“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 yo