Ismet Prcic, who prefers being called Izzy, admitted that his idea of fun has included eating chicken and throwing the bones out of moving vehicles, donning a trench coat to jump off a roof into a swimming pool, and listening to Dead Milkman records on iPods.
Despite such quirky proclivities, or perhaps in conjunction with them, Prcic’s debut novel “Shards” (2012) was chosen from among 28 submissions for The Writer’s Center’s 2013 First Novel Prize. The annual award, named for Ann McLaughlin, Barbara Esstman and Lynn Stearns, all authors and center faculty members, involves three rounds of judging and a $400 honorarium.
Prcic, who now lives in Portland, Ore., will visit the Bethesda center at 7:30 p.m. Saturday to accept his award, and read and sign copies of his book.
Prcic escaped from war-torn Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina at age 18, emigrating via Croatia to Thousand Oaks, Calif., in 1996. His book is a hybrid of memoir and novel, featuring a protagonist that shares his name as well as many of his experiences.
“The whole reason I wrote a novel and not a memoir is a simple fact that human apparatus for gathering reality – our fallible sense and fallible brains and imperfect memories and imperfect ways of capturing what we thought we experienced – cannot do it justice,” he explained. “So all we humans can have are stories. And stories are fanciful, to say the least.”
Theater was Prcic’s focus in Bosnia.
“I’ve always been a theater artist first, and theater where I come from is all about translation of meaning, pain, joy, from one individual to another, making abstractions visceral in the bodies and minds of the audiences,” he said.
He takes the same approach in his writing.
“I think that an artist, a writer in this case, has everything — every goddamned thing — at his disposal to get a desired response from a reader,” he said. “That includes even the things that some might deem gimmicks or inappropriate or uncouth.”
In his theater experience, Prcic recalled, “All the slaps and punches were real. We understood that an audience member is not going to really feel the pain that the actor feels upon being hit, but we understood also that it’s the closest thing to that pain … Same goes for writing.”
To illustrate his point, Prcic paraphrased Bosnian writer Nedzad Ibrisimovic, who said, “I can write ‘tears’ here, yet this page remains dry.” That shows, said Prcic, “that the communication is never perfect, but that we owe it to ourselves to get as close as possible.”
A theater background, he said, has served him well. After his uncle observed that his foreign accent would prohibit his getting roles in the U.S., Prcic began writing one-act plays in which Bosnians were speaking English. Thus, he reasoned, he could cast himself realistically.
“It forced me to learn all aspects of theater arts, which in turn gave me a solid background to become a writer,” he said. “If you think about it, writing is nothing but directing a show that you wrote in which you play every character, choose every costume and color, piece of music and a kick-ass prop.”
Prcic acknowledged a host of writers who have affected him, in that “everything you encounter influences you, whether you want it or not. …. If you put writers in your world, allow voices to come your way, you’re going to be influenced.” Among them, he cited Samuel Beckett’s “merciless ideas,” sentences written by Vladimir Nabokov and fellow Bosnian-American Aleksandar Hemon, and Charles Bukowski who “shows you that it’s OK to be you.”
It took Prcic seven years to write “Shards,” plus two years of editing and two more to sell it. Since then, he has been working on a screenplay with a friend, who is currently filming it. Mostly, that makes him happy. Yet, Prcic said, “The whole experience reminded me that making movies is a collaborative endeavor, and that there is a reason why I left theater and became a lone wolf.”
A second novel is in the works.
“I’m on my way to Bosnia soon to get a draft of a new novel for which I need to do some interviews.” Some excerpts, he promised, will be released this fall.
Ismert Prcic will read from “Shards” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28 at The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. Visit www.writer.org/events or call 301-654-8664.