News Ticker

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Aleksandar Žiljak

[Interviewer’s Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of The Apex Book of World SF

edited by Lavie Tidhar. It’ll run every Monday to Friday until I run

out of interviews. Two of these interviews will be reprinted in Apex Magazine but the rest are exclusive to SF Signal.]

Aleksandar Žiljak was born in Zagreb, Croatia, in 1963. He graduated on Electrotechnical Faculty in Zagreb in 1987, and got his Master of Computer Sciences degree in 1990.

He is a freelance illustrating artist, working mostly for children magazines, newspapers, school text-books, and also producing book-cover art. He specializes in wildlife illustration, but also does science-fiction, mystery and similar subjects. He is a member of Croatian Freelance Artists Association.

He also publishes SF/F/H stories, starting with short horror stories in 1991. Since then he has published mostly in Futura magazine and annual SFera story collections. In mid-nineties, he also wrote two screenplays. Some of his stories were collected in 2003 in the book Slijepe ptice (Blind Birds). In the same year, he published a popular science book Cryptozoology: The World of Mysterious Animals, using a pseudonym Karl S. McEwan.

Together with Tomislav Šakic’, he edited Ad Astra, an anthology of Croatian science fiction stories, published in 2006. The same editing team works on UBIQ, the science fiction literary magazine, published twice a year since November 2007. 

So far, he published some of his stories and texts in Germany (Internova, Nova), Denmark (Phantazm webzine), Serbia (Politikin zabavnik youth magazine, Art-Anima webzine), Argentina (Axxon webzine), Greece (9, weekly comics and SF supplement of the Eleftherotypia newspapers), People’s Republic of China, Italy (Futuro Europa), France (Station Fiction) and Poland.

Aleksandar Žiljak won three SFERA Awards for best SF stories (in 1996, 1998 and 2000), two for best SF art (in 1993 and 1995), and one – with Tomislav Šakic’ – for editing the Ad Astra anthology (2006)


Hi Aleksandar! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first get acquainted with science fiction and fantasy? What’s the appeal of the genre for you?

Well, my interest in SF started with my late father. Ever since I remember, he was an avid reader of SF: he was reading SF books in English, German and Russian. (I never asked him how he got acquainted, though.) So, when I was in an elementary school (I was born in 1963), I started reading SF, Serbo-Croatian translations at first. I remember novels by Matheson, Clarke, Verkor, Asimov, you know, the usual stuff. Then, in 1976, Sirius – the first Croatian SF magazine – was started, and of course it opened to me the whole wide world of SF story. Simultaneously, I needed some additional exercise for my English lessons. So, father gave me a novel in English to read. It was, I still remember, Space Relations by Donald Burr. That’s how I started reading SF in English. And, of course, there were TV series, Star Trek (first screened on TV in Yugoslavia in 1972, I think.) and UFO and Space 1999, and movies. I think among the first ones I saw in cinema were 2001 and Green Slime.

The appeal of the genre? I don’t know, I guess it gives me the insight into other worlds and other possibilities. There was and still is escapism and adventure, yes, but SF proved capable of speaking about us here and now, our mistakes, failures, but also hopes.

What made you decide to become active in the SF field?

It must have been my previous exposure to SF, so when I decided to create something, to write, it was, of course, SF. I don’t recall any particular moment when I decided to become active in the field.

You’re both a writer and an artist – even winning the SFera Awards for both. Which came first, the writer or the artist aspect? How does one affect the other?

The artist aspect came first. I was always drawing something, ever since I was a kid. It later included SF, but earlier also animals, airplanes, etc. Then, in 1987, as I graduated on the Electrotechnical Faculty in Zagreb (which had nothing to do with art but with getting “a serious education for a respectful job”), I reached the point when I thought that perhaps I could publish stuff – predominantly SF by then. I was drawing and painting to pass the time, and I didn’t really know how good I was. However, the above-mentioned Sirius was always interested in new illustrators, so I brought Hrvoje Prc’ic’, the then-editor, some of my drawings. He published two in spring 1988, and ordered some more. That’s how I started as an artist. As it turned out, Sirius folded within a year and a half, and there was very little SF to do in the following years, with the 1991 war and everything. But I turned my “artistic interest” to another field: wildlife art. Today I make a living as a free-lance illustrator, mostly doing animals and plants and prehistory and such. I do very little SF, maybe a cover or two annually. Situation on the Croatian market is one of the reasons.

Writing came somewhat later. I was toying with some stories, meant for Sirius, but nothing ever came out of them: I didn’t even finish a single one and then there was no more Sirius. But, there was a Sirius connection after all! Namely, in summer 1991 – as Croatia was struggling for independence and war was escalating – I was invited (by Hrvoje Prc’ic’, no less!) to do illustrations for short mystery and horror stories in a political weekly magazine. This I did, but as I read those stories, I said to myself: “Hell, I could write things like these, even better!”. They were short stories, 1500 words or less, and obviously an easier chunk than anything I tried before. So I wrote one about a witch who kills a man that’s beating his wife and child, and they accepted it immediately, and I published several more in that magazine. As it turned out, art indirectly gave me the motivation and opportunity to write.

How does art affect my writing? Well, I do tend to develop images in my head that I then put into words. I visualize situations, and that is particularly useful for various action scenes that I write. I discovered that I sometimes cannot make any progress with a story until I visualize another scene, situation, dialogue that would then give me grounds to continue. A movie director with whom I worked on a screenplay once told me that I am a very visually-oriented writer. On the other hand, my interest (and resultant knowledge) in wildlife and nature, while essential to my profession, is also frequently featured in my stories. I think I became somewhat of a specialist in that respect within Croatian SF and fantasy.

What made you decide to write in English?

That’s another somewhat convoluted story, that started with business connections that I made as an artist.

Sometime in 2002 or 2003, a small Zagreb publishing company “Zagrebac(ka naklada” established contacts with a German literary agent, Uwe Lusserke. Now, he sold them several mystery novels, but also an anthology of German SF titled Journeys into Light. One of the featured writers was Michael Iwoleit, who is also one of the editors of the German SF magazine Nova. This magazine is dedicated to German stories, but they also include in every issue a story from a non-German writer, and Iwoleit wanted a story from Croatia. Lusserke acted as a go-between, and eventually a story by Marina Jadrejc(ic’ was selected. But Iwoleit also wanted a text on Croatian SF to accompany the story. So, I was present in “Zagrebac(ka naklada” to discuss a job that I was to do for them (I did SF covers for them before, and at that time they also published my book on cryptozoology), when the boss, Zdenko Vlainic’, showed me Iwoleit’s request and asked me if I knew anybody who could provide him with a brief history of SF in Croatia. That’s how the first version of my text Science Fiction in Croatia was written. It was published in Nova issue 5, in spring 2004.

In 2003 I had my first story collection, titled Blind Birds, published. And, after realising there’s interest in Croatian SF abroad, I translated my story “What Colour is the Wind?” into English and sent it to Iwoleit. He accepted it for his new project, InterNova, a magazine devoted to international SF. It was published in 2004, but unfortunately InterNova didn’t live past issue 1. Then I translated Lydia and some shorter stories, as well as an as yet unpublished novelette Ultramarine!.

What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome before becoming an established author? How about on the art side?

Well, I am self-taught, both as an artist and a writer. But, as it turned out, I guess I was somewhat lucky. The moment I decided to go and publish my art and/or stories, they got accepted.

The biggest hurdle me and my generation had and still have is the political and economic situation in Croatia. Just when we were supposed to start our creative lives, there was this massive watershed that was the fall of socialism and the ensuing war of independence. While the industry was relatively unharmed by 1991-1995 war, the Croatian economy was so mismanaged during the transition from socialism to capitalism that we are faced with permanent economic crisis. The result, of course, is evident in the publishing industry, with small circulations of books and magazines, small author and artist fees, etc. Many publishers are dependent on state support of one kind or another, and I don’t consider that a very healthy situation. Economic situation in Croatia is such that being a freelance artist is difficult. But then again, nobody said it would be easy.

How would you define “speculative fiction”?

I consider “speculative fiction” (Was it Heinlein’s term?) a super-genre that encompasses primarily the genres of SF, fantasy and (supernatural) horror. One could probably also include all those elements of fantastic within so-called mainstream literature, and possibly some other things, such as folktales, fairy tales, etc. Definitions of SF are many (I refer to Darko Suvin for one of them); we all now what SF is, at least intuitively. It’s supposed to be based on scientific (or pseudo-scientific) speculation or extrapolation. Fantasy is usually seen as based on mythology and/or folktale. We could have a very heated discussion whether horror is a genre or just a writing technique intended to create the feeling of fear, terror, disgust. Naturally, speculative fiction includes all the hybrids, as well as mainstream literature incorporating elements of fantastic, which became a very popular device in the last few decades.

I think “speculative fiction” is a very large playground where everybody can switch from one of the included genres into another within the same text. Of course, “speculative fiction” can also be an alibi for lumping together any nonsense that comes to your mind. It’s all in the way that you use it. I once wrote a novella about a lesbian vampire gunfighter in a spaghetti-western setting. With dinosaurs roaring in background, of course!

How did you get involved with CroSF? How about with Ubiq?

CroSF was simple. Miss Irena Rašeta, who runs the NOSF portal (www.nosf.net) decided few months ago to start a site dedicated to the international promotion of Croatian SF. She asked for contributions and I replied.

Ubiq? Another long story … Namely, in 2004, Tomislav Šakic’ and me started work on Ad Astra, an anthology of Croatian SF story. The anthology was published in April 2006. It is a 640-page book, and it includes 40 stories published from 1976 to the end of 2005. It also includes a bibliography and a history of Croatian SF, as well as Šakic”s text on science fiction. This anthology was well-received within SF community and stirred some interest outside of it.

But, while having its history pretty well researched, Croatian SF faced a major problem, and that was the lack of any magazine where stories could be published. So, in late 2006 or early 2007, Tomislav came out with an idea for a literary magazine devoted to Croatian SF story, but also to SF theory. Since we worked together on Ad Astra, I welcomed the opportunity to join the show. Zagreb publishing company “Mentor”, that also published Ad Astra, gave a go-ahead and issue #1 was out in November 2007. Issue #5 is now in preparation. As it turned out, I filter the stories, while Tomislav’s forte is theory and essays. But we both make final decisions on stories that will be included.

What are the challenges you face as editor for Ubiq?

Fortunately, Tomislav and me get along well as editors. We have already been dubbed “odd couple”, and this is probably true, since, if nothing else, we come from different backgrounds. I am a freelance artist with technical education, while Tomislav graduated on Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb and is working in Croatian Lexicographic Institute.

The biggest challenge is probably the funding. Ubiq is small press, with circulation about 300, and is subsidized by the Croatian Ministry of Culture and the City of Zagreb. If the present economic and financial crisis in Croatia gets seriously worse, that funding might prove very iffy. We do sell, but not enough to survive on our own, I’m afraid.

We try to be a high-quality literary magazine, and that’s sometimes asking for trouble. We’re looking for well-written and innovative speculative fiction by Croatian authors and that means high criteria that some writers simply fail to satisfy. As it is, we range from high-quality pulp-stories to stories ranging on the verge of literary experiment. This sometimes results in criticism on our editorial policy. We feel, however, that the role of Ubiq is to provide publishing place for good Croatian speculative fiction, be it SF, fantasy, horror, or something else entirely. And this “something else entirely” is occasionally too much for some readers. On the other hand, it’s impossible to satisfy all the readers with all the stories published.

I hope that situation will one day improve to such an extent that Ubiq will be published more often. Currently we publish two issues annually, in April and November, but a quarterly would probably be optimal. If all goes well, Ubiq might also become a starting ground for other publishing projects. Only time will tell.

In your article “Science Fiction in Croatia”, Croatia has such a rich history when it comes to the science fiction scene. Why do you think science fiction is popular in Croatia? How would you describe the other genres, such as fantasy or horror?

Errr … This is a difficult question and since I don’t know of any proper study, my answer will be somewhat speculative. I’m not sure that SF before WW2 was all too popular: the titles are quite few and I don’t feel that they had much subsequent influence.

I believe that serious involvement of Croatian readers with SF started in late 1950s. In those years, there existed in Yugoslavia and Croatia (until 1991 one of the six Yugoslav republics) several popular science magazines, often describing projects, inventions and gadgets so futuristic that they were definitely closer to fiction than to fact, even by today’s standards. At the same time, some Yugoslav publishers begun publishing SF books in specialised editions. These editions usually lasted a year or two, but Zagreb publisher “Epoha” was somewhat more successful. They presented novels by foreign writers from both sides of the Iron Curtain. (While having a Communist system, Yugoslavia was not a member of the Warsaw Pact – following a dispute with Stalin in 1948 – and maintained a balanced position between Cold War-Era East and West.) But “Epoha” also published Croatian authors, the most important being the writing tandem Mladen Bjažic’ and Zvonimir Furtinger. Their novels proved very popular, and influenced many future SF fans and writers in Croatia. The influence of SF comics (Dan Dare was very popular!) published in various youth magazines must not be forgotten, too, as well as the 1950s Hollywood SF movies.

I still haven’t answered why? Why the late 1950s and early 1960s? Well, the possible answer is that this period coincides with rapid industrialisation of Yugoslavia and Croatia. Prior to WW2, Yugoslavia was predominantly an agricultural land with underdeveloped industry and relatively small cities. After WW2, led by Tito and Communists, Yugoslavia underwent industrialisation, modernisation, and the resulting growth of cities. At the same time, attention was paid to all levels of education and science, from eradication of widespread illiteracy to creation of modern universities and scientific and research facilities all over the country. I deduce that, in late 1950s and early 1960s, there grew a critical mass of educated urban young readers exposed to science and technology who responded well to SF in all its media forms.

Another surge of interest in SF was in early 1970s, resulting in several important SF editions, as well as the Sirius magazine, started in summer 1976. Sirius, then edited by Borivoj Jurkovic’, immediately opened its pages to Croatian authors, and many an aspiring writer tried his or her luck. Some of them probably saw SF as means to speak up, carefully choosing words, against the negative aspects of the Communist rule, in the tradition of Orwell and Zamyatin. Others expressed fears of Cold War madness and possible nuclear holocaust. Yet others used SF as means of scientific extrapolation.

One way or another, there was enough readership for Sirius to sell 30.000 copies at one time. By early 1970s, TV series and movies also played increasing role in broadening the SF audience. And of course, in late 1970s there was the post-Star Wars boom in SF movies that inevitably spilled into other fields.

SF remains popular in Croatia, as testified by several well-attended annual conventions and increasing number of SF titles written by Croatian authors. But there are problems. Despite Ubiq, we need an SF-monthly such as Sirius or 1990s Futura. And yet, nobody feels that starting such project would be economically viable. On the other hand, maybe it’s just the switch to more modern media, such as DVD, Internet and computer gaming.

As for fantasy and horror. They are also very popular among readers, but the fact is that, in terms of both quantity and quality, Croatian fantasy and horror literature is still much, much behind SF. One of the possible reasons was the editorial policy of Sirius, that didn’t include fantasy and horror. This changed to some extent in Futura, another SF-monthly published since 1992 and now de facto defunct, but the consequences are still being felt. Ubiq tries to do something about it, and we got some great fantasy published in it. There’s another magazine, quite irregular, called Grifon, devoted to medieval history and fantasy, that publishes some stories. Fantasy gaming is also very widespread, card and board games, RPG and LARP, which recently escalated into recreated history. However, good Croatian fantasy novels are very, very few. Situation with horror writers is similar. Croatian fantasy and horror literature has yet to reach the creative levels of Croatian SF.

In your opinion, what makes Croatian SF unique compared to the rest of the world? Who are the Croatian writers we should be reading?

Well, to answer this, one would have to study thoroughly the SF in the rest of the world! It’s difficult to say if Croatian SF is that much unique in terms of subjects and themes explored. From the quantitative point of view, the fact that SF writing cannot be turned into a profession resulted in relatively small outputs of most of Croatian SF writers. On the other hand, 1990s witnessed Croatian SF becoming more and more Croatian in its substance. New generation of writers that appeared in mid-1990s increasingly chose Croatian themes, situations, locations, characters, etc. This is, in my opinion, an important step forward as opposed to older writers who were in most cases reluctant to use Croatian elements in their stories, choosing instead stereotyped western characters, locations, etc.

The Croatian authors worth reading? Well, I guess I won’t have many friends left after they read this …  OK, the most important and prolific Croatian SF writer is without doubt Predrag Raos. He has a relatively consistent body of work starting in 1979, that includes several brilliant novels – Brodolom kod Thule (Shipwrecked at Thula), Nul Effort, Mayerling, Vertikala (The Vertical) – and numerous stories. He is a master stylist and his technological visions are pure joy to read and experience. At the same time, he remains merciless to all kinds of human stupidity.

Ivan Gavran is a relatively new writer who already has two major novels published: Sablja (The Sabre) and Božja jednadžba (God’s Equation), being the beginning of a planned trilogy. The Sabre could probably stand shoulder-to-shoulder with best US military space opera.

We have some very important women writers, some of them dating from Sirius days. Vesna Gorše has some very good stories, as well as Biljana Mateljan. Veronika Santo is simply brilliant: her 2008 story collection Vrt pramc(anih figura (The Figurehead Garden) contains some of the best stories in Croatian SF ever. Tatjana Jambrišak, who started in mid-1990s is also very good, and so is Milena Benini.

I would also recommend stories by Danilo Brozovic’, Igor Lepc(in, Dalibor Perkovic’, Zoran Vlahovic’, Zoran Krušvar and Darko Macan. All these authors already have story collections and novels published in Croatia and established themselves firmly within Croatian SF. There’s a number of new writers, whose stars are on the rise, such as Sanja Tenjer, Gordana Kokanovic’-Krušelj, Ed Barol, etc. I could keep listing names, I guess. And of course, there’s yours truly.

A good move to introduce readers to Croatian SF would be to translate Ad Astra. This anthology contains 40 authors and gives a really comprehensive insight into 30 years of genre development in a small country such as Croatia.

How is the Croatian SF field making its presence felt internationally? How are technologies such as Internet playing a role in this?

Until now, any international presence of Croatian SF was the result of individual efforts. Prior to the 1991 war, there was very little Croatian SF translated into other languages, all during 1980s: several Furtinger’s novelettes in Poland, some stories by other writers in Italy, Germany, France, and that was about the size of it.

But things are changing. There was Iwoleit and Nova / InterNova. I published abroad, but I’m not the only one. Zoran Krušvar had a story collection published in Poland recently, and his novel is scheduled sometime soon. Parsek, the fanzine published by Zagreb SF club “SFera” and edited by Boris Švel, had two issues in English that were distributed on Worldcons. I know of several other projects that are being prepared or negotiated. And now there’s CroSF!

In my experience, there are two major obstacles to breaking into the international scene. One is language. Not many writers are sure enough of their English to undertake translation of their own stories, much less write in English. I manage, but it is a time-consuming process that detracts from my writing. Professional translators into English or any other language are probably easy to find, but they are, ahem, professional. Seldom anybody can afford one. This remains a serious problem. We need a publisher ready to invest into translations.

Another problem, as far as stories are concerned, are the magazines themselves. I’ll give you my experience, quoting names and all. I published my first story outside Croatia in InterNova, which folded after issue #1. I published my second story in Nova (in German), but they take one non-German story per issue and I have no right to expect to monopolise that slot. And Nova is published maybe twice a year. I published two stories and the text on Croatian SF in Italian Futuro Europa, but they seem to be in problems: one of my stories is awaiting publication for more than a year. I had my stories accepted in Greek magazine Universe Pathways, but they apparently went defunct. I won’t even mention various East European magazines to whom I sent my stories, never to receive as much as an answer. See the problem?

I feel that this new book, Apex Book of World SF, is an important project and I really hope it will succeed, because I have faith not only in Croatian SF, but in SF from many other countries worldwide. I know for sure that there are many writers form “peripheral” Europe, Latin America, Asia, very poorly known in English-speaking countries, who have a lot to say and who know how to say it. And I also feel that it is time for this unknown SF to be finally read and heard, because these are the voices from countries that, joined all together, represent the vast majority of human race. Sadly, previous similar projects failed. It is very important that this one succeeds and perhaps grows into something more.

Internet is invaluable now, because without it, the fast communication would be impossible. It enables quick correspondence between authors and editors, quick readers’ response on forums, etc. Internet enables communication in ways unseen a decade or two ago. I still prefer printed mediums, but web magazines might be another venue for breakthrough of the Croatian SF. Also, in near future, I expect Croatian SF to be distributed as e-books.

Speaking of Internet, what really amazes and infuriates me is the attitude of some renowned American SF magazines that continue to refuse e-mailed submissions! As if we’re still living in 1970s or earlier! I wonder if such approach is one of the reasons of their continuous decline?

Where can unfamiliar readers go to find more of your work?

Well, I published stories all over the world: in Denmark, Germany, Italy, Greece, Serbia, France, Poland, People’s Republic of China. As I said before, I do prefer printed medium to web-publishing. Call me old-fashioned. But, OK, here are some addresses aside from my stories uploaded on CroSF.

“An Evening In The City Coffeehouse, With Lydia On My Mind” and another short story can be found (in English) on Danish webzine Phantazm.

Chinese readers can find my story “What Colour is the Wind?” translated as “Feng Shi Shen Me Yan Se De?” on the address www.douban.com/group/topic/1609934/

Those who can read Polish are welcome to the webzine Balkan United, where they can find (among other Croatian authors – check them out!) my story “Days of Orgon” (“Dni Orgonu”):

There are also some stories in Croatian on Serbian site Art-anima.

Wasn’t much help, was it?

%d bloggers like this: