Interview

You said that you always wanted to be a journalist. Did you also always want to be a novelist?

I was always fascinated with words, ever since I was six years old and I first started to read. I was reading everything. I knew that I wanted to work with words. I realized that words, spoken or written, have a lot of power. I knew that we can help with words, but we can also hurt. So I wanted to work -- but journalism didn't fulfill my needs in the end. When I was a journalist, I had a boss who determined the theme, the length of the piece, and the deadline. Books mean great freedom for me because I never have a deadline. I have great freedom playing with the words. I can write for however long I want. It's a game for me to write books, which I love. It's freedom for me, because I own my art.

Tell me about your first novel. What inspired it?

It was like this. At that time, I was with my two children at our cottage in the countryside for the whole summer. My husband visited us every weekend by bus. And he always carried some food and some books for me. On one beautiful day, he said, "Stop just reading these books and write one of your own!" He said it while I was waiting for Michal to be born, and I was still studying at that time. So it was studies, marriage, and children. I wanted to write about it all. So I started writing. I said to myself, "I want to write even if I don't know if it will be published or how it will all end up."

When my first book was finished, none of the publishing houses wanted to publish it. At that time there was a boom in translated books coming here after the end of socialism. Under socialism, it was very difficult to get these foreign books, so everyone wanted to read them. For three years, no one wanted to publish my book. During these three years, I finished another five books! So, I started to become a little bit angry about the situation. My father helped me. One very little publishing house published my book. It put out 500 copies.

When I came to all those publishing houses again with the second book, I thought I was in a better position. "Come on," I told them, "I wrote and published the first book. I'm a writer now. I have to have a better contract now." But the situation with the second book was the same.

My husband did something completely different. He started his own publishing company. And my friends collected money for me. And the second book was published. Excerpts of this book were published in Slovenka magazine, which at that time was the most read magazine in Slovakia. Immediately every woman knew about me and wanted to read my other books. After that, the publishing house with which I cooperate until today realized that Slovakia has had enough of translated books and we should begin publishing some good local literature.

That's a wonderful story!

And I'm very happy about this. This story is all about friendship and love.

You published your first book in 1997.

Yes.

So you wrote it in 1993.

Yes, when my daughter Veronika was one year old. It took me much longer to write it. But after that, I learned to write fast. During the autograph sessions, women ask how I manage to write with three children. I always say to them, "I don't watch TV or use the telephone -- so I save a lot of time."

How long does it take you now to write a book?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.