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Zack Ravas

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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Making the Case for Hidden Wonder: ‘In Defense of Monsters’ by B.J. Hollars

In Defense of MonstersB.J. Hollars’ short essay collection, In Defense of Monsters (Bull City Press; 40 pages), opens on a world with no mysteries left. Now that seemingly every corner of the globe has been charted, and Google Earth allows one to zoom in on any coordinate one desires, the encroachment of human civilization on the natural world leaves us with little to explore. It wasn’t always the case: in the 20th century, even as horror spread across Europe and a racially divided America, the World’s Fairs promised a tomorrow full of discovery, and pulp novels sold readers on the idea of lost cities and forbidden jungles. Unsurprisingly, it was during this time that mythic figures such as Sasquatch and the Loch Ness Monster, which began as local rumors, developed into tourist attractions and subjects of international study. The Earth seemed like a place of wonder.

That sense has arguably since been stamped out, due in no small part to the scourge of war, the advance of technology, and a more skeptical populace. But in his essays, Hollars reminds us that “while three-fourths of Americans live in suburban and urban areas, only 2% of America is defined as such. The remaining 97% is considered rural.” Perhaps in those overgrown forest trails, lonely woods, and far-off mountain ranges, some domain still exists for these folklore creatures to flourish unseen by man. For Hollars, it’s not so important that scientists eventually prove the existence of a creature like Sasquatch (in fact, it’s immaterial), merely that our collective unconscious leave room for the possibility of their existence.

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Testaments to Our Will to Live: ‘Objects From a Borrowed Confession’ by Julie Carr

Objects from a Borrowed ConfessionSomewhere along the way, confessional poetry developed a bad rap. Perhaps it was the result of ubiquity: by 2003, every other turn of the radio dial delivered a soul-baring lyric to one’s ears (“On the way home this car hears my confessions,” went a lyric from a band literally called Dashboard Confessional), and college freshman creative writing classes were inundated with impressionable students expressing their angst through pen and paper. (You may have sat next to one, you may have been one yourself.) These days, mediums such as Facebook, Tumblr, and, well, Medium allow us to broadcast our inner lives to close friends and complete strangers alike—these digital walls can talk.

Considering the way modern technology has made the act of confession an almost thoughtless and arbitrary pastime, academic circles may have felt they had no choice but to turn their noses up at this ever-growing portion of the poetry world. But it’s a corner that clearly has long fascinated celebrated poet and author Julie Carr: “I wanted to think about what the Language Poets and the Conceptual Poets had against ‘confession,’ but I also wanted to see why confession was so important to our broader culture,” she writes in the Author Statement of her newest book, Objects From a Borrowed Confession (Ahsahta Press; 149 pages), a collection of pieces that tackle the notion of confession from a unique angle. “I wanted to explore that impulse and the attraction we have to one another’s secrets…I wanted to understand what the act of confession has to do with intimacy, empathy, and subjectivity.”

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Augmenting Reality Through Fashion: Jonathon Keats and His Superego Suits

Prototype of Interoceptive Eyeware  (photo by Elena Dorfman)

Prototype of Interoceptive Eyeware (photo by Elena Dorfman)

Clothing advertisements have long called for consumers to “try on a new you!” – as though a simple change in wardrobe can unlock previously untapped wells of confidence and charm, leading to a makeover not just of one’s style but of one’s inner self. While this brand of hyperbole is standard in the retail industry, a new range of products from experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats may finally deliver where fashion has failed. Keats’ Superego Suits, which can now be tried on by appointment at Modernism Gallery in San Francisco, are a line of apparel designed to augment—or alter—your personality at will.

Keats, who made headlines last year with his attempts to convince the United Nations to tectonically rearrange the world’s continents in the interest of achieving global harmony, found inspiration for the Superego Suit after reading about recent studies in neuroscience at Harvard and Florida State University and EPFL in Switzerland, including their research into interoception—loosely defined as one’s sense of the physiological condition of their body. “I’m interested in what happens when neuroscience escapes the lab and enters the world,” Keats declares.

To that end, the ever industrious Keats has devised several pieces of apparel designed to put neuroscience’s theories into practice, including Interoceptive Eyewear with irises that open and close in time with the user’s breathing; Ego Boost Bracelets that position the wearer in a testosterone-releasing “power pose” (perfect for the board room); Body Schema Extension Rings which extend the wearer’s reach, therefore increasing their presence in the world; and, perhaps most impressively, Free Will Footwear, battery-based elevator shoes that can adjust the wearer’s height and posture as desired.

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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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Nightmarish Existence of The Child: ‘The Impossible Fairy Tale’ by Han Yujoo

The Impossible Fairy TaleThe dichotomies of childhood—children’s capacity for both guileless love and extreme cruelty—make our earliest years ripe material for storytelling; fairy tales, in particular, have long traded on the contradictions of youth: Hansel and Gretel narrowly escaping an evil witch’s clutches only to burn her alive in her own oven, Red Riding Hood fending off the appetite of a ravenous wolf disguised as her grandmother before filling his stomach with stones. It’s through this lens the reader approaches The Impossible Fairy Tale (214 pages; Graywolf Press; translated by Janet Hong), the first novel from Korean author Han Yujoo and her first work to be translated into English.

The book opens on a bleak grade-school world (“Do you know you can kill someone with a fountain pen?” is one of the first lines spoken) and quickly establishes the novel’s central parallel: the charmed life of the angelic Mia—who wants for nothing and receives lavish gifts from both her biological father and her mother’s paramour (as the novel opens it’s a set of seventy-two German watercolor pencils, perhaps a nod to the Germanic origins of the Grimm fairy tales)—presented in sharp relief against a classmate’s known only as the Child, an unfortunate girl who experiences a constant torrent of abuse from her mother: “She wishes she could be erased. But every time she tries to erase herself, she only grows darker.”

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Our World Without Any Memory of Itself: ‘NK3’ by Michael Tolkin

NK3Michael Tolkin’s 1988 novel, The Player, remains a note-perfect send-up of late Eighties Hollywood excess, a paranoid neo-noir told from the point-of-view of the murderer himself—a creatively and morally bankrupt Hollywood executive. Now the acclaimed author, screenwriter, and director returns with NK3 (300 pages; Grove), his first novel in more than a decade. Tolkin has long specialized in satire so shrewd and well-observed that it barely registers as satire; NK3, in which a memory-erasing biological weapon creates a power vacuum for the working classes to seize control from the rich and elite, couldn’t have arrived at a more apropos time.

Initially, the biggest shock of NK3 is how much it reads like a post-modern take on the airport bestseller. The opening chapters leap from place to place and character to character with each flip of the page like the Michael Crichton thrillers of yore. These early passages are burdened by exposition as Tolkin works to establish his near-future world of 2020, a society that—like the best speculative fiction—looks radically different and yet eerily similar to our own.

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‘Conjectures Based on What You Know About Yourself’: Q&A with Chelsea Martin

Chelsea Martin (photo by Catlin Snodgrass)

Chelsea Martin (photo by Catlin Snodgrass)

“Being unemployed feels like being in The Sims’ Build Mode, but with less soothing music.” So declares the nameless narrator at the heart of Mickey (200 pages; Curbside Splendor), the new book from Chelsea Martin. As Mickey opens, its main character – a struggling young artist – impulsively breaks up with her long-term boyfriend and is soon fired from her job. These events springboard our hapless protagonist into ruminations on grand existential concerns like the struggle to pay rent, the inherent loneliness of the human condition, and why cheese and crackers are so damn important at gallery showings.

Mickey is one of this summer’s literary gems, a book that bummed me out and made me laugh in equal measure. It’s no exaggeration to say the novel represents a benchmark for Martin, with Mickey delivering the fullest realization of her signature style, one that is droll and detached, and yet offers uncanny insight into the nature of our closest relationships, whether they be with our lovers, friends, or parents. It’s a book Martin will continually have to refute is autobiographical simply because she imbues her narrator with a voice so real it feels as though it must be born of lived experience. Chelsea Martin was kind enough to talk to me about Mickey and her creative process, including how to write without censoring yourself and producing art from a place of malaise.

ZYZZYVA: I was thinking about Mickey in the context of your last book, Even Though I Don’t Miss You, which came out in November 2013. For me, Mickey seems like a major artistic development for you as a writer and, based on reviews I’ve read, I’m not the only reader who feels this way. When you’re working on a new book, how much do you think about it as an evolution or follow-up to your previous release?

Chelsea Martin: Early on in the process of writing Mickey, I remember feeling panicked that I had not “finished” Even Though I Don’t Miss You, because in Mickey I was still processing some of these same themes and feelings and had more to say on these topics and was making similar stylistic choices. I was worried I was writing the same book again. But Mickey evolved into something completely different. I think there is definitely a through line, probably several, connecting the two books, and I feel good about that.

The project I’ve recently started also shares many of the same ideas as Mickey (and is even further from Even Though), but I feel much less panicky about it this time, because I know it will change and develop. Finishing a book doesn’t necessarily mean you’re done processing something or are going to stop thinking about it or being interested in it.

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A World of TV Eyes: ‘The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe’ by D.G. Compton

MortenhoeFrom Google Glass to drone warfare and genetic modification, it’s fair to say that our contemporary world bears more than a passing resemblance to the science-fiction novels of yesteryear. Originally published in 1974, English writer D.G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, recently reprinted by New York Review Books Classics, is a vintage piece of speculative fiction that feels of the here and now, and startlingly so.

Mortenhoe opens on a society that could very well be our own in another fifteen years: a culture rife with economic disparity, where most diseases have been eradicated and the populace is sated by reality television programs that chronicle the lives of their subjects in unnerving detail. It’s an era when middle-class life resembles a “bland, painless, deathless advertiser’s dream.” Enter Katherine Mortenhoe, an average woman who finds herself unexpectedly stricken with a rare terminal illness. Her brain is literally shutting down from its inability to cope with the nonstop rush of sensory information that defines 21st century life.

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‘Language to Swarm and Eat’ the Hopelessness: ‘A Bestiary’ by Lily Hoang

A BestiaryLily Hoang’s new book, A Bestiary (156 pages; Cleveland State University Poetry Center), proves why a healthy amount of skepticism—at times bordering on distaste—for the self is an undervalued trait in literature. Throughout her collection, Hoang blurs the line between personal essay and prose poetry as she takes stock of her life and often comes to some unflattering conclusions. Reflecting on an unsatisfying, on-and-off-again relationship with her lover, she writes, “I feel like a feminist poser, talking a big game about empowerment but living a reality of passivity and self-contempt.”

A Bestiary offers a snapshot of a turbulent time in Hoang’s life, one in which she’s still grieving her sister’s unexpected death from a brain aneurysm while trying to provide a home for her nephew, a recovering drug addict. Her aging parents also offer a point of concern, with her mother using iPad games to escape from reality and her father needling her about her weight. As a writer, Hoang is refreshingly comfortable with balancing contradictions—the self, after all, contains multitudes. This is why she can remark on Page 107, “I want my sadness to be legitimized,” when earlier in the text she came to the conclusion, “Real sadness does not need a performance.”

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The Extremities of Human Experience: Q&A with ‘I Met Someone’ Author Bruce Wagner

BRuce Wagner The fact that the dust jacket for Bruce Wagner’s latest novel, I Met Someone (Blue Rider Press; 384 pages), carries blurbs from award-winning author Sherman Alexie as well as acclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh reveals how adroitly Wagner has been able to navigate both the literary scene and the world of Hollywood. Over the last several years, Wagner has been at work on what he calls the Inferno series, starting with 2012’s Dead Stars, a sprawling and densely packed novel about life on the fringes of stardom, which Tom Bissell dubbed “the Ulysses of TMZ culture.” In 2015, David Cronenberg directed Wagner’s screenplay for Maps to the Stars, a pitch-black tour through the darker side of the film industry that earned Julianne Moore a Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

The Inferno series culminates with this year’s I Met Someone, which tells the story of 53-year-old Dusty Wilding, a screen actress with a loving wife and the kind accolades typically reserved for Meryl Streep. Upon the death of her mother, Wilding begins a journey to locate the daughter she gave up as a teenager, a journey that leads her to shattering discoveries. The novel is at turns haunting and heartbreaking, not to mention wickedly funny, as Wagner touches on everything from the Hollywood movie-making machine to Children of God-style cults and Internet message board trolls. The book is propelled by Wagner’s virtuosic style; only Wagner could write a tender sex scene thusly: “They lay in a field of golden land mines that went off one after the other, leaving them eyeless, limbless, heartless – dead and alive all at once.”

Recently, Bruce Wagner talked to us via email about I Met Someone and its potent themes of motherhood, grief, and rebirth.

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Tweeting Ourselves into Oblivion: ‘I Hate the Internet’ by Jarett Kobek

9780996421805_p0_v1_s192x300The last two years have witnessed several novels lamenting the changing cultural landscape of the Bay Area, setting their sights on the runaway capitalism of the tech industry. But few of these books have actually assimilated the language of tech into their critique. This is part of what makes Jarett Kobek’s novel I Hate the Internet (We Heard You Like Books, 288 pages) so potent.

I Hate the Internet is ostensibly the story of Adeline, a middle-aged comic book artist living in San Francisco circa 2013. When Adeline, who purposefully affects a Trans-Atlantic accent a la Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, delivers a guest lecture at a Bay Area art school, she has no idea that her off-the-cuff remarks will be recorded and uploaded to the web by a student, generating a firestorm of Internet outrage in the process. While Adeline’s story remains an anchor throughout the novel, her dilemma is not the main focus of the book. Instead, her story serves as a springboard for Kobek to examine the state of San Francisco in the 21st century.

The narrative transitions from subject to subject at the speed of a mouse-click; a reference to Adeline’s former boyfriend working at LucasArts leads to several digressive paragraphs in which Kobek offers his own explication of the Star Wars property and its billion-dollar acquisition by the Disney corporation in 2012. This technique occurs on nearly every page, creating the impression that the reader has disappeared down a rabbit hole of URLs, following link after link on Kobek’s version of Wikipedia. It also allows Kobek to tie together several disparate threads throughout the book, while maintaining his central thesis that comic book publishers like Marvel and DC Comics—whose artists, such as Jack Kirby, saw almost none of the dizzying profits made off their intellectual properties—were the forerunners of companies like Facebook and Instagram, which earn massive revenues based on the content its millions of users produce for free.

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