In the mid-1990s I lived in Chicago and became impressed by the vibrant art scene there. New galleries were popping up all over River North, Bucktown, and Wicker Park. Chicago’s emerging visual artists, it was often said, had set themselves apart from their predecessors partly due to their relentless love for the absurd. I admired their works in the same way I have always admired strong writing—the kind that finds something lyrical in the strangeness.
One evening on my way to a lecture at the Chicago Arts Club, I stepped out of the rain and into Waterstone’s Books to see if my friend Keli was working. She wasn’t, but before I could leave the book store an essay collection stole my attention. The next day when Keli asked me about the lecture I explained that I hadn’t made it that far; that I had spent the evening with Apricots from Chernobyl.
“The Fence Posts,” Keli said.
“The Fence Posts,” I repeated.
That essay and its violent ending image—a Croatian peasant returning home to find the severed heads of his wife and daughters stuck on fence posts drenched in blood—left us changed, speechless in that moment. In the years that followed we would recommend it to friends and colleagues over and over again. Yet, as stunning and powerful as “The Fence Posts” is, I have hesitated to cite it here, twice deleting these paragraphs and starting again. I worry it is incorrect for me to suggest it as a definitive Novakovich work because his essays and fictions are concerned with more than unspeakably atrocious acts of war.
In fact, a few years ago when I invited Josip to speak on an AWP panel about writing violence, he was not entirely comfortable with the invitation and its inclusion of that description; a writer of violence. As we see again in his new essay collection, Shopping for a Better Country, such a description is inaccurate or limiting indeed. He writes eloquently in a wide range of arenas, from music, friendship, family, travel, memory, and ancestry, to politics and grief.
Utne Reader once called Novakovich “one of the top ten writers changing the way we look at the world.” A keen observer, the kind who never fails to see the lyrical in the strangeness, a favorite writer of so many writers I admire—how could I resist the opportunity to interview him for The Rumpus.
The Rumpus: So shopping for a better country has taken you to Canada. What surprises you about Montreal?
Josip Novakovich: It was more of an accident than shopping—friends of mine who taught in Montreal invited me to visit on a perfect sunny day, and they invited me to apply for a job, which I got, and I gave it a shot. It was just after the Bush era, when I was disgusted by American foreign policy which Obama faithfully continued, and so it did seem that Canada would be a less frustrating place. I was not aware at the time of the Canadian shift to the right, of stepping out of the Kyoto agreement, and so on. I am actually not shopping for countries but I do travel and move and compare.
Many things surprise me about Montreal, such as the linguistic division between the two main groups, two solitudes they call them. The hawkish parking police. The incredibly high taxes. The price of wine (double of that in the States), and the high quality of bagels and coffee shops. The strange sound of Quebecois. How good smoking can look. Sometimes in the streets you see people smoking, striking fine poses, as though they were stuck in an old French movie, and they manage to look stylish doing it. I hate smoking, doing it and smelling it, but it’s lovely to look at with the right actors in play.
Rumpus: I suspect that editing and preparing a collection of essays for publication is often a more momentous task than preparing a story collection, and it seems Shopping for a Better Country might support that claim. In some cases you break into and enrich the original version of an essay by adding present day thoughts or observations. Did you initially plan to do this, or did this become irresistible as you compiled your work?
Novakovich: Some essays were old and I revisited them because some observations seemed outdated and clearly begging a response. If I had had more time, I would have in some cases written complete repudiations of the things I said in earlier times. You can’t step into the same river twice. The United States is a different country each decade, so some generalities don’t stand. It’s true of any country. I remember reading a history book about Germany written in 1899, in which the thesis was that the main problem for Germany was the lack of organization, failure to unify and agree, and passive foreign policy. Now that assessment of Germany may have actually been somewhat accurate in 1899 but certainly not in 1939, forty years later.
Rumpus: With backgrounds like war and death a reader might not expect such great humor here; the many moments in these essays that are laugh-out-loud funny. I was going to suggest that your intimate writing style invites humor, but it may be more accurate to say it demands humor. It feels good and right to laugh in these moments. Lately I hear both critics and readers complain that contemporary literature lacks humor, that writers have become too self-conscious. So I wonder now what you think of this complaint; that perhaps much of present-day literature has failed to celebrate humor or value spontaneity?
Novakovich: Humor is frequently a self-destructive element in fiction and even in essays. It’s hard to maintain suspense if you caricature your characters, their predicaments, and your narrative precision. And we have come to expect firm beliefs, especially in politics, so sadly enough, we almost encourage foaming at the mouth type of manifestos in the name of justice. . . the evangelical, Biblical, somewhat prophetic complex of the US religious and political life has shaped the American mentality. On the other hand, to balance it out, there are all these humor shows, and people do have an ironic bent, which for some reason does not seem to be the mainstream in fiction and nonfiction. That too is hard to maintain as a generalization, as we have the Onion and McSweeneys, etc.
Rumpus: Years ago I recommended your novel, April Fool’s Day, to a colleague and she demanded to know, What’s it like? Who would you compare this author to? But I was recommending it for the very reason that it isn’t like anything else. This will sound like flattery, but I’m really quite serious: I think what you are achieving in your work really sets it apart from the work of your peers. It is quite difficult to think of work to compare to yours. But I am curious–what current writing interests you? What writers take your attention?
Novakovich: Currently I am interested mostly in the writing by my students. I teach too much and read all these manuscripts, drowning in dubious syntax, so that after it, almost anything in hard print, even John Updike and Bolano, sounds great. And I read a bit of Kurt Vonnegut, whom I skipped for some reason in my readings till a couple of years ago. His humor, playfulness and at the same time real critique of the way we live and make wars is amazing and inspiring. His threat to sue tobacco industry for false advertising because at the age of 80 he still was not dying of cancer is an example of his Mark Twain style wit. I enjoy reading Aimee Bender and Bartheleme but I have declined as a reader. I read less and worse than I used to. Something to be ashamed of. Therefore I even use more sentence fragments, like my students.
Rumpus: Can you discuss the relationship between your narrative essays and your fiction? It seems to me exciting and beneficial to work in these arenas simultaneously. As you are working, do you have an immediate awareness of one form challenging or changing or informing the other?
Novakovich: Some topics, if they are important, I work in one form and rework in another. Poe, if he had a good theme, would usually write three stories on it with different twists and I think that just writing it (the theme) out once, in one permutation, is not enough. I never quite get it right so I could actually keep going with more permutations, and in some cases, such as death stories and culture clashes I keep going beyond three, in both fiction and nonfiction. And sometimes I don’t know whether the story will remain an essay when I start it as one—if I see I am making shifts, exaggerating, embellishing, I know I have crossed the boundary into the free West.
Rumpus: This is notably intimate writing that takes the reader not only through deeply affecting moments in history—Vukovar after the massacre; New York in the days following 9/11—but through intensely personal moments in your own history. There are essays on parenthood, friendship, music, travel, the death of your father, the loss of your mother. Is there any subject that you avoid or refuse in your writing? Is there a boundary you do not cross or an area that is off limits?
Novakovich: I think I am occasionally shameless in what I cover but I do have a few areas in which shame still prevents me from writing. I remember Phillip Lopate writing in Portrait of My Body about his penis, an entire essay, describing it as some sort of mushroom. . . I don’t think I would ever write in that vein (so to speak), and there are a few other body parts and functions I would not discuss publicly. I used to be a shy kid and I actually think I am still shy even in my writing, but that’s a challenge, so sometimes I cross beyond the shyness into self-revelation, into deliberately saying something embarrassing and provocative, assuming a picaro persona. This shifting between the private and the public, the crossing beyond self-consciounsess, sometimes gives me energy and playfulness.
Rumpus: Although the scope of this collection is huge, readers are left with the impression that you have a good deal more to say. What are you working on now?
Novakovich: I finished a novel about Russia, her strange allure and spectacular twistedness and I am recasting it in the first person POV because the novel turned out to be quite idiosyncratic and kind of unbelievable in objective sounding third person POV. I had been working on a novel about the Eastern Front in World War I, but I got bogged down, tripped by my ignorance and inability to conduct research in the archives and such. I can read Russian but not in the old style cursive and gothic print. There is enough in readable forms as well but my laziness has left me in the trenches of World War I. I still plan to come back to the novel to finish it. And now that I don’t live in the States, I want to write a satirical novel about the States, and it should be as absurd as my novel about Russia, if not more so. Though, I don’t know what more so means. It cannot be more than itself. . . And now you see why I dropped out of a philosophy program (Ph.D. program at Yale), because my philosophizing about language would invariably be off track, and here it is! Cheers.