Uros Petrovic: The Genius from the Blocks
Multiple award-winning children’s author who has penned many books full of brain-teasers and riddles, once president of Mensa in Serbia, a photographer whose work has been included in Windows background images, the holder of the informal title of the ‘smartest Serb’...Uros Petrovic speaks for his interview with 011info about his growing up in the sandy landscape known as New Belgrade, his ‘title’, the writing of his first novel, his struggle to find his place in the world, love of planting trees and exercising his brain cells with the kids.
You were born in Gornji Milanovac, but already at the age of eight you moved to Belgrade. More specifically to the Blocks. What was the neighborhood like back then?
I moved to Belgrade when my father got a business offer he couldn’t refuse. We settled down in New Belgrade, in Block 70. Back then, in the year 1975, there were only blocks 45 and 70, while everything surrounding them were sandy lands full of rabbits, foxes and local bird life.
The bank of Sava river was completely wild and overgrown. It was great for us kids. I still to this day remember a kind of shrub that I still am unable to identify to this day, which was great for making arrows. (laughter)
I was lucky because our apartment had a huge terrace so every now and then I’d bring plants from the outside and put them in our planters, hoping they’d take. I pulled it off with two huge walnut trees which now live in Kosmaj and remind me of how old I am. (laughter)
That’s how my ‘obsession’ with plants began. As far as I’ve kept track, I have planted 1130 of various trees in all sorts of (il)legal places! (laughter).
What school did you go to?
At first, I was schooled in our skyscrapers, until the junior school “20th October” was completed - then the most modern school in the Balkans. The classes were set up inside building laundry rooms. Many of my classmates were like me - recent arrivals. I’m proud of the fact that I’m still friends with several of them to this day. I didn’t let myself forget them or for us to be separated by time and life.
When the new school was finished, we were so proud to go there. Like I said, it was state of the art back then. It had a swimming pool, modern classrooms, special lining in the gym and other marvels. As for my school successes, I went to math competitions but I also loved and studied social subjects. I was interested in everything.
What was it like growing up in the Blocks?
When Block 70 was built, only around 20.000 souls lived there. It made sense that back then our main rival was Block 45. There were plenty of playgrounds in the neighborhood and the popular “Rupa” was right next to my building. It was the basketball court where many of our national players cut their teeth. This block even gave rise to today’s leaders of Red Star and Partizan fans.
Soon the sandy area that surrounded us ceased to exist. Blocks 61, 63, 64, 70A and 44 were constructed. But that didn’t stop us from playing. We would pretend that all those construction areas were our playgrounds. We made blowers out of pipes. We were the natives at New Belgrade, which was then also called ‘the Belgrade dormitories’ because there was nothing there other than building and basic grocery stores.
All in all my childhood in Belgrade was interesting. I went to the cinema all the time and back then there wasn’t one at every corner like we have today. If you wanted to see a movie on the big screen, you’d have to take the dark-green 16G bus that connected my neighborhood, through the desert, with the center of the city.
What’s interesting is that I never dealt with that period of my childhood in my writing, the “Karavan cudesa” touches on a different time. But my boyhood in Block 70 certainly has the potential to fill an excellent book.
Did you have any hobbies?
I’ve really loved drawing since an early age. When I became an accomplished writer, my old teacher Stanomirka Kovacevic - who came to my book signing as a surprise guest - reminded me of that fact. I don’t know if she sensed some kind of greatness in me, but she saved all my notebooks from lower grades. When I opened them, I found that every bit of free space on every page was covered in doodles. Who knows, maybe back then I wanted to be an artist. (laughter)
I like to draw to this day, and I’ve even had several exhibits. I’m also friends with some artists and I have organized art colonies on several occasions. Still, I prioritize different things while art is something I do in my free time.
By the way, I firmly believe that every one of us can draw. I keep saying that when I work with both kids and adults. If you depict something in a drawing and it’s recognizable, you can draw. But people often neglect this skill so they sometimes lack thought and planning when it comes to drawing.
How did your education continue from there?
When it was time for me to start high school, I decided to leave the comfort of New Belgrade and enroll in the First economy high school in Cetinjska street with a few friends. There, I had the chance to experience the charms of the bohemian triangle (also known as the Bermuda triangle) which consisted of three taverns back then: “Sumatovac”, “Pod lipom” and “Grmec”. As far as school went, I wasn’t overly ambitious. I just wanted to have a nice, easy, lighthearted time of it. Therefore I spent my third and fourth year of high school in an easygoing high school in Vozdovac, where my best man and I split the title of ‘generation student’.
When I completed my studies, I was officially a ‘graduated technology engineer’, but I never worked in that field too much. But I’ve always held on to the belief that everything you learn in life will pay off eventually in some way. That’s one point I always make in all my workshops, but you don’t usually realize this until you stop and look back. For example, during my college years I perfectly mastered draft geometry, but I didn’t realize until much later how useful thinking in three-dimensions can be, even in literature.
What did you do before you became a writer?
My first workplace was at a public company, in the position of an independent commercial official. That’s where I got my first work experience and then I crossed over to work for a representative office of a German company. Although everything in my life was going smoothly, I was interested in other things. For a while, I ran an aquarium store that also sold aquarium fish and pet turtles in “Beogradjanka”. After that, I ran a design company for male fashion - I looked for inspiration in interwar fashion.
As you can already tell, I always liked doing many things at once. For example, for a while I even sold quartz heaters for a percentage and photographs in stadiums and I was a wedding photographer too for a while. I remember hauling that huge “Panasonic” camera everywhere. So I’ve tried many different things in life.
How did you start writing?
The urge to sit down and write something hit me in 2002. I don’t know what it was exactly, but there were several possible triggers: our huge family library, the Vinetou books written by Carl May, Jack London’s autobiographies, the beat of Belgrade’s book fair. I remember visiting the Fair and watching the exhibits from the second ring of Hall 1. At that moment I thought to myself how great it would be if I also became a part of it, but as more than a visitor - I wanted to have my book down there among all the others. I can’t say for sure that was the key factor, but it played a big part.
By the way, to make a small digression - Belgrade book fair is a worldwide phenomenon. I’ve visited many similar fairs around the world, but not one of them can compare. Big book fairs like the ones in Frankfurt and Bologna are mostly there to close deals.
But anyway, I sat down and started an epic fantasy novel. I didn’t have any plans beyond that, I just wanted to finish that first book. Whenever I’d get behind the wheel, I’d drive slowly so that I wouldn’t get in an accident and be unable to finish my book. That’s how obsessed I was with finishing it. (laughter)
How did the publishing and sales go for that book?
It was a 300 page novel called “Aven i jazopas u Zemlji Vauka” which I published privately, with no professional reviewing. I personally took copies of my book to bookstores, offering to put them on their shelves. I even sent my manuscript to various children’s literature competitions but nobody would even consider them. Back then, children’s book were mostly teen adventures or poem collections, while my book was written as an encyclopedia of alternative evolution, an epic saga with horror elements.
However, I did end up sending the book to a prestigious competition where, of course, I achieved nothing. But with the help of Joban Ljustanovic, who was one of the jury members, my novel made it into the hands of his wife, Ljiljana Pesikan Ljustanovic, a doctorate in literature science. She recognized something in my books that others hadn’t and wrote me her praise and encouragement in an email which I luckily put on the back of the book. That’s how it all started.
At first, libraries bought half of my total printed stock, only to soon order even more copies of my book - more than the book that had won that year’s NIN award. Why? To this day I have no idea. But either way, this novel ended up in 176 libraries across Serbia.
That led me to reevaluate my career in designing which was, to make the choice even harder, pretty successful. Still, when my income from writing became more than sufficient for a successful life, writing became my preoccupation. I believed I’d get to that point after my tenth book, but actually I got there after my seventh. It was a combination of fortunate circumstances and an agile publisher which I feel was key.
That agile publisher was Laguna. How did you start working with them?
Now that is an interesting story. Although Laguna wasn’t publishing domestic authors back then, that didn’t stop me from trying to fight for my place under the sun. I scheduled a meeting with the owner of Laguna publishing without any expectations because I figured I might as well try.
Working at a German company has taught me that coming to a meeting early is almost as rude as being late, so I passed the time until the meeting our version of a local “pound store”. Just as a courtesy, I purchased a large magnifying glass made in China.
I showed up at the exact time to my meeting and across from me sat Dejan Papic, the founder of Laguna. As it is tradition, we exchanged calling cards. Mine was a very minimalistic design, with an arrow and my contact information in fine print. Probably meaning to mock my design, he asked me if the card came with a magnifying glass.
I immediately said yes and took out my gigantic magnifying glass from my bag and gifted it to him. He was speechless at first and then he burst out laughing and called his secretary. He told her to bring us drinks and the contract without having read a single line from my book.
That really changed my life. I published two new books after that, “Zagonetne price - book one" and "Zagonetne price - book two", and a reviewed version of "Aven i jazopas u Zemlji Vauka". Today, I have 21 books under my belt with over 160 editions as well as over half a million sold copies. My books have been published in Italy, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Macedonia, Romania etc.
And that’s how you became a children’s writer. But what did you read as a child?
I read crime novels by Agatha Christie as well as comic books. I’ve always been a huge fan of comic books. They didn’t have much of a reputation back then so I’m glad they’re much more valued today. For example, it’s only logical that reading comic books creates a direct connection between the visual and verbal part of the neuron network in the brain itself.
I didn’t just buy comic books, I kept them as well. When other things became more important in my life, I sold some of them, but I held onto the first four editions of the “Lunov Magnus Strip” and the “Zlatna serija” and also some gems like my set of “Asterix” comics.
What was your favorite comic?
That varied with the times. There was a period when my favorite was “Zagor”, then the comedy comics like “Alan Ford”, “Asterix” and “Lucky Luke”. I also loved “Rip Kirby” who was a detective, then the “Phantom”.
Another one worth mentioning were the comics that published within “Politikin zabavnik” like “Dzepna armija”. Then there was the soccer-themed comic “Niper” published by a Split publishing company, printed on some cheap paper. I remember I ran all over the city trying to find it because only a few newspaper stands stocked it.
There’s a widespread belief that life is easier with higher intelligence. What do you, as the former president of Mensa, think about that?
There’s a lot to discuss in that topic. First we should clarify what type of intelligence we are talking about. If we’re being honest, the only true and accurate definition of intelligence is the capability of solving intelligence tests.
And what do those tests measure? How good are you at solving those tests? Everything else is a slippery slope. But by meeting so many truly intelligent people while working with our Mensa and around the world, there’s one thing they all have in common other than their ability to solve problems - which is curiosity.
Education, wealth, success in life, all those things are unrelated to this. Only curiosity. You really notice it when you’re in that kind of company - everyone wants to know about everything: ranging from NFT’s and crypto currencies to tying knots.
To summarize, high intelligence is a relative term. Every one of us has met shepherds and mountain people who will say something to blow your mind with their insight and depth. On the other hand, you might meet an intellectual and be disappointed.
How did you become a part of Mensa?
Again, it was my curiosity. When I parted ways with that German company, I had some kind of psychological profiling done. At that time, they advised me to try my hand at Mensa. When I checked out their obscure website, I found some charm in what they did. While I was in Novi Sad on business, I took their test at the Medical faculty and later, out of curiosity, some more tests.
My score from one of those tests made it to the RTS show “Kvadratura kruga” where I got to talk - in a huge daze - about my score. After that, there were newspaper articles about me with insane headlines like “The smartest man in Serbia”, which - to be fair - served me well in promoting my first book, but later had some unwanted side-effects. Whenever I’d achieve anything in any field, it would always follow me. For example, four of my photos were included in the official Windows screensavers. Also, I won two first-place awards from “National Geographics”. But no matter what I did, that test would always come up. But all in all, it all turned out alright.
You are famous for your quizzes. How did you get started with that?
It dates back to my childhood, when I made various quizzes for my brothers and cousins, mostly imitating “Kviskoteka”. We were avid followers of all current quizzes. It didn’t stop when I served my military service in 1985 in Visoko, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. By the way, that town was a place I described in my letters as “a small and strange place at the base of a pyramid-shaped hill that doesn’t seem to belong geographically”. (laughter)
Anyways, during training I made quizzes for the entire garrison, called “Tito, revolucija, mir”. (laughter) But despite the boring topic, I managed to make it interesting by including questions about Broz’s dog, cave etc.
After that, as it usually goes, whenever you love something you are drawn to doing it more. That’s how I ended up making quiz questions for many quiz shows, from “Genijalci” to “Multimioner” with Gaga Nikolic as well as the first four seasons of “Potera”. The last one I did was for the quiz show “Lavirint” where I appeared as the “Labyrinth architect” and the final, hardest obstacle for the contestants. It was a family quiz show. People from our region still recognize me from it.
Do you have any anecdotes from your time of making quiz shows?
Oh yes, and how. While I was the president of Mensa, I took some members to compete in a special edition episode of “Slagalica”. They kept trying to talk me into competing with them, but I didn’t want to ruin their image. (laughter)
What set that episode apart from others is the one funny scene between myself and the now late Milka Canic. Namely, during the shoot, she kept persuading me to try my hand at the game. I jokingly told her how it wouldn’t be fair towards the others because I was psychic and knew all the questions in advance.
Seeing how the questions come from a sealed envelope, Milka decided to test my psychic abilities. She asked me what was the solution of the next association and I off-handedly told her the solution was a very nice “color”, to which she laughed and went to check.
She returned pale as a ghost. The solution to the association was “burgundy”, which forever persuaded her I was psychic. When we finished shooting, she dragged me off to the side and seriously asked me “Uros, will I ever get married?” (laughter)
You are a big fan of nature, aren’t you?
That’s true, I love mountains and forests. I am also extremely passionate about planting trees. My love towards planting dates back to youth work actions from 1984. Back then, we would clear out the Deliblatska sands to create firefighting routes, so we would plant 20cm tall pines.
By pure chance, I had to go to a literature meet and greet in that area a few years ago and I deliberately made a turn to try and find the place where we planted those trees. I can tell you, those are now some imposing forests full of birds and shade.
I read somewhere that a single tree can supply a lifetime supply of oxygen for several people, so by planting so much I like to think I paid for my own and my family and friends’ place in this world. (laughter)
What are your plans going forward?
Recently I wrote a script for a TV series called “Dom za domisljatu decu” (A Home for Imaginative Children) which was bought by RTS. The plot revolves around kids from Belgrade who solve various mysteries and puzzles. But I don’t know if they are going to shoot it or not.
On the other hand, although writing is my main calling, I also love to do other things, like photography. I also organize children’s workshops. Seeing how I’m not a fan of classic book readings, I like to make interactive gatherings where the kids and grownups join forces to solve puzzles and answer riddles. By doing that for years, I realized I have a knack for inspiring them to try their hand at anything they want.
A few years ago I started working with business people and companies. I used to do this mainly in Slovenia where my main clients very quickly became the largest companies, banks and insurance companies. That brings me a lot of joy, mostly because it lets me reach all people no matter their age.
But to be honest, working with children is the most fulfilling thing in my life.
Why do you prefer working with children?
It all started with the first book I wrote. Already in my first book readings, I didn’t want to read excerpts, it just didn’t seem engaging. When I published “Zagonetne price”, which have now seen their 25th edition, I started telling riddle-filled stories and create interactions with kids, in order to create an atmosphere that would surprise and engage everyone and make them feel a bit disappointed when it ends.
I’ve been at that for a few decades and still am, but I like to think I’ve gotten much better at it. It really wouldn’t do not to have improved. (laughter) This summer I visited several NTC camps that are aimed at motor and cognitive skill development for preschool and school aged children. I’ve also worked with my friend and colleague, the legendary Ljubivije Rsumovic, with kids who have a talent for writing at the camp organized by the “Saradnici Sunca” Academy. I also went on a book tour in the Montenegro seaside and in Herzegovina.
Basically I like to exercise my brain whenever possible.
Are you working on a new book?
No matter what I’m doing, I’m always working on a new book - and usually more than one.
Based on the script I mentioned earlier, I’ve also written a novel. I’m planning to write “Zagonetna potraga 3” while the first part is still topping best-sellers lists even though it came out three years ago.
So something is always in the works, I’m no stranger to multitasking. For example, I often work on two computers at once - editing images with one hand while doing less demanding things with my right like approving blockchain transactions.
So you are keeping in touch with the times and technologies
Yes, with my friends Toma Vukasovic and Aleksa Gajic who illustrated three of my books, we made the NFT collections Miners of Mars, which is very successful and still goes on and inspires which is a rarity nowadays.
So yes, I keep up with the times. I always like to point out that we are living in the best period humanity has ever known, at the peak of our capabilities. Many things that we take for granted today would be unimaginable in the past: from the ability to listen to excellent music for free, to being able to find any information you need within seconds, to being able to send your pictures to another part of the world almost instantly.
I use all those resources to learn and improve myself. It only takes a little bit of time and will to study blockchain technologies or a period of history or a way to keep a certain kind of plant. Of course, you have to have some competency with the English language (but you can master it very well through YouTube lessons). Then, all the knowledge of the world will be at your fingertips, from knowing how to raise seahorses in a room aquarium to how to make a serviceable app for the latest mobile devices.