Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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Issue 8
The Frankenstein Diaries
by Matt Rotundo
The Angel's Touch
by Dennis Danvers
Accounting for Dragons
by Eric James Stone
End Time
by Scott Emerson Bull
by Stephanie Dray
Horus Ascending
by Aliette de Bodard
From the Ender Saga
Ender in Flight
by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Laws and Sausages
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Writing Fantasy

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Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Zoran Zivkovic
    by Darrell Schweitzer

Zoran Zivkovic is a Serbian writer who lives in Belgrade. He has a PhD in Literature from the University of Belgrade, 1982. He has been writing fiction since 1993, when his first novel, The Fourth Circle, appeared in Serbian. He has gained a considerable English-language following since his work began to appear in the British magazine Interzone. His novella, "The Library," published in Leviathan 3, won the World Fantasy Award in 2003. His current American publisher is Aio Publishing. He has also been published by Northwestern University Press, Dalkey Archive Publishing, Night Shade Books/Ministry of Whimsey, Prime Books, and PS Publishing in England. His works are ably translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic, though he is himself fluent enough in English that in the course of this interview he managed to teach me a word I didn't know. ("Slalom," which means to take a zig-zag course while skiing; here used metaphorically.)

SCHWEITZER: Your work first came to my attention with the splendid "The Astronomer" in Interzone, which is not only a story about a powerful moral dilemma, but one of the best uses of the "Lady or the Tiger?" ending I've ever seen. Was that your first publication in English? How long had you been writing in Serbian before that? What had you published?

ZIVKOVIC: Yes, "The Astronomer" was my very first publication in English. It appeared in the July 1999 issue of Interzone. In 2000 it was published in the USA, as the introductory part of my mosaic-novel Time Gifts. Eventually, "The Astronomer" was reprinted in the UK in 2006 in the Impossible Stories omnibus.

I started to write fiction only in 1993, when I was forty-five. By the time "The Astronomer" was first published, I had only four prose books: The Fourth Circle (1993), Time Gifts (1997), The Writer (1998) and The Book (1999). The beginning of the new millennium was my most prolific period so far. I am currently finishing my seventeenth book of fiction. Escher's Loops is due to appear in May.

SCHWEITZER: Related to this, were you actually familiar with the famous Frank R. Stockton story "The Lady or the Tiger?" or am I being too provincial about this? (It is probably the most famous American story with an indeterminate ending which forces the reader to guess on the basis of clues laid down. Published about 1900.)

ZIVKOVIC: I wasn't aware of Frank R. Stockton's story at the time I wrote "The Astronomer", in early 1997. I read it only years later. But I have read many other "open-ended" fictional works. It is an ancient narrative strategy. As I teach my students attending the creative writing course at Belgrade University, the purpose of prose isn't so much to provide definite answers, as to ask the right questions. Readers of "The Astronomer" shouldn't be too much concerned about what monosyllabic answer the protagonist gives at the end, since, as is shown in the conclusive part of Time Gifts, it is basically irrelevant...

SCHWEITZER: What is your background in fantastic literature? Did you grow up reading American and British science fiction (possibly in translation?) or eastern European fantastic literature?

ZIVKOVIC: I read both. My formal education is in literature. I first graduated in the comparative literature department and subsequently I received my master's degree and my doctorate in the same discipline. A substantial part of world literature belongs to one or another form of fantastical fiction. Modern day "science fiction" and "fantasy" (I am not entirely happy with either of these terms) are part of a very long and very fruitful tradition. On the same tradition, twentieth century European fantastic literature is based. Instead of "eastern" I would rather call it "middle" European.

I was reading American and British science fiction and fantasy first in translation and then, as I became able to read in English, in the original. For years I was an ardent promoter in my country of English language SF & F in the capacity of both a translator and a publisher. I translated more than fifty books, mostly from English, and published nearly two hundred and fifty. The vast majority of these books appeared at a period when it took courage, both academic and political, to be a supporter of these genres.

I definitely abandoned any academic, translating or publishing involvement with science fiction after my two volume set of the The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction was brought out in 1990. It was the fourth book of that kind in the world by the time it appeared. Why did I take that decision? Because I finally wanted to accept the ultimate challenge: to start writing prose myself. That happened three years later, in 1993, when my first novel, The Fourth Circle, was published. It was a very fortunate realization that I wasn't in the prime of my youth any more to drive the parallel slalom: being an author and a publisher or translator at the same time. To be a writer is a full time job. I made my choice and I haven't regretted it. So far.

SCHWEITZER: You say you cut loose from academe, although you still teach a writing course. Is it actually possible to make a living as a writer of fantastic fiction in contemporary Serbia?

ZIVKOVIC: I started teaching a university creative writing course only a semester ago. No, it isn't possible to make a living as a writer of any kind, not only of fantastic faction, in contemporary Serbia. There isn't a single full-time, professional prose writer nowadays in my country. Not even Milorad Pavic, whose novel Dictionary of the Khazars was a world best-seller in the late eighties. No wonder, since Serbia is such a tiny market. An average print-run is only 500 copies. Three thousand sold copies is already considered a best-seller. It wasn't like that in the country where I was born. Former Yugoslavia was a huge market. Alas, it disintegrated in a civil war in the 1990s, leaving former Yugoslavs in a number of small countries. Serbia is one of them. I can only hope we unite again, if not politically then at least as a market.

SCHWEITZER: How is fantastic literature regarded where you are? In the US, as you may know, it is still somewhat associated with cheap pulp fiction and not regarded as real literature by many establishment critics. Do you ever encounter that kind of division?

ZIVKOVIC: Such prejudices aren't very widespread in Europe, where fantastic literature has a long and outstanding tradition and is generally considered by the literary establishment not only as a legitimate part of the mainstream but often as its peak. Bulgakov and Kafka, two among the most prominent European authors of the twentieth century, are primarily masters of the noble art of the fantastic. I guess we are rather fortunate still not to be so much dominated by the publishing industry. I believe it is this industry, with its paraliterary standards and obsession with profit before all else, that is mostly to blame for the way your fantastic literature is treated within your academic literary establishment.

SCHWEITZER: And if I may venture an overtly political question, well, political conditions were surely very different in Yugoslavia in 1993 when you started writing. Did you have problems with censorship? How did you cope?

ZIVKOVIC: I never experienced any censorship problems in Yugoslavia. It's just one of many stereotypes introduced by decades of cold war political propaganda. We never belonged to the Soviet bloc and were an open and free country as much as any other in the West. Let me give you an example. With my red socialist passport I could travel to all but two countries in the world without a visa. Now, with my blue passport, the very symbol of freedom and democracy, there are only two countries left in the world for which I don't need a visa...

SCHWEITZER: Robert Heinlein once famously described science fiction as a form of realism, that is, serious speculation about things that might be, told in a realistic manner. That doesn't fit your work at all, which seems closer to Borges or Kafka than to Heinlein. So how would you describe your approach? What is the use of unreality in describing thematic truth?

ZIVKOVIC: First of all, I don't write science fiction. Nor fantasy for that matter. I feel rather uncomfortable whenever labeled in any way as an author. I consider myself a writer without any prefixes. I am just a humble practitioner of the ancient and noble art of prose. No more, no less. Any prefix would be either misleading or limiting. Labels are invented by the publishing industry which doesn't see any art in prose. For them it is just another product whose sole purpose is to be sold. My writing belongs to the middle European fantastic tradition. I feel strong literary kinship with such masters as Bulgakov, Kafka and Lem. I write fantastic fiction because its non-mimetic nature enables me to tell something that couldn't be expressed in any other way.

SCHWEITZER: No writer likes to be corralled by definitions, but let me argue for a moment. If "fantasy" is defined as something broader than "books which imitate Tolkien," but is taken more to mean any story which contains non-real elements, which the author and the reader both acknowledge are impossible -- I am thinking of that statement at the front of Lucian of Samosata's "True History" in which he says "I have not seen these things, nor have I heard them from another, nor do I expect to be believed" -- then surely you, Kafka, and Bulgakov are all authors of fantasy. Much of what goes on in your work is impossible by most people's standards, and people do not really turn into enormous insects, nor did the Devil go touring around the Soviet Union in person, as in The Master and Margarita. So is this fantasy? Don't we mean by "fantasy" the broader tradition of the fantastic, rather than the narrower, commercial genre?

ZIVKOVIC: In this part of the world we use "fantastika" as the generic term for all non-mimetic prose works. It is the opposite of "realism" which is, by definition, mimetic. "Fantastika" is non-mimetic in the sense that it doesn't imitate the real world, but tries to invent a new kind of reality. There is a multitude of forms of "fantastika": folklore, oneiric, surreal, supernatural, to name just a few. Each of these forms has its immanent type of "reality." Science fiction is also one of the forms of "fantastika," probably the closest to mimetic/realistic fiction. The English language equivalent of "fantastika" is "fantasy", but the term has been used in a narrower sense in recent times. It comprises predominantly the "Tolkienesque" or "sword and sorcery" type of "fantastika". Time and again, the publishing industry is to blame for this limitation.

SCHWEITZER: As for science fiction, well, when Lem is voyaging to other planets by scientific, rather than supernatural means, even if the book is about the limitations of human knowledge (as in Solaris), that would seem to be science fiction. Your "The Astronomer" could well be read as being about time-travelers from the future informing the prisoner what will happen.

ZIVKOVIC: It could be, yes, if you read it out of the context of the mosaic-novel Time Gifts to which it organically belongs as the first of four constituent parts. Within the context of Time Gifts, however, there are no time-travelers from the future. The denouement is, as you know, of an entirely different nature...

SCHWEITZER: Is there any real distinction between "the middle European fantastic tradition" and what an American would call "fantasy"? If so, is it a matter of theme, approach, underlying philosophy, or what?

ZIVKOVIC: I would consider one of the greatest American masters of the art of "fantastika," Edgar Allan Poe, much closer to the middle European fantastic tradition than to modern-day American fantasy. H. P. Lovecraft also. There were no fundamental distinctions between middle European and English language "fantastika" until approximately the mid-twentieth century. Both had the same roots, emerged from the same cultural tradition. But then the publishing industry took over in your part of the world. I am very much afraid it is soon to dominate globally. (We live in an era of globalization, don't we?) "Fantastika" will be reduced then to a literarily worthless, but otherwise more or less commercial genre....

SCHWEITZER: Well it seems to me that Lovecraft is very much part of the Gothic tradition and also the ghost-story tradition -- he has much in common with Poe, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood -- and his rationalism leads him to approach science fiction. What makes him more "fantastika" than some of his contemporaries and colleagues, such as, say, Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith?

ZIVKOVIC: One can identify in Lovecraft's works a variety of influences besides the Gothic tradition. But I am not an expert in Lovecraft. I just mentioned him as an example of an outstanding writer whose literary roots are much deeper than it might seem, particularly if his opus is seen through the lens of only one language.

SCHWEITZER: In any case, wouldn't you agree that labels are most useful in retrospect? As the author of an encyclopedia of SF, you must have had to categorize and label quite a bit. But I don't see how labels like "science fiction" or "fantasy" or "fantastika" are of much use to the writer when actually writing the story.

ZIVKOVIC: This is going to be somewhat simplified, but it is how I basically see it. "Categories" are for sciences. "Labels" are for supermarkets. I am very much afraid we have already entered an era in which books are being sold predominately in supermarkets. Labels are required in such surroundings to distinguish books from other goods. Macaroni, for example.

As for a writer starting a story, she/he always faces a simple dilemma. An author can write for the sake of art, in which case she/he isn't restricted by any other limitations but her/his literary abilities. On the other hand, she/he can decide to write for the market, in which case it has to be taken into account what's currently marketable, what would please their omnipotent majesties: the sales and marketing directors. And these people -- sales and marketing directors -- couldn't possibly care less about such a triviality as art.

I have written a story about it, "The Telephone." It is included in my omnibus, Impossible Stories (PS Publishing, UK, 2006). The Devil telephones an author suffering from writer's block and offers him a choice: to be rich and famous in his lifetime, but forgotten afterwards, or to remain poor and unrecognized, but to acquire a prominent place in literary history. What would you choose? If you decided to take both fame in your lifetime and literary immortality, I must warn you that this option isn't within the Devil's jurisdiction. You should apply for it from a higher authority....

SCHWEITZER: Well if everything gets completely globalized and Wal-Mart takes over the world -- which sounds like a scenario for a Pohl/Kornbluth novel of the 1950s -- then presumably "fantasika" would become one more marketing label to put on the spines of books.

ZIVKOVIC: I don't think so. Supermarkets need more specific labels than "fantastika". One doesn't expect every article in the food department to be labeled just "food". By the way, in my humble view, The Space Merchants is one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century....

SCHWEITZER: Let's talk for a minute about "mosaic novels." An interesting term. I've been reacquainting myself with your work by reading Four Stories Till the End, which is a mosaic novel, though even the episodes have episodes within them. Many of your books fall into this pattern, a cycle of 4 or 5 stories, each complete in itself, but forming a larger structure which (as in the case of "The Astronomer" as it appears in the context of Time Gifts) can change the way we read a story. I see that there IS a difference here between a "mosaic novel" and a collection of linked stories, and I will even candidly admit that I was overtly imitating your structures when I wrote Living with the Dead. (You may have seen three parts of that in Interzone right before David Pringle left.) Is this a distinctly European form? Why write these, rather than more seamless novels, or just collections of short stories?

ZIVKOVIC: Living with the Dead is one of the best things I've read of yours. Not because you also used the "mosaic-novel" structure, but because it is a genuine piece of the noble art of "fantastika". You were not imitating, you were legitimately relying on what's a part of our common literary heritage. The term "mosaic-novel" isn't a European invention. It was coined by the great Ursula Le Guin. I found it in an interview of hers and it seemed to suit perfectly the narrative form I was mostly using. I am not aware of any other European authors writing "mosaic-novels". There isn't a simple answer why I prefer this form over others. I don't decide consciously about it. Once a new work is ready to be delivered from the place where all my fiction originates, my subconscious, it takes whatever form is the most convenient. It so happens that my subconscious seems to be rather fond of "mosaic-novels"...

SCHWEITZER: You mention that the market in Serbia is so very small that 500 is the normal print-run and 3000 is a bestseller. But I wonder: is there still a flourishing community of Serbian authors of "fantastika" that English readers have never seen? I have to confess that the only two Serbians I can name, much less have read, are you and Milorad Pavic. Which other such writers among your countrymen do you think deserve wider attention?

ZIVKOVIC: A number of contemporary Serbian writers have received international recognition recently. David Albahari, for example. Goran Petrovic also, although he isn't yet translated into English. You see, this is one of the main problems an author writing in a small language is faced with. As I once remarked, if you write in Serbian, you don't write at all. If you, however, wish your books to be available in English translation and thus accessible to the whole world, not only the English-speaking regions, you have to invest a small fortune. Many good Serbian writers can't afford such a luxury and therefore remain "invisible" internationally. I am currently working with our Ministry of Culture to arrange a program that would provide assistance to the most prominent Serbian writers to get their books translated into English.

SCHWEITZER: To back up just a little bit, your comment on Lovecraft is intriguing, that the depth of his literary roots show when he is filtered through more than one language. I assume you're talking about reading him in translation. The only language other than English that Lovecraft was at all fluent in was Latin. But are you saying that by reading him in translation you see an affinity to other parts of world literature that might not be so evident to a native English-speaker reading him in English?

ZIVKOVIC: What I meant regarding the depths of Lovecraft's literary roots was that they become more evident if one takes into account what has been written in other languages. Although Lovecraft probably wasn't aware of any prose works that weren't available in English (or Latin) translation, there are still similarities between them and his opus. There is no mystery in it. This is how the art of literature has worked ever since it was invented. Various authors, who are in no way aware of each other, make similar literary "discoveries." If I were much younger, I might be tempted to write my doctoral thesis about certain parallels between Lovecraft's "fantastika" and the Serbian folklore "fantastika" (in which, by the way, the term "vampire" was originally coined). But, alas, at this advanced age, I am just a humble writer and a creative-writing university professor. Fortunately, young scholars are coming and, who knows, some day, such a thesis could be written. We can only hope it won't remain imprisoned forever in the small Serbian language...

SCHWEITZER: How does being multilingual affect your understanding of a piece of literature?

ZIVKOVIC: It's a privilege to be able to read in as many languages as possible. The more languages one speaks, the more windows are open for one...

SCHWEITZER: What are you working on these days? What is coming up soon? I am sure your faithful readers -- and you DO have an English language audience -- will want to know.

ZIVKOVIC: I am deeply honored to have my faithful English language audience. This is something a writer of the art of "fantastika" originating outside the English-speaking world can only dream of. I do hope my readers in the US and UK enjoy my new novel, Escher's Loops. It is about to be finished and the English translation is already well under way. In the meantime, before Escher's Loops is published, as many as six other books of mine will appear this year in English translation: The Last Book, The Writer, The Reader, and The Bridge in the UK (PS Publishing) and Impossible Encounters (Aio Publishing) in the US.

SCHWEITZER: Thank you, Zoran Zivkovic.

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