12-03-09: World Fantasy Convention Interview with Zoran Zivkovic
One of the writers I was happiest to get a chance to interview for the World Fantasy Convention, even if just by email, was Zoran Zivkovic. His work is so unique and so very much in what I might call the expansionist school of fantasy — in that each work of his expands the definition of what we might call fantasy fiction, simply because they resemble nothing you've ever read before. Here's our chance to see what is behind his fiction.
What was the first work of speculative fiction that ever caught your attention; book, movie, TV show...?
It was probably a book, but I wasn't aware at that time that it was "speculative fiction." The term was coined much later. I was strongly influenced by two SF movies: "Time Machine" and "2001: A Space Odyssey."
When and why did you start reading speculative fiction? Did you read works that were translated into Serbian or read in the original language?
I read only books in Serbian — originals that had been translated—until I mastered English well enough to be able to read in English. That happened in my early thirties. I started to read science fiction in my early twenties. If you wanted to be a genuine contemporary of your time, it was the most appropriate sort of fiction.
You wrote some very interesting works in college — a thesis on Arthur C. Clarke and a look at Science Fiction as a Genre of Artistic Prose. Tell us about writing these works.
These were my MA and PhD theses. I was the first scholar in this part of the world to earn a degree in science fiction. I had to overcome many academic obstacles, back in the late seventies, to achieve that goal.
Tell us about the speculative fiction and fantasy world in Serbia. Are there genre bookstores and events?
There are no genre bookstores in Serbia. As for events, I wouldn't really know, since I have not been involved in science fiction or speculative fiction for twenty years. I don't consider my writing "speculative fiction". I see myself as a humble practitioner of the ancient and noble art of prose. I don't need any prefixes to it since they are misleading and limiting.
You founded Polaris, your own imprint. What did you print and how did you go about doing so?
During a decade and a half, from the early eighties till the mid-nineties, I published more than one hundred books, mostly science fiction. The majority of the authors were Americans, of course. Mostly genre classics.
Tell us about starting your own television show, The Starry Screen. Even the so-called science fiction channel here in the US hasn’t managed to do this successfully.
It was actually an eighteen-episode TV series, broadcast in 1984. Each fifteen-minute episode was about one of the landmarks of the SF film history — from "A Voyage to the Moon" to "Heavy Metal".
What brought you to write the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction?
Somehow, it seemed the perfect way to conclude my two-decade- long involvement with science fiction. Back in 1990, when it was originally published, there were only three other SF encyclopedias of that kind in the whole world.
Why did you switch from writing non-fiction to fiction? Were you always writing fiction?
I wrote my first piece of fiction only in 1993, when I was forty-five. It was the ultimate challenge I had to accept after completing my non-fiction writing.
Your work brings a lot of fascinating influences to the fantasy genre. What are they?
I appreciate your compliment, but I am not the right person to answer that question. You would do better to ask those writers who feel they are influenced by my writing...
Beyond the actual written content, you've also been engaged in creating beautiful books as objects. Could you talk about the feel of well-designed books and how that plays into your writing and the reading experience you seek to create?
I was very fortunate to have Tiffany Jonas as my US publisher (Aio Publishing). She is a real genius when it comes to creating books as objects of art. Her three editions of my works — Seven Touches of Music, Steps through the Mist and Impossible Encounters — are by far the most beautiful of nearly one hundred various edition of my books.
Could you tell us a little about your writing process — from first draft to final revision — in both long and short forms?
There are no drafts in my writing. What you eventually read in a book of mine is the only version of it. I don't need any revisions. Once I start writing, everything is already fully completed in my head.
Could you tell us about your writing day?
I am a morning writer. I start writing at 9 AM and very rarely continue after noon.
What are the most important things outside of writing that contribute to your writing?
Reading. A lot of reading.
Since you started writing, we've seen all of the tropes of science fiction and fantasy become parts of mainstream culture — and yet there is still a very strong sense of what is genre and what is not.
As far as I am concerned, there is only one essential division in the art of literature. It is either good or bad. Mainstream vs. genre is a false dilemma. I have read many mainstream works that are rather poor and a number of genre books that are truly excellent.
Fantasy, by definition, includes elements of the fantastic that cordon it off, so to speak from realistic literary fiction. When you include these elements in your fiction, or use them as a premise for creating an entire world, how do you see the resulting work interacting with or reflecting our everyday world?
No matter how fantastical a work of prose, it is always about one of the multitudes of aspects of the real world.
Has the spectacular success of young adult fantasy serial fiction had an impact on your fiction in particular? Could you talk about how it is changed the genre itself?
Quite frankly, I have a very vague idea about categories like "young adult fantasy serial fiction." In the literary world of Europe they are quite meaningless. Just another invention of the publishing industry that has nothing to do with the art of prose.
Young adult fiction is increasingly read by adults as well as the intended, or at least, included audience of adolescents. Science fiction and fantasy have often been characterized as adolescent fiction; is this of use to you as a writer? Do you find such a characterization helpful, hurtful, or irrelevant —and why?
As a professor of creative writing at Belgrade University I tell my students at the very first class that they are absolutely in the wrong place if their prime ambition in writing is to get famous or rich. Even if they eventually achieve these goals, they are quite irrelevant. The noble art of prose is not just a means to achieve a goal. It is the Goal Itself.
You've written novellas and short stories; your novella "The Library" won a world fantasy award. Talk about how stories evolve for you in terms of length. Do you know how long a story is going to be, or does it just happen?
On the conscious level I know very little, if anything, before I start writing. And yet, the work to be written is already fully formed in the subconscious part of my mind, the real source of my literary imagination. So, there is no planning, no "premeditation." It simply erupts from there...
Your latest work from Aio Publishing is Impossible Encounters. It's a mosaic novel, so tell us about this form; how it works for you, and why.
The simplest definition of a mosaic-novel is that it is a whole greater than the mere sum of its constituent parts. It came to me spontaneously, as everything else in my writing...
Could you look back over your career and tell us how you feel about your body of work as whole?
I have written eighteen books of fiction. I consider them the most important part of what I have achieved intellectually and artistically.
The publishing industry is meeting the same challenges the music industry and musicians met some fifteen years ago. What do you think writers and publishers can do to ensure that readership keeps growing and the industry remains a viable source of income for writers? What do you do?
I don't share the same ideals with the publishing industry. As a writer, I am far more interested in being read by quality readers than by a huge number of readers. And by definition, quality readers are just a minority group. It means that I will probably never get rich through writing, but I am not at all obsessed with getting rich in the first place. My ideals are of a different kind...
And finally, tell us about how this year's World Fantasy Convention slots into your work as a writer, and how this convention fits into the larger frame of genre fiction, and indeed, just what is publishable.
It is truly a great honor to be a GoH at a World Fantasy Convention. The more so since, as far as I know, this is the very first time that a writer originating from outside the English language countries was invited. In a way, it makes my participation historical...