Interview: debut novelist Csilla Toldy

Photo credit: John Livingstone

“I think, freedom, as elusive and as complex as it can be, will ultimately be found inside.” Hungarian British debut novelist Csilla Toldy on her path to publication for Bed Table Door, longlisted for the Bath Novel Award and winner of the Desmond Elliott Residency 2023 awarded by the National Centre for Writing.

Congratulations on the publication of Bed Table Door. How did your deal with Wrecking Ball Press come about and what’s been the best part of working with them so far?

I discovered Wrecking Ball through a novel, Psychomachia by Kirsty Allison that I wanted to read and finally review. I saw that they have been in the business for over twenty years and they were open for new writers. I have had endless rejection letters from agents in the UK, but the longlisting at the Bath Novel Award was encouraging. Somewhere along the way, I decided that this book was not commercial enough and only an indie publisher could be brave enough to publish it. I was lucky that the editor Shane Rhodes liked it. They only publish a few in a year.

You longlisted with quite an early draft. How many drafts did you write in total?

There were seven drafts and the last one was structural, adding a prologue and an epilogue to round up the story. I had some useful feedback from readers and an Irish agent, Jeremy Murphy, along the way. It was stop-and-go for a long time. I was also selected for Penguin’s WriteNow Programme and feedback from an editor there was useful, too.

Bed Table Door explores the idea of freedom against the backdrop of the Cold War between socialist Hungary and Thatcher’s England. What sparked the storyline?

I made a similar journey in 1981. I could write from experience. When I considered setting the story in Thatcher’s England, I realised the irony and the parallels, so to say from the frying pan into the fire. In the novel, Sally, an Englishwoman informs Sofie, the immigrant about the raging violence in England. There were riots, factory occupations and the Troubles on the other side of the Irish Sea in Northern Ireland. There was more violence in the streets than in Hungary, since the failed revolution in 1956. In Hungary under police terror, our resistance was ineffectual and the eventual change of system came about much later and then as a result of global events. Over here people’s power made a difference. We were fed with the slogan of people power (or that of the proletariat) while in the West people acted upon their democratic rights.

One of the central themes is personal freedom. What does freedom mean to you and where and when do you feel most free?

I am not sure which character is more free in the novel. Sofie is conditioned through her upbringing and she fights it. I also wanted to imagine what would happen to a young man who was a latent homosexual, when he arrived in that mayhem of “freedom”, the punk era, and the new sexual revolution of the LGBT community in 1981.  Samu finds personal freedom in the UK to live freely as a gay man, but homophobia existed then, too. His ending is bittersweet.

I came to the UK in 1996 with a writer’s visa from Germany. I had to survive exclusively on my writing for four years and this was not easy. Nevertheless, I felt free for the first time in my life. I think, freedom, as elusive and as complex as it can be, will ultimately be found inside. I feel blessed that I am allowed to do what I do and that I can express myself in my art.

“I realised that this is not my story but based on someone I knew as me a long time ago. At some point, she gained her own real character and she started to act in a way that I was surprised by. “

What would your protagonist, Sofie, make of the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ and anti-immigration rhetoric four decades on?

In the novel, Sofie narrowly avoids imprisonment in a detention place, because she has a relative in Manchester who can become her sponsor. I wanted to show this danger which is the fate of most so-called illegal immigrants in the UK today. I think Sofie would be shocked by the rhetoric. It would add to her trauma. During the Cold War behind the Iron Curtain, Radio Free Europe and America’s Voice were the two radio stations people listened to in secret. These encouraged defection from the Eastern Block by promoting the idea of freedom. Of course, the socialist government warned us that this was only propaganda. But how could you believe them, if all you got from them was propaganda, too?

As a teenager you risked life and limb to cross the Yugoslavia/Italy border. How difficult was it to distance yourself from the storyline to create the plotting and characterisation for the book?

It took me a long time to get away from my memories. I tried the first person, I tried memoir, but even that would have had fictional elements, for the mind has a tendency to rewrite. Storytelling needs structure, embellishment or sparing down, whatever serves.  With time Sofie acquired her own tastes and committed her own little crimes. She is innocent, while I think, I was not. Soon I realised that this is not my story but based on someone I knew as me a long time ago. At some point, she gained her own real character and she started to act in a way that I was surprised by. It is the same for Samu, when he despairs, he acts in ways I would never have thought he could.

What’s been your favourite reader response so far?

Bed Table Door is a story of a relationship and for me, it was important to tell it from both characters’ points of view. Therefore, I was really pleased with this comment:  “I was impressed with how seamlessly your parallel narratives worked together – that’s a real skill!“

You won a Desmond Elliott Residency for Bed Table Door which included a stay at Norwich’s Dragon Hall. Highlights?

It was great to have the space and time to commit myself to my writing entirely. I enjoyed the long walks alongside the river Wensum in the evenings and the mix of history and modern art. I loved The Plantation Gardens where I took part in an open mic poetry reading and met interesting local poets.

Where is home for you?

I live in Northern Ireland at Carlingford Lough, but if I go for a walk I can see the Republic of Ireland on the other side of the water. I often travel to Budapest to visit my parents, and for them, I have come home. Budapest is an amazing city, rich in history and culture. Gipsy music can play on the strings of my heart, but all in all, although I have dual citizenship, British and Hungarian, I am at home in Ireland.

Where and when do you write?

I tend to get up early at 6-7 a.m. and write for three to four hours. I found this rhythm during lockdown, before that my writing life was less disciplined.

I write in my workroom, which is tiny but functional with books within reaching distance and the World Wide Web at the tip of my fingers. Tigger, the cat likes to sit or mostly sleep and snore in the window. Over the houses in my street, I can see the Cooley Mountains on the other side of the lough. 

I found out early in my career that I can write anywhere. I can take my laptop with me and get into this rhythm in a hotel room, at a friend’s house or in a residency cottage like last time in Norwich.

What’s next for you?

I have two more novels in the drawer ready to go. Both are partly set in Budapest. These three form my Hungarian Trilogy. One deals with the idea of identity and bloodlines through the story of an Irish girl, whose mother is Hungarian.

The other one is a biographical novel on the life of the Hungarian femme fatale, Katalin Karady, an enigmatic character and people saver during WWII.

I have a book for children, too, based on the memories of Walter Sekules, a Jewish man who spent his first seven years as an enemy alien in the Gulag in Siberia.

I am not exactly sure what comes after these, but a prose poem collection and a new novel idea are germinating in the back of my mind.

“A totally engaging tale of young Hungarian misfits in search of a better life in Thatcher’s England. Csilla Toldy is a discovery, she has a unique, authentic voice.” Paul Thompson

Bed Table Door is available now from Wrecking Ball Press

Book launch: 20 October 2023 18:00 Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast Tickets

CSILLA TOLDY is a writer and translator. Her published works include three poetry collections with Lapwing Belfast (Red Roots – Orange Sky, The Emigrant Woman’s Tale and Vertical Montage). In 2019 the Scottish publisher Stupor Mundi published a short story collection Angel Fur and other stories. Her translations appeared in Hungarian Literature Online, Pamenar Magazine, Modern Poetry in Translation and Cyphers.