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Zoran Zivkovic
12-03-09: World Fantasy Convention Interview with Zoran Zivkovic

One of the writers I was happiest to get a chance to interview for the World Fantasy Convention, even if just by email, was Zoran Zivkovic. His work is so unique and so very much in what I might call the expansionist school of fantasy — in that each work of his expands the definition of what we might call fantasy fiction, simply because they resemble nothing you've ever read before. Here's our chance to see what is behind his fiction.

What was the first work of speculative fiction that ever caught your attention; book, movie, TV show...?

It was probably a book, but I wasn't aware at that time that it was "speculative fiction." The term was coined much later. I was strongly influenced by two SF movies: "Time Machine" and "2001: A Space Odyssey."

When and why did you start reading speculative fiction? Did you read works that were translated into Serbian or read in the original language?

I read only books in Serbian — originals that had been translated—until I mastered English well enough to be able to read in English. That happened in my early thirties. I started to read science fiction in my early twenties. If you wanted to be a genuine contemporary of your time, it was the most appropriate sort of fiction.

You wrote some very interesting works in college — a thesis on Arthur C. Clarke and a look at Science Fiction as a Genre of Artistic Prose. Tell us about writing these works.

These were my MA and PhD theses. I was the first scholar in this part of the world to earn a degree in science fiction. I had to overcome many academic obstacles, back in the late seventies, to achieve that goal.

Tell us about the speculative fiction and fantasy world in Serbia. Are there genre bookstores and events?

There are no genre bookstores in Serbia. As for events, I wouldn't really know, since I have not been involved in science fiction or speculative fiction for twenty years. I don't consider my writing "speculative fiction". I see myself as a humble practitioner of the ancient and noble art of prose. I don't need any prefixes to it since they are misleading and limiting.

You founded Polaris, your own imprint. What did you print and how did you go about doing so?

During a decade and a half, from the early eighties till the mid-nineties, I published more than one hundred books, mostly science fiction. The majority of the authors were Americans, of course. Mostly genre classics.

Tell us about starting your own television show, The Starry Screen. Even the so-called science fiction channel here in the US hasn’t managed to do this successfully.

It was actually an eighteen-episode TV series, broadcast in 1984. Each fifteen-minute episode was about one of the landmarks of the SF film history — from "A Voyage to the Moon" to "Heavy Metal".

What brought you to write the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction?

Somehow, it seemed the perfect way to conclude my two-decade- long involvement with science fiction. Back in 1990, when it was originally published, there were only three other SF encyclopedias of that kind in the whole world.

Why did you switch from writing non-fiction to fiction? Were you always writing fiction?

I wrote my first piece of fiction only in 1993, when I was forty-five. It was the ultimate challenge I had to accept after completing my non-fiction writing.

Your work brings a lot of fascinating influences to the fantasy genre. What are they?

I appreciate your compliment, but I am not the right person to answer that question. You would do better to ask those writers who feel they are influenced by my writing...

Beyond the actual written content, you've also been engaged in creating beautiful books as objects. Could you talk about the feel of well-designed books and how that plays into your writing and the reading experience you seek to create?

I was very fortunate to have Tiffany Jonas as my US publisher (Aio Publishing). She is a real genius when it comes to creating books as objects of art. Her three editions of my works — Seven Touches of Music, Steps through the Mist and Impossible Encounters — are by far the most beautiful of nearly one hundred various edition of my books.

Could you tell us a little about your writing process — from first draft to final revision — in both long and short forms?

There are no drafts in my writing. What you eventually read in a book of mine is the only version of it. I don't need any revisions. Once I start writing, everything is already fully completed in my head.

Could you tell us about your writing day?

I am a morning writer. I start writing at 9 AM and very rarely continue after noon.

What are the most important things outside of writing that contribute to your writing?

Reading. A lot of reading.

Since you started writing, we've seen all of the tropes of science fiction and fantasy become parts of mainstream culture — and yet there is still a very strong sense of what is genre and what is not.

As far as I am concerned, there is only one essential division in the art of literature. It is either good or bad. Mainstream vs. genre is a false dilemma. I have read many mainstream works that are rather poor and a number of genre books that are truly excellent.

Fantasy, by definition, includes elements of the fantastic that cordon it off, so to speak from realistic literary fiction. When you include these elements in your fiction, or use them as a premise for creating an entire world, how do you see the resulting work interacting with or reflecting our everyday world?

No matter how fantastical a work of prose, it is always about one of the multitudes of aspects of the real world.

Has the spectacular success of young adult fantasy serial fiction had an impact on your fiction in particular? Could you talk about how it is changed the genre itself?

Quite frankly, I have a very vague idea about categories like "young adult fantasy serial fiction." In the literary world of Europe they are quite meaningless. Just another invention of the publishing industry that has nothing to do with the art of prose.

Young adult fiction is increasingly read by adults as well as the intended, or at least, included audience of adolescents. Science fiction and fantasy have often been characterized as adolescent fiction; is this of use to you as a writer? Do you find such a characterization helpful, hurtful, or irrelevant —and why?

As a professor of creative writing at Belgrade University I tell my students at the very first class that they are absolutely in the wrong place if their prime ambition in writing is to get famous or rich. Even if they eventually achieve these goals, they are quite irrelevant. The noble art of prose is not just a means to achieve a goal. It is the Goal Itself.

You've written novellas and short stories; your novella "The Library" won a world fantasy award. Talk about how stories evolve for you in terms of length. Do you know how long a story is going to be, or does it just happen?

On the conscious level I know very little, if anything, before I start writing. And yet, the work to be written is already fully formed in the subconscious part of my mind, the real source of my literary imagination. So, there is no planning, no "premeditation." It simply erupts from there...

Your latest work from Aio Publishing is Impossible Encounters. It's a mosaic novel, so tell us about this form; how it works for you, and why.

The simplest definition of a mosaic-novel is that it is a whole greater than the mere sum of its constituent parts. It came to me spontaneously, as everything else in my writing...

Could you look back over your career and tell us how you feel about your body of work as whole?

I have written eighteen books of fiction. I consider them the most important part of what I have achieved intellectually and artistically.

The publishing industry is meeting the same challenges the music industry and musicians met some fifteen years ago. What do you think writers and publishers can do to ensure that readership keeps growing and the industry remains a viable source of income for writers? What do you do?

I don't share the same ideals with the publishing industry. As a writer, I am far more interested in being read by quality readers than by a huge number of readers. And by definition, quality readers are just a minority group. It means that I will probably never get rich through writing, but I am not at all obsessed with getting rich in the first place. My ideals are of a different kind...

And finally, tell us about how this year's World Fantasy Convention slots into your work as a writer, and how this convention fits into the larger frame of genre fiction, and indeed, just what is publishable.

It is truly a great honor to be a GoH at a World Fantasy Convention. The more so since, as far as I know, this is the very first time that a writer originating from outside the English language countries was invited. In a way, it makes my participation historical...

12-02-09: High Times for High Fantasy : Kage Baker and Alex Bledsoe Hold High the Swords

I try, at least to rotate my reading; to go from fantasy to science fiction to non-fiction to general fiction, throw in some comedy, then a thriller; just to keep my reading palate fresh. But I do have my inclinations, and when it comes to fantasy I tend to the more abstruse forms, those works that don’t remotely resemble the shibboleth of fantasy fiction, 'The Lord of the Rings.'

Even if you like second world fantasy, it's hard to get excited by series that always seem to be milking the audience by stretching out a story instead of simply telling one. But there is great second world fantasy out there, by both seasoned authors and talented newcomers. Alex Bledsoe's
'Burn Me Deadly' (Tor / Tom Doherty Books ; November 10, 2009 ; $24.99) is the follow-up to his Night Shade Books hard-cover debut, 'The Sword-Edged Blonde' (Tor / Tom Doherty Books ; June 30, 2009 ; $6.99), now out in paperback. It's just as much fun and just as well-done as the first novel. Kage Baker is also back with a trade paperback version of her follow-up to 'The Anvil of the World,' 'The House of the Stag' (Tor / Tom Doherty Books ; June 30, 2009 ; $14.99). Baker's continuing exploration of her second world is a sophisticated spin on coming-of-age tales that takes all the tropes and uses them with a joy and skill that will leave readers breathless. Both books show that second world fantasy with familiar trappings can tell a great story in a single book — even if the single books are both set in an established world.

Bledsoe's novel is a pretty direct follow-up to his first — a fantasy noir. The appeal here is that Bledsoe understands the virtues of the two genres he is combining, and that one of those virtues is that readers love to have their expectations upended. Count on that happening in 'Burn Me Deadly,' where characters you might expect to be come cornerstones are quickly dispatched and where the fantasy world bears an unpleasant resemblance to ours. Political and religious power-mongers are ever-green targets in noir, and fantasy, so it is really quite natural to combine the two. Bledsoe brings a deft hand to the proceedings by underplaying the humor and the horror, and keeping the action light but ... deadly.

Baker's novel is a different beast, a complex weave of effortless world-building, prickly personalities and cultures at war. Gard is a half-demon member of the peaceful Yendri, who have been pretty much been run over the Riders. The plot is grand and the scope is epic, but the novel stays very much on the ground with a vivid cast of characters. Like Bledsoe, Baker brings a compact storytelling style to her world and a very robust sense of humor. For all the fantasy she emphasizes, all the magicians and Saints and gladiators and evil temptresses, she really keeps her work grounded. There's an earthiness to her ethereal otherworld. Baker's considerable talents, already proved in her novels of The Company, allow her to make everything seem easy. Both novels are excellent evidence that second world fantasy is definitely worth a second chance.

12-01-09: 'The Talisman' Adapted : Seeing the Eyes We Have Only Seen Through

Turning a beloved novel into a graphic novel is clearly a formidable task, a path littered with potential pitfalls. After all, those adapting the novel will be replacing the reader's internal vision with their own vision, and in so doing might subvert instead of supplement the original reading experience. How to enhance and not erase? And more pertinently, with regards to Stephen King's and Peter Straub's 'The Talisman,' how to create a character who sees but is never seen?

Oh, we know plenty about thirteen year-old Jack Sawyer and his adventures in the Territories, an alternate reality where this world's woes wear different faces. But there's one thing we do not know, one thing we're not told about in the novel, and that presents the ultimate challenge to those adapting the work.

What does Jack Sawyer look like?

A graphic novel is a team effort, and the leader of this team, script writer Robin Furth, writes a wonderful afterward to 'The Talisman: The Road of Trials Issue 1' (Del Rey Comics / Random House ; November 16, 2009 ; $3.99) about the problems she and her team encountered creating the main character for this iconic book. Let's give credit where credit is due; Robin Furth wrote the script, Tony Shasteen did the pencils and inking, and Massimo Carnevale did the cover included here, while Penny Arcade's Mike Kahulik did an alternate version. And finally, because I don’t haqng on to the world of comics with both fingers clinging to the pavement, let me mention that there's an Issue 0, a prequel, which covers events not in 'The Talisman.'

What Furst writes about is really quite interesting. She and her team had to creat the kid who tells the story but never gets round to describing himself. This whole bit about characters describing themselves is a dilemma that authors deal with in a variety of fashions. Some start out with their viewpoint character in front of mirror, or walking by a window, or some other excuse to tell us what they look like. King and Straub elect to let that lie in the reader's imagination. Hopefully, no matter what technique is used, the reader should ideally just never think about it. We're reading,a nd that sort of ambiguity is part and parcel of the reading experience.

And that just goes to show how different any other form of storytelling is. Movies, comics, plays, graphic novels, all other forms eliminate that imaginative leap we must make when we read, and how well they do so, especially when the work is an adaptation, is a make-or-break decision. I have to say that for this adaptation of 'The Talisman,' everything I see in this issue is really right-on. And I know this because many of the characters make me think they’re based on actors, when I know that not to be the case. But that fact that I do so makes me think that the artists and script-writer have done such a good job that I'm transforming the drawn image into alive image in my graphic-novel reading experience. Oh it all gets so deliciously interesting when you actually think about what happen when you read.

So, yes, the look and feel of 'The Talisman' adaptation is superb. The production values are top notch; heavy paper, great colors, readable lettering make this work seem substantial. However, with only 32 pages in this issue, that seem to cover fewer in the book, and at one issue per month, we're looking at well over a year — nearly two ” before the series finishes up. And at $3.99 per issue, we're looking at maybe eighty bucks for the whole run. That's ... well, it seems a bit on the costly side. Sure, sure collectors this and that, but what about more general readers? I like this adaptation, and I'd ideally like to read it in at most quarters — not chopped up in bits. Now, Furst does a great job chopping and pacing. But book readers aren't accustomed to this sort of episodic divide. Apparently, we've developed great attention spans, and it's expected — one need but look at the latest Stephen King bestseller to confirm that. I do like the look and feel of this adaptation, and the creators have honored the original work to the best of their considerable abilities. In the end however, one must remember ... It's a comic book, not a book. And there's a considerable difference between the two reading experiences, a gulf perhaps greater than that between the Territories and our world.

11-30-09: Jorge Luis Borges 'A Universal History of Infamy' : Back to Basics

It's easy for me to get caught up in the stream of non-stop new books. Even though most of the new stuff that comes out is crud, that small percentage that is worthy of my (and in some cases, your) attention is pretty overwhelming. There's a good argument to be made, however, for engaging in a search not for the best new stuff out there, but for the best stuff out there, period. There are some amazing jewels that you can find by authors who are iconic for a damn good reason.

Take for example, Jorge Luis Borges. I first stumbled onto his work as a freshman in college, when I bought a used paperback copy of 'Ficciones,' which includes 'Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,' one of those works that can literally change your world in just a few pages. I'm definitely not alone in this regard. Just about every writer I like cites Borges as an influence, and with good reason. Borges re-imagined the very concept of narrative itself, turning a mirror on all writing. He created fictions in the form of non-fiction, and wrote non-fiction about fictional people, places and ideas. He's one of the most important literary theoreticians ever.

He paired his impeccable literary criticism with wonderfully readable and witty prose, even when that prose was mocking the densest and most impenetrable academic nonsense. It's this gift, that I think is sometime under-rated, or overshadowed by his conceptual contributions. For all his genius, Borges was and ever is a really fun writer to read, even in translation. His prose is the essence of limpid clarity, and there's a true sense of joy in his words. You can tell that Borges is having fun as he writes, and that sense of fun makes reading his work a true joy.

And that gets us to 'A Universal History of Infamy.' Because, you know, for how universally his work has been acknowledged, it just doesn't seem to be that prominent in the bookstores these days. But just as you can rush out and buy the work of ten new writers who justifiably put Borges on a pedestal, so you can also go out and buy the work of the man on the pedestal himself, in decent first English editions, for less than the price of a new-release hardcover.

Occasionally I get these bees in my bonnet, and frankly I see no reason not to accede to their stings, er wishes. Thus I found myself in immediate need of Borges' 'A Universal History of Infamy,' having not so long ago gone gaga over Rhys Hughes' deliciously entertaining update, 'A New Universal History of Infamy.' Sure I'd read a tattered paperback back in the day, but why not, I thought, see what I could find in the open market.

It actually proved to be both much easier and much cheaper than I thought. I popped the title into bookfinder, and in less than fifteen minutes found a bookseller willing to part with a Dutton hardcover from 1972, which set me back only $28, delivered. I already have a copy of 'The Book of Imaginary Beings,' which this book joins on the shelves, after of course a delightful bit of immersion in the works found within 'A Universal History of Infamy,' to wit, "Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities" and "The Wizard Postponed." Two first editiuon Borges, delightfully readable and beautifully published. I like these Dutton editions a lot. And, as well, I like to reach back as often as I reach forward. Literature is such an appealing artform because there is really no difference between the works of another century and those of today. Every writer starts with the same level playing field. Here are some words. Use them wisely.

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