INTERVIEW WITH WRITER JOSIP NOVAKOVICH
Croatian-born Josip Novakovich moved to the
United States at the age of twenty. He has published two story collections (Yolk and Salvation and Other Disasters), two collections of narrative essays (Plum Brandy: Croatian Journeys and Apricots from Chernobyl), and was anthologized in Best American Poetry, Pushcart Prize, and O.Henry Prize Stories. His textbook, Fiction Writer's Workshop, was a Book of the Month Club selection. HarperCollins will publish his novel April Fool's Day in September 2004, and his novel, Poppy Slopes, will be published in Spain (in Spanish). He received the Whiting Writer's Award (1997), Guggenheim Fellowship (1999), two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1991 and 2002), the Ingram Merrill Award, an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and he has been a writing fellow of the New York City Public Library. His work has appeared in many journals, including Paris Review, Threepenny Review, The New York Times Magazine, European Magazine, and he contributes regularly to the Zagreb daily Jutarnji list. Mr. Novakovich teaches in the MFA program at Penn State University.
KT - How did you go about becoming a writer?
Gradually and imperceptibly. I enjoyed writing letters and I grew addicted to writing them but when I moved to the States, my friends from Croatia did not share my passion for correspondence. We were a group of ten or so, and one more or less did not make that much difference for the group and they did not miss me as much as I missed them. So, when I realized that writing to them was not a rewarding activity--or that the rewarding part was happening only at my desk but not in my mailbox--I realized that I could do some other kind of writing, journals, stories, and essays. Writing turned out to be a better friend than the friends of my youth.
There was another source of my writing habit: going to a liberal arts college in the States. I went to Vassar for two years and then to Yale Divinity School (as well as the graduate school, philosophy department), and there most of the requirements boiled down to writing essays, hundreds of pages each semester. After five years of such education, I realized that if I had learned anything it was how to write.
KT - Why do you write mostly fiction rather than say history or philosophy?
I grew bored by reading the dry texts of philosophy and theology. Fiction sounded alive and delightful after the quasi-precise language of the academia. I could make metaphors, make up stories, play. There is an element of freedom in making up stories that is hard to match. Jazz players experience something similar, exuberant freedom, but since I am not that musical, fiction is my way of improvising.
KT - Why do you write in English?
Since five years of my education preceding to my deciding to write took place in English, the choice of English as my main writing language was natural. Croatian was undergoing changes under political pressures from all the sides imaginable, and I hadn't kept up with the revisions of the language, so when I wrote my first story in Croatian and sent it to Bozo Kovacevic (now Croatian ambassador in Moscow), who edited a journal, Gordogan, he replied that my language needed updating before he could consider the story. I thought, the hell with that. If I am to "relearn" a language, I might just as well keep going in English.
KT - What is your new book about?
April Fool's Day, a novel (coming out from HarperCollins in September), chronicles the collapse of Yugoslavia and rise of Croatia in a satirical manner through the experiences of a Don Quixotic type of character who attempts many things and fails at most of them, as is easy to do in our region. I cover some tragic aspects of our history, but I also play with the ways we used to live under totalitarian socialism and later nationalism. I wanted to have fun with the strange stories of our native region. I get tired of humorlessness, moping, complaining and pessimism that our people are liable to resort to. Some joking is in order. We tend to take ourselves too seriously.
KT - What are you working on now?
A few short stories and another novel about immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century in the States. Another collection of mine is coming out from HarperCollins, next year.
KT - What advice you have to those who are starting out and writing?
Don't be timid. Tell strange stories and make them stranger. There are so many stories out there, you have to make yours stand out somehow. Stories live in the details--observe, recount, paint with words. Have fun at least part of the time while writing. Otherwise, it's not worth it.
I actually don't like giving advice on how to write even though I teach writing, at Penn State.
KT - Can our readers get in touch with you?
Feel free, email@example.com . I also have a webpage, www.josipnovakovich.com .