Conversations with Contributors: Zach VandeZande (Prose, Issue 10)

He shocked us with his story “Accord” in the latest issue of Adroit – so we couldn’t resist talking to him a bit more about Rick Perry’s farts (you’ll see). In our next installment of Conversations with Contributors, we chat with Zach VandeZande about the Wendy Davis filibuster and writing what you wish you knew.

Derick Edgren, Blog Correspondent: Before we get started, I think it’d be a good idea to purge our outside thoughts so that we can be super specific (or not) with these questions. I want you to say anything and everything that you’ve been thinking about lately. That being said, what’s on your mind?

Zach VandeZande, Issue 10 Prose Conributor: Well, I feel like a real live writer today, since this morning in my email I got some really brilliant and helpful editor comments on a story, news about a book review I wrote, these interview questions, and a damn contract for my first short story collection (which I’m not sure if I can officially announce yet, so as a compromise I won’t give any details whatsoever). I am trying not to have a big head about all this. It is difficult!

“Rick Perry is on an elevator in the Statehouse building in Austin and he has to fart but he is not alone and he knows it will be audible and wet-sounding and of course he is also governor.”

— “Accord” by Zach VandeZande | The Adroit Journal, Issue 10

What else have I been thinking about? I’m getting old, so my body has begun betraying me in little ways. It’s odd, the way the body just starts to sort of say no to you. Like, “You can have another cup of coffee if you want, but all of us here in your abdomen are gonna throw a huge tantrum about it.”  I’m beginning to understand why my grandmother moves so slowly and eats such bland food—if she didn’t, it would hurt like hell.

I’ve also been thinking about humanity’s schizophrenic attitude toward nature—our insistence on our being separate from nature, and how that leads to a lot of pointless pearl-clutching or hand-wringing w/r/t things like breast-feeding and back hair and the fact that we are all ultimately just the pupae of skeletons.

Okay, I think my head is clear.

Now that we’ve aired those thoughts a little bit, let’s discuss your most recent contribution to Adroit. Where does a story like “Accord,” with talk of farts and Rick Perry and mushrooms, come from?

It actually came from following Wendy Davis’ filibuster a little while ago. If you’ll recall, she filibustered to stop the largely Republican, largely rich, largely white male Texas government from massively restricting a woman’s right to choose in Texas. It was very inspiring, and it sparked a lot of conversation, and I think in a decade or two we’ll look to it as a moment that helped shift the balance of politics in Texas.

The point is, though, that this was happening, and I started thinking about Rick Perry’s smarm, and I was going through this phase of trying to have empathy for absolutely everyone, even people like Perry or my then-upstairs neighbor who I once heard say that Dragonball Z was more important than Shakespeare, both because I thought it would be good for me and because I thought it was something that was missing in a lot of writing by white men, who, whether they admit it or not, are still too often scrabbling after the ghost of Hemingway and filling their stories up with typical, insular white dude stuff (I am also very much pointing the finger at myself here). And I thought, “Rick Perry is just a man who probably farts really aggressively into his leather office chair when he’s alone and then laughs.” Just this silly, this dumb thing that saps him of his power and menace while also making him deeply human. Which he is.

The story started with that, and then the ghost watching him kind of came naturally out of that, for some reason. Maybe because true empathy requires a kind of understanding that we only get in fleeting moments, but a ghost could see those points of connection and love.

I’m fascinated by your exploration of that part of ourselves we like to keep “trapped inside.” Would you care to elaborate or expand upon what you discuss in your work?

Well, I read a lot of critical theory stuff, Derrida and Foucault and Baudrillard, a couple of years ago, and that reading reinforced something I already knew from living and reading and etc.: we’re all trapped in here, in our heads. We’ve invented language as a way to get out, but it’s hard to ever use language to properly escape. It’s like trying to bail out the Titanic with cupped hands—sure, it works, but it’s not anywhere near enough. It’s scary, but there it is. And the beautiful thing about language and writing stories or poetry or a blog or whatever is that we know in some sense that we won’t ever get it right, that the ship will continue to sink, with I guess our deaths being the moment when it slips under entirely, but by god, we’re trying.

Is this story different from what you usually write?

I sort of have two modes of writing. One mode is like this, where weird things happen and I try and push all these magical-realism/slipstream/whatever ideas together in order to explore something I’ve been thinking about too much. The other mode is often more traditional realism, and focuses on some situation or some person that I want to explore. So, for example, my dissertation had a bunch of realist, MFA workshop-ish stories and then a novella in vignettes that was written to slowly disassemble its own truths as it kind of spiraled into deliberate incoherence.  I’ll let you guess on your own how well that went.  I’m still trying to figure out how to merge these two modes together, because I like both kinds of writing. Some day!

You wrote from the point of view of someone who is dead. Since you’re definitely not dead, this leads me to believe you don’t approach the old dictum “write what you know” conservatively. How might you amend that saying?

“Write what you wish you knew” probably works. There was an essay in the Atlantic by Bret Anthony Johnston a few years ago called “Don’t Write What You Know” that I like a lot, which basically said that the emotional truth is actually hindered by the actual truth. I like to write my way into who I am, not what I’ve been.

“Write something hard, or weird, something you’re not sure you know how to do. Don’t write palatable work. Don’t write stuff that would go over really well in a workshop. Find a way to love yourself and the world, and then write about that. ”

— Zach VandeZande

I was listening to Aleksandar Hemon speak recently, and he was talking about both fiction and nonfiction, and he said something along the lines of, “It’s not true until I’ve said it.”  I’m probably misremembering, but whatever. On its face it seems really obvious, but it has these enormous implications when you think about it. When you write, you’re truing the world.  And you can true it any way you like.

I also think that these dictums that we follow are largely based on anxiety—anxiety about our own goodness/value, anxiety about the unteachability of writing, anxiety about having some kind of legitimate doctrine to follow as an artist. I’ve been through academia, and I will continue to deal with academia (both to make my monies and because I believe in it), and I think the workshop model has a hell of a lot to offer students.  But too often when we focus on these rules—write what you know, show don’t tell, etc.—what we’re doing is teaching people about hammers instead of teaching them to drive a nail.

What challenges have you faced as a writer?

A tough question.  I could list every challenge I’ve ever faced, probably.  I will say that I had to give up a lot to do this for real—security, money, comfort, etc.  I think too much about too many things, which naturally leads to times when sadness is hard to shake.  I don’t believe artists need to be tortured or unhappy to produce good work, but it does seem easier to create when you’re feeling wounded. I’ve hurt a lot of people too, sometimes in ways that didn’t hurt me back equally, which is perhaps less about being a writer and more about just being a living person.

As for the business of being a writer: eh.  I’m used to the rejection letters, I’m used to the slim odds, I’m used to it feeling sometimes like things are stupid or hopeless.  My motto for the past year or so has been “You’re working today,” which solves a lot of that tension for me.

What advice can you give to aspiring writers?

Focus on the process, not the goal.  I said at the beginning of last year that I was going to read 100 books, write or revise 250 pages, submit my work 250 times, and get 10 stories published.  I could control three of those four, and so I focused on those three, made myself a system that broke it down into what I had to do for the week.  And then, instead of thinking “oh, I have so much to do, and success is so far off,” it was “All you have to do is write a little something today, submit a little something, and you’re good.”  And then I set up a spreadsheet (some strong dork stuff here) that kept track of that and had a points-based reward schedule for staying at it. Doing that, I read 103 books, wrote or revised 343 pages, and submitted my work 326 times, getting 15 stories published and now a book deal out of the effort.  Plus I bought myself some really nice scotch and a PS4 without once feeling guilty about it. 

What else? Make a journal tell you no instead of assuming they don’t want to read your work. Be satisfied with what you’ve done and keep believing in it.  Write something hard, or weird, something you’re not sure you know how to do.  Don’t write palatable work.  Don’t write stuff that would go over really well in a workshop.  Find a way to love yourself and the world, and then write about that. 

And the most important question of the interview: are you a dog person or a cat person, and why? (Brownie points for relating your reasons to a favorite poem or novel.)

Allergic to cats, but I like a few of them. But: dogs all the way. I love it when someone brings a dog to a party, or when I’m on the street and there’s a dog, or just when I’m thinking about dogs. I like best thinking about a medium sized dog in a bandana named Charles or Tuck or Hazel or Pemulis. My favorite dogs in real life are named Santiago, Rory, Roan, and Banjo, in a random order so as not to upset their owners. Dogs don’t go to heaven; dogs are heaven. I have a lot of feelings about dogs.

Zach VandeZande is the author of Apathy and Paying Rent (Loose Teeth, 2008).  His work has recently appeared in Portland Review, Atlas Review, decomP, Bop Dead City, Necessary Fiction, Hot Street, Crack the Spine, and Punchnel’s, and is forthcoming in Gettysburg Review, Passages North, Thin Air, and The Boiler. He holds a PhD of fiction from the University of North Texas.  He likes baking bread, hammocks, and people who bring their dogs.

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