2008 National Book Award Fiction Finalist Interview With Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon

The Lazarus Project


Interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.


Bret Anthony Johnston: First, congratulations on being a finalist for the National Book Award! How did the news reach you? What was your reaction?

Aleksandar Hemon: Thank you. I was told to call the NBF and then they told me over the phone. What can I tell you, I was happy. I was even happier when I found out that Reginald Gibbons, a close friend and fellow Chicagoan was a poetry finalist.

BAJ: While visiting Chicago in 1992, your native Sarajevo came under siege and you were unable to return home. You adopted English late in life, and wrote your first story in English in 1995. How has leaving your homeland and learning a new language affected your writing?

AH: Well, that’s like asking: “How has your birth affected your life?” I decided to attempt writing in English because it seemed to me at the time it would be the only language I could ever write in. I have since started writing in Bosnian (I write a bi-weekly column for a magazine in Sarajevo), but when the war began, I felt entirely and painfully cut off from my native language. I realized I would live in the US for a long time, probably for the rest of my life, and that English should therefore be the language of the rest of my life.

BAJ: How long did you work on the novel before it was published? What is your writing process? Did working on The Lazarus Project feel any different than working on your previous books?

AH: It is hard for me to measure the time I spent on the novel. Between the conception--which I don’t remember, but can vaguely date--and the submission of the manuscript six years passed. But in those six years a lot of things happened. I can’t remember the date of my putting the pen on the paper. And then I took long breaks from Lazarus, wrote stories (which amounted to a collection called Love and Obstacles, forthcoming in 2009). My writing process is chaotic, unsystematic, best described as wandering in the dark, bumping into things, hurting myself, until I one day figure out where I might be, and then try to get out of it. But I could not get out of Lazarus until I finished. With my previous books, which I wrote piecemeal, I could get out when I finished a piece then go back in when I was ready again. This all sounds like authorly mystification, because it is. Nabokov said that “in art, purpose and plan are nothing, only the result counts.”

BAJ: What was the most difficult aspect of writing the novel?

AH: Stringing the sentences together. You have to keep going. I always want to quit, always look for a way to quit, to get out.

BAJ: The central incident of The Lazarus Project is the 1908 murder of Lazarus Averbuch by Chicago’s police chief. Averbuch, a Jewish immigrant, hadn’t even been in the country a year before he was shot and killed. What about the story moved you to write? And what determined that the story should be told as fiction rather than nonfiction?

AH: The sadness of the story was moving. And the photos, most of all: the photos of the dead Lazarus sitting in a chair, with a cheap suit thrown on him and a gloating police captain behind him. I don’t write nonfiction. A lot of nonfiction is just lazy fiction.

BAJ: An interesting similarity among the fiction finalists this year is how all of the novels focus on the past. What is it about the past that so captivates readers and writers?

AH: Well, it is in the nature of the novel--you can’t have a live broadcast of a novel. And writing is not streaming. As soon as you complete a sentence it enters the past. Besides, the past is what we need to regain: the present is ubiquitous and oppressive, because it wants to be the only thing.

BAJ: You’ve included a series of black and white photographs in the narrative and you’ve sewn them directly into the plot of the novel. Was that part of your original conception of the book or did that aspect of the story emerge as you wrote or researched the book?

AH: Well, as soon as I saw the photos of Lazarus in the book that I used as the source (“An Accidental Anarchist” by Joe Krauss and Walter Roth) I wanted to find a way to include them in the book. Velibor Božovic, who did the contemporary photos in the book, is a great photographer and my closest friend--he sees what I feel--so I wanted him to be involved in a book. Before I even started writing, he and I went to Eastern Europe, on a kind of a research trip. I already knew there would be two story lines and photos in the book, so he took 1,200 photos or so and I worked with them as I was writing. I don’t take notes--the photos were my notes.

BAJ: For some writers, the engine that powers their fiction is character. For others, it’s language. For others still, the engine might loosely be called “theme.” Do you identify with any of those?

AH: I suppose I have several engines running at the same time.

BAJ: Who is your ideal reader?

AH: I am, a combination of me at the time of writing and me as a young man who devoured books reading 8-10 hours a day. But the writing “I” vanishes the moment I finish writing, and the young man is no longer young.

BAJ: What books or writers do you find yourself rereading? Do you see any of their influence in your current work?

AH: Nabokov, Chekhov, Danilo Kiš, Michael Ondaatje. There are many writers who I return to, a lot of poets. There are influences all over.

BAJ: We’re in an election year. The country is engaged in two wars. The economy is all but collapsing. Other wars are being waged around the world. The environment is suffering on every front. In light of all of these pressures, why does fiction matter?

AH: Beats me.

But, with all due respect, it’s a silly question. Why does anything matter at a time like this? Why would eating a strawberry matter? Should I stop loving my wife because there are suicide bombers blowing themselves up? Has Shakespeare been cancelled because George Bush is an alliterate fool? Is the end of Lehman Brothers supposed to be the end of art and humankind? Also, was there ever a time without war, suffering, poverty and pestilence, a time when fiction could fully matter because we were all sufficiently relaxed to read a book? When was that? I must have missed it.

I feel no need to make a case for literature. Love it or leave it.

Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of internationally acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World, both from Random House. In 2006, he received the “5 Under 35” fiction honor from the National Book Foundation. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University. For more information, please visit: www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.