Sara Nović is the author of Girl at War, a novel of incredible richness that investigates the devastation of the Yugoslavian civil war and the deep yearning for identity and place by one its survivors. The critically acclaimed book has been selected as a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and garnered a starred review from Booklist. USA Today also celebrates what is truly a “shattering debut.” Sara is a graduate of the MFA program at Columbia University where she studied fiction and translation. She is the fiction editor at Blunderbuss Magazine and teaches writing at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Columbia University. As part of Words After War’s July book club selection, Sara answers a few questions from Jesse Goolsby, the author of I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them.
Jesse Goolsby: What is the origin story of Girl at War? Where were you when you wrote the first word?
Sara Nović: Girl at War grew in large part out of of stories told to me by people who had lived them. After I graduated high school I went to stay with some friends and family in Croatia. There everyone was keen to talk to me about the war and what they had experienced; I’ve always been an avid journaller, and I recorded these stories in my notebook. Then, returning to the US for college, I was pretty shocked to find that most of my peers at school didn’t know about the war, or even where these countries were on a map. I happened to be in an introductory creative writing class, and wrote a short story about a character who has a traumatic war experience and struggles to deal with it years later on the eve of Milošević’s death in the Hague. My professor called me into his office hours and encouraged me to expand it. I had never considered the possibility that I might write a novel, but I continued writing out in all directions, using what my friends and family had given me, doing a lot of research, and of course developing a fictional world and characters, but that first story sits pretty much intact as the end of Part One in the novel now.
JG: Foundational to much of our most revered literature is the personal search and yearning for identity. And this is certainly true of your protagonist Ana. I love the range of her quest for self knowledge as it includes not just political and cultural dissonance between her two homes, but also notions of family, friendship, violence, and intellectual curiosity. This showcase of Ana’s yearning for connection is central to the novel, and I wonder if this focus is something that you had in mind from the get go, or if it intensified and/or shifted as you wrote the book.
SN: The short story version of these characters also had a 1991 Yugoslavia/ early 00s America back-and-forth, so it was definitely something I was thinking about early in the writing process. But the way I understood identity, particularly with respect to the different groups involved in the war, changed a lot. I started out feeling angry– a more nationalistic stance on the conflict, and anger at the fact that the West mishandled or was ignorant about what had happened. But the more I wrote the more I understood the complexities and nuances involved for all parties; I think at one point Ana considers something like “the guilt of one side doesn’t prove the innocence of the other,” and that was something I learned alongside my character.
JG: One of the elements of the novel I most appreciate is your ambitious and rewarding use of non-linear chronology. How did you arrive at the decision to utilize this narrative structure?
SN: Well first of all, thanks! I knew the time jump would probably divide readers, because it shifts the tension from the obvious place (life and death) to Ana’s more internal struggle. But I thought it was important because, after the extreme violence of Part One, I kind of wanted to give readers a breather and make sure they didn’t get fatigued by the horrors of war and then stop paying attention to them. I was also thinking a lot about trauma, memory and fragmentation while writing the novel, and knew I wanted to highlight the nonlinear nature of trauma, and the fact that just because a war is over physically doesn’t mean one can always separate from it or leave it behind.
JG: What is your writing process? Do you have any superstitions related to your process?
SN: Well, I write by hand–I find it flows from my head better and prevents me from the kind of obsessive editing that backspace, copy and paste lend themselves to in the early stages. I also like to be in a public space with other people around–I wrote quite a lot of Girl at War on NJ Transit, and that was great because you can’t get up and go anywhere; you have to keep your butt in the seat. That being said, if I do happen to be working at home, there is a lot of pacing, me playing with my baseball glove, and procrasticleaning the apartment.
JG: Who is an emerging author that we should know about, and what excites you about her or his work?
SN: Well I’m very excited for Alexandra Kleeman’s first book, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, to come out in August, and not just because she’s a friend–she is such an original thinker, a person who has the kind of thoughts I wish my brain would think, and I can’t wait to see how that translates into a novel.
JG: What are three books that you’d recommend to readers that investigate war in one way or another? And why these three works in particular?
SN: Ana reads Sebald in Girl at War and I think really anything by him is worth a read from a “war” perspective. The war rarely happens in the forefront of his books–it’s more that it’s seeped into the marrow of everything, which is, of course, how war really operates–for many, it’s never actually “finished.” Love Thy Neighbor by Peter Maass is an accessible narrative journalism account of the conflict in Bosnia that’s a moving read. And pretty much anything by Primo Levi or Tadeusz Borowski.
JG: Do you have something in mind for your next project? If so, how is it going?
SN: I don’t know much, but I do know there are several deaf characters in the unformed “thing” I’ve been working on lately, so one question I’ve been thinking about a lot is how to put sign language on the page, and whether such a thing is even possible. Everything in terms of plot development is kind of up in the air right now, but I’m excited to be working on something new.
Words After War is a literary organization with a mission to bring veterans and civilians together to examine war and conflict through the lens of literature.
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