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Interviews with Current Issue Authors

Realism’s Inability to Portray Reality: A Q&A with ‘Man & Wife’ Author Katie Chase

Katie Chase (photo by Calvin Eib)

Katie Chase (photo by Calvin Eib)

An internal refugee crisis in the United States; a modern America that tolerates decades-old, interfamilial vendettas; a city that keeps burning down year after year—these are the kinds of warped worlds captured in Katie Chase’s story collection, Man & Wife (220 pages; A Strange Object). Within these surrealities, Chase exaggerates societal traditions into distended proportions, focusing on the experiences of women at pivotal moments in their youth, examining their family dynamics, and, concurrently, their strange societies’ shifting norms. What’s even more unsettling is how eerily similar these worlds (and all the dramas that exist within them) are to our own.

Chase—a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who’s published in ZYZZYVA, the Mississippi Review, and the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies—grounds her tragic tales of the intricate burden of tradition through the first-person perspectives of her unforgettable characters. Her sentences roil with every moment’s uncertainty, continually rending open the perceived gap between tradition and freedom, the collective and the individual, to peer closer at just how enmeshed those binaries are.
We talked to Katie Chase via email about Man & Wife, and about how language is inextricable from story, how the political is the human, and how to maintain “the play of writing.”

ZYZZYVA: Tradition, in its many forms, seems to stand at the center of Man & Wife; its push and pull, its polarity with complete autonomy, and individuals’ battles to find where they reside between those two extremes. It’s a nondualist view that you exemplify spectacularly in your story “The Hut,” which made me wonder, where do you think your fascination with tradition stems from, and how has writing this collection developed it for you?

Katie Chase: While my upbringing was not particularly conservative, I would say that it was largely “traditional,” in that I was raised by parents who were married—a father who worked and a mother who stayed home—in a small suburb where the norm was to stick around and repeat: find yourself a practical profession and a spouse, buy a house, have kids. My parents made the conscious choice to raise me and my siblings outside of a religion, but we observed Christian holidays in gatherings with extended family members whose rituals and beliefs bound them in actual and symbolic ways from which we were excluded, albeit proudly.

In pursuing writing, I’ve followed a path I had no models for until college, and I’ve never really stopped holding my life’s trajectory against what might have been expected. I cherish outsider status to the extent that I have it, yet at the same time I see in freedom loss as well as gain. Writing this collection made these preoccupations more conscious and allowed an exploration of them that was vicarious. We’re living in a time that is probably not so different from any other for its concurrent progress and clinging. I feel more softness now toward the latter. The clinging and the contradictions strike me as deeply human. I think a lot of people of my generation feel a sort of horror—and absolutely a restlessness—at the range of possibilities; anything is supposed to be possible, yet it still isn’t, and no one can have, or see, or do, or taste everything. I take great, tongue-in-cheek pleasure in nondenominational annual activities such as eating Thanksgiving dinner and watching the Academy Awards simply for the sense that so many other people, with a wide range of feelings, are at the same time participating.

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Healing the Phantom Pains Through Poetry: Q&A with Noelle Kocot

Noelle Kocot

Noelle Kocot

I turn to the poems of Noelle Kocot for the same reason I entered corn mazes as a kid: both are pleasurably unpredictable, and both transform everyday places into thrilling twilight zones. Though Kocot’s writing has covered a great deal of formal and conceptual terrain over the course of her seven books, her work has remained whip-smart and darkly playful, consistently carrying off great feats of imagination while orbiting an urgent emotional truth. These hallmarks are present in the restless quatrains of her Levis Poetry Prize-winning first collection, in the unflinching elegies for her late husband in Sunny Wednesday, and, now, in the tersely elliptical poems of Phantom Pains of Madness, released last month from Wave Books. Like its predecessors, Kocot’s latest book fills me with a combination of triumph and incongruous grief, like a kid at the end of a corn maze.

Phantom Pains of Madness is memorable for a few reasons. First, every one of its lines comprises only a single word, so the resulting columns of text appear lean and sinewy, as if pared down from a much larger whole:

What
Is
Left
Only
The
Life
The
Singing
Language
Around
The
Life

Kocot also has a way of writing about cognitive distortions that is more on the mark and profound than that of any other living poet I can think of. The poems in Phantom Pains of Madness mimic the language of the mind in its least rational, most disjunctive states, recounting hallucinatory pangs and visions in all their stinging color. We spoke with Kocot via email about her new book, the role of poetry in destigmatizing mental illness, and cool and hot jazz.

ZYZZYVA: According to the blurb, this collection explores “a break with reality that occurred a decade and a half ago.” You’ve been busy during that decade and a half, publishing six full-length books of poetry and a collection of translations, among other projects. I’m curious about whether Phantom Pains of Madness was incubating during all that time.

Noelle Kocot: Well, I didn’t plan a book; instead, I wrote about 200 of these poems. (Joshua Beckman, poet and editor at Wave Books, made the selections and the order.) It was when I quit smoking cigarettes (ultimately unsuccessfully), hence the title. I felt so crazed and out of my mind when I wrote these poems from the lack of nicotine, which lasted around four months. So yes, definitely it had been incubating for all that time, but quitting smoking was definitely the impetus, because it really was the experience of “phantom pains of madness.” Continue reading

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The Inheritance of Trauma: Q&A with Adrienne Celt & Esmé Weijun Wang

Adrienne Celt

Adrienne Celt

I’m not entirely sure where I happened upon Adrienne Celt’s beautiful first novel, The Daughters (272 pages; Norton/Liveright), which is out in paperback in early June, but entering its world was like entering a beautiful fever dream: ornate, occasionally frightening and sad. Celt’s world, peopled by four generations of Polish and Polish American women, tells the story of Lulu, a famed opera singer who loses her voice and sifts through her family’s stories to locate a way forward for herself and her newborn daughter. Celt’s work has appeared in Esquire, the Kenyon Review, and her story “Big Boss Bitch,” a tale of a future political situation that seems almost too real to be fantasy, is slated for the Fall issue of Zyzzyva. Celt holds an MFA from Arizona State University and lives in Tucson.

Esmé Weijun Wang

Esmé Weijun Wang

Esmé Weijun Wang’s first novel, the recently published The Border of Paradise, (292 pages; Unnamed Press), came to my attention via an essay she wrote for LitHub titled, “Why My Novel Uses Untranslated Chinese.” This alone—the idea that an American novelist might pepper her book with traditional Chinese characters rather than pinyin (although Wang uses both)—is fascinating. But The Border of Paradise is also a stunning novel, terrifying and wonderful in turns, with a sense of dread creeping across every page. Wang has openly discussed her ongoing struggle with late stage Lyme disease and with schizoaffective disorder. Her work has appeared in Salon, Buzzfeed, Catapult, and The Believer. She holds an MFA from the University of Michigan and lives in San Francisco. I had an online conversation with Wang and Celt about their work.

ZYZZYVA: I was immediately struck by the strange similarities between your books, not the least of which being they both deal, in part, with Polish culture. I wondered where that interest stemmed from and how it might have informed your writing in general.

Adrienne Celt: I have a great deal of Polish ancestry, and initially I wanted to explore Polish mythology and history for that reason—my paternal grandfather played a part in organizing the Warsaw Uprising as a paratrooper and courier for the Polish government in exile during World War II, and so I grew up hearing incredible stories about my family and their place in Polish national history. But because my paternal grandparents lived in Munich (after WWII, Poland was occupied by the USSR, so many loyal nationalists chose to leave, and my grandparents went to Munich to work for Radio Free Europe), I didn’t know them well, and the stories about them always felt distant to me—I wanted to know more.

EWW: I’ve been sitting over here gnawing on my fingers because I don’t have a good answer as to why Polish Americans—I can’t remember how I decided that would be the case, which doesn’t make for very good storytelling on my part as an author. But yes, [the protagonist] David Nowak’s parents were both born in the States. It’s his grandfather who carries the mythology of the penniless immigrant making good. David’s family still exists in a very Polish American circle, though, which I was interested in. I’m interested in communities that remain insular. I suppose most of my book is about insularity and isolation in some way. I was also interested in who was making pianos at the time, because I knew I wanted to write about a family that owned a piano manufactory.

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Forms of Self-Interrogation: Q&A with ‘Emergency Brake’ Author Ruth Madievsky

5131260In Ruth Madievsky’s Emergency Brake, a body is never just a body. Rather, it is a looted ship, a lit match, a bedtime story, a lamp. In other moments, the body is known only by what it contains: a rope, a salted pretzel, “the sound of a penny thrown in a blender.” Madievsky’s poems put domestic objects to work, personifying and reframing embodied experience like puppets with the poet’s hands inside. And in her fiery first collection, published by Tavern Books as a Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series selection, her talent for analogy is on full display.

In addition to a metaphor-maker par excellence, Madievsky is a doctoral student in pharmacy and a research assistant in an HIV clinic in Los Angeles. Drug names and medical terms punctuate her lyrics, forcing a dialogue between her romantic and clinical inclinations and suggesting the body’s dangerous propensity for betrayal. And there is danger here: while many pages show the speaker delighting in “the naming of things,” other poems allude to moments of trauma and rage. Still, Madievsky’s speaker is too resilient, too mobile and defiant, to dwell on victimhood; as she writes in “Poem for Spring,” which first appeared in ZYZZYVA (No. 103), “the only violence / we have time for / is the violence of stars.” We spoke with Madievsky on the phone and over email about how she pulls off her aesthetic, thematic, and professional balancing acts.

ZYZZYVA: Let’s start with the title. It seems the phrase is lifted from a line in “Halloween” where the speaker describes an escapist tendency:
…how all my life
I’ve been about as carefree as a soft peach
in a pile of broken glass, my hand
always twitching toward the Ativan bottle, always ready
to pull the emergency brake…

This moment comes in the middle of an uncomfortable situation with the speaker’s boss, and I read the “emergency brake” as a kind of deus ex machina: a way to magic oneself out of a threatening setting into somewhere safer. What made you choose this metaphor for the book?

Ruth Madievsky: Originally, the book was called Shadowboxing as a nod to the four poems with that title. But “shadowboxing” sounds like exactly what you’d call a first book of poems—it has that simultaneously vague-and-specific vibe. When a friend, the poet Douglas Manuel, suggested I call the book Emergency Brake, a champagne bottle burst open in my head. Though the phrase “emergency brake” appears only once in the book, the motif of emergency brakes—in the form of intimacy, medication, associative thinking, etc.—recurs throughout. I’m taken by how those things can function at times as the emergency brake, at other times the emergency.

Z: There seem to be two prevalent forces acting on the speaker in these poems: one seems distinctly internal, in the form of obsessive, morbid thoughts (especially thoughts having to do with medicine), while the other seems more external, in the form of sexual harassment and gendered violence. There’s a sense of the body being breached but also of it being already contaminated. Can you speak about that tension?

RM: You articulated that much more clearly than I could have. I would add love and eroticism as other primary forces acting both on and within the speaker—it’s not all chemo and sex offender registries, I hope! But yes, you’ve hit on a tension that intrigues me: the ways in which the body enters the world and the world enters the body. Lungs are a core image for me because they’re maybe the best example of the constant exchange between world and body.

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The Extremities of Human Experience: Q&A with ‘I Met Someone’ Author Bruce Wagner

BRuce Wagner The fact that the dust jacket for Bruce Wagner’s latest novel, I Met Someone (Blue Rider Press; 384 pages), carries blurbs from award-winning author Sherman Alexie as well as acclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh reveals how adroitly Wagner has been able to navigate both the literary scene and the world of Hollywood. Over the last several years, Wagner has been at work on what he calls the Inferno series, starting with 2012’s Dead Stars, a sprawling and densely packed novel about life on the fringes of stardom, which Tom Bissell dubbed “the Ulysses of TMZ culture.” In 2015, David Cronenberg directed Wagner’s screenplay for Maps to the Stars, a pitch-black tour through the darker side of the film industry that earned Julianne Moore a Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

The Inferno series culminates with this year’s I Met Someone, which tells the story of 53-year-old Dusty Wilding, a screen actress with a loving wife and the kind accolades typically reserved for Meryl Streep. Upon the death of her mother, Wilding begins a journey to locate the daughter she gave up as a teenager, a journey that leads her to shattering discoveries. The novel is at turns haunting and heartbreaking, not to mention wickedly funny, as Wagner touches on everything from the Hollywood movie-making machine to Children of God-style cults and Internet message board trolls. The book is propelled by Wagner’s virtuosic style; only Wagner could write a tender sex scene thusly: “They lay in a field of golden land mines that went off one after the other, leaving them eyeless, limbless, heartless – dead and alive all at once.”

Recently, Bruce Wagner talked to us via email about I Met Someone and its potent themes of motherhood, grief, and rebirth.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: David L. Ulin & Gary Kamiya

David L. Ulin (whose work has appeared in ZYZZYVA Issues No. 100 and 104) is the author or editor of eight previous books, including The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time and the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he is the former book critic of the Los Angeles Times.

ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon, along with Gary Kamiya—executive editor of San Francisco Magazine and author of Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco—discussed Ulin’s latest book, Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles (University of California Press), at the Mechanics’s Institute in San Francisco in January. The conversation explored how we understand cities, what makes a place “authentic,” and the similarities between Los Angeles and San Francisco—two major cities in a state of flux.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Dean Rader

Dean Rader (whose poetry has been published in ZYZZYVA Issues No. 93 , 98 & 101) is the author of several books, including the poetry collections Works & Days (winner of the 2010 T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize), Landscape Portrait Figure Form, which was named by the Barnes & Noble Review as one of the Best Poetry Books of 2013, and the forthcoming Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, to be published in 2016 by Copper Canyon Press.

ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talked to Rader about what makes for a “successful” poem, how his work has come to be shaped, the attraction of sports (particularly basketball and the Golden State Warriors), and his path toward becoming a professor.

To hear Dean Rader read two of his poems, one of which written for the occasion of ZYZZYVA’s 30th Anniversary fundraising party earlier this year, click on “Continued Reading” below.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: John Freeman

John Freeman (whose poems were published in ZYZZYVA No. 95 and No. 101, and who is also a contributing editor) is a long-time book critic, author of How to Read a Novelist, and the former editor of Granta. Last month, he launched a new literary journal, Freeman’s, which will publish themed issues twice a year. The first issue features work from Louise Erdrich, Barry Lopez, Haruki Murakami, Dave Eggers, Alexander Hemon, Anne Carson, Helen Simpson, and many more.

Before a packed house at City Lights Bookstore last month, ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talked to Freeman about the journal, about writing and growing up in Sacramento, and about the work of literature.

To hear City Lights Bookstore’s Peter Maravelis’s introduce the conversation, click on “Continue Reading” below.

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Far Off the Band: A Q&A with Scott Hutchins and Octavio Solis

Octavio Solis

Octavio Solis

I met Scott Hutchins and Octavio Solis at a writers conference in Pebble Beach, in the center of what must soon be on record as the longest summer in California’s long, hot history. Hutchins is the author of the novel A Working Theory of Love. He is a former Truman Capote fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program at Stanford University, where he currently teaches, and his work has appeared in Story Quarterly, Five Chapters, The Rumpus, the New York Times, Catamaran Literary Reader, and Esquire, among other places. And Solis is a playwright and director. His work has been mounted at many major theaters across the U.S., including the Mark Taper Forum, the Yale Repertory Theater, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He is recipient of the 2014 PEN Center USA Award for Drama and is a Thornton Wilder Fellow for the MacDowell Colony. His work has been published in ZYZZYVA, most recently his story “Retablos,” which appeared in Issue No. 102.

What began as a professional engagement with both writers has blossomed into a genuine friendship. I had intended to interview each separately for ZYZZYVA, but the more I considered it, the more I thought how much more rewarding a three-way conversation might be. Over the course of several hours, we discussed the social aspects of writing, the use of lyricism (and non-lyricism), and our early teachers.

Scott Hutchins

Scott Hutchins

ZYZZYVA: Scott, we’ve talked before about your tenure as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, but not much about what that actually meant to you in your development as a writer. What did you pull from that experience, and how does it show up in the work you’ve done since? Is it about technique or relationships or experiences or all of the above?

Scott Hutchins: The Stegner Fellowship was a very intense time. In my bones I was sure they had made some sort of mistake in selecting me. I struggled with a great feeling of unworthiness. It was a very congenial workshop, but I usually felt like I’d been through the ringer. Ten ferociously intelligent reads would dig into a story that I didn’t really understand myself.

Z: Did you learn a bunch of technique from those readers?

SH: I wouldn’t say I learned much technique in the Stegner. It wasn’t a craft-based program, and I already had an MFA. Tobias Wolff, one of the professors, likened the Stegner to a junior artist-in-residency. That was the feel. A deep commitment to your work, but also nearly complete independence. But I did raise the bar for myself—or began raising the bar. I finally came to understand what finished work looked like. What the process of actually finishing something felt like. I entered the Stegner hating revision and left it…maybe not liking it but having made my peace with it. Now I can barely wait to get to revision. It’s absolutely my favorite part of writing.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Lori Ostlund

Lori Ostlund (whose story “Clear as Cake” was published in ZYZZYVA No. 97) is the author of two books—the story collection “The Bigness of the World” (winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award, the Edmund White Award, and a California Book Award), and most recently, “After the Parade,” her first novel. Shortlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, “After the Parade” tells the mostly funny but also unhappy story of Aaron, a man who feels compelled to leave his older partner and stable life in New Mexico for a new start in San Francisco. As he teaches English to foreign students in a dingy language school, Aaron tries to make sense of his complicated past, including the actions of his mother, who abandoned him while he was a teen.

We talked to Ostlund about the novel and its ideas in front of an audience at the Booksmith last month. To hear her read from her novel, click on “Continue Reading” below.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Glen David Gold

In our continuing series of interviews and readings with our contributors, we talked to Glen David Gold about his nonfiction piece “The Plush Cocoon,” which appeared in ZYZZVYA No. 100. Gold is the author of the best-selling novels “Carter Beats the Devil” and “Sunnyside.” In “Cocoon” he explores his family history, particularly that of his mother’s. Gold discusses this piece as well as other topics, including how life has changed in San Francisco.

To hear Gold read from “The Plush Cocoon,” click on “Continue Reading” below.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Vauhini Vara

Welcome to the newest feature on our website: the ZYZZYVA Video Series—featuring short readings and interviews with ZYZZYVA’s many contributors. We kick off our series with Vauhini Vara, whose story “We Were Here” appears in ZYZZYVA No. 101. Vara, whose fiction has been honored with an O’Henry Award, is also an award-winning journalist. Having worked at the Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade, she now covers technology and business for the NewYorker.com, where she was previously the business editor. Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talked with Vara about “We Were Here,” as well as about her career as a journalist.

And if you click on “Continue Reading,” you can see a video of Vara reading from “We Were Here.” We hope you enjoy!

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