Jaroslav Kalfař ‘11 might feel that literary success is elusive, but it seems to be following him closely. Kalfař was recently awarded a highly competitive and prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship for $25,000. Kalfař majored in Creative Writing at UCF before completing his MFA at New York University, and published his first book, Spaceman of Bohemia, with Little, Brown this past year.
The National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowships program awards $25,000 grants in prose (fiction and creative nonfiction) and poetry to published creative writers to enable them to set aside time for writing, research, travel, and career advancement. Kalfař is one of only 36 Creative Writing fellows for 2018.
“It is one of the biggest honors of my life, a major validation for my past and future work,” Kalfař said. “I am especially honored as an immigrant … I thought no one would ever care about my writing when I came to this country, so this kind of validation feels twice as important.” Kalfař was born in Prague, Czech Republic, and immigrated to the United States at the age of 15. He learned the English language through novels and cartoons.
Kalfař’s love of storytelling and books began at an early age. He recalls feeling mesmerized by books.
“It seemed incredible that a complete stranger would be able to have this effect on people simply by putting together sentences, and since that early age I wanted to become one of those strangers,” he said.
At the age of 7, Kalfař began writing his own short stories based on the popular science fiction show The X-Files, detailing accounts about government agents investigating UFO appearances in the Czech countryside. His forte for sci-fi is also evident in his novel Spaceman of Bohemia, an intergalactic and interpersonal voyage of the first Czech astronaut. Kalfař’s rhythmic, poignant and reflective writing makes it truly worthy of attention.
“I came to UCF still very insecure about my language skills, but I deeply felt the desire to write in English,” Kalfař said. “I had one of my first workshops at UCF, and I was scared out of my wits. But the faculty of the English department helped me and mentored me in ways I will never forget – Dr. Darlin’ Neal, from that very first workshop, brought me up from a scared kid to a confident writer. Professor Susan Hubbard helped me find what’s important to me in my writing. The literature courses were just as fantastic – I’ll never forget Dr. Angley’s course on Faulkner, or Dr. Lillios’ course on postmodernism.”
“At UCF, I wrote the short story collection that got me a spot in the NYU MFA graduate program. I met friends to whom books were just as important as they were to me. I found my people, I found my voice, my courage, and I received the affirmation I deeply needed to do what I need to do with the rest of my life. My years at UCF were crucial, and I am so happy the program is thriving, growing, and providing the same mentorship to future writers in this country.”
Much of Kalfař’s writing centers around places, and he feels a strong commitment to portray them accurately. “The fellowship will allow me to do a significant amount of research in the field that I would’ve otherwise not been able to do, travel to the places that are at the center of my next couple of books … especially when writing about real towns and cities, I consider it a professional duty to get a feeling for the place and its people, so that its fictional version can be as alive as the real thing.” He hopes to finish his second novel this winter.
Kalfař said he understands the struggle between managing time and utilizing creative strengths. He advises other creative writers to separate work from inspiration and to take advantage of their time.
“Writing is not a calling or a gift or a noble crusade – it’s work, and it should be approached as such. You don’t need to destroy your life or liver or relationships to be a good writer – that’s the one thing I wish I knew when I was in college. And, this one might be counterintuitive, but I believe it deeply – it’s your story, but it’s not about you. It’s about the reader. If they’re going to take the time out of their day to read, you owe them the best story possible.”