Interview: Zoran Zivkovic
By Jason Erik Lundberg
9 September 2004
Zoran Zivkovic is widely regarded as an insightful essayist and encyclopedist of science fiction. What many in the English-speaking world may not yet know is that he is also a thoughtful and imaginative novelist and short-story author. His ten works of fiction have all been translated into English from his native Serbian and published through Polaris Press, but it is only recently that his fiction has started appearing in the US. In 2003 he won the World Fantasy Award, for his novella The Library.
Zivkovic received his undergraduate, master's, and doctoral degrees all from the University of Belgrade in the Department of General Literature, Faculty of Philology. He was born in Belgrade and currently lives there with his wife, their two twin sons, and three cats. Zivkovic approaches fiction with the eye of a postmodernist (though he is reluctant to be called such) and with a unique sensibility. He survived NATO bombings in the former Yugoslavia and the despotism of Slobodan Milosevic, but these experiences have reinforced his constant search for meaning.
The following interview was conducted over email from March to June 2004.
Jason Erik Lundberg: Much of your recent output has been what you have termed "story-suites"—collections of seemingly unrelated tales with a common theme, character, or object that ties them together. These themes are united in the final (or the first) story of the collection, bringing the entire text together into a coherent whole.
When you sit down to write these story-suites, do you already have in mind the common theme, character, or object that you will use to unify the stories, or does this come about organically through the writing?
Zoran Zivkovic: When I sit down to write any piece of fiction, I never have a preconception. I am very far from any fully developed idea that should be only "technically" written down. I don't know how it is with other writers, but in my case in the beginning there is only a static picture of the initial scene, and maybe only the very first sentence. That is, namely, on the conscious level. But somewhere beneath it, in the constant turmoil of my subconscious mind, the story I am about to write already exists in its final form. It only waits for the proper moment to come out. That always happens in the morning, in the freshness brought by a good night's sleep. I am suddenly awakened by a very vivid picture in which the whole future story is contained, although at first I don't know very much about it. I hurry then to my computer and start to write before the picture is dissolved by various mundane distractions. I am in a strange, almost schizophrenic position while I write. I am simultaneously a writer and a reader. The reader in me, eager to "turn pages," is usually dissatisfied by the slowness of the writer's typing. But since I type using only my right index finger, there is little the writer can do to perform his job faster, so the reader has no alternative but to be patient.
JEL: Do you just keep writing until your common theme, character, or object naturally comes out in the fiction?
ZZ: That's exactly what happens. I just keep writing, enjoying the process of slow and often imperceptible emerging of a larger whole. Usually, I become fully aware of the final picture only while writing the last story in the cycle. There were only two exceptions to that rule. The first one was Seven Touches of Music, when the penultimate story, "The Violinist," revealed the total. The last story in that suite, "The Violin-Maker," is actually a prequel to "The Violinist" and is the pivotal one in the cycle. The second exception was Steps Through the Mist in which the first story serves as a cohesive element to the others.
JEL: Do you consider yourself primarily a morning writer? All of us operate on different circadian rhythms, and I'm wondering if the urge to write ever hits you in the afternoon or the evening.
ZZ: I like this term: "morning writer." Somehow, it sounds optimistic, bright, although my fiction isn't always compatible with that tone. Yes, I write almost exclusively in the morning. Sometimes, not very often, I feel the urge to write at other times of the day (never at night, because I sleep then, although my subconscious, the very source of my fiction, is the most active in that period), but I resist the temptation, knowing very well from my own experience that I won't be able to do any quality work at afternoon or in the evening. I am indeed a morning writer. The other parts of a day are for other pleasures, like reading and playing soccer or yamb (a dice game very popular in this part of the world) with my friends.
JEL: The search for meaning is a very prominent theme in your work, but you also seem to be having fun breaking down the barriers between fiction and metafiction, as well as exploring the secret lives of well-known artists and thinkers. What are some of the themes that you feel are most worth discussing in a fictional milieu?
ZZ: Basically, there are only two themes in the noble art of fiction writing: love and death. Everything else is one of their many derivatives. Even the most profound search for meaning fails if not spiced with some humorous touch that softens it. On the other hand, the laugh needs the presence of the seriousness to be truly effective. Eros and thanatos, laughter and tears, are in a constant conflict for precedence in my prose. In my humble view, I achieve the best results in my fiction writing when I manage to reconcile these opposites.
JEL: You've written about the speculated sex life of Stephen Hawking, the scourging of Satan by his own minions, the secret visit we all receive from God but never remember, the profundity of literary awards and bestseller lists, and the impregnation of a supercomputer by a monkey. Is there any subject that you won't write about because it conflicts with your personal code of ethics or morality?
ZZ: There is no violence in my fiction. I would never write about it. Evil is also absent, except in the form of a metaphysical force based on our mortality. I see no reason why I would write about other kinds of evil when that alone is more than sufficient to make tragic the general human condition.
JEL: I won't go into the events of Spring 1999 [the oppression of Slobodan Milosevic, as well as the allegedly accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy across the street from where Zivkovic lives], since I know it's still painful for you, but have you noticed if those events have informed your prose, aside from your aversion to fictional violence? I know that you wrote the very funny satirical novel The Book during that time, and I'm wondering if other good has come from that terrible point in your life.
ZZ: No good can come from a war. I have done my very best to forget that awful experience. Most of The Book was indeed written during the 79 days (and nights) of incessant bombing. It was a sort of a vitalistic reaction to the heavy presence of death all around me. I used a computer when we had electricity and pen and paper when there were power failures. I tried to resist the destructive force of thanatos with laughter. Yet, even without the 1999 war, The Book would have been written anyway. It was slowly maturing in me in that period. I wanted to write a comical requiem for books on the eve of the new millennium.
JEL: For those out there who have yet to read The Book, could you tell us what it is about?
ZZ: The Book is not quite a novel, although almost half of it takes the form of a narrative, neither is it an essay, although quite a lot of what is said in it adopts that style. It is actually closest to that rare type or "para-genre" of satirical prose embodied in the exemplary In Praise of Folly by the famous humanist from Rotterdam. Instead of the "Folly," of human manias and absurdities, here, in a similar kind of double-talk, the books themselves "speak," those monuments to our intelligence, ambitions and self-importance, and they primarily "speak" by making an analogy between man's fate and that of books—to man's detriment, of course.
I was just officially informed that The Book was nominated for one of the most prestigious European mainstream literary awards—the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. (My short novel The Library was also a nominee last year.)
JEL: Are there particular characters (in other words, books) that you feel greater sympathy with than others in the novel, or find more interesting?
ZZ: There are, of course. But I, in the capacity of the author, don't have the privilege of disclosing my sympathies. . . .
JEL: Books are given a voice in your tale, which compares them to slaves and brothel girls. Where did the main idea behind The Book (a story told from the point of view of books themselves) originate?
ZZ: The main idea originated from my personal experience. I have been active in various ways in the publishing field for more than thirty years, which is long enough to know all its aspects, bright and dark. Many episodes from The Book, although apparently only fictional, are in fact quite realistic. I didn't have to rely too much on my imagination in writing my novel. It was usually enough to be a good observer of reality. That reality is by no means local, restricted only to the part of the world I am privileged to live in. I could have been equally inspired for The Book in almost any other part of the planet. The publishing industry, that graveyard of the noble art of publishing, is nowadays globally widespread. Alas.
JEL: So let's go a little into your publishing business. What was the impetus behind starting up Polaris Press; were there certain authors you felt weren't getting enough attention in Serbia? And how many books have you now published from other languages into Serbian?
ZZ: The impetus was my impatience. Back in 1982 I was employed as an editor in one of the state-owned publishing houses. The usual period for a book to be produced in that system was about one and a half years. I thought it was far too long if we wanted to react promptly and bring out new titles more or less simultaneously with their original editions. At that time it wasn't possible to have a privately owned publishing house in Yugoslavia, but I used the legal opportunity of publishing my own translation as an independent edition. The initial idea was to bring out in this way only Arthur C. Clarke's 2010: Odyssey Two, but the response of the readership was so favorable that I simply couldn't stop. In the next 18 years, I published at Polaris more than 200 titles, most of them translations. In late 2000, however, I had to decide what I preferred to be: a publisher or a writer. Entering my fifties then, I simply couldn't do both jobs anymore. I chose being a writer and didn't regret it.
JEL: Does this mean that Polaris is no longer running, or has someone taken over the publishing duties from you?
ZZ: Let me put it euphemistically: Polaris is in a state of suspended animation. It emerges from that state only in order to provide an umbrella for bringing out a new book by my humble self. I always publish the first editions of my books, both in the Serbian original and in English translation, as Polaris editions.
JEL: How much of a market is there for Serbian-language SF?
ZZ: Almost none, partly because there is almost no Serbian-language SF. . . .
JEL: Do you do all the translations of your own writing? If not, how do you find a translator or translators you have confidence in?
ZZ: I would never be able to write prose in a foreign language or to translate it myself. You have to be a native speaker of the language you write in or translate to. Let me quote a short passage from my afterword to the USA edition of The Fourth Circle that could, I believe, well illustrate the position of an author originally writing in a small language:
As one cynic rightfully remarked, when you write in Serbian, you don't write at all. Indeed, your work is available to a theoretical maximum of about ten million native speakers, although the real number of potential readers is far, far inferior. The initial print-run of The Fourth Circle was only 500 copies, with an additional 500 printed after it won the Milos Crnjanski award in 1994. And that was it.
If I didn't want to remain first in the village, but to try my luck in the city, I had to provide an English translation of my novel. Once in English, it would become readable not only in the English-speaking countries, but throughout the world. It was easy enough to see that. To make it happen, however, was by no means straightforward and inexpensive.
I confess I have always envied authors who write originally in English. First, they don't have to bother at all about providing translations of their works. Second, they never pay their translators. Their publishers gladly do that for them. But, as we all know, the world isn't a just place, particularly if you aren't among its privileged inhabitants.
Quality English translators from the Serbian are a rare breed. It's no wonder, therefore, that they are in strong demand and appropriately expensive. So, even when you manage to engage one, you are not quite certain whether you should be glad because your work will be properly translated, or sad because it is going to cost you a fortune. Sadness usually prevails, since it is an investment that very rarely if ever pays off. What you eventually get for your money is a mere chance to get to where any English speaking author is when he has just completed his work. There are no further guarantees whatsoever even of recouping your investment, let alone of making a profit. You really have to be quite a gambler to agree to such terms.
JEL: Tell me a bit about your recent and upcoming publications.
ZZ: As for the USA, two of my fiction books appeared recently. In late 2003, The Book / The Writer was brought out by Prime Books. It got a number of favorable reviews. In February 2004, The Fourth Circle was published by Night Shade Books / Ministry of Whimsy. It has been reviewed many times already, in The New York Times, Publishers Weekly (with an interview), Locus (two times), Booklist, Library Journal, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, SF Site. . . .
Night Shade Books will bring out in November a rather voluminous collection of mine—Impossible Stories. It comprises my collected story-suites: Time Gifts, Impossible Encounters, Seven Touches of Music, The Library, and Steps Through the Mist. Finally, in 2005, Dalkey Archive Press will publish my new novel Hidden Camera.
My latest piece of fiction, a 15,000 word novella / short novel, "Compartments," will appear soon in the second issue of the British magazine Postscripts.
As for the other foreign editions, outside the English language area, there are going to be quite a lot of them. In mid-June, my novel The Book was brought out by the Seoul-based publisher Munidang. Munidang bought rights for three more books of mine and will publish them shortly. Impossible Stories will appear in Spain from Minotauro, The Book in Portugal (Cavalo de Ferro), The Fourth Circle in Bulgaria (Infodar), The Library in Croatia (Izvori). . . .
JEL: And don't you have a short story forthcoming in a future issue of Argosy?
ZZ: Indeed I have. It's "The Telephone." It should appear in issue #3.
JEL: What can we expect from Zoran Zivkovic in the future?
ZZ: More fiction, hopefully. What else?
JEL: Is there anything in particular that you're working on right now?
ZZ: Yes, there is. I just completed an 8,500 word story titled "The Cell." It's the first part of. . .well, you will just have to wait and see.