5 QUESTIONS

WITH ALEKSANDAR HEMON

Our bookseller Sara got the chance to ask one of her favorite authors five questions. Of course she couldn't stop at just five...
Aleksandar Hemon is the author of The Making of Zombie Wars, one of our Best Books of 2015.
 
The Making of Zombie WarsAleksandar Hemon
The Book of My LivesAleksandar Hemon
Love and ObstaclesAleksandar Hemon
 
The Lazarus ProjectAleksandar Hemon
 
Nowhere ManAleksandar Hemon
The Question of BrunoAleksandar Hemon
 
 
 
 

1. Why zombies?


There are many reasons I had availed the main character, Joshua Levin, of zombies, most of which I don’t remember. But I do remember the two main ones: zombies are undead, and are, so to speak, incompletely disembodied—their bodies are dead, except for the insatiable hunger for flesh; and their horror is in their multitudiousness, which is why they signify the American fears of masses: masses of immigrants, masses of others, masses of not-us, whereby they wish to devour us, our life, our bodies. I sense that there is something about the exponential increase in zombie (and superhero) narratives after 9/11 and Iraq invasion. So I wanted Joshua to concern himself with zombie wars, while there was an actual war unfolding.  

2. You’re known to include nonfictional elements in your fiction and fictional elements in your nonfiction. How do you see the relation between the two? What leads you down one path versus the other in any given project?


There are no words for fiction and non-fiction, nor is there one for the distinction between them. I think that is the case in most of Slavic languages.
I like to think that the overarching term for what I do is storytelling. I confront the world, the issues, the ideas by way of narration, which is a particular way to organize experience in language and is equally applicable in fiction and non-fiction. I also think that, for a storyteller, truth does not precede narration but emerges from it, the truthfulness, in another words, has to be earned.
Which is really all to say that I like telling stories, whether they’re remembered or made up. Often, I wait for non-fictional stories to mature into fiction. But there are those that are already mature as non-fiction, or resist the transformation.
 

3. I love the way The Making of Zombie Wars inverts our expectations. You create the most divine observations out of the most vulgar situations. You skewer Hollywood clichés at the same time as you seem to be gleefully riffing on them. How does this type of duality play into the subjects and themes that you choose to pursue?


I love the readers who enjoy their expectations being inverted, or even subverted. My favorite books are those who slip out of the grasp of my expectations and surprise and delight me, despite my demands. There is a risk in betraying the reader’s expectations—they might just quit, or be confused. But I love that risk. I’d rather risk the reader’s momentary discomfort (and, possibly, low sales) than provide the warm blanket of confirming what s/he already knows and believes. So I like the challenge of making the reader connect with an unlikable character, or expose the cliché as such only to convert it back into a meaningful idea. To my mind, the beauty and potential of literature is its ability to transform language and experience and make them new all over again. That might require dismantling the reader’s expectations.  

4. The Making of Zombie Wars really showcases your sense of humor. Humor is a powerful tool, but so few writers are able to use it well. What makes it so hard? Has your sense of humor changed over time?


Comedy is risky. For one thing, one finds out instantly whether the joke works or not—no one laughs a week after a joke is told. As I was writing the book, I constantly worried if it was funny to someone other than me. I’d sent chunks to my editor and agent asking them only to tell me if it was funny. By deciding to write a funny book I placed my biggest bet on a single pony. I loved that risk: the book would’ve been dead (or, even worse, undead) if people didn’t find it funny.
Another thing is that I like the kind of humor that is not just entertainment, the kind that allows the laughter to cast light on something that remains obscure otherwise. Obviously, that kind of humor is more daring.  

5. Do you have a file of ideas for novels (albeit not tongue-in-cheek) like Joshua's screenplays? You've already surprised us with zombies. Which other idea might surprise your readers the most?


No, I don’t have a file, nor do I make notes of such ideas. But my mind is set up in such a way that it constantly narratizes experience, testing reality for possible stories. It is compulsive, which is to say that I don’t will it—it just happens. So that I might see two people arguing at a bus stop and immediately start imagining a story in which two people are arguing at a bus stop. But I discard a vast majority of those ideas just as rapidly. Some of them end up stored somewhere in my mind for future use, its reemergence often surprising me.  

6. I’ve always liked your fiction, but I was overwhelmed by The Book of My Lives . The essay about your daughter Isabel is staggeringly powerful. I am grateful for the alchemy that allows you to turn your pain to art which can help us all. Have you ever been tempted to turn away from difficult stories?


I don’t think I was tempted to turn away, but there have been moments that tested my ability to do it. If I start turning away from what is difficult or, even, seems impossible, then I will write, I believe, only what is easy for me to write. I’ll be telling only the stories that don’t need to be told. Art ought to come out of necessity, not out of fear or laziness.    
 
 
Tuesday, December 29, 2015 - 9:15pm