While most people have never been to space, nearly everyone can identify with the feeling of loneliness, a theme that UCF alum Jaroslav Kalfař ’11 explores in Spaceman of Bohemia. Seven years after Kalfař published his first novel, a film adaptation, Spaceman, is now bringing the story to theaters nationally, and will soon appear on screens at home as it begins streaming on Netflix March 1.

While Kalfař notes the novel and film are two separate entities, both follow Jakub Procházka, a Czech astronaut who embarks on a solitary research mission and soon realizes he can never escape his family history or the hazards of his own mind. Six months into the mission, Jakub (played by Adam Sandler), realizes that the marriage he left behind might not be waiting for him when he returns to Earth. Desperate to fix things with Lenka (played by Carey Mulligan), he is helped by a mysterious creature from the beginning of time, Hanuš (voiced by Paul Dano), whom he finds hiding in the bowels of his spaceship. Hanuš works with Jakub to make sense of what went wrong before it is too late.

The novel and the film highlight Czech culture and identity, as Kalfař was born in Prague. After immigrating to the United States at the age of 15, he learned English through novels and cartoons.

Kalfař earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from UCF before completing his MFA at New York University (NYU). In 2017 — the same year Spaceman of Bohemia was published — he was awarded a highly competitive and prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship for $25,000.

“I began to write the short story that inspired Spaceman shortly before graduation [at UCF,] Kalfař says. “I became obsessed with the idea of an astronaut on a larger-than-life mission, who must deal with the most minutiae, humbling, human things possible: feeding himself, going to the toilet, receiving a call from his wife requesting a divorce. The contrast between our biggest and loftiest ambitions and the grounding realities of life (For example, “I won the Oscar. Now I have to brush my teeth and do laundry.”) are a reoccurring theme in my work.

“During my first workshop at NYU, I changed the astronaut’s nationality to Czech, and the project became a novel. I was able to deal with the same themes while also making my first book about my country’s culture and history, as I’d always intended.”

Here Kalfař shares more about his development as a writer, debut novel and the process of adapting it into a major Hollywood film.

Why did you attend UCF? How did your time at UCF help prepare you for your successes today?
As a student who needed to work full-time to survive, I was looking for an in-state university that could accommodate an off-campus lifestyle and offered a wealth of writing and literature courses. UCF was a perfect fit. Before applying, I had heard great things about the English department, and found them to be true. In workshops, I found close mentorship from professors I admired as writers, and the small class size allowed for rigorous reading from my classmates. I’ll never forget the postmodernist literature course I took, where I encountered some of my now-favorite books. The short story collection I wrote as my honors thesis at UCF got me a fully funded admission into the NYU MFA program.

You began writing short stories based on The X-Files. What is it about science fiction stories and writing that you enjoy so much?
Speculative fiction allows us to travel far beyond our known worlds to examine human problems in an entirely different context. It allows us to change the rules, alter history, alter science, reimagine whole societies to push the boundaries of storytelling further. And there is something about the cosmos, especially. Here is this massive phenomenon, a place so vast the human brain is not equipped to comprehend it, and yet, its vastness and chaos and beauty reminds one of the seemingly endless expanse of the human mind.

Much of your writing focuses on place. How did you approach writing a story based in space — where you and most people have never been?
Specifically by focusing on the indignities of being human. All the little things we must do in life: keeping our clothes clean, feeding ourselves, brushing our teeth, exercise. These things become a thousand times harder in the hostile vacuum of space. In my research, I became obsessed with how astronauts accomplish these little tasks and the absurd problems they face, in order to render the existential problems of my character externally as well as internally.

I think that the focus on these details humanizes the books and brings it closer: most people haven’t been to space, but they do know how alienating it is when a person you love falls out of love with you, and can imagine how tough it might be to brush your teeth without running water or, well, gravity. Fortunately, human fascination with space made the task of my research easy. There are so many books, websites, resources directly written by astronauts that detail the joys and frustrations of living in space.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing this novel?
Well, if I were to answer this question with complete honesty, I’d say it was the fact I wasn’t able to afford food. But, to provide a more artful answer: this is fundamentally a book about a person who gives up too much to serve his own ambitions. Becoming lonely and isolated due to the pursuit of larger aspirations is something I am deeply familiar with. Facing that within oneself can be a difficult thing.

And then comes the next problem: when one identifies strongly with certain emotional aspect of a character they’re writing, it’s easy to become punishing. “You’ve made mistakes, now suffer.” When a character is this close to one’s heart, it is difficult to treat them objectively, to see them as three-dimensional and worthy of a second look, forgiveness. We are our own worst critics. So, maintaining my distance from Jakub, even though we share this one big thing in common, required a great deal of patience and learning about the self.

What message do you want readers to take away from your novel? And for viewers from the movie?
I do not so much believe in dealing with boiling books down to a message — the entire book is the message, and one only hopes readers will feel an emotional connection to it, and from such connection they will draw up their own conclusions and messages. Ideally, for each reader, the message will be a little different.

What was the process like to have your novel adapted into a movie? How involved were you? How did the producers, director, actors, etc. maintain the integrity of your work?
I was lucky to see my work acquired by producers and creatives who truly feel and understand the spirit of the text, and wanted to preserve it as much as possible for the adaptation. This meant that I got to consult with the team throughout the process, from screenplay and actor consultations to discussing the cultural aspects of the film’s “Czechness.”

At the same time, I wanted the film to be a unique piece of art separate from the book, and so I was happy to maintain some distance, not only for this reason but also due to the capricious nature of the film industry, where vast majority of projects fall apart before entering production. In short, I didn’t want to become fully emotionally involved until I knew the film was actually happening. But now that the seven-year process of adaptation is over, I can say that it has been one of the most interesting and profound experiences of my life.

You shared that during quarantine you would have late, two-hour conversations with Adam Sandler to help him learn about what it is to be Czech and Czech history. What were some of the most important elements you emphasized to him?
The most important aspect was Czech humor, which was a particularly fascinating thing to discuss with a world-renown comedian. The Czechs experienced closely every major political upheaval of the 20th century. A tumultuous formation of our nation after the first world war, brutal occupation by the Nazis during the second war, the oppression of Stalinism until the late 1980s, and then, a transformation toward capitalism, filled with corruption and scandal. Adam and I spoke about what such constant political strife can take from an individual, the shame we feel when we end up standing on the wrong side of history, and the humor and art that carried Czechs through these challenges. That, to me, is the fundamental aspect of the Czech soul: we laugh through our pain, acknowledging the world’s ceaseless absurdity.

You’ve said before that you thought no one would care about your writing when you came to America. What does it feel like to not only have your work published and receive honors like the National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, but now have a movie based on your work?
It is magnificent and humbling. I think that one of the dangerous parts of this kind of life is that everything moves rather slowly. By the time your work reaches the world and receives any kind of acclaim, you are already well at work on and obsessed with the next book, the next project. There is a constant danger that one might be too preoccupied with the new work to ever appreciate the attention that older work is getting. So, I’ve been really working on pausing, living in the moment, luxuriating in the successes of Spaceman even though this is a book I finished a decade ago, and published seven years ago.

Ultimately, I feel like the luckiest person alive — to make art and words my life, to devote the hours of my day to my biggest obsessions. Of course, this is wholly a mad endeavor, one dependent so much on luck, on meeting the right people at the right time, built on years and years of hunger and uncertainty and unpaid medical bills to give myself the time and chance to become a writer. It was so much more likely that none of this would ever happen. And so I embrace the madness of chance, grateful for every day I get to write without worrying about survival in the way I used to.

What’s next for you?
Currently I am finishing my third book, and then I shall embark on a massive project, a book of magical realism that will cover one hundred years of Czech history between the country’s founding in 1918 and 2018. I’m also expanding my efforts into the film industry, working on my first original film project. COVID-19 took a serious bite out of my career (my second book, A Brief History of Living Forever, was supposed to come out in 2019, and came out instead in 2023. Four years of delays.) and I am eager to catch up. Several of my next projects are already fully formed in my mind — the struggle is always the ruthless passing of time. Writing is and should be a slow endeavor — and our productivity-obsessed world doesn’t always make that fact easy.