Arts

Bosnian novelist Aleksandar Hemon's zom-com fiction

Chicago-based Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon's latest novel was inspired by zombie films, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and a student who made a pass at him 20 years ago. He talks to Brian Campbell

Aleksandar Hemon

MOST novelists tend to throw a bit of themselves into their characters and the brilliant Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon is no different.

His latest novel, The Making of Zombie Wars, is a darkly comic tale based around aspiring Chicago screenwriter Josh Levin. Josh also teaches English as a second language and things start to take a downward turn for him after he gets `romantically involved’ with one of his students.

Hemon, who lives in Chicago, explains how his own experiences informed this particular storyline.

“I taught English as a second language about 20 years ago and I had a Russian student who made a pass at me. I said no because I was at the beginning of a relationship with the woman who would be my first wife. And I was a teacher and it would have been unethical and she had a husband and a daughter,” he says.

“I was tempted but I was lazy too. I still don’t understand the logistics of adultery, how it all works. So I said no. But I imagined 'what if?’ and I turned it into a story and that developed into this book.”

Hemon enjoys “making stuff up” and of course his book is filed under 'fiction’.

“I use my experiences as material but of course that’s never enough for an entire book. So I like getting to transform it into something else and pursuing certain hypothetical lines of thought and feeling and behaviour in characters.

“So in this case I tried to imagine what it would have like if I had accepted that offer from my student back then.”

One character he might not want to identify with is Stagger, Josh’s unhinged and sword-wielding landlord, a Gulf War veteran. Josh comes home to find him going through his laundry and so decides to move out and shack up with his girlfriend Kimmy.

“That all came from a friend of mine who told me about his landlord, who was actually a Vietnam veteran who had a crush on my friend’s room-mate and actually charged into the room and pinned him on the floor. I always liked that idea of this crazy landlord. I actually toned it down for Stagger, because that landlord was actually arrestable.”

Josh’s tryst with the Bosnian student Ana, who has a violent and jealous husband, proves disastrous but the book is full of humour and Hemon admits that he’s a fan of the American satirical website The Onion.

“I love The Onion. I did want this book to be funny, because comedy is a serious thing. The Onion is so good not just at cracking jokes, but at using the jokes to point to the essence of something real.

“I remember after 9/11 the best headline and front page was The Onion. They had a picture of the [World Trade Center] towers and the headline was 'Holy F***ing S**t’ and that’s exactly what everybody thought before they started formulating it all.”

At the start of the book, Hemon’s humour is there for all to see when he includes a quote from 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza above a predictably terrible one from George W Bush.

In the novel, Josh has a laptop crammed with ideas for film scripts but the only one that takes root is Zombie Wars, with the idea coming to him in March 2003 – not long after the US invasion of Iraq.

Hemon first visited Chicago in 1992, intending to stay for few months, but while he was there his native city Sarajevo came under siege and he was unable to return home.

He wrote his first English language story in 1995 and has won praise for all his books to date – The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man, The Lazarus Project, Love and Obstacles and The Book of My Lives.

He has even been compared to Nabokov, while Irish writer Colum McCann has described Hemon as the best writer of his generation.

“I love Nabokov but I couldn’t compare my work to his. And Colum is important to me both as a writer and as a friend. We talk a lot and argue about football and a lot of things.”

He is currently working on a book of essays on Nabokov and has finished a non-fiction book on United Nations (Behind the Glass Wall), due out next year.

His 2013 collection of essays The Book of My Lives won widespread acclaim and he says he did find it hard to write about the devastating death of his infant daughter from a brain tumour in 2010 but felt he needed to do it.

“I believe in language and communication and talking to people,” he says. “I like to offer my thoughts for examination.”

:: The Making of Zombie Wars is out now, published by Picador.

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