‘Keep writing—no matter what’

By CiaraShook

As a writer, Aleksandar “Sasha” Hemon said he believes it is hard to create something within the privacy of one’s mind and to expose the creation to strangers.

“This transference from a very personal space to a very public space is hard and you offer something you spend six, nine or 10 years thinking about,” Hemon said.

In just one decade, Hemon has published four books and countless articles, op-eds and columns in English and Bosnian. As an artist in residence for the Fiction Writing Department for the spring 2010 term, Hemon has brought a pair of fresh eyes to the classroom in the two Fiction Seminar courses he leads. He will be one of more than a dozen on the roster of authors for Story Week, Columbia’s annual literature festival, which started March 14 and runs through March 19.

Randy Albers, chair of the Fiction Writing Department, said as an excellent award-winning writer, Hemon has a comprehensive understanding of techniques and fictional material.

“He brings not only a great deal of expertise and quality, but also a different approach to teaching,” Albers said. “We are pleased and honored to have him as part of the faculty for the spring semester, and of course we’re glad to claim him as a Chicago writer.”

Hemon said he considers his residency not just a job, but an honor.

“People who go [to Columbia] are involved with the life of the city,” he said. “Story Week is an example.”

Laura Fisher, a senior fiction writing major currently enrolled in one of Hemon’s Fiction Seminar sections, said his method differs from those used by other Columbia professors.

“We do a lot more of analyzing text, but that’s just helping my writing grow,” Fisher said.

Hemon said writing requires a great deal of patience. He urged aspiring writers to keep their confidence.

“What you’re working on is bad, and is bad for a long time,” Hemon said. “If you’re writing a book for six years, it’s bad for five years and 11 months. The hard thing is to keep going through it. Keep writing—no matter what.”

Hemon grew up in Sarajevo, in former Yugoslavia and what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina. He said he has had a passion for writing since an early age.

“I thought I could extend the pleasure of reading by writing,” he said. “I remember trying to start a novel at the age of 12 or 13 about problems an adolescent has with his [or her] parents.”

Hemon attended the University of Sarajevo in the late ’80s where he majored in general literature and wrote his bachelor’s thesis on James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

“What I like about [‘Ulysses’] is the demand it puts upon the reader,” he said. “It is not the kind of literature that worries about readers being bored and running off to watch television. It’s not catering to the vacillating demands of mediocrity. No writer would do that today and no publisher would think that kind of reading is profitable.”

Hemon visited America in 1992 as a young journalist and visited friends in the United States and Canada. He stayed in Chicago when Sarajevo came under siege during the Bosnian War later that year.

Though Hemon doesn’t have many family members left in Sarajevo, he still visits the city two or three times each year and has a number of close friends and connections.

Hemon began publishing books and collections of short stories in 2000. He has collected awards for almost each release, such as the National Magazine Award for Fiction from The New Yorker in 2009, the “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation in 2004, the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003 and the John C. Zacharis First Book Award from Ploughshares in 2001 for his debut, “The Question of Bruno.”

One of his later books, “The Lazarus Project,” is based on the true story of Lazarus Averbuch, an Eastern European immigrant in Chicago who was killed in 1908 by George Shippy, Chicago’s police chief at the time.

“The Lazarus Project” began as most of Hemon’s projects begin—with a lot of idling.  At the start of a new project, Hemon said his creative process begins with thinking and avoiding work until the pressure of writing can no longer be avoided.

“I think about [the project] for a very long time; and there are stories I’ve written and I’ve thought about for nine years,” Hemon said. “When I started with ‘The Lazarus Project,’ I’d thought about it for at least two to four years.  It’s idling for awhile, but what I start, I finish.”