|(E) AN INTERVIEW WITH JOSIP NOVAKOVICH
|By Nenad N. Bach |
Culture And Arts
(E) AN INTERVIEW WITH JOSIP NOVAKOVICH
AN INTERVIEW WITH JOSIP NOVAKOVICH
By Katarina Tepesh
On April 16th, 2002 at 6:30 PM Josip Novakovich will give a reading at the
New York Public Library and autograph his books.
Josip Novakovich is the author of "Apricots From Chernobyl", a collection of
essays, and the short story collection "Yolk", both published in '95, and
"Salvation and Other Disasters", published in '98.
His writing textbooks "Fiction Writer's Workshop" and "Writing Fiction Step
by Step," published in '95 and '98 by Story Press, were Quality Paperback
Club selections. He is co-editor of "Stories in the Stepmother Tongue,"
published by White Pine Press in 2000. His novel, Poppy Slopes, will be
published by Ediciones Destino in Spain this spring, in the Spanish
A collection of essays is coming out this fall from the White Pine Press,
entitled "Countries Without Borders".
Josip Novakovich was born on April 30, 1956, in Daruvar, in the region of
Slavonia, Croatia, where he completed his secondary education. He studied
Medicine in Novi Sad, 1975-76 and arrived in the US at the age of twenty, in
1976. Studying Psychology, he received a B.A. in '78 from Vassar. He
continued his studies at Yale, in Philosophy and Theology, 1978-82, finishing
with the title Master of Divinity; in 1988 he received an M.A. in English
Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Texas at Austin. He
taught Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati and he is currently
an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at the Penn State
He was awarded a long list of outstanding literary awards and fellowships,
among others, three Pushcart Prizes, Best American Poetry 1997, the Whiting
Writers' Award, Ingram Merrill Award, the Richard Margolis Prize for Socially
Important Writings, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (one for
the year 2002) in fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Vogelstein fellowship,
and a 1999 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation (for
"Salvation and Other Disasters").
KT What readers like best about your award-winning writing is the diversity
in the style of writing, positive and negative experiences, encouraging and
demoralizing ones, uplifting and depressing.
JN I hope they do-I need a variety in writing just like in music. An allegro
movement asks for adagio, adago for andante or allegro vivace. After some
tragedy, humor comes easily; after humor, strangely enough, depression; many
humorists are highly depressed.
KT It's totally amazing that you arrived from Croatia at the age of twenty
and now you are recognized among the best to teach Americans how to write the
art of fiction. Your piece is included in "The Best Writing on Writing"
JN To me it's not amazing. Writing is storytelling no matter in what
language, and leaving one culture for another only gives you more stories to
tell and more perspectives from which to tell them, so you can certainly use
that stance of relativity to examine what goes on with us when we tell
KT In your books, stories and essays, you really covered our Croatian
experiences from practically every angle. You touch on the W.W.II turbulent
history of Home Guards, Ustashe, Chetniks, partisans, communists, etc. and
especially the more recent attack by Serbs. You offer readers an important
perspective: your view on how and why Yugoslavia split apart. Slavonia was
especially hard hit. Vukovar, Pakrac, Osijek. You also write about
Srebrenica, Sarajevo, etc.
JN Yes, I go into history and the current affairs to tell the stories partly
because I can't simply read and talk and remain passive about what's going
on. I am not a historian on the other hand, so I write fiction, personal
essays, reflections, opinions, and I grapple with our difficult history as
best I can, and when I get tired of it, I write in the absurdist fashion, to
change the mood. Sometimes I joke that I am a war profiteer: I have many
stories to tell now.
KT You did not shy away from grim subjects like rape, forced prostitution,
adultery, TB, hepatitis, post-traumatic stress syndrome, etc.
JN Story telling is like medicine: there is very little to do with a healthy
man in a medical office and a lot with a sick one. What would doctors be
without disease, and story tellers without problems? Or to put it
differently, there is no math without a problem, the unknown which a
mathematician may try to figure out through the known factors. There's a
negative dialectic at play here-the bigger the problems, the more games to
KT Your writing is about ordinary people, as well as famous names like
Drazen Petrovic, Cibona from Zagreb?
JN I write about all sorts of people, mostly unknown, and occasionally I
stray and mention someone well known. For a while I dabbled in journalism, so
I interviewed, for example, the emaciated Croatian Zeus, Ivanisevic, but I
haven't used him in fiction. In a story, I caricature Mladic.
KT In "Apricots from Chernobyl" you wrote hilarious "Rock: Twenty Years
After" about your teenage years. And you also wrote a number of other, pl
ayful and candid stories about growing up in Croatia.
JN Sure. While I was there, our experiences seemed to me to be banal and
dreary, but when I got to the States, they appeared fresh and original-worth
recalling and lionizing.
KT In your writing you often touch on religion?
JN Inevitable in my case since I grew up in a religious family, and until
the age of 18, I was a firm believer, a Baptist. Even later I went through a
theological phase and got a Master of Divinity at Yale, to understand
KT Humor! One of the most appealing aspects of your writing. Your piece is
included in "How To Write Funny". Your humorous writings on the absurdity of
our society, especially coming of age in a repressive former Yugoslavia.
JN I think many things from our country and region, even if described
realistically, turn out to be funny. Kafka from Prague, raised in
Austro-Hungarian Empire, with different layers of bureaucracy, foreign and
domestic, appears to be an absurdist humorist even when he is almost
realistic. Our realism can be surrealism viewed from elsewhere.
KT In the book "Yolk" your fourth story is called "Apple" and its about
death described in great detail.
JN Yes, that could just as well be a memoir, but I wrote it thinking I was
writing a story. That was the only way I could at the time approach the
event. When I began writing, that was the story I wanted to tell most, but I
avoided it for a long time; I wrote around my father's death until I could
face it. After reading "The Death of Ivan Illych" by Tolstoy, I decided I
must write; the story stirred me because for me it echoed my father's death.
KT In "Rings and Crucifixes" you address the question, "When would Croatia
select skillful and eloquent diplomats, ministers, presidents?"
JN I write that in 1992/3, at the height of Croatian diplomatic ineptitude.
It was painful to watch PBS and listen to NPR-Bosnian Muslims had brilliant
representatives in Sacerby (even if he turned out to be a crook later on) and
others; Serbs had good representation, but who could speak up for the
Croatians? Those who could, weren't invited by the Tudjman team, and there
was such a prejudice against Croatia in the media here that nobody in fact
wanted a Croatian voice. It was a frustrating time.
KT Equally important, you described Serbs for who they really are. It would
serve us Croatians well to see that more people read your books.
JN Well, what are Serbs like? You tell me. I don't know, after all. I don't
know what any nation is like. I hate generalizing about peoples. I am reading
history now, and in the beginning of the century, Serbs were mostly Croatian
friends, manipulated by Austria to fight against each other so Austria could
snatch BiH. We don't need to keep up the divido et impera animosities that
were cast upon us from the outside. We have to rise above that if we don't
want to be manipulated and ruled. At the moment Croatia has few friends. We
need to learn how to get along with everybody, not how to quarrel with
everybody, and that includes Serbia and Serbs. Serbia is Croatia's potential
economic partner. Who else are we going to export our goods to? We can't only
import, or we will become like Argentina, or we are already a banana
Argentina. Times have changed, war is over, we got to be constructive. If we
did not have Serbs to blame, we would blame Herzegovinians, or Dalmatians, or
Slavonians-we know how to be divided even among ourselves. That leads
KT In some of your writing you portray yourself something of a rebel. Is
this the case in real life as well?
JN Yes, I am an anarchist, deep down. I suppose most Croats are, simply
because we were ruled from the outside, against our interests, so it is
natural for us to mistrust any government. But that is a dangerous trait,
which is liable to make us passive and cynical rather than constructive
participants in democracy building. Democracy after all should be possible
even in Croatia. (OK, I said I would not generalize about peoples, but this
one, I think, is a pretty safe generalization, that Croatians have an
anarchistic national trait.)
KT You co-edited "Stories in the Stepmother Tongue"
JN Emigration, with the gain of spatial and cultural distance, helps many
writers to put their old experiences into perspective - or even to realize
that their observations and memories from their home are worthwhile story
KT Do you foresee teaching online? Or Croatians specifically?
JN We are doing this interview on-line, so obviously, anything is possible
online. But I don't want to teach online, least of all Croatians. Nobody is a
prophet at home, and I don't even want to try to teach Croatians. In Croatia,
many people are conceited, believing that writing is a God-given talent, and
there's nothing to do then with a bunch of geniuses. Writing, however, is 99%
perspiration, and 1% inspiration, as the saying goes, and there is certainly
a lot of groundwork one can do to learn how to write well, how to work with
the word. I have no intention of preaching writing, however.
KT If you did not have to teach for a living, would you still do it?
JN Yes, but much less than I do. One course a year, and one summer seminar
would do. Right now I have been invited to teach at workshops in Kenya,
Russia, and Fiji, summer and winter. Tempting, but detrimental to my own
writing time. Go for example to www.sumlitsem.com and you will see the
Russian conference, where I have been teaching for years, every June.
KT Since you wrote "Fiction Writer's Workshop" and "Writing Fiction Step by
Step" how does that work in your classroom?
JN It's helpful to have the books; I have always been sloppy with my lecture
notes, but here they are, perfectly organized, so even if I am sleepy and
scatter-brained occasionally, the students see the books, and don't lose the
faith in me, and so I can relax.
KT Fiction writing vs. memoirs?
JN To me it's all the same; sometimes I start writing what appears to be a
memoir but I change so much and invent that I realize I am writing fiction;
other times, the reverse. I have a fancy plot, but I realize that I am
putting in real people whom I know, and then I say, forget the fiction, and
write an essay or memoir based on these people.
KT When you traveled to Croatia in '92, did you take notes?
JN Just a little. I did not have journalist credentials, so I wasn't allowed
into refugee camps near Vukovar and Vinkovci. I did write about it from
KT Any hobbies and/or interests besides your family, writing and teaching?
JN I used to play chess and tennis. I enjoy classical music, Beethoven,
Shostakovich, Bartok, Straviinsky.
KT Who were or are your role models?
JN Dostoyevski, Mark Twain-used to be.
KT Favorite book?
JN Histories by Heredotus, Dead Souls by Gogol, Brothers K.
KT Which aspect of the Croatian culture do you like best?
JN Conversation. Our people can talk all night long.
KT Your opinion on the Croatian literature?
JN Well, it's a rich and varied literature. I don't have one opinion on it,
but many. However, I must admit that as I was growing up I deliberately
avoided anything which was not translated: I wanted to flee from Croatia and
Yugoslavia through the world of imagination, and so I happily read everybody
else but us. I still have not made up for the sins of my youthful lack of
KT Your present work on Croatian and Slovene immigrants at the beginning of
the 20th century?
JN I am writing a novel based on the history-and it's taking me more effort
to piece the history together than I had expected. Eventually, I will say,
the hell with it, let me just write it. That is why there is fiction: you
imagine what you don't now, and even what you know, to understand it, you
must imagine what it's like to be in someone else's shoes, skin.
KT What was the reaction from your family, after you wrote about all of
them at some point in your books?
JN Less positive than the reactions of total strangers. In Iran, for
example, where a magazine published several of my stories and a lengthy
interview, 220 readers wrote to the editor in praise of my work. I don't
think that could happen in Croatia, for me.
KT What is your philosophy in life?
JN That would take too long to elucidate. I used to have clear philosophies,
I even studied philosophy for the Ph.D. at Yale but luckily dropped out. Now
I am not sure I love philosophy that much-not that it's become a misosophy,
but I am skeptical about what abstractions can do.
KT You accomplished a lot so far, what about your future plans?
JN I have not accomplished nearly enough. I plan to write more and better.
In 2000 a translation of a number of Novakovich stories, mostly from the
"Salvation and Other Disasters" appeared in Zagreb entitled "Grimizne Usne,"
which won the Kozarac Award at the Vinkovacke Jeseni Festival in Vinkovci for
the best prose book by a Slavonian writer in the year 2000.
Currently he is a writing fellow of the New York Public Library. He is
working on a book on Croatian and Slovene immigrants at the beginning of the
His short stories and essays have appeared in the O.Henry Awards anthology,
The New York Times Magazine, the LA Times, Paris Review, European Magazine,
Jutarnji List, Threepenny Review, and other anthologies and journals. In
March, the New York Times will print his travel story on the island of Hvar,
and in May, the National Public Radio will broadcast his story, "Whale's
Throat," in the Selected Shorts Series.
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