Ennis Cehic on his debut collection of stories: As much as this book is about how I see the world, it is also about who (and why) I am

Today we’re in conversation with the very talented Ennis Cehic for our ‘Behind the Book’ segment. Since 2007, Ennis has been working in the advertising industry as a copywriter, brand strategist and creative director. Ennis’s writing, including essays, fiction, and memoir, has been published in various literary journals and publications, including Meanjin, Assemble Papers, Going Down Swinging and others. 

In 2018 he was selected as an inaugural recipient of the Wheeler Centre’s Next Chapter writers’ scheme, and he’s back in the news with his latest release- Sadvertising.

Can you tell us a bit about why you wanted to write this book? Has it been with you for a while?

Ennis- My aim has always been to write literature you wouldn’t expect from a migrant writer. 

Sadvertising, as a concept, came to me in late 2017. It was born out of office frustration, that existential dread I think is synonymous with working in offices—especially in offices of the creative industry. It’s a combination of being over-worked, tired, angry, and disillusioned with one’s purpose and reality.   

I figured out the voice of this book almost immediately. The sardonic and satirical tone became the guiding attitude of what I set to do with the stories; examine the modern condition through the lens of advertising agencies, our general brand-obsessed consumerism and the often-frightful relationship we have with technology.   

Sadvertising is quite an interesting title. How did you decide on it?

Ennis- Sadvertising is actually an industry term used to describe emotional advertising i.e. sad communication. The kind that pulls at your heartstrings and makes you all teary. It can be very effective at selling stuff.

It’s one of those wonderful examples of a portmanteau word, and I’ve always thought it suited the idea of the book because the voice and tone matched it perfectly. 

Can you walk us through the process of putting together an anthology like Sadvertising? What were the challenges like?

Ennis- I really had to constrain conceptual development. I set up a boundary to only think of ideas within the world of advertising, consumerism and technology. I felt that if I just wrote any absurdist story, it would straddle too far from a theme; there would be no thematic thread to the book. This became quite challenging as I thought of many other ideas. There was one where a woman gave birth to a ball of time instead of a human baby, but I just couldn’t quite figure out how to fit the story within the theme I set. 

There was also the question of how many? In total, I wrote around seventy stories, but only fifty were selected for the book.

Your collection dissects what it is to be human, particularly in the field of advertising & copywriting, which is also your field of work. How do you balance writing neat stories amidst the chaos of real life? 

Ennis- For a long time, I didn’t balance it at all. I worked full-time and wrote after work, before work and on the weekends, but in late 2018 when I became a recipient of the Wheeler Centre’s Next Chapter Award, I decided to finally put writing first. It had to become the supreme drive of everything I did if I was to ever make writing a true part of my life. This type of commitment is frightening at first, especially if you are used to a particular level of security, but when you lose something, you gain something else. And what I’ve gained is immeasurable. 

I’m now wholeheartedly committed to my passion. I only freelance and stick to a three-day working week so I can use the other days for my literary work.

After all, as Amedeo Modigliani said, it’s our duty in life to save our dreams.  

Which is your favourite story from the collection?

Ennis- A hard question. 

I like all of them for various reasons, but perhaps ‘the brand of the living’ I could consider one of my favourites. It was technically difficult to write because it uses marketing jargon to build up a picture of the ‘millennial consumer’, and it’s also a story that interrogates the marketer’s need to constantly humanise brands. 

When did you realise the book was ready enough to hand it to an agent? 

Ennis- As much as this book is about how I see the world, it is also about who (and why) I am. 

Subtlety woven through the stories are three key tales that culminate into an experimental, meta-fictional ending. Only after these three stories were finalised, could I see the manuscript as being finally complete. I felt like the book could not exist without those stories because otherwise, it would detach itself too distantly from the author.   

What has been your biggest takeaway from working on Sadvertising?

I was very lucky to have had Nam Le as my mentor during the development of this book. Nam is a writer, in the truest sense of the word, and learning from him was invaluable. 

I quit work and relocated to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina, where I’m originally from to write this book. So, I was very devoted to the task ahead and over that year I learnt so much. Not just about the art of fiction but also about discipline, persistence, and my inner self.  

Apart from figuring out other bodies of work, I also picked up a new habit. I figured that dressing up for writing made the work all the more serious. 

Did you have a particular audience in mind when you edited the book? Who are the people/readers you want this book to reach through?

Ennis- You always imagine some abstract reader. They are present in your mind. Sometimes they are a combination of people, combined into one being—almost like a representative persona. I often thought of this imaginary being, but I could never quite see their face. 

I think Sadvertising is where Mad Men meets Black Mirror and The Office. Anyone who likes those shows, will definitely like Sadvertising.

Your labour of love will be finally out in the bookstores. How does it feel?

Ennis- Surreal. But I also feel a sense of true accomplishment.  

How did you get into the field of writing? Did you always want to be a writer?

Ennis- At the end of high school, I became very interested in literature, but I was unsure of what that meant. I went on to study Marketing despite the fact that I really wanted to study journalism or history.

It was during this time, just as I entered Uni, that I began to scribble into notepads. I also started to read more ferociously and obsess about other writers. Especially Milan Kundera, Henry Miller, Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoevsky. That early phase was very dreamy, but it was an important part of my development as a writer. Upon reflection, I just wrote down all my feelings, but I wasn’t just doing that— I was subconsciously making English my final language because it was my third. 

I was exiled from Bosnia & Herzegovina during the 90s. My family and I ended up as refugees in Germany, where we spent five years before migrating to Australia. 

What was the last book you read? And what are you looking forward to reading next?

Ennis- The last book I read was ‘Where You Come From’ by Saša Stanišić. It is a remarkable literary achievement. Now, I am looking forward to reading ‘Blood Kin’ – the debut novel of Ceridwen Dovey. 

If you could, would you change anything about your writing career?

Ennis- Ask me this question when I finish my next book. 

What are you working on next?

Ennis- When I wrote Sadvertising, a lot of my other ideas started to make sense too. There’s one story in particular that’s now become an idea for a novel. It’s that story that simply has to be told, and I’ve become quite consumed by it. 

I’ve also been working on a creative project since the pandemic started, and now I need to start thinking about how to bring it to life. But whatever the course—I’ll go where my energy takes me.

Sadvertising was published on 1st March 2022 by Penguin Books Australia. You can purchase the book here.

Book Details:

AuthorEnnis Cehic
PublisherPenguin Books Australia
List Price32.99 AUD