20 Questions

Aleksandar Hemon

by Karen Zarker

22 June 2009

“Hell,” Hemon tells PopMatters 20 Questions, “is being stuck at an airport without a book, starving for thought, forced to watch CNN.” Heaven might be a bathtub full of Turkish coffee …

Award-winning author Aleksandar Hemon’s newest book, Love and Obstacles, is a “... beautifully tooled, by turns sardonic, muscular and nostalgia-streaked short story collection,” writes Hedy Weiss (Chicago Sun Times). Indeed, Love and Obstacles is yet another accomplishment by this talented Bosnian journalist who taught himself to write literary fiction in English when he found himself living in America in the early ‘90s, as war broke out in Bosnia. Deemed by some as a kindred spirit to Vladimir Nabokov, you’ll see Hemon’s stories published in The New Yorker, Granta, The Paris Review, and Best American Short Stories, to name but a few notable publications. 

“Hell,” Hemon tells PopMatters 20 Questions, “is being stuck at an airport without a book, starving for thought, forced to watch CNN.” Heaven might be a bathtub full of Turkish coffee …

cover art

Love and Obstacles

Aleksandar Hemon

US: May 2009

Review [3.Jun.2009]

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
I don’t cry much, but the last movie that brought me close to tears was Grbavica by the Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic, who is also a friend of mine. It’s about a woman raped in the war and there is a scene when she finally is able to talk about it. It’s heartbreaking.

Tropic Thunder nearly made me cry too, but those would have been tears of anger—the moronic frivolity that passes as cool irony is infuriating. It’s fantastically unfunny, therefore bone-crushingly, unintentionally sad.

2. The fictional character most like you?
Well, obviously, all of my characters are like me in some way. And then there are literary characters that I identified with at various points in my life. Then there are those who populate various corners of my interiority. There are a lot of us in my head and/or on my shelf: Holden Caulfield, George Smiley, Jozef K., Auggie March, Boris Davidovich, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, Emma Bovary, King Lear, etc.

3. The greatest album, ever?
The White Album by The Beatles, hands down. They are the Shakespeare of popular music. A lot of bands, even the good ones, find a sound and song model and then they churn out stuff until they make it big. Few have even approached the range that is audible on The White Album.

Even more astonishing is that The Beatles have a few more albums that could qualify for the best ever. And they did it all in 10 years or so. It’s time to quit, U2!

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Neither Trek nor Wars, particularly not Wars. I suppose I missed the geek phase in my adolescence and subsequently feel no nostalgia for geekdom.

cover art

The Lazarus Project

Aleksandar Hemon

US: May 2009

Review [26.Jun.2008]

5. Your ideal brain food?
Books, books, books: fiction, history, science books, anything. Hell is being stuck at an airport without a book, starving for thought, forced to watch CNN.

And music too, anything other than light jazz and patriotic country music.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Once I fell asleep in a dentist’s chair during a root canal. Keith Richards fell asleep during a Rolling Stones show, which is as impressive as can be, but I had a little nap with the dentist’s hand up to his wrist in my mouth.

After years of being able to sleep in any situation: on the street, at work, in school etc., I managed to sleep through pain. That’s pretty impressive, if I may say so myself.

And I wrote four books in English, not my native language. That’s not too bad, either.

7. You want to be remembered for…?
Making people laugh, against all odds. Also, a couple of goals I scored playing soccer—but that’s already widely forgotten, as it was never remembered by anyone other than me to begin with.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
I admire the jazz greats: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and a few others—they created a whole new world of music. The achievement is mindboggling.

I was spending a few weeks in Sarajevo, my hometown, and was watching Ken Burns’ series on jazz and I realized that wherever that music comes from was my home.

As for writers, the great Danilo Kis, the author of A Tomb of Boris Davidovich and Garden, Ashes, who died in 1989. He provided (and still does) ethical and aesthetical guidance through all the rough patches of my personal history.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Lolita by one Vladimir Nabokov. He opened up entire universes in the English language. And he loved the language in so many brilliant ways, he woke up so much dormant poetry in it.

cover art

Nowhere Man

Aleksandar Hemon

(Random House)
US: Jan 2004

10. Your hidden talents…?
I cook pretty well, but I brag about it and do it often, so that’s hardly hidden from anyone who knows me.

I am also a pretty good skier, but I haven’t skied for a while, because I blew both of my knees playing soccer. I suppose I could say that blowing my knees would be a hidden talent of mine.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
Listen to what others have to say.  Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s often worth it. People always have stories to tell. And if they don’t, I can always doze off—I’ve done it during a root canal.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
I don’t steal (much), nor do I borrow. I like my iPod, but what I am attached to is the music, not the thing.  I also like a fedora I bought in Paris a couple of years ago, and an Irish wool hat I bought in Dublin and a straw hat I bought in Seattle. I like buying hats, as I have no hair.

If presents count: I was given a Liverpool Football Club shirt signed to me by Kenny Dalglish—King Kenny. The sad thing is that few in the US can appreciate the value of that shirt, which is my most prized possession.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
Levis or pajamas. I’m waiting for Levis pajamas, so I don’t have to change clothes at all.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
My wife, Teri. She is a perfect date and does not mind the bubbly at all. I don’t care about luxury but with her I’d be puttin’ on the Ritz in no time.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I’d love to see a few performances of Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe, circa 1602. At the same time, the implicit presence of bubonic plague would be off-putting.

Also, a live concert by Fela Kuti, somewhere in Lagos, some time in the ‘70s.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
I don’t do spas or Prozac, and though I’ve enjoyed offing a few hit men for relaxation, I prefer reading in a mountain cabin for 8-10 hours a day, for as many weeks as it takes to shed the stress—and it would have to take a few long weeks.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
Coffee. I wish I could drink more of it. I wish I could bathe in it. I am a coffee snob, grind my own beans and ritualistically brew my own Turkish coffee. Ain’t no drip in my house.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
City, and the bigger the better. For some reason all the writer’s retreats are in the country, which is why I never go to those. A perfect writer’s retreat would be in Shanghai or Sao Paolo, so when you take a break from writing you go to hang out with millions of human beings.

Photo credit Velibor Božovic

Photo credit Velibor Božovic

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Well, I have a couple of countries, and one of them hardly has a leader. Regardless, what I would say is: Be careful, I’m watching you.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
Nothing. I’m just reading as much as I can, and some of that reading is probably research for a future project. The working title is “Guaranteed Low Sales”, but neither my agent nor my publisher are exactly crazy about it.

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