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Interviews with Current Issue Authors

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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Understanding Desperation, & Knowing the Natural World: Q&A with Christian Kiefer

Christian Kiefer

Christian Kiefer

“Once upon a time, you told yourself that you would be no killer, that this was how you would live your life,” reflects the protagonist of Christian Kiefer’s new novel, The Animals (Liveright/Norton; 320 pages), as he prepares to euthanize a wounded moose in the book’s opening chapter. “And yet you learn and relearn that everything is the same.”

Bill Reed is the operator of the North Idaho Wildlife Rescue and a man haunted by a guilty conscience. Caring for wounded animals—raccoons, badgers, an owl, a wolf, and a blind grizzly bear, among others—is a form of catharsis for Bill, who is on the run from his criminal past and living under a different name. (His real first name is Nat.) When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service threatens to close the rescue shelter, the livelihood Bill has carefully built for himself and the animals is endangered. To make matters worse, his former best friend, Rick, is fresh out of prison and seeking payback.

The narrative switches between the story’s current setting of 1996 Idaho and Bill’s young adulthood in 1984 Reno. As he grapples with the rescue’s impending closure, we learn who Bill was, about his gambling addiction, and the catalyst for the bad blood with Rick. Survival is at stake as Rick and Bill circle each other in increasingly aggressive encounters from which neither can back down. As past sins threaten to eclipse the present, Bill is forced to explore what he is willing to do to save the people and animals he loves. Kiefer, whose story “Muzzleloader” appears in the upcoming issue of ZYZZYVA (No. 103), uses nature and seasonal imagery as powerful backdrops in an atmospheric narrative about conscience, survival, and primal identity—a story in which violence is inevitable. We talked to him via email about how he came to write The Animals, the importance of reading the work of master writers, what it means to “know your plants,” and the role of poverty in narrowing people’s options.

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A Field Guide to San Francisco Fog, and to Mutable Memory: Q&A with Kyle Boelte

The Beautiful UnseenKyle Boelte’s memoir, The Beautiful Unseen: Variations on Fog and Forgetting (Counterpoint; 176 pages), weaves together the author’s investigations into the mysterious San Francisco fog with an exploration of his memories of the life and suicide of his brother, Kris. On one side of this dual narrative, Boelte researches the fog from the standpoint of San Francisco history and the science behind the Bay Area’s climate. On the other, he remembers his life before and after his brother’s death. Juxtaposing these two themes, memory becomes reminiscent of the fog and vice versa.

With remembering comes forgetting, and memories can cloud over time. Boelte’s memories of his brother, whose death occurred when the author was 13, become vague and even seemingly warped as he gets older. There’s an instance in the book where Boelte realizes he and a friend remember the same situation differently: one remembers Kris being there and the other doesn’t. Via email, we asked Kyle Boelte (who has an essay in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 103, out in April) about how he approached writing on such a personal subject.

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The Mythical American Hero on a Scavenging Quest: Q&A with Jenny Riffle

"Tom Sawyer's Gang" (2011) by Jenny Riffle

“Tom Sawyer’s Gang” (2011) by Jenny Riffle

When I first met Jenny Riffle, she had already been photographing her boyfriend, Riley, for several years. Their one-bedroom apartment was intricately arranged with Riley’s findings: a large poster advertising Raleigh cigarettes, which he found behind the drywall in an abandoned building; old calcified revolvers and rusty shotgun bullets he collected while metal-detecting off of forest pathways; and cloudy bottles of various sizes, softened by years of sifting Brooklyn beach sand. Doll heads with cheeks too rosy and features dulled by wear leered from corners, and old clippings of cars hung tacked to the wall above their gold couch. There in that one-bedroom apartment in Seattle’s Capitol Hill I had found a collection of treasures, meticulously cleaned and arranged by their finders into a collection of consumerism turned junk.

But I first came to know Riffle’s photography through her younger sister—my girlfriend, Emily. Riffle has been taking photographs of Emily once a year on her birthday, since Emily was 15. Similar to Nicholas Nixon’s “The Brown Sisters,” a series of photographs taken each year of Nixon’s wife and her sisters, “Emily” works as a compilation and a meditation on time. By continuing to reexamine a subject, Riffle accrues images that simulate the progression of time while simultaneously freeing the subject from the metonymy of portraiture that claims to define a person with the blink of a shutter. Besides chronicling the process of aging, “Emily” dwells on the multiplicity that makes up a single person. As Riffle, who teaches photography at the Photo Center Northwest, writes in her description of the project, “Seeing the progression of birthday photos shows how my sister has changed over the years, but in the end for me she will always encompass all the images at once.” This is what makes Riffle’s portraits like stories. They may not have classic beginnings, middles, or endings, but they have an element of wholeness that classic portraiture lacks.

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The Philosophical Novel Couched in a Tale of Marriage: Q&A with Jenny Offill

Dept of SpeculationIn Jenny Offill’s most recent novel, Dept. of Speculation (now out in paperback), a writer’s marital life and motherhood are traced through a series of short, brilliant segments, creating a narrative collage of moments marked by references to outer space, scientific facts, or Buddhist teachings. The unnamed narrator’s Brooklyn life consists of bed bugs and trips to Rite Aid, philosopher and almost-astronaut friends, and preschool supplies. In this domestic setting, we piece together the book’s fragments of prose to emotionally engage with the protagonist as she navigates her personal chaos, all while she wishes to find the time and solace to engage more fully with her art.

One of Offill’s talents is in creating a feeling of wholeness in the narrative—creating a suggestion of what is there—by not giving an explicit telling of the story. Each of Offill’s short sections is so precise in its language it’s as if she’s using a scalpel to extricate the right narrative moment, the right external reference to give life to the plot and characters. Though shaped like a puzzle, the novel engages with the reader: when you’ve all but forgotten something, Offill provides moments that unify and shape the narrative for you. And as the gifted but conflicted narrator tries desperately to piece together the beautiful and difficult moments of her life, the book suggests that these spaces between what is ugly and what is incandescent are where the art of human experience is to be found. We spoke with Jenny Offill about Dept. of Speculation via email.

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Teaching Poetry Means ‘Make It Human’: Q&A with Juan Felipe Herrera

Photo by Randy Vaughn-Dotta

Photo by Randy Vaughn-Dotta

This month, West Coast writers are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of California Poets in the Schools, a collective of professional poets who facilitate poetry and performance workshops in schools around the state. Each year, CPITS introduces more than 26,000 students to poetry and performance; each year, these students generate more than 100,000 poems through the program. By exposing children to poetry at a young age, CPITS teachers encourage a conception of poetry as a humane, practical, and social endeavor. They coach students in a skill they will likely use all their lives: that of studying and expressing their experiences and of making something tangible and novel in the process.

Since its inception, the organization, which began as the Pegasus Project at San Francisco State, has served half a million students, brought programs to schools in twenty-nine counties, and garnered an impressive list of volunteers. One such teacher is Juan Felipe Herrera, Poet Laureate of California since 2012, who led his first writing workshop as a CPITS volunteer in the early 1970s. Since then, in addition to writing more than twenty books for children and adults, Herrera has led numerous poetry and arts programs, from El Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego to the Soledad Correctional Facility to the University of Iowa. (He currently holds a professorship at the University of California, Riverside, where he was appointed the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in 2005.) In honor of CPITS’ semi-centennial, we spoke with Herrera, a past ZYZZYVA contributor (issues No. 13 and No. 89), via email about his experiences teaching poetry.

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With Beer Came the Modern, Civilized Human: Q&A with William Bostwick

The Brewer's TaleWilliam Bostwick begins his narrative with a question: “What we drink reveals who we are but can it also tell me who we were?” Tracking down the answer means Bostwick must balance a bit of time travel with solid historical research, and interview a cast of contemporary brew masters. And taste a lot of beer.

When not tending bar in San Francisco or caring for his bees, Bostwick is a beer critic writing reviews for several national publications. He is also a passionate home brewer.

Blessed with a sensitive palate and a talent for great storytelling, Bostwick deftly combines his gifts in his newest book, The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer (288 pages; Norton).

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On the Novel and the Novella, and Writing About Russia: Q&A with Josh Weil

The Great Glass SeaJosh Weil, author of the 2009 novella collection The New Valley (Grove Atlantic) and a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” Award recipient, saw his first novel, The Great Glass Sea (Grove Atlantic), published this summer. Moving away from the stark landscape of the Appalachian Mountains valley of his novellas, Weil’s The Great Glass Sea takes place in a near-future Russia, one where giant stretches of farmlands are covered by an ever-expanding greenhouse lit by space mirrors, keeping the crops beneath in perpetual daylight for the sake of productivity in Russia’s new capitalist scheme.

In this alienating and unforgiving setting, twin brothers Yarik and Dima, who were once inseparable in childhood, find themselves taking vastly differing paths in adulthood, growing increasingly distant as they navigate antithetical ideologies and lifestyles. Steeped in Russian folklore, the novel reminds the reader of the pressure of nostalgia on the present and the future, and draws a breathtaking picture of familial conflict, moving with ease between the haunting richness of the mythic and the piercing clearness of realism. We spoke to Weil via email about his work.

ZYZZYVA: To start, let’s talk about your writing process with The Great Glass Sea. What do you find yourself working toward in a novel that you don’t find yourself doing in a novella? Is it merely a question of length—a looking further and wider in your scope of the narrative, character development, etc.?  Or is there some particular element in its craft that you believe can be achieved in one form and not the other?

Josh Weil: I feel very strongly that the experience of writing a novel is different from writing a novella and vastly different from writing a short story. All the forms offer their specific challenges, of course, and, with the novel, there were a couple difficult ones for me: First, how hard it is to hold the story—the whole dang thing—in your head at once; it’s nigh impossible. It’s very hard to know the story well enough (because of all the shifting and complicated threads) to get from the beginning to the end without going far astray.

Because I’m a writer who values the first draft tremendously (I feel that’s where the heart of the thing lays) rewriting is especially tough for me. Not revising or editing; I have no problem shaping what’s already there. (I love to tighten up a scene, pare out what’s not working, finesse a moment, hone a sentence.) But I feel like I’m losing something essential when I have to wholly rewrite a scene or even entire story arc. Still, the complexity of narrative (and its long arc) in a novel makes getting it generally right on a first draft nearly impossible.

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A Drink from the Pitcher Like a Drink from the Spring: Q&A with Riccardo Duranti

Riccardo Duranti at his family farm in the hills of Sabina, Italy.

Riccardo Duranti and his granddaughter at his family farm in the hills of Sabina, Italy.

Riccardo Duranti is perhaps best known for being one of the select people in the world to have translated all of Raymond Carver’s work. (According to Duranti, there have only been two: he and Haruki Murakami). But his work includes translating more than one hundred titles by authors such as Richard Brautigan, Peter Orner, Elizabeth Bishop, Cormac McCarthy, Philip K. Dick, Tess Gallagher, Lou Reed, Sandra Cisneros, Ted Hughes, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Tibor Fischer, Michael Ondaatje, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and many more. Duranti is one of the most notable literary translators of English into Italian, and his career has its roots in the United States, where he met Tess Gallagher, who introduced him to Carver.

Translator, essayist, and poet, Duranti taught English Literature and Literary Translation at “La Sapienza” University in Rome. In 1996, he was awarded the National Prize for Translation, Italy’s most important translation prize. Recently, he decided to fulfill his dream of refurbishing his family’s old country farm located in the wild hills of Sabina just outside of Rome. Now living with his two dogs, Baldo and Nero, and eight cats, he spends his time sowing seeds into colorful flowers and fruit trees, turning organic olives into delicious oil, and translating powerful visions into graceful haikus. We spoke to him at his farm about his work.

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The Beauty and Violence of a Family and of a Nation: Q&A with Sasha Steensen

Sasha Steensen

Sasha Steensen

“We took shelter from where / why,” writes Sasha Steensen in the opening lines House of Deer (Fence Books; 88 pages). Like most of the others, this poem, “Domestication and the Chase,” visits the rural Ohio where Steensen’s back-to-the-land parents raised her, proposing along the way new definitions of family, wildness, and the lyric form.

Threading through personal and national memories, Steensen navigates the charged spaces between mother- and daughterhood, fairytale and anecdote, human and animal, and nostalgia and radical disenchantment. If coming of age in 1970s America disabused the poet of her childhood idealism, this book charts its revival; culling her memories and family history for moments of striking tenderness and awe, Steensen weaves her personal narratives with our national history, offering tales grounded in a particular place and time but also expansive, mythic, and familiar. We spoke to her via email about her book.

ZYZZYVA: Let’s start by discussing your writing process as you worked on House of Deer. Did you consult family members or conduct any research on 1970s America?

Sasha Steensen: Much of it, as you can imagine, was taken from memory. In the writing process, I became interested in the fissures inevitable in memory work, as well as the attempt to both re-present and, occasionally, bridge these fissures via storytelling. Storytelling is central to family cohesion, especially for the child who is completely reliant on stories to make sense of her earliest years. It is just as central, perhaps even more so, when the family is struggling with its identity and its viability, and so I was interested both in the ways I (re)told the stories I had heard from my parents, as well as how, when prompted, they would retell these same stories. With this in mind, I did interview them, and I shuffled through family photos and newspaper articles. I had a few Garrettsville Gazettes on hand, but mostly I did non-textual, anecdotal research for this book.

I did read a few books on the Back-to-the-Land movement, but they seemed so staid when compared to my actual childhood, so that research really did not make it into the book. Arielle Greenberg recommended Melissa Coleman’s This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s Heartbreak, which is quite beautiful, but I didn’t read that book until I was done with House of Deer. I did re-familiarize myself with some of the history of the early 1970s, but mostly because I wanted to think about the way these national stories, like our familial stories, change shape and significance over time.

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An ‘Almanac’ of Family, Legacy, and the Rural World: Q&A with Austin Smith

Austin Smith Almanac (96 pages; Princeton University Press) is the first full-length book of poems by Austin Smith, a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University. His poetry has been published in ZYZZYVA (Issue No. 83 and forthcoming in Issue No. 100), The New Yorker, The Sewanee Review and other places. Recently, his fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review and Glimmer Train.

In his collection, which was selected by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, Smith explores Midwesten scenes—of bait shops, county fairs, abandoned silos and barns where cows are giving birth—in narrative poems which are as remarkable for the shining particularity of their imagery as for their compassion for the lives chronicled within. Almanac is infused with a nostalgic yearning for a world that is being destroyed, so that there is a dearness to these poems even when they’re at their most darkly comic or surreal.

I met Smith in 2011 at the University of Virginia, where he was a classmate of mine in the MFA program studying poetry. Recently, I caught up with him via e-mail about the writing life, what it means to have “spent the first eighteen years of my life on the same three hundred acre farm in northwestern Illinois,” and Almanac.

ZYZZYVA: Almanac opens with “The Silo,” a poem that enacts in microcosm many of the themes of the collection, prime among them family, legacy and the steady destruction of the natural world and with it the fading of traditional practices. What do you think it is about poetry as a medium that lends itself to speaking about loss?

Austin Smith: I’m glad that those themes come through in “The Silo.” They are certainly the themes that continue to obsess me.

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