Writer Aleksandar Hemon resists labels

Special to The Times

Aleksandar Hemon looked like a man calmly bemused by inconvenience. He had been invited by PEN to celebrate the publication of his third book, “The Lazarus Project,” out this month from Riverhead, but the flight from his hometown of Chicago was grounded for several hours, so the author, his wife and 7-month-old daughter showed up for the party in his honor exactly one minute before it ended.

His attitude was not so different from the one he had about him eight years ago, as his first collection of stories, “The Question of Bruno,” was about to be published. The book had received advance raves. At that time Hemon had been living in Chicago for just eight years and had been writing in English for only five years.

At 44, Hemon is that rarest of authors whose back story is as interesting and troubling as anything in fiction, explaining why so much of his work seems autobiographical. In 1992, Hemon, then a resident of Sarajevo, was on a sponsored tour of America when his home city came under siege. He was essentially stranded in Chicago, where he watched his home become a war zone on CNN as he tried to learn English.


Beyond the extraordinary circumstances of his becoming an American-based, English-language writer, Hemon has become a critical darling, regularly having his work excerpted in the New Yorker, and being the recipient of both a Guggenheim grant in 2003 and the MacArthur “genius” grant in 2004. “The Lazarus Project,” though, is his first new book in six years.

“The Lazarus Project” continues themes well explored in his two previous books. The Lazarus of the title is Lazarus Averbuch, a teenage immigrant from Eastern Europe who, in 1908, approached the Chicago chief of police and was shot dead. The police immediately declared Averbuch an anarchist and launched an investigation into the dead boy’s family. In alternating chapters, Hemon re-imagines that investigation while also telling the parallel tale of Brik, a Hemon-sounding character, a married writer based in present-day Chicago who goes on a research trip to Eastern Europe with a photographer to research the story of Averbuch’s life.

Adding to the blurred lines between fiction and reality, each chapter of “The Lazarus Project” opens with a photograph taken by Hemon’s friend Velibor Bozovic, and the two men themselves took a trip to Eastern Europe to research the life of Averbuch.

Hemon is wary of tidy labels for his work. “I am not a novelist,” he declared after the PEN celebration, amid the din of the Oasis Bar in a midtown W Hotel. “I am a writer, which means I write stories, I write novels, and I would write poetry if I knew how to. I don’t want to limit myself.”

This announcement came in response to the observation that “The Lazarus Project” is the first of his three books that he has referred to as a novel. His last book, “Nowhere Man,” was “an inch short of a novel,” in his estimation. “This work I only started calling a novel after I had submitted the manuscript. I woke up and realized it was a novel. Prior to this I had called it ‘the big book,’ ” he said, laughing.

Rounding the bases


One of the legends about Hemon is that he taught himself English in the early 1990s by reading Nabokov and underlining all the words he didn’t know. In a tidy twist, his first book quickly inspired comparisons to Nabokov’s clarity of expression. Along those lines, he once said that his first book was akin to heavy petting, his second to getting to first base. And his third? His voice boomed: “A home run!”

He ordered a cup of green tea. “The trouble with calling a book a novel, well, it’s not like I’m writing the same book all the time, but there is a continuity of my interests, so when I start writing a book, if I call it ‘a novel,’ it separates it from other books. I cannot really describe all the points of continuity from my previous books to this one -- I could, but I don’t care to -- it’s just one big flow of language for me, and then you parse it and publish it. But for me not to be published in six years drives me crazy!”

And what had he been doing for six years? He has claimed to be an expert “idler,” and stresses the importance of not writing from time to time. He’s become a husband and a father. And, obviously, he worked on “The Lazarus Project” for much of that time -- the Guggenheim grant funded his research trip, and he then won the MacArthur grant, which allowed him to move to Paris for 9 1/2 months to work on the novel.

Asked if the critical praise and the grants exert some undue pressure, Hemon did not hesitate. “That’s not how it works,” he snapped. “You are always working on your worst book and your best book at the same time. The praise does not make you write better, and it shouldn’t make you write worse either.” He sipped his tea and settled back in his chair before continuing, in a suddenly friendlier tone.

“People ask, ‘Did you feel extra pressure because of the MacArthur?,’ but it’s preposterous; it relieves the pressure. I was running out of money, I had spent all of my advances and I was teaching for a semester, and once I was done teaching I had no income. I had three months to figure out what to do, but I couldn’t do anything but write. I was about to start looking for gigs and then the MacArthur comes in when you least expect it.”

In “The Lazarus Project,” Hemon has a bit of fun with his various grants, with the character of Brik courting the wife of a grant judge and actually winning the grant that funds his research trip via an obsequious route. Not even vaguely plausible in real life, Hemon was quick to assert. “You can’t orchestrate a MacArthur,” he said. “You try and you will be disqualified for life.”


But before that grant, he had won a Guggenheim, and this enabled him to travel to Eastern Europe with Bozovik, his best friend for more than 20 years. Bozovik was in Sarajevo during the siege and is now based in Montreal. Both Bozovik and Hemon point out the differences between Rora, the daredevil, storytelling photographer in the book, and Bozovik, who is less prone to chattiness. Bozovik later said that the trip “only mirrors the book geographically.” It also yielded some 1,200 images, a handful of which made it into the book, interspersed with images from the Chicago Historical Society.

In the book, the research trip begins as a lark -- two lost men taking rich people’s grant money for a free vacation. It works as comic relief against the relentless cruelty of Lazarus Averbuch’s fate. But was Hemon still plotting the book as he and Bozovik traveled? “When we went there I had the outline of the book entirely, so it’s not that,” he said. “The point was that we would try to figure out what they would do.” Further prodding yields little.

“I remember the big turns,” Hemon offered. “I cannot retrace my thinking. I don’t even keep notes. Veba’s photographs were the notes.” Hemon doesn’t take notes? “No,” he smiled as his interviewer filled his notebook. “I don’t make notes for myself because I either lose them or they make no sense to me at all. I once found a piece of paper with the note: ‘everything.’ Apparently I made a note to myself not to forget everything!”

One of the great draws of Hemon’s work, and the reason that all three books flow into one another so seamlessly, is the consistency of his voice -- quiet, steady and purposeful. In “The Lazarus Project,” the Hemon-like character of Brik is socially awkward, insecure and very impressed with his photographer friend. In the book, he also has a line, “The Bosnian way was everybody shouts.” “Oh!” Hemon said, without prompting. “In my family there was never any democracy. You had to be heard! I guess writing is different; it’s a way to say something without waiting your turn to speak. It’s done in solitude. When I’m around Bosnians, even my friends, I am the quiet one. I do put in some opinions, but everyone is shouting and arguing and I usually just back off,” he shrugged.

As the novel reaches its conclusion, the parallel chapters begin to converge, details from one narrative drifting into the other.

The novel is based in historical fact; did Hemon consider using a coda to show what happened to the perpetrators of the crime? “It is the victims who should be remembered, not the murderers,” he said immediately. “Those are retroactive explanations. I believe in my laziness -- if I don’t want to write about something, there must be a reason. The book is not about solidarity; it’s about isolated people struggling alone with the forces of history.”


‘The other kind of Europe’

Later, the conversation turned to the events in Bosnia 16 years ago. “Bosnians believed -- and I believed -- that they were a part of Europe. So when the war began, they expected Europe to respond. ‘This cannot happen again in Europe,’ everyone said, and we all expected some kind of reaction or intervention. But then the response was, ‘Well, maybe you can have a war in Europe if they are in southern Europe, if they are Muslims’ . . . you can suddenly decide that’s the other kind of Europe and you can just forget about those people.”

It is this same sense of outrage that informs Hemon’s work, from his first short story to the majesty of his new novel -- a measured, clear spotlighting of injustice, made all the more eloquent by the prickly humor of the author.

“What I like about literature are the transformative possibilities,” he said as the interview wound down. “I am going to convince you now that what I am telling you is true, though you know before opening the book that it is not. The great books teach you how to read them. Joyce, Sebald -- not that I count myself in that group -- but those writers cause you to have to drop your habits and expectations and give yourself to the book.”

Then he said, “But I am a klutz at everything except for writing and soccer.”