A good starting place to talk about Steven Galloway’s novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, is a 1976 interview with American author John Cheever. Cheever, asked by the Paris Review’s Annette Grant about the trend for novelists to write journalism, responded angrily “I don’t like your question. Fiction must compete with first-rate reporting. If you cannot write a story that is equal to a factual account of battle in the streets or demonstrations, then you can’t write a story. You might as well give up.”
Galloway’s book, which takes a real-life event as a starting point, is a fictional recreation of the seige of Sarajevo. The siege, the longest in modern warfare, started less than twenty years ago, but in some ways it could have been centuries ago for all the prominence it has in the English speaking world. Galloway’s book, then, is both a well crafted novel – with multiple narratives and characters that leap off the page – and a type of testimony, Cheever’s fictional equal to factual accounts.
When several mortar shells exploded in Sarajevo’s Vase Miskina market twenty-two people were killed and over seventy were injured. Local cellist Vedran Smailovic commemorated their deaths by playing Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor, in the open – at risk from sniper fire – for twenty-two consecutive days. Like a chemical catalyst that remains untouched by the operation it aids, the Cellist’s performances gave Galloway a vision for his novel, a book about war, the collapse of civilisation, and the role of art in society.
Mr Galloway was kind enough to speak with Three Monkeys about The Cellist of Sarajevo for the following interview:
Let’s start with an obvious question – why Sarajevo, for a Canadian novelist?
It was sort of a confluence of things. When you’re writing books one idea takes on a magnetism that starts attracting other ideas towards it, and what I wanted to do was to write about how war affected people for whom war was not their business; people who weren’t soldiers or journalists or politicians or whatnot. When I started writing the book it was 2002/2003 in the lead up to the war in Iraq, and I remembered the story of the cellist of Sarajevo. I’d known about that story for a long time – lots of people had – but couldn’t really see what a novelist could do with it, because I think if you focussed on the cellist himself the story would lose its legs really quickly, but the connection I made was ‘what about the audience?’ at the concerts he gave. Once I made that connection the idea of Sarajevo became something that could come to mean something for me.
But it’s an interesting choice to use that actual city. Did it ever cross your mind, for example, to set the story in a nameless imagined city?
Yes, it did occur to me, partly because, boy, you’d have to do less research! There is a danger you run though: as a writer the decisions you make are a coin – heads you win, tails you fail – the heads side for that choice is obviously that you don’t need to be faithful to real life events, you have a lot more freedom. The down side there is that it loses the reader their ability to connect to something real. It becomes something suppositional, and I think part of what the book fundamentally talks about is that this is going on in the real world. This isn’t futuristic or suppositional. This happened in our concrete world. If it happened in a city like Sarajevo, then it can happen in your city too. An un-named fictional city would almost become too universal.
Let’s talk about the structure of the book. In particular the choice to have three separate main characters.
I chose three, because I did an extraordinarily nerdy thing as a writer: because Albinoni’s adaggio is sort of a fraudulent piece of music, an adaggio built off a sonata, I wanted to turn it back into a sonata, so I picked the structure of a trio sonato that has three distinct voices that work separately but taken in unison they make up a bigger whole. So I picked three for that reason, to mirror that structure. And almost immediately after looking into it, it seemed to me that the three main concerns in Sarajevo were food, water, and not getting killed so that suggested the characters to me almost immediately.
It’s strange isn’t it, that despite the fact that this was such a significant and close event, virtually no other english-language novelist has written about it.
One of the first things I do when I get an idea for a book is to go on to amazon and see if anyone else has already written it, and I was absolutely shocked at the small number of books written by westerners about Sarajevo. There’s about ten books about the siege, and some of them are like Alexander Hemon’s book which has a biographical connection, the rest are mostly written by journalists. That’s indicative of Sarajevo as it was going on. There were some people outraged, but most people thought of it as just tribal, too complicated, and just washed their hands of it as a result.
Perhaps it’s because it’s so recent as well. Novels on the Second World War are regularly published now, because it’s safely in the past.
That’s actually what attracted me to writing about Sarajevo. I didn’t want something far and past, because the obvious comment then is that ‘times were different then’. This happened hardly ten years ago. When I started writing it it had happened just five years ago. It presented challenges obviously, but also some benefits. I was able to talk to lots of people who had fresh memories – though those were unbelievably hard conversations because of the freshness.
One of the things that really bugs me lately [editor’s note: the interview took place in December 2008] is that in lots of ‘books of the year’ lists that are out – though I’m very happy to be mentioned in any of them – they put the Cellist of Sarajevo in historical fiction, while there are plenty of books listed in the contemporary fiction sections that take place in the eighties! How is it that a mere ten years ago becomes ‘historical’?
It’s a very morally engaged book, if that’s not too cliched a way to put it. Do you think a writer is obliged to take a moral position? Is that moral aspect important to you as a writer?
It is to me, currently. I don’t know if it’s important for all writers to do it. It’s been an interesting process for me, becoming a writer, in the eight-to-ten years since my first book was published: first you want to become a writer because you think you can, and because it would be neat or something, but slowly over time a lot of the things that you thought would be rewarding about being a writer evaporate. Book tours aren’t much fun or glamorous. The attention is self-defeating in a way. There are two valuable things that are left then, at least to me as a writer: first, you get to spend most of your working time in a room by yourself living in an imaginary world – something that appeals to me greatly, and a second thing is that you get to be involved in that larger world conversation about what we can do while we’re on this earth. You don’t get that in many professions. If you’re an orthodontist you perform a great an noble service, but you don’t get to participate in the same way in that conversation. What keeps me in that little room by myself is that conversation – so it’s important to me.
The novel is told from the perspective of the city’s inhabitants under siege. The only glimpse we get of ‘the men on the hills’, the troops bombarding the city, is through Arrow’s sniper scope. Without defending their position, weren’t you ever tempted to include the perspective of beseigers?
It was more what would I have done had I gone into their heads? I would have shown that they weren’t that different to people in the city. The only options to me were to show them as the same, or as monsters. I didn’t want to show them as monsters, although it is undoubtedly the case that there were some very bad people up their in the hills, doing some very
bad things. The point would have been the same as with arrow, that they were reacting to the same forces, to someone else who has told them who to hate. I think it would have been too… – what I wanted was for readers to probably feel themselves that the men on the hills weren’t any different to those in the city. I wanted to have them arrive to that conclusion through the characters in the city and not make it easy by jumping into another perspective. We villify all sorts of people based on the actions of a splinter group – for example Muslims in much of the Western World at the moment.
When did you first realise that you wanted to be a writer?
[laughs] I somehow managed to make it to the age of twenty without realising that books were written by people. I was a voracious reader, and while I knew books had authors, there was some mental connection missing between that and realising that the authors were living people, and so it was something that I, as a living person, could do. I got caught skipping english class in twelfth grade, and they had a writing workshop at the time where you got to submit your work to a published author for review, and my teacher threatened to turn me into the principle unless I attended this workshop. It wasn’t the first time I’d skipped class, and so bad things would happen to me – possibly expulsion. So I went and within twenty minutes a big light went on in my head – ‘I like this’ (not that I’m necessarily any good at it, but I like it!), and here I am years later.
You attended a creative writing program, and have also taught one. How beneficial are these programs for would-be authors?
I think it depends greatly on how the institution is running it, and the particular writer. They’re not for everyone. I have students occasionaly that I think ‘you shouldn’t be here, you’re not learning anything. This isn’t the right forum for you to learn.’ It also has to do with how the program is run. It doesn’t take much to turn a creative writing workshop into a poisonous thing. Teachers who are maniacs, or not interested in getting the student to write like him/herself.
Has it become a necessary step, for writers before getting published?
I think there probably are a lot of new writers who think they have to enroll in a program. I don’t think it’s true that it’s a necessary step though. I’ve never heard of a publisher saying ‘well, I would have published his book but he didn’t have an mfa’!
But it’s true to say, isn’t it, that these courses become an obvious first stop for publishers
I think in general, in the last fifteen years, it’s become much harder for writers and publishers to connect. There are a lot of barriers that have been thrown up. Twenty years ago you didn’t need a literary agent, unless you were a very high-profile or best-selling author. Nowadays you’re lucky if you get someone to even look at your book if you don’t have an agent. I think it would be a bad thing if writers needed to take classes, but having said that for many writers, myself included it’s a valid exercise. If I hadn’t gone through that process, it’s extremely unlikely that I would have become the writer that I am today. The time I spent at that course took a good two decades off the work I would have needed to do myself. There are some very simple technical things one can learn about writing, that you could figure out on your own, but it’s easier to have someone tell you!
Let’s talk a little bit about location. How do you think being Canadian has shaped your writing, if at all?
One advantage to being a Canadian writer is that, unlike American writers, the concept of writing the Great Canadian Novel doesn’t really exist. Writing the next Gatsby isn’t something you’re trying to do, or at least you’re not obliged to try. I think of Canada, in terms of world nations, as that guy at the party that everyone likes but nobody wants to talk to for too long! Which gives one time to sit quietly and observe what’s going on. You’re brought up in Canada to think about the rest of the world. We’re a country full of immigrants, and we’re by and large an empty nation. Many of the traits of Canada as a nation are the traits of a writer, except for extraordinary politeness – that’s not a great trait for a writer!!.
How has the book been received in Bosnia? Is there any resentment, that you have in some way appropriated their story?
The book’s just coming out in Bosnia now, so I expect more of a reaction now. When I was there researching it there were some Bosnian writers who asked, saying ‘why are you here? I don’t go writing books about Canada’, which is a fair point. Like anything else, there are probably some people who won’t read it out of principle, or some who’ll read it and not like it because they think I have no right to write about these events. I think I have a right, or almost an obligation to think about things, as a writer, that go on outside of my country. Not much happens in Canada, just because of the type of country we are – it’s a place where you sit down and try to be polite, which makes it a great place to live but if you’re a writer here you have to think outside your borders.
One of the things a writer has to be able to do is imagine things that don’t happen to them, imagine what would it be like, talk to people who have lived through these things and understand what they’re trying to tell you. I’m not in anyway suggesting that I was able to do that, but if you want to be a writer that’s something you have to be able to do.
The film rights to The Cellist of Sarajevo have been sold. WHile it’s not, on the surface of things, an easy book to turn into a film [much of the writing focusses on interior monologues], there are plenty of visual or filmic moments in the narrative. Is it possible for a modern novelist to write without being influenced by the vocabulary of film?
The image is the dominant culture in our world. I don’t know if you could, or whether you’d want to divorce yourself completely from that culture as a writer. It has to do with how I write. I have met writers who tell me that when they write, what they see in their head are sentences. When I’m writing, I’m seeing in my mind the story pictorially – not as if it were a movie, but I see it happening, and then I write it down. That’s a product, perhaps, of having been raised with television and movies and whatnot. The Cellist is a visual book, but I don’t know how easy it will be to make into a film. Having said that, I’m certainly not going to deter anyone from trying!
The Cellist was featured in the ‘what is Stephen Harper reading project‘ by Yann Martel, author of The life of PI. Martel – a project where Martel promised to send a book every fortnight to Prime Minister Stephen Harper for as long as he remained in power (he’s sent 52 so far). How did you feel to be included in the project?
I was fairly concerned that I was going to get audited! [laughs] I was happy Yann liked the book. It’s an interesting project. I don’t think he imagined Harper would stay in power quite so long. He’s running out of short books! It probably wouldn’t hurt our prime minister to read a book at some stage in his life. He’s not a particularly literate prime minister.
You’re the author of three succesful novels, Finnie Walsh, Ascension, and now The Cellist of Sarajevo. For readers, like me, who’ve only discovered you with this last novel, how does it fit into your overall work?
I think it probably fits with my second book [pauses] a little bit more than my first book. It’s always a dangerous game to ask a a writer what they think they’re writing about as an overall theme, as we’re probably the least objective readers of our own work out there, but I think that one of the things that interests me as a writer is what each person’s sphere of influence is. What action he can take or not take that will influence the world around him. >Finnie Walsh, my first book, was more about what happens when you become singularly obsessed with something that, perhaps, you should not become singularly obsessed with, and what collateral damage that can cause to your loved ones and life. Ask me again after three or four books!
In another interview, when asked what the last great book you read, you responded with Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. What was it about Chabon’s book that you particularly liked?
I liked various things. The world he was able to create was such a compelling world. I could have hung out in Sitka for years. The character reminded me of Mordechai Richler’s characters, that semi-alcoholic down-on-his-luck protagonist, which I have a huge soft spot. It made me wish, as well, that I wasn’t a W.A.S.P.y Canadian kid. I thought some of the stuff that he was doing with Yiddish words, the ones that I caught on to – like sholom for gun [sholom means peace] – was just awesome. It appealed to the nerd in me. But he’s just such a good story-teller. He can craft all the elements together so well.
Let’s finish on that point – how important is that ability to tell a good story for a novelist?
If you can’t deliver a story that people care about, and fundamentally want to find out what happens, be surprised and moved, it doesn’t really matter what else you’re doing. People don’t read to be morally hectored, they read for stories. If you’re sneaky you can give them morality too, but first and foremost you’ve got to be able to tell a story.