Category Archives

Interviews

Interviews with Current Issue Authors

‘Pain and Loneliness in Equal Measure’: Q&A with Peter Orner

ornerPeter Orner’s Am I Alone Here? Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live (316 pages, Catapult)—which concerns Orner’s favorite stories, the lives of their authors as well as Orner’s own—has a modest subtitle. It suggests the essays in the collection, which was recently named a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award, are rough, unfinished. (One of the essays in the collection, “Since the Beginning of Time,” appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 107.) Because Orner maintains this Midwestern-like self-deprecating tone throughout the book, his intellectual rigor might catch you off guard. He takes stories—telling them, reading them—very seriously. With the same combination of self-effacement and scrupulousness, Orner discussed with us via email how to inhabit a story and what kinds of stories he like to inhabit.

ZYZZYVA: You have a penchant for stories about people telling stories, like Juan Rulfo’s “Luvina,” which you write about in “On the Beauty of Not Writing, or, An Unnecessary Homage to Juan Rulfo,” and Álvaro Mutis’ “The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call,” which you write about in “Since the Beginning of Time.” In the former, you write that you return “again and again to Rulfo’s first book [The Plain in Flames] to re-experience something… fundamental: how to inhabit a story simply by listening.” You like these kinds of stories because they put this inhabitance on display. Of course, this is what you do in these essays. For you, is there much of a difference between performing listening in fiction and in nonfiction?

Peter Orner: Thanks for the question, which kind of lays out it better than I ever could. You inhabit a story by becoming an active listener, especially in stories like the incomparable Juan Rulfo’s, where it often feels like the speaker is talking directly into your—and only your—ear. As for listening in non-fiction versus listening in fiction, I’m not sure I’d say there is a difference. I think it’s all about concentration, whatever form of work you’re reading. And I find that I don’t do nearly enough of it, listening to the page, slowly, as I read. Reading online is making me read faster, which is the deadliest thing, I think. I’m not anti-technology or anything, but I think that increasing the speed by which we read is crappy for literature. I notice this with myself. When I read on-line, my eyes move a hell of a lot faster. My eyes aren’t taking it in as they would on a page, I’m skimming down the screen, I’m looking for something else to click—and so when I say we got to listen to the page, I mean we got to read with all our senses. Somehow this answer became a screed, but my point is I read to slow down, and that’s what I mean by inhabiting a story.

Continue reading

Posted in Interviews, News | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Patrick Hoffman

Patrick Hoffman was born in San Francisco, where for a decade he worked as both a private investigator and an investigator for the Public Defender’s Office. His first novel, The White Van, was a finalist for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award and was named a Wall Street Journal best book of the year. His new novel is Every Man a Menace, which Kirkus, in its starred review, called “a nasty tour de force” and a “strong and original addition to the crime fiction genre.”

Hoffman spoke to ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about his new book at the Booksmith last month.

Posted in Interviews, News | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Vanessa Hua

Vanessa Hua (whose stories “The Third Daughter” and “River of Stars” appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 91 and No. 98, respectively) is the author of the story collection Deceit and Other Possibilities, named a “searing debut” by O, The Oprah Magazine. Her fiction has appeared in the Atlantic, Guernica, and elsewhere, and for nearly two decades she has been writing about Asia and the diaspora, filing stories from China, Burma, South Korea, Panama, Abu Dhabi, and Ecuador. A Visiting Editor in Creative Nonfiction at Saint Mary’s College this fall, she is also a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Hua spoke to ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about her book at the Booksmith in San Francisco earlier this month.

Posted in Interviews, News | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Roaming the Metaphorical ‘Jungle Around Us’ : Q&A with Anne Raeff

Anne Raeff (photo by Dennis Hearne)

Anne Raeff (photo by Dennis Hearne)

In Anne Raeff’s story collection, The Jungle Around Us (140 pages, University of Georgia Press), nine stories span decades, covering numerous lives and multiple “jungles”; urban, Amazonian, and metaphorical, to name a few. In these “jungles,” Raeff’s characters face a Russian nesting-doll of isolation. Here, the land itself is alien to those displaced far from their homes. Language barriers and internal turmoil prevent communicating fully with those around you. But Raeff also shows how these same places can be a shelter, a refuge for embracing or experimenting with aspects of oneself that may have otherwise been ignored or hidden. Some experience magic moments of connection, and a few even find love.

Raeff, whose essay “Lorca in the Afternoon” was published in Issue No. 98, is not afraid to cause discomfort with her stories. Sometimes they end in an unsettling manner, with our last view of a character being one of he or she committing a confusing but all too human action. Occasionally, though, protagonists re-appear in later stories, adding to the intrigue of the collection. I am still pondering some of the book’s strangeness now, imagining how the lives of Raeff’s characters might pan out past the pages of her collection. We talked to Anne Raeff via email about The Jungle Around Us, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.

ZYZZYVA: Throughout your book, there is an ongoing theme of translation, of characters teaching and learning other languages. In “The Buchovskys on Their Own,” Katja Ladijinskaya will only let Simone and Juliet speak French at the dinner table. In “Maximiliano,” Simone must read Maximiliano’s expressions to communicate with him. In “Carlito on Pink,” Kenard can only understand certain parts in the Spanish conversations between his host mother and her new boyfriend. What is it about languages and its barriers that interest you?

Anne Raeff: I grew up in a multilingual environment. My mother is from Vienna and my father was Russian, but he grew up in Germany (until Hitler came to power in 1933) and then in France. German was my first language, and I only learned English when I started school. My father taught my sister and me French through dreaded Wednesday lessons, for which I am now grateful. When my mother’s family escaped from Vienna in 1938, they moved to Bolivia where they spent the war years, so my mother spoke Spanish as well. When I was twenty-three I moved to Madrid to figure out who I was and how I was going to write, and to learn Spanish. When I arrived in Madrid, I was still socially awkward and introverted, but in Spain one must engage with the world. One must drink and talk all night long. One must run through the streets at dawn and claim one’s place in line at the market. Madrid forced me to look without. The process of learning a new language and navigating a new culture pushed me out into the world. As for Russian, my sister and I didn’t learn Russian since my parents didn’t have that language in common and my father thought that French would be a more useful language to learn. But we both do a really good Russian accent. Finally, I am a high school teacher, and I have spent most of my teaching career teaching English to recently arrived immigrant students and Spanish to both Spanish-learners and Spanish speakers. Thus, I continue to live in a multilingual world, and I am reminded every day of the beauty as well as the limitations of language.

Continue reading

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Mauro Javier Cardenas

Mauro Javier Cardenas (whose story “Dora and Her Dog” was published in Issue No. 104) is the author of the new novel The Revolutionaries Try Again (Coffee House Press). Harper’s Magazine has described his first novel as “a high-octane, high-modernist” work “from the gifted, fleet Mauro Javier Cardenas.” And in its starred review, Publishers Weekly said “Cardenas dizzyingly leaps from character to character, from street protests to swanky soirees, and from lengthy uninterrupted interior monologues to rapid-fire dialogues and freewheeling satirical radio programs, resulting in extended passages of brilliance.”

Cardenas spoke to ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about his book at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco earlier this month.

Posted in Interviews, News | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Conversation with Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff, ZYZZYVA No. 107, Fall Issue

Andrew Foster Altschul: Well, gentlemen, I said I would toss out something to get us started. I was thinking about that story that’s in both of your memoirs—The Duke of Deception and This Boy’s Life—about the summer in San Diego when, Geoffrey, you had just graduated from Princeton, and Toby, you were still in high school, you were maybe sixteen, and it was supposed to be a family reunion, the two of you and your dad. It didn’t quite work out as planned. Your dad ended up in an institution, and Geoffrey took his job at a defense contractor. The part of the story that’s so enjoyable is that you’ve both described how you had this writer’s colony of two going— Geoffrey was assigning Toby books to read and papers to write; Geoffrey had written a novel (that his professor had told him to destroy), and Toby was dead set on becoming a writer.Thinking back to that time, and to what you imagined for yourselves—did it look anything like the lives and careers the two of you have led?

Geoffrey Wolff (Photo: © Michael Lionstar)

Geoffrey Wolff (Photo: © Michael Lionstar)

Geoffrey Wolff: Well, first, if I may, I just want to correct a possible misapprehension about the nature of the “institution” my father was in. It was not like the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton! Not at all like that. He’d been conveyed to this institution by the police.

It’s quite wonderful, the beginning of all writers—anybody who’s decided that’s what they want to do. Nobody has any idea what it means. Not the vaguest idea what it means, except that they read books and they want to make them. And Toby and I both had spent, under quite different circumstances, a lot of our youth in libraries. Our mother borrowed books for us from the time we were very young, and that’s kind of what we had in common. I hate to think now what our lives might have become had there been television to watch.

Tobias Wolff (photo by Elena Seibert)

Tobias Wolff (photo by Elena Seibert)

Tobias Wolff: That was a great summer, in its way. I was fifteen and I was about to go back east to a boarding school, where I’d gotten a scholarship. I was completely unprepared for this school. Geoffrey took me under his wing and taught me, really gave me the beginnings of an understanding of what it is to write—because I had none, really. I had some very nebulous idea of writing, but nothing that I was actually fastened on. I liked to read a lot. I wrote knock-off stories of things that I was reading.But I think it had everything to do with the fact that Geoffrey encouraged me to think of this as a serious way of living—the way he taught me to read and open things up and think about them, and the kind of care that you brought to the writing of sentences. It became not just a kind of academic thing but—how can I put it?—a kind of exercise of the spirit.

By the time that summer was over, I wanted to be a writer, and I’ve never really wanted to be anything else since then.

You know, it is what you’ve talked about, Andrew, the unimaginability of where you might end up in the future: Geoffrey and I for years sat around talking about books and writing, and about our hopes as writers—always, I have to say, somewhere in the pit of my stomach I thought, “We’re building castles in the air—or I’m building castles in the air.” The fact that somehow I was able to dredge some books out of myself and actually be up here talking to my brother as a writer seems miraculous to me.

GW: I think something that is too seldom emphasized is the way teaching works, particularly in English and literature, the extent to which it’s this wonderful alchemy which is really monkey-see-monkey-do. I’d just graduated from college, where I’d had great professors—one in particular, R.P. Blackmur, a poet,who was my advisor and was very deeply read and had very high expectations. He was a so-called New Critic, and he was a close reader and insisted that we be very close readers. And when I graduated and joined Toby within a couple of weeks out in  California, I had just left being under his influence. I’m certain if I could record our conversations I’d be mortified to find transcripts of R.P. Blackmur’s lectures in there.

So a lot of it was not experience so much as that I’d been inspired by somebody. When Toby and I were together that summer, I was about to go teach at the end of that summer, my first teaching job—my first real job—and I’m sure I used Toby as practice, as a sort of batting cage. When I left Toby, I went to Turkey to teach. And the students that I taught all spoke English. But the things we taught them in the English department were the things we were interested in. So it was Alexander Pope, it was Milton, it was Keats—it was completely arbitrary. And they’d come out of eastern Turkey, and suddenly were told, “You’re going to have Pope down by the end of the week!” A lot of them went forth…I know some of these kids are teachers now. God knows what they’re telling their kids about Alexander Pope.

I think this is the most wonderfully wholesome act of either ripping off, or mimesis, in the way Aristotle means it. Something that I know now registered on Toby must have been much less deeply understood by me at the time than we seem to understand it now.

AFA: There’s a famous story about your mother, when she was asked to comment after This Boy’s Life came out, maybe six or seven years after The Duke of Deception, she was asked what she thought about it all. And she said something to the effect of, “I feel as though I got run over by a train that was headed south, and then it came north and ran me over again.” I was wondering about the two of you, seeing yourselves in each other’s work—maybe even turning up in the fiction sometimes—what has that experience been like? Have you had conversations about this?

GW: Oh, yeah, we’ve had lots of conversations. And I have to say they’ve only been an absolute joy for me, because the more we talk the closer we understand each other. But our experiences in childhood only rarely overlapped, so there are very few things that we could recollect in common or even dispute: was the collie named Shep or Shepard?, for example. So I learned about not only my mother and the people she was close to after she and my father were separated, but I learned about Toby, too. And I also learned what their point of view was on my life and my father’s.

So Toby and I have really educated each other in family history. And what we had in common most was our mother, and our mother, about these two books, was just amazing. She was so smart in her response, at least to me—there were many things in my book that must have been hurtful to her, that I know were hurtful to her. But she never argued about the integrity of my memory, although she may very much have disagreed with it. She only corrected me on facts that she knew when she read the manuscript: “That isn’t the address where we lived,” or “We didn’t live there at that time,” or “It didn’t cost that much to rent.” And she was right about seventy percent of the time, as it turned out. But she said in this stunning end of a letter that she wrote me when she returned the manuscript, she said, “I wish it were”—using the subjunctive—“I wish it were a portrait of a perfect mother, but then I wasn’t a perfect mother, but then who was?” And I cannot tell you how much I admired that prose, and the sentiment behind it.

TW: She was pretty unsentimental in her way of reading these books. My heart was in my throat when I gave her my manuscript. I didn’t want her to be hurt by anything in there. But, on the other hand, if you’re telling a story like this you have to tell it as you remember it. And I certainly wrote it in love—andshe got that, she got that it was written in love. And she said once, “Well, if I’d known that both my sons were going to be writers I might have lived a little differently.” Well, again: Who wouldn’t?

She was kind of feckless. She had terrible taste in men. Oh, my God: blowhards! We were laughing a couple of days ago about one of our step-fathers, Frank. I mean, he claimed that he was on the Bataan Death March—while he was also fighting in Europe! And winning the war there. He claimed that he’d been tapped to be head of the CIA at one point. I’ll never forget when he said, “Well, I woke up one morning, and goddamn if they hadn’t elected me mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island, and I wasn’t even running!” He’d say anything, it was just amazing. There was a parade of these guys. So I had a heart-to-heart with my mom about all this and she said, “I would have felt funny if you’d prettied up the portrait”—that wasn’t her term, but, kind of airbrushed her portrait. She said, “I would have felt like you didn’t really accept me the way I am.” And I thought, “Boy, I hope I have that kind of sophistication when my writer daughter turns me into a public disgrace.”

She was very honest, she was very direct. She did have a very factual kind of memory. She did call me out on a couple of things. I didn’t agree with her—I have a pretty good memory, too. I often just stuck to my own memory of things, because that’s what a memoir is: your memory of things.

But one thing that Geoffrey does that I certainly tried to do in the writing of my book is: the points of anyone’s life that are most interesting and telling and significant are points of intersection with the lives of other people. And so you necessarily are exposing other people, who may not and almost certainly do not wish to have that kind of exposure, in the writing of a memoir. And you can either accept that condition or not write one. If you are going to accept the condition, I do think that the debt you take on is to put yourself under the same kind of lens that you put everybody else under, that you do not see yourself as some angel flying above this fallen creation. You’re in it. You’re part of this foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart, you’re complicit in the stories that you’re telling. You also have to be careful that you don’t overload that, too, and say, “Look what a good person I am to tell you what a bad person I used to be,” that kind of thing. You have to be as honest as you can about the person you were when you’re telling a story of that kind.

Order your copy of Issue No. 107.

Posted in Interviews, News | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Opportunity to Understand What’s Different: Q&A with Christine Sneed

Christine Sneed (photo by Adam Tinkham)

Christine Sneed (photo by Adam Tinkham)

Over the course of a relatively short but extremely productive literary career, Christine Sneed has already achieved a substantial, and enviable, body of work. Her first story collection, 2009’s Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, was awarded the AWP Grace Paley Prize and long listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story prize.

Both for its attention to detail, and its close, caring, but unsentimental attention to the complicated lives of women (and men), Portraits is in Paley’s spirit at the same time as it honors the tradition of what O’Connor called “the lonely voice’’ that characterizes the under-respected story form.

Sneed, who is the faculty director of the MA/MFA in Creative Writing Program at Northwestern, followed that success with an ambitious novel in 2013, Little Known Facts, about the hidden costs, and familial complications, of Hollywood fame. In a glowing front-page review in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Curtis Sittenfeld wrote, “Christine Sneed has written a novel just for us: Little Known Facts is just juicy enough to appeal to our prurience but smart enough not to make us feel dirty afterward.”

Nothing daunted, Sneed next spread her wings further with Paris, He Said, a novel about a struggling artist who moves to Europe at the urging of an older gallery owner who sets her up in his apartment. Robin Black’s notice for the Times said,With clever and graceful prose, Sneed deftly guides a story that explores whether satisfaction follows when one’s deepest wishes come true.’’

In her newest book, the just-published The Virginity of Famous Men (320 pages; Bloomsbury), she returns to her favored form of the short story, with deepening psychological explorations and a commitment to sympathetic, knowing understanding of the spaces between us—how we punish each other, and often ourselves, because of these missed connections.

Sneed took time to talk with us via email about the new collection, and her career:

ZYZZYVA: In a sense, The Virginity of Famous Men seems like a coda to Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry. Apart from the fact that they both have great titles, what similarities—or differences—do you see in the two works?

Christine Sneed: I suppose most writers would have to say this, but I’m most interested in relationships—whether they’re between spouses, siblings, parents and children, friends. The tensions that arise in everyday life have always been a source of inspiration, and I suppose that even with the stories that are a little more out there (with on-the-verge characters who count a ghost as a close friend, or another who is applying for a job in a manner that probably won’t get her too many offers), I’m most interested in how people connect with each other, or else the opposite—how we alienate each other. That dominant theme is the same here as it was in Portraits.

Continue reading

Posted in Interviews, News | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Conjectures Based on What You Know About Yourself’: Q&A with Chelsea Martin

Chelsea Martin (photo by Catlin Snodgrass)

Chelsea Martin (photo by Catlin Snodgrass)

“Being unemployed feels like being in The Sims’ Build Mode, but with less soothing music.” So declares the nameless narrator at the heart of Mickey (200 pages; Curbside Splendor), the new book from Chelsea Martin. As Mickey opens, its main character – a struggling young artist – impulsively breaks up with her long-term boyfriend and is soon fired from her job. These events springboard our hapless protagonist into ruminations on grand existential concerns like the struggle to pay rent, the inherent loneliness of the human condition, and why cheese and crackers are so damn important at gallery showings.

Mickey is one of this summer’s literary gems, a book that bummed me out and made me laugh in equal measure. It’s no exaggeration to say the novel represents a benchmark for Martin, with Mickey delivering the fullest realization of her signature style, one that is droll and detached, and yet offers uncanny insight into the nature of our closest relationships, whether they be with our lovers, friends, or parents. It’s a book Martin will continually have to refute is autobiographical simply because she imbues her narrator with a voice so real it feels as though it must be born of lived experience. Chelsea Martin was kind enough to talk to me about Mickey and her creative process, including how to write without censoring yourself and producing art from a place of malaise.

ZYZZYVA: I was thinking about Mickey in the context of your last book, Even Though I Don’t Miss You, which came out in November 2013. For me, Mickey seems like a major artistic development for you as a writer and, based on reviews I’ve read, I’m not the only reader who feels this way. When you’re working on a new book, how much do you think about it as an evolution or follow-up to your previous release?

Chelsea Martin: Early on in the process of writing Mickey, I remember feeling panicked that I had not “finished” Even Though I Don’t Miss You, because in Mickey I was still processing some of these same themes and feelings and had more to say on these topics and was making similar stylistic choices. I was worried I was writing the same book again. But Mickey evolved into something completely different. I think there is definitely a through line, probably several, connecting the two books, and I feel good about that.

The project I’ve recently started also shares many of the same ideas as Mickey (and is even further from Even Though), but I feel much less panicky about it this time, because I know it will change and develop. Finishing a book doesn’t necessarily mean you’re done processing something or are going to stop thinking about it or being interested in it.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews, Interviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘We Can Work Harder to Mourn’: Q&A with ‘Grief Is the Thing …’ Author Max Porter

Max Porter (photo by Lucy Dickens)

Max Porter (photo by Lucy Dickens)

Max Porter’s experimental novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (128 pages; Graywolf) follows a father and his two sons as they come to grips with their wife and mother’s sudden death. They do so with the help of an unusual houseguest: Crow, an anthropomorphic projection of the father’s obsession with Ted Hughes’ 1970 poetry collection Crow. Part mythic trickster, part grief counselor, Crow leads the family through an idiosyncratic and irreverent mourning. His air of mischievousness colors the entire novel, lending it a kaleidoscopic tone that renders the mourning process unrecognizable.

For Porter, who works as an editor at Granta, this unrecognizability is precisely the point. In giving his audience a mythologized, unfamiliar representation of grief, Porter intends for his readers to rethink mourning’s generative possibilities and private grief’s relationship to public life. Via email, I spoke with Porter about his novel and about grief, vandalism, and new languages of crisis.

ZYZZYVA: A lot has been said about how Ted Hughes’ shadow looms over this novel, but less has been said regarding Emily Dickinson and how she informs the novel’s exploration of grief. I’m particularly intrigued by the amended poem you include as the novel’s epigraph. That poem is about the myopia love engenders in us, the way we can’t perceive it as anything other than an undifferentiated totality. Your insertions of “crow” heighten that myopia, so that the poem doesn’t even give us the ambiguous comfort of proportioned freight. Instead, we get the all-encompassing image of crow. What is the relationship of those edits, if any, to how the novel depicts the grieving process? Is the epigraph implying there is a relationship between love and mourning?

Max Porter: I hope the implication is there, yes, that the generative possibilities of mourning are comparable.

The epigraph is a key to the book inasmuch as all my intentions are made visible by the vandalism. If Crow did it, then, yes, it is a statement of his all-encompassing symbolic stature, and a symptom of his hubris, his manic ego. If Dad did it, then it’s a comment—made in hindsight—about the possibility of gamesmanship with the poets we read or become obsessed with, a statement that the vertical axis of influence (Say, Whitman, Dickinson, Hughes/Plath, Dad. Or indeed Canon-Reader via biography) is to be messed with, lovingly. The word “love” is pointedly not obscured; Dickinson’s devastatingly exact repetition is visible, and Crow’s vandalism is hand-written, i.e., an engagement through craft, a note, a doodle, a thought in process.

My relationship with Dickinson is simple. I think she’s the far reach, the inexhaustible, especially if one’s subjects are death, love, faith, sink holes, ecstasy.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews, Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘If You’re Going to Tell the Story of Slavery, I’m Going to Listen All Day’: Q&A with ‘Homegoing’ Author Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi (photo by Michael Lionstar)

Yaa Gyasi (photo by Michael Lionstar)

Yaa Gyasi’s recently released and critically acclaimed first novel, Homegoing (320 pages; Knopf) moves from late 18th century West Africa to 21st century California, tracking the repercussions of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Gyasi, a graduate from Stanford and the Iowa Writers Workshop, and whose book was just named to the longlist for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, illustrates how slavery and white supremacy shaped life in the African diaspora by exploring the history of a single family—one branch of which remains in what eventually becomes Ghana, while the other experiences the turbulent history of African America.

By drawing direct lines among the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, British colonialism in West Africa, and institutional racism in the United States, Gyasi makes a powerful statement about how slavery’s impact continues to reverberate in our contemporary moment. A moving exploration of trauma, survival, and perseverance, Homegoing provides a portrait of the African diaspora with unprecedented scope. I sat down with Gyasi in her south Berkeley apartment to discuss how she constructed the novel, the necessity of telling stories of slavery, and how black narratives push the boundaries of realism.

ZYZZYVA: Let’s start by talking about how you put this book together. I’m intrigued by how you did so—a lot of it resembles a collection of interlinked short fictions. Did it at any point begin as a short story cycle

Yaa Gyasi: Actually, no, it didn’t. It began as a more traditionally structured novel. It was originally set in the present and focused on the last two characters, [Marcus and Marjorie], and then it flashed back to 18th century Ghana. I wrote about 100 pages that way until I got to Iowa. Then I realized that I was interested in tracking how slavery, colonialism, and institutionalized racism work over a very long period of time—not just the beginning and end, but the movement from the beginning to the end. Then I thought that I might as well try a structure that allowed me to stop along as many historical moments as possible, which is how I came up with the structure you see now. But it took me three years to arrive there, and I never thought of it as short stories, perhaps because I’d been working on this novel idea and just pivoted in the middle of the process. But also, the long arc of the book was more important to me. The accumulation of all of the chapters was more important to me than the individual chapters.

Z: Would you say that that pivot toward the long historical arc was a pivot away from a character-based narrative and toward the historical novel?

YG: I think it’s still very character-based. I wanted each chapter to focus on character and not whatever historical event was happening in the background, though obviously, those events very much informs each of the characters’ lives. I guess maybe it was me coming to the realization that a lot of the themes I was thinking about were better suited to a structure that allowed me to follow a longer through line than just having the beginning and the end. So maybe it was a transition, not away from a character-based novel, but into an understanding of the themes that are important in this book.

Z: It sounds right that it’s still character-driven, but because of the nature of the structure, many of your characters’ stories end right before major narrative arcs resolve themselves. As a reader, I found myself wishing I could continue following characters like Akua and Willie. Did you as the author ever wish that you could revisit some of these characters?

YG: Not really while I was writing, because, again, I had that long arc in mind, so I really wanted to get there. But I think as a project of thinking, I’m always wondering, for example, what would happen if we followed Robert’s family down the line, this lineage of people who think they are white and have always been white? That’s always fascinated me. I could have definitely followed any of the characters in this book and ended up in an entirely different place. That’s really interesting to me.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews, Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Pain Hard to Name: Q&A with ‘Swallowed by the Cold’ Author Jensen Beach

Jensen Beach

Jensen Beach

The stories in Jensen Beach’s second story collection, Swallowed by the Cold (208 pages; Graywolf Press), demonstrate again and again that self-destruction doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In “Kino,” we meet a young man named Oskar who swears he intended to torch just his own boat, but who ended up setting fire to an entire marina. Oskar happens to work at what seems to be a gay brothel called Kino Club, which an uptight man named Martin frequents. The two encounter each other at a party where Martin’s wife, Louise, gets too drunk. Suffering under the weight of Martin’s self-denial, she’s an alcoholic. It’s a quieter kind of tragedy, but at least as soul-rattling as, say, a car crash that leads to a coma (as in the story “Henrik Needed Help”). By the end of “Kino,” Martin abandons Louise on the side of the road to spend the night with Oskar.

These linked stories, set in Sweden, swivel among troubled lives. If it’s not alcoholism and infidelity, it’s a death in the family, the loss of a limb, a sinking ship, even war. All of this sorrow is thrown against rather prim backdrops: summer homes on the Baltic, apartments in “safe” neighborhoods, a fancy party at a Stockholm museum. Mix in the drama of Scandinavian weather and these settings make for fertile ground for Beach’s tales.

In an interview with him about his book, Beach told me he sought to accomplish what John Cheever did in “The Swimmer”: “It’s just all pain. The entire story is one of pain. And we’re never told the nature of it, or its reasons. Instead, we’re simply emerged in it, experientially.” Beach has accomplished what he set out to do. Swallowed by the Cold covers you in its web of anguish, but you won’t want to thrash yourself free, and you wouldn’t be able to anyway.

ZYZZYVA: I want to start with the question on which interviews often end: What’s next for Jensen Beach? Your first book was a collection of shorter stories. This last one is a collection of longer stories with recurring characters. Are you inching toward a novel?

Jensen Beach: I am indeed inching toward a novel. Inching might even imply a speed which is not yet there. The novel interests me as a form lately for similar reasons that I wrote Swallowed by the Cold, actually. I’m interested in the ways in which a book with a considerable dramatic scope can allow that drama to be explored in its intersections and connections, through coincidence and overlap. Swallowed by the Cold is a book of linked stories; and I find myself very interested in the challenge of that puzzle for this next project, too. So much so that I’m finding a similar motivating energy in writing this novel. At this stage of that manuscript, I’m just producing text. I couldn’t tell you yet what it’s about really. But I am excited by the challenge of holding an even larger number of parts up and seeing how they puzzle together.

Continue reading

Posted in Interviews, News | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Profile of Kay Ryan by John Freeman: ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

It’s 1 p.m. on a fall afternoon and sunlight has been clobbering San Francisco all day. Kay Ryan is on a roll. We’re seated outside the Presidio Social Club, oysters have just arrived, the spread excellent. I wonder aloud if the creatures might still be alive, which sets Ryan—surely the funniest serious poet since Philip Larkin—onto a new riff. “It’s ending right between my teeth, probably,” she says, biting down. “I mean, they open them up when they serve them to you.” She points at the plate. “Those could still be hoping, Maybe this is just a bad dream.”

We chuckle darkly at this, but, of course, it isn’t a bad dream. The temperature in San Francisco is pushing eighty, and it’s a reminder that the planet is getting hotter, sea levels are rising. Ryan is not the Rachael Carson of our time, but she has written a poem, “Help,” which hints at what days like this might be saying to us, if we can hear them. The poem asks what pitch of help is necessary, what do the stakes have to be, to  make us listen. It finishes: “It’s hard, / coming from a planet / where if we needed something / we had it.”

This is a classic Ryan landing: a line that forks into two meanings several times, never collapsing. Perhaps the planet, and not just us, is saying help, not us. Then, moments after you’ve read the poem, the past-tenseness of “had” makes itself felt and the poem transforms into a kind of pre-elegy. Things can get used, and we might just have consumed the greatest—the only resource—of value, ever: life itself. All of that in fifteen lines.

For Ryan, though, this is just the tip of a majestic iceberg. In hundreds of poems, stretching from the 1960s to this past year, when she released Erratic Facts, her first new collection in six years, she has created a body of work of intellectual rigor and joy unmatched in her time. Her neatly carpentered verse, with its disassembled rhyming couplets and floating rhetorical questions, are the poetry world’s neutron stars. You can read around and through them endlessly and they never lose their luminosity or virtue. The more you read them the greater their pull becomes.

She begins in the natural world. From plate tectonics to genetics and species migration, fluid mechanics and gravitational vectors, her poems bring the elemental forces of the earth to bear—as metaphors and simply as themselves—on a series of ideas she has been obsessed with since she began to write. How do things work, and why aren’t we more in awe of how they do? Is life folly when evidence of temporality is all around us? Does it matter if we are tricked into believing our arrangements matter? What does greed mean in these contexts, and is this greed related to our capacity for consumption, to use things—and people—right up? And why aren’t we more struck by how destruction and creation sit so neatly together?

You read through Ryan’s work, and the whole animal world comes tumbling out like a bestiary she has unleashed down the gangplanks of her poetry. These creatures are not characters, not decoration; they bear with them all their spooky strangeness. Horses, birds, big cats, salamanders, zebra, goslings, herring, alligators (with their “three-foot-grin”), octopus, fox, osprey, crow, camel, bison, jellyfish, and more traipse through her short, skinny, perfectly made poems. Her poems can be funny, too, which is another way of saying they feint and throw you off their scent. They don’t toss melancholy over you like a blanket or a mist; their sadness sneaks up after the laughing ends. The effect is mesmerizing, even entertaining, but dark and strange. Ryan fell in love with poetry through Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne, and Emily Dickinson, and her work unfurls from these influences with the odd ghoulish bounce of early American scripture, but with the spatial arrangements and unfussy atheism of someone raised in the desert. Want proof everything ends? Just look around you.

 

In person, she downplays this steeliness of vision with unaffected good cheer. The paradox of Ryan, as a poet and a person, is how brightly she delivers her bad news, because maybe it’s not all that bad. As oysters are consumed, we move on to one of her favorite topics—how everything ends—and then something new begins. Does she still run? Ryan never ran a marathon but she’s spent a lot of time on the roads. Now, her back is shot, so she has had to stop. “I got to run for forty years, most people don’t get to run that long.” Swimming didn’t work for her; “I’m not a water person,” she says, sounding, again, like a stand-up comic, “I’m more of a sand person.” Now she’s back on her bike three times a week after having a bad accident with a car that left her with a broken pelvis, collarbone, and ribs. You wouldn’t know it from looking at her. She looks like a sun-blasted fifty, if that. Her eyes alive through her spectacles, her ears snatching puns out of thin air.

The effect is that in person Kay Ryan appears to be more awake and alive than is normal or, perhaps, is natural. I wonder to what degree this is the best defense against nothingness, something her poems look at, against the way it can, if contemplated too closely, engender a smug gloom. Perhaps there is warmth in endings—think of starlight and the like. In fact, there’s a Ryan poem about that, too: “Not proximity / but distance / burns us with love,” she writes in “Star Block.” What if you got right up close to nothingness, but did so with a huge amount of energy. Later, I take a short cut and suggest doom as a kind of theme of hers, and she gently deflects the question. “I am not pro-doom; everything is not on the slippery slope to doom. And on the next occasion the experiment may miraculously work! The eggs may quicken!”

I have a few theories as to why Ryan can maintain this seemingly improbable position of poise, and one of them has to do with how she experiences time, which makes it difficult to write a profile of her with any kind of intellectual integrity. Unlike most people, she doesn’t believe in narrative, at all. Not as a restorative tool, and certainly not in the scale of her life. “Do you know this guy Galen Strawson?” she asks, by way of explanation. “He’s a British philosopher. His idea is that most people are of the narrative persuasion. But there is a minority, an important minority, that is completely overlooked. And these people are constructed in a different way. They have an episodic way and aren’t really convinced by chronology. They see in another way.”

Pause for a moment to consider all the baggage from which this way of seeing liberates Ryan. Her poems don’t have to tell her story, don’t have to reveal anything. They don’t even have to sequence in quite the same tidy way so much poetry does today. For Ryan, it’s not that every moment has the same weight. Rather, she views existence as moments that can be followed by a better one, or a different, or even a worse one. “If these poems have any kind of independent life,” Ryan says, “it’s certainly not as little snapshots of me.” At lunch, as the sun reaches its zenith, this narrative-free capacity makes her exceptionally good company. She’s a kind of Zorro of small talk and big ideas. There’s a speedy, tense feeling to being with her.

She is, in many senses, the one who escaped, the one whose family left the Mojave and then who worked her way out of the San Joaquin Valley. (Even though she was living in the agricultural capital of the West, her family didn’t eat fresh vegetables, she points out while relishing our lunch.) Her father—“a big, tall Dane,” “an honest man and a hard worker”—ran a trucking company during World War II, and then, unsuccessfully, tried to grow peanuts in Riverside County. “As soon he got any money he always wanted to go into business for himself,” Ryan says. “And then when he did, it always failed.” Her mother, perhaps coincidentally, pointed her toward the practical. “I asked my mother when I was starting high school, I said, ‘What do you think I should do?’ and she said, ‘Well, I think you should take a secretarial course so that if your husband dies, you’ll have a way to support the children.’”

Instead, Ryan learned at an early age to depend on herself by first being herself. This was before it was clear to her that literature would be her vocation. She can remember, while eating on this sunny deck, the moment she discovered the need to protect that fundamental mote of a self, that something she had yet to externalize in her poetry, but which lays beneath her work as surely as bedrock rests under soil. “Maybe I was a freshman in high school. I remember lying on my bed, and I decided I was going to hypnotize myself. I was going to say something to myself so that I could never ever forget. It would go all the way into my bones. And I had to never forget because I was in danger of losing myself. What I repeated to myself was, ‘Be what you are.’ I think I repeated it to myself for hours.”

Ryan has since developed a way in the world, a radical self-reliance mixed with devotional fervor to seeing clearly how the world is, appreciating all of it. Ryan’s poetry pirouettes so neatly around ideas and vernacular turns of phrase, her way of communicating this, if you will, can hide in plain site, as, for example, in her poem “Least Action.” It’s a paean to paying attention to what is here, to just simply “tinkering with the fit/of what’s available.” She is a problem solver, a riddler, an arranger, and a thinking tinkerer. She’s a holy DIYer: the kind of woman who can keep a ’68 VW bus running into the 1980s and reroof her house (with the guidance of a Sunset book), but also use the vice of her mind to compress the world’s absurdities into poetry as slender and rivet-less as bullets.

Order your copy of Issue No. 106.

 

Posted in Interviews, News | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment