Published: August 28th, 2015
Aleksandar Hemon is a Bosnian-American writer of fiction and essays. His accolades include a MacArthur Foundation grant, Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Book Critics Circle Award with two other titles as finalists, to name a few. The Lazarus Project: A Novel was also named a Notable Book by the New York Times and was the No. 1 Book of the Year for New York Magazine.
Howl: What is your writing process like?
Hemon: Well, for one thing, it is not really a process, at least not in the sense that that it is firmly established so that I can repeat it with some expected results. My mind—partly or wholly—is always in the writing mode, so that I’m constantly looking and thinking about the world around me from that angle. And if/when I finally find a way to focus on a story or a novel, my experience, past and present, refracts in the narrative as I write it.
More simply, I think about a story/novel for a long time, then I write it, pretty fast, then I edit it, and then it’s done.
Howl: How do you edit your work?
Hemon: Editing is essential for any kind of creative narration and it happens at every stage. Before I even put a word down, I make choices in my head—and making choices (why this and not that?) is the essence of editing. I edit in the same way as I write. But then, when I’ve produced some pages, I can cut and add things. Sometimes, I make a grid chart to figure out the layout of the story, resolve continuity conflicts (for example: if someone has a scar in chapter 1, they should have it in chapter 15). Editing is the most creative part of writing. And I love cutting more than any other part of the process.
Howl: What advice do you have for budding writers?
Hemon: Read, read, read—all the time, everything. Always, ceaselessly, keep your mind in the reading mode.
Howl: Why do you think writing is your creative medium of choice?
Hemon: Because I like language. Some people think in images, or in problem-solving mode, or have a mathematical mind. I live in language. And I like stories.
Howl: What do you like to read and do you have any recommendations?
Hemon: I read all the time, and yet I constantly have a feeling of not reading enough. I read novels, and history books, and philosophy, and poetry, and books about soccer, and random books I pick up for no discernible reason. The most brilliant thing I’ve read in a long time was Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy—a novel in four parts (about a friendship between two women from Naples. It starts in their childhood, ends in their old age.)
Howl: As a writer in Bosnian and English, do you believe that there are some words or phrases that, when translated, don't convey the emotion originally intended? Why?
Hemon: The strange, brilliant thing with language is that is at the same time very personal, but also it belongs to all the people who speak it. So that even within the same language the personal value of certain words cannot be transmitted to anyone outside the experiential domain inside which that word operates. So that we all know what “beach” means, but for each of us it conjures up a different set of images and smells. But that also means that it is precisely this failure to transmit the exact personal meaning that allows for the negotiations between the writer and the reader that amount to poetry. So yes, there are Bosnian words or phrases that don’t have the same emotional value for me when translated into English. But then there are those who don’t have it in Bosnian but attain it in English. For instance, “black wine” is the idiomatic way in Bosnian of describing what is “red wine” in English. In Bosnian, ‘black wine’ therefore does not sound strange at all, but in English it does. Robert Frost said: “Poetry is what is lost in translation.” But then Joseph Brodsky said: “Poetry is what is gained in translation.” Both of them are right.
Howl: When writing a memoir such as "The Book of My Lives," how do you filter out of your life what will make a good story out of all of the rich and mundane experiences of everyday events and people?
Hemon: The same way I make a decision regarding a fictional story.
I want to tell a story I enjoy telling, or believe it necessary to do so. I tell stories that cannot stay untold.
Howl: You and your protagonist, Jozef Pronek, visited the United States as young men from Sarajevo in time to see your country break out into war and were thus unable to return. What are some of the not-so-noticeable similarities and differences between you and Pronek that the average reader wouldn't know?
Hemon: Oh, I’d have to go through all the Jozef Pronek stories and sort out the many things I made up. I didn’t have a blues band. I didn’t come to Chicago to see a girlfriend. I didn’t try to drown a mouse with my girlfriend. I have a sister, unlike Pronek, who is very important to me. I know things he doesn’t, and never would.
By the way, there is no such thing as an average reader. No reader is average, because each is unique, as s/he brings in her own personal experience and language into the act of reading, and no such experience is “average.”
Howl: Who were some of your literary inspirations, English and/or Bosnian?
Hemon: I don’t read only books written in English and Bosnian, but in many other languages. Reading in translation is necessary for any reader, let alone any writer.
I love Nabokov, both his Russian and English books. Bruno Schulz, who wrote in Polish. Chekhov. Danilo Kis. Elena Ferrante. Shakespeare. Dante. I am also inspired by the books I dislike—I like to argue with them and their writers.
Howl: What's next for Aleksandar Hemon?
Hemon: More books, more life.