BookView Interview with Author Rita Bozi

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.

Recently, we interviewed author Rita Bozi, a Somatic Relational trauma and psychedelic-informed therapist, a multi-disciplinary creator, playwright and retired professional actor, dancer, and author of When I was Better, a riveting, complex tale of one couple’s journey of love and endurance. (Read the review here.)

 Raised by Hungarian refugees, Rita is a Somatic Relational trauma and psychedelic-informed therapist, a multi-disciplinary creator, playwright and retired professional actor and dancer. For 25 years, her co-written play 52 Pick Up was staged in Canada, the US, England, Australia, France, Iceland and New Zealand and translated into French and Icelandic. Rita has been published in The New Quarterly, FFWD Weekly, WritingRaw.com, Unlikely 2.0 and Pages of Stories. THIS Magazine awarded her 3rd prize in their Great Canadian Literary Hunt in 2012. Her travel stories have been broadcast on CBC Radio Calgary. She is an alumna of The Humber School for Writers. Her life practice is kindness and her life partner is Ken Cameron.

What kind of research did you do before and while you were writing When I Was Better, and what did that process look like?

My extensive nine years worth of research included dozens of interviews with my elderly mother, my aunts and uncles, my friends, and citizens of Budapest.

I read these books for research and inspiration: The Bridge at Andau by James A. Michener, Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution by Victor Sebestyen, The Hungarian Revolution, 1956 by Rupert Colley, Siege 13: Stories by Tamas Dobozy, Balkan Express by Slavenka Drakulic, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum, and A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism: Fables from a Mouse, a Parrot, a Bear, a Cat, a Mole, a Pig, a Dog, and a Raven by Slavenka Drakulic.

I studied these films for visual inspiration: Freedom’s Fury, Whooping Cough, The Witness, Sunshine, Gloomy Sunday, and In the Land of Blood and Honey.

Trips to Budapest: During the writing of the book I made nine trips to Budapest. I walked the streets on which the Revolution broke out, the Parliament, Corvin Passage, the Magyar Radio Building; I studied old maps. I visited the church in which my parents married. I went to the street where my mother lived. I visited museums, including the House of Terror, a very controversial museum that was the ex-headquarters of the secret police where they tortured dissents.

Did you find writing a book based on the experiences of your ancestors therapeutic?

It was extraordinarily therapeutic to study and explore the history of my family and ancestors. It answered a lot of questions in regards to the ways my family thought, the ways in which they were vigilant and the ways in which they limited their experiences due to a traumatic history. I developed an immense amount of compassion and empathy – a transformation from pain, anger, and frustration. Studying the history of my ancestors gave me context for how their worldviews developed and gave me an immense appreciation of their resilience and their wicked humour in the midst of adverse events.

Your day job is as a trauma therapist.  How has that experience informed your writing, especially in When I Was Better?

First off, my embodiment practice as a therapist gave me great somatic insight into the characters. When I embodied the characters, felt them from within, and took their lives into my body, I could really feel all their pain, sadness, jokes, hopes, dreams, collapses, anger and motivations. Working in my day job with the skill of embodied empathy gave me great feeling for these characters. I also drew on my knowledge of how trauma can be expressed in defensive accommodations and physiological, behaviour, and spiritual changes in individuals. Working in this field gave me a long view of how people can get stuck in isolation and how they do their best to heal with what may seem like strange behaviour.

In addition to writing this novel, you are also a playwright. How did you decide which form or genre was right for this story?

I knew from the start that this was novel and not a play. The story was complex and complicated; I knew it was an epic tale with many levels, a lot of characters and many timelines that would require the novel form. I was also really interested in trying my hand at a novel. I wanted to explore poetic writing, illustrating the complexity of defensive accommodations in people suffering trauma, while describing turbulent times. I was thinking cinematically. I wanted to take as long as I needed to illustrate the impact of twenty years of turmoil on these characters from the perspective of changing political times. I still believe that this novel has a future as a movie but, even better, as an 8-part TV episodic.

Who and what ultimately inspired you to become a writer?

Bizarrely enough, apart from the fact that it is a soul calling, it really helped that several people commented on my ability to put words together when writing something as simple as a bio when I was a dancer and actor. And then every so often, I would have something I needed to get out in writing and before I knew it, I had written an essay, or a play, or an article. I like to try my hand at many artistic forms and there are so many wonderful ways to explore expressions in writing. I had a career in dance, theatre, film, and TV and it just made sense to pick up writing. It is an extremely tough art form and it’s also exhilarating.

Which character in the book was most challenging to create? Why?

I think the hardest character for me to write was Teréza, the one based on my beloved mother, but who is not my mother. I still had a lot of anger toward my mother at the time that I was writing so I had to be careful to separate my anger from the process while I was also deeply inspired by her life. I had to be careful to be respectful and loving of the character while I was still processing the hurts I went through with a mother who suffered complex trauma.

Which scene or chapter in the book is your favorite? Why?

What Did You Put In This brought me comic relief. It was such a fun chapter to write after SO MUCH darkness. I love the humour of making a ragout so spicy that you can’t eat it but Teréza eats it anyways. I also love the juxtaposition with the elderly lady with dementia who is still – in her mind – living in the second world war, chastising her husband for being a womanizer but the reader knows he died in a blast years ago – that’s why he hasn’t come home! There is a fair bit of good Eastern European dark humour in this chapter; I was literally laughing out loud as I wrote it. I also love the scene in which István is telling his little brother the story of the fox, the wolf, and the rabbit. It is a tender scene between a big brother and his innocent young brother. It is a moment of humanity.

How did you decide on this title?

That was easy. After my beloved father died, I was still writing a character based on him though fictionalized. I was alone with my father when he died and I thought about him a lot, as I still do. He was a complex, quiet man who every so often would say something deep or humorous or perplexing. He battled depression which I now know was his body’s response to unprocessed trauma. So the title came from something he would say after church, his Hungarian friends gathered outside the front doors. They would ask him, “How are you, Steve.” He would answer, “When I was better, I never bragged.” I was always perplexed by this and after he died, I heard his voice tell me very directly that this was the title of my novel. I knew in that moment he was right.

It perhaps speaks to a time when there was still hope. So many people lost hope after they left their homelands. They didn’t know what was wrong with them. So many were traumatized. I think they were trying to find hope in the past.

What do you hope readers will take away from this story?

Simple. I would like readers to understand what refugees can go through before they arrive in their destination country. As written on the website Refugee Health:

“Before being forced to flee, refugees may experience imprisonment, torture, loss of property, malnutrition, physical assault, extreme fear, rape and loss of livelihood. The flight process can last days or years.  During flight, refugees are frequently separated from family members, robbed, forced to inflict pain or kill, witness torture or killing, and/or lose close family members or friends and endure extremely harsh environmental conditions. Perhaps the most significant effect from all of the experiences refugees endure, is having been betrayed, either by their own people, by enemy forces, or by the politics of their world in general.

I want readers to know that (young) people can do awful things when they are terrorized. I want readers to know that no one willing wants to leave their country of origin. I want people to open their hearts to refugees.

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