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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 practice. 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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The Fire of Work, and the Concerns of Literature: Q&A with John Freeman

FreemanMugI’ve known author and former Granta editor John Freeman since (and I’m guessing here) 1998. At the time I was the deputy book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, and Freeman was one of many freelance critics working for the paper’s Sunday Book Review section (which, thankfully, and perhaps miraculously, continues). Freeman is probably the most prolific freelancer with whom I’ve ever worked. (The book critic Martin Rubin would be a close second.) Month after month, it seemed as if his reviews and author interviews appeared in just about every periodical in the country that did any sort of book coverage. In fact, his output was so colossal that you couldn’t help admiringly wonder if here was a person who might be making a living, even if barely, as a non-staff book reviewer.

The extent of Freeman’s work as a journalist covering books (because that’s what he really was before working for Granta, given all the features he produced back then along with the reviews) is impressively displayed in How to Read a Novelist (372 pages; Farrar, Straus, & Giroux). Here we have brief but telling encounters with more than 50 authors, in interviews taking place between 2000 and early 2013. “The only thing an interviewer can do to capture what a novelist truly does,” he writes in his book’s introduction, “is to make them talk and tell stories, and think aloud.” Via email, I talked to John Freeman, who recently joined ZYZZYVA’s roster of contributing editors, about some of the literary greats of whom he got to do just that, about putting together How to Read a Novelist, and about what he’s learned about writing in his literary career.

ZYZZYVA: In your conversation with Haruki Murakami, he told you about the importance of repetition in creative endeavors. What exactly did he mean? And did you see how that could apply to you as a critic?

John Freeman: In person, Haruki Murakami speaks of writing as if he were a miner. Like he goes into a deep hole every morning with a helmet and light and blasts away until he finds a vein. Repetition is important in this metaphor, because there will be lots of failures and rubble, then something gorgeous or useful will glint in the dark. For a critic there isn’t much room for failure. You read quickly and on deadline and then have to write to word count, also on deadline. Your fire should be a refiner’s fire: dependable, always on, somewhat wasteful. It’s why I think critics, daily critics, find it difficult to do much else. You have to use everything you’ve got to keep up the pace and intensity in public, which is what you do when you publish what you write that quickly. It’s like a public performance.

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The Question of What It Takes to Tell the Truth on the Page: Q&A with Dani Shapiro

Dani ShapiroI first had the pleasure of meeting Dani Shapiro in 2007 at Le Sirenuse on Italy’s Amalfi Coast at the initial Sirenland Writers Conference. Shapiro (who is the bestselling author of the memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History) established Sirenland in Positano, Italy, with Hannah Tinti “to provide an antidote to competitive, hierarchical writing conferences” that she “can’t imagine would be good for anyone’s creative process.”

Her latest and well-received book is an extension of that intention. Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life (Grove Press; 256 pages), Shapiro’s “love letter to other writers,” offers an intimate exploration of what it means to be a writer, to “hone and hone and chisel and chisel away at ourselves until we arrive at that true place, at the deepest level of specificity.” Part memoir, part instruction, Still Writing shares Shapiro’s process, struggles, success, and wisdom to inspire writers—at all stages of development—to trust the work, trust themselves, and keep writing.

In late October, I discussed Still Writing with her. The following is a portion of that conversation:

ZYZZYVA: You’ve published five novels, two memoirs, and now Still Writing, which is a national best-seller. You’ve written screenplays, are published in the best magazines, have taught all over the world. You have your own writing conference in Italy, you’ve appeared on “Today” and Oprah’s TV show. Does this feel like success?

Dani Shapiro: No! Boy, oh boy. Success is such a curious idea for an artist. Maybe it is for everyone. I don’t know. Ask any writer what their favorite book is, and always it’s the one they’re working on or the one just entering the world. I’m very wary of any feeling of accomplishment. When someone tells me they love Slow Motion, that it’s their favorite of my books, I think, I wrote that in 1997! Or even Devotion, which I brought out in 2010.

The idea of any kind of place of arrival, it’s not real. If every book is a new mountain and every day you are at the bottom of that mountain looking up at it, then there never really feels like a place of arrival. Really being a “successful writer” means schlepping through airports, and staying at the Staybridge Suites on the side of the highway, and sometimes showing up at bookstores to very sparse audiences. There’s a line from Still Writing that I find I say a lot: every day a new indignity. I think I should have T-shirts made for all of us. I don’t think anybody stops feeling that way, at any point.

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Breaking Conventions to Reshape the American Palate: Q&A with Dana Goodyear

Anything-that-Moves-678x1024If you’re finding yourself bored with the same old menu choices, which always hover near the top of the food chain, but you can’t imagine consuming large sarcophagid maggots, scorpion, spleen, lungs, lips, or even a bite of an endangered species for dinner, let Dana Goodyear navigate for you the outer limits of this emerging American food scene.

In her new culinary narrative, Anything that Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture (272 pages; Riverhead Books), New Yorker contributor Goodyear explores the outer shoals of foodie culture with narrative skill and aplomb. More than just a recitation of bizarre foods preferences, Goodyear, who teaches at the University of Southern California, underscores her research into this gastronomic underground by providing the historical background, philosophical tenants, and legal framework that created America’s culinary landscape—a place, she claims, undergoing rapid change due in part to social media.

“Food porn is the most popular content of Pinterest, one of the fastest-growing Web sites in history, and it dominates the photo-sharing sites Instagram and Flickr. It’s all over the TV. As with birders and pornographers, the more outlandish and rarefied a find, the more a foodie likes it,” Goodyear writes.

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The Best Way to Talk About Loneliness and Loss: Q&A with Santiago Roncagliolo

Santiago Roncagliolo

Santiago Roncagliolo

Born in Peru, and now living in Barcelona, author Santiago Roncagliolo was named as one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists a few years back. Noted for being the youngest person to win the prestigious Alfaguara Prize (for his novel Red April, which was published in English in 2010), Roncagliolo is also a translator, a children’s book author, a newspaper contributor, and a soap opera writer.

His past work has examined the horrors of the Sendero Luminoso in Peru as well as the sex trade in Tokyo, but in his latest book in English, Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories (Two Lines Press), a darkly funny collection translated by Edith Grossman, the settings are more familiar—the dull workplace, the tucked-away apartment, the day-time bus ride. Yet the tales are all the more enthralling for their seemingly prosaic environments, opening up worlds of desire, death, and dreams (or maybe it’s delusions?).

In the title story (told entirely in unattributed dialogue), empty sex, disdainful customer service, and a soured affair all unfold, and eventually dovetail, over the phone. “Despoiler” tells of a lonely Barcelona woman’s phantasmagoric evening out, a night seemingly populated by her beloved and long-lost stuffed toys. In “Butterflies Fastened with Pins” the serial suicides of friends plague a young man, and in the collection’s final story, “The Passenger Beside You,” a woman explains how the “enormous bullet wound in her heart” came about.

We spoke to Roncagliolo over email about his new story collection and his writing.

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Balancing Being Herself and Being True to the Author: Q&A with Silvia Pareschi

Silvia Pareschi's translation of Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom"

Silvia Pareschi’s translation of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”

In his novel Freedom, Jonathan Franzen has one of his characters make a pun that would make anyone groan. “Nor-fock-a-Virginia!” a character says in a fake Italian accent. When his German translator asked for clarification, Franzen explained: “Punchline of a pun about an Italian who won’t fuck virgins. The pun refers to the city of Norfolk, Virginia. Anything that works in German and is both dirty and refers to Italy or Italians would be fine with me.”

If it was hard to come up with a solution in German, it was almost impossible in Italian: “It had to be something which was not really Italian but would sound Italian to American ears,” says Silvia Pareschi, “and it had to be dirty and silly, because that was the spirit of the character who pronounced it.” After thinking about it for months, it suddenly struck her: “Fuck-accia! was my word.”

It was just another challenge for a top-tier literary translator. Besides working with Franzen, Pareschi has also translated works by Don DeLillo, Junot Díaz, Amy Hempel, Cormac McCarthy, E.L. Doctorow, Nathan Englander, Julie Otsuka, Denis Johnson, Annie Proulx, and many more into Italian. She and her husband, author and artist Jonathon Keats (whose book of fables, The Book of the Unknown, she translated in 2010) live six months a year in her native Lake Maggiore, and the other six months in San Francisco.

I interviewed Pareschi about her work as a translator in her San Francisco apartment over a bowl of home-cooked risotto.

ZYZZYVA: There are so many definitions of translation that I’d like to start with a provocative one. Boris Pasternak said that translation is very much like copying paintings. How would you respond?

Silvia Pareschi: Pasternak’s quote comes from an interview with Olga Carlisle published in The Paris Review in 1960. While ostensibly defending the translators of Doctor Zhivago from the accusation that their work had not done justice to his book, Pasternak rather condescendingly says, “It’s not their fault. They are used, like translators everywhere, to reproduce the literal sense rather than the tone of what is said—and of course it is the tone that matters. Actually, the only interesting sort of translation is that of classics. There is challenging work. As far as modern writing is concerned, it is rarely rewarding to translate it, although it might be easy.”

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