Only a few dozen writers have had careers estimable enough to have been nominated for the International Man Booker Prize, an award something like a cooler Nobel. Think Don DeLillo. Lydia Davis. Philip Roth. Joyce Carol Oates. Among the nominees in 2013 was the Croatian-born Josip Novakovich, who after several decades in America now calls Montreal home. Throughout a staggering career — story collections, novels, essays, poems — the terrain has often been the former Yugoslavia, a small town in America, or exotic locales such as St. Petersburg, Russia, where Novakovich has traveled as a writer and instructor of writing. With his new collection, “Honey in the Carcase” — which features some of his darkest work and also somehow his most hopeful — Novakovich once again ranges widely, from Denis Johnson-esque slices of Americana to utterly original tales from various war-torn villages, showing again and again how he is one of our best writers in the English language.
Some of your work, including a few of the stories in the new collection, deal with war. Can you tell us about your personal history with battlefields and conflict?
I have no personal history of battlefields. I was visiting Croatia during the war, 1991-95. I experienced a couple of air-raid alarms in my hometown, passed through various checkpoints (some of them fairly threatening) and saw buildings still smoking from being bombed. I smelled the war more than I saw it. If I had been more directly involved, I would have written mostly nonfiction about the war, but this way, I had to imagine what the people went through — in fiction. And I found out it was easier to set stories in war than in peace; friendship in a war across different ethnic lines immediately gives you plot potential … no matter how much I hate wars, they awaken the basic storytelling in me.
Previous standouts — I’m thinking of “Sheepskin,” from “Salvation and Other Disasters” — deal with memory and vengeance. A few of the stories in this new collection edge toward the ideas of betrayal and loyalty. Can you explain the apparent shift?
I write about the aftermath of wars: migration, exile, lives of displacement, poverty and acts of kindness. Some themes remain, such as culture clash and misunderstandings. For me the great shift was the dissolution of the communist enterprise — the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia — and now the confusion in the “transition.” A lot of my work used to be based on recollections of the past “socialisms” and nostalgia for the Croatia of my youth. That’s the first phase. Second, the war. Third, the aftermath. It’s almost like Paradise, Inferno and the Exodus.
You’ve always had memorable female characters, and there are plenty in this collection, but you’re also excelling with old men — the beekeeper in the title story — and with children. Tell us about how you find and develop characters.
Character is plot, plot is character, said Scott Fitzgerald. I have met a lot of remarkable people, and I may sketch them and transform them and perhaps put them in an imaginary situation and see what happens. It’s like, “What would Jesus do?” What would Ivan do if he was diagnosed with TB during the war? As for children, they remained relatively safe in the war. I once drove in a war zone in Eastern Croatia in late 1991 just when U.N. troops were coming in. I drove with my friend Boris, who worked as a translator, and we saw a bunch of kids with school bags on a travel road, and I said, “What? They aren’t afraid?” And Boris said, “Even if a Serbian band were to pass by, I doubt they would bother the children.” And that struck me as remarkable, that in America we feel so terrified for our children. It must be that we are at a perpetual war but don’t realize it.
I’m thinking as well of the story in the collection playfully told from the perspective of … a small mammal. What was the genesis there?
With a cat, a horse, a dog, I have this experience, I want to ask them, like a bad lover, “What are you thinking?” And they just blink or purr ... and yet there’s sometimes this incredible connection, “thou and I,” which can be quite spiritual, transcendental. It’s like we would like to communicate with God but can’t as the basis of spirituality. If we could communicate with God, maybe there would be no religion, it would be too easy. An encounter with an animal spirit is kind of the closest to religious experience I am capable of.
One of your signature moves is the show of irony or bravery in the face of horror. How is that (or not) in conversation with our current political era?
Sometimes irony is all we have left — a kind of protest or painkiller. If the world turns out to be absurd, it’s easier to take being wounded by military aggressors. The protest aspect can be productive but the painkilling perhaps not. I watch John Oliver, Bill Maher, Seth Meyers and other smart commentators, and for 10-15 minutes I enjoy how cleverly ironic they appear ...
It’s kind of a painkilling drug to laugh at it all. In old Yugoslavia you could be jailed for making a joke about Tito.
“Honey in the Carcase: Stories”
Dzanc Books, 160 pages, $16.95