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The Pain Hard to Name: Q&A with ‘Swallowed by the Cold’ Author Jensen Beach

Jensen Beach

Jensen Beach

The stories in Jensen Beach’s second story collection, Swallowed by the Cold (208 pages; Graywolf Press), demonstrate again and again that self-destruction doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In “Kino,” we meet a young man named Oskar who swears he intended to torch just his own boat, but who ended up setting fire to an entire marina. Oskar happens to work at what seems to be a gay brothel called Kino Club, which an uptight man named Martin frequents. The two encounter each other at a party where Martin’s wife, Louise, gets too drunk. Suffering under the weight of Martin’s self-denial, she’s an alcoholic. It’s a quieter kind of tragedy, but at least as soul-rattling as, say, a car crash that leads to a coma (as in the story “Henrik Needed Help”). By the end of “Kino,” Martin abandons Louise on the side of the road to spend the night with Oskar.

These linked stories, set in Sweden, swivel among troubled lives. If it’s not alcoholism and infidelity, it’s a death in the family, the loss of a limb, a sinking ship, even war. All of this sorrow is thrown against rather prim backdrops: summer homes on the Baltic, apartments in “safe” neighborhoods, a fancy party at a Stockholm museum. Mix in the drama of Scandinavian weather and these settings make for fertile ground for Beach’s tales.

In an interview with him about his book, Beach told me he sought to accomplish what John Cheever did in “The Swimmer”: “It’s just all pain. The entire story is one of pain. And we’re never told the nature of it, or its reasons. Instead, we’re simply emerged in it, experientially.” Beach has accomplished what he set out to do. Swallowed by the Cold covers you in its web of anguish, but you won’t want to thrash yourself free, and you wouldn’t be able to anyway.

ZYZZYVA: I want to start with the question on which interviews often end: What’s next for Jensen Beach? Your first book was a collection of shorter stories. This last one is a collection of longer stories with recurring characters. Are you inching toward a novel?

Jensen Beach: I am indeed inching toward a novel. Inching might even imply a speed which is not yet there. The novel interests me as a form lately for similar reasons that I wrote Swallowed by the Cold, actually. I’m interested in the ways in which a book with a considerable dramatic scope can allow that drama to be explored in its intersections and connections, through coincidence and overlap. Swallowed by the Cold is a book of linked stories; and I find myself very interested in the challenge of that puzzle for this next project, too. So much so that I’m finding a similar motivating energy in writing this novel. At this stage of that manuscript, I’m just producing text. I couldn’t tell you yet what it’s about really. But I am excited by the challenge of holding an even larger number of parts up and seeing how they puzzle together.

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‘Who Will Help the Queen of the Rodeo?’ by Ron Carlson, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

ZYZZYVSpring2016coverRon Carlson is the author of several books of fiction, including Return to Oakpine (Viking) and The Signal (Penguin). He is the director of the MFA Program in Fiction at the University of California at Irvine. His fiction appeared in ZYZZYVA Issues No. 96 and No. 100.

His latest story for ZYZZYVA, “Who Will Help the Queen of the Rodeo?,” savors that time when families have just begun: the children are still children, the time spent together is uncomplicated, and the goodness of the world is palpable—even if we can’t help but know that this idyll is fleeting. Set at the beginning of a summer vacation, reading Carlson’s story now is apt. But it’s the story’s tenderness that makes it a particularly welcoming world in which to enter. The following is an excerpt of Carlson’s story. You can read it in its entirety in Issue No. 106, which you can order here.

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‘Last Dance’ by Lou Mathews, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

ZYZZYVSpring2016coverLou Mathews has received a Pushcart Prize, a Katherine Anne Porter Prize, National Endowment for the Arts and California Arts Commission fellowships in fiction. His stories have been published in Black Clock, Tin House, New England Review, and many other literary magazines, ten fiction anthologies and several textbooks. His first novel, L.A. Breakdown was a Los Angeles Times Best Book.

Mathew’s story, “Last Dance,” which is from a longer work titled Shaky Town, presents us with a Los Angeles instantly recognizable to many Angelenos. It’s a Los Angeles that’s primarily Mexican American, blue-collar, and community-minded. The residents of Shaky Town know each other well (perhaps too well), and their shared histories are long and complex. The following is an excerpt of Mathew’s story. You can read it in its entirety in Issue No. 106, which you can order here.

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How Reading to My Kids Helped Me Give Better Author Readings

Publishing a book can mean a lot of things. You might, for example, find yourself at a book club meeting where an elderly gentleman confesses that he didn’t think he’d be able to finish your novel but he nonetheless managed to “struggle through it” (true story). You might, on the other hand, achieve a staggering level of success that allows you to quit your day job (unfortunately not a true story). Or, more likely, you’ll probably have to give a reading.

This was the part of being a published author that I was dreading the most. Like many writers, I’m an introvert, not at all comfortable with public speaking or standing in the spotlight; at forty-nine years of age (yes, I’m a “debut” author who’s on the cusp of fifty), I still blush when I’m the focus of attention, cursing the redness in my cheeks that I can’t control.

But, much to my surprise, I didn’t completely suck at reading from my novel in front of a crowd of people. And at some point during my first book tour—on a plane, in an airport, staring at a hotel ceiling, writing notes and scenes for my next novel—it dawned on me why: I’d been reading out loud to my kids for the past ten years.

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A Profile of Kay Ryan by John Freeman: ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

ZYZZYVSpring2016coverJohn Freeman is the author of How to Read a Novelist (FSG), the editor of the literary journal Freeman’s, and a contributing editor to ZYZZYVA. He is also a poet whose work has been published in The New Yorker and ZYZZYVA, and is currently working on a book about American poetry.

His feature on former U.S. poet laureate and longtime Bay Area resident Kay Ryan—set at a restaurant in the Presidio on a warm San Francisco day—launches a new component of ZYZZYVA: author profiles and conversations. (In our next issue, we’ll be publishing a conversation on memoir between Andrew Foster Altschul and Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff.) The following is an excerpt from Freeman’s profile. You can read it in its entirety in Issue No. 106, which you can order here.

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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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Thwarted Pilgrimage: ‘White Sands’ by Geoff Dyer

White Sands There are a few different types of ignorance at work in Geoff Dyer’s new book, White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World, a collection of essays that combine travel writing and art criticism. One kind is artificial ignorance as an interpretative tool. Often, when he is ignoring information, sloughing off context on which another critic might lean all his weight, Dyer (or the genre-bending author’s narrator whom I will call Dyer) is at his sharpest. In “Space in Time,” the author travels to Quemado, New Mexico, to see Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, but he holds off telling us this information until the second half of the essay. In the meantime, he makes surprising observations about the experience of viewing the work, the most intriguing of which concern absence. The “abundance of poles and wind” creates “an implied absence of flags.” Another art pilgrim is walking around at twilight holding a champagne glass, which, “for most of that hour, had been empty.” As night falls, the viewers are “in the midst of what may once have been considered a variety of religious experience. Absence had given way to presence.” Even after he tells us what we are looking at, he continues constructing his analysis around a hypothetical lack of data, ignoring De Maria’s “obsessively minute inventory and visionary manifesto, ‘The Lighting Field: Some Facts, Notes, Data, Information, Statistics and Statements,’” in favor of a “subterfuge of inconceivable ignorance”: “So what if we visited the site years hence and had to try to figure out for ourselves what was happening here, what forces were at work with no art-historical context (minimalism, conceptualism, taking work out of the gallery into the expanded field, etc.)?” Not knowing exactly where we are can give us a much clearer idea of where we are.

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Looking for Life After Death: ‘Zero K’ by Don DeLillo

Zero KDon DeLillo’s seventeenth novel, Zero K (288 pages; Scribner), has all the trappings of a typical DeLillo novel. It opens with the protagonist Jeffrey Lockhart arriving at the Convergence, a techo-utopian compound erected in the midst of a central Asian desert. The compound is a staging ground for a series of experiments, led by the mysterious Stenmark Twins (or, at least that’s what Jeffrey calls them), into the possibilities of cryogenics. These experiments are meant to prepare their participants—including Jeffrey’s terminally ill stepmother, Artis, and estranged father, Ross Lockhart—for a future where death has ceased to exist and life may be everlasting. There’s little plot beyond this initial setup. Rather, DeLillo performs an elliptical investigation of the tensions between skepticism and belief, alienation and community, subjectivity and relationality.

In this sense, Zero K sometimes seems like less of a novel and more of a philosophical treatise. Jeffrey aimlessly wanders the Convergence. Occasionally he encounters screens that descend at random to depict epic scenes of human suffering, as if to remind him of the mortality he might leave behind in the compound. A skeptic amid the Convergence’s utopian promise, he refuses to take the Stenmark Twins’ vision seriously. He’s convinced the entire project is a prank, a cosmic joke on gullible believers. To register his incredulity, he knocks on doors at random, certain no one is behind them, that the Convergence is a stage created for the purpose of an elaborate fiction. For the most part he’s confirmed in his suspicion—until someone answers and topples Jeffrey’s assumptions.

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Realism’s Inability to Portray Reality: A Q&A with ‘Man & Wife’ Author Katie Chase

Katie Chase (photo by Calvin Eib)

Katie Chase (photo by Calvin Eib)

An internal refugee crisis in the United States; a modern America that tolerates decades-old, interfamilial vendettas; a city that keeps burning down year after year—these are the kinds of warped worlds captured in Katie Chase’s story collection, Man & Wife (220 pages; A Strange Object). Within these surrealities, Chase exaggerates societal traditions into distended proportions, focusing on the experiences of women at pivotal moments in their youth, examining their family dynamics, and, concurrently, their strange societies’ shifting norms. What’s even more unsettling is how eerily similar these worlds (and all the dramas that exist within them) are to our own.

Chase—a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who’s published in ZYZZYVA, the Mississippi Review, and the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies—grounds her tragic tales of the intricate burden of tradition through the first-person perspectives of her unforgettable characters. Her sentences roil with every moment’s uncertainty, continually rending open the perceived gap between tradition and freedom, the collective and the individual, to peer closer at just how enmeshed those binaries are.
We talked to Katie Chase via email about Man & Wife, and about how language is inextricable from story, how the political is the human, and how to maintain “the play of writing.”

ZYZZYVA: Tradition, in its many forms, seems to stand at the center of Man & Wife; its push and pull, its polarity with complete autonomy, and individuals’ battles to find where they reside between those two extremes. It’s a nondualist view that you exemplify spectacularly in your story “The Hut,” which made me wonder, where do you think your fascination with tradition stems from, and how has writing this collection developed it for you?

Katie Chase: While my upbringing was not particularly conservative, I would say that it was largely “traditional,” in that I was raised by parents who were married—a father who worked and a mother who stayed home—in a small suburb where the norm was to stick around and repeat: find yourself a practical profession and a spouse, buy a house, have kids. My parents made the conscious choice to raise me and my siblings outside of a religion, but we observed Christian holidays in gatherings with extended family members whose rituals and beliefs bound them in actual and symbolic ways from which we were excluded, albeit proudly.

In pursuing writing, I’ve followed a path I had no models for until college, and I’ve never really stopped holding my life’s trajectory against what might have been expected. I cherish outsider status to the extent that I have it, yet at the same time I see in freedom loss as well as gain. Writing this collection made these preoccupations more conscious and allowed an exploration of them that was vicarious. We’re living in a time that is probably not so different from any other for its concurrent progress and clinging. I feel more softness now toward the latter. The clinging and the contradictions strike me as deeply human. I think a lot of people of my generation feel a sort of horror—and absolutely a restlessness—at the range of possibilities; anything is supposed to be possible, yet it still isn’t, and no one can have, or see, or do, or taste everything. I take great, tongue-in-cheek pleasure in nondenominational annual activities such as eating Thanksgiving dinner and watching the Academy Awards simply for the sense that so many other people, with a wide range of feelings, are at the same time participating.

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Healing the Phantom Pains Through Poetry: Q&A with Noelle Kocot

Noelle Kocot

Noelle Kocot

I turn to the poems of Noelle Kocot for the same reason I entered corn mazes as a kid: both are pleasurably unpredictable, and both transform everyday places into thrilling twilight zones. Though Kocot’s writing has covered a great deal of formal and conceptual terrain over the course of her seven books, her work has remained whip-smart and darkly playful, consistently carrying off great feats of imagination while orbiting an urgent emotional truth. These hallmarks are present in the restless quatrains of her Levis Poetry Prize-winning first collection, in the unflinching elegies for her late husband in Sunny Wednesday, and, now, in the tersely elliptical poems of Phantom Pains of Madness, released last month from Wave Books. Like its predecessors, Kocot’s latest book fills me with a combination of triumph and incongruous grief, like a kid at the end of a corn maze.

Phantom Pains of Madness is memorable for a few reasons. First, every one of its lines comprises only a single word, so the resulting columns of text appear lean and sinewy, as if pared down from a much larger whole:

What
Is
Left
Only
The
Life
The
Singing
Language
Around
The
Life

Kocot also has a way of writing about cognitive distortions that is more on the mark and profound than that of any other living poet I can think of. The poems in Phantom Pains of Madness mimic the language of the mind in its least rational, most disjunctive states, recounting hallucinatory pangs and visions in all their stinging color. We spoke with Kocot via email about her new book, the role of poetry in destigmatizing mental illness, and cool and hot jazz.

ZYZZYVA: According to the blurb, this collection explores “a break with reality that occurred a decade and a half ago.” You’ve been busy during that decade and a half, publishing six full-length books of poetry and a collection of translations, among other projects. I’m curious about whether Phantom Pains of Madness was incubating during all that time.

Noelle Kocot: Well, I didn’t plan a book; instead, I wrote about 200 of these poems. (Joshua Beckman, poet and editor at Wave Books, made the selections and the order.) It was when I quit smoking cigarettes (ultimately unsuccessfully), hence the title. I felt so crazed and out of my mind when I wrote these poems from the lack of nicotine, which lasted around four months. So yes, definitely it had been incubating for all that time, but quitting smoking was definitely the impetus, because it really was the experience of “phantom pains of madness.” Continue reading

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The Bravery to Stand in Opposition: Adam Hochschild’s “Spain in Our Hearts”

Spain in Our HeartsAdam Hochschild’s Spain in Our Hearts (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 372 pages) carries the unique distinction of possessing value equally for the specialist and the lay reader. Hochschild is not only a historian but also a humane storyteller, and in Spain in Our Hearts the literary quality of his prose alternatively sweeps the reader into the historical narrative, while also situating us in the subjective experience of his key historical personages. His and their conception of what the Spanish Civil War actually meant is attested to time and again by an array of ideologically discrepant individuals ranging from foreign correspondents and foreign fighters, including George Orwell, as well the diaries and letters of the Spanish troops on the ground. Their shared portentous sentiment—that this was the rehearsal for World War II, for the near global and yet by no means black-and-white opposition to Fascism—is eerily and independently echoed by witnesses throughout the book.

The book begins with urgency, pulling the reader into the chaos and tumult that will characterize much of the narrative: “The country is in flames. For nearly two years, the fractious but democratically elected government of the Spanish Republic has been defending itself against a military uprising led by Francisco Franco and backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.” By November 1936, the country was roughly divided between its West, where Franco had more or less triumphed in a military and government take over, and the East, where Republican, Anarchist, and Communist communities held control. What strikes one immediately is the inventive and therefore especially disturbing barbarity and ruthlessness of Franco’s regime in dealing with dissidents and oppositional forces. These atrocities were often geographically removed from Barcelona, which seemed to many to be a kind of budding egalitarian Utopia, especially to a few of the Americans Hochschild follows who arrived in the city early in the conflict.

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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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