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 )