Taking us behind the scenes of Better You Go Home, Author Scott Driscoll gives us insights as to the true story that inspired this exciting medical thriller.
From Scott Driscoll, author of Better You Go Home (Oct 2013, Coffeetown Press, Seattle)
The inspiration for Better You Go Home began, really, when I was twenty-one and in Germany taking a break from college. After working for a few months in a bowling alley on an American naval base in Augsburg Germany, I had enough money saved to continue traveling. I booked a tour on a bus from Munich to Istanbul. The bus detoured through Prague, where we spent one night at a hotel before driving on to Hungary the next day. This was the late 70s.
Dinner that night was in the hotel’s ballroom. We were not allowed to wander outside unescorted. The ballroom was elegant enough, high ceiling, tall French windows, drapes. We were the only customers. The wait staff wore surly expressions and stayed by the kitchen to smoke. The women wore heavy clogs with high support ankles, unfeminine but good for staying on your feet for hours on end. We were treated to suspicious glances, until, bored, I took my harmonica out of my daypack and pretended to blow railroad blues (I am not a musician). Soon a few staff, then more came across the ballroom floor to our table. American blues fascinated them enough to overcome their fear of being exposed as decadently bourgeoisie. I only mention this because it was the first time in Europe that I actually felt a sense of coming home.
Many years later, at my Aunt’s funeral in Cedar Rapids Iowa, I heard a cousin of my father’s say: “Too bad Helen has died. Now there is no one left who can translate the Czech letters.” That one chance phrase started an odyssey of searching. I knew there was a Czech side to my father’s family, but no one spoke about them. Eventually I would find out why. But that required tracking down a priest nearby who was Czech and who was a relative and who translated our letters. After handing over his information, he said he wanted never to hear from us on this matter again. There was a suicide, a bigamous marriage, children born out of wedlock.
In 1994, three years after the Velvet Revolution, I went to Prague to search for the Bohemian village the Czech side of my family was from. Merely finding the village was a triumph. There were five villages with approximately the same name. Stupidly, I did not take a translator with me. In 1999, I went back, this time with a translator, a terrifically helpful man from Prague who ran a black light theater company and traveled and spoke excellent English (I do not speak Czech). We spent the better part of two days visiting the old farmhouse and drinking Slivovice and pivo and eating sweet pastries and chatting with an elderly relative who had lots of stories to tell.
The elderly relative pulled out a black pocket-sized spiral notebook. Through my translator, I was trying to get him to tell stories about the relatives who’d fled. I wanted him to tell me what happened. Why the suicide. Why some left and some stayed. But, no, he kept saying by and by. First he badly wanted to show us the numbers referring to the produce he’d been forced to turn over to the Soviet co-op. He wanted to explain himself, to show that he hadn’t been irresponsible, he hadn’t abandoned the farm, though he had nearly starved his family.
We visited the town historian and saw our family listed in the record book and here I made the discovery that a person named Anezka, mentioned in one of the letters, was listed with no known father. All others were accounted for but not her.
The story began to unfold as a search for Anezka and an attempt to understand why my father had been told, no, those people are dead. We do not speak to them.
I took careful notes in Steno pads during those two journeys. I kept those notes and referred to them when building early drafts of my story.
I read books. Czech history. Czech novels. Essays by Havel. Before I could actually feel ready to write chapters, I had to feel like I knew that world.
Thank you so much, Scott. What a journey you've been on. I appreciate you sharing it with us. Now let's take a peek inside the book. Good luck with your new release!
A married man’s unexpected departure from Czechoslovakia― with the neighbor woman and her children―is at the heart of a mysterious trail of true events that has inspired University of Washington writing instructor Scott Driscoll to write his first novel, Better You Go Home. “At a family funeral in the early 90s, I learned about a cache of letters written in Czech to my aunt. I had them translated and learned that a male relative had left his wife and three children in a remote farm village in Bohemia prior to World War One.” Driscoll continues, “I learned my relative and the neighbor woman married bigamously in Iowa. The other fact revealed was the presence of a child named Anezka―who seems to have simply disappeared. I suspect she was their illicit child.”
Not long after, Driscoll visited his relative’s village and began to speculate. “What had become of the unidentified child? What if my life had deployed on her side of the Iron Curtain? Once that question lodged in my psyche, like a small wound that wouldn’t heal, I knew I had to write this story.” The work of literary fiction that trip inspired is Better You Go Home. The novel traces the story of Seattle attorney Chico Lenoch, who is diabetic, nearing kidney failure and needs a donor organ. He travels to the Czech Republic in search of his half-sister who may be able to help save his life. What Chico does not count on is unearthing long-buried family secrets.
Better You Go Home is about a son seeking his father’s secrets, but in a larger sense it’s about the progeny of exiles. Says Driscoll, “Much has been written about the survivors of WWII and its aftermath; I want to draw attention to the lives of their children.”
A peek inside...
Tuesday Night in Prague: Sept. 13, 1994
Milada’s flat is on the eighth floor of a twelve-story high rise in a
gray sidliste of concrete block buildings. The street curb is dammed by
defunct Skodas, the no-frills tin-can cars manufactured locally. The security
mesh screening the outer door is rusted and dented. This is the depressing
Khrushchev-era flat Milada is forced to continue calling home so that her
husband could afford that Russian mafia loan. Okay, it’s not lost on me that
I’m taking risks, possibly for no better reason than to salvage my own father’s
dignity. Or my own. Still, Jiři goes too far. How is his pride any different than
that of his father’s?
She pushes the buzzer on the intercom panel to alert Jiři to our arrival.
Jiři’s family name is listed on the panel. Her name is Kotyza. Her grandfather
was related to my grandmother. Most lights behind the buttons on the panel
are burnt out. I avoid looking at hers. I don’t want to see if they’ve troubled
themselves to replace the bulb behind their butto anymore than I want to
think of Milada stuck here for the forseeable future.
We bounce in the elevator up to the eighth floor and walk down a corridor
with cracked and missing tiles. A decorative strip of plaster above the tile,
painted the color of mustard, has browned with grime. And the smells.
Sour cabbage, urine, acrid tobacco. Nose wrinkling neglect has turned this
passageway into a tableau of the torture I imagine it must have been to raise
her family here. No wonder she obsessed over the Skagit, the baldies, the
turbulent water. The stinking salmon carcasses on the flood banks must have
been ambrosia to her eastern bloc nose.
Prague is earning a reputation as the world’s black market capital for illegal
organs. I know this, but I did not anticipate Dr. Saudek’s insinuation—as he
shoved me away from the shores of Prague this afternoon—that this was the
reason I’ve come paddling into his little harbor.
Milada insisted that we phone Blue Cross tonight and request an extension.
Jiři’s black-light troupe—he’s their business manager—is performing at a local
theater after dinner. She wants us to attend his show. She admits she is proud
of her husband’s participation in the revolution. She will always love him for
In the entryway to her flat we exchange shoes for slippers. Blinds cover
the windows, an old precaution to prevent paranoid neighbors from spying, a
habit she admits she finds hard to break. Curious—can’t help it—I lift a blind.
In a littered lot between buildings is a rusty, partly collapsed play gym. All
the reason I’d need to keep the blinds closed. Her dark furniture includes a
massive armoire for coats and shoes and a credenza filled with the obligatory
leaded crystal. Nothing in the details says Milada. Where does she keep
her details? Following her to the kitchen, I ponder the degree to which the
details we surround ourselves with ought to reflect our desires. To what extent
does a paucity of details reflect self denial? My father kept his details in the
basement. That amber bowl he flicked his cigar ashes into. The starched white
undershirts, the ironed Union work pants. The bar of Ivory soap at the sink he
brushed his teeth with, in the early days, when he still thought and acted like
an emigrant. That stack of quarters, weekly replenished, that I was forbidden
to touch. I liked to think they were savings kept from Mom in order to send
money overseas to Anezka. What do those details say about him? That he
was caught between worlds, a man whose heart desired a world that was in
his past, that he longed for pointlessly? But he was kind. Those quarters, I’m
convinced, were more than just beer and cigar money.
In the kitchen, her husband winces at my broad-voweled American accent
when I politely return his “dobry den.” Jiři is a short man with an athletic build
through the chest and thighs. With his pale eyes, sandy brows, sandy hair
cropped conservatively short, he looks more handsomely like the Olympic
skater he once was than a revolutionary. You’d expect to see his face on a
Wheaties box, not on a prison mugshot. Their fifteen year old son, Martin,
takes my jacket. His hair is jelled into neon pink and green Mohawk spikes.
Milada tells me he is crazy about Seattle grunge. I gave him a Nirvana disc and
a Walkman to play it in—he’s on his own for the batteries. Do I want coffee?
he asks. I explain that I’d love it but it’s a problem of fluid retention; I have to
measure intake. Then I decide why not, I’m going right back home anyway.
Why not enjoy the little time I do have here?
“Tonight,” Jiři announces with a dramatic sweep of his arms, “we serve
Czech specialty, svičkova!” Pronounced “sveetch-ko-vah,” the word rolls off
his tongue with a sumptuous ahhh! The sauce for the pork roast takes two or
three days to prepare. It will be too rich and too salty for me, Milada warned
yesterday when she invited me to dinner, but I said no problem, I’ll take a
spoonful and appreciate what I am missing. Throwing Jiři a stern watch-your manners
look, she disappears into a back room to change. While their son
fixes coffee, I escape to the deck.
Wash is hung to dry on plastic lines. The deck side of the building faces
the freeway, which is so close it roars like a thousand sewers draining all at
once. The unfiltered exhaust makes my eyes water. I ponder the shove I took
this afternoon from the esteemed Dr. Saudek. No doubt he was only being
sensible when he said, “Better you go home.” Still, how could I not resent the
insinuation that I’m here to steal a Czech kidney and that I’d take advantage
of my father’s country in its desperation? Nothing I could possibly say would
change the fact that in his eyes I’m an American and that’s that.
At first Dr. Saudek actually seemed willing to help. Short, wiry, with buzzcut
gray hair, the head of the Department of Diabetes wore a lab coat and had
a clipped manner and was more at ease spouting statistics than in offering
encouragement, but he did seem to take a special interest in my case. He
proudly showed me a study he’d published in English entitled, “The Effect of
Kidney/Pancreas Transplantation on Diabetic Retinopathy.”
His secretary printed a copy. I read it using my magnifier while he watched.
Eleven years in, more than ninety percent of the patients who received only
a partial pancreas from a living donor had gone blind. Patients who received
a complete pancreas from a cadaver are exhibiting a sixty percent rate of eye
“You still have functional eyesight,” he observed. “If you take only portion
of your sister’s pancreas, you will certainly become blind.”
“What I need most urgently is a kidney,” I said.
That’s where the interview began to sour. To qualify for a legal kidney
here, you have to be Czech, and I don’t have a Czech passport. When I was a
dependent my father could have made this possible but he never expected to
return and so chose not to do it.
“Cost for surgery,” he went on, I’m sure to scare me, “including mandatory
first year of care, would be about thirty thousand. In cash dollars. If you have
this money,” he shrugged elaborately, “maybe we could put you on list.”
I couldn’t help but notice the contradictory messages and was reminded
that Czech doctors work for the State and are not well paid. Many take private
patients who show up bearing envelopes stuffed with cash.
He handed me a brochure that proudly announced the introduction of the
immunosuppressant drug program ten years ago, in 1984. This program made
it possible to transplant organs that wouldn’t be rejected by the recipient’s
immune system. The annual number of kidney and pancreas transplants has
risen steadily since then. Twenty-five are scheduled at his clinic for this year
“Better you go home,” he said tersely. “Among Czech people, six hundred
thousand have diabetes. Patients on dialysis is up thirty-one percent from
when we began our study.” He opened his hands, palms up, as if to say sorry,
what can we do?
About the author…
Scott Driscoll is an instructor at the University of Washington Professional and Continuing Education programs where he has taught creative writing for 20 years. He has also taught fiction and creative nonfiction in the Writers in the Schools and Path With Art programs and online through the Seattle-based Writer's Workshop, as well as at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House literary center. Scott was awarded the “UW Educational Outreach Excellence in Teaching Award” for 2006.
Driscoll has been awarded eight Society of Professional Journalists awards, most recently for social issues reporting. His narrative essay about his daughter's coming of age was cited in the Best American Essays, 1998. While enrolled in the UW MFA program, he won the Milliman Award for Fiction. “Writing for me is about applying form to the mysteries we suffer.”
Learn more at www.scott-driscoll.com
“Moving, powerful, and compulsively readable, Better You Go Home is the unforgettable story of a man's journey to save his own life, and how he discovers himself along the way.”
—Garth Stein, New York Times bestselling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain
Better You Go Home will be released by Coffeetown Press on Oct. 1, 2013
$13.95, 236 pp, Trade Paperback/eBook~ISBN: 978-1-60381-170-5