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Christian Kiefer

The Inheritance of Trauma: Q&A with Adrienne Celt & Esmé Weijun Wang

Adrienne Celt

Adrienne Celt

I’m not entirely sure where I happened upon Adrienne Celt’s beautiful first novel, The Daughters (272 pages; Norton/Liveright), which is out in paperback in early June, but entering its world was like entering a beautiful fever dream: ornate, occasionally frightening and sad. Celt’s world, peopled by four generations of Polish and Polish American women, tells the story of Lulu, a famed opera singer who loses her voice and sifts through her family’s stories to locate a way forward for herself and her newborn daughter. Celt’s work has appeared in Esquire, the Kenyon Review, and her story “Big Boss Bitch,” a tale of a future political situation that seems almost too real to be fantasy, is slated for the Fall issue of Zyzzyva. Celt holds an MFA from Arizona State University and lives in Tucson.

Esmé Weijun Wang

Esmé Weijun Wang

Esmé Weijun Wang’s first novel, the recently published The Border of Paradise, (292 pages; Unnamed Press), came to my attention via an essay she wrote for LitHub titled, “Why My Novel Uses Untranslated Chinese.” This alone—the idea that an American novelist might pepper her book with traditional Chinese characters rather than pinyin (although Wang uses both)—is fascinating. But The Border of Paradise is also a stunning novel, terrifying and wonderful in turns, with a sense of dread creeping across every page. Wang has openly discussed her ongoing struggle with late stage Lyme disease and with schizoaffective disorder. Her work has appeared in Salon, Buzzfeed, Catapult, and The Believer. She holds an MFA from the University of Michigan and lives in San Francisco. I had an online conversation with Wang and Celt about their work.

ZYZZYVA: I was immediately struck by the strange similarities between your books, not the least of which being they both deal, in part, with Polish culture. I wondered where that interest stemmed from and how it might have informed your writing in general.

Adrienne Celt: I have a great deal of Polish ancestry, and initially I wanted to explore Polish mythology and history for that reason—my paternal grandfather played a part in organizing the Warsaw Uprising as a paratrooper and courier for the Polish government in exile during World War II, and so I grew up hearing incredible stories about my family and their place in Polish national history. But because my paternal grandparents lived in Munich (after WWII, Poland was occupied by the USSR, so many loyal nationalists chose to leave, and my grandparents went to Munich to work for Radio Free Europe), I didn’t know them well, and the stories about them always felt distant to me—I wanted to know more.

EWW: I’ve been sitting over here gnawing on my fingers because I don’t have a good answer as to why Polish Americans—I can’t remember how I decided that would be the case, which doesn’t make for very good storytelling on my part as an author. But yes, [the protagonist] David Nowak’s parents were both born in the States. It’s his grandfather who carries the mythology of the penniless immigrant making good. David’s family still exists in a very Polish American circle, though, which I was interested in. I’m interested in communities that remain insular. I suppose most of my book is about insularity and isolation in some way. I was also interested in who was making pianos at the time, because I knew I wanted to write about a family that owned a piano manufactory.

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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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