When I was putting the finishing touches on my novel Terrastina and Mazolli I got a call from Nenad Dragicevic, the eminent European journalist and fabulist who I have admired for many years. He had somehow obtained a bootleg copy of T & M and enjoyed it so much that he wanted to talk to me about the book and about my work in general. Of course I was flattered and invited him to my house. He arrived one afternoon and we spent a couple of hours visiting. We had an instant rapport. It was like I had known him all my life. At the end of the visit he conducted a formal Q & A with me. Below is a transcript of that interview.
Nenad Dragicevic: Hang on while I get my tape recorder ready.
Mario Milosevic: I’m in no hurry.
ND: I can’t figure out— What’s going on here? I swear, sometimes trying to get one of these things to work right is like talking to yourself.
MM: I know exactly what you mean.
ND: Just give me a second and I’ll get it going.
MM: What’s that red light?
ND: Oh. It’s already on. What an idiot I am.
MM: Don’t be so hard on yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. Technology can make any of us look ignorant.
ND: Yeah, I guess so. I wonder how long it’s been recording? Well, it doesn’t matter. I guess I’ll just start. Can you tell us how you came to write Terrastina and Mazolli in 99 word episodes rather than a more traditional method?
MM: Well, what do you mean by traditional?
ND: I was thinking of other books I have read in which the chapters are of varying length.
MM: That may be a comparatively recent way of telling a story. I read an article from an 1883 issue of Scientific American about some Armenian archaeologists who uncovered stone tablets in an iceberg they determined had originated from an ice shelf in Antarctica. The tablets were at least several thousand years old and contained stories—narratives in tiny pictures—about flightless birds. They called these stories quantum fictions because every tale was exactly 66 pictures long.
ND: That‘s incredible.
MM: Yes. The Armenians could not determine who produced the tablets, but evidently the people who recorded those stories were guided by some tradition in story telling which compelled them to write in specified lengths of prose. The team that found the tablets thought the tales may have been given to the stone carvers from God, but the editors of the magazine felt that was probably not the case, which is about what you would expect from Scientific American. That issue, by the way, is very rare. It was an extra issue, produced in April, not part of their regular schedule, so even many research libraries do not have it. It was part of their report on the first international polar year, which was in 1882.
ND: What language were the tablets written in?
MM: A precursor to Egyptian hieroglyphics. There was some speculation that early sea explorers from Africa had gone off course and ended up in the Antarctic Ocean, presumably carrying these tablets with them.
ND: For night time reading on the high seas?
ND: You’re making all this up.
MM: A little. They weren’t Armenian archaeologists. French, I think.
ND: So why did you say Armenian?
MM: It sounded better. The alliteration.
ND: What‘s the real reason for the 99 words?
MM: I read somewhere that a child‘s attention span is about 99 words on a good day. Also, I liked the number 99 since it is made of two identical numerals, like twins.
ND: Why didn‘t you just say so in the first place?
MM: Much of my charm derives from my cunning attempts at misdirection.
ND: I see. You were born in Italy?
ND: Can you tell us about that?
MM: My parents were from Yugoslavia. My father had been put in jail for three months for supposedly saying something against Tito. My father had nothing against Tito. He had fought in World War II, became a respected police officer after the war, and was a loyal communist. Nevertheless, someone was saying things about him and he had to be investigated. While they conducted the investigation, he was kept in jail. During his incarceration he became disillusioned with the ideals of communism. In later years he told me communism claimed to be for the people but in practice it was a very different thing. When he was released from prison he decided he needed to escape his country. He rowed across the Adriatic sea by himself and ended up in Italy. Meanwhile, my future mother, who had grown up in another part of Yugoslavia, got tired of being poor and living on a farm. She walked north across the mountains and crossed the border into Italy, where she was placed in a refugee camp for people fleeing communism. That‘s where she met my father, and that‘s where I was born.
ND: Do you remember any of your time in Italy?
MM: I was very young when we left. I remember nothing about it, I’m afraid. Eventually we moved to Canada. That’s where I grew up, in a mining town called Sudbury, which is in northern Ontario, about 240 miles north of Toronto. During my last year of university study I attended Clarion, a writer’s workshop at Michigan State University. That‘s where I met Kim Antieau. We got married a year later and moved to the Pacific Northwest soon after that. We are still madly in love.
ND: Was Canada a good place for a budding writer to grow up?
MM: Any place is a good place for a writer. Writers, and creative people in general, hail from all over globe. I grew up in a mining town, working class people, mostly. My father was a miner. My mother worked at a department store. We were acutely aware of the necessity of making a living, especially my parents, who were from the old country and really knew what being poor meant. When I began writing I was very young and soon decided I might make some money at it. My parents bought me a typewriter when I was only nine years old. I began writing stories on it immediately. I submitted my first stories to magazines when I was thirteen.
ND: Did you place any of them?
MM: No. It would take me another seven years to sell a story to a paying market, but the point is that I already had that mentality in place. I never wanted to write for myself. I always wanted an audience. And an audience that would actually pay me for my efforts was even better.
ND: It doesn’t sound like beauty and the grandeur of art was very important to you.
MM: Because I wanted to get paid for my labor?
ND: Because you don’t mention anything about emotion or metaphor or symbolism.
MM: I think those are largely critical terms. Writers and critics have very different agendas. Most writers just want to tell a good story and usually don’t think in terms of metaphor or theme and so on. I was never very emotional about my work. It was labor. It was putting words on paper. It was punching keys on a typewriter.
ND: I understand that, but all that work was to achieve an emotional end, was it not?
MM: I was never conscious of that as a goal. I was trying to create a finished piece of work. It was more like I was trying to make a functional piece of furniture.
ND: What about beauty?
MM: I have nothing against beauty. It simply did not happen to be my motivation.
ND: Did you have a mentor?
MM: Not in the sense of a working relationship with another writer. I attended the Clarion workshop, which was valuable. But I also read a lot of books, especially novels. That‘s mostly how I learned whatever I know about the craft.
ND: Would you recommend such an approach to aspiring writers?
MM: I try not to encourage aspiring writers. The writing life is tough. There is a lot of frustration and rejection and little chance for good money. All that can take a toll, especially if you have a family to support. If you can imagine yourself doing anything else, you should do it. The late Avram Davidson was one of the great writers of the twentieth century, with an erudite imagination unmatched by anyone. He was sadly neglected by most of the reading public and was poor for most of his life. He was one of my teachers at Clarion. One of the things he said to me repeatedly was this: “It‘s not too late to become a podiatrist.” I didn‘t take his advice, and now look at me. Michael Swanwick, also an admirer of Davidson, has a section on his website in which he offers advice to novices on how to not succeed as a writer. I think he has the right idea. Discourage them while it can still make a difference.
ND: You’ve done a bit of traveling in your life.
MM: Not a whole lot.
ND: In your novel the characters do not travel to any foreign countries. That seems to me a particularly American way of living, to be insulated from the rest of the world. Do you agree?
MM: Well, it’s a big question. Americans, it seems to me, have always been more interested in bringing the world to them, rather than going to the world. I know some have said this is a sign of our fear, but I’m not sure that’s fair. It may be more a sign of Yankee efficiency. It’s almost like the culture says there is a whole big world out there, so why not bring it here? American English, especially, is the magpie of languages, collecting shiny trinkets from any number of other languages. It’s how we see the world. We collect bits and pieces of it. The United States is the great melting pot, isn’t it?
ND: That is part of the country’s mythology.
MM: A noble part, I think. In the novel, Terrastina and Mazolli live in this small town with their children, but the world comes to them in various ways: foreign travelers stop at The Brew, nature is outside their door, vandals invade their business, eccentrics with wild stories become their customers, creatures both mythological and real are an intimate part of their lives. The whole spectrum of the outside world is there.
ND: It’s a way of traveling without traveling.
MM: Yes, exactly.
ND: Before this book you have been chiefly known as a poet.
MM: I don’t know if you could say I was known as a poet. Being a poet is a good way to remain anonymous. There really isn’t much of an audience for it.
ND: Quite so, but I was wondering how the writing of poetry has influenced your prose.
MM: What attracted me to poetry was the compression, the ability to say a lot in a few words. I think I tried to bring that quality to the episodes of T & M. Also, in formal poetry, there is a blueprint that one must conform to. Lines a fixed length of syllables, stressed and unstressed syllables deployed in a specific pattern, each stanza a prescribed number of lines, and so on. At first all of these restrictions seem too confining, but in a paradoxical way, they often free you up to be more creative. They are not so much a prison as a stage. One can even think of them in the same way as deadlines, which often kick start writers into producing worthwhile work.
ND: So might we consider the episodes of T & M as a kind of formal poetry?
MM: I would not presume to have created a new form of poetry, but I like the idea that the episodes might evoke some of the more elegant aspects of poetry.
ND: Can we talk about influences? Which writers do you admire?
MM: In my youth I was mad for science fiction, eating up anything by Paul French, Anson MacDonald, Racoona Sheldon, Don A. Stuart, Kilgore Trout, Herb Boehm, Paul Linebarger, and many others. I subscribed to and read several science fiction magazines.
ND: What was the attraction of science fiction?
MM: It is a literature of aliens and alienness. I suppose, being a recent immigrant, I found kindred spirits in tales of alien planets and strange futures. I also appreciated its cultivation of a certain sense of wonder. Later I was drawn to the tricksters of literature, writers like Borges, Calvino, Nabakov, Lem, and Kafka.
ND: The writers you mention are not bound by conventional notions of reality.
MM: Exactly. They take reality (which is a dodgy concept anyway) and warp it in some way.
ND: Is that what you did in T & M?
MM: Much of T & M is seen through the eyes of the twins, who certainly have their own view of the world. I don’t want to romanticize childhood, as many writers are prone to do, but that innocence of children, the sense of things being new, is very appealing. The twins are like explorers of a new land. They see new things all the time and must incorporate those things into their universe. Sometimes they employ methods which are foreign to adults.
ND: Like the episode at the zoo where the ape splashes them with water.
MM: Yes. In that episode Mazolli is startled and irritated by the water. The twins just fold it into their universe by laughing along with the ape.
ND: Would you talk about where the characters came from?
MM: All of the characters in this book were a gift from the cosmos. They came to me one morning while I was playing around with the idea of a fixed length for narratives. I know conventional thinking would have it that in some way I created them, but that is not the way it feels to me at all. It feels like they were given to me.
ND: Did you model them on anyone? Are Mazolli and Terrastina really you and Kim?
MM: I was not conscious of doing that in this novel, however, I suppose it is not impossible. Kim and I never had children, so that‘s one obvious difference. I will say that it is often dangerous to ascribe autobiography to a writer‘s fictional creations, although I know that many readers are prone to doing exactly that. Some of us try to make our characters as different from ourselves as we can.
ND: Nevertheless, isn‘t it the case that many writers use details of their own life in their stories? For example, you and Kim live in the Pacific Northwest, in a town very much like the town you describe in the novel.
MM: True, but that‘s just a starting place, kind of like moving around on a ready made stage. The details of their lives are so different from the details of our lives that there would be no way to ever confuse the two worlds.
ND: Please describe your working methods.
MM: I usually write in the morning. When I am working on a project I try to write every day to maintain the continuity of the narrative. I write on the computer. I have tried writing long hand but that is too tedious for me. Also, I often have trouble reading my own handwriting. When I have completed a draft I print it out, make corrections by hand on the hard copy, then key in the corrections on the computer. Then I print it out again and give it to Kim for her opinion. She always has pertinent things to say and will make comments and suggestions on the manuscript. I use her edits while I do a final polish of the piece, then I send it out to a publisher. Or publish it myself.
ND: Can we expect to see a sequel to T & M?
MM: I have none planned at this time, although the characters may have different ideas. We’ll just have to wait and see.
ND: Is each episode really exactly 99 words long?
MM: All except one, which I made exactly 100 words long to absolve me from charges of attempting perfection.
ND: Which episode?
MM: I will leave that as an exercise for interested readers.
ND: Okay. Guess I‘ll have to start counting.
MM: Have fun!
ND: Thank you for your time, Mr. Milosevic.
MM: Thank you for asking.
ND: I know the off switch is here somewhere.
MM: May I?
MM: I think you‘ll find it there, next to the