“Running Out of Reasons for Not Writing”: An Interview with Alexsandar Hemon 

Interview conducted by Clinton Crockett PetersAleksandar Hemon is a six-foot-two, imposingly bald, deep-voiced, mild mannered edifice of a Bosnian. We met under the auspiciously towering bookshelves of the Locust Street Inn Bed and Breakfast in Denton, Texas. Hemon is visiting as an Artist-in-Residence for the University of North Texas and its Institute for the Advancement of the Arts. In 1992, at age 27, he visited America just before a siege tore apart his home in Sarajevo. Ensconced in Chicago, he decided to make a life there.

His first book, The Question of Bruno, was a collection of short stories, as was Nowhere Man, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His novel Lazarus Project (2008) was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and was ranked the number one book of the year by New York Magazine. He frequently writes for the New Yorker but has also hung around in The Paris Review, Esquire and the New York Times. He was certified a “genius” by the MacArthur Foundation in 2004. His stories, essays, and novels have the quiet, unassuming, ruminative nature of his person. The prose leads the reader quietly, circling the drain of a central emotion, question, investigation, until it sucks the reader in completely. Like a good European, he loves soccer. Just after we finished talking, he lively and vainly cheered Liverpool to overcome the titan, Real Madrid. He tells me that determined Liverpool fans must sign off e-mails with “You’ll never walk alone.” So too, must interviewers.

Clinton Crockett Peters: I want to first talk about your two latest books, Love and Obstacles and The Book of my Lives. To me these books are companion pieces and seem very autobiographical (Lives is of course “nonfiction” in Barnes and Nobles parlance).

Aleksandar HemonThey might be companion pieces, but Love and Obstacles is not autobiographical. It’s about what could’ve happened, not what happened. The Book of My Lives is about what happened, or what I remember happening. 

There are no words in Bosnian, or as far as I know in any other Slavic language, that are equivalent to fiction and nonfiction, nor there is a pair of words that is referring to the distinction (presumably self-evident) between the two. 

When The Book of My Lives was coming out in Bosnia, my translator—and she’s very good—didn’t know how to translate the acknowledgment featuring the words “fiction” and “nonfiction,” so we simply cut it. The closest term to nonfiction I could come up in Bosnian with was “true stories.” 

CCP: You seem to be embodying in your stories and essays similar themes of dislocation, loss, and irreparability.

AHDislocation is an interesting word. I’d use the word displacement. Dislocation is what happens to the body–joints are dislocated. Hamlet also complains that, “time is out of joint.” Perhaps a place can be out of joint too, or a body in that space.

As for the “themes” of my books, I’d rather see them as opportunities. That is, the fact that I’ve had some experience with and have thought about “dislocation, loss, irreparability” allowed me to carve out a space in language where I could deal with all the other things that are adjacent to them. At the same time you can find “dislocation, loss and irreparability” in Dante’s Divine Comedy or Joyce’s Ulysses or, more recently, any of the novels and short story collections featuring American war veterans.

What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think in terms of themes. I think in terms of stories and opportunities for pursuit of a particular kind of human knowledge they provide.

CCP: I’m very curious about “My Prisoner” from The Book of My Lives. I’m wondering if you could tell us about writing that and why it hadn’t been published before and why did you feel like bringing it to light now.

AH: Veba is my best friend. I experienced the war through him, learned all I know about it. I’ve always wanted to write about his experience in the war, ever since I read his letter about visiting his father in the POW camp. It’s a difficult thing to write about, as it pertains to other people—I’m entirely marginal in that story. It is only after Veba started dealing with his experience—talking to his father, reading (finally) his letter, retrieving the footage with him and his father to incorporate it into his video installation—that I could begin considering writing about it. Stories mature before they reach the point when they need to be written. Part of the process of writing something is running out of all the reasons for not writing it.

CCP: Your narrators routinely appear to be a decent but mildly corrupt, which is important because they feel very human as a result. Is this a natural disposition of yours or a carefully crafted effect?

AHI’d venture to say that most of the people are decent but mildly corrupt, or at least appear so. There are few natural born killers and saints. Most people muddle through the moral middle. Life, whatever it is like, forces people into making decisions, every minute of every day, from the smallest (Should I have eggs or cereal?) to the big ones (Should I ignore the growth on the side of neck?) to the biggest ones (Should I join the victorious army involved in a criminal invasion and shoot people in the head for reasons I’m not willing to consider?)

CCP: Some of your stories leave the reader, for a lack of a better word, “hanging,” as if they, from a short view, hadn’t come to the end of a full arc. But there is a kind of realism to these conclusions. The Modest Mouse line, “Everyone’s life ends, but no one ever completes it,” comes to mind. Were you conscious of your characters’ or narrators’ trajectories and how did you decide your endings?

AHI invite the reader to cut the rope.

Let me propose that there is a tradition of bourgeois writing in America, and beyond, that reproduces an orderly reality as seen or imagined by the bourgeoisie. It’s done in mystery novels, as it was done by John Updike, who was the archduke of American bourgeoisie. In that tradition “good writing” is valued, while a rewarding, comforting closure is required. I don’t do that. It doesn’t help sales, but I don’t do that.

Of course I was conscious of my characters’ trajectories. I created them. I don’t do unconscious writing, that’s for drunks and amateurs.

Writing is making a thousand little decisions—it is nothing if not constantly making decisions, many of which have no visible consequence, sometimes no consequence at all. So that I decide on my endings as I decide on anything else: if I’m building the damn thing, there ought to be an inherent logic to its architecture, and enough glue for all the toothpicks. And a lot of toothpicks.

CCP: Reading The Book of My Lives, I get the sense that you’re tapping into an almost universal — at least in the Western world — sense of being isolated and yearning for expression. Why do you think this state exists, or is this only in my head?

AH:Writing is making a thousand little decisions—it is nothing if not constantly making decisions, many of which have no visible consequence, sometimes no consequence at all.   Almost universal is not universal. That yearning was—is—something that is common among young people, particularly those of bourgeois, or privileged, background, for whom personal expression is an entitlement. Rock ‘n’ roll flows from the same spring. This is not to dismiss this sensibility as illegitimate—it goes way back to the Romantics and it does not necessarily result in lesser work.

For me, it was a phase, when every attempt at expression was commendable. Now I prefer to think of myself as an architect—I build cathedrals in language. Not unlike those guys who spend years rebuilding Notre Dame with toothpicks.

CCP: You have a well-established relationship with the New Yorker. What are your thoughts on their place in the writing world?

AH: There used to be a lot of magazines publishing not only fiction but also articles that required the readers’ concentration and presumed they were not just flipping through while watching television. The New Yorker is the last remnant of a public culture rooted in reading. All the other magazines I can think of are published and designed for advertising, and are most appropriate for dental-office waiting rooms or bathrooms. That kind of vacuous press assumes that their readers don’t like to read, and publish copy that is easy to drop and forget as the nurse is calling or the spouse is banging on the door.

Being published in The New Yorker is, of course, a good thing, because it allows me to have access to a great group of readers. But a satisfying sense of self (whatever it may be) does not (and should not) come from items on one’s resume. I prefer to rely on being loved by the people I love for any kind of satisfying sense of self. Besides, if writing is a way to understand and engage with the world, if literature generates and contains human knowledge not available otherwise, then a persistently satisfying sense of self can only be tranquilizing. Or: if writing is done properly, you’re always writing about what you don’t know or don’t understand. One is always writing one’s worst book.

CCP: You seem to be really engaged with film as it comes out from all parts of the world, and I’m wondering how you see film as it relates to literature. Do you see them as natural cousins? Do they compete in any way?

AH: Walter Murch has a great book of conversations with Michael Ondaatje. I used it in a course I taught with an umbrella name, “Film and Writing.” Murch says the three fathers of cinema are Thomas Edison, because he invented the technology, Beethoven, because he showed the way to have a range of emotions in a single work, and Flaubert, who essentially conceptualized the close-up, by isolating telling details. Out of these three, cinema came about. In that basic sense, as I think and write and teach literature, there’s always an overlapping with film.

I am much older than you, but I am on this side of the gap between generations. The generation on our side had its imagination formed by images. I grew up in a culture of images. I grew up by a movie theater. Literally, it was across the street. So I grew up watching movies since the age of six years. So my literary imagination is heavily influenced by film.

CCP: In the near future, do you see America becoming less insular, less self-absorbed, at least with literature? Does Man Booker opening its prize to include Americans or your success or the success of many hyphenated Americans (pardon the clunky term) equal a trend? Is Nobel craning its neck west?

AH: I think America is not a unified, monolithic space—if there is one thing great about it, it’s that. In my neighborhood in Chicago more than a hundred languages are spoken.

It could be argued that the more exchange between the world and America there is, the louder are the reactionary voices of isolation. And that is the case in the realm of literature too. There are many non-native-speaking writers who write in English, but I would guess that when they’re up for a prize against a “proper” American, they have a lesser chance of winning. Partly because it’s easy to put them into the corner where they can deal with the so-called immigrant experience, which is somehow entirely different from American experience (whatever that may be), available by birthright to unhyphenated American writers.

As for the Nobel, I have no idea what they’re thinking. I don’t think anyone does. It’s very possible that they’re too stuck on the notion of national literatures, which does not value or take seriously people with complicated and multilingual identities. You would be hard pressed to find anyone on the list of Nobel Lit prize winners who could in any way be construed as having complicated, multilingual identities. They like their writers single origin.

CCP: Good segue to my next question about Chicago. You’ve written about it considerably. What do you think about it as a place for art?

AH: Well, I wasn’t looking for Chicago when I came to Chicago. I just came to Chicago. I was just trying to live somewhere. But to live in the city means to engage with it productively, be with other people, learn the urban geography, and participate in human exchanges whether that means playing pickup soccer or going to a barbershop. To me, this was essential. In other words, I built Chicago for myself out of the real Chicago. I assembled what I liked from the real city.

Had I ended up in New York or Dallas 22 years ago, I would have perhaps assembled a city for myself from those places too. A city is not a finished thing, in the general sense, but also in the most personal sense. You never complete living in a city. Regardless of the size, you never use up all the possibilities of a city, neither its “culture” nor the huge number of people who live there.

CCP: What is your favorite place to be when writing?

AH: I can write anywhere, except in writing retreats. I like peace and quiet when I’m writing, but then the rest of the day is a problem—I like to go out, meet people, play soccer, have a drink, see a movie. I do not fully understand the retreat culture in the US. I think behind the concept of secluding yourself to stimulate your creativity is a Puritan sensibility, which deems the mortification of flesh—the absence of external stimulation—as ideal for getting in touch with the (divine) realm of ideas and feelings. I wither, as a writer and as a person, in isolation.

The ideal set-up for me is thus living/writing in a big, good, interesting city, so that when I’m done with my work I get to share my energy with other people, feed off theirs, see interesting things, stay high with the adrenaline whose levels rose while I was writing. Chicago is pretty good for all that. The best was Paris, where I lived for ten months a few years ago. I would be done writing by lunch and the rest of the day my wife and I would spend wandering around, sampling cheese at markets, roaming the Louvre, observing people from a perch in a café. It was very productive.

CCP: What is your general revision process? How does an ideal second or Nth draft come about?

AH: I don’t count drafts. I suspect it’s a habit one acquires in a writing program, which has to be academically systematized and allow for gradable, measurable progress, so the tuition can be justified. I think about a story/novel for a long time, then I start writing it and then I keep doing it until I’m done. I can do that in any number of ways, none of which constitutes a reliable method, let alone a repeatable process.

I don’t mean to dismiss your question, but I often get it and it always comes from a writing student, or someone who has been one. There is an assumption—which stands behind the whole concept of the creative writing program—that there are writing processes that can be modeled and repeated and that one becomes a better, or at least a more competent, writer by learning them. What writing allows is freedom to play with methods, forms, expectations, anything, as you’re not spending anyone’s money to do it, and no press conference is held for you to finish a book on deadline. But in grad school, you have to submit something by Monday, and you’re hungover and out of ideas, so an efficient method/process is valued, something that produces copy by itself and you just have to turn it on—a reproducible creative algorithm, a shareable software for imagination. That has nothing to do with writing as such. It has everything to do with the academic system.

There is no bag of tricks that I, as an “accomplished” writer and hence presumably an expert, can share. One develops one’s own bag of tricks in the process of writing a particular work, but that bag of tricks turns automatically obsolete and ought to be discarded once that work is done.

Part of the pleasure of writing is precisely inventing the methods and processes for a particular project. I’ve written each book using different processes—except the word “process” is wildly misleading, as I seldom repeat it beyond the basic writing practice of arranging words in meaningful sequences.

CCP: Who is your favorite reader?

AH: Writers have readers. Celebrities have fans. Fandom implies awe or, even, commercial worshipping, an inequality that cannot be rectified, because a celebrity and a fan operate in different realities. Readers and writers meet in the book. The whole project of literature is inherently democratic. Therefore I don’t have a favorite reader. There is, however, a very small group of Bosnians in diaspora, my close, old friends, not more than a dozen, who understand more than anyone else, because we have shared so much of our lives. Our referential systems are identical. 

CCP: Earlier, I use this word “themes” as a way to wrap my head around your work and thinking about how you talk about Chicago as an unfinished place, and I’m wondering if that’s how you feel about your life history, do you feel that like Chicago, it is, not yet fully mined?

AH: Well, of course it’s unfinished. As long as I’m alive, I hope it’s unfinished.

CCP: Right, you’re not dead yet.

AHBut it’s also that the past is never finished. It’s present constantly. It’s also the way we edit the past or interpret the past that’s alive.

It’s interesting that you use the term “life history.” I know what you mean, but life is my domain and history is not my domain. My life is in history. The struggle is to protect that life from history but also to participate in history. There are always more stories to be told about history or about my life, or somebody else’s life. I’m not limited by my life. I don’t just write about things determined by my life history, because life also includes living outside yourself through other people or living imaginatively. Our life is defined by possibilities, including the unfulfillable ones.

So to write literature, fiction or nonfiction, you have to engage with those possibilities, tell the stories that never really happened, but are happening all the time. So even if I were to run out of life, I would make up stuff and that would become my life history.

On a basic level, there are things about my books regarding which I can’t remember whether they happened to me or I invented them. Small things obviously. Big things I can remember. There is a continuity between memory and imagination, which is why you can imagine your memories and w