Release Interview: KAFKA AND THE DOLL by Larissa Theule ’09

Larissa Theule’s new picture book, Kafka and the Doll, seems as improbable as it is beautiful.  The memorably dour novelist-born in Prague in 1883 and the author of surreal works like The Metamorphosis, where a man turns into a monstrous insect—wouldn’t be your first choice for a charming picture book. But Theule mines a real-life story for this adventure. On a stroll with his girlfriend one day, Kafka came across a little girl weeping over the loss of her doll. On the spot, Kafka concocted a story to soothe her. The little doll was on an adventure, he told her, and would write letters to her about what she was seeing and doing. Faithfully, Kafka penned these letters and delivered them to the girl until his early death of tuberculosis in 1924. Kafka’s letters are a delight, revealing a playful side that also speaks of his joy in children. The book—with Rebecca Green’s sepia illustrations—is both charming and surprisingly moving about the persistence of loss and our need to envelop it in story.

Tell us about your book. Where did the inspiration for writing this book come from?  

Many years ago, a friend sent me an article about the legend of Kafka and the doll and said, “You need to write this story.” I read the article and was so moved by it that I drove to the Pasadena library and checked out every Kafka biography on the shelf. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much about the legend in those bios apart from passing references to it. Not until I found Kathi Diamant’s Kafka’s Last Love, about Dora Diamant, did I find what I was looking for. Dora was with Kafka when he met the little girl in the park and it was she who told the world of Kafka’s extraordinary kindness. Dora made clear that Kafka wanted the letter-writing “game,” as he called it, to heal the child’s wounded heart, and that he wanted to tell the story well because that’s what the child deserved. (Apparently, Kafka shared VCFA’s philosophy about writing for children.) I agonize and lose sleep over every book I write, but this one was extra. Was the narrative too sophisticated? Was the ending too untidy? Too sad? Would Kafka see even a glimpse of himself in it if he read it? In the end, I just tried to be as true and respectful to a child reader as Kafka was to the little girl in the park. Once I settled into that guidance, I felt calm.

Were there any unexpected hiccups along the way?

I don’t know about hiccups, but this book about journeys certainly took one of its own. Tamar Brazis acquired it in 2016 while she was still at Abrams. An illustrator signed on, backed out, then Rebecca Green signed on, and Tamar moved houses and took the book with her to Viking. The road to publication was a long one, but the book feels all the sweeter for it, especially thanks to Rebecca’s pitch-perfect art.

What about VCFA affected your career and where you are now?

I’m not exaggerating when I say VCFA shaped my career entirely. My advisors (Jane, Uma, Shelley, and Rita) taught me to value experimentation, craft, and hard work, and the program opened doors to the industry. My first agent signed me after hearing me read at an alumni residency, and my second agent signed me because of that same reading, but a couple years later. I’ve been with Linda Pratt for ten years now. But the most lasting thing about attending VCFA has been the community. I have VCFA friends I still write with and retreat with. We do our best to keep each other going when this business is hard, and it’s so hard sometimes. The community means the world to me.

How has 2020 affected your writing life?

I didn’t write all that much in 2020 and what I did write was blech. A thing I’ve come to understand is how vulnerable my writing life is to obstruction. I’ve gone through hard times before, of course, but last year I couldn’t escape anxiety and sadness even for a day and it wore me down in a way I’d never experienced before. Like so many others, I poured all my energy into making sure my loved ones were okay. I didn’t have a lot extra to give to the page. Thankfully, I’ve recently started writing more, although I still feel wobbly.

What’s forthcoming for you and your writing life?

In 2022, I have a nonfiction picture book coming out called Concrete: From the Ground Up, illustrated by Steve Light (Candlewick). It’s about the history of concrete, which is more scintillating than it sounds, I promise. The narrative weaves together world history, art, and science, and Steve’s pen and ink illustrations are, as you’d expect, detailed and delightful. After Concrete, I have another picture book coming out called Mouseboat, illustrated by Abigail Halpin (Viking). The title is deceptively cute. It’s a sad story, and Abigail’s art will devastate you with its vulnerability and beauty.

Tell us one thing that’s not on your official bio.

I love gardens but I’m a terrible gardener, so I go on long walks to look at other people’s gardens.

What indie bookstore do you want WCYA to support in the purchase of your book?

Once Upon A Time Bookstore in Montrose, California is so super lovely and an important part of my community, and the folks who run the store are staunch supporters of local authors and illustrators. If you like, you can order a signed copy of any of my books and they’ll ship it to you.

We are heeding the Brown Bookshelf’s call to action and raising up Black authors. Who is a Black author you admire and what book of theirs do you recommend?

I’m such a huge fan of Cozbi A. Cabrera and her work. If I’m ever lucky enough to meet her one day I know I’ll just be a big blushing dork. I especially love her multiple award-winning picture book Me & Mama, which has the kind of language and visual poetry that lingers in the reader’s mind long after the (peek-a-boo!) covers close. I like the sounds the teaspoon makes against the different cups, that the cup breaks and we feel nervous but Mama makes it okay, the way the little girl gets excited about wearing her fancy dress but then gets told it’s not a fancy dress day, the rain, the way the rich colors move together and fill the pages, the blue barrette, the trees, Mama’s laugh, the sweetness, trust, and sense of play in the mother and daughter’s relationship. When I read Me & Mama to groups of kids, I love that it reads aloud slowly, like peeling wrapping paper off a present. It’s just the most beautiful book!

Kafka and the Doll by Larissa Theule, illustrated by Rebecca Green, is published by Viking Books for Young Readers, March 9, 2021.

Larissa Theule is the author of books for children, including Kafka and the Doll and A Way With Wild Things. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Southern California with her family and dog.