Showcased Writer: Julian Hoffman

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInterviewed by: Katelyn Gomes

“Trinkets” Published in Silk Road No. 11


Julian Hoffman was born in England and grew up in Canada. Since 2000, he and his wife have lived in a mountain village beside the Prespa Lakes in northern Greece. His book, The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World, was chosen by Terry Tempest Williams as the winner of the 2012 AWP Award Series for Creative Nonfiction. His short stories and essays have recently appeared in EarthLines, Southern Humanities Review, Kyoto Journal, and The Briar Cliff Review. He is currently working on a collection of short stories entitled All the Places We Never Went. You can find out more about Julian at his blog, Notes from Near and Far.

What originally inspired you to write a story that incorporated parts of Yugoslavian history?

A couple of things sparked this story. The first was having a Slovenian friend visit us in northern Greece where my wife and I live. The lake we live beside is shared by three countries – Greece, Albania, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYR of Macedonia) – and one afternoon the three of us went down for a swim. There in the water, our friend, who lived some 1,200 kilometres north of us, looked over at the first village that you can see in FYR of Macedonia, just the other side of the invisible border that runs through the lake, and said: “Wow. That was my country at one time.”

Returning home, our friend would travel back through a number of different, independent states that only a few years earlier had all been one. In the 1990s, Yugoslavia – which simply means South Slavs – became a byword for atrocities and ethnic strife, yet for many decades it was an extraordinary (for right or wrong) project of nation-building that brought together Croats, Serbs, Slovenians, Bosnians, Kosovars, Montenegrins and Macedonians into one country. My friend’s comment reminded me that for a lot of people the splintering of Yugoslavia dismantled their sense of place, allegiance and identity.

The second spark for the story was travelling to Skopje, the capital of FYR of Macedonia, and seeing its old railway station, parts of which had somehow survived the awful 1963 earthquake that destroyed so much of the city, killed over a thousand people, and left 200,000 homeless. The railway clock still marks the terrible moment of loss and destruction – 5:17AM – having never moved forward a single second since that day. When I saw the hour and minute hands suspended in time like that, I knew it needed to be a part of the story.

How did you decide to write a character whose life and desires are so based in preserving the past?

I began exploring Skopje a little bit more with each visit, delving into the old bazaar and seeking out of the artefacts of its past while walking around the modern city built from the ruins of the old after the earthquake. One day I passed a small office in one of the city streets. Through the large glass windows I could see two middle-aged men sitting in a room surrounded by photos of Marshal Tito, the former leader of Yugoslavia, alongside books by him and other Communist politicians and thinkers. I was fascinated by this place and the small Yugoslavian Communist flags that were flown from a table outside that signaled another, now non-existent, country and era. I kept asking myself: Who were these men? How did they go about their lives in this new country? Who were these citizens who believed so deeply in the old system? Through the character of Vlado, I wanted to explore these questions. Much has been said about the violence of the Yugoslavian wars, but I wanted to write about a different kind of conflict, the inner struggle between old and new, between two differing political philosophies.

Which side are you on when it comes to preserving the past or embracing the future?

For me it’s not a question of one or the other, but rather to ask what kind of a future we’re embracing and what kind of a past we’re preserving. I look ahead and see a future of climate change and species extinction because of the way we live our lives, yet at the same time I see a greater degree of social justice and equality than we’ve experienced in the past, including beneficial advances in science and medicine. There’s value in preserving aspects of the past, but other parts of it we’ve thankfully left behind. I don’t think past and future are mutually exclusive ideas.  They are simply the brackets around the choices we make today.

What was your approach to writing a story about the juxtaposition between the past and future?

Before I could write about the past I had to begin learning the city’s history. I didn’t know anything at all about Skopje before I moved to the region. While reading about the place, I discovered that the city had been the focus of much of the world’s attention at the time of the earthquake. John-Paul Sartre spoke out, saying “Skopje is not a film, not a thriller where we guess the chief event. It is a concentration of man’s struggle for freedom, with a result which inspires further struggles and no acceptance of defeat.” John F. Kennedy authorized the U.S. Department of Defense to send members of the 8th Army there to provide assistance to the injured and homeless. The Italian novelist Alberto Moravia famously said that “Skopje is the responsibility of all of us,” that one day we might all “become Skopjians.” Artists including Pablo Picasso donated paintings in the aftermath when the city was in the process of restoring its museums and other cultural sites, and countries such as Romania, Mexico and the UK gave considerable aid in the vast job of reconstruction. And yet, within years, the city had slipped from the world’s view again, like so many places around us. Despite today’s headlines, will we remember the Kurdish Syrian city of Kobani in a few years’ time? Julia Whitty writes that, “For all the stories we come to know, however obliquely, thousands more are lost forever.” As a writer, there are deep layers of history – personal, public and political – to excavate and sift through in any place we choose, whether it’s somewhere famous and far away, or nearby and nearly forgotten. There’s much in the world that needs remembering.

What do you draw upon for inspiration when you’re writing?

The infinite possibilities of place. That, together with the natural world, is my sustaining inspiration. As Alix Kates writes: “Within walking distance of any spot on Earth there’s probably more than enough mystery to investigate in a lifetime.”