When Aleksandar Hemon started expanding an unpublished short story into his latest novel, The Making of Zombie Wars, he decided that he should keep it a secret from his agent and his editor. They kept asking him about his next book, and he'd respond, "Well, I have some ideas."
"That gave me perverse pleasure," he says, smiling.
By the time he had a nearly complete first draft of The Making of Zombie Wars in the fall of 2013, he happened to have a meeting scheduled with his agent. "I went to New York and I saw my agent and asked, 'Ideally, when would you like my next book?' And her assistant said, 'Tomorrow.' And my agent said, 'In June.' And this was well before then. And I just plopped the manuscript down in front of them: 'How about now?' "
The appearance of The Making of Zombie Wars took Hemon's team by surprise, and the book's content will likely blindside many of his longtime readers. While humor has been a trademark of all of the Sarajevo-born, Chicago-based author's writing, it's typically been an element of plots that deal in tragic circumstances and grave subject matter, such as the thorny immigrant experience in Nowhere Man and the bitterness of life's disappointments in The Lazarus Project.
In the Chicago-set The Making of Zombie Wars, misfortune befalls protagonist Joshua Levin, but only because of his misguided decision making—he's like Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, without the financial security. Unlike David, Joshua is a screenwriter only in the abstract: he has a constant supply of movie ideas but fails to develop them into fully formed scripts. He struggles with Zombie Wars, a project he manages to focus on during a screenwriting workshop, and pays some of his bills and rent by teaching ESL (the rest is fronted by his divorced parents). In among this not-yet-midlife crisis is a gonzo cast of characters: a batshit landlord and neighbor who wields a samurai sword and plays Guns N' Roses at maximum volume, a Bosnian veteran with barbed wire tattooed around his neck, and a bartender who claims he keeps his "spare head" in his massive goiter. The Making of Zombie Wars takes place during the onset of the Iraq war, which seems like an insignificant choice of period until Joshua's actions begin to have deathly serious consequences.
In his last book, the 2013 autobiographical essay collection The Book of My Lives, Hemon demonstrates a remarkable ability to convey his own experiences in an approachable, thoughtful, and unselfish manner atypical of essay collections and memoirs. Like The Making of Zombie Wars, it's not the work of an author who writes plainly, but rather someone who is admirably articulate. That English is Hemon's second language should give hope to any writer who seeks to wield it to similar effect. In conversation, Hemon often takes a long road to reach his destination, so this interview, conducted at the Edgewater writers' studio where he regularly works, has been condensed and edited for clarity.
- Colleen Durkin
In The Book of My Lives, you talk about how you used to go to movie theaters all over Chicago. You mention going to the Esquire to see a Val Kilmer film, Thunderheart. I'm curious, did your feelings about big-budget movies influence you while writing The Making of Zombie Wars?
Well, yeah. During '95, when the big heat wave happened, I spent much of that week in movie theaters, because they were air-conditioned. I didn't have air-conditioning at the time, so I would go and just stay there all day long and watch trashy movies.
Facets [Cinematheque] was a revelation to me in the 90s because I used to write film reviews and thought I knew a lot about film and had read a lot—and I tried to see a lot of movies back in Sarajevo, but there was limited supply. And Facets was a revelation, from the obscure noir movies from the 40s to Wim Wenders and Herzog movies. There was a year that I saw about 400 movies in a 360-some-day period.
I exposed myself to movies to an enormous degree in the 90s. And I developed a habit when I was a film reviewer to read film reviews, even for the movies that I didn't watch or would never watch, so I always knew what was going on, what was being released.
Having said all that, I'm not really an expert on movies. [Laughs]
What was your film criticism like?
It was terrible. It was manneristic. Young people of that generation, where I came from, they projected this knowledge of movies that were unknown to others. A lot of critics project this false authority of familiarity with the world. I'm not embarrassed by it because I'm kind of proud of my youthful mistakes. [Laughs] I don't disown them. But it was ridiculous.
Were you thinking of that mentality when creating the characters in the screenwriting workshop in The Making of Zombie Wars?
The way I was—and there's a certain romantic quality to it—was sort of the knowledgeable dilettante. But at the same time, it's easy for such discourse not to lead to any conclusions, this sort of flat knowledge of knowing facts. When I was young—and this is before the Internet, and without access to books and encyclopedias in Sarajevo—I would memorize credits. I would make these connections—"Oh, there's this producer here and this producer there"—and by just memorizing these things I could project this sort of false knowledge, as though I knew how things worked in American film or Hollywood.
Again, I am not ashamed of that, because it's a manner common to young people. But I also found it interesting to deploy in the case of Joshua, who has knowledge but no method to apply it to anything. So I wanted to explore that, but I also had to cut off his film knowledge in the sense that I didn't want to have too many movie references. I wanted him to be a particular kind of a film snob—[his knowledge] stops at Star Wars.
At the same time, Joshua embraces random types of people. You'd never think he'd have a multigenerational and multiethnic social network.
He doesn't make references to his friends from high school or college, or anyone that he calls up and says, "Hey, look what's going on." He spreads thinly and widely. And that interested me, that kind of character: someone who is active all the time but has no agency. He's thinking but no thought is produced. It was challenging in the sense that I essentially had to write a book in which the main character is passive. He's in every scene but doesn't do much.
Growing up Jewish, I was amazed how well you captured not so much Judaism as a religion but Jewish culture—secular Judaism, including Bernie, Joshua's father, the way he sort of drives while hanging over the wheel. And Joshua's family at dinner, the way they halfheartedly follow the Haggadah.
Well, I'm glad you say that. Someone asked me—how did she put it? "You deliberately use stereotypes," she said. I said, "Well, what stereotypes?" She goes, "Oh, with Bernie driving the Cadillac." And I was taken aback because she wasn't hostile. She suggested that it was an act of cliche. And I had no response because I did not think of that as being any indication of secular Jewishness. After the interview I realized what I should have said: my father drove the Cadillac. He's not as short as Bernie is, but depending how lost he is, he could lean over and look at the signs and ask, "Where are we?"
And so the point, really, is that it's not that I isolated the stereotypical aspects of Jewish life in America and then piled them onto the characters. Human experience is continuous, but it refracts differently in different situations so that Bernie is to a large extent my father. I knew Jewish men who drove big Cadillacs, but I also knew elderly men who drove big Cadillacs.
Regarding the agency you referred to earlier—did that play into the decision to make the main character Jewish? In a sense, the Jewish identity in America has changed because of assimilation.
Well, I can't remember the moment that I decided that Joshua should be Jewish. Possibly the most important aspect of that was that the invasion of Iraq overlapped with Passover. And so the whole narrative—it didn't have to stretch anything to the narrative of the Promised Land and Moses and the leadership. And also the reading of the Haggadah is reading the script, so the scripture and the script . . . the kinship between the two concepts could be activated.
I was at a friend's seder where these two women, close friends, write their own Haggadah. And they include quotes from Martin Luther King and from Adrienne Rich . . . It's beautiful. And so we read all this, and it includes quotes from the Haggadah, in Hebrew and in Spanish. And so the idea that someone could write their own Haggadah, their own script—I liked that. So all that could be activated if Joshua was Jewish. There was no symbolic value in the exclusive fact of his Jewishness.
Let's go back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Did the idea for this book come then or later?
There was an idea for a story, which I wrote in 2009, but it was just part of the book. But then I sent the story to the New Yorker, and the New Yorker editor, she said she and her colleagues loved two-thirds of it, but the last part was confusing to them. And it had happened a couple times before with the New Yorker and others, and what I would do with it is I would rethink [the ending] and maybe just rewrite or lop off the last third. But instead of doing that this time around, I realized that I didn't know what happened before the beginning of this story, or what happened after the story had ended. So then I busied myself with figuring out how they arrived at that point and then what happened after. And so if the beginning of the book is 2009 with the story, I didn't think of it as a book then. It was only after that that I thought, "Well, if I just start developing it we'll see where it goes." And it's not that I was apprehensive, but I didn't know where it would go at first.
And the decision to set the book around the Iraq invasion and Passover—did that have anything to do with how the unreal aspect of the movie script parallels the unreal aspect of the rationale for war in Iraq?
Yeah. Again, it's a combination of things. The way I like to work with a story or a book: I have all these things that obsess me and interest me, but they seem far apart. The figuring out of the book, and this usually happens before I even start writing—I have to figure out a way where I can put all that together. So the screenwriting and the zombies and the Iraq war and the Haggadah—what would allow me to have all of it? I spend a lot of time not writing anything, just sitting around thinking how all that could be connected. But the Iraq war was probably pretty early. And then I checked—of course I know that Passover is in spring—what would be the time frame for Passover and the invasion? There's quite a bit of overlap.
Passover itself is a story about the liberation of people in slavery. And in a sense the Iraq war is a complete distortion of that tale.
And then Bush and his cronies presented this as kind of a messianic project: We're going to go there and liberate them, and we're gonna walk them through the fucking desert, and the sea will part, and it will be a cakewalk. And that worked out, as we know, pretty well for everyone involved. [Laughs]
There's a scene where [Joshua is] in the workshop and the instructor yells, "If any of you utter the words weapons of mass destruction, I am going to projectile vomit directly in your face."
Was that how you felt about the justification for the Iraq war?
I'm still angry about it. I was maybe sensitized to propaganda and government bullshit because I grew up in a different place. It never for a moment occurred to me that Saddam Hussein had weapons. From the get-go it was clear to me that they were making it up as they went along. Not even for a moment did I think, "Maybe? Maybe. I don't know." It was so blatantly a lie. They put Saddam and bin Laden in the same sentence and showed pictures of Arab men with facial hair. That was enough—that's it, we're going, no problem. No reality could infringe upon that because everyone was fucking gearing for it. That makes me so angry still! But I found a way, I hope, to convert some of that anger into humor in this book, rather than just plain ranting.
As Joshua's zombie movie script becomes more convincing to some of the other students in the workshop, is it also in a way like the narrative in Iraq being sold to the public?
Yeah! A deliberate and willful suspension of disbelief, and then the narrative, organized around a messianic leader who takes people to the promised land while the masses of those incomprehensible, impenetrable others are, you know, coming at us. But I didn't want to play up that obvious symbolism.
Zombie movies have been interpreted in various ways as dealing with fear—in class terms, in race terms, in immigration terms. In Night of the Living Dead, the fear of the white father in the house—he retreats deeper into the house to protect his domain. Later I think some of the Romero movies and others were interpreted in terms of immigrant, third-world invasion of the American domain—these people are incomprehensible and ravenous, they're taking away our stuff, and so on. There are various frameworks of interpreting zombies.
You speak often in interviews and in all of your books about the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, about blurring those boundaries. In this book in particular the unreality of cinema seems to inform Joshua's worldview. As he comes up with screenplay ideas, it's like fantasy is interfering with his real life.
In a way Joshua is somewhat similar to me because I have this compulsion to convert experience into stories. I could be walking down the street just seeing some random situation, and then part of my brain tries to imagine it as part of some story, and then usually they drop out of my head and I don't do much. But some things stay, and they also might be accumulating in the subconscious part of my mind, and they show up when I'm writing. And so that was interesting to me as a method of engagement with reality, and so I cranked it up a bit with Joshua, who converts [experiences] into script ideas. This is again a question of agency—he engages with the world around him to the extent that he converts that experience into some kind of script. It could become something, but it never does. So a mode of engagement but at the same time also a symptom of the shortage of his agency. And so I wanted Joshua to be writing in his head.
Do you empathize? You said in another interview that you're proudly lazy at times, that you come at a book sideways—you'll be idle until you're forced to have to write it.
Right, but I'm not tormented. [Idleness] has become part of the method. The initial story, a part of the book, I wrote in 2009—but I had that idea 14 to 15 years before that. So I'd been thinking about it but I had never felt compelled to write it. The reason I wrote it is because I was teaching for a couple of weeks in Saint Louis and so I had to read a pile of student works, and I thought, I can't do it! Maybe I can write a story instead and that way I will have an excuse for not reading them. So I wrote a story in one sitting, in six hours, in longhand, just cranked it out so as not to read. So laziness was useful in that sense. Laziness is a part of the method in a sense that I think about it and try to find all the reasons why I shouldn't do it. When I run out of them I start writing. And in thinking about these disparate ideas and interests and things, they slowly start coming together in a wide net of mental editing that picks up things that would not go away. Then I can start writing. And when I do that, I write fast and I do not suffer. There is no blockage. And the period when I don't write fiction—I always write something because I take on a lot of assignments, but there might be long periods where I don't write any fiction, but it does not torture me. I don't see it as block. It's part of the process.
Because I've been doing this for a while I know that it's all shit until it isn't. And so I just keep doing it and it slowly comes together, and then one day it's bearable. v