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Interviews with Current Issue Authors

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, 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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