The European Short Story Network

Maja Hrgovic

Maja Hrgovic

What’s the appeal of the short story form to you, as a reader?

It has nothing to do with the myth of short attention span and hectic, fast modern living; the reason I love reading short stories is deeper – I appreciate the ability of short story writers to squeeze life into several pages, to create a character that is alive and kicking, and the atmosphere that stays with me (as a reader) long after I’ve finished reading – and to do all that with limited resources, that’s what I admire. Also, I love the “filmic” quality of short stories, their visual power, the way they function as metonimies, ‘pars pro toto’, where one event in the life of the protagonist contains his whole life, in a way.

And what does it permit you to do, as a writer (as opposed to the novel)?

It does not allow me to be boring, and I have that tendency. It keeps me focused and alert, it forces me to respect my characters, to stay with them all the time and pamper their extravagancies, and never let them slip away. That’s the kind of intimacy with characters I like. The novel I’m writing now, permits me to do – well, anything that I want to do. I wasn’t prepared for that. It’s frustrating and frightening; there’s something awkward in that freedom. So I had to make a compromise: my novel is structured as a cycle of mutually connected short stories. Is that cheating? Am I still allowed to say I’m writing a novel? I’m not sure. I’m probably a serious short story addict.

Do you usually begin writing a story with the ending in mind?

Yes, sometimes. But those stories always turn out to be my weekest ones! I just realized that. I write really good when I start from one single scene in my head, from one sentence, like “a one-eyed girl rides on the bus”. And then, step by step, it whirls out into a crazy fantastic road-love story with a tragi-comic ending, really powerful piece. I’m not good with endings that are there on the very beginning, I feel like haunted by the ending while writing and I’m just not comfortable with it.

‘Whale’s Ass’ is playful and funny, but also underpinned with sadness and tragedy (in terms of the personal circumstances of many of the characters) – is this characteristic of your stories?

Most of them are playful and funny and somehow vaguely sad, like those glass bowls with snow falling down around Santa when you shake it: Santa looks happy but the snow gives the whole scene a different aura, something nostalgic and slightly sad. Emotions are delicate material to work with, and I deeply respect their delicacy. And when I manage to write a story which is like a really good cocktail of lush atmosphere, layered characters and emotions that unobtrusively permeate the piece like a nice fragrance – then I’m so happy and content it seems inappropriate.

Tell us about your debut collection – how would you describe it?

There are seven stories in it, some are longer, some are short, they all have young women protagonists and they all talk about some strange loves. The book is divided in two parts – Winter and Summer, and from this time distance, I think wintery ones are better. Those are set in the same appartment in non-glamurous part of Zagreb city centre, near the rail station, and it’s rented by three young women in a row, and populated by very unconventional love affairs (which are, again, playful and funny, but also sad and tragic). One of those stories, about lesbian love, was included in the anthology Best European Fiction 2012, edited by Aleksandar Hemon. It is called Zlatka. It was also included in Granta, the magazine I love the most.

Who are your main influences – Croatian/ex-Yugo, and international – and why?

I don’t have a lot to say about writers (working now) in ex Yugoslavia; as a reader I don’t get many excitements from my colegues here. And I feel sad about that. There are too many writers publishing mediocre stuff, too many weak books about macho-balkan guys who drink excessively and have problems finding a job. It’s too crude for me. Thank God I can read fiction in English: so I read, and love, Lorrie Moore, Jennifer Egan, Anne Enright, Alice Munro. If Lorrie Moore was a rock star, I would be the stalker in the front row, throwing my bra at the stage – that’s how I admire her. But, I would never attempt to copy her style.

Which Croatian short story writers should we be reading (other than yourself)?

There is one writer from Serbia that I like, Mihajlo Pantić.

When you’re translated into English (or any other language), do you feel the story has changed? Do you enjoy the result, or does relinquishing absolute control of the work make you uncomfortable?

I’ve been lucky with my translator, Tomislav Kuzmanović, whom I trust and respect, he’s probably the best literary translator from Croatian to English. Yes, the translation changes to story, and yes, I feel somehow uncomfortable letting go, giving up the control. But translation is always about compromises, isn’t it? We, the ‘small’ writers from the ‘small languages’, just have to settle for what’s less harmful.

European Cultural Foundation Chapter ∓ Verse Kikinda Short Nederlands Letterenfonds Manchester Literature Festival NORLA Goethe Institut Creative Scotland