Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Questions for Ken Nash

For years, I only heard about Ken Nash. I knew he plays a major role in the Prague expat community, performed at last year’s Microfestival and generally is a big name. I was a little star-struck to finally see, meet and hear him perform one night at Alchemy where he was the guest reader. Months later an interview was arranged and we discussed the Prague English-speaking community, song-writing, illustrating and more in the garden of the Týnská literary café on a rainy Tuesday. 

·         Introduction

What is your Prague expat story (when and how did you arrive)?
It’s a fairly typical story. I’m a classic rexpat (an expat who returned, ed. note), having first arrived in the Fall of ’92, left in ’94 and then returned several years later in 2001. I went to Chicago for a couple of months; Guatemala, San Francisco where I was off and on and I still did quite a lot of travelling so I was 6 months in South-East Asia, then was back in San Francisco for a while, then for another 6 months in the Baltic states and then I came back to Prague.

What do you think is the main impulse to move out of your own country – what was yours?
For many people I know, there was no intention of permanently moving away from home. A lot of them were just back-packing around Europe, ended up in Prague and didn’t want to leave. In my own case, I was trying to choose between going to grad school to study art or literature, or take a DIY approach to my studies and move some place where I could live cheaply and have time to focus on my own projects. Europe won out over grad school.

Did you study at university (if so, what subject)?
I got a degree in Advertising at Michigan State University. I’m not embarrassed that I actually worked in Advertising for a few years, which was an important experience for me, but that I chose to devote my education to this subject when there are so many more worthwhile things to study.

·         On his work 

You are a singer, songwriter and illustrator. Which one were you first?
Professionally? As an adult? I started out as a writer. I worked as a writer/producer in advertising and after work I was writing short stories and taking creative writing and improvisational theatre classes.
When I first came to Prague, I saw an ad that the Prague Post was looking for illustrators. I bought a sketch book, made some drawings and went in to see the art director. He gave me an assignment on the spot. Plus he liked some of the cartoons I’d drawn about Prague and offered to let me do a weekly comic. Eventually these got published into a book.
I spent my days sitting in cafes around Prague, drawing and inking. I was supporting myself here just drawing. And it felt so much better to keep writing only as something I did for pleasure, not work.

Image credits: Ken Nash
What about song writing?
That is a different story; as a kid, I heard music in my head all the time, but music was not something I took very seriously. At age 19, I lost most of my hearing and pretty much gave up playing music after that.
Many years later in Prague, my roommate brought back a guitar from the States. I was going through a really bad time and one night when I couldn’t sleep I picked up the guitar and a song pretty much fully formed popped out.
I played it at an open mic. To my surprise, people loved it. That encouraged me to keep song writing. I had no intention of becoming a performer, and I’m still not much of a performer, but I have many friends who are musicians and their support and encouragement has gotten me to play more and more.

So do you prefer being part of the audience rather than being on the stage?
Being part of the audience (laughs)!

Can you remember what your first illustration or song was?
As a child, before I could even write, I had made some graphic novels. By graphic novels I mean paper folded into pages and crayon drawings with some sort of visual narrative. There is only one I remember though – it was a story about a rabbit who finds a pair of magic glasses and when he wears the glasses he sees carrots. So he starts collecting all these carrots that he could find and one day the glasses break and without them he sees that what he thought was a stack of carrots was a stack of broken glass (laughs)!

How would you describe your illustrations and what are your main inspirations?
Light-hearted but not without some dark edges, I think. I can’t properly say what my main inspiration is. Figuring out how I wanted to write took a long time, and it was more about experimentation than inspiration. Gary Larson’s cartoons made a strong impression on me. And in middle school, I had a collection of short stories called something like Literature of the Absurd. It had a painting by Magritte on the cover. That really changed the way I looked at literature. So I think that’s were some of my absurdist tendencies started.
I went through phases were I was obsessed with Philip Roth and Henry Miller and later the magical realists of Latin America, like Cortezar, Marquez, Fuentes and Borges.
I’ve been reading New Yorker cartoons ever since middle school. I would go to the library to read them. Being a suburban Midwesterner some of the humour went right over my head, but I still loved the drawings.
Often I’m attracted to works that are very dissimilar to my own. For example I tend to read a lot of work that has a very strong autobiographical narrative, which is something I’ve tried, but can’t do very well. I love drawings that are very loosely formed, whereas my drawings tend to be very controlled.

Have you ever read manga or watched anime?
No, I’ve never found my way into it – I never explored it very much. I really want to see the movies by Japanese animator who did Spirited Away and all those, but I know that once I start watching, I will binge on it (laughs)!

Do you have any role models (a cartoonist/musician...)?
I think I’m always looking for role models. I read a lot of biographies, but you become aware from biographies that a person’s work can be quite different from who they are as a person. So even though I like the idea of role models, I think idealising anyone’s life and work is problematic.
From all the biographies I’ve read, though, I’d say William James (brother of the American novelist Henry James, ed. note) is probably my hero; he just followed his curiosity, he went from one pursuit to the next, he always remained open minded, he recognized that nothing was an absolute that everything was related and all part of an ongoing process. That’s kind of how I see my work. Even though I’m working in different media, it’s all one thing to me. And I’m always open to trying something new. And unlike a lot of great people, he just seemed like a good dude. Someone you could really trust and respect.

Were you always a visual and musical artist or did you have other jobs?
As I mentioned before, I worked in advertising for a few years. When I decided to become an illustrator, I knew I needed to learn computer graphics skills. I ended up in San Francisco (long story there). I could have easily gone back into advertising, but I was afraid of getting sucked back into that world. I wanted to keep my independence. So I ended up taking part-time temporary office work. In Chicago, I had had my own office. In San Francisco, I sat in cubes doing a lot of data processing. In my early twenties I would have been embarrassed about my status downfall, but after Prague I just didn’t care about any of that any more. I kept focused on what I really wanted. So I taught myself all kinds of graphics programs, did freelance illustrations and cartoons on the side and eventually was able to give up the office temp work. 

Do you ever get a writer/illustrator block?
No. People think of writers block as some monolithic obstruction and I don’t really believe that’s true. I think there are days when the work is hard and the mind is slow. Those days are painful and you may have to write two or three hours of garbage before something good happens, but something good almost always comes. It’s not a block, it’s a bump. And you have to be really patient and disciplined on those days to get over it. It’s true with drawing also. Some days it just doesn’t flow and it can take me four or five times as long to get something right as it would on a good day.

·         On Prague and the expat community

How do you define the English expat community in Prague?
To be honest, the word “expat” is a toughie. It has, unfortunately, a lot of negative stereotypes. Some of those stereotypes are true, but never entirely true. There’s actually a pretty diverse English-language based expat community here ranging from those working for multi-national corporations, raising a family in the Prague suburbs to semi-homeless grifters. 

After Beef Stew (a platform for English-language writers) ended in 2000, you revived its format of open mic and added the idea of a featured writer into what today is Alchemy – why?
The readings became a little bit torturous and I was ready to stop going. One night at someone’s party, Willie (Watson, interviewed in the March 2014 MP, ed. note) said: “Well, shouldn’t we just kill it?” and everyone just went “Yes!” (Laughs) Then after a couple of minutes Willie went: “What should we do now?” (laughs again) We then had meetings to start something new, but didn’t agree to anything. But there had been a decade-long tradition of English language readings in Prague – and I was asked to form something new. I just returned back to Prague and didn’t really know a lot of people, but nobody else was stepping up for the job. So I was just like (shrugs his shoulders) “okay”.

Why ‘Alchemy’?
I thought it was appropriate for the city, because of its history of Alchemists. But it’s also a metaphor for the process of creativity, of taking raw materials and trying to get some magic out of it.

Would you say Prague is a good city to work and live in?
No. I would say it’s an amazing city to work and live in. It’s not without its drawbacks though – like the difficult language.

You were the star musician at the last Prague Microfestival – how was that for you?
I think that’s factually incorrect. I just closed out the festival with some music. There were many stars during the festival; Louis Armand, Olga Peková, Ondřej Buddeus, Ewelina Chiu, Elizabet Kovačeva, David Vichnar and Tereza Novická were the real stars for gathering everyone together and making the whole thing work. 

Do you have an opinion about native Czechs writing in English? 
In the past, I think Czechs who choose to write in English were not entirely categorised as Czech writers, that true Czechi-ness can only be expressed in Czech. That’s something that was probably more true of previous generations. Now there are many Czechs who are comfortable expressing themselves in English. They come from bi-lingual families, attend bi-lingual classes and live among native English speakers. Many have also spent years living and working abroad. So the use of English in their writing seems more natural. There’s probably still a stigma against it in Czech culture, but I think that will begin to fade more and more.

·   Concluding questions

So now you’ve been living in Prague for 12 years. Where do you see yourself as an expat and an artist in say, 5 years from now?
I’ve wrestled with this question for years! It’s hard to strike a balance between goal setting and also living in the moment, following things wherever they lead you. One of the things I learned when I first came to Prague was to not place too much emphasis on goals. Goals are never quite as satisfying when you reach them as you thought they would be. You have to focus on what you love doing, put your heart into it and hope that it leads somewhere good. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do any planning. Just don’t let fixed plans blind you to other possibilities. I would be fine doing exactly what I’m doing now in a few years, just as long as I keep getting better at it.

Do you attend any reading scenes in Prague, apart from Alchemy?
I go to a lot of the readings organised by the AAU library. Some of the English language based publications here, such as Prague Revue, BODY and VLAK, also have occasional reading and I attend many of those.

Where can our readers see you perform?
This year I’m trying to focus more on writing, so I probably won’t be performing as much. When I have a show scheduled I put it up on my website, blog and Facebook.

You organise the Prague Drawing Group at Prague College. Tell more? 
The Prague Drawing Group was started in 2003 by my friends Claire Wigfall and Rachael Coen. When they both left Prague, I continued running it for a few years. It’s been on a long hiatus, but Prague College recently donated some space for us to get started again. The painter Jeremiah Palacek, will also help run the sessions.
It’s a simple life drawing class, with no instruction. We provide a well lit space and a model. People come with their own materials to draw or paint. Over the years, it’s greatly improved my drawing skills. I’m super happy that we’ve started it up again.

Anna Hupcejová

Find Ken Nash and his work at the following links: