Today, I am delighted to interview Carmen Bugan, the author of Burying the Typewriter, a memoir of growing up in Ceausescu’s Romania. I first heard about the book through Susan Tiberghien, the director of the Geneva Writers’ Conference, who raved about Carmen and her memoir. The book is available in English in both the U.S. and U.K., and the two covers, seen below, are striking. I’d love to know which you prefer!
You have lived in Romania, the U.S., the U.K. and now Switzerland. What took you to England? And later to Switzerland?
In 2000 I went to University of Oxford to do doctoral research in English literature. My monograph Seamus Heaney and East European Poetry in Translation: Poetics of Exile is published this January and is based on my DPhil. During my studies I met my husband, who was a fellow student in the same college as me. After I completed my studies I stayed on as a Creative Arts Fellow in Literature at the university. In 2009 my husband received a research position at CERN and so we moved to Geneva in 2009 with our first child. Our second child was born in Geneva.
For three decades, your father was under surveillance by the Securitate, the Romanian secret police. His file contained 18 volumes and nearly 1,500 pages. Can you talk about how you felt when you read it?
I am developing what I call ‘an archival identity’. Very recently we were also given access to my mother’s files, which contain also mine and my sister’s. I am reading strange things about myself – about what I ate in 1985, when I went to sleep in the 1986 in the evenings, I am re-reading the yearly letters my father and I exchanged while he was in prison, and I am reading the transcripts of interrogations suffered by both of my parents. It is shattering: the language of the oppressor, the intimidating person, and that of the oppressed, of the intimidated, as it is the language of those who spied and reported on us, as is the language used to detail all of our daily lives. The government has created identities for us and I am struggling to fight my way to clarity form all the surreal mess of these files.
Was it difficult to write about your family? Can you talk about the process of writing the book?
This was planned as a memoir from the beginning and I spent a considerable amount of time working out tone, voice, and the structure of the book. I received my father’s files after I wrote the book and those formed the appendix. But while some memories came as prose, many came as poems and I wrote a book of poems at the same time as I wrote the memoir. I wrote these books fairly quickly around 2005-2007 and then worked on them until the publication in 2012–so it was a truly very long process.
The buried typewriter is such a powerful image. Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer, or did the desire to write come later?
I still love typewriters and that typewriter did indeed stir the writer in me. But I also love the feel of pen and paper and much of my writing starts as journal work. I knew that I wanted to be a writer in the deepest sense of the word when my father was in prison and I was writing poems to the pictures of him hanging in the hallway and on the bookshelves. The poems had a healing effect on my mother and sister, and in particular the poem I wrote the day my parents had their trial for divorce–they were forced to divorce because of my father’s anticommunist activities. That poem is in my book Crossing the Carpathians and the story of that poem and its first draft (in Romanian) is in Burying the Typewriter.
What advice would you give to someone interested in writing memoir?
I think writing a memoir is a very personal journey and the decisions such as how to approach such personal material as the story of your life are also very personal. Some people choose to write in third person, for example, to distance themselves from the material, while some prefer to write in the first person because they feel very strongly about sharing themselves. But whatever decisions one needs to make, the important thing to keep in mind is that in the end this needs to be a book–a work of art, and that needs considerable working at it.
What books are on your nightstand?
The Music Room, by William Fiennes, a book of poems by Lucian Blaga.
A book about living on both sides of the Iron Curtain.