Contributors Archives

Oscar Villalon

Finding Communion with Characters Half a World Away: Q&A with Jack Livings

Jack LivingsBack in late July, Michiko Kakutani gave a first book of fiction the sort of review authors rarely receive. It was an unqualified rave of Jack Livings’ story collection, The Dog (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux; 240 pages). “With ‘The Dog’,” Kakutani concluded, “Mr. Livings has made an incisive—and highly impressive—debut.” One could go even further. With The Dog, and its eight brilliantly told stories set in contemporary China, Jack Livings has delivered one of the best books of 2014—if not the best debut work of fiction by an American writer this year.

Much as Ken Kalfus did with Russian society in his story collection Pu-239, or the legendary B. Traven’s accomplished with Mexico in The Night Visitor and Other Stories, The Dog immerses itself into a “foreign” culture and unassumingly but palpably renders it for the distant reader (i.e., the average American). Whatever perception of otherness the reader might have held is torn down. In its place appears a deep recognition of these myriad characters whose anxieties and fears, accomplishments and failures, injustices suffered and resiliencies displayed all speak directly to us. We gladly inhabit these often comic, often tragic lives.

In the title story, a beleaguered Beijing man, who incinerates bodies for a living, is summoned home by his cunning and boorish business partner, who also happens to be family. In “The Heir,” a rebellious grandson and the opportunistic cops of the Public Security Bureau pique Omar, a Uyghur crime boss of dead-eye ruthlessness: “Once, a Kazakh had brushed against Omar’s wife in the market. The man apologized profusely, prostrating himself, delivering gifts in the following days. It’s nothing, Omar had said. He waited ten years to pour hot lead down the Kazakh’s throat.”

Elsewhere in The Dog, the same desperation irradiating U.S. newsrooms infects the staff at the Guangzhou Post in “Mountain of Swords, Sea of Fire,” a funny, salty tale that culminates in the moral reckoning of a veteran newsman: “He’d nearly frozen to death chasing the Panchen Lama on his exodus across the mountains of Nepal. He’d roasted in the sun for weeks at Lop Nur waiting for a subterranean nuclear test. He could have stayed in the newsroom, pulled the Xinhua file off the telex and punched up the copy, but he’d insisted on being there in person to feel the ground tremble. It mattered to him to witness the story. What had that all come to?”

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The Fire of Work, and the Concerns of Literature: Q&A with John Freeman

FreemanMugI’ve known author and former Granta editor John Freeman since (and I’m guessing here) 1998. At the time I was the deputy book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, and Freeman was one of many freelance critics working for the paper’s Sunday Book Review section (which, thankfully, and perhaps miraculously, continues). Freeman is probably the most prolific freelancer with whom I’ve ever worked. (The book critic Martin Rubin would be a close second.) Month after month, it seemed as if his reviews and author interviews appeared in just about every periodical in the country that did any sort of book coverage. In fact, his output was so colossal that you couldn’t help admiringly wonder if here was a person who might be making a living, even if barely, as a non-staff book reviewer.

The extent of Freeman’s work as a journalist covering books (because that’s what he really was before working for Granta, given all the features he produced back then along with the reviews) is impressively displayed in How to Read a Novelist (372 pages; Farrar, Straus, & Giroux). Here we have brief but telling encounters with more than 50 authors, in interviews taking place between 2000 and early 2013. “The only thing an interviewer can do to capture what a novelist truly does,” he writes in his book’s introduction, “is to make them talk and tell stories, and think aloud.” Via email, I talked to John Freeman, who recently joined ZYZZYVA’s roster of contributing editors, about some of the literary greats of whom he got to do just that, about putting together How to Read a Novelist, and about what he’s learned about writing in his literary career.

ZYZZYVA: In your conversation with Haruki Murakami, he told you about the importance of repetition in creative endeavors. What exactly did he mean? And did you see how that could apply to you as a critic?

John Freeman: In person, Haruki Murakami speaks of writing as if he were a miner. Like he goes into a deep hole every morning with a helmet and light and blasts away until he finds a vein. Repetition is important in this metaphor, because there will be lots of failures and rubble, then something gorgeous or useful will glint in the dark. For a critic there isn’t much room for failure. You read quickly and on deadline and then have to write to word count, also on deadline. Your fire should be a refiner’s fire: dependable, always on, somewhat wasteful. It’s why I think critics, daily critics, find it difficult to do much else. You have to use everything you’ve got to keep up the pace and intensity in public, which is what you do when you publish what you write that quickly. It’s like a public performance.

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The Best Way to Talk About Loneliness and Loss: Q&A with Santiago Roncagliolo

Santiago Roncagliolo

Santiago Roncagliolo

Born in Peru, and now living in Barcelona, author Santiago Roncagliolo was named as one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists a few years back. Noted for being the youngest person to win the prestigious Alfaguara Prize (for his novel Red April, which was published in English in 2010), Roncagliolo is also a translator, a children’s book author, a newspaper contributor, and a soap opera writer.

His past work has examined the horrors of the Sendero Luminoso in Peru as well as the sex trade in Tokyo, but in his latest book in English, Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories (Two Lines Press), a darkly funny collection translated by Edith Grossman, the settings are more familiar—the dull workplace, the tucked-away apartment, the day-time bus ride. Yet the tales are all the more enthralling for their seemingly prosaic environments, opening up worlds of desire, death, and dreams (or maybe it’s delusions?).

In the title story (told entirely in unattributed dialogue), empty sex, disdainful customer service, and a soured affair all unfold, and eventually dovetail, over the phone. “Despoiler” tells of a lonely Barcelona woman’s phantasmagoric evening out, a night seemingly populated by her beloved and long-lost stuffed toys. In “Butterflies Fastened with Pins” the serial suicides of friends plague a young man, and in the collection’s final story, “The Passenger Beside You,” a woman explains how the “enormous bullet wound in her heart” came about.

We spoke to Roncagliolo over email about his new story collection and his writing.

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Big in Japan: Q&A with Ted Goossen and Motoyuki Shibata of “Monkey Business”

Published annually, the nascent literary journal Monkey Business connects an English-reading public—whose familiarity with modern Japanese literature may be limited to Haruki Murakami, Yukio Mishima, and Keiji Nakazawa—to a wide range of contemporary if not as well known Japanese writers.

The journal, supported by the Nippon Foundation and A Public Space, is the international offshoot of the same-name publication started in Tokyo in 2008. The second issue was published earlier this year, and just like the first volume, it is a delight. Translations of major authors and rising talents share space with work from established U.S. writers (Stuart Dybek, Rebecca Brown, Barry Yourgrau). There are poems and nonfiction, short stories and manga (including the Brother and Sister Nishioka’s otherworldly take on Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist”; in the inaugural issue, readers were introduced to the pair’s utterly distinct style in their version of another Kafka story, “A Country Doctor.”). And yes, there’s work from Murakami: a succinct, incisive essay on the craft of storytelling, in which he uses his books as examples. (Volume 1 featured an in-depth, candid interview with the author.)

Looking forward to next year when the journal’s third issue comes out (25 percent of all sales, by the way, go toward the Nippon Foundation/CANPAN Northeastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund), we chatted via email about Monkey Business with editors Ted Goossen, a noted translator in Toronto who teaches Japanese literature and film, and Motoyuki Shibata, an esteemed Japanese scholar who teaches U.S. literature at the University of Tokyo and has translated Paul Auster, Thomas Pynchon, and Richard Powers.

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Poetry Karaoke, the Russian River, and Murder: Q&A with Bart Schneider

In his new book, Nameless Dame (Soft Skull Press; 296 pages), novelist and poet Bart Schneider picks up where he left off in The Man in the Blizzard, his 2008 crime novel about pothead Minnesota private eye Augie Boyer and police Detective Bobby Sabbatini. In his bouncy if violent, weed- and verse-filled sequel, Schneider brings Augie back to his roots in the Bay Area (roots Schneider shares with the narrator), taking him on a visit to Sabbatini and his family in the bucolic splendor (and weirdness) that is western Sonoma County, with its redneck pot farmers and hippie searchers, to name just a couple of the area’s denizens.

As much as Nameless Dame is about life along the Russian River, and Augie and Sabbatini trying to solve the shooting death of a troubled young woman, it’s also about poetry and its vitality – a theme you’re unlikely to come across in any other crime novel (except for the book’s predecessor). The work of the likes of Kay Ryan, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens pops up through the book (as does Augie’s spontaneous haikus), all of it commenting and complementing the story as it unfolds.

Like Augie, Schneider – who is the author of the poetry collection Water for a Stranger, as well as the critically acclaimed novels Blue Bossa (a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize) and Secret Love — has returned to where he was born and raised. After spending 25 years in Minnesota, where he was the founding editor of the much-revered Hungry Mind Review and part of a “very enlightened arts community,” he now runs Kelly’s Cove Press, a Berkeley publishing house specializing in Northern California literature, which it pairs with artwork from Northern California artists.  We talked to him about Nameless Dame, his time in Minnesota, and what it’s like to be back in the Bay Area.

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‘A Theory of Small Earthquakes’: Q&A With Meredith Maran

Meredith Maran (Lisa Keating Photography)

A Theory of Small Earthquakes (Soft Skull Press; 352 pages) is the first novel by award-winning author Meredith Maran. Known for her several nonfiction books, including My Lie: A True Story of False Memory (2010), Dirty: A Search for Answers Inside America’s Teenage Drug Epidemic (2003) and Class Dismissed: A Year in the Life of an American High School, a Glimpse Into the Heart of a Nation (2000), Maran worked on her story of love, friendship and family for eight years (“from start to publication”).

Humorous and heartfelt, and breezy yet serious, her story of the long and evolving relationship between two young women – bisexual Alison Rose and gay Zoe — serves as the book’s anchor, to which Maran tethers such themes as the politics of the lesbian community, the long road to becoming a working writer or artist, and the trials of trying to get pregnant, among other things. Told through Alison’s eyes, A Theory of Small Earthquakes is also an honest account of a young woman heeding her instincts about who she is and what she wants out of life. Doing so takes Alison and the reader to unexpected places, making Maran’s protagonist appealingly complex. Sometimes she acts like a heel; sometimes she’s noble. But she is, like all of us, trying to figure things out as best she can.

The novel deftly evokes, too, a particular time and place: the Bay Area from the ‘80s through 2005, with the focus on the East Bay and a community of progressive people – some of whom we now would call “creatives” – unafraid to redefine what’s possible: namely, a society that allows for same sex parents and expands upon the concept of what a loving family looks like.

We talked over email with Maran, who lives in North Oakland with her wife, about her new book.

ZYZZYVA: When we meet Alison and Zoe, they’re both undergraduates, and that allows you to have some fun depicting political correctness on college campuses in the early ‘80s. But you do so with some tenderness. Can you tell me what you found insufferable about that mind set as well as what you found reaffirming?

Meredith Maran: Oh, the hours of our lives we’ll never get back, sitting in all those meetings and doing all that “criticism/self-criticism” and examining each other’s cervices and voting on which sexual orientation to adopt. Recently, while shopping at Berkeley Bowl, I ran into one of my Berkeley Women’s Health Collective “sisters” who went lesbian in the 1980s. As she introduced me to her husband, it gave me a little frisson to realize there are at least 20 women in Berkeley, including me, who are undoubtedly better acquainted with her cervix than he is.

But you’re right; I have affectionate memories of those times. Smashing monogamy and growing out my armpit hair was, um, liberating while it lasted. And I don’t find the self-righteousness of that era any more insufferable than the passion and dogmatism of any other. One possible exception is the Occupy movement, which I adore for its insistence on refusing authority, which goes beyond questioning it.

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Both Outside and Inside the Literary World: Q&A with Dagoberto Gilb

Dagoberto Gilb (photo by Jean-Luc Bertini)

Dagoberto Gilb is arguably the most critically acclaimed Mexican American author writing today, with a publication resume few writers of any background can claim: The New Yorker, The Threepenny Review, Harper’s, Texas Monthly, The New York Times, The Nation. The author of six books, he won a PEN/Hemingway Award for his first story collection The Magic of Blood (1993), which was also a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner. His first novel, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuna (1995), was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year, and his second novel, The Flowers (2008), was praised by Larry McMurtry and named one of the Best Books of the Year by The San Francisco Chronicle. Gritos, his 2003 collection of essays, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award. He has received a Whiting Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and has appeared in the Best American Essays and Pushcart Prize anthologies. He is now the executive director of Centro Victoria: Center for Mexican American Literature and Culture.

Originally from Los Angeles (his story “Shout” appeared in ZYZZYVA’s Winter 1987 issue), Gilb has since lived in Texas: El Paso and now Austin, his home. His new book, the story collection Before the End, After the Beginning (Grove; 194 pages), reflects that, with pieces set in all three places. The book’s ten stories also pick up the working-class MexAm (as Gilb likes to call Mexican Americans) milieu from his past works and make the exquisitely careful explorations of the human condition — love and lust, identity and confusion, weakness and death – his readers have come to expect and revere him for. Before the End, After the Beginning is, simply, a marvelous book by one of the country’s best story writers, period.

Over e-mail, Gilb talked about his career (despite all the accolades, his “writing gets treated as if it’s from my groin, with my muscles, from my spicy juices—and NEVER my brain”), Latino literature (“History is what we are in. These are early years in the literary Latino-ization of America”) and the new book.

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The Slippery Nature of Nonfiction: Q&A with Jackie Bang

Jackie Bang (photo by Ahmed Freundlich )

Jackie Bang’s story “Silver Mailbox,” which appears in the Winter 2011 issue of ZYZZYVA, is either a heavily fictionalized piece of nonfiction or a heavily factual piece of fiction. Or perhaps something else. The story of a Washington couple — the Miner and the Collector — and the recently-arrived infants brought into their brood, it’s a stylized piece of writing that leaves you eager to learn of the fates of these strange but compelling people. We talked to Jackie Bang via email about her story and the larger work of hers from which it’s taken.

ZYZZYVA: “Silver Mailbox” is the first story from a work-in-progress of yours. Could you tell me more about this larger work?

Jackie Bang: Yes, “Silver Mailbox” is currently the first story in True Tales of the Incognito Circus, a nonfiction book I’m working on that hopscotches between my humble beginnings and my humble now; it is an anti-memoir (a memoir that challenges the general rules and expectations of memoir), a book that gives equal consideration to the faux-horror film Gremlins and to the origins of certain Mormon doctrine. I think aside from this humility (i.e., the being-poor aspect) what binds all these stories together is the recognition that absurdity might as well be grace.

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A Meanness in This World: Donald Ray Pollock’s ‘The Devil All the Time’

The major components of Donald Ray Pollock’s disquieting page-turner of a first novel, The Devil All the Time (Doubleday; 261 pages), are by themselves nothing special. There’s the novel’s crime fiction aspect: depraved criminals and less-than-innocent heroes on a bloody collision course. And the novel’s pivotal philosophical concern, one straight out of gothic fiction (as found in Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor): what does it mean to live in a godless universe full of incomprehension? Or in a world in which God seemingly doesn’t give a damn about what goes on down here?

But Pollock, the critically-acclaimed author of the story collection Knockemstiff, melds his story to its idea in such a way that he elevates this graphic tale of predatory losers and hapless prey above the rot and stench (literal and figurative) of his characters’ lives. He combines them so successfully that the plot’s bullet-riddled climax comes to hinge, it seems, more on whether an inscrutable God exists than if one of two characters draws a better bead on the other. That he gets the reader to believe the stakes rest on whether any kind of divine grand scheme exists, on whether the world tilts indifferently toward evil or good, is a testament to his novel’s unrelenting mood of general helplessness and matter-of-fact barbarity.

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Food and Work, Love and Death: Daniel Orozco’s ‘Orientation and Other Stories’

Back in the mid-‘90s, Story (the late and lamented journal dedicated to short fiction) published an arresting work by Daniel Orozco titled “The Bridge.” A young man joins the veteran crew responsible for maintaining the Golden Gate Bridge. The older guys, all of whom go by nicknames, decide to call the new guy Baby. As Orozco gracefully settles us into this unfamiliar world of risky if unglamorous work, something happens to Baby:

“He spots the trouble right away, at the east end, just over his head – a section of hose hung up between the power line and the scaffold cable. He reaches up, stands on his toes, and leans out a little, his hips high against the railing. He grasps the hose, snaps it once, twice, three times until it clears. And just as he’s turning around to give Whale the thumbs-up, a woman appears before him, inches from his face. She passes into and out of his view in less than two seconds. But in Baby’s memory, she would be a woman floating, suspended in the flat light and the gray, swirling mist.

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Into the Mainstream: An Essay From the American Book Review

“We” — meaning Chicanos, Mexican Americans — “are constantly on the lookout for bits of recognition that tell us someone has noticed that we really do exist, not just as a backdrop for immigration policy discussion, or as another of the tourist attractions of the Southwest, but as an active part of American Culture.” In his introduction to the March/April American Book Review, guest editor Ricardo Gilb explains that this special issue focusing on “The Latino West” is “a celebration of Mexican American writing as it exists right now.”

There are contributions here from Yxta Maya Murray, Michael Jaime-Becerra, Dagoberto Gilb, Lisa Alvarez, and others, writing on such literary artists as the Hernandez Bros., John Rechy, Gary Soto, Alfredo Vea, and Tim Z. Hernandez. “For some, this issue will be an introduction to a new literature,” Gilb writes, “and they, I hope, will be inspired to look further into it. For those who know the literature, it will be an introduction to some new views on our writing, an invitation to a vibrant conversation.”

The following is a piece of mine also published in that issue. Originally titled “Into the Mainstream,” it is, ostensibly, a review of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, but it’s really an initial attempt (on my part) to figure out who the hell we’re writing for — an uncertainty that plagues all writers, not just us mexicanos.

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On Oscar Zeta Acosta

If people remember Oscar Zeta Acosta at all, it’s as a Samoan attorney. Since Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was published 40 years ago this week (as duly noted by the Rumpus), the 250-pound Baptist missionary turned Oakland Legal Aid lawyer turned Chicano activist turned unsolved mystery (he disappeared down in Mexico in 1974) has all but been eclipsed by his side-kick role as Dr. Gonzo. This is nowhere near right, because to only know Acosta as Thompson’s once “partner in too many crimes,” as Thompson noted, is to be ignorant of Acosta at his finest – as the engaging author of deliriously anarchic “memoirs,” American classics of the counterculture of the ‘60s and the ‘70s. Continue reading

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