A new generation of Professor Zivkovic’s creative writing students at the Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade, just finished their first semester…
Here is the jacket of the UK limited edition of The Ghostwriter, to be brought out by PS Publishing in January 2012. There will be two more editions of The Ghostwriter next year—an Italian (TEA) and a Portuguese (Cavalo de Ferro).
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 )
An anthology of the Middle European fantastika, edited by Mrs. Fumio Takano, was just published in Japan by Tokyo Sogensha. It contains Zoran Zivkovic’s story “The Train.”
“The Train” was previously published in the UK (twice), US , Germany, Spain, Turkey and Croatia.
A BBC radio adaptation of “The Train” was produced in 2005.
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.
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.
Zoran Zivkovic was honored by the special section in the November/December issue of the prestigious US bimonthly literary magazine “World Literature Today.”
The special section contains a biographical sketch, Zoran Zivkovic’s new story “Rendezvous in Front of the House” and Professor Michael A. Morrison’s essay “The Metaphysical Fantasias of Zoran Zivkovic.”