Interview: Aleksandar Žiljak

SFeraKon 2013 Photo by jelena Šaban

Aleksandar Žiljak is the only Croatian author who has won a SFERA Award in two categories – for best story and best novel – in the same year. He is also one of the most prolific genre authors in the country. Other than being famous for his writing, Žiljak is also famous in Croatian fandom for his long, but compelling convention lectures, his vast knowledge of SF film trivia and as the auctioneer at the SFeraKon Book Auction. International fans know him as the author of the article on Croatian Science Fiction while some have also read his work published in The Apex Book of World SF  or in Kontakt.

You are probably the most translated Croatian SF author – how did that come about?

Well, back in 2003 or 2004, I had the opportunity of writing an article on Croatian SF for a German SF magazine Nova. Of course, this article was originally in English, and it was then translated into German. That’s when I established my first contact with a foreign editor (Michael Iwoleit) and I begun translating my own stories into English. I have to correct you somewhat – I’m the most self-translated Croatian SF author. OK, that probably makes me also the most translated author, simply because all other Croatian authors seldom (except maybe Milena Benini and Maya Starling, who, however, writes in English) bother to push their stuff abroad. Unfortunately, professional translators are beyond the means of most of Croatian genre writers. I also translated some stories for Veronika Santo: her story collection is scheduled to be released at Worldcon 2014.

I almost always write my stories in Croatian, and then translate them into English. From there, the stories are then translated into other languages – I’ve published my stories all over Europe, but also in Asia and the US. Outside the English-speaking countries, most of my stories have been published in printed magazines, some in on-line magazines. But, as far as English-language publications go, they have appeared almost exclusively in American theme anthologies, such as Gears and Levers 1 and 3 (steampunk), Wolf Craft (werewolves), Salacious Tales (SF/F/H erotica), The Apex Book of World SF (the first one), Kontakt (an anthology of Croatian SF) … These are mostly POD books, and should be easily available over the internet, while Kontatk is available at Wizard’s Tower Press.

You write science fiction, horror and fantasy – which do you prefer, as a writer and which as a reader?

Photo by Mirko Bulaja
Photo by Mirko Bulaja

Frankly, I don’t care, as long as the genre I use is suitable for the story that I want to write and the things that I want to say. I feel equally comfortable in Medieval ethnic fantasy, cyberpunk, space opera, steampunk (which I consider techno-fantasy anyway), action-SF, end-of-the-world stories, anything. I wrote very little horror, and I’m not really a fan of that genre. Maybe I have been writing a little bit more fantasy recently, but it is not Tolkien-like stuff. I have even heard my fantasy stories described as fairy tales. But, as I said, I don’t care.

I consider genres and sub-genres a marketing category. The publishing situation in Croatia is such that I don’t really know who and what my market is, how many of my books are being sold, whether I’m successful or not. (OK, I do get good reviews and awards…) In other words, I am not burdened by the need to please the market or the audience, so I’m writing pretty much what I’m pleased with and pretty much for the hell of it. Yes, that made me a writer who knows no bounds, and I will include in my stories things that English-speaking publishers might occasionally find too much to swallow. Which is just as well, because speculative fiction must be provocative, particularly in these times of crisis, threatening the entire civilization, indeed life on Earth as we know it.

So I write things. Bloody things. Sexy things. Spectacular things. Horrible things. Revolutionary things. As in red banners and stuff. I will have dinosaurs, and vampires, and cowboys, all in the same novelette. I will have aircraft carriers falling from the sky, and cities crumbling down, and girls and dogs and Jesus. All in the same story. Dragons making love to damsels in distress. Clones of the world’s most notorious terrorist joining forces with a snow leopard, an olm and a deposed Chinese gangster princess to bring down the new world order. Things like that. I know for certain that I shocked some people (I could name names) and made them angry with my stories. Others, I elated. Yet others probably gave up questioning my reasons a long time ago.

How did you discover SF?

My late father used to read SF. He read in English, German and Russian, so when I needed to improve my English, he gave me some SF titles. That’s how I got hooked. And of course, the movies.

Who are your favorite authors?

irbis-ziljakWell, maybe I should say who are the authors who, bit by bit, pushed me towards writing, who were the people after whose texts I said, hell, I want to write like this. Early William Gibson, for instance. Bruce Sterling. Lucius Shepard. I liked reading cyberpunk, and some of my stories, and my first novel Irbis, have cyberpunk themes, although I’m not sure I’ve always succeeded in hitting the style of it. Then again, by the time I started writing, cyberpunk was … no, not exactly dead, but rather, shifting from fiction into reality. And besides, one can probably expect local varieties of cyberpunk.

Then, there was John Varley. His kick-ass female characters in Titan was what influenced me. Some Heinlein juvenile stuff. Later on, he became … difficult at best. Robert Silverberg. Zelazny. Both of them being at their best when writing stories. Alfred Bester. Some early stuff by Vonda McIntire. You will notice that these are all members of the old guard. May I (mis)quote Thomas Disch? I protect my talent by ignoring the talents of others. Which is probably not a good thing to say.

And again, movies.

You are the co-editor of Ad Astra? Tell us how this huge book happened?

Well, you must know one thing about SFeraKon, the main Croatian SF convention, held every spring in Zagreb. SFerakon Sundays are time for crazy ideas, to drive the post-SFeraKon depression away. This is important in the story of how Ad Astra came to be.

Naslovnica_Sirius_broj_1OK, seriously, folks: back in spring 2004, there was considerable talk about making a complete bibliography of the Croatian SF story. This pretty boring “we should do this, we should do that” talk took place at Istrakon, a convention held a month before SFeraKon, but also continued at SFeraKon itself. And, apparently, it made both Tomislav Šaki? (whom I did not know at the timet) and me pretty annoyed.

Anyway, I started adding two and two. Namely,

1.) I knew there was an anthology of Croatian SF being planned (it was an anthology edited by Žarko Milenic, which was a considerably less ambitious project, to put it mildly). So the idea of an anthology was floating around.

2.) I knew that I had on my bookshelves at least 95% of all the Croatian SF stories ever written. So, research was to be ridiculously easy.

3.) I was fresh from writing the above-mentioned article on Croatian SF. So I knew who was important and who was not. More to the point, I knew that the most important period for Croatian SF story was from 1976 onwards.

In other words, I realized that a comprehensive anthology of the Croatian SF story was not an impossible project. That it was actually quite easy to do. After all, Croatia is not the US. We had about 1000+ stories to consider. It was a four-digit number, but it was also a finite one. And I realized it could be done in two years, so that this anthology could coincide with 30th anniversary of the Sirius magazine, which was started in 1976.

mAdAstraSo, I went to Darko Macan, the most prominent figure in publishing and promoting Croatian SF at the time. But lo and behold! I was not the first. Tomislav Šakic had gotten there before me! And his ideas were similar. Macan introduced us and that is how it all started. We spent two years reading some 1000+ Croatian SF stories, and we chose 40 of them, they all fit snugly into a 640-page book: Ad Astra was born! Strictly as a by-product, we also made a bibliography of the Croatian SF story, and included it in the book!

You and co-editor Tomislav Šakic noted that women wrote better quality stories in Croatian SF. Can you elaborate?

Well, this was obvious as early as the Sirius years, say late 1970s and early 1980s. Women generally tended to write stories that were more modern, and they were more prone to distance themselves from somewhat obsolete imitations of Clarke and Asimov that seemed to be the rule among the male writers at the time. Also, the women were better writers, simply by writing better sentences. Their stories, their characters, their writing all of it was occasionally 10 years ahead of most of the male SF writers in Croatia at the time. And this still holds true today, eve if to some smaller extent.

Unfortunately, all Croatian writers, be they male or female, have difficulty creating a large body of work, because the publishing situation is bordering on desperate. Right now, I think there is a considerable lack of motivation to write, and it hits most of the writers, male and female. For instance, getting to college, getting married, getting children, getting the job are almost surefire ways to kill an SF writer in Croatia, at least for some time, sometimes decades. Only the stubborn survive. Not even the strong, strength has nothing to do with it. The stubborn.

As an editor, what do you look for in a story?

16097776Well, first of all, I want it to be a story. Then I’d like it to be well-written. I am ready to do a lot of editing, sometimes heavy editing, but I really don’t feel like rewriting somebody’s story. So, it has to be good. As for the sub-genre, anything goes. And yes, I often publish stories that are good, but not really to my taste or liking. I have to distance myself from what I like and want, and try to judge a story as objectively as possible. I think Tomislav and me are successful in this respect, and I feel that UBIQ has grown into a high-quality magazine.

After finishing Ad Astra, Tomislav Šakic and me initiated another project, and that is UBIQ, a biannual magazine devoted to Croatian (and, from issue 14, to ex-Yugoslav) speculative fiction and theory. This is a very sleek-looking magazine, and it won an award on Eurocon in Stockholm as the best European SF magazine in 2011. So we get a pretty good look at what people are writing today.

However, we have some problems. First, the majority of UBIQ stories are really not science fiction, but rather speculative fiction in its broadest sense. Secondly, as I’ve said before, many writers, even promising authors, have lost motivation to write in recent years. We are facing a serious problem with filling the magazine. We still don’t have a solution for that. But we hope the project will continue.

You are also an illustrator, which comes first for you, illustration or writing? Which is easiest?

I didn’t do much SF illustration. I specialized in wildlife art. However, the market has collapsed in Croatia in the last two or three years, so I’m now earning my bread and butter by translating novels.

Writing is almost entirely a hobby. Not that I never earned anything from my writing, but it is not enough to make it into a full-time job. I do try to publish a book annually, but it is hard, because the publishers are very reluctant to publish anything without a state subsidy, and you can never know if you will get it or not.

How did you get into fandom? What have you been doing in over the years?

SFeraKon 2004 Photo by Tatjana Jambrišak
SFeraKon 2004 Photo by Tatjana Jambrišak

In early 1988, I had some SF art and I was looking a place to publish or exhibit. So I heard about this SF club in Zagreb, went there, showed them my art, met some people. It was, of course, SFera. I exhibited some art on the 1988 SFeraKon, the first convention I ever attended. I also joined the club.

Over the years, I did a lot of various things. I organized exhibitions at several SFeraKons, later I also did lecture which tend to be a lot of fun even though they tend to run lone, over 2 hours. Or so I am told. I also contributed to the Parsek fanzine and I edited several story collections published by SFera. I also served as president of the SFERA Award Jury for more than a decade. Recently, the UBIQ magazine switched to SFera so now this also counts as one of the things I do in fandom. Other than go to conventions.

Your lectures at Croatian cons are legendary – you are always the last item in the day so you can freely run over 3 hours. Tell us about that and about the SFeraKon Book Auction?

Yeah, well, I tell them to put me as the last item in the day! OK, the 3-hours lecture was the one on cryptozoology, which is really a broad subject (I wrote a book about it in 2003). But today, I usually take two hours. Maybe I’m getting old. J I did lectures on various subjects. I might very well be the first in Croatia who lectured on such things as virtual reality and nanotechnology. Then I switched to movie lectures, in which I choose important SF movies and try to interpret them from the viewpoint of present-day global situation. And I believe that the truly great SF films can be interpreted in that manner, which proves their value.

SFeraKon Book Auction, 2011, Photo by Mario Topic
Photo by Mario Topic

Book Auction? Well, I think the first one was led by Igor Tabak, sometime in early 2000s. But midway into that auction, he was needed somewhere else (being an organizer), and I was present and he asked me if I can carry on. He was auctioning books like it was Sotheby’s or something. Me, I started auctioning them like it was cattle down on the range, all I was missing was a Stetson on my head. And so, now I run the SFeraKon Auction. I developed a system, pretty basic, but it works. I have precious assistants (I thank them very much!), who handle the books and keep track on what is sold to whom and for how much. And the auction grew in size and number of books sold. But I try to see it as fun, and as an opportunity for everybody to get a book they would like to have.

At SFera, you also did the movie program SF Vintage and you work with the Fantastic Zagreb film festival. What are you doing this year?

Well, yes that was a downscaled version of my convention movie lectures (that I hope to turn into a book of essays someday). I also hold lectures at Fantastic Zagreb film festival. In 2012, it was disasters in the SF movies. Last year it was about King Kong (the 1933 original), and this year it was about Alien.

Last year, I also selected several stories by the most prominent Croatian SF authors to be included in the program publication. Sadly, they gave up on that idea this year. Probably had something to do with funding. But the important thing is that Fantastic Zagreb is now in its fourth year, and we have every reason to hope that this festival will continue to bring us the most recent SF and horror movies. All this, together with numerous SF conventions and books, will place Croatia very firmly on the European, and possibly global, SF map.



One thought on “Interview: Aleksandar Žiljak

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.