[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.]
Zoran Živković was born in Belgrade, former Yugoslavia, in 1948. In 1973 he graduated from the Department of General Literature with the theory of literature, Faculty of Philology of the University of Belgrade; he received his master’s degree in 1979 and his doctorate in 1982 from the same school, where he is currently a professor of creative writing.
Živković is the author of the eighteen works of fiction: The Fourth Circle (1993), Time Gifts (1997), The Writer (1998), The Book (1999), Impossible Encounters (2000), Seven Touches of Music (2001), The Library (2002), Steps through the Mist (2003), Hidden Camera (2003), Compartments (2004), Four Stories till the End (2004), Twelve Collections and the Teashop (2005), The Bridge (2006), Miss Tamara, The Reader (2006), Amarcord (2007), The Last Book (2007), Escher’s Loops (2008) and The Ghostwriter (2009).
He lives in Belgrade, Serbia, with his wife Mia, their twin sons Uroš and Andreja, and their three cats.
In 2003. Živković won the World Fantasy Award for his mosaic-novel The Library.
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. I read in an interview that you consider yourself a writer “without any prefixes.” Why do you think some readers, critics, and other writers have biases against fiction that are typically labeled as genre or might include elements of the fantastika?
These are two very different things. The fantastika is a noble and ancient art. (A much broader term, by the way, than “fantasy.”) According to some studies in literary history, about 70 percent of everything that has ever been written in the last 5,000 years, ever since literacy came about, belongs to one of many forms of the fantastika. Some readers might not like it, that’s quite legitimate, but I don’t see how any serious critic could have biases against it. This would mean denying that the vast majority of the world literary heritage has any value. As for genre fiction, it refers to products of the contemporary publishing industry. Since any industry is primarily about making a profit, it’s no wonder that their products don’t have much art; art by its very nature does not go along with popularity. And only popularity, mass readership, paves the way to profit. Alas, the more popular usually means the more trivial, less artistic.
I read in another interview that when you were a kid, you were horrible at writing and poetry. What made you decide to persist at it and pursue writing? What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome before becoming a published writer?
Actually, I wasn’t horrible at writing when I was young, since I wrote my first piece of prose only when I was 45. I tried my hand at poetry, yes, and I don’t think these were really poor attempts. In that interview I referred to some high school home work that made my teacher conclude that I would never make my living by writing. I often remember that episode now that I teach creative writing. It makes me refrain from jumping to any similar conclusion even when I read a particularly bad story. It’s impossible to be a reliable prophet when it comes to prose writing. The biggest challenge I had to overcome before becoming a published writer was to actually write the works. Everything after that was rather smooth and straightforward, since I was myself my first publisher…
Your fiction has been translated into several languages. Do you have any theories as to why you’re popular internationally?
I guess there is a simple explanation. Readers from many countries apparently like what I write…
I read in an interview that you admit that your fiction is neglected by the literary establishment there. Is that still the case? Do you still seek their approval (and why or why not)?
The Serbian literary establishment is proverbially conservative and traditional. They still consider there can’t be any serious literature outside what they define as “great national themes.” Since my writing doesn’t belong to that category, and yet still has an impact abroad (I am currently one of most widely translated Serbian authors), they are now in some sort of a bind. They don’t know what to do with me. They can’t accept “the verdict” of the rest of the world without jeopardizing their conservatism. I have no reason to seek their approval. Approval will probably come by itself with the new generation of the Serbian literary scholars.
When it comes to translation, what are the difficulties in finding a good translator? When it comes to the English translation of your work, how does Alice Copple-Tošic best captures your “voice” and how did you meet such a wonderful translator?
I was extremely lucky to meet Alice. She has translated as many as 16 out of 18 prose books of mine. By now she has profoundly penetrated not only my language but even deeper, the way I think. Translators from Serbian into English are a rare breed, since there aren’t many native English speakers who are fluent in such a diabolically complicated language as Serbian. I am eternally grateful to Alice for everything I have achieved abroad.
Why do you think other Serbian fiction isn’t as popular internationally? Which Serbian author(s) should the rest of the world be reading?
If by “internationally” you imply the English language area, there is a simple explanation. US or UK publisher very rarely bring out books in translation. That’s really pity, since I am quite sure many English-speaking readers would greatly enjoy books by Goran Petrović, Vladislav Bajac, Dragan Velikić or Svetislav Basara, to name just a few.
You teach Creative Writing at the University of Belgrade. Does this profession have any impact on your writing? What advice would you give to students?
This profession doesn’t have any impact on my writing since I have practically stopped writing since I started to teach. It is just a coincidence, of course. I’ll be able to answer your question as soon as I start writing again. As for my students, at the very first class of my course I give them as many as four convincing reasons to abandon it right away. And yet, masochistically, they all stay with me…
You also wrote papers on science fiction previously. What’s the appeal of science fiction and fantasy for you?
I was involved in many ways with science fiction for about fifteen years. But I was much younger at that time. I don’t think that what appealed to me then would have a strong impact on me at this age. Evidently, I changed. But science fiction changed too.
What’s the speculative fiction scene in Serbia like?
It’s very moderate. Some people would consider this an exaggeration…
You’ve written a wide variety of material from short stories to novels. Is there a particular format you’re most comfortable with? How about a format that you want to challenge yourself?
I don’t think about any format in particular when I start writing. I don’t choose formats. Formats choose me…
For unfamiliar readers, where we can find more of your work?
My UK publisher, PS Publishing, specialized in bringing out limited editions, will soon have a complete set of my prose opus.