Before I met Ivan Vladislavic, the strapping Croatian South African author with an ominous forehead and gentle smile, I met Ivan Vladislavic, the man who wrote The Loss Library and Other Stories. I knew him as the man who had been published in scores of languages. I knew him as the man who once said that ‘getting lost is not always a bad thing.’
Meeting the Ivan that I had previously known through his pages felt like eating the same salad with a different dressing—amusing, and infinitely interesting. (I remember putting forth the above analogy to a friend a few days ago, to which she replied, ‘Honey, if you’re going to compare a writer like him to a salad, it better be the best salad you’ve ever tasted.’ Indeed, it was.)
He is so much more than the ink on his pages.
Ivan’s first brush with the written word didn’t fetch him a great book deal but it landed him an editorial position at a small publishing house in South Africa. This was during the days of the apartheid, owing to which literature depended on the ability of publishers to get controversial books ‘out’ (into the hands of the masses) before the government banned them for being ‘politically irresponsible’. He told us about how different the world was, then. He spoke of the tediously exhilarating ways in which manuscripts were edited and about now obsolete (but charming, nevertheless) methods of printing books.
‘When we published books, we published them to create revolutions and lend voices that needed to be heard a much needed platform. We didn’t care if we made money on them and we didn’t care if our books offended the politically correct—we had a vision, and we fought for it every day,’ he said, his eyes moist but twinkling.
He spoke of a time when books were sources of thought and opinion; when books transcended bestseller lists and motion picture tie-ins; when books fuelled fatwas and ended wars; and when books mattered more than red-carpet gowns.
He spoke beautifully, with the kind of passion only the passionate can display.
When I asked him how his publishing career helped his writing, he said, ‘working as an editor forced me to read books with the kind of intense care that I would not have devoted to them, otherwise. This opened up a whole new literary world to me. Storytelling met opinion and I stood back and watched them intersperse into something beautiful.’
Years later, he went back to his first love—writing. Armed with editorial expertise and bursting with eclectic ideas, he went on to write critically acclaimed books such as The Restless Supermarket, Double Negative and A Labour of Moles.
Ivan Vladislavic is a legendary man with a generous laugh and infectious wit. His session with us was a great source of encouragement for adventurous writers with a love for the editor’s red ink, like me.
I’m mighty glad I met him.