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Resurrecting Lazarus: An Interview With Aleksandar Hemon

By Marcus Gilmer in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 30, 2008 8:30PM

2008_04_hemon.jpg.JPGIn 1992, Aleksandar Hemon was offered a chance to fly from his home in Sarajevo to the United States and participate in a journalist cultural exchange program, spending a month visiting American writers and universities. Seeing the chance to escape the brewing war in Bosnia, Hemon took the offer. While visiting, war finally broke, stranding Hemon in Chicago. With only a basic grasp of the English language, Hemon settled in Chicago and set a goal to learn English within five years. Just three years later, in 1995, he had successfully written his first story in English. He would subsequently see his stories published in The New Yorker, Granta, The Paris Review, and the Best American Short Stories Collection. Besides numerous awards, he's also a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship (2003) and a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant (2004).

Now, Hemon, one of Chicago's finest writers, is preparing to release his new novel, The Lazarus Project. It focuses on Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian-American writer living in present-day Chicago. He has become obsessed with the true story of Jewish immigrant Lazarus Averbauch, who was killed by Chicago's chief of police 100 years before. Accompanied by an old colleague and serial photographer, Rora, Brik sets out to uncover the mystery surrounding Lazarus' death and write a book about it. Was Lazarus an anarchist sent to assassinate the chief of police, as the media and police claimed, or was he something more innocent, a young man caught up in a political firestorm following the Haymarket Riots? Brik and Rosa's journey take them to modern-day Modolva in search of Lazarus' history, as well as a search for their own home and place in the world. The story is punctuated by photos from Velibor Bozovic, real-life photographer and close friend to Hemon. Alternating between the story of Lazarus and his bereaved sister Olga, and the journey of Brik and Rora, Hemon weaves an engrossing tale that explores war, terrorism, paranoia, love, and the search for a home that defines us.

We got a chance to speak with Hemon on the eve of The Lazarus Project's release (on May 1, 2008) and as he prepares for an upcoming national book tour.

Chicagoist: How did the idea for the book first come about?

Aleksandar Hemon: I was reading a book called An Accidental Anarchist by Walter Roth and Joe Krauss that describes the facts about the Lazarus Averbuch murder. I tend to read history books randomly and a friend of mine had passed it on to me. I was touched by the story of Lazarus, the fact that he had been in Chicago for only seven or eight months before he was shot. The American Dream did not work out for him. Moreover there’s a picture of Lazarus sitting in a chair dead, and being held up by police Captain Evans and this picture struck me, it was powerful. Here was Lazarus, dead, a little disheveled, his clothes were thrown on him, and Captain Evans, dressed up in white and beaming, alive. So I could not stop thinking about this photo. I started thinking about the ways I could not only write about Lazarus, but somehow put the photo in because I felt it was worth seeing again in a different context.

C: Speaking of the photos, what led you to use the photos in the book, especially Velibor’s?

AH: Well, I wanted to use Velibor’s photos as well as the old ones and the more I thought about it, I realized I would have to have another story, parallel to the Lazarus story. And I also thought of the character who would be a photographer [Rora]. We went on our trip, Velibor and I, a research trip. I already knew the outline of the two stories, the Lazarus and then the Brik and Rora story. Photography was a part of the books from the beginning. I just had to figure out a forum that would allow me to have the photographs. I always knew I would use photography from the very beginning.

C: You use split narration, alternating chapters between Brik’s story and the story of Lazarus and his sister Olga. How early in the writing process did you decide to do the alternating chapters?

AH: Well, I did not set out to do exactly alternating chapters. I had shuffled them a little less regularly. Originally, there would be two consecutive chapters with Brik and Rora. It was a question of the rhythm of the book. I felt the reader needed to be reminded of the other story and not spend too much time with one story over the other. So at some point I arrived at alternating chapters. But the stories were going to be parallel no matter the rhythm of the chapters.

C: Are the Lazarus-centric chapters meant to be read as a separate narrative or are they intended to be from Brik’s imagined book on Lazarus?

AH: Yes, I think they’re from the book that Brik wanted to write, at the very least. It’s something that he imagined as he went on his trip. One of the early possibilities in organizing the narrative was to tell the Brik and Rora story first and then the Lazarus story. But I thought may way out of that.

C: It seems that after the first Lazarus chapter, once he has been killed, that particular narrative hands itself over to Olga, his sister.

AH: Yes. Again, when I’m writing a book, I don’t have a precise outline. I have a general framework and then I spend time within that framework and see what happens. Initially, I wanted to write more about Lazarus. But as I was doing research and thinking about it more, and because the photos were so amazing, I realized her [Olga's] grief would have more weight, that after Lazarus' death in the first chapter, her living out the fact of her brother's death would be more interesting to me. I was writing about Lazarus, then I was writing about Olga, then I followed my instinct. It was more interesting for me to write about Olga and so I followed her wherever she took me. I realized, in the middle of writing it, I wanted Olga to be central to the book itself.

C: The book seems very focused on the idea of stories and truths. One of my favorite quotes from the book is, "There are so many stories that could be told, but only some of them can be true." In the novel you have Brik pursuing Lazarus' story, there is Olga's story, there is the Biblical story of Lazarus, and you have Rora's war-time stories based in Sarajevo that he relates to Brik throughout their journey. How essential is the essence of storytelling to the novel as a whole?

AH: It's very important; it is a central theme, the essence of storytelling. There's a John Birger quote that says: "Never will a story be told again if it were the only one." I'm not sure what the marking of that was for him. In essence, you can't tell one story without telling other stories. That's the essence of storytelling. Telling stories in isolation winds up with some sort of navel-gazing and you wind up with a self-indulgent memoir.

To me, the interesting thing as a storyteller and a writer, and also as a human being, I can't see people isolated from others. They come and tell stories in relation to other people and their stories. I wanted to explore that. I wanted Rora to keep telling stories which are not about himself, stories about baring witness, sort of an epic narrative. It does not deal with his own psychology. On the other hand, there is Brik, who is kind of a navel gazer, and it is a combination of the two of them, from the two narrative modes that they practice that in some ways the Lazarus story emerges. One way of looking at it for me, Rora and Brik practice storytelling but then the story told after those practices is the story of Lazarus.

C: You also go into the "storytelling code" and there is a theme that non-Americans relish the story and don't worry about specific facts and truths of a story while Americans do. Another great line: "The incessant perpetuation of collective fantasies makes people crave the truth and nothing but the truth - reality is the fastest American commodity." We see this with Brik as he continually questions Rora about his war stories. Is that an indication of the Americanization of Brik and his struggle with his own national identity?

AH: Yes. There's a part in the book when Brik is repeating a story he heard from Rora in front of an American audience. They question the truthfulness of the story. At that moment, he's not very American. This is how his identity works; it's very contextual. When he is with his American wife and her family, he is not American enough. But when he's with Rora he's too American. In other words, his identity is formulated by contrast in relation to storytelling. To his wife, he tells stories like a Bosnian but he reacts to Rora's stories like an American. It's not a case so much of his Americanization as the shifting pulls of his identity.

C: Do you share this perspective?

AH: Well, Brik generalizes a little more than I would. There is, however, this American compulsion to consume reality, with these reality shows and memoirs, which are really just differently constructed narratives. The birth of the memoir indicates this, and the reality shows are scripted, they're just scripted differently. There is something interesting about this compulsion, that somehow people create reality.

C: Another of my favorite Brik quotes is, "If you can't go home, there is nowhere to go, and nowhere is the biggest place in the world - indeed, nowhere is the world." The idea of finding a home is the driving force for so many of the characters in the novel and there is your personal experience. Has this quest for a physical and emotional home become a part of not only the immigrant experience but a part of the American experience as well?

AH: I think it's related to the fact that there are so many immigrants in America. And America is, in some ways, a transient society. Many people no longer live in the city where they were born and grew up. Part of growing up is to leave your home and to go to school somewhere else because you just can't stay where you are. In some way, people pursue home. It's not so much the pursuit of happiness as it is the pursuit of home. There is something essentially American about that to my mind. Displacement is an essential fact of today's world, not just immigrants but also refugees, the transience of so many things. So many people have become displaced it has become the central fact of so many lives.

And the next question is, "What constitutes a home?" Is it land? Is it the city? Is it people? Is it a sense of connection with the culture? Is it defined by tradition or by daily practices of people? What is it that makes you feel at home? Is it your family, your friends, millions of people? And how does it work? It's a crucial question. And it's a question I don't know how to answer. I feel at home in Chicago. But also my family and friends from Sarajevo and elsewhere have been carried around the world. I have cousins in Australia, Sweden, England and France. I have friends in New Zealand and God knows where. And so if I were to assign "home" as the place where my friends and family are, the only place that qualifies as home would be the world. If it's where my family is, we could move to Paris, my wife, my daughter and I would call Paris home. If it's land, what happens when other people move into that land? That sort of attitude might end up in a war because, you know, "This is my home, get out."

It's a very tricky question. But what interests me as a writer is that displacement necessarily results in stories. On the one hand, you tell the story of the old land, wherever it is, whatever your attitude towards it is. But you also tell the stories to the people of the new land, and you define yourself to them. But you also tell the stories of your new land to yourself and you listen to stories of the new land to understand what it is. And then at some point you tell the stories of the new land to people from the old land. That's very simplified (laughs). But it perpetuates stories, displacement. When you're at home, if you're telling stories with people you are with your whole life, then there are no new stories coming in. You keep telling the old stories. And as comforting as that can be, new stories come with displacement.

C: There are direct parallels in the book between the paranoia surrounding the anarchists at the turn of the twentieth century and the same kind of government and media fed fear of terrorism at the turn of the current century. Following Lazarus' death, Olga is told by an alleged ally, "Freedom is a business much easier to run if the authorities have a useful enemy." Though it's spoken by a character in 1908, the same can be said today. Was this theme one you actively included from the beginning or did it emerge in the writing process?

AH: Well, I saw the parallel in the original story of Lazarus. When I did the research, the level of paranoia was astonishing and so was how it was perpetuated. The anarchists were the terrorists of their day and they did commit crimes but the estimations of anarchists were exaggerated and negative and were used for the enforcement of patriotism and racial purity. There are many things that are played today, the inherent racism of the War in Iraq, everybody is a terrorist no matter what. This has happened so many times before in American history, it's barely worth mentioning. I hardly think of this as any kind of discovery. Whatever period you're looking at, there's a similar dynamic.

In the earlier draft, I wrote a lot more that pointed in that direction. The actual Lazarus story goes to the federal level. After he was killed, there were federal laws that changed the process of immigration, but I did not want to go there so I cut all that out. By talking about that in 1908, I did not want to lecture vicariously about current times. What interested me in that context is Olga's grief. There is this government and media propaganda and in the process they are taking him [Lazarus] away from her. As hard as it is to imagine that today, apart from being ethically and politically unacceptable, someone was suffering because of that. It's hard for me to get around that. So the political situation in the book is organized around Olga rather than my political opinion.

C: Well, Brik is haunted in nightmares by George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.

AH: Well, yes, I've had nightmares about Bush (laughs). In my dream, I was making out with Laura Bush on the sofa and I was just about to unbuckle her bra when George Bush walked in. I was terrified, but then I woke up.

C: I'm impressed you weren't permanently scarred by that dream.

AH: (Laughs) Well, I never did unbuckle her bra.

C: The novel is very Chicago-centric. There is Lazarus' time in Chicago, Brik's home in Chicago with his American wife, and the book cover prominently features Chicago's famous skyline. You do a great job of capturing the neighborhoods, especially Uptown, in the book. Do you worry about the non-Chicago audience missing out or do you trust your writing to convey what's necessary?

AH: No, I don't worry about that. There are plenty of New York books that don't worry whether people know Brooklyn. But from a general point of view, it's about the writer's craft. If you make it seem real, it's real. You do not have to know the geography. Verisimilitude comes from the specificity of details. My characters, they live in cities and they move in cities that need to be made real by detail. If they go down the street, they have to go in the right direction. If they drive down a one-way street, that can't drive in the opposite direction.

C: Are there any locales in Chicago that particularly inspire you?

AH: I like my neighborhood. I live in Edgewater, I've lived here most of my life in Chicago, apart from a year or two in the Ukrainian Village. I like the people here. I can't write in isolation; I like to see people and communicate with them. There are no monuments, really. The neighborhood itself is a monument.

Aleksandar Hemon will be reading on Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 7 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble at Sherman Plaza (1630 Sherman Avenue) in Evanston and on Sunday May 18, 2008 at 12 p.m. for WFMT's Writers on the Record program, hosted at the Lookingglass Theatre in the Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.