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“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,