Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Scotiabank Giller Prize-longlisted writer Josip Novakovich on the writing skill he'd like to improve

Josip Novakovich, author of Tumbleweed, answers eight questions from eight writers.
Tumbleweed by Josip Novakovich is on the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. (Canadian Press)

Josip Novakovich made his debut on the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist in 2017 with Tumbleweed, an evocative collection of short stories about emigration and family ties. Novakovich, who was a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, was raised in the former Yugoslavia and now teaches creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal.

Below, Novakovich takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A, answering eight random questions from eight writers.

1. Lorna Crozier asks, "A question I've never been asked, and fear being asked: What makes you dare to be a writer, to think you have something to say to me?"

While growing up in Yugoslavia, I thought you could be a writer only if you were a certified member of the communist party or if you came from an old bourgeois family. So I planned to make a living as a physician. When I got to the United States, at first I was naïve and believed the propaganda that everything was possible. I wanted to write and thought I could be a writer, but it struck me as ridiculous that nobody thought it was a ridiculous notion. So I thought, "All right, why not?"

I had insights into how strange America appeared from the other shores, and how strange other shores appeared from the American coasts, and so I sat down to write. The strangenesses have not gone away — I can point out a variety of absurdities, perhaps to an entertaining effect. True, what right do I have to keep anybody's attention? Absolutely none. The page is quiet and democratic — as soon as it bores you, put it down. 

2. Nicolas Dickner asks, "Which writing skill would you like to improve?"

Thinking. I would like to think better and more deeply. I studied philosophy for a while, admired Wittgenstein, but even he gave up philosophy. And command of voices — I used to be able to do all sorts of dialects and voices in Croatian as a kid, and I have never been able to replicate that in English. 

3. Tracey Lindberg asks, "What book is on your nightstand right now? How long has it been there?"

Hand to Mouth by Paul Auster. The book's first sentence immediately won me over: "In my late 20s and early 30s, I went through a period of several years when everything I touched turned to failure..." Cool, I want to read this.

So that book is on my nightstand, along with Olja Savicevic Ivanovic's Pjevac u noci (a marvelous book in Croatian, lots of Dalmatian dialects), Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir (I am teaching a nonfiction workshop, so I am looking for fresh ways to look at it) and The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. Well, a whole bunch of books. I am not a great reader, but I do like to think that one day yet I will be. 

4. Vincent Lam asks, "Do you ever choose to deviate from rules of standard grammar and language usage? If so, how do you decide whether to do it?"

I used to do it, but as a writer in English as a second language, I got shut down by my editors, so now I behave. As an immigrant and foreigner you have fewer rights than someone raised in the country, and that's certainly true in the language. People expect more exactness of you and better grammar than from someone who grew up here, and treat your deviations as failures rather than improvisations. So I behave and write simply. I used to play with suffixes and prefixes — something easy to do in a few other languages, including Croatian, but that doesn't seem to go over very well. Noisesomelessably, for example. People said, "WTF?" And I said, "What is that? TWA?"

5. Heather O'Neill asks, "What's the strangest thing you've done while researching a book?"

I traveled to Przemysl in Poland on the border with Ukraine to check out the old system of 16 connected fortresses, the site of the biggest siege in the First World War, where Russian troops had surrounded the Austro-Hungarian army, and the starving soldiers ate cavalry horses to survive. Anyway, I walked around in extreme heat — it was 42 degrees Celsius — and got dehydrated and sick with bronchitis, which wouldn't leave me for two months. It was not a strange thing to do, but became strange. 

6. Alan Cumyn asks, "How do you deal with bad reviews?"

I don't get many reviews, let alone bad reviews, but I did get a bad one in Süddeutsche Zeitung [a prominent daily newspaper in Germany] from my novel translated into German. The critic attacked me for living internationally and writing about the local scene in the Balkan wars; she seemed to expect me to have suffered in the war, maybe lose a limb or something, to have a right to write about it authentically. Since I had it easy, to her mind I was a fraud. I wanted to visit her just to see how hard a life of a Süddeutsche Zeitung book reviewer was. Perhaps lives of reviewers are hell even without my visits. So I left it at that.

7. Russell Smith asks, "What is the musical soundtrack to your latest book?" 

None for the latest stories, but some of them I wrote while listening to Brahms' Hungarian Rhapsodies, both orchestral and for four piano hands... as well as Beethoven's complete piano sonatas and string quartets. Now I just listen to cars grind their way over potholes of De Lorimier Avenue in Montreal. It's like waves of an automated ocean, sounds rising in intensity and falling, rarely crashing.

Actually, I do plan to get back to music because the worst enemy in writing is boredom for me. So if I am boring myself with words, let Beethoven and Shostakovich come to rescue. They can't stay boring for more than a few bars. The danger with music, though, is the invitation to daydream. 

8. Kim Thúy asks, "Doctors are often the worst patients. Are writers better readers, or worse?"

Great question. From what I see, not the best readers... maybe like musicians, who don't have the time to listen to all the music out there as they are too busy practicing. I remember how an architect had heard way more music than my friend, a pianist, and the architect said, "You know, while drawing, I have all the time in the world for it." And the pianist said, "I have to listen to the same sonata over and over again while practicing it." Still, I am surprised by how little many writers these days seem to read. A friend of mine, a night guard in Belgrade, reads more than any writer I know. Well, it turned out that on the sly he had begun to write stories because he grew frustrated with so much bad writing out there. "It could be done better," he said.