Another interview! Thanks to Zoran for taking the time out of his day to answer my questions. Enjoy!
SD: Could you please introduce yourself to the audience and talk a little about your history in the writing/publishing world?
ZZ: I was born in Belgrade, the form Yugoslavia, in 1948. In 1973 I graduated from the Department of General Literature with the theory of literature. I received my master’s degree in 1979 and my doctorate in 1982. I am now professor of creative writing at Belgrade University.
I started to write prose in 1993, when I was 45. In the next decade and a half I wrote sixteen books of fiction: The Fourth Circle (1993), Time Gifts (1997), The Writer (1998), The Book (1999), Impossible Encounters (2000), Seven Touches of Music (2001), The Library (2002), Steps Through the Mist (2003), Hidden Camera (2003), Compartments (2004), The Bridge (2006), Miss Tamara, the Reader (2006), Amarcord (2007), and The Last Book (2007).
I am about to finish my new novel Escher’s Loops.
SD: What are you currently reading, what do you plan to read, and what have you just finished reading?
ZZ: I am currently re-reading Erasmus Roterdamus’ masterpiece In Praise of Folly. Prior to that I read with great pleasure Peter Woit’s excellent study Not Even Wrong. In early February I always read the same book: Jaroslaw Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, one of the greatest novels of all times.
SD: What are some of your writing influences? Who is your favorite author and/or what is your favorite book?
ZZ: Any book by Mikhail Bulgakov, Milan Kundera, Jose Saramago, Tamar Yellin, Umberto Eco, Kazuo Ishiguro, Orhan Pamuk, Haruku Murakami…
SD: What were some hurdles you faced when you first began taking your writing seriously?
ZZ: I wrote extensively about my initial hurdles in the afterward of the US edition of my first novel The Fourth Circle (The Ministry of Whimsy Press, 2004). Here is an excerpt:
When apparently there were no more publishers to whom my agent could submit The Fourth Circle, he stepped forward with an ingenious proposal. I should change my name. What do you mean, I asked incredulously. He meant I should choose a pen name, preferably something that would sound English. Like what? Well, we could try to find an analogous version of your original name. What would that be? After a brief etymological consideration, he boldly suggested: Donald Livingston. Why would I be Donal Livingston instead of Zoran Zivkovic? Can you really imagine, he asked, that anyone called Zoran Zivkovic would ever be able to publish anything in the USA? I could. He couldn’t. So, inevitably, we went our separate ways.
SD: Do you have any strange writing habits?
ZZ: My only writing habit is that I am a morning writer. I write only between 9 AM and about noon.
SD: Since you write both science fiction and fantasy, what do you like about both genres? What do you think are some problems, if any, within each genre, given that you write and presumably read SF and fantasy? Did you have any difficulty crossing over?
ZZ: I write neither science fiction nor fantasy. These are mere labels invented by the publishing industry. I consider myself a writer without any prefixes. Quite simply, a writer. A humble practitioner of the ancient and noble art of prose.
SD: You write what would be called by a lot of people ‘magical realism’. This is very clear in “Seven Touches of Music” as many of the stories ‘flirt’ with the lines between the real and the imagined. What about this type of fantasy writing is appealing to you and why do you write such stories?
ZZ: The term ‘magical realism’ was invented to gather under a single umbrella a number of Hispano-American authors active mostly in the second part of the 20th century. Although I have the greatest possible admiration for their invaluable contribution to world literature, I don’t consider myself a part of that tradition. My literary roots are predominantly Middle-European. I am an unworthy successor of such prose giants as Hoffmann, Kafka, and Bulgakov.
SD: “Seven Touches of Music” is a collection of short stories that each use music as a common theme. When you began this collection did you intend for every story to use music in some way or did it just happen that way? Basically, how did this collection come together?
ZZ: It came together basically just as any other book of mine. I woke up one sunny April morning back in 2001 and it was there, in my head. The entire book. All I had to do was to sit down at my desk and start typing. As simple as that. In my prose writing there are never any preparations. That would be fundamentally wrong in my case.
SD: Tiffany, of Aio, told me in an email that she envisioned “The Violinist” as a story about Albert Einstein in his last days. After I thought about that idea it occurred to me that there could actually be some validity to such a thought. Is there any truth to Tiffany’s idea or is it intended to be somewhat mysterious?
ZZ: There are plenty of clues for an attentive reader. The “Violinist” opens in a Princeton hospital. Einstein died in a Princeton hospital on April 18, 1955. His last physician was Dr. Dean, mentioned in my story. There is also his last nurse, Mrs. Roszel. I only left the dying professor unnamed. With a good reason…
SD: This novel is an English translation from Serbian. As a literature student I have an interest in translated works and the world of translation. Since you speak both English and Serbian, could you talk a little about some complications of translating your work?
ZZ: I was extremely fortunate to have on my side Mrs. Alice Copple-Tosic, an excellent translator. She has translated from my native Serbian to English all but two books of mine. So far she has received nothing but compliments for her work. I am eternally indebted to her.
SD: Also within your stories there is a sense of ambiguity. In the case of Miss Adele from “The Waiting Room” it is very clear as she is a character in a waiting area having visions and essentially ‘freaking out’ over what other people must think is nothing. To them she’s a lunatic, but to us she’s presented as really having visions. Yet, the audience is left to speculate whether or not she is crazy. What would you say about this notion of ambiguity in your stories? Why did you make some of them with this feeling and others without and what as your hope or intention in doing so?
ZZ: Only in trivial fiction, so much appreciated by the publishing industry, are all questions answered at the end. This is, of course, the colossal betrayal of the very essence of the art of prose. We don’t write prose to answer questions, but for other reasons. One of them is the privilege of ambiguity…
SD: The first story in the collection, “The Whisper”, follows a line of thinking that seems to have gained quite a bit of steam in recent years. I’ve seen programs discussing musical savants, and even a language savant who could learn a foreign language almost fluently in a matter of seven days. For “The Whisper” this is a sort of mild approach, but it still looks at the nature of the human mind and what goes on in a mind that cannot express itself like the rest of us (autism). Did you research autistic children at all for this story?
ZZ: As I explained earlier, I never do any research for my writing. At least not on a conscious level. But my subconscious, the very source of my imagination, has been very active, 24 hours a day, my whole life. Everything I have ever seen, heard, sensed, and experienced is safely stored there, all in the constant process of creative turmoil. Once a critical mass is reached, a new prose work erupts…
SD: Is there any truth to the stories in this collection? Perhaps you once owned an old music box as a kid that made you imagine strange futures or pasts, or found yourself transported into a fantasy by the strike of a beautiful note on a violin. I don’t mean to ask if the stories are based on real events, but perhaps you were inspired by something you imagined once.
ZZ: There are no autobiographical elements whatsoever in any prose work of mine.
SD: How has music affected you in your life and how did music influence you when writing this collection?
ZZ: My daily life very often has a musical background. Except when I write prose. Then I am in profound silence. (Right now, while answering your questions, I am surrounded by the divine notes of Vivaldi’s “Le Quattro Stagioni”…)
SD: If you could bring back to life one author or artist, which author or artist would you choose?
ZZ: Mikhail Bulgakov…
Thanks again or doing the interview Zoran and I hope everyone enjoys it.