Josip Novakovich: On the enjoyment of writing fiction

Josip Novakovich”s writing is compared to the work of Tolstoy, Gogol, Nabokov and Kafka. According to The New York Times Book Review, this is not merely due to the gravity of its subject matter (life in the war-torn Balkans) and his own life (as an emigre in the U.S.), but because it combines “originality, experience and insight.”

Novakovich”s latest collection of short stories, Salvation and Other Disasters (Graywolf Press, 1998), offers an honest and much needed perspective on life in his native Croatia a part of the world most of us know only through news of its violence. In addition to being poignant and, at times, disturbing, the stories reinforce Novakovich”s reputation as one of the great short story writers of our time.

Novakovich has published another story collection called Yolk (Graywolf Press, 1995); and a book of essays entitled Apricots from Chernobyl (Graywolf Press, 1995). He”s also written two instructional books on writing fiction Fiction Writer”s Workshop (Story Press, 1995) and Writing Fiction Step by Step (Story Press, 1998). He won the 1997 Whiting Writers” Award, an Ingram Merrill Award, the Richard Margolis Prize for Socially Important Writing, and a NEA Fellowship for Fiction Writing. Currently he teaches writing at the University of Cincinnati.

Can you describe your writing practice?
I wish I had one. I usually write three or four days a week, but I can”t predict which ones. You know, I have kids and I teach so it”s difficult. I write in spurts, as I know a lot of writers do. This ideology that you have to write every day is really just a Protestant work ethic and I don”t think it needs to be taken that seriously.

Where do find most of your story ideas?
I used to get my story ideas from memory, but I”ve pretty much exhausted that source. Now I hunt for stories artificially, through observation or when I hear something unusual. Sometimes if I have two separate stories that aren”t working I”ll put them together and try to work with them that way. And I need more than just a story idea. I also need character sketches, setting ideas, etc., and so I combine all of those elements with the idea and form a story that way.

Many people take writing very seriously. Can you suggest ways that a person can make writing more enjoyable?
In the beginning of a story it”s easy to be playful and carefree. Then later on when all of the elements of the story are laid out and need to be harmonized, it becomes more difficult to have fun with the writing. As the story progresses, it”s easy for the writer to worry and writing becomes a labor rather than enjoyment. It”s hard not to take it seriously sometimes, especially when you”ve been working on a story for a while and you are involved with it.

Often I tell my students to take several ideas that don”t have much to do with each other and put them together to write a story. The absurdity of putting those two ideas together leads to enjoyment. It”s good even in the middle of the story to start playing and trying new ideas. And especially now, since we have the stories on disks or on our computers, there”s no reason to feel unsafe or worry about experimenting with a story.

What is the most enjoyable part of writing fiction for you?
I used to enjoy the final revision because there is a sensation of safety in revision. You already have the ideas and structure and other elements down, and revision is the time to put the finishing touches on the work. Now I enjoy the original drafts the most, the experimenting with new ideas.

Which part of writing fiction is your least favorite?
I hate spell checking and I hate getting rejections. Though I get fewer of those now because I don”t send as many things out. And maybe I write better than I used to.

How has getting your work published changed your writing and the way you feel about your writing?
Getting published means dealing with editors. And they”ve clipped my wings in some ways, made it less fun. I try to forget about what editors want so the writing is fun, but that is hard to do. I do write best when I have fun and when I don”t worry about it as much.

What”s the biggest writing problem you hear about from your students? And what”s your advice to them?
Usually I have more complaints about their work than they do about their own. Honestly though, beginning writers” stories usually move too fast. If I say it takes me two weeks to write a story, beginning writers usually say, “It takes that long?” And more advanced writers usually say, “That”s all?” Most beginning writers” scenes are not developed enough they summarize a lot, psychologize a lot. Professional writers on the other hand linger on detail. So I suggest to beginning writers that they slow down and have patience with their scenes.

Wendy Knerr is the former editor of the Writer”s Digest Book Club.

Josip Novakovich is the author of Apricots from Chernobyl a collection of essays, and the short stories collections, Yolk and Salvation and Other Disasters. He has won a Whiting Award, a Richard Margolis Prize for Socially Important Writing, three Pushcart Prizes, an O. Henry Award, an NEA fellowship, and a nomination for the Pen/Hemingway Award for First Fiction.

He is also the author of Fiction Writer”s Workshop and Writing Fiction Step by Step.

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