The Confession Book: Miha Mazzini

Noah Charney interviews great writers about the writing life.

/ by Noah Charney

Where did you grow up?

Jesenice, Slovenia. I'm sorry, it was Yugoslavia then. The town didn't move, the country did.


Where and what did you study?

I wanted to study literature but ended in the computers department of university. I did my MA in England, scriptwriting, and PhD back in Slovenia. Thinking now about the programming computers or writing literature, I must say that you type a lot in both cases but in the first instance you immediately see what's working and what not, while at literature you depend on kindness of strangers.


Where do you live and why?

Ljubljana, Slovenia. It's nice city for tourists. So if you go to the town only occasionally, you always feel like a tourist.


Describe your morning routine.

Go to the office ASAP, to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; running or fitness after work to clear my head for writing. If I take few weeks off to go and just write, then my morning routine slowly eats the day away: I'm writing for three hours approximately, then walking, sleeping, meditating, etc. for next three hours, then writing again, etc. Day blends into the night and vice versa.


What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

Always seeing glass half empty.


Please recommend three Slovenian books (not your own) to your readers, and tell us why you like them.

In 1930's, Vladimir Bartol wrote a novel called Alamut. It was long forgotten in our country, but it was quite successful in France. When my Guarding Hanna was published in USA, I mention it to the publisher: if you want a book about terrorists we have one in Slovenia. It was published and it is still in print. It's a strange book, a mixture of old fashion adventure story (very European stuff; German writer Karl May was writing them in XIX. century), mixed with orientalism and Nietzsche, etc.

The second one is Boris Pahor and Necropolis, his literary memoir on the years spent in the concentration camps. It hurts.

The third one isn't translated and I doubt it could be. Fran Milcinski was a judge and this book was published after he died; it's brilliant and very funny satire about small village of highly narcissistic persons. A lot of times Slovenians are using the name of the village for themselves, that's a good sign.


How did the career of being a writer differ during Yugoslavia from its current incarnation in independent Slovenia?

When I started as a writer, Yugoslavia was falling apart, so the ties of the older generation were tearing and were torn by the time I really got to writing.


Is there a single, quintessential Yugoslav novel?

I don't think so. They have tried to create single, quintessential Yugoslav nation for decades and they have failed, so probably there isn't such a novel at all. Funny, but I think the only unifying cultural element of Yugoslav nations was rock music and the government at the time was afraid that's destroying the youth.


What are the characteristics of Slovenian literature? I’ve read that your books tend to break from what is traditionally associated with Slovenian literature—and that is one reason why your books have had more success abroad than your compatriots.

My years as system analyst in IT industry has left some marks, I admit. I took the book called Encyclopedia of Slovenian literary heroes and analyzed all the heroes staring with letter K (the shortest of all list). There were 71 of them (if I remember correctly). Only one active and even a child at that. He conquers the obstacles and wins in the end. One starts actively and then gets afraid and retreats back home, in the same situation where he has started from. The rest, 69 of them, just passively wait what will happen. That corresponds with the mindset of the small nation, naturally.


Crumbs, in the original Slovene edition, was the highest-selling novel in Slovenian history. Why do you think that was?

The publishing company did a very good job; they did some packaging, selling truckloads of the books. But it took a year or two for the word of mouth to start spreading. People have read the book and liked it a lot. In the end, 54.000 copies in 2 million nation, surprise, surprise.


You direct films as well as write novels and hugely popular columns. Tell me about the process of getting a film made in Slovenia. I understand that it is rather tricky to do…

Very tricky. So: it's small country, 2 million people only. If you sell 1.000 books, that's bestseller. If 20.000 people comes to the cinema, that's success. So film making is obviously not financed by private companies, they can't get even their money back. We're left with only two sources of financing: one is state (film Fund) and the other is state (national TV). In short: what state wants to finance it gets done.


What do you think is the secret to the wild popularity of your magazine writing in Slovenia? How does it differ from the majority of Slovene columnists?

How the small nation achieve its importance? Not with war power, economic power ... Where can the onlooker see the importance of the nation? On the faces of the public figures. The smaller the nation the more seriously people are taking themselves.

I mentioned Franc Milcinski above, Slovenian writer who has waited to die to publish his very funny novel. I dare to be funny when alive, that's all.


Which of your books do you recommend a reader begin with, if they are new to your work?

Out of those, available in English, Crumbs was my first novel, there is a lot of drinking in it and some sex, etc. I was young, played bass guitar and listened to punk music at the time. I wrote Guarding Hanna fifteen years later when in my dark years. It shows. If you want the dark novel, that's it. Ten years later, I wrote The German Lottery and I had a lot of fun with it. Readers agree, they say.


Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?

That must be my programming years: I do quite detailed step outlines. Sometimes it takes years before I dare to start writing. Having a family and working a day job meant having less free hours to write. I didn't dare to lose them for a whim; for starting something that I didn't know how to end. Now I got used to it and that's the way I work.


I reviewed your Guarding Hannah and thought that the first chapter was one of the best single chapters I’ve ever written, anywhere. It would make a great stand-alone short story. Could you walk me through your conception and writing of that chapter?

The step outline said something like: "the hero revels in his own ugliness." That was all. Guarding Hanna is a strange retake on the beauty and the beast and next I knew it was that there must be a woman beside the beast in this scene. And the feeling of danger. The creeping feeling when the reader will go: oh, o-oh, this won't end well...


What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?

After all this years, it takes me only a page or two to say to myself: This writer can write. It takes me ten to twenty pages to say: this writer has an insight into human soul and has something to say. By this point, I've already given up most of the books.


Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

I used to procrastinate a lot. I spend 20 years as a freelancer, procrastinating half of the time. That really is 10 years of cleaning the apartment, repairing the bike, everything else but writing. With the day job I had to cut down on procrastinating, and I still have all of my doubts before writing, just I replay them faster.

I used to prepare a soundtrack for the project. Cassette tapes at first, CDs later. Music tied to a project turned into my Pavlov's reflex: when I started listening to it, it helped me switch into the writer's mode.


Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?

On the table: The less, the better. I'm very visual, so when I'm writing, I watch my imaginary film. When my film breaks, the best view is endlessness. The grey sky and endless, cold northern sea are the best. Not much of them in Ljubljana, though.


Describe your evening routine.

Fall from the chair too tired to write, with aching hands.


What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

The "Ah!" moment, the unexpected nice surprise.


What is guaranteed to make you cry?

Slicing onion while listening to country songs.


Do you have any superstitions?

One is never to name them.


If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

From all the history: Buddha.


What is your favorite snack?

Pizza. It feels a little bit cannibal-ish, eating something with 2 zs in the name.


What phrase do you over-use?

I don't know. I mean, that's the phrase.


What is the story behind the publication of your first book?

I wrote The Crumbs in the mid-eighties while working as a night watchman. I was alone, sleepy, bored - all very good for creativity. I started writing during the day while babysitting my daughter and since I didn't want to wake the baby, I thought twice before pressing the keys. I still don't like sprawling passages, a lot of adjectives, big books, etc.


Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?

Author as a career: never.
Author as a creator: sometimes, there is a sentence, or a scene that surprises me and keeps me going, waiting for the next time I'll pleasantly surprise myself.


What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

A chapter. For me, chapter ends when my energy for the day runs out. The books I wrote in writer's retreats tend to have longer chapters than my after work books.


Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

For my first novel, the Crumbs (1987), I got both the award of the government and the opposition. That was probably the last thing at the time that those two had agreed upon. While taking the public transport to the gala ceremony I was nervous and in hurry and I actually stepped on some lady toes while getting out of the bus. And she was shouting "You illiterate sheep!" while I was heading for the red carpet.


What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

The only one I could never practice: write every day.


What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

I'll be back.


Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

I'm lazy.


What is your next project?

We're trying to set up a production of feature film, The Erased. I wrote the script and the novel, and I'll direct. It's one of those stories that should be told, finally. In the year 1992 the Slovenian government has erased more than 20.000 people from the files and the problem (and those persons!) are still not solved. Imagine one day you’re a citizen, next day all your documents are not valid anymore, you not exists. Scary.

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.