Interview with Tamas Dobozy (March 2013)

by Alissa McArthur



Born in Nanaimo, BC, Tamas Dobozy is an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. During his time as a UBC graduate student in the mid to late 1990s, Dobozy worked in the Canadian Literature office as a student assistant.

Dobozy is the author of the short story collections When X Equals Marylou (2002), Last Notes (2006), and Siege 13 (2012). Siege 13, which features 13 stories related to the Seige of Budapest during World War II, was awarded the 2012 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and was a finalist for the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award for English-Language Fiction.

In the following interview, conducted over email in February and March 2013 by Alissa McArthur, Dobozy discusses Siege 13, his experience with literary awards, and his time working at Canadian Literature.


Alissa McArthur (AM): Firstly, congratulations on the recognition you’ve received for Siege 13, including winning the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Although it’s still quite recent since you’ve received these accolades, could you share some reflections on your experience with the prestige economy of literary prizes?

Tamas Dobozy (TD): This is the first time I’ve heard it described as prestige economy. Sounds like something from Marxist cultural theory. In that regard, I guess it sells a lot of books, which is good for me, though I suppose that makes me a capitalist in some way, deeply and happily embedded in the superstructure, like so many other Marxist scholars, with the added luxury of getting to rail against the system while enjoying its pleasures. Seriously, though, what has amazed me the most about this award is just how many people write to me saying they had no idea that the siege of Budapest had even taken place, never mind the toll taken on soldiers and civilians alike, so in that regard I think it’s been great for casting some light on this corner of history. Beyond that, these awards happen, and there’s a pile of hoopla, and then you’re yesterday’s news. This doesn’t bother me, particularly, since if it continued you’d never have any time to get back to your writing. I’m not sure, in the long run, that it helps your writing endure, necessarily, since frequently very good books don’t get picked for the prize, and these are the ones that have longevity, while the books that won disappear and never reemerge. I think you need chaos theory to sort out why some works are deemed to have value over others. I don’t think any of this really answers your question, unfortunately. I’m really happy I won. I’m happy these prizes are around. I’m happy they bring attention to literature in general. Beyond that, I’m not sure I have much more to say.

AM: I understand that you have a connection with Canadian Literature from when you were a student at UBC. Could you tell us a bit about your time working at the journal? How did your glimpse into this aspect of the Canadian literary and academic world influence you, either as a writer, an academic, or both?

TD: Well, I always loved the reading it put me in touch with. It also gave me a view into the national academic community, which was larger and more varied than I would have imagined. I think the sheer variety of it was an inspiration—all these people working in all those areas, with new ones emerging, it seemed, by the day. When I started, Bill New had just handed over the journal to Laurie [Ricou], who I think ran it in an interim way until Eva-Marie [Kröller] showed up, and then she ran it while I was there. I loved that job, really, just being in the midst of those people, all fanatically dedicated to things I cared, and still care, about quite deeply. You need that as a writer and an academic, that sense of shared passion. It sustains you. Beyond that, I think it represented a cultural work we really need here in Canada, gathering up the shreds of a lot of disparate and sometimes isolated artistic projects and creating a repository or an archive where they come together in dialogue and are preserved for people down the road who’ll be able to glimpse back at our rituals and fixations in order to better understand and manage their own.

AM: I understand that you have a family connection to the Siege of Budapest; your father lived through the siege. I’m wondering how your family’s experience of the siege informed your writing of these stories.

TD: Not directly. The stories were too anecdotal, almost imagistic. I guess they informed it on a structural level, namely, that this is how an event like this is remembered—never as a single overarching narrative, but as isolated moments that don’t seem to connect up. Part of that influenced my choice of the short story cycle as a genre. And I guess the opening left by these anecdotes also influenced me, albeit negatively, so that I wanted to fill up the vacuum they indicated.

AM: Why did you choose the short story form rather than a novel? Or, from another angle, what informs the choice to call a collection of linked short stories astory cycle rather than a novel? What makes a story cyclein opposition to anovel, and is there room for slippage? Is it a matter of marketing, or is it a different writerly mindset?

TD: This answer requires an article. The short story cycle is in fact a very different beast from the novel. The short story cycle instantiates autonomy (of parts) at the same time as it instantiates unity (of the cycle as a whole, which may be linear as in a sequence or circular as in a cycle) at the same time as it instantiates the fragmentary (the gaps between each individual part). Novels can’t do this. In fragmentary novels each fragment either stands only insofar as it is part of the novel as a whole, or by standing alone each fragment prevents the emergence of wholeness; in unified novels you have such total contingency between each chapter that the experience is always of a united whole, even as you’re reading parts of it, none of which can be appreciated in independence from the others. Novels just don’t allow you to have your cake and eat it too in the way a short story cycle does, and thus represent a vastly inferior genre to the short story cycle, which is why all publishers should, right now, start paying more money, let’s say double the money, just to be humble, to people who write short story cycles. It’s the only way. Writing a short story cycle, for reasons above, obviously takes way more skill and talent than writing a novel. Which, again, is why writers like me should be paid more money than novelists, and why publishers should be lining up, eager to publish more of these works.

AM: I’m curious about your process in putting these stories together. I know some of these stories were published elsewhere before appearing in Siege 13. Did you intend for the stories to be linked? How did you map out the ways in which the stories intersect? For instance, did you first come up with a group of interconnected stories, such as those following the Kálmán family?

TD: Well, the final book was the fourth in a series of manuscripts. Two manuscripts died on the table (one made it to six chapters of a projected ten, about 120 pages; and the other made it to four of a projected twelve, about 80 pages), another one made it right to the end (400 pages or so), but was then rejected by all the agents and all the publishers I sent it to, and the remarkable consistency of their critique (this book is boring) convinced me they were right, so I ditched it. From these three failed manuscripts I managed to lift six stories (basically all the third-person stuff in Siege 13), and then, over the last three or so years wrote all the first-person stories that rounded out the volume. The previous (complete) manuscript told the story of Jozsef, Sandor and Teleki (all of whom will be recognizable to readers of Siege 13) in chronological order, in eighteen stories (each character got six, but their stories crossed over throughout). With the version that was eventually published I decided to go with thematic rather than narrative links. The present manuscript is therefore a collation, sorting and winnowing of this material. In its final form the book was put together with a certain thematic dialogue in mind, and also a gradual movement of the siege, as memory and legacy, in a positive direction, in which for some characters the trauma it was becomes enabling, helpful, even salvation in a certain sense.

AM: Running through this story cycle is the notion of truths of history being elusive, contested, and contaminated. One striking example of your exploration of this theme is in The Encirclement, where a professor’s public lectures about the siege are consistently interrupted and challenged by a seemingly obsessive follower. However, there are many other examples in Siege 13 where characters are denied authoritative versions of events. Why is it important to question ideas of authenticity in historical (and other) narratives? Why are the characters so consumed by the search for the truth?

TD: I’ll answer the last question first. I don’t think that the characters are consumed by the search for the truth. On the contrary, many of the characters willfully manipulate the historical narrative to their own ends, and this is what occupies a large part of the book—the way in which individual and collective agendas are enabled through storytelling (which includes history, of course). More accurately, you could say that there are historical facts (the communist takeover, World War II, etc.) and history itself (which is the narrative that offers a logical connection between disparate events in a causal way), and that between these two there are entire kingdoms. It’s pretty easy to ascertain facts—Look, here’s a dead body with a gunshot wound to the head—but another thing entirely to say why that body is there, who’s responsible, and the particular effects it had or will have, since there are too many concurrent factors also involved in any causal chain. Storytelling, or developing causal sequences, is one way in which we as human beings survive, quite literally (try and imagine driving anywhere without a pre-emptive narrative of the journey already guiding you through the various stages and probabilities of the trip), and the cycle explores how various storytelling strategies enable various kinds of individual and collective existence. The absolute master of this is Teleki, of course, from The Encirclement, but also Hollő in The Beautician. ButThe Miracles of Saint Marx is about this to some degree as well, along with Days of Orphans and Strangers,etc. etc. What’s important to the collection is not authenticity itself (as the scholar in The Mugshots of Famous Hungarian Assassins says, That’s so twentieth century, or something like that), but its manufacture.

AM: Several characters in this collection are professors or students, who undertake research to uncover hidden histories. The scholars’ hunt for historical information intersects and overlaps with quests for familial narratives, often with frustrating results. Yet the independent scholar in The Selected Mug Shots of Famous Hungarian Assassins is able to publish a book based on fraudulent information. This relates to my previous question about authenticity, but also, in what ways are certain types of historical narratives privileged over others? How are academics complicit in this process?

TD: Well, I think I might have answered part of this above. But Mugshots is a story concerned above all else with the making of art, how it falsifies the world in order to bring about greater pleasure (and I use pleasure pretty widely here to also mean a sense of redemption or salvation). I think this is what art has always done, including highbrow art (where part of the pleasure and entertainment it offered was letting the audience think they were participating in a higher order activity—ethically, morally, politically—whereas this was just really part of the fun, and afterwards everyone went back to being fallible and self-centered and sometimes even corrupt). I love eco-criticism, for example, but I drive a car and prefer to fly rather than take the train or boat across countries and continents, and I throw food away, and I often make choices based on what I want rather than what I need, so I often wonder what really motivates me to read and write that stuff. Is it just because it makes me feel better, intellectually and emotionally? So Aces creates a history that he knows is fake, but he loves it, it’s preferable to the real world, and in many ways purer and more decent, at least in terms of the comfort it offers him. I think we’re all complicit in this to a degree in seeking out our intellectualcomforts when we compile our histories or scholarship, even if this comfort is nothing more than the belief that we’re exposing the truth, however harsh or damaging it is to the status quo. I’m sure that more than one academic has put him- or herself to sleep at night with exactly that thought. This sounds terribly cynical, which is not what I was trying to do in that story, but rather see these activities through the lenses of compassion and sympathy, as the ways in which we get through life, which even at its best is never really all that great, not to mention when it’s at its worst. And I say that because I also need to get to sleep at night somehow.

AM: Perhaps one reason the characters’ quests for truth are frustrated is because history is not always recorded in institutionally sanctioned or tangible ways. In the stories, we read about different processes to record memory, such as the mythical collection of unbelievable stories in The Miracles of Saint Marx, Lujza’s logbook of sexual encounters in The Society of Friends, and the Russian count that collects experiences inRosewood Queens. The Museum of Failed Escapes from Sailor’s Mouth seems to be a commentary on this—a collection of failures, of people who would normally fade into obscurity. What might these more abstract ways of recording the past have to offer that official documents and archives may lack?

TD: Well, history records the momentous. Have I said this already? (Sorry, it’s taken me so long to answer this interview that I’ve forgotten where I started, or may have already said.) By the momentous I simply mean that which is worth memorializing, usually because it lends itself ideologically to some state program. What I’m interested in in some ways is what’s not momentous, what is dismissed from the official historical record, because, frankly, recording it all would take too much time, and create a record—à la Borges—that takes as long to read as the actual events it narrates. So the idea of the momentous lends itself pragmatically to the space requirements of a national historical narrative, but of course it creates a very partial story, and in most case leaves out what I think is most interesting about life—how weird and inexplicable it is most of the time. Not all history leaves out weirdness, but there’s way more weirdness than we’re exposed to in our courses on what happened in the past. That’s where fiction jumps in, to the rescue, where it not only questions the very notion of the momentous as a structuring principle in history, but blurs the line between what exactly it is went on, reminding all of us in the process that weirdness is precisely this feeling that things somehow don’t really fit together all that well, and maybe that feeling is worth keeping at the front of any act of memory.

AM: I’m interested in the idea of the of Szécsényi Club, the Hungarian expats’ club in Toronto, which we’re introduced to in The Beautician. This place serves as a storehouse for conflicting memories of Hungary (including some unsavory secrets), both literally in the library, and more intangibly in the stories that circulate. I wonder if you could speak to the idea of a diasporic community negotiating traumatic memories in a contained space such as the club—how does the space affect the ways which the characters process the past?

TD: These questions are really tough! Have I mentioned that? Whatever happened to, What is your normal day of writing like? Do you write with a pen or directly onto a computer? What’s on your bedside stack of reading right now? Let me see if I can sort this out. The Szécsényi Club, at least as I see it, and let me say now that a writer is no more qualified to interpret his or her work than anyone else, is a kind of liminal space, a bit like an embassy, a bit of home groundtransposed to an alien territory, both within and without that territory, somehow both and neither Hungary and Canada. In this sense then, and certainly in The Beautician, what we see happening is an intersection of conflicting cultural demands, embodied in this case by the narrator, who can’t quite square the Hungarian or émigré cultural imperatives against a very different way of conceiving the role of the self (as liberated, a free agent, or any of those other Canadian myths). What the space of the club exposes, then—in a way that Hollő ultimately comes to embody and master—is how identity is never fixed but always in a process of being negotiated and renegotiated, and how damaging it is—as in the character of Ilona—to try and force fixity upon it, to place it into the straightjacket of a political or cultural or religious ideology. The damage this does is apparent not only in the narrator’s small relatively inconsequential world, but in the larger course of history, for example with the communists and fascists, who programmatically eliminated undesirables by subordinating their individuality to certain specific and universal characteristics that came from the political ideologies rather than from the people themselves. But of course, the idea of elimination is a horrific program in any case. In addition, what the story is on some level saying is that just because people have experienced suffering and trauma at the hands of an absolutist ideology doesn’t mean they themselves will recognize when they’re doing it themselves, much less wish to stop. Experiencing what they experienced, that kind of historical trauma, doesn’t necessarily make anyone a better person, or unwilling to engage for a variety of reason in the very form of oppression that destroyed their lives. The past is very rarely a form of instruction, which is perhaps the saddest thing of all.

AM: Siege 13 ends with a story, The Homemade Doomsday Machine, that has a slightly different cadence from the rest of the stories. What compelled you to end your collection with a story that seems to playfully parody some of the obsessive quests of the characters in the preceding stories?

TD: That’s interesting that you would read it that way. I suppose it’s valid, though the story was not meant to be a parody. It was just meant to be comic, for the most part, though the long rumination the narrator makes on what Otto Kovacs’s life is like in Toronto is in earnest, even if Kovacs himself is unhinged. The book’s movement as a whole is meant to reflect a waning of the siege as a source of trauma and its waxing as a redemptive narrative, so that story ends on what I think of as the most positive moment in the collection as a whole—a father’s selfless love for his son. Throughout the book characters have been compromised in one way or another, their morality and ethics ambiguous at best, and completely self-centered and megalomaniacal at worst, but here finally is a character whose flaw is simply that he loves his son more than he does himself, perhaps the only character in the whole book who extends that much to another person, and the siege here figures as the cold mechanical hard-edged ideology or intellectual theory that he counters with plain empathy, and then pays the consequences for that in distance and isolation from the thing that gives his life meaning. That’s how I see that particular story. I think, in the end, all obsessive quests are kind of crazy and comic, though they have tragic consequences, and in that respect this story is no different from Miracles of Saint Marxor The Encirclement or any of the others.