Talking with ukrainian writers is harder than you think. You need to ask more questions than usual and you need to explain a lot for the reader. Mainly because no one really knows a thing about ukrainian literature and its rather unique place in worlds culture. It’s complicated, strange and terrible. It lays where Chtulhu sleeps and acts like an idiot savant. It’s irritating at best and utterly annoying at worst. Also – Kick the chair. Don’t forget to breathe. Down with that boring stuff.

Yuriy Tarnawsky is the guy who writes. Long and short stuff. In english and ukrainian. You probably heard of him once or twice or more. He wrote “Three Blondes and Death” and some other stuff. And if you want me to retell his biography – ask me to write an article in the comments.

I find it funny trying to start an interview naturally. The more i do interviews it starts to look less like attempting to clear one set of things and set straight the other and more like going into the realms of meta and strolling around aimlessly. Talking about art is double funny because it makes no sense. For real. It’s just an illusion – another version – parallel reality. It just what it is.

This interview was started in late 2015, dragged on through 2016 and finally ended in 2017. Not that it was that long. It’s more like – “your truly needs to sustain himself and this thing is not helping”. But don’t need to know that.

So – here’s my long gestating interview with YT. Enjoy


Somewhere in January-February

Volodymyr Bilyk: Every time I start preparing myself for an interview – I think “what do I want to achieve with it?” And every time I don’t how to answer. I fail to understand why I’m doing this. It’s a fascinating moment. What do you feel when someone asks you to do an interview? Do you have this indescribable pwoerdm?? the moment after you receive a message? Or is it inner “Roger Daltrey” screaming “Yeah!” and imaginary sunglasses cover your eyes?
Yuriy Tarnawsky:
 Sort of neither. It’s probably the scientist inside, or, better still, outside me who wants to get down to brass tacks and lay out before the world what it is I’m all about as a writer. I never take on my literary persona when I’m answering questions but become a dispassionate observer looking from some distance on the subject that is me and am ready to talk about it and dissect it to the core. I think it was no coincidence that I studied engineering and then generative linguistics rather than literature.  The literary part of me is very private and I have built up this scientific wall around me to protect it. As you know, I also avoid bringing in autobiographical data into my writing but turn to imagination to bounce off of it (the data).


VB: What do you think about interviews as an art form? Does it help you to rethink and re-express the ideas you’ve expressed in your works? Or is it just another way to try your artistic M.O. in conversation?
As I have just intimated, I don’t look at it as an art form but rather as a scientific or scholarly undertaking and turn to the analytic part of me. JEF Books has just brought out my book of “selected essays and interviews” Claim to Oblivion. The interviews in it are very much like the essays—I analyze and explain what my works are about. The Ukrainian-language book of essays and interviews Kvity khvoromu (Flowers for the Patient) is also like that. In fact, in it I openly say that the interviews are articles in the form of dialogues.

VB: Is it necessary for an artist to give interviews? In an existential sense – to express something the other way. Can it be harmful and traumatizing at some point? Why?
YT: No, it’s not necessary at all. It depends on what you want to do. At this time at least, I personally like to do interviews, probably because of my pretty hermetic writing, to explain what it is I’m trying to do. Again, it’s the scientist part of me that does it, that has been activated by the request for an interview. As a militant modernist, I try to change the world (art, literature) through my writing and feel that speaking openly about what I try to do will help me in my task.

As you know, I feel that postmodernism is part of modernism, its third phase, and that it bears many of the important features of classical modernism, except that some commercial writers, such as Umberto Eco, have managed to sneak into it and go for a ride.

VB: Interviews can offer a possibility to enrich the reading experience but there’s also a probability to spoil it – what do you think about those little things that make difference? What do you think about going too far in conversation and giving away too much?
 Yes, I do think that you can spoil your writing by talking to much about it, ”giving away” something important (sacred). So you have to be careful what you say. Say only what should be said and don’t destroy what you’ve built up.

VB: How about misleading? Or misinterpreting yourself?
 Well, yes, that’s dangerous too. You may inadvertently misrepresent yourself, so you’ve got to be careful. On the other hand, there are some who do it deliberately, treat it as part of their art. Dali was definitely like that. And it had served him well. But I don’t do that. I didn’t go into literature to become famous or rich, but to speak of what ails/excites me. So, that’s why I approach an interview as a scientist.

VB: Is it important to change gears and try it another way? Like not talking about anything important or interesting and just do it the way it goes – like a kind of jazz or comedy improv?
YT: I ‘m not interested in that. Maybe one day…. You’ve given me an idea….

VB: What are the key elements that make interview worth reading – in your opinion? Is it useful information or just a glimpse of a real person behind the personae? Or is it the sacramental “something else”? (Or it depends on what is the practical purpose of a particular interview?)
 it depends on what the interviewee does. It could be any one of those things. Now that you’ve got me rethinking along your lines, I begin to see how an interview could be a form of art in which you extend what you do in your writing.

VB: What do you think about growing tendency of interviews turning into a clickbait?
 If by ”clickbait” you mean self-promotion – then yeah, most commercial artists use the interview to unabashedly self-promote. I’m not interested in doing it, unless you take my “scientific” explanation as self-promotion, which you can. But it’s gentle promotion, “classy” I’d call it.


February 19, 2016

VB: Can you describe your more or less ordinary\standard writing session? How do you prepare yourself? How do you start? Is there any order of things you do – first and last? Is it important to have some kind of discipline? Do you have any special ways of putting yourself in the mood for the act?
YT: The standard over the years has been that it has varied, and has varied not only over a period of time, but at times from book to book. I have more or less settled right now on an accepted modus operandi of just sitting down at the computer and pounding out language strings, but in the past I would sometimes develop a novel routine as I started working on a new book—the kind of paper an pen I’d use, when I would write, what I would be reading or listening to at that time (when I wasn’t writing), and so on, which I’d associate with what I was writing and which would help me move along.

Before we had computers, I’d write the text out in longhand, correct it a few times, and then type it up, correct it again, and type it up once more. Then after the arrival of computers, I’d always start out with longhand text and then do extensive rewriting on the computer.  This went on for a long time.  But lately my handwriting has gotten so bad, I can barely read it, so I almost always do the original text on the computer and then edit/rewrite it on the computer.

I like to start out in the morning, fresh, preferably on an empty stomach, work for 2-3 hours (more I can’t do, as my mind starts wondering off), and take a break. Then in the afternoon, I’d do the editing, perhaps 2-4 hours; editing is easier than composing from scratch.  In the past, I’d do my writing and then forget about it during the rest of the day. But a while back (20-30 years?) I learned that the best way was to think about what I was wring all the time, so that I’d have a lot of problems solved before sitting down at the computer, and then just pound it out.  I find this to be the most effective way—it takes much less time at the keyboard. But there are still variations dependent on what I’m working on.  Prose and poetry, for instance, are different—I might jot down poetry on paper even right now and then type it up.  You can compose a page of poetry in your head, but you can’t do it with prose.  In short—I have no standard procedure, except that I try to be connected to what I’m working on day and night.  Sleep is wonderful for composing.

VB: Since you’ve been around for a long time i want to ask you this stupid thing: are there any technical differences in the way you did the writing back in the 50s\60s (and so on) and now?
YT: Not a stupid question at all—very a propos.  The advent of computers has changed a writer’s (my own) life tremendously. Being able to see text neatly typed up on the screen and redo it there is a tremendous aid.  We—I at least—write much, much faster now.  I’d estimate that it’s about three times faster to write now for me than it was before computers.  And I think the quality is better too.  You have a better view (sort of a bird’s eye view) of what you’re doing and can spot problems much more easily and fix them more easily too.

VB: What about revisions? Do you revisit the finished text in order to fix it or refit something? Or you just get over it?
YT: As I said earlier, I edit what I write shortly after writing it down.  That’s the first rewrite.  After composing a chunk, I may do the next rewriting—pulling the subchunks together, making them fit better. I might do it a number of times, depending on how difficult the text is.  And when the whole text is done, I start a new rewriting process, and may repeat it a number of times, depending on how difficult the text is. It’s all very organic, dependent on the work and my state of mind.

VB: What do you think about overwriting for the thing – doing too much – to the point of sheer abundance? Do you make use of leftover materials? Do you repurpose them or they “perish in flames?”
YT: I personally don’t have this problem.  That is, I’m not aware of it.  I usually put down on paper what I need and there’s no leftover.  But, of course, there are things I abandon, and I may use some of them in other works….  Not use pieces of them, but the abandoned work may lead me to a completely new one which works this time.

VB: How about scrapped ideas? Have you ever toyed with some concept but it never moved further “thinking about it” but it still “hurts” and you want to try it somehow but you just can’t figure out the way of doing it?
YT:  Yes, I did, as I’ve just, mentioned.  In fact, I’ve made good use of this problem/technique in the past.  Some ideas that didn’t pan out, all of a sudden open out wonderful new possibilities before you…. I think an artist-writer (a noncommercial writer) has essentially one great mother lode of topics/ideas he want to write about, and everything he does is part of a whole.  So his oeuvre maybe viewed as one huge book.  And these little abandoned pieces are part of this big whole and will be useful later.

VB: Have you ever thought about doing a “parallel universe”-version of the text? Or “mirror reflection”-variation?
YT: No, I haven’t.  It’s a writing technique, I guess, and I haven’t tried it.  Right now I don’t seem to have a need for it somehow.

VB: There’s this lousy Beckett quote – it goes something like “Try – fail – try again – fail better” – isn’t it plain B&W hypocrite? I think the concept behind it deserves to be mocked on every occasion as severe misleading of the whole concept of creative act.  What do you think about?
YT: Black-and-white hypocrisy?  I don’t see it like that.  The quote must be from The Unnamable, and if not, then from one of his other works which are part of his one huge book. (He’s an excellent example of the artist-writer. Eco died today. De mortuis nihil nisi bene, but I can’t refrain from saying, he certainly wasn’t one.)  It probably refers to living rather than writing, or if it does refer to writing, then writing as part of living.  But creating is hard work, and you’ve got to try again, and again, and again, until you succeed, if you want to succeed.


Somewhere in November, 2016

VB: Let’s move ab ovo—what was the moment when you understood that writing expresses you fully and you decided to fully devote yourself to it?
YT:  It took me a while.  My writing career started out as a reader.  I longed to live in an imaginary world and looked for it in books.  When books ran out, I started writing.  This was around 1950 in the DP camp in Neu Ulm, Germany, and books were scarce there.  What I wrote then was fiction, and it was pure crap, and led to nothing.

After came to the US in 1952, books became plentiful, and I had no urge to write—didn’t dare to do it, feeling I was a mere mortal, and writers were gods or demigods at least.  But as I grew older, feelings began to stir in me like earth worms in soil in springtime, and I began to dabble in poetry—getting my feelings out, mostly about the absurdity of life which I began to notice.  But I still didn’t think of myself as a writer but a private “feelings recorder.”

Gradually though, I began to feel brave enough to think I might try submitting something for publication, and so in 1953 I had my first poem published in the Ukrainian newspaper Svoboda which came out in New Jersey, and, starting in 1954, a few short prose piece in the newspaper Contemporary Ukraine which came out in Munich.  In 1955 I began putting together a book of poems, which ultimately came out in 1956 under the title Zhyttja v misti (Life in the City), working at the same time on fiction—short stories in English and a novel in Ukrainian.  Nothing came out of the first effort, but an excerpt from the novel, which is called Shljakhy (Roads), was published in 1956 and the whole novel in 1961.  By then I was well on my way of thinking of myself as a writer—homo scribens—not being aware of the misery that comes with this appellation—the constant struggle with the blank page and the craving for recognition which almost never reaches the desired level.

VB: What was the catalyst? How did it come to fruition?  And what was your primary motivation?
YT: The primary catalyst was a search for an imaginary life, and then the need to express what I felt, a reaction to what life was doing to me.  What helped me a lot was the fact that even though I was as small fish, the pond I swam in was small too—kalabanja, a puddle—the Ukrainian émigré society.  There weren’t that many young writers coming up, so getting published wasn’t that hard.  My only motivation, throughout my life as a writer, has been tackling the existential questions of the fear of death, alienation, and so forth. It was never a desire to make money or be famous. Writing for me is a purely existential act—I write therefore I am.

VB: How has your attitude toward writing changed through time? When did you start to shift from more traditional writing into more experimental direction? Has it came naturally or it was your decision to change gears? Why did you do it? What were your guiding lights? Or was it a kind of an old-school journey into the unknown?
YT: I was always a “do it my way” kind of a person (child) from the beginning.  I taught myself alone to read and write, and formed letters in my own unique way.  It was the same with literature. The poetry I wrote was free verse from the beginning. I don’t think I knew much about free verse before coming to the US, and that may have been the reason why I didn’t write any poetry while I lived in Germany. Ukrainian poetry was all traditional and I found it silly—why would anyone want to look for words which sounded the same at the end of lines? When I saw English and especially Spanish poetry written in free verse, that opened my eyes, and with it my desire to write poetry.  Here I was able to write as I felt.  Life in the City was considered revolutionary in Ukrainian literary circles, such that it broke with the attitude toward language, prevalent among Ukrainians, as something of necessity melodious, as well as with the traditional themes and forms.  And so it was with fiction. I thought I wrote Roads in the standard fashion, but Ukrainian critics thought of it as an antinovel.  In my English writing—fiction—I grew bolder.  By then I was aware of the rules that traditional writers used and saw that, first, they didn’t lead to anything interesting, and, second, that they were not inviolable.  Breaking them, you could achieve all sort of interesting effects.  So it was this that drove me on.  This attitude has stayed on with me until this day.

As to guiding lights—I was influenced primarily by Spanish and French poetry, modernism in general and Surrealist in particular, the philosophy of Existentialism, and modernist cinema.  My favorite poet is Arthur Rimbaud; fiction writers, Gogol, Kleist, and Proust; and composer—J. S. Bach, especially as interpreted by Glenn Gould.

VB: Can you tell more about the circumstances under which you started writing fiction in English? Was it simply because there were not many ukrainian readers? Or was it more of an aesthetic choice?

VB: What were your first American readers like? What were the initial reactions? When did you understand that you’ve found your readership?
YT:  My first books in English were published by Fiction Collective (FC), so my first readers were the kind of people who read FC books—people interested in innovative writing, mostly creative writing professors and college students. I realized I have found my literary home when I began to communicate with my FC author friends and to attend the AWP and &NOW conferences.  The feeling was gratifying, akin to finding yourself on a cold winter night in a snug home, with a mug of hot tea and rum in your hand, next to a fireplace with a fire roaring inside it, while a storm rages outside.

VB: What was the atmosphere surrounding you at that time? Aside from diaspora – who were in your social group at that time?
YT: Before I joined FC, it was the Ukrainian émigré society—some the older generation figures—Yuiry Lavrinenko, for instance, the literary critic who became my literary godfather—and my colleagues from the New York Group, the group of innovative Ukrainian émigré writers I helped to co-found, as well as artists who were close to the group, in particular Yuriy Solovij, who did the lion’s share of the artwork in the Group’s publications.

VB: What was the nature of their influence?
YT:  It wasn’t influence as such, but simply friendship, a feeling they gave me that I wasn’t alone. It’s hard tocharge against traditions on your own.  You need to feel there’s someone beside and behind you.

VB: You have a rich background in computing and linguistics—was it the desire to expand upon theoretical concepts in a completely different direction that driven you into more experimental “parts unknown” in your writing?
YT:  It wasn’t a “desire” as such, but simply an inclination, which, I presume came partly from my personality—my always doing things in my own way—and partly from my technical bqckground.  The latter, I’m sure, made me see literature in a different way from the way people with nontechnical background see it.  In describing my attitude to writing, I’ve been saying lately that for me, composing a literary work is similar (identical) to a mathematician proving a theorem—the goal is to do it as simply and elegantly as possible.  The question whether it will be interesting to or easy on the reader never comes up.

VB: What did the work on natural language processing bring into your fiction writing?  
YT: It made me aware of the nature of language, its patterns and capabilities—how I could affect the reader by using it in various nonstandard ways.

VB: Since you’ve worked with artificial intelligence—have you ever considered writing something fictional about artificial intelligence?
YT:  Sort of science fiction, you mean? Absolutely not.  When I think about writing now, it’s still think only of those ponderous existential issues. That’s what true literature is for me.  To paraphrase Verlaine, everything else is commercial products for sale.



VB: Do you remember that presumably Frank Zappa quote “…dancing about architecture”? Since concept of art is more or less considered to be “anything you want and nothing in particular” – is it really important to talk about such things seriously? It often makes a kind of unintended comedy. Sometimes I read “Art of fiction” in Paris Review and it’s so peacocky pathetic – it’s more like “make yourself believe you said that for real” than “that’s how the things really are”. What do you think about such attempts to sort it out and remain reasonable? 
YT: I haven’t followed Frank Zappa much, so I’m not acquainted with the quote. But I don’t accept the idea that anything is art which has been espoused by many these days, stemming from those acts of insight and defiance by Marcel Duchamp in the early days of the last century. But Duchamp was an artist, as his “A Nude Descending a Staircase” so convincingly shows, and many of our contemporaries who claim to be aren’t.  Duchamp’s bicycle wheel and urinal were art for an instant, when the viewer first saw them, but they ceased to be that thereafter and have now only historical value.  (This is not true of his “Nude” and “Bride,” which will remain works of art forever.)  Modernism has taught us to strip the fake and unnecessary off works of art so as to reveal the real.  Destruction must be followed by creation.  Much of what we see these days doesn’t even destroy, let enough create. It’s cheating for the most part, neather more or less.