Interview with Tamas Dobozy
- by Linda Morefield
- April 4, 2013
Tamas Dobozy is a veteran short story writer who has just released his latest collection, Siege 13, which won the prestigious 2012 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
Siege 13 takes a long hard look into “dark nights of the soul” where the end result has nothing to do with treading a spiritual path but more toward finding a way to live with yourself, or not. As with Greek tragedy, these stories of betrayal (of others and self), revenge, change, and transformation impact not only participants but also their families through generations. These tales both narrate and witness the power of fiction, the writing and rewriting the narratives of life, the search to find a bearable self.
The atrocity driving the characters and actions of Siege 13 is a long forgotten battle, one of the longest and bloodiest of World War II, the Siege of Budapest, over 100- days of fighting throughout the streets of Budapest. The civilians of Budapest were caught between the savage and implacable demands of both Stalin and Hitler for victory no matter what. The “what” was the slaughter of an estimated 80,000 Soviet troops, 38,000 German and Hungarian troops, and 38,000 Hungarian civilians.
The Siege and its impact on the civilian population are portrayed with such brutally vivid and immediate details, and the narrative voice has such authority that the scenes read as if you were there. If you were, you must have been very young. I am reminded of Tolstoy’s depiction in War and Peace of the disastrous 1812 French invasion of Russia. Tolstoy was not yet born at the time of the events, but his invasion scenes have entered western imaginations as “the facts” of what happened. Siege 13 has now become a “truth” of those horrific Budapest days between November 1944 and February 1945.
What were your sources for this re-imagination of the Siege of Budapest?
My main source was a book called The Siege of Budapest, in translation, by a Hungarian historian called Krisztian Ungvary. It was invaluable. Beyond that I did a fair bit of plundering of articles on JSTOR at Wilfrid Laurier University, where I work. But the most compelling stuff, I must say, were the anecdotes on the siege I heard from my family, and also living in Budapest itself, where so many remnants of the siege remain visible (I lived in the city from 1993-95, though I also spent a fair bit of time there as a kid, since we used to travel to Hungary every other summer).
What was it that propelled you into this recreation of both the event itself and its on-going emotional and psychological ramifications?
Well, it was a terrible time, and it left its mark on the collective and individual psyches of a generation of Hungarians, who then passed it on to their children and in some cases grand-children. In many ways it’s an emblematic event of 20th century Hungary—caught between one worse and another worse choice (the Nazis on one side and the Soviets on the other). So clearly it’s an event that really works on multiple levels—personal, political, historical, cultural—all at the same time, perfect material for a writer. In many ways, this is where I come from, this moment in history, so it was a personal exploration as well; trying to figure out if some of the enigmas and mysteries of my childhood—revolving around my immediate family—could be given narrative shape and sense. So much had to be imagined because people are pretty reluctant to talk about this stuff. My grandmother, for instance, finally got to read a story of mine in Hungarian translation, and had a tough go of it, because it reminded her of that period and she found it almost unbearable (the story was “The Restoration of the Villa Where Tibor Kalman Once Live”).
Although each story in the collection can stand alone, the impact of the sum of these stories is so much larger than each unique tale, the ordering of the stories as carefully arranged as the narrative sequencing within each separate story.
The first two stories “teach” the reader how to read the collection, establishing themes and direction. The first story (“The Atlas of B. Gorbe”), set in contemporary NYC, references another “siege,” 9/11. Without directly referring to the events in Hungary 1944, the story implies its ever-present impact. The popular and successful children’s author, B. Gorbe, is an émigré from Hungary. Although seen in his American life, he is clearly trapped in his past and only able to have momentary escape in the writing and reading aloud of his fiction. What has caused his troubles and those of his institutionalized wife?
Not sure if you wanted me to answer this question, if it was rhetorical, but his troubles really stem from his wife’s illness, his love for her, and the way in which the children’s books he writes allow him to imagine or create an alternative reality where they are together. In many cases in the book this is the very role of fiction and art in general, to permit an alternative history or ordering to events that offers and illusory and temporary redemption or salvation. Sometimes illusory and temporary is the best we can get. [
This story lays the groundwork for understanding the multi-generational effects of the Siege that resonate throughout the book. The other stories in the collection provide a deeper context for this powerful tale that well stands on its own.
There are so many depths and resonances in these stories, which make me intensely curious about the order of composition. Were the stories written in the order that they appear in your book?
No, the third-person stories were written much earlier, sometimes years earlier. The first person stories were written after several manuscripts, written entirely in third person, had been rejected by publishers and agents, or failed aesthetically. Once I had the third-person stories, I started envisioning a manuscript in which they’d be set between first-person personal reminiscences, and linked in terms of theme, mood, etc. as you’ve noted.
Did you plan on writing a linked collection of stories?
Yes, the book was always going to be a short story cycle. I’m a short story writer, but most major publishers want novels, so I thought this would be a way to write a novel without having to become a novelist. I’m happy with the book, though I don’t think it’s a novel. In fact, I know it’s not a novel, because it does something no novel can do—have completed tightly structured stories, at the same time as it presents an overall pattern of fragmentation and dissolution. A novel can do either of these things but never at the same time; only a short story cycle can do that. And it’s perfect form for trauma, which by its very nature is somehow horrifically specific but ultimately elusive or nightmarish.
Or did you discover in your writing that you kept returning to these themes?
Well, I always had in mind a book on the siege as historical and political and personal trauma, so it was a very purposeful and pointed exercise.
Did you write other stories during this time that were not thematically related?
Yeah, I would take a break now and again to write other things, as ideas came to me. The truth is that I write many more short stories than go into my books, and even publish a number of them in journals that then do go on to be included in a book. I guess I’ve arrived to a place where if I’m going to put together a book of stories it has to be more than a grab-bag of stuff; it has to have some principle of cohesion beyond the genre of the short story itself.
Were you writing stories on this theme that were not included in the collection?
Yes, originally the book was called, “Siege 16,” and had 16 stories in it instead of 13. But as I was going through the careful and painstaking process of ordering and sequencing the book, I found that I simply didn’t have the right place for those extra three. They disturbed the flow somehow, or jarred the rhythm, so I cut them out. One of them, “Old Water,” has just been accepted by “The Saranac Review,” and revisits Arpad Hollo from “The Beautician,” but much later in time than the events of that story (.e.g. after he and the narrator have become friends again). I have a few others as well that I’m still trying to publish, but I’m done writing about the siege for now, so whatever appears in the future will be from the period of writing for Siege 13. Maybe one day some publisher will want to put out a deluxe version of this book, like one of those endlessly reissued Bowie albums, and we can include these stories as “bonus tracks” at the end.
I’m also curious about your decision to alternate points of view among the stories, beginning with first person, then third person or omniscient, and then back to first. How did you decide what voice to use for each story? What impact were you striving for in alternating viewpoints?
It’s a pretty mechanical decision. I just know ahead of time that the next piece I write will be in the first-person, and it’s as simple as that. There are no considerations other than the initial decision, all very purposeful. This mechanical writing, of course, often leads me into dead ends, where a story doesn’t work, and I have to throw it away. But as I said above, I decided on the final writing of this book that I was going to alternate between 3rd and 1st person because it was important that our understanding of the siege oscillate between the moment of the event itself, in all its objective terror, and it’s legacy, which is of course a deeply personal form of haunting, so that was my approach going into the writing. I think I’ve answered both your questions here, but if I haven’t, just let me know.
The Rogers Writers’ Trust judges wrote that Siege 13 “…illustrates once again that old maxim: the short story can be both as broad and as deep as a novel.” This book is your third published book of short stories. Many of your short stories have been published in prestigious literary magazines. Could you comment on your preference for short stories over the novel? Have you been tempted to write a novel?
I’ll answer both of these questions together again. The short story is a different form from the novel, obviously, and although it’s seen as an apprentice form by agents and publishers, I think this is misguided. There is nothing to suggest that a good story writer will become a good novelist (and there’s a lot of evidence bearing this out, I think). But everyone wants novels because that’s where the glory and lucre are. But I’m not too tempted by either (though I’ll take both if they come my way by accident, sure). The short story is a beautiful little precise machine, whereas a novel is a kind of tank. The limitations of the short story kind of inspire me, oddly, or whatever word you want to use, so that the constraints actually generate material, whereas writing a novel I get lost and bored by all the space and possibility. Ultimately I come to page 100 or so and think, “I could do all of this—the whole thing—in twenty-five pages tops.” I have written a couple of novels, yes, one that I was unfortunate enough to publish, and wish I hadn’t (hence leaving it off my list of published works), and another that’s sitting in a box, under a life-sentence of solitary confinement.
I’m intrigued and enchanted by the compelling cover of Siege 13, the anthropomorphized elephant and hedgehog. The official, uniformed elephant is carrying the night-dress clad baby(?) hedgehog down a flight of stairs. A rescue? An escape? Or?
Ha. I have no idea! The cover threw me when I first saw it, and I resisted it. But I’ve so come to completely love it that I have a massive version if it that I was given by the Writers’ Trust people in my office. Michel and Allan’s work totally captures the atmosphere and aesthetic of the stories, and I was just too blind, too close to the work, to initially see it. God bless those guys. For me the cover resonates most strongly with the epigraph from Welty, about people being beasts, and with the Zoo story, of course. I think that’s what Michel was thinking of it when he chose the illustration, but probably he was exercising a great deal of intuition as well. For me, what makes a thing work is more “feel” than “sense,” if that makes any sense.
Is it just happenstance, or is there some reference here to Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay on Tolstoy’s view of history, The Hedgehog and The Fox, where the hedgehog wants to relate everything to one central system while the fox sees variety and differences everywhere. And the elephant? Is this the elephant that never forgets? Not forgetting, and the ways a person doesn’t forget, is another of your major themes.
I can only laugh here. This sounds totally plausible, and is probably the best interpretation I’ve yet heard. Let’s go with it.
Allan Kausch’s cover art embodies much of what your book is about: differing views of history (personal and political), telling and retelling into stories of escape, change, metamorphosis.
Am I reading too much into this? How closely did you work with the artist?
I didn’t work at all with the designer or cover artist when the book was being put together. I had no input except a little bit of tweaking on the placement of the title. I got to know Allan afterwards via email (we still haven’t met in person), and he’s been totally great, super supportive of the book, a brilliant artist whose work I love, and a writer himself.
Although I’ve now read these stories twice, Siege 13 remains on my bedside table for yet another read. What books are in the to-be-read pile on your bedside table? Who are the writers who have influenced you? Who are the writers that you love to read?
Right now I’m reading a translation of Kafka by Michael Hoffman. I have real trouble with Kafka. He bores me. So a friend suggested this translation, and I must say it’s really excellent, and I find myself finally fascinated by this writing. Below that, on my stack, is “Dublinesque,” by Vila-Matas, below that Tim Bowling’s book of poems, “Tenderman,” and below that, “The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts” by Le Clezio, and below that, “Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness” by Oe, and below that “Danube,” by Claudio Magris, and below that, “Cruising Paradise,” by Sam Shepard. All great writers I’ve read before. I’m a huge fan of Kenzaburo Oe (“Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age” is probably my favorite story cycle of all time), of Stuart Dybek (probably my favorite short story writer), Mavis Gallant, Alvaro Mutis (if I ever write a novel it will probably be like one of the Maqrol books), Eudora Welty (“The Golden Apples” is a close second for me in terms of short story cycles), Camilo Jose Cela, Eugene O’Neil, Thomas Pynchon, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gilbert Sorrentino (“Little Casino” is really a short story cycle), Clarice Lispector, William Faulkner, Derek Walcott, Tennessee Williams. Those are some of the main ones, in no particular order. The ones who influenced me and the ones I love to read are one and the same.
What do your readers have to look forward to as your next writing project?
I wish I knew. I’m doing a lot of reading on the 1956 revolution, but whether a book comes of it, or just a story or two, is anyone’s guess. It took me seven years to write the last one, and I’m pretty happy with the thought of spending another seven years writing the next one.