Winner of the 2003 World Fantasy Award for his novella The Library, Zoran Zivkovic is one of the most highly—regarded writers of genre fiction today, defying narrow categorization and extending the boundaries of the various traditions—science—fiction, fantasy, mystery, noir—he borrows from. Aside from the first two questions, whose answers were culled from Zivkovic’s Afterword to The Fourth Circle and comments in The Independent, this interview was conducted via e-mail.
ANA LUCIC: Could you tell us something about the challenges and the obstacles that you had to overcome when you tried to publish your first novel The Fourth Circle in the US, and also about the difficulties of getting translated into other languages, especially English.
ZORAN ZIVKOVIC: The Fourth Circle was originally published in late December 1993. The following spring it won a prestigious Serbian literary award—the “Milos Crnjanski”… One eminent critic hailed it as “a postmodern rhapsody.”
I should have been more than satisfied. My first foray into literature had already proven quite a success. Alas, the limitations of that success were all too evident. As one cynic rightfully remarked, when you write in Serbian, you don’t write at all. Indeed, your work is available to a theoretical maximum of about ten million native speakers, although the real number of potential readers is far, far smaller. The initial print—run of The Fourth Circle was only 500 copies, with an additional 500 printed after it won the “Milos Crnjanski.” And that was it.
If I didn’t want to remain in the village, but to try my luck in the city, I had to provide an English translation of my novel. Once in English, it would become readable not only in the English—speaking countries, but throughout the world. It was easy enough to see that. To make it happen, however, was by no means straightforward and inexpensive. I confess I have always envied authors who write originally in English. First, they don’t have to bother at all about providing translations of their works. Second, they never pay their translators. Their publishers gladly do that for them. But, as we all know, the world isn’t a just place, particularly if you aren’t among its privileged inhabitants.
Quality English translators from the Serbian are a rare breed. It’s no wonder, therefore, that they are in strong demand and appropriately expensive. So, even when you manage to engage one, you are not quite certain whether you should be glad because your work will be properly translated, or sad because it is going to cost you a fortune. Sadness usually prevails, since it is an investment that very rarely, if ever, pays off. What you eventually get for your money is the chance to get to where any English—speaking author would start out when he’s just completed his work. There are no guarantees even of recouping your investment, let alone of making a profit. You really have to be quite a gambler to agree to such terms. I certainly felt like one when Mrs. Mary Popovic agreed to translate The Fourth Circle…
The translation process lasted almost six months. I spent a substantial part of that time with Mrs. Popovic, assisting her in finding her way through the complex labyrinths of The Fourth Circle. I remember some moments of real trouble, almost desperation, when we struggled to find proper English equivalents for some of the subtler points in the original. I knew from my own experience (more than fifty translated books, mostly from English) that a translator’s life is by no means a bed of roses. Yet, only now, working on my own novel, did I fully realize what a martyrdom it could be. Had I not written it myself, I would have been tempted to find the author and explain to him, mostly in a nonverbal way, what I thought of his linguistic virtuosities. By the end, Mrs. Popovic and I were in full agreement: she had been shortchanged for her labor.
In my naïveté, it seemed to me then that the worst part was behind me. I had a—hopefully—good novel, very professionally translated into English. What else could be needed in order to place it with an American or British publisher? Well, first I discovered I needed an agent. That came as a total surprise, since the institution of literary agents simply didn’t exist in the part of the world I lived in. A writer dealt directly with publishing houses, without any intermediaries. Some American publishers, to whom I sent The Fourth Circle in late 1994, returned it unopened, briefly stating that they would only consider manuscripts received through agents.
Eventually I managed to find an agent to represent me, although right from the start he wasn’t very enthusiastic, and understandably so. At that time, with Sarajevo under siege and horrible bloodshed throughout the Balkans, anything with the prefix “Serbian” was automatically and indiscriminately identified as suspicious, to say the least. Soon one rejection slip followed another. The fact that none of them had anything to do with the literary qualities of my submission was scant consolation.
Under these bitter circumstances there were also a few amusing incidents. One publisher, for example, happened to like my novel quite a bit. Alas, he concluded that, however good, it was, at least at the moment, “unmarketable.” (That was the very first time in my life I met this term used in what I thought was a predominantly literary context.) Yet, I got a counter—offer from him. Could I deliver, he asked, a 100,000 word novel about the civil war in Bosnia, preferably in three months. I shouldn’t restrain my vivid imagination in any way when it came to atrocities, serial rape, concentration camps, and other similar pleasantries so much admired by the mass audience. Such a novel would be not only marketable, but very probably bound to hit the bestseller lists. The gentleman was rather confused and disappointed to hear that I simply wasn’t interested in hiring myself out as a writer, regardless of the advance he might have been willing to offer me.
When apparently there were no more publishers to whom my agent could submit The Fourth Circle, he stepped forward with an ingenious proposal. I should change my name. What do you mean, I asked incredulously. He meant I should choose a pen name, preferably something that would sound American. Like what? Well, we could try to find an analogous version of your original name. What would that be? After a brief etymological consideration, he boldly suggested: Donald Livingston. Why should I be Donald Livingston instead of Zoran Zivkovic? Can you really imagine, he asked, that anyone called Zoran Zivkovic would ever be able to publish anything in the USA? I could. He couldn’t. So, inevitably, we went our separate ways.”
AL: You were in Belgrade during the NATO strikes of spring 1999. What was this encounter with the modern face of war like?
ZZ: I will try, as hard as I can, to delete the spring of AD 1999 from my memory. To forget about fear, anger, frustration, despair, ruins, dead bodies, lack of electricity, water, food, gasoline, lack of perspective, lack of hope. But some episodes—good and bad—will stubbornly refuse to be erased.
The Chinese embassy is just across the street from where I live. Even if I were writing this in my native language, I would not have the words to describe the experience of that alleged accidental bombing. All our windows and doors to the balcony facing the street were blasted out, together with their frames. It was incredible luck that nobody was injured, although we all—myself, my wife Mia, and our twin boys of eighteen—found ourselves on the floor, amid overturned furniture and broken glass. It took us a couple of days of strong sedatives to recover, but I am sure some invisible scars will remain permanently. Now, I start quite involuntarily even at the sound of a distant door-slam…
AL: Did you manage to write in this period?
ZZ: I wrote intensively during all seventy-seven days of NATO intervention. I used a computer when we had electricity and pen and paper when there were power failures. I wrote almost the whole of The Book in this period, my most comedic novel so far. Laughter was my defense, my last refuge from death. I guess, my affinity to bring together eros and thanatos in my prose comes from this period. Before anything else, this is the main theme of Hidden Camera.
AL: You have lots of experience as an editor, translator and publisher, but you started writing late in your career. Do you think an author needs to acquire sufficient experience in order to start writing?
ZZ: By all means. The later an author starts writing, the better. We have been writing for more than 5,000 years now. Many, many things have already been written. If you don’t have enough reading experience, you would probably end up with the illusion that you are writing something original, while it is actually very old. I simply don’t believe in literary wunderkinds. Every trade has its optimal age. With the serious fiction writing it is, I believe, one’s fifties.
AL: Your writing has been compared to that of Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. Would you say that they are your primary literary influences?
ZZ; Yes, of course they have influenced my work, although not in such a direct way. I would like to add that the more I am present in the US prose scene, the more I am identified as an original literary voice. I think that is the greatest compliment I could possibly get as a writer.
AL: Any other influences?
ZZ: Here are a few: I admire the skill with which Umberto Eco transforms his colossal erudition into literature; I am enchanted by the thick, condensed, meaningful sentences of Peter Hoeg. I highly respect the lacy, allusive webbing of Kazuo Ishiguro’s prose, and I would love to achieve the extreme reduction of the prose paint—brush of Alessandro Baricco. Or Patrick Suskind’s artistry in creating atmospheres so strong that they shock the senses.
AL: I know you don’t like being referred to as either a fantasy or science fiction writer, and yet your name gets associated from time to time with these two terms. You consider yourself primarily a fiction writer? No prefixes or attributes?
ZZ: I don’t like prefixes one bit. As I explained elsewhere, they can be both misleading and limiting. They are one of the most devious inventions of the publishing industry. Not depending on the publishing industry in any way, I enjoy the privilege of simply being a writer.
AL: What kind of reception do you hope Hidden Camera will have in the US?
ZZ: It’s very hard to tell. I can only hope, humbly, that readers will find it interesting and worth reading.
AL: There is a great deal of sadness and melancholy, and yet lots of humor, in Hidden Camera. It seems to me that neither of these things take precedence in your novel. Could you tell me something about how you manage to keep such balance of sadness and humor in your writing?
ZZ: Oh, but there are precedences. The Writer, for example, is humorous prose about a very stern subject: the nature of inspiration. Than there is The Book—a comic requiem for books. Finally, The Library is partly rather funny, while partly rather melancholic. My latest piece of fiction, a short novel entitled Compartments, is at the same time hilarious and deadly serious. And just wait to read the book I am currently working on: Four Stories Till the End. So, Hidden Camera is no exception. On the contrary, I would say. It represents my most typical, most idiosyncratic approach to fiction writing.