At the Teashop | Zoran Živković Interview

zoran zivkovic

This week our guest is World Fantasy Award winning author Dr. Zoran Živković. Publishers in the UK and USA have snapped up Živković’s stories, written in his native Serbian, in English translation at an ever-increasing rate as his literary star has risen. His work has been compared to that of Calvino and Borges and has received praise from such notable authors as Jeff Vandermeer and Michael Moorcock. His tightly written novels and collections, beginning with The Fourth Circle and continuing to such recent publications as Seven Touches of Music and Twelve Collections and The Teashop, combine modern characters with fantastic, sometimes absurd situations, that reward careful reading but do not demand a single interpretation. His fiction often weaves a connected whole out of many seemingly separate parts—which, come to think of it, is precisely what an interview attempts to do as well.

With that, I’d like to thank Zoran for agreeing to this interview and welcome him as our guest at Boomtron.

Matt Denault: You have several novels forthcoming in the United States and the United Kingdom for 2007. In the UK, PS Publishing will be releasing Twelve Collections and The Teashop in early 2007 and The Bridge later this year. Meanwhile, in the USA, Aio Publishing will be releasing Steps through the Mist. Can you give readers an idea of what to expect from each book?

Zoran Zivkovic: Well, it depends on whether or not readers are already familiar with my writing . If they are, I’d say that they would know what to expect—that I always do the unexpected in some way. If they are not familiar, then I would suggest they limit their expectations to noble curiosity and let me try to surprise them. Hopefully pleasantly…

The three books of mine that will appear in 2007 in the USA and UK are quite different from each other. Steps through the Mist is the final of my five mosaic novels that comprise the “Impossible Stories” cycle. In this book there are five female protagonists of varying ages, ranging from a young girl in a boarding school to an old lady living through the last day of her life. As it is always the case with my mosaic novels, the various segments of Steps through the Mist are interrelated in many ways, with the leitmotif of mist being the central cohesive factor.

Twelve Collections and The Teashop has an unusual composition. It is a story-suit (Twelve Collections) plus a novella (The Teashop). A 12-part TV series, The Collector, produced by the Belgrade TV company Studio B, is based on Twelve Collections.

As for The Teashop, I am not supposed to have favorites among my own fiction, of course, but if I did, this novella would be one of them…

Finally, The Bridge is a three-part novel about three encounters that should or could have never happened: a man meets an alternate self, a woman out on a shopping trip runs into her dead neighbor and a fourteen-year-old girl chases her seventeen-year-old future son across town. And there is a mysterious bridge that connects them all…

The Bridge was short-listed for the most prestigious Serbian mainstream literary award—the NIN award.

Matt Denault: Congratulations! I believe that’s the second of your books to make the short-list for that award. The Bridge is your most recent work currently scheduled for publication; here in the USA though we are receiving your books out of the chronology in which they were published originally—and we’re still reading what Tamar Yellin has called the “first phase” of your fiction. Because this makes it difficult for us to judge, can you tell us: how do you feel you’ve grown as a writer, from the early 1990s when you first published The Fourth Circle to the present with stories such as Twelve Collections and The Bridge?

Zoran Zivkovic: It all started back in 1993 with The Fourth Circle that stands alone in my opus. It is a novel that summarizes my previous decades of dealing in various ways with science fiction. Although I don’t consider it an SF novel, at least not in the same sense in which the publishing industry tends to define the genre, it certainly contains many SF elements. For me, The Fourth Circle was the most appropriate way to say farewell to my science fiction sinful youth.

Then there are two books—a novella, The Writer (1998), and a novel, The Book (1999), (published in one volume in the USA)—that belong to the same thematic circle, not containing any fantastical elements. The first is a parable about the merciless clashes between two writers’ vanities, while the second is a satire about the final decline of books in the digitalized world.

The next five titles form the above-mentioned Impossible Stories cycle: Time Gifts (1997), Impossible Encounters (2000), Seven Touches of Music (2001), The Library (2002) and Steps through the Mist (2003). All these books share the same internal architecture. They are composed of seemingly stand-alone stories. At the end, however, it turns out that there is a unity among them, that each book isn’t a mere conglomerate, but an organic amalgam. For lack of a better term, I tend to describe the members of this cycle “mosaic novels.”

I have every reason to be pleased with the impact the Impossible Stories have had so far in the English-speaking world (and elsewhere too). I was first introduced to the American readership through Time Gifts (Northwestern University Press, 2000). A story from Impossible Encounters, The Train, marked my debut on the BBC radio in 2005. (The book will be brought out in the USA in 2008 by Aio Publishing.) The US edition of Seven Touches of Music (Aio Publishing, 2006) is by far the most beautiful of about eighty various editions of my books that have appeared so far throughout the world. The Library (Leviathan 3 anthology, 2002) won the World Fantasy Award in 2003. Finally, a story (The Alarm Clock on the Night Table) from Steps through the Mist will also be broadcast on the BBC (on March 11, at 6:30 PM, UK time). This book will also appear in the USA as an Aio Publishing edition later this year.

Then comes Hidden Camera (Dalkey Archive Press, 2005), a novel about a soon-to-be-retired undertaker who is desperately trying to oppose the necrophiliac forces surrounding and destroying him through a biophiliac quest for ultimate beauty. Hidden Camera was very well received by the critics. It got nearly thirty reviews, some of them in the most prestigious magazines (The New Yorker, Village Voice, Publishers Weekly…). The film option for this book was picked up by the British producer “Chocolate Films.”

Finally, my most recent six books—Compartments (2004), Four Stories till the End (2004), Twelve Collections and The Teashop (2005), The Bridge (2006), Miss Tamara, the Reader (2006) and Amarcord (2007)—form what I tend to see as “Impossible Stories 2” cycle.

What is the main difference between IS 1 and IS 2? To put it in a simplified way, the latter stories are less linear, more absurdist and generally more humorous (often in dark tones). I personally consider them my most mature literary achievements so far, but it remains to be seen how the critics will evaluate them.

Compartments and Four Stories till the End were published in the UK magazine Postscripts (2 and 4—7), while all others will appear as PS Publishing (UK) editions in 2007 and 2008. The only exception is my latest book, Amarcord, that has yet to be placed with an interested publisher, hopefully soon.

Matt Denault: Most of your book-length fiction has been in the form you mention, “mosaic novels” or suites of connected stories. Your interpretations of that form have a marvelous fractal quality, of a pattern that, repeated through several iterations, generates a larger, more complex version of the original. (Twelve Collections for example collects stories about those who collect.) Or, as you’ve put it, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” There seems to be something intrinsically optimistic in the idea that a whole can be greater than the sum of its parts; something a little irrational, a little magical; and also something very human, the quest to construct meaning from separate, seemingly isolated incidents. I’m curious what your thoughts are about the mosaic novel as a form of fiction: what do you like about it; what do you think gives it appeal to the modern reader; and what feedback have you received on the form?

Zoran Zivkovic: First of all, it wasn’t my humble self who invented the mosaic novel form. It existed even before its name was coined. I didn’t even apply it intentionally, as a narrative strategy. It came to me spontaneously as the most adequate form for what I was trying to express in my prose. It’s most appealing quality probably was precisely the fact that it represents a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. I like very much your observation about its fractal quality. Although now, in hindsight, it seems obvious, I confess it never occurred to me…

I hope the main appeal of this form to modern readers is the fact that it requires reading almost like a detective. You are constantly aware that there is a broader picture, an invisible whole that alternates the more or less obvious meaning of its constituent parts. If you are not attentive enough all the time, you will certainly miss some subtle clues and all that reading will be useless. You will have to start all over again when you reach the end…

As for feedback, the only complaints so far about the mosaic novel structure have been from readers who require nothing from the ancient and noble art of prose than to be entertained in the most banal way. But I’m not writing at all for those lazy spirits.

Matt Denault: There is a directness and seriousness with which your stories use the absurd in dealing with laughter and tears, love and death, that is reminiscent other writers from Eastern Europe such as Kundera and Bulgakov. Is this coincidence, or are there similar aspects of Eastern European culture and experience that may have led you to similar storytelling mechanisms and themes?

Zoran Zivkovic: I would rather say that I basically belong to the Central European cultural tradition. The milieu of the vast majority of my stories has a strong resemblance to the major topograpgy of that area: Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, Vienna. And my native Belgrade, of course. The outer appearance of my worlds is not dissimilar to those of Kafka, Bulgakov and Kundera. It is a great honor and a great responsibility to continue their heritage.

But there are other influences as well. I am also very much in debt to a number of Anglo-American authors, both contemporary and from the past, starting with the founding father of the modern art of fantastical literature—Edgar Allan Poe.

Matt Denault: Many of the characters in your stories share a set of personality traits: they are quiet, proper, compulsively (often eccentrically) orderly, and seem to fear embarrassment more than anything. Is there something about this sort of character that makes it a modern archetype that resonates with readers?

Zoran Zivkovic: I hope it does. They are diametrically opposed to the heroic figures so popular in the trivial literature the publishing industry keeps flooding us with. Fragile, insecure, full of doubts and internal controversies, obsessed with manias, the protagonists of my stories are nonetheless genuine inhabitants of our unique times. But above all, they are, I dare to say, convincing literary characters…

Matt Denault: A characteristic of your work is a certain optimism in the face of an uncaring, unfair universe. There are answers to life’s big questions in a Zoran Zivkovic story, but they will be shown at most once, and the character that experiences such revelation will typically be unable to remember it or share it. And yet, by reading this work of creative fiction, we the reader do share in those moments…

Zoran Zivkovic: If you the reader indeed share those moments, then I am more than rewarded. I haven’t written my stories in vain. There are truths that can be expressed only through literature. Actually, they are the main reason we write artistic fiction at all. It is in the nature of these truths to be fleeting, unsubstantial, ephemeral. And they require a very attentive, insightful empathic reader. It would be naive to expect shortcuts to great revelations of human life…

Matt Denault: Related to not expecting shortcuts, in your interview with Tamar Yellin, you mentioned your principle “never to explain or discuss” your fiction. Some writers will discuss their works and others will not; what prompted your decision?

Zoran Zivkovic: My distaste for any form of vanity. I happen to know not one but a number of writers who firmly believe that they themselves are the most authoritative—indeed, the only—competent interpreters of their own literary output. They alone are really able to penetrate all the secrets and perceive every delicate nuance. One of them even contemplated writing a long critical essay about his own novel.

As for my humble self, I think that everything I wanted to say is already between the covers of my books. If there were anything else I might wish to add to it, in the form of a comment or explanation, that would only mean that my work is not complete, that it needs assistance, that it can’t stand by itself, but needs a pair of crutches. Who would like, however, to read a book supported by crutches?

Matt Denault: You have an extensive literary education (including Masters and Doctorate degrees from the Faculty of Philology at the University of Belgrade) but comparatively little formal education in the sciences that I’m aware of. Yet several of your books (The Fourth Circle and Seven Touches of Music to name two) brim with the latest scientific theories. Whence came your interest in science, and how do you see modern science informing contemporary literature?

Zoran Zivkovic: Although I have no formal scientific education, I am not scientifically illiterate. First of all, I keep reading popular science literature. I have also translated many popular science books. (Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan…) There is no contradiction in being a writer and being fond of science. How can anyone rightfully assert to be a real contemporary of the unique times that we are privileged to live in without an addictive curiosity about science that is the capital architect of our world? Besides, modern science is so exciting. No less so than modern literature…

Matt Denault: You have an interesting relationship with science fiction. You have studied it, translated it, started a company to publish it. You once wrote and hosted a Serbian TV show about science fiction in film (“The Starry Screen,” 1984). Yet your own stories are not science fiction and at least one of your characters (Mr. Adam, in Seven Touches of Music’s “The Puzzle”) is quite critical of current science fiction. Do Mr. Adam’s statements reflect your own views—do you think that there is something that science fiction needs to do better?

Zoran Zivkovic: I think that science fiction has been hopelessly trivialized by the publishing industry and its paraliterary standards. Nowadays, one can get rich by writing science fiction, but can’t possibly hope for a place in the history of literature. It all depends on what your ambitions are in writing…

Matt Denault: Since writing The Book (1999) and its satirical take on the publishing industry, your work has been published by a number of small presses, particularly in the USA (Ministry of Whimsy/Night Shade, Prime Books, the Dalkey Archive Press, and most recently Aio Publishing). Have your experiences with small presses altered your opinion of the industry, given you any more (or less) hope for readers?

Zoran Zivkovic: It’s very hard to generalize. I’ve had various experiences with various small presses. I believe, however, that I finally managed to find my ideal publishing companions both in the USA and UK. Aio Publishing and PS Publishing represent everything I always wanted from a publisher. A highly professional, devoted, reliable partner who not only produces beautiful books but takes proper care of them in every way. I don’t think I would have better treatment with any of the so-called majors. They just might make me richer, true, but it isn’t my prime ambition to get rich through writing. My literary soul is not for sale…

Matt Denault: Your latest book to be released in the US, Seven Touches of Music, is certainly beautiful not just as a work of fiction but also as a physical object of art. You’ve written that the two greatest threats to fiction right now are the publishing industry, which we covered above, and digitalization. Can you comment more on the danger you see from digitalization?

Zoran Zivkovic: As I said elsewhere, the physicality of the book was important because it meant that I could take it to bed with me. Some recent book-size “e-Ink” products, like Sony’s Reader, haven’t made me change my attitude. Taking them to bed would be like having a robot lover. I’ll remain old-fashioned and prefer a paper lover in my bed…

Matt Denault: In addition to the forthcoming books we discussed, 2007 will see the Serbian film “Two,” based on your stories “The Train” and “Confessional”; the complete 12-episode series “The Collector” will be broadcast on Serbian TV; and the BBC Radio will produce an adaptation of your short story “The Alarm Clock on the Night Table.” How involved are you in these productions? Are there differences in the level of interaction when reading versus listening to and/or viewing other media forms, and if so how do you adapt your material for these different media? And is there any hope that your work in Serbian TV and film may be made available some day with English subtitles?

Zoran Zivkovic: Again, there is no general rule. I was very much involved in creating “The Collector” TV series. Young director Marko Kamenica seemed quite content to rely on my experience and advice. On the other hand, I haven’t the slightest idea what Puriša Ðordevic, the veteran director of the feature film “Two,” made of my stories “The Train” and “The Confessional.” I will be going not without some trepidation to see the movie when it has its official opening at the forthcoming Belgrade film festival—Fest.

There is already an English subtitled DVD of the first five episodes of “The Collector.” The English version of the whole series should be available in late spring. As for the possibility of the film “Two” being distributed in the USA, I don’t think it’s very realistic. As we all know, the English-speaking world is almost impenetrable for foreign films. But as a consolation, there is also going to be an English subtitled DVD.

Matt Denault: That is consolation indeed—although we in the USA are getting better about receiving foreign films, and interestingly it’s often the fantastic films that fare best (Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is doing very well right now, before it Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films such as City of Lost Children, etc.).

You have recently finished your latest novel, Amarcord. What are your plans for its publication, and do you have any new projects in the works?

Zoran Zivkovic: As I said, my agent is still trying to find the right publisher for Amarcord. As for new projects, I am already deep into my first thriller titled The Last Book. Here is just a hint of what it is about. Visitors of a Belgrade bookshop suddenly start to die, seemingly without any cause…

Matt Denault: Can’t wait! In the meantime, in addition to your works, are there any up-and-coming Serbian authors you’re aware of who we should look for (or hope for) in English translation?

Zoran Zivkovic: Oh, certainly. David Albahari, for example, is already available in English translation. Then Goran Petrović, a superb novelist. And, of course, the old master with excellent new books—Milorad Pavić.

Matt Denault: You have used the phrase “humble writer” to describe yourself. This caught my eye, as I’m used to thinking of writers as being egoists-by-necessity in seeking the publication of their works. What does being a “humble writer” mean for you, and how is it reflected in your writing?

Zoran Zivkovic: In my value system being humble is a virtue. It is just the opposite of being vain. And I mentioned earlier what I think of vanity…

Matt Denault: Indeed; as a rule I’m a fan of books rather than of authors; however, it undeniably adds to the pleasure of reading a book when you know that the author behind the words is both humble and thoughtful, as you’ve shown yourself to be in answering all these questions (my computer tells me this interview would be 10 pages long if printed out!). Thank you again for this opportunity, and best wishes—I know I am looking forward to reading those works of yours that I have not yet had the chance to.

For readers interested in learning more, here at BSCreview we have reviews of several of Zoran’s books. Zoran’s own website, http://www.zoranzivkovic.com/, contains a complete bibliography and many excerpts from his work. Also, please note that this interview deliberately avoided the many good and interesting questions Zoran has already answered in past interviews, several of which are linked to at Aio Publishing. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Zoran will be a Guest of Honor at Eurocon 2007 this September in Copenhagen.

  • originally published 2/9/2007

Matt Denault has never lost the seriousness of a child at play—especially when it comes to reading. He lives just outside Boston.