An interview in the “Hito” magazine

An extensive interview with Zoran Zivkovic, conducted by Mrs. Youchan Ito, just appeared in the issue No. 5 of the Japanese “Hito” magazine.

If you don’t happen to be quite fluent in Japanese, here is the next best thing — the English translation.

Interview with Zoran Zivkovic by Youchan Ito

Youchan Could you tell us about your career, and how you became a writer?

Zoran I wrote my first piece of fiction — the novel The Fourth Circle — in 1993, when I was 45. In the previous two and a half decades I was a scholar, translator, editor, publisher, essayist and author of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, published in 1990. I was very active in the realm of science fiction from 1976 to 1990, but I completely abandoned this genre after my Encyclopedia appeared. From 1993 to 2011 I penned 19 books of prose. I see them as general, “literary” fiction. In any case, my prose doesn’t contain any SF elements.

Youchan The Japanese edition of Impossible Stories by Kurodahan Press was your first book in Japan. Could you tell us how it came about?

Zoran In mid-November 2008, I emailed Edward Lipsett of Kurodahan Press. It so happened that he was already familiar with my fiction. It was the beginning of a fruitful professional relationship as well as, more importantly, a very close friendship. So far Kurodahan Press has published six books of mine: five in English and one in Japanese. That was my first book translated into Japanese.

Youchan In Impossible Stories, some stories are told to the main character by those present. This kind of “story within a story” has a deep and enormous appeal, and many Japanese readers have praised this framework. How do you create these rich, condensed worlds? Please tell us about your approach to writing.

Zoran I wouldn’t be able to elaborate on my writing process because I don’t have rational control over it. The place where all my fiction originates is my subconscious. When I start writing a new piece of fiction I don’t really know, on my conscious level, what it will be about, although the future work is already fully formed in my subconscious. While writing fiction I am at the same time a typist taking dictation from my subconscious and a reader impatient and eager to know more about the new story or novel. The Teashop is by no means my only piece of prose containing stories within stories. Even more extensive and elaborate in this regard are my mosaic novel Four Stories till the End and, particularly, my novel Escher’s Loops.

Youchan In your novels we find worlds where reality and unreality coexist, such as in Impossible Stories. This seems to be a key element of your style. Can you comment on this distinctive style?

Zoran This isn’t really my literary invention. This introducing of subtle, barely visible fantastic elements into an otherwise ordinary realistic context is a sort of trade-mark of the tradition my writing belongs to the tradition of the Middle European fantastica, whose principal authors are Hoffmann, Gogol, Bulgakov, Kafka, Lem and others.

Youchan You display strong affection for books in your novels, including Impossible Stories. What do books mean to you?

Zoran Books are my entire universe. It is no wonder then that in many of my prose works real protagonists are books and their creators, authors: The Book, The Writer, Time Gifts, The Library, Miss Tamara, the Reader, The Last Book, The Ghostwriter

Youchan Time never wait for you — East European SF & Fantastica in the first decade of the 21st century was published in September 2011 by Tokyo Sogensha, and we were glad to be able to read another of your stories in Japanese. Could you introduce it here?

Zoran Let me quote the first sentence from my story “The Train” (a part of my mosaic novel Impossible Encounters) which is included in the anthology:

“Mr Pohotny, senior vice president of a bank prominent in the capital city, met God on a train.”

I hope this is an interesting teaser…

I would like to point out that my inclusion in the anthology is not quite appropriate geographically. Serbia, where I live, is in the Southern Europe, not Eastern…

Youchan You suggested that I would like Miss Tamara, the Reader, and recommended it to me. The heroine, Tamara, is a great reader. I feel very close toward Tamara, because she never abandons her habit of reading at all times. In “Melons”, you described her feeling about the last book in her life as like “What will be the last book I read? What thoughts are filling my head today?” What would you select for the last book in your own life?

Zoran There is a book I used to read — for decades now — at least once a year. It is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century — Jaroslav Hašek’s masterpiece The Good Soldier Švejk. If I could choose the last book I read, it would certainly be Hašek’s novel. Even dying while reading it would be highly appropriate…

Youchan About the lecture om Creative Writing which you teach at University of Belgrade, what exactly do you teach in your lecture? I heard from you that the lectures focus on Haruki Murakami sometimes. How are novels by Haruki Murakami, and other Japanese literature, received in Serbia?

Zoran At the beginning of my creative writing course at the Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade, I always give my students as many as four solid reasons to abandon it, to give up the very idea of becoming a prose writer. Yet, nobody seems to care about my advice. They all remain in the course and, apparently, don’t regret it at the end.

As for Japanese authors, the most popular among my contemporaries is certainly Haruki Murakami. I strongly recommend his novels to my students. The best creative writing course is the creative reading of grandmasters like Murakami…

Youchan You are from former Yugoslavia. I understand that you experienced diverse crises because of wars and economic sanctions. Perhaps because of these experiences the worlds you describe have a touch of statelessness on the whole. Actually, in “The Library”, I can feel the setting is in Europe, but cannot find any specific nation or area. Could you tell us about the background of this feeling of statelessness?

Zoran The general atmosphere of my prose books is actually typical for the Middle Europe area. It could be any major city in that part of the world: Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Warsaw, or my hometown of Belgrade…

The main reason I don’t situate the settings of my books in any concrete place is that any local ambiance is in fact irrelevant in my prose. The themes I deal with are universal and refer to human beings in general, regardless where they actually live. For all practical purposes, the setting of almost any book of mine could well be in Japan…

Youchan The Library is so wonderful and excellent, and won World Fantasy Award in 2003. Your novels, including this great novel, are translated and published all over the world, and The Library was sold in Republic of Korea recently. What makes your work so universally popular?

Zoran I assume it is the fact that readers from any corner of the world can easily identify themselves with my protagonist. Not being a locally limited writer has certain advantages…

Youchan Could you tell us a plot of your new work in secret, if you have? Or, please introduce books which will be published shortly.

Zoran My latest novel, published in March 2011, is titled The Five Wonders of the Danube. (The Danube is the second-greatest European river. I can see it from one of my windows…) The novel takes place on five imaginary Danube bridges — in Regensburg (Germany), Vienna (Austria), Bratislava (Slovakia), Budapest (Hungary) and Novi Sad (Serbia). The story begins with a huge painting appearing one morning, out of nowhere, on the Black Bridge in Regensburg…

I humbly hope The Five Wonders of the Danube will be eventually available to readers in Japan. That would be a great honor for me…

Special thanks to: Edward Lipsett (Kurodahan Press )

The “World Literature Today” interview with Zoran Zivkovic

The November/December on-line supplement of “World Literature Today” has brought out the most comprehensive interview with Zoran Zivkovic so far. It was conducted by Professor Michael Morrison and is reprinted here with the kind permission of WLT.

A Conversation with Zoran Živković
Michael A. Morrison Part I
Fantastika and the literature of Serbia

MM: You have said allied your fiction to the literary tradition of Middle-European “fantastika.” How do you define this tradition? Which of hits authors have influenced your work?

ZZ: The literary and geographical areas of “Mitteleuropa” (“Central Europe”) don’t coincide. The former is much wider, encompassing the European part of Russia. In the nineteenth and part of the twentieth century it was culturally, intellectually, and artistically rather united, particularly when it comes to literature. Valery Bryusov’s novel The Fiery Angel (1908) is very illustrative in this regard. It is set entirely in sixteenth-century Germany, but if you didn’t know that it was written by a Russian, you could never have guessed it: the novel seems so authentically German.

The term fantastika—used in slightly different ways in many European languages—doesn’t seem to have a satisfactory English equivalent. It could have been “fantasy” if that term hadn’t been reduced to a marketing label that means “Tolkienesque” fiction. Fantastika is by no means limited to that narrow section of the spectrum. It is, in fact, the spectrum itself—all non-mimetic prose. Nearly seventy percent of everything written during the past five thousand years is non-mimetic and belongs to one of many forms of fantastika: folklore, oneiric, fairy-tale, epic and so forth.

“Middle-European fantastika” was never a literary movement amalgamated by a common poetics. It was, rather, a tradition that shared some traits but was otherwise heterogeneous. Its most common trait was its minimal fantastic content. It features only slight deviations from reality, never large-scale dramatic events. Its protagonists are not heroes, but marginal individuals trying to find their way in a changed world.

I owe various debts to grand-masters of Middle-European fantastika. From E. T. A. Hoffmann I learned how to discreetly introduce fantastical elements, from Gogol how to increase the symbolic value of a fantastic story, from Bryusov how to achieve authenticity, from Bulgakov how to make the most of the humor in a fantastic context, from Kafka how to handle absurdity, from Lem how to search for new paths of fantastika.

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SF Signal interview

An exclusive interview with Zoran Zivkovic is posted at SF Signal.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. I read in an interview that you consider yourself a writer “without any prefixes.” Why do you think some readers, critics, and other writers have biases against fiction that are typically labeled as genre or might include elements of the fantastika?

These are two very different things. The fantastika is a noble and ancient art. (A much broader term, by the way, than “fantasy.”) According to some studies in literary history, about 70 percent of everything that has ever been written in the last 5,000 years, ever since literacy came about, belongs to one of many forms of  the fantastika. Some readers might not like it, that’s quite legitimate, but I don’t see how any serious critic could have biases against it. This would mean denying that the vast majority of the world literary heritage has any value. As for genre fiction, it refers to products of the contemporary publishing industry. Since any industry is primarily about making a profit, it’s no wonder that their products don’t have much art; art by its very nature does not go along with popularity. And only popularity, mass readership, paves the way to profit. Alas, the more popular usually means the more trivial, less artistic.

I read in another interview that when you were a kid, you were horrible at writing and poetry. What made you decide to persist at it and pursue writing? What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome before becoming a published writer?

Actually, I wasn’t horrible at writing when I was young, since I wrote my first piece of prose only when I was 45. I tried my hand at poetry, yes, and I don’t think these were really poor attempts. In that interview I referred to some high school home work that made my teacher conclude that I would never make my living by writing. I often remember that episode now that I teach creative writing. It makes me refrain from jumping to any similar conclusion even when I read a particularly bad story. It’s impossible to be a reliable prophet when it comes to prose writing. The biggest challenge I had to overcome before becoming a published writer was to actually write the works. Everything after that was rather smooth and straightforward, since I was myself my first publisher…

Your fiction has been translated into several languages. Do you have any theories as to why you’re popular internationally?

I guess there is a simple explanation. Readers from many countries apparently like what I write…

I read in an interview that you admit that your fiction is neglected by the literary establishment there. Is that still the case? Do you still seek their approval (and why or why not)?

The Serbian literary establishment is proverbially conservative and traditional. They still consider there can’t be any serious literature outside what they define as “great national themes.” Since my writing doesn’t belong to that category, and yet still has an impact abroad (I am currently one of most widely translated Serbian authors), they are now in some sort of a bind. They don’t know what to do with me. They can’t accept “the verdict” of the rest of the world without jeopardizing their conservatism. I have no reason to seek their approval. Approval will probably come by itself with the new generation of the Serbian literary scholars.

When it comes to translation, what are the difficulties in finding a good translator? When it comes to the English translation of your work, how does Alice Copple-Tosic best captures your “voice” and how did you meet such a wonderful translator?

I was extremely lucky to meet Alice. She has translated as many as 16 out of 18 prose books of mine. By now she has profoundly penetrated not only my language but even deeper, the way I think. Translators from Serbian into English are a rare breed, since there aren’t many native English speakers who are fluent in such a diabolically complicated language as Serbian. I am eternally grateful to Alice for everything I have achieved abroad.

Why do you think other Serbian fiction isn’t as popular internationally? Which Serbian author(s) should the rest of the world be reading?

If by “internationally” you imply the English language area, there is a simple explanation. US or UK publisher very rarely bring out books in translation. That’s really pity, since I am quite sure many English-speaking readers would greatly enjoy books by Goran Petrovic, Vladislav Bajac, Dragan Velikic or Svetislav Basara, to name just a few.

You teach Creative Writing at the University of Belgrade. Does this profession have any impact on your writing? What advice would you give to students?

This profession doesn’t have any impact on my writing since I have practically stopped writing since I started to teach. It is just a coincidence, of course. I’ll be able to answer your question as soon as I start writing again. As for my students, at the very first class of my course I give them as many as four convincing reasons to abandon it right away. And yet, masochistically, they all stay with me…

You also wrote papers on science fiction previously. What’s the appeal of science fiction and fantasy for you?

I was involved in many ways with science fiction for about fifteen years. But I was much younger at that time. I don’t think that what appealed to me then would have a strong impact on me at this age. Evidently, I changed. But science fiction changed too.

What’s the speculative fiction scene in Serbia like?

It’s very moderate. Some people would consider this an exaggeration…

You’ve written a wide variety of material from short stories to novels. Is there a particular format you’re most comfortable with? How about a format that you want to challenge yourself?

I don’t think about any format in particular when I start writing. I don’t choose formats. Formats choose me…

For unfamiliar readers, where we can find more of your work?

My UK publisher, PS Publishing, specialized in bringing out limited editions, will soon have a complete set of my prose opus. review of The Last Book

The Last Book, DTVAnother excellent review of the German (DTV) edition of my novel The Last Book just appeared. Here is an excerpt for those of you who happen to be fluent in German.

Das Lesen von Romanen ist eine verdammt gefährliche Tätigkeit. Mal schweben die Figuren des Romans in Lebensgefahr und sind abhängig von der Geschicklichkeit des Lesers, wie etwa in Giwi Margwelaschwilis letztem Roman “Officer Pembry”. Mal ist es der Autor, der von seinen Figuren an den Abgrund des Todes geführt wird, wie im jüngsten Kriminalroman “Und dann gab’s keinen mehr” des Briten Gilbert Adair, der auf wunderbar versponnene Weise die Hassliebe zwischen Autor und Figur thematisiert. Dritter in diesem – sehr lockeren – postmodernen Bunde ist der Serbe Zoran Živković, der hierzulande ein ähnliches Geheimtipp-Schicksal führt wie die beiden anderen Autoren. “Das letzte Buch” ist sein kurzer Roman betitelt, der in diesem Herbst in deutscher Übersetzung erschienen ist und in dem es um die tödliche Macht des Lesens geht. Im Falle von Živković sind es die Leser selbst, die durch ihre Lektüre in Gefahr geraten, denn hier wird Lesen zu einer absolut todbringenden Angelegenheit.

Link to the full review here.

Interview at Shirley Jackson Awards Blog

Filipino blogger and bibliophile Charles Tan has been conducting short interviews with a number of nominees of the inaugural Shirley Jackson Awards, including Lucius Shepard, Laird Barron, Carrie Laben, Barbara and Christopher Roden, Christopher Golden, Conrad Williams, and now my humble self. His interview with me was just recently posted:

What made you decide to use the format presented in 12 Collections?

Many prose books of mine share that format. Ursula LeGuin called it a “mosaic-novel”: A whole that is bigger than the mere sum of its constituent parts. An amalgam, not just a conglomerate. I find the term quite appropriate. The stones my literary mosaics are made of can be read and, hopefully, enjoyed, individually, but their true meaning emerges only when seen in entirety of the big picture. This is particularly evident in “Twelve Collections”: The final, twelfth collector collects collections, as if giving a frame to the picture…

Link to the interview.

Interview in InterGalactic Medicine Show

Darrell Schweitzer’s interview with my humble self has just been posted at InterGalactic Medicine Show.

SCHWEITZER: Robert Heinlein once famously described science fiction as a form of realism, that is, serious speculation about things that might be, told in a realistic manner. That doesn’t fit your work at all, which seems closer to Borges or Kafka than to Heinlein. So how would you describe your approach? What is the use of unreality in describing thematic truth?

ZIVKOVIC: First of all, I don’t write science fiction. Nor fantasy for that matter. I feel rather uncomfortable whenever labeled in any way as an author. I consider myself a writer without any prefixes. I am just a humble practitioner of the ancient and noble art of prose. No more, no less. Any prefix would be either misleading or limiting. Labels are invented by the publishing industry which doesn’t see any art in prose. For them it is just another product whose sole purpose is to be sold. My writing belongs to the middle European fantastic tradition. I feel strong literary kinship with such masters as Bulgakov, Kafka and Lem. I write fantastic fiction because its non-mimetic nature enables me to tell something that couldn’t be expressed in any other way.

Link to the full interview.

Feature Article in Fame Magazine

I recently appeared in the first issue of Fame magazine, a new Serbian glossy, along with Serbia’s three reigning tennis stars. My photo was taken for a full-page feature article on my humble self, and also for the foldout section of the magazine’s cover (shown in the center, below):

Please click each image to enlarge.