Our fiction co-editor, Robin Lauzon, recently spoke with Srđan Srdić, our Issue #10 featured fiction author. Here’s what he had to say about his approach to writing, his focus as a reader, and what he is working on now.
What inspired you to write this piece?
The title of my second short story collection, a recent one, which comprises this story, is Combustions and it was brought into being after ruminations about a certain concept. Namely, before any of my books were published, I’d been informed that I’d won the Borislav Pekic scholarship. It was the only scholarship a writer in Serbia could receive and I was probably the only author with no published book to have been thus honored. It was necessary to submit a synopsis for the book, and the best two synopses were awarded by the board members. As opposed to Espirando, my first story collection, whose creation was largely coincidental, in this case someone demanded that I justify the proposed plan. The entire book was thus conceived as a reconsideration of the question of identity by means of various formal devices. Nothing revolutionary, of course, there are no new topics, there are only new methods of solution, a new language. This is the only thing in literature that interests me.
The title is a paraphrase of Gogol’s anthological story about the quarrel of two Ivans. This story ends with a monumental sentence: It’s boring in this world, gentlemen. Here the two Ivans, former liberal dissident movement leaders, have settled the quarrel, at least they are trying to do so, followed by a retired National Security officer. Everyone is old, the world is slow, banal. Thence Beckett, and the subtitle which suggests one of the heaviest of Beckett’s plays, Krapp’s Last Tape. Therefore, what I found interesting is the option of hopelessness: what an individual faced with the truth of their own identity does, this truth being based on the acceptance of general banality, meaninglessness, political, moral, spiritual and physical – human, after all. What to do then? What kind of language can describe such knowledge?
What do you hope readers take away from it?
The conviction that we’re never done with language. We do not have many possibilities, it’s important to attempt, to decompose things, to interpret them in all possible, even wrong, ways, and the whole world we find ourselves in depends on the manner in which we use language in all its variants. I seem to be well acquainted with the components of the world. At the same time, I am convinced that I will never examine entirely all linguistic formulations which belong to me and the world alike. Readers should be entertained, they should think, they should recognize the text as something theirs, something they already know, but don’t know how to express. I resolve nothing, I give no answers, I even don’t ask questions. There is a play in which language and I participate, if someone else wants to join such a play, better for the play itself.
What are you working on now?
I’ve finished a draft for my new novel. It will take some time, the text is quite slow, as I can see it now. Extremely complicated, with certain inventions I am not sure have been used before, with frequent points of narrative turns, which will require extraordinary visual solutions. Math, music, graphics, and logics, these will be elementary postulates. I am looking forward to it, even though writing a novel differs significantly from writing short stories, it can be tiresome, it’s a manic pose of a man who cannot give up easily the single idea that drives him to write. It’s simpler with stories.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
That I needn’t publish everything I write and that the world won’t disappear if I don’t write anything.
Could you describe your writing process, and how you approach revising?
There are differences, I do a number of things simultaneously, there is neither a constant nor a romantic prejudice about the writing process. Fortunately, all my occupations have to do with books, I am spoiled and I have secured such a life for myself at all costs. I worked on my first novel several years, at different places, at different keyboards, with a different level of knowledge. The stories from the first collection were written for various magazines, contests, it was not before the end of the process that I realized it was advisable to regard them as parts of a potential book. As for my second novel, I mostly completed it during my residential stay in Croatia. It was January, the house in which I lived is on the edge of a precipice, it was raining all the time and sometimes it so happened that I saw no-one for seven days, utterly artificial circumstances which turned out to be adequate for such a claustrophobic book. Combustions was ready to get into print back in 2012, but my then publishing house had broken down. Fortunately for me, because two years later, when I went back to that text, I was quite unhappy with it. I worked on it a few months more, sent it back to my editor, proofreaders, and now I think it’s the most perfect of my books, technically and linguistically speaking. I am obsessed with working on language, at one promotion my editor complained about me publicly, saying that I was the most boring writer he’d encountered in his twenty-year-long career, because I left him no room for interventions, ha-ha-ha-ha. At the end of the process I try to be absolutely aware of all advantages and shortcomings of what I have done, I never cease learning, and I leave vanity to those who are more stupid than me.
What is the first story you remember writing?
I cannot recall, I assume it’s some foolish thing I produced in prehistory, in the primary school. There have been such unruly follies even much later.
What writers have been important to your development as a writer?
I’d say that I came to realize I was an eternal reader when I read the first pages by Dostoyevsky and Beckett. It’s important for me to emphasize that I am primarily a reader, I would like this to be remembered, writing comes afterwards. I don’t have an established list of favorites, the one that exists shifts constantly. A few weeks ago I wrote about the first book of Wallace’s stories. I had written about David Foster Wallace before as well, I think he’s the only real writer of the century we live in, his suicide is a horrible blow for genuine readers. Joyce, Faulkner in particular, Andrej Beli, Mishima, Swift, Stern, Pynchon, Flaubert. My plan is to devote some attention to Kosiński in the near future, his books appear to have been neglected without good reason. I’ve been reading Mailer and Heller these days, brilliant authors, even in their weaker books. I’ve spent the last few years dealing with analytical philosophy, Quine’s books mainly, priceless experience for anyone wanting to write about anything.
What’s your favorite children’s book?
Yes, this is difficult… I don’t know, The Little Prince is probably unavoidable. Alice in Wonderland even more than The Little Prince, Carroll attracts me today even more than when I was a child. And fairy tales, from all over the world, plenty of fairy tales.