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
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
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
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
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
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.