Much enjoyed sharing Chinese food with you in New York last week. And a fine show of fortitude on your part--trying to wield chopsticks with the wrong hand. Heard the doctors re-broke your broken arm. Sort of an insult to your breaking skills, as you apparently didn't do a good job fracturing the first time.
I thought your take on nationalism and translation was really interesting. I think it highlighted the very different worlds you and I come from. I never would have thought of that. And I don't mean that in the 'good idea' sense. I mean, that, on a good day, after my pot of coffee and with all synapses firing, my thoughts wouldn't have arranged themselves in that order. I was not raised to see the state that way even with the tragic Jewish-historical-template that was used again and again throughout my schooling. It sounds to me like it's part of a practical and learned distrust of the bigger picture. Is that somehow accurate? Does that attitude, if I've stated it correctly, serve you as writer? Looks like it does from the outside. (Hoping that's not too cynical a question--because I ask it seriously. Possibly I should pose it more generally: Does writing demand a healthy distrust of one absolute or another?)
You wrote about people who take themselves too seriously. Even being taken seriously in your letters sets me to squirming. I mention it because you've twice brought up a certain kind of story in a less than flattering light and expressed hatred for a certain kind of "glib cynicism" that those stories display. The two stories of mine that you mentioned are set in distant worlds only because that's how I see a story, or maybe that it's easier for me to deal with the real questions or ideas that I struggle with in worlds foreign to my own. I wouldn't know how to, say, meet you for a beer, walk down a street, catch a movie, and in the juxtaposition of those events find the story. Some people can see that. They can frame those worlds. Translate them into fiction. I admit to having read my fair share of a certain type of story, but they only deserve clumping because they're not functioning. So of course there are the professors at dinner parties and the bitter bad-ass drunks and stacks and stacks of abused and abusive brothers/sisters/fathers/mothers. But a Don Delillo professor is a good professor and a Bukowski drunk is the way drunkenness should be. Lorrie Moore can write about a drive to the mall or Denis Johnson about a drug addict in a way that is so in-tune that it makes the clumping of the subject moot. I don't think it's about needing William the Conquerer as the main character of every story or going down with the Titanic again and again. It's all about peopling that 'public space' you described with real people and real ideas, about pulling the story off. Because I've also been stuck in the middle of some people's very bad wars and would much rather spend an eternity stuck in one of John Cheever's elevators than in most other places.
You asked how important it is that a writer be a good reader. It's hugely important. So important that there's really not much to discuss, as the discussion doesn't leave much room for an opposing camp--say the serious writers who make sure never to read books. Makes me think of what I consider the political parallel regarding Israel. People are forever asking me about my stance on the situation there. Am I for the peace process? Well what other position is there? Of course I'm pro-peace. That there are people that can be anti-peace is so frightening that it's funny. What are you if you're anti-peace? Pro-war? "Yes, I'm in the mayhem camp. Peace is overrated. I think the best move would be unbridled carnage and the rivers running red with blood." The only thing that needs qualifying is the "good" in your "good reader," which I'll define as well-meaning. You mentioned having the attention span of a bee and, having spent my childhood watching television for a solid seven or eight hours a day, I'm usually twelve minutes into reading before my brain starts to seize up, craving a commercial. But I've been working on it for years and I'm getting a little better.
I don't have a specific reader in mind at all when I work. My very uncomplicated aesthetic boils down to the belief that writing, when it's working, should be universal. And, in some ways, to think of it in real terms, to think that you're writing with the intention of having a readership, is distracting as it brings with it a host of anxieties. I'd say it's the same as when building anything else. It's a constant process of stepping back, looking at the work, and thinking about what it means, how it will be seen, or, in the case of writing, read (or if mechanical or biological, maybe more what it will do, etc., etc.). I guess I've already said that it's only about the story itself. Making the story work. And to do that would demand distancing one's self and doing one's best to look at the structure, at the language, from the outside. So the imagined reader, I guess, is really the attempt to look at your own work with a critical eye. I get nervous discussing things like this, as it always sounds a bit touchy-feely. Sometimes after readings, if I find myself answering a question about the blood-sweat-and-tears part of the process, there's the horrible knowledge that the reader that liked the book might find the truth of the work that went into the writing of it quaint or romantic, but that the person who will be truly awed by the amount of effort that went into it is the person that hated the book, for the colossal waste of time and energy that has gone into such a monstrous creation must surely be admired.
Firstly, you're not getting out of answering your own question. Do you imagine a reader when you write? Secondly, you should be out on the road already. How is that going? How do you feel making the transition from person writing stories at home to writer out on the road hawking books? There are the obvious wonderful aspects of giving readings--like the chance to meet and talk with readers (of your book, of any book). But, having just crossed the one-year mark, a large hunk of which I've spent moving from city to city, there are a host of new and complicated realities piled on to what was a very private and isolated activity. Once many of these realities have been introduced they are there for good, I think. There are plenty of directions in which to move (most of them terrifying) but going backward to a time before is not one of them. (Going straight downward, of course, is. At least once a day someone is kind enough to offer the little known fact that all second books are failures and to inquire if I'm planning on writing a horrible second book, and if I don't look like I've understood, a list of well known downfalls and undoings is provided.) What I want to know is how you are dealing with a change that can only be defined as a gift but which brings along with it many pitfalls? Do you see yourself differently in any way because of the way in which you are now being seen?
I had a few brilliant thoughts on the flight from Sarajevo to Vienna, but they seem to have evaporated as I was rushing to catch a flight to Amsterdam--I must have been exposed to the radiation of Mittel-Europa conservativism. But I'll give you what I have and hope it'll be useful to you.
They didn't need to re-break my hand. Apparently, I did a good job. And it stinks, nauseously reminding me of my mortality and generally disgusting my fellow mortals who are foolish enough to shake my cast hand. But I twisted my ankle in Sarajevo (a shell hole in the pavement), so I seem to be getting better at physical self-destruction.
My "learned and practical distrust of the bigger picture" sounds paranoid. It is certainly to some extent a survival strategy, but that is less important, and to the same extent less productive. It is more about trying to figure out how "reality" is constituted--the bigger picture is bigger only because it includes the frame for the smaller picture of "reality." What really interests me is more what a story does than whether a story "works." It is, I think, pretty easy to make a story or a work of fiction "work" (assuming for the sake of the argument that the quality of "working" is self-evident), particularly in the realist mode which dominates American fiction: you need a strong beginning that catches the attention of the reader, who is ever ready to slip out and get some real fun elsewhere; you need a "voice" with mannerisms that make it familiar and therefore real--say, a clenched-jaw narrator whose sparse language suggests there is more to it, much more to it; you need psychological plausibility, which means that a character must not do what the least imaginative of the readers would not do (provided that he or she hasn't taken off to catch a movie) in the given situation; you need an epiphany at the end, a moment when a beam of narrative light from the authorial heaven is cast upon a character, whereupon he or she realizes that life is worth living, the spouse is not worth divorcing, the novel in works is worth finishing, being American is good etc; and most of all you need to stick to "reality," which for some reason is often located in a small Midwestern town or a suburb. There are thousands of "working" stories being produced in creative writing sweatshops as we speak, but I don't know what they do.
Do I sound arrogant? Yes, I know.
But I am trying make a point--in fact, ask a question: what does fiction do? I do not think it only provides lofty pleasure to a knowledgeable reader, nor do I think it miraculously transforms the reader into a morally and politically sound citizen. I think that on the one hand, generally, fiction helps constitute reality--rather than reflect it--and is thus willy-nilly participating in some ideological work. On the other hand, to understand what a particular work of fiction means, I need to see not only whether it works, but what it does.
Which is why the reader is so important--the reader tells me what the story does. And if the reader is willing to participate in that exchange, the story works. When you shot back the question of the reader at me, I realized that it is not just that I imagine a reader, I imagine the story being read. Sometimes, it is a particular person reading it, sometimes a particular kind of reader, but sometimes it is the situation of random anonymous reading: someone somewhere is picking up the story, knowing nothing about me, not caring about all the important things that I might have wanted to have said. She or he just picks up the story and starts reading it, with no obligation or commitment--the story might be dropped and forgotten at any time. But as I write, I am in the middle of my narrative web, sensing a slight random movement at its fringe, a sudden vibration of one of the silky threads. I am not always sure what I want my story to do to the reader, except that when they don't laugh at things that I think are funny, the story is not doing its job.
And as for the pro-peace-pro-war question, the trouble with people who are pro-war is that they never say they are pro-war, they say they are pro-survival and pro-defense and pro-patriotism etc.
Being on the road is fun, though exhausting. I've just had two full days of interviews in Amsterdam, and they were interesting for I was essentially talking with my readers. But at the end of the day, I was a little ashamed and embarrassed with such attention. On the one hand, I kept expecting the interviewers to snap out of it, and realize that ultimately I am not important at all. But they liked my book and wouldn't go away, and I liked exchanging pleasant words with them and wanted them to stay and pour more gasoline on the fire of my vanity, which was once upon a time suffocating under the comfortable ashes of anonymity. And on the other hand, it is such arrogance to assume that I can talk for two days straight and still produce anything meaningful.
But there was a moment of relief. A photographer was waiting for me and as I walked into the room I said: "Hello, I am Sasha." And he said: "Nice to meet you. But where is Aleksandar?" So I told him that I was an actor, paid by Aleksandar to represent him and stand in for him. So I sat down, and the poor photographer was utterly confused. We smiled at each other for blessed five minutes, not knowing what to say, hoping that Aleksandar Hemon might arrive. And eventually, the arrogant bastard did.
I think they want us to finish this. (They? Who are they? Do you know? I get my instructions left in envelopes without the return address, delivered by whispery strangers at dark street corners, with their faces always in the shadow. And they always tell me not to try to contact them.) But I do not want to, I wanna play more. So here are some more questions. Are you writing a novel now? Or are you planning to? What is the difference? Do you think that the novel is an inherently more complicated form, eternally more important than the story? Do you think there is something like a short story revival?
So, looking forward to hear from you soon, my friend.