From Olympic Fencer to Arctic Thriller - In Conversation with Geza Tatrallay
Geza Tatrallay (Ontario & St Catherine’s 1972) was born in Budapest, Hungary, before escaping with his family 1956 during the Hungarian Revolution. After a career in government, international organizations, finance, and environmental entrepreneurship he has become a prolific writer. He represented Canada as an epée fencer in the 1976 Olympics. This is an edited transcript of a conversation with Geza.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have a book coming out in the first half of this year called Arctic Inferno – it’s a thriller, a sequel to Arctic Meltdown, exploring the melting of the polar ice cap, the situation in Greenland and potential conflict in the Arctic.
The one I’m writing just now, I’m about half done, is a Vermont-based murder mystery story, The Purple School Bus Murders. It’s about a series of murders around Vermont including of an anti-Kremlin activist who defected here. I normally do an outline before I start, but here I didn’t and it’s just emerging in the direction it is. I love the process of writing a book, to see what direction it goes in, the story takes on a life of its own.
You’ve been quite prolific as a writer since retiring.
I started writing in school, I was inspired by two English Lit teachers in high school, so I’ve been writing poetry all my life. And then in my twenties I decided I’d write down the story of my family’s escape so that my children and their children and the family would have it in English. That’s one of the first books I turned into a full-fledged memoir and got published after I retired.
Once I retired I made it much more of full-fledged effort, I wouldn’t say full time, but whenever I had some free time I devoted it to writing. The memoir, then several thrillers followed, then another memoir about my time working at Expo70 in Japan – I took a year off from my studies at Harvard to do that, and that was quite an amazing experience so I wrote that up as a memoir. The third memoir was about my fencing career and helping a Romanian/Hungarian fencer defect to Canada at the 1976 Olympics, which was right after my Oxford experience.
I fenced at Oxford, had a fabulous coach there, a Hungarian, Bela Imregi. Between 1972 and 1974 I was at Oxford. I fenced there with the Blues, then I continued with that coach in London, and that propelled me to get to the Olympics.
I just really enjoy the intellectual stimulation of playing with words to write a poem or create a story. A lot of my thrillers are based on my own experience of East-West tension and conflict, or the environment, because that’s a major concern of mine and has been since college days. I studied at Harvard under Roger Revelle who was one of the first people out there to draw attention to climate change. My last three poetry collections have focused on the world around us and what we’re doing to it, to other species and ourselves.
Climate change and East-West tension – you couldn’t get any more topical than that at the moment.
Actually, I’ve been asked to give a number of talks on that, focusing on my first memoir, my family’s escape from Hungary. It’s very similar to the stories of the 6 million Ukrainian refugees who’ve had to leave their homeland, for the parents to make a new life and create an opportunity for their children. That’s why my book is called For the Children, because my parents escaped from Stalinist Hungary to Canada to give their children a better life.
And what sort of a reaction do you get to these talks?
There’s great interest, especially now. The local library here in Vermont, I’d never seen so many people packed into it. It’s just a very topical, relevant theme now. And certainly in the US, how the US is reacting to refugees and asylum seekers - they recognise the fact that the US is a land where immigrants have contributed a lot, but at the same time, the far right’s negative attitude towards immigrants coming in is a huge issue.
Focused on climate change and East-West tensions, there’s a lot of doom and gloom there at the moment. What gives you hope to see a way out of it for us all?
The fact that the younger generation is actively trying to do something about it. Look at Greta Thunberg and all the other climate activists and there are some very positive movements out there. My only fear is that with the lack of sufficient political action on that front –we’re too late. But certainly seeing the efforts of the UN, there is a lot of effort being devoted to it, the question is are we in time or are we going to see major calamity? Which we are – look at California, the starvation in Ethiopia and Somalia, largely caused by climate change. We’re not doing enough, unfortunately.
I notice that several of the Class of 2023 Rhodes Scholars are very focused on climate change.
That gives me hope and I hope that they’ll be able to accomplish something going forward on that front.
It does worry me how much negative attention people like Greta Thunberg attract from certain quarters.
Well, she’s a bit of a symbol – somebody has to stand up as a leader on this issue. I think the UN are trying to do a lot of good, but unfortunately the political elite in the biggest countries is not sufficiently focused on it. The US has a totally dysfunctional system of government now where the divided Congress can stop all activity on that front. And you have people like Putin and Xi and Modi who are not really very active on this and are actually doing things that are counter-productive, unfortunately.
What are your lasting memories from your time in Oxford?
The Warden, Edgar Williams, he was amazing and supportive. I remember going back for my second year at Oxford and when I went up from London I had this terrible pain the side of my abdomen. I went to the house I was sharing with other students. And I collapsed on the stairs with severe appendicitis. I called 999 and they took me to the hospital, and the Warden or his wife was there every day, coming to see me - they were like parents. Amazing.
They were very supportive – it was not very common for a third year Rhodes Scholar to study outside Oxford. But I just went in and asked on the off-chance that the Rhodes Scholarship could pay for my year at LSE. In every aspect, they were just so supportive.
I wanted to broaden my studies of the human condition – it was an aspect of human sciences that were not covered in Oxford. But also so I could fence more with the Coach Imregi from Oxford who was also coaching in London – he had most of the British team fencing with him there. And for the experience on living in London – it’s a fabulous city and was just starting to become more internationalised.
What advice would you give to people thinking about applying for the Scholarship next year?
Be true to yourself. Don’t try to over-impress. Present yourself as you are. Don’t paint yourself in a way that you’re not – I think that can be a mistake in applications. Be humble in your interview, don’t try to boast.