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Author Josip Novakovich writes off epiphanies

click to enlarge Snowbound: Award-winning author  Josip Novakovich - will read his work at Colorado College.
  • Snowbound: Award-winning author Josip Novakovich will read his work at Colorado College.

Croatian-born Josip Novakovich doesn't discriminate. Whatever literary form he's currently writing is his favorite, though he's best known for his short stories.

Winner of a Whiting Writers' Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, Novakovich has published two collections of essays, a novel, three short story collections, an anthology and two acclaimed books on the craft of writing.

He came to New York City from Croatia at age 20. Much of his work addresses the madness of ethnic divisiveness and war, based on the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and ethnic conflict there. But Novakovich considers himself an explorer of human nature. Notably, he writes in an adopted language, what he has referred to as a "stepmother tongue."

"English is a lingua franca," he says. "Many of us coming to the United States from other countries grew up listening to rock music from America. In Yugoslavia, when I was growing up, movies were not dubbed, so we grew up listening to Westerns. English was the language of imagination for me."

Novakovich currently is working on a novel about immigrants in the U.S. rust belt of the 1920s and '30s. His most recent book, Infidelities, is a collection of short stories "of war and lust," ranging in content from the first shots of World War I to ethnic clashes in the former Yugoslavia to the fate of Balkan immigrants in the modern United States. Irony and satire color his work, taking some of the bite out of essential human tragedy.

One story, "Snow Powder," explores a young boy's revenge fantasies, which come true when he hooks up with a band of Serbian guerilla fighters in the woods surrounding his village.

"I wanted to write about my son's obsession with snow," he says. "He was born in Fargo, North Dakota, into the mythology of cold and snow. It seemed to me to be good material to drive into fantasy, so of course I had to turn it into fiction.

"Boys usually hate their schools," he adds. "I remember when I was a boy, I wondered if our school could be torpedoed, even though we were landlocked."

As a short story writer, Novakovich is inspired by the work of deMaupassant ("enough to visit his grave in Paris"), Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov ("a lot of Russians"), Stephen Crane and contemporaries Angela Carter, Lorrie Moore and Stuart Dybek. While the quality of short stories in contemporary literature is strong, the form's popularity "could be healthier," says Novakovich.

"It seems that in the States, they don't like small things -- small cars, small mountains -- though they tend to have a small attention span, and the short story should be perfect.

"I approach my stories almost as though they were novels. I prefer not to have a big moment, an epiphany. That seems overly optimistic. Things around us are confusing. We need to ponder."

-- Kathryn Eastburn

capsule

Josip Novakovich reading

McHugh Commons at Colorado College, 1090 N. Cascade Ave.

Thursday, Dec. 8, 7 p.m.

Free; call 389-6607 for more information.

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