Books In Conversation
JOSIP NOVAKOVICH with Joseph Salvatore
Honey in the Carcase
(Dzanc Books, 2019)
Fiction as Memory
Josip Novakovich quit studying medicine in Novi Sad to emigrate to the United States in 1976. Writing in English as a second language, he has published a dozen books and more than a hundred stories in various journals and in collections with Garywolf, Harper Collins, and lately, Dzanc Press which has just published his latest, Honey in the Carcase, including “A Taste of the Sea." Last year he found this story in a box of old papers and reworked it, and it's published here for the first time. While his recent collections deal with the former Yugoslavia wars, in this one he ranges much more before and after the war. He says perhaps he could concur with the sentiment expressed by Anthony Lloyd’s title, My War Gone by I Miss it So. The war as a theme incited him to write many stories, but now, the aftermath of it, with emigration, exile, and culture clash (as well as intriguing lives of animals) preoccupy him. In “A Taste of the Sea,” a boy who nearly drowns recounts in detail the near drowning, feeling fortunate and important to have a story to tell. It’s a sort of primal story, a mini-Odyssey, of going into the underworld and coming back. The story-telling element pervades the collection, in places becoming nearly meta-fiction. Two boys compete in who could tell more outrageous lies. One of the stories is entitled “A Variation on a Theme of Boccaccio,” adapting a story of mixed identities to our “merciless age of electricity.” In several stories animals play major roles, with almost totemic spiritual significance, especially in a story about a hawk yearning for freedom of flight and in the title story, where bees save the protagonist from the enemy soldiers.
Joseph Salvatore (Rail): Tell me about this new collection. Were the pieces intended to work together in any way?
Novakovick: I write each story separately without thinking how to link it to the previous ones I wrote or the future one, and then after a while I look and say, I have enough stories for two collections--let's see how to bunch them. In this case, initially I wanted mostly animal stories and hence I have a sheep story, cat and dog, hawk, the title story (bee story), and the rat soliloquy. Several cats, a dog, a snake, a squirrel, and vignettes about frogs didn't make it as Michelle Dotter, the editor, said there would be a bit of monotony with so many animals dying. I said, well, that's what the pets tend to do. Still, I agreed with her, and we reorganized and put in some stories about exile, bohemian lives, psychotherapy, difficult relationships, and so on. In that sense it's a true collection of unlinked stories without any pretense of linking them into a novel. That actually irks me about many current novels, which under the guise of postmodernism and experimentation are clearly simply linked stories rather than a continuously plotted long narrative. Novels sell better or at least sound grander than story collections. Now with our communal ADHD I still don't understand why short narratives haven't won wider appeal in the publishing world. Almost everybody is a short story writer and reader on Facebook and other social media. A friend of mine has actually collected his Facebook posts and published them as a collection of essays. Anyhow, I still have enough animal stories for another collection, I think. Moreover, recently I have written character sketches on an assignment from Jutarnji list, the Croatian daily, one a week, and we'll end the series December 31, after fifty-two character portraits. That's a thematically linked collection now that will come out in Croatia first, and I haven't looked for a publisher in the States. But back to the collection, Honey in the Carcase. Almost each story has another story that is related to it. Several stories about Yugoslav boyhood; several about exile, etc. Overall, I can't say what the collection is about. Each story is about something or other, but sometimes I don't even worry about that—often I want to tell a story, resolve a psychological puzzle, play with paradoxes. And rarely do I have a clear message. Although I studied theology for a while, I don't want to preach.
Rail: What is the time span of their composition?
Novakovich: I am afraid it's a long one, thirty years. The story that you’re publishing at the end of this interview, “Taste of the Sea,” is the oldest one. Last year I found a typewritten copy—it precedes my usage of computers. I had forgotten about the story, but now I showed a scan to my editor Michelle, and she thought it would be nice in the new collection, to link with the stories “Lies” and “Counterlies,” Yugoslav boyhood stories, all of which appear in Honey in the Carcase. Many stories I wrote ten and fifteen years ago, and some just last year. I can't say I worked on this collection all this while because I published ten books in the meanwhile. I work on many things at the same time, a bit chaotically.
Rail: What was the experience like reading “Taste of the Sea” (which appears at end of interview) again after all this time?
Novakovich: A lot of past lost and glimpsed again. To begin with, the medium—old yellow pages with typewriter mechanical force imprinted on the pages with a bit of cat piss over it. I had a tomcat who hated my work and whenever he could, he would sneak into my boxes and tear at it. I wrote a story about him too, Byeli. I based the story on our first family vacation in a defunct ambulance car. I could remember now many things that didn’t go into the story, the matchboxes I was stealing from Austrian neighbors … The near drowning moment stayed with me—it was a strangely beautiful moment, and the taste of the sea, all the salt in the nostrils and sinuses and ears, the pain of getting the water out … it’s all still fresh. And that I immediately thought it was a story, that I finally had a story to tell … Not much of a story but the impulse was there. And it’s the basic paradigm of story-telling, of the Odyssey, a trip into the underworld and coming back to the land.
Rail: In later editions of his stories, John Updike often could not resist the urge to revise the work—and so he did. Did you experience such an urge? What did you do?
Novakovich: The funny thing is I rewrote this story in Croatian and doubled it in size with much more dialogue and more incidents, for an anthology, Rijeka 2020. Rijeka will be the cultural capital of Europe in 2020, and the city invited me to stay there for a month and write a story. Unfortunately because of health problems I couldn’t go there in May but I told the organizers I had a story set near Rijeka already and they could use it. So I rewrote this story in Croatian. I had to get used to the diacritical signs, đ, š, ć, , ć, etc., which are now easy to make. When I moved to the States, I didn't have a Croatian typewriter and that was part of the reason why I wrote in English. Another one was that I plainly fell in love with English but often I felt deprived and handicapped not to use my mother tongue. After I rewrote a Taste of the Sea in Croatian as Okus Mora, I was tempted to translate it into English—maybe it’s better now—but then I thought, well, let it stay as is. Perhaps there’s a simplicity and freshness in the original version which would get drowned in dramatization and scene making and fussing over it. But yes, sometimes I read in public an older story and I cross out at least ten percent of it and think, why didn’t I cross out all these unnecessary words and lines to begin with? I still hope to find a publisher to issue all my stories as one huge volume, and then I will be tempted of course to cross out many lines and scenes, but also, to add. The world has changed, and how I see many of the stories that come from the old Yugoslavia now that the country is no more (or exists as an old memory in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, etc.) changes the stories. They don’t stay the same, static; my reading of them changes, and of course, I’ll have to rewrite quite a few bits. The more time passes, the more even nonfiction becomes fiction. Or fiction becomes memory. They are always intertwined. Let me tell you stories from the country that’s no more. Well, the stories are sometimes all that has remained. I entitled my previous collection, The Heritage of Smoke. That’s a descriptive metaphor of Yugoslavia. Honey in the Carcase, as the stories accumulated in a long dead animal—that works as well.
Rail: You’ve published a couple of classic textbooks on the art and craft of fiction writing. Can you say a little about the process for you working with short stories over the novel? Is there one mode you prefer to work in to the other?
Novakovich: I think my inclination is to tell stories, and they tend to be stories rather than novels. I like to describe an event, a character, a place (usually the three are connected anyway), and perhaps that event leads to another one, and then I may be done. The paradigm is a conversation with a friend, in which you can’t take more than half an hour to re-create the excitement of something that happened, lest you should strain your friend’s attention. Sometimes I don’t even have patience for long anecdotes.
As for writing craft books, I don’t read such books, and I wrote them to facilitate my teaching, as teaching notes partly because I was invited to do that by Lois Rosenthal at the Story Magazine. At the time I liked to consider how things could be done, and I read all the Paris Review Interviews and many stories looking for ways to develop scenes, describe characters and places, create tension without being too obvious about trying to do it, etc. Of course, I bought into the rule show don’t tell as I considered writing primarily a visual art—a chance to imagine. But then I looked at the Death of Ivan Illych, and Tolstoy shows and tells—he mentions death a hundred times. Not very subtle, and at the same time he does lots of subtle things in the story. I don’t believe in rules much anymore. Sometimes an apparent weakness if driven to an extreme can become a strength—for example, long winded sentences. If Proust had applied Stendhal’s and Flaubert’s principles of clarity and mot juste (precursers of minimalism), Proust wouldn’t have become the amazing sensual writer of sinuous sentences.
Rail: Finally, what project are you working on next?
Novakovich: I have just finished a series of character portraits—remarkable people I have known, each one five pages long, fifty-two portraits for fifty-two weeks. I wrote them for Jutarnji list, the Zagreb daily, and now I am putting them together in a book to be published in Croatia. I have published a few of these portraits in English and maybe I’ll follow through with a book here as well. Now that I am basically done with the project, I am thinking of going back to a novel set in World War I, eastern front. I got stuck in it years ago, but now I want to resurrect it and finish it.
A TASTE OF THE SEA
by Josip Novakovich
Near my hometown in Northeastern Croatia there was no large surface of water. We were surrounded by forests; wherever you turned it was green, but there were not even any small rivers to give you refreshment.
One summer, our father announced he would take our whole family to the seacoast, my ten-year-old sister, eight-year-old brother, and six-year-old me. We boarded the old grey Mercedes coupe of my father, an old beat-up ambulance, which he had bought after it stalled on the way to the hospital, with him as the emergency patient in a kidney-stone crisis. Our father hadn’t even scraped the red cross from the windows; he said it helped in traffic, and you couldn’t see much out of the car because the windows were not transparent, except in the front. Still, in the paint there were cracks through which I stared at revolving fields as I sat on the little sideways paramedic’s seat.
After Zagreb, in the mountains, the engine was overheated. We made frequent stops to fill the engine with water, but to no avail, the car smoked like a steam engine. And then, in a steep town with tall firs and large vistas, and cool air, the car would not move, completely stalled. As failed nomads, we abandoned all hope of reaching the sea or home, and I suggested that we settle right there in the town, because I hadn’t seen a more beautiful one yet; the mountains were taller than around our town, so the town was bound to be better. My mother bopped me on the head to shut me up, while our father spoke beneath his bristly moustache in a highly unbiblical vernacular and tried to fit a new part into the engine, a part which looked like a heart with a bunch of black veins and white arteries branching out of it. When the sky changed from purple to indigo, our father managed to turn the engine on by rotating a hook which was stuck in the engine, and white smoke came out in the back. I crawled on all fours to smell it, because there is nothing more intoxicating than gasoline exhaust, the smell of progress itself. We went on, up a sinuous road, past waterfalls and scraggly evergreen trees. At midnight we were atop a bare mountain, gazing into the distance. “The mountain is bare because the Venetians cut down all the trees, so the wind and rain washed off all the soil; and Venice is down there, over the sea, on the other side, floating on rotting wood,” said our father.
“Where’s the sea?” I asked.
“Down there. If it were daytime, we could probably see it.”
We drove down serpentine roads, and I fell asleep. We reached the coast and I was still asleep, and it turned out I was not the only one. All of us were, including the driver, our father. We were woken when the car hit a hanging tree branch at a precipice. My fatherquickly stopped the car. We all got out and stared down the precipice. The drop ended in the blackness of the sea, and roaring waves crashed against the rocks. “Wow, we could have been dead,” I was shouting. “That’s exciting!”
I was amazed that our father had lapsed, made an error, for I had considered him infallible. Father said, “God saved us. He let that olive tree branch hang low, so it would hit the car and wake me up before I drove over the edge.”
“Really?” I asked. “He saw our car and bent the tree in a couple of seconds so we’d hit it?”
When we reached the sea’s level, I begged, “Let’s stop, I want to see whether it’s salty.”
“It is. Be patient till we reach Zadar.”
But I insisted, and my brother and sister joined in. I had not believed that the sea was salty, because where would they get so much salt? When it was thought that the Russians were about to occupy Yugoslavia, we couldn’t even get a kilo of salt in the shops, so how could there be enough salt for the whole sea?
Our father did stop. We took off our shoes as if about to step on a holy carpet, and together we walked into the water. I caught some water into my palms and drank it. “Wow, it is, it is!” I shouted. In the black distance of the ocean there were lights of fishing boats. A cool breeze came from the water, the waves crept up the sand, and hissed or rather whispered and murmured like a huge yet benevolent monster.
We camped outside Zadar in a used tent that our father had bought from an army doctor.
On the first morning we three kids leaped into the water on an air raft. I couldn’t swim, and my sister told me she would teach me how, but not yet, because she wastoo busy enjoying herself. We were rowing with our hands and pushing each other for space. The sun scorched our backs, and we sprinkled cool water over our bodies; when the water dried, we had salt on us, and we licked it from each other’s skin like a family of cats.
Suddenly, in the middle of the marine delights, I slipped off the raft. The cold water cut my breath, and I sank beneath the surface. I was surprised that I was not panicking and that it was taking place all so slowly. Above, through my cold eyes, glared the enormous light blue green with a shadow in it, the raft which was just out of my reach, farther and farther above me. The shimmering surface of the water was like melted lead, which I had melted from stolen lead pipes and poured into cups. The shimmering was vanishing and reappearing. What a beautiful sight, I thought, and now in it, you will drown. Somehow I could not believe it, that I would drown and die, because I was suspended in the water, in a gravity-proof state. The glittering surface above me seemed unreal, and whatever was beyond it was bound to be even more so, distorted and vanishing in the kaleidoscope of light.
Upon hitting the sandy bottom of the sea, I sprang up, ascending slowly, surprised at the gentleness of all my motion despite putting all the force I could in it. My fingers reached the raft, caught the edge of it, and I pulled myself out of the water with the help of my brother, who grabbed me by my hair, and my sister, by one arm. Only upon getting out of the water, as if fully realizing that I could have drowned, I grew scared. My nose was sore, my sinuses were sore, my ears hurt, I had a headache, and I began to moan, and then to laugh,water leaking out of my nose and ears.
In a night and a day, I had already twice been close to death, and I bragged about it, imagining I had grown, had become brave. I bragged to everybody that I had nearly drowned, though my brother and sister begged me not to tell our parents.
In the afternoon, I accompanied my mother and sister to shop. In the harbor was a large ship with three masts and sails. The sailors on the ship seemed to me to be pirates. I begged them to let me on the ship. They laughed and said, “What the hell. Madam, we’ll entertain your son.” And they took me aboard as if I were a toy, while my mother and sister shopped. One sailor, who was weightlifting, offered me to join him. I could not move the weights, except the smallest one that he used for one-arm exercises. The engine was switched on, and the ship let water out on the sides, the way I had out of my ears after the near drowning.
The sailors carried me into the body of the ship and told me we were below the surface of the water. “The ship goes four meters beneath the surface,” a sailor told me.
My mother and sister came to pick me up, and I screamed, saying I did not want to go with them, but the sailors were traitors and handed me over. Soon we were in the tent. My mother and sister were unpacking eggs, vegetables, and meat while I talked about the wonders of the ship, and then I shut up, lost in thoughts about the engine, the masts. When my sister said something, I didn’t listen to her. All I heard was the end of it: “We had to wait for an hour; it was so long, at least five meters long.”
“Yes, very big!” I exclaimed. “It goes five meters deep into the water.”
Everybody burst into laughter, while I was astonished that such an important and impressive fact was treated so lightly. I said, “What’s funny? It did sink into the water five meters, the sailors told me.”
“We were talking about the line in front of the butcher’s, how long it was, and you say, yes, so big that it sunk into the water five meters! The whole line of people would have drowned!”
“It’s not my fault,” I cried, indignant, “that you care more about shops than ships!”
After a couple of weeks, I began to complain: “I want to go home, the sand here is no good; I can make better cities out of our saw-dust!” And my brother joined me, saying he could not play Robin Hood on the rocky terrain, he needed a forest. Our sister wanted to stay; she collected pink starfish and shells. And our mother said that she should take care of the garden, which must be a mess by now. And our father said he was tired of all the salt, he felt like a smoked and salted ham and all he wanted to do for a week would be to lie in the shade of large dank oaks. And so we went home, and moved with joy into our previously scorned and now beloved woods.