Saints & Sinners: JOSIP NOVAKOVICH with Coe Douglas
Heritage of Smoke
Josip led the first creative writing workshop I took at the University of Tampa. Even before finding out he’d be my writing mentor, I had been a big fan of his stories, especially his collection Infidelities, which possesses that rare ability to walk between worlds—one starkly real, dark and rubble-strewn, the other able to find the shards of humor amidst all that chaos.
Around the time we met, Josip was a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. During that first MFA residency, we quickly forged a connection, with Josip becoming a friend, mentor, and a serial encourager of my writing. The best thing about those residencies were the moments after the craft talks and fiction workshops. That’s where—for me at least—the other education began. Where, over beers and oftentimes Scotch whiskey, our talk would turn to the challenges of writing, the need to persevere in our work, and the ins and outs of publishing. Eventually, tall tales about the exploits of famous authors were revealed and great literary secrets whispered like incantations.
Josip led a workshop at Breadloaf when I was there in 2014—and while not in his cohort—we once again continued our talks that ranged from fiction and the imagination to Marxism, religion and the merits of Laphroaig as creative fuel. Once again, thanks to this interview, we were able to pick up our conversation—this time via Skype chat. Regardless of the time between talks, they always pick up where they seem to have left off.
Coe Douglas (Rail): Let’s talk about the new book—which is I very much dug by the way. How is it doing so far?
Josip Novakovich: Well, I have no idea about sales, but it has gotten some good reviews: in the New York Times,and Publisher’s Weekly,and Kirkus Reviews and such. They were all spectacular.
Rail: I know before Heritage of Smoke you released Ex-Yu in Canada. Is there any overlap?
Novakovich: Ex-Yu was a limited Canadian edition. I took some stories out and put a lot of wine stories and smoking stories in.
Rail: Ah, the debaucherous ones are among my favorites! So, I’m putting together my story collection right now. So, I wonder if you have any advice on assemblage?
Novakovich: I’m relatively random about it. Only when I look back I realize that I should have grouped stories topically. When I look back I see three kinds of stories really: memoiristic Yugoslav stories, then war stories, and then immigration stories.
And with an animal story or a fantasy piece thrown in here and there. So maybe four kinds of stories then. But it would have been neater if I had the chance to really separate them. But, I keep rotating subjects and when I have enough stuff in the basket—before it rots—I want to put it in a collection. I used to have this problem, because of moving and when I didn’t have good computers and so on and when I wrote on typewriters I used to actually lose some stories. There are some stories that I wrote that I don’t have any traces of. So for me it seemed like the best thing to do once I had the stories was to rush to publish them because that way I would never lose them. But to answer your question, I never think about a unified theme or topic because if they were really unified, then these days we’d just call them a novel. You know? A novel in stories or whatever. Because publishers hate the concept of a collection. But actually, I love the concept of a collection because it means that there are many different things there. It’s not all one and the same thing.
Rail: You mentioned lost stories. Are there any lost stories that haunt you?
Novakovich: There is one that comes to mind. I couldn’t think like that anymore. I was studying at Yale Divinity school at the time and wanted to illustrate the idea—“he who wants to save his life will lose it and he who loses it for my sake will gain it,” you know as Jesus said. And, I quoted it in Greek which I was studying at the time and I wrote a story about a man who loses his soul in an act of extreme violence. In the beginning, he actually wants to save himself, and wants to save others. So he is helping out some bums in Cleveland, feeding them and so on, but he’s quite squeamish and at one point one bum salivates and snot comes out of his nose and the man can’t take it anymore and he pulls out his knife and kills the man he’s helping out of sheer disgust. At that moment he loses his soul and it floats out of the room and at that point he becomes a congressman. It was a very silly story and I don’t feel like writing it again, but at the time I put in a lot of effort and theology and all kinds of things into it.
Rail: Religion comes up in your stories quite a bit. I’m thinking in the new collection, Heritage of Smoke, of that story “When The Saints Come.” There’s the character Davos who is resigned to die but then he has a change of heart after a spiritual moment of sorts. So, this is a bit of a recurring theme in your stories.
Novakovich: Less and less so these days, but in this collection strangely enough I actually have a story about a Syrian refugee who actually turns out to be Jesus. People don’t know it time but he saves a life and he turns a lot of water into wine and so on. I had really wanted to write a refugee story and I thought well, you never know who these refugees are. They could be brilliant scientists, mathematicians, how would you know? They could be Jesus for all we know.
Rail: Timely with the immigration crises in the U.S. The Jesus as unwelcome immigrant meme has been popping up a lot. But, it begs an important question in this nation of immigrants about how we’ve become so unwilling to open our arms to others.
Novakovich: That whole thing is obviously horrifying. Twenty-two percent of Canadian citizens are foreign-born. And in the United States, eleven percent or so are foreign born. And, unless you are Native American, we’re all immigrants or a descendent of immigrants. So that whole idea is a contradiction in terms of what it means to be an American. It doesn’t make any sense and is an unsustainable stance that I doubt will last.
Rail: In your stories, one thing I love is how you find those cracks of light in all that darkness to lift an idea from Leonard Cohen. There are these moments of humanity and even humor that illuminate all that darkness.
Novakovich: Well, that’s not all that intentional. But sometimes it’s just that things get to be so absurd. And you point out the absurdity and you realize that you’re laughing. Absurdity is one kind of humor. And tragedy is usually very absurd in many ways, especially in times of war. So once you get into the idiocy of things, you may surprise yourself by actually striking a joke or find things so insane or odd you just gotta laugh. Your severed-limb novel comes to mind. Completely absurd but with a point.
Rail: Right. I see those as opportunities to use surreal elements in very mundane situations to make a point. With the severed limb, what is of interest to me is the burning human need to believe in something. Anything really if it seems to help them find meaning. Another thing I like to do in my writing is take an actual event and stretch it to the point of unrecognizability. How much of your fictions—which are almost journalistic at times in their detail and sense of setting and character—have their origins in these real moments?
Novakovich: It depends from story to story. Some are real situations. Others are attempts at some kind of composition or arrangement where some things have happened and some of them haven’t.
Rail: In the new collection, the story “Rasputin’s Awakening” is one of my favorites. It has some very funny moments and the language is just beautiful and dances between the religious and the secular in some astonishing ways.
Novakovich: Well, Rasputin was experimenting with being religious and blasphemous and sacrilegious all at once, and he put it all into some kind of concoction with mysticism and religiosity. You know, I read his biography because I was trying to write a story about the Eastern Front, in which Russia figured prominently, and I wanted to have Rasputin as a character there. It still may happen but as is frequently the case I get distracted by one story and leave the other one behind. Maybe I should have done something more serious with Rasputin in this collection.
Rail: Yeah, that story is wonderful, man.
Novakovich: I’m glad you noticed “Rasputin’s Awakening.” No one has mentioned that story in the reviews I’ve gotten so far.
Rail: We talked a lot during the MFA program and have continued to talk a lot about the imagination. And, in your books on creative writing—especially Fiction Writer’s Workshop, the approach to uncovering stories is a common theme. What is your approach to story development?
Novakovich: For myself, I actually resort to the imagination only if I have to. It’s not the go-to thing. If there is enough stuff to work with already I just work with it, exaggerate it and shape it a little bit and rearrange things. As far are real imaginative effort—to go somewhere where I don’t have experiences, or into events that haven’t happened, I go there rarely.
Rail: Go with what works.
Novakovich: I’ve been thinking that so much of what is happening today is strange enough. We’re entering into our own dystopia. With Trump and all that is going on.
Rail: iek actually expressed a measure of satisfaction that Trump won, which kind of pissed me off at first but his contention in simple terms is that with Hillary we’d just go back to sleep as the neoliberal program continued to unfold. But now we’re fully engaged and vigilant in ways that have been surprising. The current resistance movement might even be sustainable in light of the current climate
Novakovich: Right. Now we are seeing all this solidarity. All kinds of leftist ideas are suddenly now vibrant again. People are examining what it means to be a successful human being—and this doesn’t necessarily mean to be rich and prosperous when we have these rich and prosperous assholes around running the show.
Rail: Reminds of me of notion of the weird religiosity of all this hate. Or the prosperity gospel concept—which came up on NPR in an interview with journalist Sarah Posner. How convenient that extreme wealth would suggest God’s favor, which gives the rich a nice excuse to make greed a virtue.
Novakovich: Yeah, of course. It’s a scam in a way that seems to prevent revolution—which has never happened in the United States. Unlike in Europe, the intensity of activism seems more passive in the U.S. But, if people can hang on to that hope of one day being rich too, everyone just stays in place and keeps working for a dream that’ll never likely come true.
Rail: So, hey, I was wondering about your novel.
Novakovich: Which one?
Rail: Well that last time we spoke you were in pursuit of a publisher.
Novakovich: I thought it was done, but now I am thinking of reworking it. It’s quite cynical and absurd and I suspect the publisher wonders about the appeal of such a work. So, I think a smaller publisher might have more interest. I also have a first world war novel. My main interest in this story is a very strange siege that took place on the border of current day Poland and the Ukraine. 140,000 Russian troops surrounded the Austro-Hungarian troops. They were starving. The officer of the army that was trapped was getting caviar and Champagne dropped into him while his soldiers were starving. The whole time the troops starved, the officers were eating horses. The whole situation is astonishingly odd.
Rail: As mutual fans of the absurd, I wonder if you think that’s easier to sustain in shorter narrative forms?
Novakovich: You’re quite right about that. Irony and the absurd subverts the plot and the seriousness of the action. So how long can a writer sustain that? That’s why there are very few classic comic novels and so very many tragic classic novels. I don’t think that Tolstoy ever struck a joke in his entire life. Of course—although there is little plot—there is Don Quixote. And, a work like Dead Souls. The same holds true of Vonnegut novels.
Rail: The comedic novels I’m drawn to tend to be short collections.
Novakovich: Amy Bender is a great example.
Rail: Judy Budnitz.
Novakovich: Yeah, and look at Daniil Kharms. Wonderfully absurdist work. His best bits of writing are sometimes just a paragraph long. It’s incredible what a cult following he seems to have.
Rail: Absurdism seems the perfect form for navigating this late-capitalist Trump world. The proliferation of dystopian solutions seems to be a symptom or perhaps even a necessary device for imagining futures beyond what we’re stuck with currently.
Novakovich: It certainly has accelerated. I think, frankly speaking, our governments have been losing the people for a long time. Even our health care system—which is absolutely necessary—didn’t go as far as it should have to provide wide reaching care. Obama was a beautiful president in many ways, but now much of what he’s done might be rolled back. Actually, I don’t know what will happen. But more and more it all seems like a way to reshuffle wealth from the middle class in this sort of Oligarch robbery. Obama even facilitated this somewhat. So, who knows? We contend with quite a few illusions about things, versus how they really are. Going back to Clinton—maybe before him—there is this increased alienation of the government from the people since the government represents the Oligarchs and not the people. So, I guess I can see where iek was coming from when he critiques banking dominance in the U.S. Clinton and Obama went quite along with it.
Rail: Now we’re getting into that territory of our discussions where I feel like we should be drinking Laphroaig.
Novakovich: Well, why aren’t you?
Rail: Actually, I am. So—
Novakovich: Oh, great. Now we can continue. So, how are things in Milwaukee?
Rail: Great. You should visit soon. A few great indie bookstores here like Boswells and Woodland Pattern.
Novakovich: I will. But actually, the publisher and I agreed that we’re not going to do a book tour. I love to travel, but I sometimes think that the people who would come to a fiction reading would buy the book anyway. But I still want to come to Milwaukee and visit those bookstores.
Rail: And, what about Montreal?
Novakovich: There are all these great universities and low rent. Great music scene. You’ll have to visit to see. It’s called the city of beautiful losers.
Rail: So what else are you working on right now?
Novakovich: I have a new book out in Canada. They are mostly animal stories. About cats, sheep. There are lots of rats. A squirrel. Other animals. Actually my cats—Gogol and Mascha—keep bugging me while we talk. They must know we’re talking about them. You know I’m looking at the table of contents of my book and I am thinking about how I wanted to sneak in a story about Polish immigrants in Leon who ended up in a threesome. Real solidarity there. But for some reason it didn’t make into the collection which is okay. I actually have nothing new to say about sex. But, there are some good moments there. Maybe another collection? There is actually this publisher in Croatia who wants me to give them a collection of stories that they haven’t yet seen. They don’t want stories of concentration camps in Bosnia and the like. They’re tired of the war there. They’re not going to publish war stories. They said they hate that crap. So, I’m going to give them a collection of stories that I’m embarrassed to publish in the states. They are either too clunky. Or, because they have too much sex or whatever. I’m certainly not talking about Henry Miller levels of sex. But, I feel a bit better about publishing it over there.
Rail: American literature is filled with shitty writing about sex. Not Miller. But—
Novakovich: That’s true. And, well, I don’t live there and don’t care what they think. So I can publish whatever without even needed a pseudonym. I just ran into Alyssa Nutting recently and she was talking about pseudonyms.
Rail: Yeah, her book Tampa is great.
Novakovich: Right. She’s the least restrained writer I know. Yet she’s writing an erotic novel under a pseudonym and she won’t tell me what it is. But she said she felt freer doing it. So she recommends it to write under a pseudonym.
Rail: So what, and maybe write genre fiction?
Novakovich: I have been considering it. Write genre fiction under a pseudonym. It might loosen me up and I can just write without worrying about being literary.
Rail: I wonder how one arrives at a good pseudonym?
Novakovich: I don’t know. I’ve never thought about what it could be but—
Rail: There is something about being able to publish whatever without consequence.
Rail: So is the Croatian book written in Croatian or English?
Novakovich: I only write in English now. Writing in Croatian for me now is cumbersome. But, sometimes I feel that I can write more expressively in Croatian. It seemed more natural when I began writing fiction to write in English. It’s easy to lose a lot of the nuance in the language when I haven’t written anything in it for so long. That’s my fear with writing in Croatian. But, in truth, I am more interested in the images and ideas than linguistic nuance.
Rail: I like the possibilities that come with playing with language—for example I have a series of stories set in Mexico where I highlight that dread of not understanding a foreign language by infusing the prose with just enough Spanish to keep the reader on edge. Or, at least I hope so.
Novakovich: Right. I think those stories do that well. Oh, and I wanted to mention that I just now, just before we got on this call, got a Canada Arts Council grant which is great news.
Rail: Hell yeah, congrats. Well, I hope we get to hang out sometime this summer. Maybe I’ll come to Montreal or—
Novakovich: Or, I’ll come to Milwaukee and we can drink beer.
Coe Douglas has stories and essays in The Rumpus, Cosmonauts Avenue, Burrow Press Review, Perversion Magazine, and elsewhere. He ’s the creative director at Plaid Tuba, a creative advocacy organization, and founder of the Wonderland Writer ’s Studio. He ’s currently working on a novel.