His first book of short stories, Midnight Boogie [Ponoćni boogie] was published in 1987 and immediately became a cult classic in Croatia. Its author, Edo Popović (53) then took a long 13-year break from writing. He returned to it around the end of the 1990s and is now, as he says, a full time writer. Last year he published the Manual for Walkers [Priručnik za hodače], an anti-globalist call for slowing down the madness of consumerism. His recent novels include Eyes [Oci, 2007], Guy, Lady, Moron, Cop [Dečko, dama, kreten, drot, 2005], Exit Zagreb South (Izlaz Zagreb Jug, 2003], Dancer from the Blue Bar [ Plesačica iz blue bara, 2004], and Concert for Tequila and Apaurin [Koncert za tekilu i apaurin, 2002]. After years in journalism, Popović now works as a part-time editor of a publishing house. He talked to Southeast Europe: People and Culture about his work, the importance of integrity in writing, and the challenges for modern Croatian prose.
What are you working on at the moment?
My newest book, published last year, Manual for Walkers, is different compared to my earlier writing which was strictly fictional - now I am back to fiction again. When I start writing, be it for a short story or for a novel, I don’t know how the story will end. It grows by itself. I have an idea, like in jazz for example, where you have a basic theme and lots of variations. The novel has three narrative strands. The first narrative strand relates to Zagreb and a group of people which the government considers to be terrorists, but they are not. Nowadays governments tend to consider everyone who is against this wild capitalism to be a terrorist. So Zagreb is divided by a wall. In an era when walls are falling, there is this wall. Perhaps it is less visible but it is obviously there. So I develop the story around this idea. The second strand involves two former adversaries, a former Croatian and a former Serbian soldier, and I have placed the two of them on mount Velebit, in a cottage. Soldiers are best placed to understand what was happening to us from 1990 to 1995; these two will come to understand that there were no winners and no losers in the war. That the only winners were those who profited from the war, made a business out it. The third strand is the story told by the narrator.
How do you know when you are satisfied with what you have produced?
We all have some inside feeling which tells us whether what we are doing is good or bad. We just often choose to ignore that instinct of ours. Croatian cellist Monika Leskovar once said that the simplest tone was the most difficult to play. Similarly for me, the simplest phrase is the most difficult one to write. I try to make my phrases simple; I do not like complex ornaments of words which often have nothing behind them. I try to write clear, strong, and precise sentences. I also give my writing to several people to comment, starting with my wife who is a rigorous critic. She says very directly what she means. So you get the feeling whether you are cheating or not. When I get the feeling that I am repeating myself, that I am boring, I will surely quit and go shepherding on mount Velebit.
Tell me more about your writing process?
You start enjoying the moment when you get the feeling you are doing well. Like in sports, when things start going well and the athletes feel that their every move is right, it becomes joyful. It is similar with me. There are moments when I enjoy it greatly, and there are moments when I am sick of it and feel like throwing the computer out the window. But if I can say it in this way, it is a responsible job, because you don’t write for yourself and your friends, but you share it with many people you don’t know. It is not fair to underestimate them and offer them whatever in the form of prose.
You also work as an editor, so you have the publisher’s perspective. What are the challenges you face as an editor?
Tomica Bajšić or Boris Perić are two of my favorite authors, as is Velibor Čolić, who now works in France, for whom I recently published two of his books. These are writers who stand behind every word they have written, who would fight you over every word of theirs, not because they feel it is ingenious, but because it is sincere. And when I get a manuscript like this from a young person, whose writing is driven by a deep urge, and not merely to become famous and give interviews, I get the shivers. I recently got a text like this from a young author, Ivica Dosen, who hasn’t published anything yet - the text is absolutely phenomenal.
I am interested in prose which is different, immune to daily trends. For 10 years now the trend has been politically correct prose. My point of view is that you have to be politically correct, or in simple words good, in life not in art. Political correctness will kill art.
Are domestic writers respected in Croatia?
We are a small market, 4.5 million people, so we cannot really talk about a market, but domestic writers are wanted and they are published. And this is good. I edit the edition Twenty One, which is exclusively comprised by domestic writers. A book in Croatia needs 500-600 copes sold per year to cover the cost of publishing, and I think most authors achieve that. What I see as a problem is this trend to connect quality of literature with the number of books you sell, and this is dangerous. The book which sells more is better only in market terms, not in literary terms. The insistence to have market criteria dominate literary ones is sad.
Your newest book, Manual for Walkers, has been described as a call for slowing down, for abandoning consumer madness as one of the most serious diseases of modern society.
Mad consumerism is one of the most serious diseases of today. Today, if you do not spend, if you cannot buy something, you are worth nothing. If you do not have the latest mobile phone, or similar gadget, they look at you with some suspicion. I don’t buy this. I have this old cell phone which works just fine. My car is 20 years old and it serves me well. It is the oldest one in my neighbourhood. I am probably an object of mockery when I park it between all these SUVs. But it serves me well. What do our lives come down to? We work a lot for 10, 12 hours a day, to get a lot of paper which we can exchange for a bunch of items we do not need. My wife and I were counting the tea cups at home, we have 15. And why do we need 15 tea cups? All these nice cars around my building....I ask my neighbours and they have all bought them with loans. Everybody has a 10 or 20 year loan. We do not need this. We need to slow down and think about how we live our lives.