Welcome to the four hundred and sixty-sixth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today is my birthday (which I’m spending at a crime & humour writing conference… woo hoo!) and I’m delighted to bring you my interview with non-fiction author Jasha Levi. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Jasha. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Jasha: I now live in Hightstown, New Jersey, USA, a small square mile surrounded by East Windsor. In my native Sarajevo, I wrote love poems and later in Belgrade newspaper articles, and I composed a few books on foreign affairs, but I was 89 before I published my non-fiction report on my life.
Morgen: Wow. I started writing in my late 30s and kept thinking that if Barbara Cartland can write in her 90s then I have plenty of time, and Mary Wesley (of The Camomile Lawn, amongst others) was 74 when her first book was published – you’re an inspiration to any new writers reading this. You write non-fiction, how do you decide what to write about?
Jasha: My youthful ambition was to write the big European novel, but all I could master was a good turn of a journalistic phrase. I became a star reporter and commentator at an early age.
Morgen: What have you had published to-date?
Jasha: In addition to several books on foreign affairs written in my native Serbo-Croatian in the first third of my life, I have written in English “The Last Exile – Tapestry of a life”, “Requiem for a Country – A history lesson”, both available across platforms: in print and digital form. A week ago, I released a Kindle Select book, “Blood Without Honey”. They are all described on my website: www.jashalevi.com.
Morgen: Ah, I’m thinking of going with Amazon’s Select option for a couple of my novels – you’ll have to let me know how you get on. So you’re self-published, what lead to you going your own way?
Jasha: As a celebrity journalist back in Yugoslavia 1945-1956, I had publisher go after me to let them print my next book. I had no problem getting assignments from Parade, Saturne and other periodicals, as well as with a popular / scientific contribution for a Cambridge U. Press textbook. But by the time I decided to write my memoir in 2009, the publishing industry has been turned upside down. After receiving a cold shoulder from agents, most of them without even reading the manuscript, I went, as you say, my own way.
Morgen: It’s happening to many, many authors and we’re so lucky (fortunate) to have that option these days. Presumably you chose the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Jasha: The blame is totally assignable to me. I did ask a few friends what they thought. Friends never turn you down if they want to stay friends. But it is hard to buttonhole strangers on the street to see what they think of your title; the tenor on the street is such, that someone may turn you in to the police as scammer, stalker or worse.
Morgen: They say more and more people are reading these days so you would have been unlucky to be carted off. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Jasha: I am very much engaged in supervising the translation of my works into Italian and Serbo-Croatian. It helps a great deal that I know both languages and can discuss the fine points of the manuscript with some intelligence.
Morgen: I have a very nice lady (http://librini.wordpress.com) who translates some of these interviews and puts them on her blog. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Jasha: In my experience, deadlines have always cured me of it. I write something, often several things every day. Today, I finished the Prologue to the Serbo-Croatian edition of The Last Exile.
Morgen: One of my favourite quotes is Douglas Adams’ “I love deadlines; the sound as they woosh by” but I’m like you – tell me when I have to do something by and I’ll do it (sometimes only the day before but invariably I get it done). The worst thing anyone can do it say there’s no hurry (although I’m grateful when I’m stupidly busy but it does tend to go to the bottom of a very deep pile). Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully formed?
Jasha: My essays and short articles tend to be fully formed, except for a tweak here and there. My full-length book have been re-written several times and professionally edited into a dozen versions before they are released.
Morgen: That’s not a bad thing. You do want them to be as good as they can be. Do you have to do much research?
Jasha: For my memoirs, yes. Time does ravage memory.
Morgen: I’m only 45 (today ) but I know the feeling. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Jasha: My novel a clef.
Morgen: Do you pitch for submissions and / or are you commissioned to write?
Jasha: Neither anymore. At 91, I write because of an irresistible urge to beat the inevitable.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Jasha: Somewhere in the papers I misplaced, there are rejections. I stopped collecting them after the first dozen.
Morgen: A lot of writers do. Do you enter any non-fiction competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Jasha: I don’t enter competitions. Polemics, yes.
Morgen: Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Jasha: I don’t have an agent. Had one showed up when I first sought to be traditionally published, I’d probably still be saddled with one.
Morgen: Oh dear, I guess that answers the second part of that question. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Jasha: After at first rejecting selling my “product”, I ended up pretty savvy in marketing, if I may say so. Marketing isn’t my cup of tea, but I decided that I am at least as intelligent as many self-promoters.
Morgen: You do sound it. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Jasha: I have no complaints, none whatsoever, as far as writing is concerned. I grumble a lot about everything else.
Morgen: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Jasha: If it is in you, let it out. But don’t forget to learn to write the best way you can. Read everybody else, and first master the classics both for their excellence as writers as for their mastery of language.
Morgen: Reading is the most recommended tip in these interviews and we all work so hard that it’s essential R&R. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Jasha: The table would have to be much bigger to accommodate my role models from the ancients to this day. I’d serve them lamb on a spit with an eggplant dish on the side.
Morgen: I’m sure we can find you a table with extendable leaves… I’d love to know why they’re called ‘leaves’… anyone? Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Jasha: “If you don’t have an enemy, your mother will give birth to one.”
Morgen: I love that. And if your mother doesn’t, most writers will come up with them. Do you write fiction? If so, do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Jasha: My life sounds like fiction but isn’t. Once a writer made a special for NBC inspired by a party at my NY home, but I disliked the actor they cast to play me.
Morgen: That’s a shame. Do you plot or just get an idea and run with it?
Jasha: Wish I had an imagination to plot and invent. As it is, I have enough material from reality to last me seemingly forever.
Morgen: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Jasha: I have tried every narrative method, but my strength is reporting.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Morgen: It’s very therapeutic. My study overlooks my back garden so I see every day how rarely I go out there and blitz it. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Jasha: Due to the type of stuff I write about, I consult Wikipedia and dictionaries.
Morgen: I’m a big fan of Wikipedia, especially when interviewees mention people I’ve never heard of. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Jasha: Everything. It is an immortal profession, regardless of the philistines which are trying to steal into it.
Morgen: It is and doing these interviews has made me realise how many writers there are out there. Even with eBooks becoming as popular as they are, I still believe paper books won’t disappear – too many people love reading them. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Morgen: Thank you, Jasha. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Jasha: Watch out, it might give me ideas. As we say in Bosnia, I am full of those as a bitch of fleas.
Morgen: <laughs> Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Jasha: Have you gotten used for so many people unable to read your name as Morgen?
Morgen: I have, although it’s a tad annoying when it’s mentioned twice in my email address (email@example.com) and people still get it wrong in emails… and/or call me Mr when there’s a picture of me on my blog (both happen surprisingly often) but hey, I’ve been called worse. Thank you, Jasha.
I then invited Jasha to include an extract of his writing and this is the Prologue to the forthcoming Serbo-Croatian edition of The Last Exile…
“It was a lamentable fact that virtually no supplies had been conveyed by sea to the 222,000 followers of Tito. (…) These stalwarts were holding as many Germans in Yugoslavia as the combined Anglo-American forces were holding in Italy south of Rome. The Germans had been thrown into some confusion after the collapse of Italy and the Patriots had gained control of large stretches of the coast. We had not, however, seized the opportunity. The Germans had recovered and were driving the Partisans out bit by bit. The main reason for this was the artificial line of responsibility which ran through the Balkans. (…) Considering that the Partisans had given us such a generous measure of assistance at almost no cost to ourselves, it was of high importance to ensure that their resistance was maintained and not allowed to flag.”—Winston Churchill, 24 November 1943
It seems only fitting to start the introduction to this edition with the quotation from the leader of Western European resistance to Hitler.
Its date coincides with the time Mussolini fell in Italy, and I was fleeing Asolo, where we were confined as enemy civilians since November 1941. By the time I reached Rome, to hide in it for another 9 months from the Nazi’s and Black Shirts, the Allies have established a beachhead at Anzio and were fighting to break through the Gustav Line at Monte Cassino.
Thanks to Churchill’s change of heart and his decision to finally acknowledge the realities on the Yugoslav battleground, Tito’s recruiting station was established in Rome as soon as the Allies liberated it. I joined to restore the opportunity which, in Churchill’s own words, they missed in Dalmatia.
Thus, this most apt of quotations marks the two crucial parts of my life: survival as a Jew in WWII Italy, and my journey into the building of the new Yugoslavia. My new, optimistic life, lasted 10 years before — disillusioned in false promises of democracy — I disassociated myself with the country of my dreams.
I wanted to be a writer since the early days of my youth in Sarajevo in the ‘salon” we held on banks of the Miljacka. I studied architecture in Belgrade because, as a Jew in Hitler’s Europe, I had to make a compromise between my love of art and a more practical way of making a living.
I never became an architect. The Germans make sure of that when they attacked Yugoslavia in April 1941. As to writing, I experienced a meteoric rise as a newsman in Borba, where they had no openings, but admitted me in bookkeeping. I started free-lancing and became famous (locally, of course) as a newsman, in good part owing to my knowledge of languages.
And a synopsis of his latest book…
The Bosnian conflict of the 1990s was only the latest of the barbaric fratricidal wars which have plagued my beloved hometown in my former homeland.
After finally uniting in 1918, following the assassination of Crown Prince Ferdinand in Sarajevo which served as a pretext for WWI, the South Slavs were torn apart by the German invasion in 1940s, which inflamed a religion-driven genocide. The country was made whole again, thanks to the Partisan war of liberation and the strong hand of Tito’s “fraternity and unity” movement, but after his death the country disintegrated. The sons and daughters of Yugoslavia fought In the 1990s against each other and divorced in the flames of a cruel genocide. Their marriage had lasted less than three quarters of a century.
The irrationality of the atavistic Balkan conflicts makes it hard to explain. The recent movie Land of Blood and Honey tried to do so and in the eyes of Sarajevo witnesses of the infamous three-year siege failed.
A native son, uprooted by the first Bosnian genocide in WWII, witnessing the second from abroad, I tried to make sense of it all in my two books, The Last Exile and Requiem for a Country. To further help me explain the inexplicable, Blood Without Honey now brings in the witness of my newly “found” niece, Inga Geko, a mother of a young child, herself a victim who endured the infamous three-year siege by sectarian forces in the once most tolerant of the cities in Europe.
Author of Requiem for a Country, The Last Exile, Blood Without Honey, and several books in Serbo-Croatian, Jasha Levi was born in 1921 in Sarajevo. He studied architecture at the University of Belgrade and in 1941 participated in the overthrow of the pro-Nazi regime. Civilian internee of war 1941-43 in Italy. Fought for liberation of Dalmatia 1944-45.
Correspondent, Paris Peace Conference, 1946; editor, BORBA on the Tito-Stalin rift, 1948; reporter, Korean Peace Talks, the US and the UN.
In 1956, took asylum in NY in support of the Hungarian Revolution.
Retired Director of Recording for the Blind and In Touch Networks. Founder of The IndiePENdents.org.
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
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