#AuthorInterview with Rita Bozi, author of When I Was Better
Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Rita Bozi, author of When I Was Better.
FQ: How fortunate I was to have been selected to read When I Was Better! Thank you for writing such a memorable (and informative) body of work.
BOZI: Thank you for the depth of spirit with which you met this book. I’ve been waiting for people like you to engage with it.
FQ: I was intrigued with your biography and would like to understand what a Somatic Relational trauma and psychedelic-informed therapist entails. Would you please elaborate?
BOZI: The approach I have studied and practiced over a 27-year career in the healing arts and in private practice is a biopsychosocial, body-centred and humane approach to healing that takes into account the lived experience and direct knowledge contained in the therapeutic alliance. The alliance is cultivated in a culture of reciprocal relationship supported by earth-based ancient wisdom, neuroscience and neurobiology and somatic practices to restore natural human development and growth. With the addition of empathogens or psychedelic plant medicines, healing is amplified through deeper access to the unconscious body and ancestral field. We get to lift the veil for a while to connect and integrate more deeply with our unconscious wounds.
FQ: It sounds like your life partner, Ken Cameron, was your champion to encourage you on this journey. If you had to single out one of the areas in this book that was difficult to write, what would that be and how did Ken support you through in perfecting the passage? I ask this because of the acknowledgement you gave him: "...Ken sorting me out when I got overwhelmed. He blazed the trail to organize my thoughts and catalyze the conversations and strategies that would help me get underneath what felt at times like impossible tasks..."
BOZI: Thank you for singling out that acknowledgement. There are a number of things that Ken helped me accomplish. First off, for context, Ken is a lifelong writer, playwright and an exceptional dramaturge with a great penchant for humour. I on the other hand am a self-taught playwright and writer and know very little about structure and the craft of writing. I had literally taken only a few writing workshops at the time I started to write this novel. I was good at feeling into my body to source sensation, emotion, feeling, image and thought. I was good at dialogue; it just came easily. What I was not good at was starting “on action.” I tended to overwrite and give more backstory than was necessary. I quickly learned from Ken to start a scene “in the middle of the action,” which brought a beautiful tension to the scenes. I also tended to think I had to say and tell everything in some loyal truth and learned to show what was happening and let the reader fill in the blanks. Ken had a great way of telling me point blank what needed to be cut. At first a would resist a bit and then I knew he was right. During the very final edits before the book went to print, Ken was the one that helped me trust that cutting an entire chapter would not ruin but rather benefit the impact. There were only a few times that I insisted something stay in and in those moments he supported the trust in my intuition.
My overwhelm came when I got notes from my mentors and editors: at first the wonderful author and human, Dennis Bock, and then later the inimitable Adrienne Kerr who gave me copious and detailed notes. Some of the notes seemed straightforward and easy to understand and execute. Others left me feeling a slow freeze coming on and dissociated confusion. I seriously learned to be a writer while writing this book. So my writing kept improving. But when I could not understand what was being asked of me to consider, Ken would be my second brain and explain the proposed change in a way I could hear it.
One of the challenges I faced was having too many characters. Even as it is, I have more characters in this than Tolstoy has in Anna Karenina. So Ken and I had to do some surgery. He pushed me to amalgamate several characters into something more complex. That really screwed with the other characters and details that nearly drove me mad. But he persisted with me and saw me through the insane renovations. In the end it made more of the secondary characters even more compelling.
FQ: The dynamics and relationship between Istvan and Tereza are very layered. On one hand, they are inseparable in their love and on the other, they were opposite ends of the spectrum, specifically when religious views came into play. I thoroughly enjoyed this passage: "...Why is teaching the Bible unacceptable to the Communists? ‘I don’t know.’ Istvan rolled away from her, positioned himself on his side. ‘Because the Bible shows us that first there was chaos and through the help of God’s plan, order prevailed. But Communism shows us that first there is a plan and afterwards comes the chaos..." This is quite profound and if you had to assign which side of the fence you are on, which character do you identify with most? Istvan? Tereza? Why?
BOZI: Well, I have to be honest and say that I identify with both characters very strongly and neither of them. That is likely because I was triangulated between my parents. But seriously, the joke here is that Communism was just another response to the chaos already existing in the origins of God’s world. As for the characters, I think I was very empathetic to each of them at different times, and likely angry with each of them at different times. When you grow up with such uncertainty, volatility and poverty it can wreak havoc on your survival systems. And I am no stranger to PTSD so I could feel the internal coping mechanisms of each character and hurt with them. I also cherished their attempts to try and reset themselves. However unlike Tereza, who is a devout churchgoer, church was something forced on me, and I never connected with a God or a religious way of being.
FQ: I’m drawn to the reunion between sisters Tereza and Klara and the fact they each know the other was raped by the Russians. It’s compelling the way you place the ‘elephant in the room’ between them, yet they refuse to succumb to acknowledging it adversely affected them (Page 245), i.e., with Klara’s perspective she opted to face it off and Tereza cowered. In your opinion, are these coping mechanisms we women utilize in real life? Why do we do this?
BOZI: Each and every one of us humans responds to trauma differently. While there may be patterns of adaptation and defensive accommodation that are similar amongst some people, every person will adapt to their trauma in a unique and individual way. If we sense that there is going to be little to no support for our situation many of us go underground. For women it is common to think that we won’t be believed, that we are to blame, that we deserved it and that the system is in no way going to support our dignity and offer trauma-informed care in a brutal court system. For others, they don’t want to be a burden, they are steeped in shame and humiliation, they are stuck in a freeze state, and they expect not to get the kind of care they need to process rape. And if we were to confront too soon how much the violation affected us, some of us would not be able to keep functioning. So survival trumps bringing to light too soon that which we cannot process until conditions prove right. For some, conditions may never be right. And this is 1948 in the novel, when talk about even sex was off the table. Masters and Johnson didn’t even begin their research into the nature of human sexual response until 1957. Culture was still living the effects of the Victorian era. So for these women in the novel to even utter anything out loud would have been shattering. And this is why I wanted Klara to start setting an example. I wanted to make her ahead of her time, finding inner resilience to reclaim her territory if not body.
FQ: There are accounts that are bone-chillingly familiar (and relatable) to what we experience in today’s climate. I’m speaking of technologies and how (essentially) everything can be tracked in one’s day-to-day life. On Page 338, you talk about Istvan and the orders he places for his mechanical repair work: "...Someone somewhere knew what he did, every single day, what parts he ordered, where he installed them, what truck he drove, where and when..." Share your views on the wonders of technology today and how they relate to this passage. Is this a ‘good’ thing?
BOZI: Ah, the wonders of technology today – the necessary evil that allows me to never have to leave my home, to shop for all of my needs. The productive or addictive instant communication that can either make us safer or suffocate our lives. The advances to healthcare and the scope of how we create and entertain can be spellbinding and awe-inspiring. In some ways, you can say it has created more access and opportunities for more people while at the same time made the vulnerable bigger targets, the crooks more cunning. It has given power to more people and robbed us of our privacy. The raw experiences of our lives are used to manipulate us into becoming consumerist zombies and without our conscious awareness we are each day changed by technology to which we have now become captive. It seems you can’t get anywhere or even be successful at anything unless you are known on social media. And we are convinced that the only way to meet people now is by swiping our thumbs left and right. I know my thumb is wise but I would also like to still believe in divine destiny and magic. And at the same time, it is the wonders of technology that helps people fight authoritarian regimes and bring global consciousness to corruption.
In the passage you cite, you are referring to surveillance culture which was first brought to blaring light in George Orwell’s 1984. The authoritarian regimes were ahead of their time in sinister ways – you could almost say that these regimes laid the template for the surveillance culture we are experiencing today, in the name of security. The Soviets also did the same thing: used surveillance in the name of security to root out the enemies to progress. It is certainly a way to perpetuate more unconscious fear of each other. Would I remove technology and turn back the clock? I wouldn’t. But I think we have sustained so much toxic trauma and damage through the internet that we are all responsible for finding a more moral and ethical way to use technology that doesn’t over time reduce our humanity but rather evolve it.
FQ: (Page 382): "...One in every four houses in Hungary is damaged. Half of the country’s livestock is gone. And a half of our industrial plants are demolished. Our currency is worthless..." The beauty in writing such a powerful (and devastating) account as this is triggering awareness. Our world is on the precipice. My question is what will the endgame be? If you had to author a story of our global situation, how would you approach it, and would there be a ‘happily ever after’ to it?
BOZI: This is a wow kind of a question you ask, particularly this week when a third of Pakistan is under water; hurricane Ian has just swept its destructive forces through Cuba and Florida; Fiona through Eastern Canada; a young woman is dead in Tehran at the hands of the morality police while protests spread throughout Iran; and Putin has just annexed a region of the Ukraine under a sham referendum. Note the disturbing similarity in my novel on page 317, when Rákosi addresses the people during the May Day celebration, suggesting a vote to see if the people approve of the direction his government has been heading. Everyone knows that his position was not democratically won, but rather installed by covert means by the Russian government. It is kind of astounding that in the world today governments can declare their opposition, or even condemn the actions of countries that break international law but their sociopathic leaders simply proceed without obstruction. That media even reports, in the face of finding mass graves, with evidence of torture on the bodies of the dead, that there are “alleged” war crimes against Putin and Russian forces, is absurd to me. How long did it take to bring to trial the Nazis that went on to live their lives in peace in countries like Uruguay?
Truth be told, some days I don’t feel optimistic about the future of the planet. From where I sit in my friendly and pleasant inner-city neighbourhood in Calgary, Alberta, life is good. But there is not a day that does not go by that I don’t think of our brothers and sisters in the rest of the world, and how they are already living in an apocalyptic world. For those that don’t believe in the apocalypse, they have never been in a war zone or an area devasted by a natural disaster.
I stray far from your question. I do see evidence of things going in the right direction: organizations that bring consciousness to human trafficking, organizations creating affordable housing for the unhoused and struggling families; we are finally looking at the multigenerational effects of racialized trauma and the genocide of indigenous peoples and the destruction of their traditional cultures. And some countries are trying to make change in their climate policies.
But honestly I don’t think this is happening fast enough. I see this often in my practice, people coming to healing after many decades of ignoring the underlying drivers and issues, with an almost insurmountable mountain of healing ahead of them. Their symptoms and issues have compounded to such an extent that it’s overwhelming to think of the thousand steps it will take to even restore some measure of equilibrium. I think Elon Musk is heading in a terrible direction. When the earth and the people of the planet are suffering so terribly, he should be focusing his resources on creating infrastructures to support countries to rebuild in ways that are sustainable and to support the development of alternate sources of energy.
So to finally answer your question, if my mother who is now 92 was born into war, poverty and oppression could experience a better life, then who is to say that I, who was born into a better life, may not live devastation at the end of mine. I was overcome with profound grief at the scenes of the elderly in Ukraine, fleeing in wheelchairs. They had started their lives in oppression, experienced freedom and here they were again fleeing for their lives. I guess perhaps I might write the journey of a woman, growing up an occupied state, having a life and career in a freed state, only to be fleeing a once again invaded state, to die in a foreign country where she can’t speak the language. Maybe that is the book I would write. I don’t know where the world is heading but I never take my life for granted.
FQ: Without creating a spoiler, I was shocked when something that affected Istvan, Tereza, and Istvan’s lifelong friend (Pista) was exposed toward the end of the book and how Zolti tied into it all. As a writer, there are times when I experience the story not only writing for me, but ‘telling’ me how to write the passage. Was this one of those moments for you?
BOZI: That is another great question. There were for sure times when the story was writing itself and telling me how to write it, particularly the Lecsó scene - that is the one in which Teréza and Klára are cooking the peppery stew and the senile lady is waiting - in her senile mind - for her German officers to arrive. The humour drove the story, the lines literally laughing themselves out of my body onto the keys. That scene definitely wrote itself. In the scene you cite, half of it wrote itself and the other half was a very strong suggestion on the part of my beloved editor Adrienne Kerr. Adrienne suggested the plot twist that involved Zolti. It was at first a revolting thought, and then I knew Adrienne was right. Afterwards when I came to write it, I was down in that cell with Pista, and I saw every single moment, movement, and torturous occurrence. My fingers couldn’t keep up recounting the details that already knew themselves. The description of this scene was also influenced by a visit to the House of Terror, a museum in Budapest, when I saw the kind of closet they shoved humans into, made to stand for days in cold water. So this horrid closet was in my mind and the story unfolded around it.
FQ: I cannot imagine there was ever a time when you were writing this book where you experienced a block. The cadence is superb, and the flow is wonderful. Was there a time when you had to set your pen down? If so, how did you reconnect and continue writing?
BOZI: Thank you for your kind praise. There were many times I had to set my pen down. This book took nine years to write. Life intruded many times, and sometimes I had to pause for months. I have a full-time therapeutic practice, my father was dying of dementia, there were times when I needed a holiday, times that I hit exhaustion. I even came out of performing retirement and wrote two other theatre shows in the midst of writing this novel. But I must say that I taught myself to write at ANY time. I did not wait for the right time. I am not a writer that thinks, “I can only write in the morning. Two hours max or a thousand words.” Because of the demands of the other parts of my life, I had to find my own relationship to writing and discount all the things they tell you about what real writers do. I wrote when the spirit moved me and that could be at 10:00 at night after a long day, that could be ten minutes at lunchtime or after a night out at the theatre. That could be on Christmas day for four hours in a café in Istanbul. There were times when I wrote consistently all-day Saturday or Sunday and then switch to Monday-Wednesday evenings after dinner. I wrote in cafes and libraries around the world with no fixed plan. I would scribble notes in the dark in the middle of a movie or a theatre and dance performance. I would read and research and consider it all a part of the writing process. When I felt exhausted by the writing process, I would read for a few months to fill myself with inspiration. Or I would watch Hungarian films. A kind of healthy guilt would creep in when I had spent too much time away from actual writing and then I would set a schedule and hold myself to it. My husband again was amazing at that time, assuring that dinner was made before I headed downstairs to write. There were a number of things that would reignite my desire to write again: perhaps I had read a completely unrelated book, an author whose writing had inspired me; I had received promising notes that refreshed my ways of seeing a character or a story arc; or Ken had helped me to cut back the bulk and I was inspired to do housecleaning on the book. The loveliest motivators were the times my mother told me a new story, seemingly out of nowhere and perfectly timed, as if some part of her knew that this little gem would light me on fire; I would have to find a way to insert her jewel into the story.
FQ: In line with my previous question, given the intricacies and historical weave throughout, did you have to develop an outline and timeline as a guide and assemble all the pieces thereafter? What was your process?
BOZI: My process was pure madness, I’m afraid to say. I wish I could tell you that I had been smart enough to plan an outline ahead of time, but in some ways I am a very reckless writer. It’s kind of like developmental trauma when I write, or ADD, because really I am all over the place. Or I am telling a hundred stories simultaneously. My first mentor, Dennis Bock, told me I was writing three books at once. I had to make a choice and that was where Ken and my editor Adrienne Kerr helped reign me in. I would definitely work with an outline on any subsequent projects, but this novel was like a wild beast dragging me everywhere. But with some really great feedback from Dennis, Ken’s expert dramaturgy and some rather intriguing plot propositions made by Adrienne, I was able to discern the heart of the story I was trying to tell. Historically it was riveting for me to write, because I had always known in general terms the major events that shaped Hungary in the 20th century. However, doing the research really helped fill in the intricacies of the history and I hungered to dig in and convey it on the page. Where I did have a plan was to make sure the Revolution was conveyed in accurate detail. I also had the plan to contrast life under both fascism and communism. And I also had my parents’ story to anchor this epic tale. I always returned to the bones of that story. My parents’ story was the starting place.
FQ: How often did you dream of your characters? Do you miss them?
BOZI: Funny you should ask. Every time I went through a laborious and painstaking rewrite or edit, it was the characters that sustained me throughout. I didn’t so much as dream of the characters, but rather I embodied them when I was writing. I could feel what was happening inside their bodies and minds. But I still do see them in scenes in my mind, and what I do dream of is seeing these characters in an episodic 8-part mini-series.
FQ: Thank you again for your time and the pleasure of reading such an exceptional and well-written book. I am in awe of your delivery. What’s next? Are you able to share a teaser of your next project?
BOZI: Thank you for engaging with it in such a thorough and thoughtful way. I cannot tell you what it means to me when someone actually cares enough to recognize the work involved and the levels of care it took to write such an epic.
I would be happy to give you a teaser of what I am currently working on. It is a creative non-fiction book called PUNK Therapy: Psychedelic Underground Neural Kindness. This book is part storytelling, research, application, memoir and raw truth chronicling the healing journey of three female clients in my care over the longer term. They are dealing with Complex trauma, Complex PTSD, with relational and developmental trauma as well as so-called eating disorders. They are incredible women that I grow to love and admire. I companion them and facilitate their psychedelic-assisted healing sessions and learn much about myself in the process. I give a very intimate look into the reality of healing and the depth of commitment involved in healing soul wounds. In PUNK Therapy, I reveal my own struggles and ways of healing while drawing parallels between their lives, my life and that of some of our most renowned singers and songwriters like Marianne Faithful, Patti Smith and Debbie Harry, all of whom were punk goddesses. I am happy to say that both Adrienne and Ken are going to be on the development team. This book will be a tribute to three women willing to take on the task of healing intergenerational trauma in the bravest and most honest way.