Vojislav Pejović is a neurobiologist by training and medical writer by profession. In 2008, he published a critically acclaimed novel in his native Montenegro, and in 2010, translations of Charles Simic’s poetry for a large retrospective of his opus published in Serbia. His current project is a book of stories, written in parallel in English and Serbo-Croatian. He lives in Evanston, IL, with his wife and their two sons. His story “Night Swim” appears in the Spring 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Can you identify the seed of inspiration of your story “Night Swim”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
Just like the protagonist, I used to have a magical beach, and also experienced something similar to what’s depicted in the opening scene. I always wanted to use those two memories in the same narrative, for reasons too private and too detailed to elaborate. As for the hardest part: this was my first story originally written in English. It did require a leap of faith, which is always somewhat hard.
“Night Swim” tells much of its story through silences and omitted information, initially keeping the reader at a certain remove. At the same time, we are given particularly vivid, intimate descriptions of the meals the characters eat. Could you tell us a little bit about your use of food in this story and its role as a focus of the narration?
A strong presence of food and other intense sensory experiences, like sex, was intended to function as another piece of storytelling “through silences and omitted information.” The events of the story are apparently still very vivid in the protagonist’s mind (as indicated by the first-person, present-tense narrative), so the confusion and disorientation that consume his inner life can be seen, and therefore shown, only indirectly. Since the setting is the Mediterranean (specifically, the Montenegrin coast), and since he’s still fairly young, I found it appealing to make him latch on to the reality by boosting his sensory input. (This is the closest I ever got to interpreting my own writing, and it feels very awkward.)
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
That writing stories can be more difficult than writing a novel, that translating one’s own work is quite exhausting, and that being able to translate your own work probably means that you’re able to write in that other language, too, which then you should do.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Probably the commute: having a fairly demanding day job and two small kids made me adopt a routine of writing while commuting. Which I guess makes my commute writing-related after all. Life is so complicated.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
Because aptitude begets attitude (I learned to read before I was four) and because I was fortunate enough to have the support of my family, friends, and teachers. Last but not least: who could resist a process that is creative and analytical at the same time?
In the 1950′s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by ten leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
I’m firmly in the camp with those who believe that literature—all art, actually—is primarily an act of communication. I also believe that writers should do their utmost to make their work as non-sloppy, non-formulaic, and non-pretentious as possible. In addition, we should strive to lure our readers quickly, preferably within five pages, into believing that the rest of the piece will be worth the time and emotional energy invested.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
“Night Swim” is the opening story of a book I just finished, titled American Sfumato, which can be viewed as a novella consisting of nine loosely connected chapters. I also completed a version in Serbo-Croatian, my native language (which also goes by Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin, or, in some circles, “ours”). There’s also a movie script in my head, a dark comedy set in a science lab (lots of memories keep screaming for their way out), and a book for children that I started working on with my eight-year-old son.