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Interviews

Interviews with Current and Past Contributors, as well as with Other Writers, Poets, and Artists

The Demands of Story: Q&A with ‘Outside Is the Ocean’ Author Matthew Lansburgh

IMG_7046 - Version 2In 2011, I was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I spent two years as the Kenan Visiting Writer shortly after the release of my first book, a story collection. One of these stories, “Bed Death,” appeared in the PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories, and it was this publication that led to my meeting Matthew Lansburgh. He sent me an email after reading it, and we struck up a friendship. In 2012, I moved back to San Francisco, and during a quick trip to New York in 2015, I finally met Matthew; we spent two days together, during which time he served as my “date” for a literary event.

Later that month, he visited San Francisco, where he met Anne, my wife, who said that talking to him felt like talking to a brother. This sort of easy familiarity often exists between gays and lesbians, but we had numerous other things in common as well: all three of us are writers, of both stories and novels; we all write work that incorporates LGBTQ characters and themes without targeting a primarily gay audience; Matthew grew up in California, where we now live, and he lives in New York, where Anne grew up; his mother is from Germany, Anne’s from Vienna, and this informs their work, albeit in quite different ways. One of Matthew’s ongoing preoccupations in his work is the relationship between his main character, Stewart, a gay man who has moved from California to New York, and Heike, his German-born, overbearing mother. Outside Is the Ocean (192 pages; University of Iowa Press), which received the Iowa Short Fiction Award, is a collection of linked stories with Stewart and Heike at its heart. It is funny and heartbreaking and, as Publishers Weekly noted, it “succeed[s] as a nuanced character study and a resonant commentary on the challenges of romantic and familial love.” I read it in its entirety in a matter of days in manuscript form, and when the book landed in our mailbox, Anne devoured it just as quickly. Though Anne and I have similar aesthetics, we do not always respond with equal passion to books, but in Matthew’s case, we did, even when we discussed the book in private, which is, after all, what really counts.

Anne Raeff: When I was reading Outside Is the Ocean I was often overwhelmed by the sadness and desperation of the characters, but I never wanted to run away. I wanted to be overwhelmed by their desperation. I wanted to experience their weaknesses, their inability to connect, their pettiness, their humanity. Heike is, perhaps, one of the most human characters of modern literature. She wants so desperately to be loved, yet she does not know how to love. She is kind to animals and to people who are even more lost and isolated than she is, but she is cruel to those who are closest to her, who know her most intimately, who know her weaknesses. Perhaps, although she is an immigrant, a woman who came of age in Germany during World War II, she is the archetypal American—full of hope and ideals, yet, ultimately, so alone.

Lori and I interviewed Matthew about his book via email and Google Docs.

ZYZZYVA (Lori Ostlund): Let’s start the discussion with short stories. All three of us love short stories. We read them. We write them. You won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for this book. Anne and I have both received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (FOC). I once served as a screening judge for the FOC, so I know that it receives around 450 story collections a year for its annual contest. Contests (Drue Heinz, AWP Grace Paley Award, Sarabande’s Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, Prairie Schooner Book Prize, BOA Short Fiction Prize) remain an important route to publication for story writers. Can you begin by describing the moment when you learned that you had won the award?

Matthew Lansburgh: I remember the moment vividly! I was walking toward my apartment on 28th Street in Manhattan. I was on the north side of the sidewalk, heading toward Sixth Avenue when I received an email from James McCoy, the editor of the University of Iowa Press, asking me to call him. At first, I had no idea who he was or what the email might be about. At the time, I was sending out stories constantly, and I wondered whether it was someone from The Iowa Review with a question about a story I’d submitted. I’d sent Outside Is the Ocean to the Iowa Short Fiction Award about five months earlier and hadn’t spent much time thinking about it in the interim. (I’ve always believed that the best way to maintain one’s sanity after sending something out to a journal or a contest is to forget about it and keep busy with other projects.)

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Creating Tintypes at the Skate Park: Q&A with Photographer Jenny Sampson

eulalea, emeryville, 2017 (wet plate collodion tintype, from Jenny Sampson's "skater" series

eulalea, emeryville, 2017 (wet plate collodion tintype, from Jenny Sampson’s “skater” series)

Using an anachronistic 4×5 view camera—the kind where the photographer stands draped under a dark cloth—Jenny Sampson has been steadily creating tin-type portraits of skateboarders she encounters at local skate parks, mainly in California, Oregon, and Washington. The resulting portraits are beguilingly fraught with melancholy atmospherics, their distressed tactility an implicit rebuke to the sterile, antiseptic images saturating daily life in a digital age. (Several such tin-types were recently featured in ZYZZYVA No. 111.) Sampson’s practice has allowed her to meaningfully engage with the skaters themselves, and obliquely teach them a bit about her antique photographic technique. (Paradoxically, the process requires the skaters to remain absolutely still for at least 30 seconds.) In the following conversation, conducted by phone, and over Gmail, Sampson shares her experience venturing into the skater’s semi-private preserves.

ZYZZYVA: So how do the skaters respond to you when you bring this unwieldy antique camera into their midst?

Jenny Sampson: The camera is a 4X5 view camera. It’s the kind of camera that sits on a tripod, has the bellows—the part that looks a little like an accordion, and the photographer has to duck under the dark cloth while focusing on the subject.
There usually aren’t many of those types of cameras at skate parks! I also set up my portable darkroom, which includes processing trays and tanks that are visible to everyone. All of this can attract attention, actually helping me engage with people.
Sometimes when I’m developing the tintype, kneeling underneath the darkroom cloth, people don’t know I’m under there—because I’m small, covered, looking like a little mound. After the tintype is developed, I flip the cloth off and people are surprised because they didn’t see me, “Wow! Oh, wow! There she is!”

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My American Self: Q&A with ‘Human Interest’ author Valerie Bandura

Human Interest“When the Kardashians talk/at once at each other/I hear an aria/to the first-person pronoun, an icon/as sleek as the four-inch stilettos,” Valerie Bandura writes early in her latest poetry collection, Human Interest (Black Lawrence Press; 75 pages). As a poet, her lens is trained on the America where millions live paycheck-to-paycheck and dream of game-show winnings even as television and our social media peddle visions of unobtainable celebrity. Bandura’s poems are not removed from the daily experience of most people, rather they are our experience, whether we’re wondering in traffic about the life of the driver who proudly displays his “Take the Migrant out of Immigrant” bumper sticker, are irritated that our latest Facebook post didn’t attract more “Likes,” or are concerned about our family and their woes.

Bandura, whose poetry has appeared in ZYZZVA No. 100 and teaches creative writing at Arizona State University, talked to us about Human Interest and her startlingly personal verse.

ZYZZYVA: In your poetry, you never fail to implicate yourself in the strange circus that is American society: 

“I’m with you, but it’s all me, baby/the irresponsible babysitter, the pregnant grandmother/the felon, the pervert, the hot mess/in the reality show I film/in a desperate darkroom of the mind.” 

Of course, the “I” in these poems is not necessarily the author, but I find your poems constantly interrogate the ways all of us—even liberal-minded writers and artists—are complicit. Is this self-criticism important for you as a poet?

VALERIE BANDURA: A speaker who admits failure is more approachable, less threatening, and allows the reader to more easily enter his or her own failures and shortcomings. This is the democratic experience of poetry (my American self, perhaps), to seek to equalize, egalitarianize, the power struggle within the poem, and the people in the poem the reader is asked to judge. No one wants to read about a speaker who’s flawless any more than we want to watch people on TV who are perfect. We crane our necks to see who’s being arrested when we see the red and blue lights of the police. We retweet stupid tweets. If the reader’s entrance into the balance of power presented in the poem is through the speaker, and the speaker is complicit, the reader, too, should, theoretically, more readily admit to failure and weakness.

Art is not an artifact. Beyond the craft and formal considerations of the poem, poetry for me serves a moral and social obligation to deepen and broaden public discourse. This attitude may originate in my being raised in a Russian household, where literature, like other art forms, is integral to a culture’s identity and politics. Where Matthew Arnold may have seen the function of poetry to console or rejoice—what Natasha Sajé calls the “separation of aesthetics and morality” in her essay “Poetry and Ethics”—I see the function of poetry as political engagement, “political” understood in the broadest sense of the term. Self-deprecation is, on the one hand an ethical choice, an effort to enter public discourse.

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Talking Shop: Troy Jollimore on Workshops, Content on Demand, & the Poetic Craft

Syllabus of ErrorsPoet Troy Jollimore hurtled onto bedside tables everywhere when his widely celebrated debut, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2006. Since then, his tightly wound, exploratory poetry has touched on everything from the the nature of beauty to meeting Charlie Brown in a bar. We are pleased to say Jollimore will  be leading ZYZZYVA’s first ever Poetry Workshop. The deadline to submit your work is September 15th. The poet, who has appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 92, 101, and soon in 111, recently took time out of his busy schedule to talk with us about Writing Workshops, living in the age of On Demand content, and what we mean when we discuss Poetic Craft.

ZYZZYVA: Poetry workshops sometimes don’t come to mind as readily as fiction workshops – what do you think the communal, learning atmosphere of a workshop can bring to poetry, specifically?

Writing poems is hard, and we need all the help we can get. That’s an obvious thing to say, but there’s a great deal of truth in it. Beyond that, I could say that every poem, and every act of writing a poem, implies a community, or perhaps several intersecting communities: the readers for whom the poem is intended, the writers of the poems that preceded it and form the background against which it is written, the community one physically lives in, which sustains the material conditions in which poems can be written.

The writing workshop is a quite special form of temporary, semi-spontaneous community; a place where we come together, as people do in church or at the movies, to give our shared attention to one another’s works and ideas and, in the process, to discover and come to know each other a little more deeply. Sometimes a poem will crack open before your eyes in a workshop; sometimes the blockage that was holding it back will simply disintegrate and fall away. Sometimes someone will say something—a casual, offhand remark, as often as not—that solves your poem’s problem, or makes you realize that your poem really doesn’t have a problem. Sometimes you can even find solutions for problems having nothing to do with poetry at all. And sometimes you just walk away feeling enriched and comforted by having spent time in the company of other people who, like you, share this odd particular interest for an art form that has, against all odds, persisted through the millennia.

Z: What kind of intentions–formal, personal, poetic–do you hope people come into the workshop with? 

TJ: To share their passion and enthusiasm with each other. To talk openly about poems and other things they care deeply about. To get to know other people, and themselves, a little better. To open up their work, expose it to the air, and help it grow. To discuss their artistic struggles, to display their imperfect works in an atmosphere in which imperfection is forgiven and even loved for what it is and often turns out to be the first step toward something wonderful. And to make friends. That might sound a little cheesy, but I really mean it. Friendship is vastly important and our present society seems to be becoming more and more inimical to it. Art—whatever particular art form happens to turn you on the most—remains one of the best sites for finding friends, real friends, others of your kind.

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Experience and the Writer: Q&A with ‘River Under the Road’ Author Scott Spencer

(photo by Plain Picture)

(photo by Plain Picture)

Over the course of eleven novels, Scott Spencer has earned an incontestable place as one of the major novelists of our time. Best known as the author of Endless Love, an incandescent narrative of youthful passion and obsession that became the subject of two unfortunate film adaptations, Spencer has chosen to stay out of the limelight since its publication in 1979.

In works such as Waking The Dead (1986), also adapted into a (more credible) film, A Ship Made of Paper (2003), The Rich Man’s Table (1998), and Willing (2008), he has covered fictional territory ranging from an American activist gone missing in Chile, to the illegitimate son of a cult music icon’s search for his absent parent—even the seriocomic adventures of a freelance writer who takes an all-expenses paid trip to a sex tour to get over a bad break-up.

Love, and its complicated consequences, is at the heart of his fictional explorations, but he has an uncanny ability to switch gears, from hopelessly romantic to high (and sometimes low) comedy, without seeming to break a sweat or lose the reader in the process.

His new novel, River Under the Road (384 pages; Ecco), is Spencer’s strongest achievement yet, the work of a mature artist who understands his craft and how to control his narrative. With an epigraph from Lincoln—“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history…’’—he turns his lens on a wide cast of characters as seen through thirteen scene-setting parties, from 1976 to 1990, and from Chicago, where his protagonist, Thaddeus Kaufman, was raised in the fulcrum of leftie parenting, to New York and then the Hudson Valley, (where Thaddeus repairs to after surprise success as a screenwriter), with pit stops in Hollywood and even Plato’s Retreat (or “Nero’s Fiddle,’’ as it is called here).

The demands of keeping his marriage together with Grace Cornell, the struggling artist who has accompanied him on the ride from the Midwest to what is laughingly called “success,’’ are chronicled here, along with the class struggle between the townies of Leyden (the fictional town he has moved to) and the couple’s nouveau riche friends. The temptations of La-La Land—the real thing, not the movie—are shown in living color, as Kaufman tries to fend off the blandishments, and the bullshit, that goes with the territory.

It’s a rich emotional landscape that is about as far from modish post-modernism as you can travel. These are real people, not poster children for a post-irony age. Literary comparisons are probably a mug’s game, but, for my part, the author’s seriousness about the wayward ways of the human heart puts him far beyond perennial Nobel Prize-bridesmaid Philip Roth’s often cartoonish depictions of sexual politics (or politics, period).

We talked to Spencer about River Under the Road. Our electronic conversation follows:

ZYZZYVA: River Under the Road feels like a “big’’ novel—large in scope, ambition and range—a portrait of class conflict and the never-ending war between the sexes over time and geography. Although very different in some ways, in others it seems like a return to the emotional roller coaster of Endless Love, with the distance of life experience and artistic maturity. Do you see any parallels—or significant differences—between the two books?

SCOTT SPENCER: Like everyone else, writers grow older and we have more opportunities to measure what we somehow believe to be true and important against what our experience has taught us. Don’t we sometimes feel that life is continually trying to grab us by the shoulders and give us a vigorous shake, imploring us to revise or abandon altogether half of our assumptions? I don’t write novels as a means to self-improvement or self-analysis, but if you work as I do, and create narratives in which characters deal with the consequences of their actions, you cannot escape continual confrontation with your own thoughts and feelings. Endless Love was the third novel I had published, and it is not a book that I would or could write now. Because it was more successful than my other novels, it is used often as a benchmark in discussing a new book I have written. This is probably useful to someone attempting to evaluate a writer’s oeuvre, but I don’t believe many writers think too much about previous work when they are engaged in the labor of creating a new fictional universe. Aside from never using the word “endless” again, I don’t write into or away from what I have already written.

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The Inexhaustible Power of Fairy Tale: Q&A with ‘A Moral Tale’ Author Josh Emmons

Josh EmmonsThe past is never past in Josh Emmons’ new story collection, A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales (184 pages; Dzanc Books). In each of these stories (of which the title one appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 102), the reader can feel the lingering effect of humanity’s fabricated history – the assemblage of folktales, parables, and lore that have helped shape our collective consciousness over time, from Noah and his Ark (“Haley”) to Aesop’s talking animals (“Arise”).

The narrator of one piece claims, “What came next hardly warrants retelling, so familiar is the story…” but nothing could be further from the truth, as Emmons possesses an uncanny gift to make the distant, half-remembered folktales of our childhoods feel both present and unexpected. In “Nu,” we observe a woman who is afraid of cats, in part because of what they represented to the ancient Egyptians, and characters throughout the collection frequently compare their lives to fables (“…real life is less frightening than fairy tales. And less exciting. And there’s no way to know which is better”). These drifting souls search for meaning and connection across a variety of settings, whether it’s modern day France (“A Moral Tale”) or medieval England (“Humphrey Dempsey”). The result of their foibles comprises one of the most dazzling and assured story collections of the year.

Emmons talked to ZYZZYVA about A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, as well as what draws him to fairy tales and his mix-tape-making process.

ZYZZYVA: In A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, you have several stories that take place in current settings in which one can feel myth and fables pressing upon contemporary events. I sense that, as a writer, you believe the fables and fairy tales many of us grew up with continue to be relevant to our lives. What drew you to incorporating or referencing fables in your work?

Josh Emmons: I stopped thinking about fables and fairy tales and myths in my late teens—When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things—and came back to them in my twenties because they were inescapable. There was Kafka’s “The Burrow” casting animal stories in a new light, for example, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books redeeming nursery rhyme tropes, and “Ulysses” and “East of Eden” and “Master and Margarita” showing that repurposed myths could be fascinating. I think fairy tales get a bad rap because they deal with radical innocence and radical evil—melodrama, basically—and so lack subtlety. Also they’re overfamiliar and crudely written and outrageously plotted, but for many of those same reasons they’re fun to rethink and reconfigure. And they address deep, elemental, archetypal phenomena, which is appealing for a Joseph Campbell fan like me. And despite all the fairy tale revisionists out there, humorless Angela Carter and careless Salman Rushdie and frantic mash-up writers at Disney and Dreamworks, they’re inexhaustible. Folk traditions might be barbaric, but they’re malleable and never dull.

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Illness Ends a Career, Spurs Another: Q&A with ‘Hard to Grip’ Author Emil DeAndreis

EmilDeAndreisEmil DeAndreis’s memoir, Hard to Grip (310 pages; Schaffner Press), is delivered in five stages, which is fitting, because in many ways this book of baseball and chronic illness is a grief memoir. DeAndreis begins jubilantly with his story of a promising high school career, becomes absurdist when he arrives at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, and then takes a sharp, dark turn as he is confronted with an unlikely diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis. DeAndreis, 23 and preparing to pitch professionally in Belgium, must reckon with the end of his career because of a disease that most commonly affects middle-aged women. The writer, who is now a College of San Mateo professor as well as the author of a novel, must break down and rebuild his value system—he can no longer find his self-worth in toughness or physical strength; it hurts to even make a smoothie at Jamba Juice. The second half of Hard to Grip is about denial, anger, and eventual acceptance as DeAndreis mourns the loss of the game that defined his life.

I met DeAndreis when he was 17, and I was 14—a freshman at the same high school of which he was the star baseball player. San Francisco’s public school league is far from elite, and DeAndreis accurately portrays himself as a big fish in a small pond. But at 14, that pond was an ocean for me. DeAndreis, like many other ex-players, seemed destined for greatness—and then, like almost every other player, returned home. I understood, vaguely, that his arm had failed him. I never knew the failing was a chronic illness that altered his life far beyond sports.

Though DeAndreis’s career was unexpectedly taken from him so early, the fact is that every athlete faces the moment he or she can no longer play. DeAndreis writes at one point about a conversation he has with the players he coaches today. They ask him what it’s like to not play baseball anymore. He tells them “it’s like a disease you learn to live with.” They understand, as does the reader, that everyone eventually loses the game.

ZYZZYVA spoke with DeAndreis about the way chronic illness pushed him from the pitcher’s mound to the classroom and the world of writing.

ZYZZYVA: I know you started to work on Hard to Grip right when you were diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. A lot of the book is about accepting this nasty twist of fate, but what was it like to write about the experience right as it was happening?

Emil DeAndreis: Writing after the diagnosis was all I could do—I just lied to everyone about the disease at the time. I was not honest about it, because I didn’t want the sympathy. As a 23-year-old, that was the last thing I wanted. You are now weaker. You are helpless. You are harmless. You are all these things. Now it’s been so long that I don’t even care. But finishing the book was that closure.

The narrative arc of this book is the narrative arc I experienced. I was writing this since 2011 when I was 24 and when I turned 30 I was still writing the book. In the course of a life, it’s a small window of time. But so much change happens for anyone in that time.

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Fearless Ballet: Q&A with Deb Olin Unferth

(photo by Elizabeth Haidle)

(photo by Elizabeth Haidle)

Wickedly funny and utterly relatable in its depiction of human plights and personal tragedies, Wait Till You See Me Dance (200 pages; Graywolf Press) marks the return of Deb Olin Unferth to the world of short stories. From the banal life of an adjunct professor harboring an unrequited love in the titular story to a man held prisoner by his phobia in “Fear of Trees” (published in ZYZZYVA No. 108 along with three other pieces), each story within the collection is imbued with Unferth’s wit and dark humor, capturing the spectrum of human drama with a tinge of believable absurdity.

Unferth talked to ZYZZYVA about her often-volatile relationship with writing, the influence of her family on her work, and her philosophies on craft.

ZYZZYVA: It’s been a decade, since your last short story collection, Minor Robberies, and a little over six years since your memoir, Revolution. Was the process of writing Wait Till You See Me Dance any different for you this time around?

Deb Olin Unferth: It was easier this time, to be honest. I’ve been in hiding for so long it feels like, working on three books at once takes a long time.

Z: Hiding or teaching? I’ve noticed that in many of your stories the protagonist is an educator of some sort.

DOU: Well, I’ve always taught when I write, been doing that forever, but recently I’ve been involved in a prison project that’s been taking a lot of my time. It’s a two-year writing program teaching inmates at a maximum-security penitentiary down in southern Texas.

Z: That’s interesting considering the main character in “Mr. Simmons Takes a Prisoner” teaches inmates, and—like many of the characters in the collection—is portrayed in an incredibly vulnerable way. You depict Mr. Simmons as an apathetic father and husband, who’s contemplating abandoning his family for a prisoner he’s teaching, yet you manage to make him sympathetic through it all. Is this vulnerability a conscious effort on your part?

DOU: It’s funny you mention “Mr. Simmons …” That story was based on my father. He volunteered, like Mr. Simmons, to tutor an inmate, help them rehabilitate before being released back into society. My dad started meeting with her all the time, writing her letters, paying for her textbooks and courses. When I wrote the first draft of the story I think I was a little mad at him—it was not a funny story. Years later I rewrote it for this collection and, at this point, my dad and I had healed our relationship. He literally sent me a fax saying he wanted to be closer to me and included these letters between him and the prisoner. I was furious with him back then and that was the original draft’s tone. So, when I took the story out of the box and rewrote it, I could see his humanity: he was a changed man and so was Mr. Simmons. In terms of vulnerability with my characters, I just want there to always be something at stake.

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Stories We Tell When We Won’t See What’s in Front of Us: Q&A with Emily Fridlund

(photo by Doug Knutson)

(photo by Doug Knutson)

Dark, haunting, and arresting, History of Wolves (279 pages; Grove/Atlantic) announces Emily Fridlund as a literary voice to watch. The book’s story opens as an isolated, woodland community in northern Minnesota confronts a scandal involving a predatory high school teacher. The sullen and introspective narrator, fourteen-year-old Linda, watches the tumult unfold from a distance, as she does most things in life.

That is, until the self-sufficient ninth-grader gets drawn into the lives of the young Gardner family who move in across the lake. Linda takes to the Gardners’ precocious four-year-old, Paul, but begins to notice peculiarities about the child, like the strange Scripture-like verses he seems to quote and his frequent bouts of fatigue. Though History of Wolves builds to a tragic series of events, the novel never trades in empty shock; part of its strength is in the way Fridlund adroitly explores the ways in which we reckon with tragedy—as individuals, as family units, as communities.

This auspicious first novel probes the terrible limits of faith, the responsibilities of motherhood, and the secrets beneath the surface of small towns. “I was intrigued, I was repulsed,” remarks one of the characters, and the reader is likely to relate. Fridlund understands the precariousness of youth, how “coming of age” is seldom about reaching a new plateau of maturity but more often like what Linda experiences standing under a scalding hot shower: “some feeling of woe, some feeling of desolation I hadn’t known I’d felt. A capsized feeling, a sense of the next thing already coming.”

Fridlund talked to ZYZZYVA about History of Wolves and some of her influences as a writer, as well as her story “Lock Jaw,” which appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 101.

ZYZZYVA: One of the aspects of a novel that draws me in, perhaps before anything else, is its milieu. The setting here feels so tied to the book’s events, with details about the oppressiveness of winter and the isolation of this wooded community creating the kind of environment where Paul’s story could so easily happen. Like with Linda’s dogs and their chains, I think their mere presence adds a certain texture to the novel, in a similar way the scandal with Linda’s teacher, Mr. Grierson, compliments the main story of the Gardner family. How much of the novel began with, say, the character of Linda or Paul versus the woods themselves? 

Emily Fridlund: I’m so glad to hear that you were pulled in by the milieu. The woods and Linda, setting and narrator, were always inextricably linked in my mind. I began with Linda’s voice, and the first scene I wrote was the one in which she approaches Mr. Adler, after he collapses in front of his class, and tentatively takes his hand. I was intrigued by the boldness of such a gesture, and also by the longing for human contact that might inspire it. As I tried to understand both these qualities in this peculiar teenage girl, it began to make sense to me that she would be a person forced into independence at a very young age, a kid schooled by woods and lakes—and that this very same background would also make her wretchedly solitary.

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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