Zoe Zolbrod‘s first novel, Currency, received a 2010 Nobbie Award and was a Friends of American Writers prize finalist. Related short stories and nonfiction have appeared in The Chicago Reader, Knee-Jerk Offline, Fish Stories Collectives, and Maxine, a zine she co-founded in the 1990s. She blogs at the literary website The Nervous Breakdown and lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband and two children, where she works as a senior editor for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Q (Meg Pokrass): Mentors/Mentoring: talk about this, if you have had a mentor? Have you yourself been a mentor?
Zoe Zolbrod: I don’t consider myself to have had or been a writing mentor, although I’ve received some needed support for my writing along the way, most especially from my friend and editor Gina Frangello. What I have leaned on for guidance have been books themselves. I first read The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton when I was about 14 years old, and I’ve probably read it dozens of times since. It was my primary model when writing Currency. Other books that I turned to repeatedly for instruction and encouragement included The Color Purple by Alice Walker, The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells all by Allan Gurganus, and A Passage to India by E. M. Forster. And I read and reread and underlined the essay “The Art of Fiction” by Henry James, which had a few lines that absolutely gave me courage when mine faltered. More recently, I’ve found myself studying Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments and returning repeatedly to Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water.
What do you listen to inside yourself, what directs your writing…?
Sometimes I hear a character inside my head, speaking very clearly and distinctly. That was certainly the case with Currency. Then, I had to block out the critical voice, the argumentative voice saying I didn’t have a right to the character. When I write essays, the argumentative voice is what I listen to, that part of me that’s always squinting suspiciously, poking holes, debating with imaginary strawmen as I go about my day. Now, I’m writing a memoir, and I’m listening to, well, myself, a very deep and vulnerable part of myself. I have to block out the voice saying that this is indulgent, that no one cares, that it’s unethical or pathetic or some combination of the two.
What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired and does it work to trick the brain into working?
I sometimes turn from my manuscript and write about the problem or obstacle that’s making me feel stuck in a blank document or in a notebook or even just at the end of the draft-loose, free-writey sort of scribbling that has permission to be bad or even almost nonsensical or that might take the form of a conversation with myself. My other method for getting unstuck is to take long walks. At several crucial points when writing Currency, I solved a problem of plot or character while walking for miles along Lake Michigan.
These days, I have so little dedicated writing time that I’m pretty ready to use it when I have it. Some days the words come slowly, but I feel the gears turning, and I know that if I keep my butt in the chair (and my mouse from sliding toward my browser icon) something will come.
Discuss writing Currency, if you will…
In the late-90s, I sat down to write from the point of view of a Thai man for a workshop assignment. Although I’m usually a slow writer, I churned out over twenty pages in one sitting and was left breathless and exhilarated. I felt like the character-Piv-was there with me, narrating, and I was just taking dictation. I was compelled by his voice and his story in a way I never had been before, and I knew I had the seed for a novel.
The story Piv was telling me hinged on his relation to Westerners, in particular to Western women, and so it was clear to me from the get-go that an American woman would be a character. I didn’t know what trouble the two would get into, though, until I read an article in the New York Times Magazine about animal smuggling that absolutely blew my mind. That’s it! I thought.
With the introduction of the smuggling plot, I found myself writing a literary thriller, which meant that the novel was both character- and plot- driven. Perhaps accordingly, I simultaneously wrote, outlined, and researched. It was a push-pull: what I discovered while writing would sometimes push forward the outline, and the outline would sometimes pull the writing along. Sometimes I’d research to find the answer to a question that the writing had posed, or sometimes I’d write toward a fact I’d found while researching.
I felt a lot of momentum. But that didn’t mean that I was churning out the pages. I’m a recursive writer, always finding reasons to go over existing pages. I was constantly backtracking to make plot adjustments or to finesse the language, especially in Piv’s chapters, which were written in an idiosyncratic Thai-inflected English. Writing between one and two full days a week, with a couple of short residencies thrown in there, I finished a complete draft in about three years, maybe a little less. It was over 400 pages long. With the help of suggestions from my writing group, I spent a year revising before I felt ready to send the novel out to agents.
I went through two agents and two more significant revisions (and had two children) before Currency was finally published by Other Voices Books about twelve years after I started it. It clocked in at 276 pages. Although so much has changed, I still feel like the first chapter is very close in spirit to the pages I transcribed back in the 1990s when Piv first spoke to me.
You write essays, memoirs, novels… which form do you enjoy working in the most?
Writing Currency was one of the great joys of my life. I loved the feeling of being so deeply immersed in that fictional world, the way something concrete arose so clearly from a haze. I miss the experience of writing and revising that particular book like I miss traveling itself, very palpably, very viscerally. I crave the smells and the quality of the air there. Sometimes the longing is so great it really overtakes me.
But in the past couple years, I’ve been drawn to nonfiction, to essays and memoir. I love the satisfaction of having an immediate online audience via The Nervous Breakdown, where I’ve been posting most of the essays, which are often on subjects of the day. That immediacy is a great pleasure after self-publishing a zine that came out once a year and working on a novel for over a decade.
The stories and issues I’m exploring in the memoir have been pushing on my brain for years. I actually tried to approach the material from a fictional place, because it seemed more fun, and freeing, and safe, and I couldn’t stand the word memoir in relation to myself, but the endeavor just felt false. And now I’m immersed.
How does parenting fit into the mix?
I have a three year old and a ten year old, and a full-time job as an editor. To be honest, it’s difficult to have a child my younger one’s age and to be in writing mode. She wants me around all the time, and I’m not. She wants my undivided attention, and my attention is VERY divided-between her, my son, the domestic drudgery and the clouds, where my head is always drifting. When I am immersed in my writing, I am a more irritable and distracted family member. I try to be aware of that, to allow for it sometimes and to step back from the writing at other times. Jillian Lauren recently had a post about this at Greg Olear’s Fathermucker blog, and it made me feel in good company.
It helps me to leave the house to write. I’m grateful for the use of The Writer’s Workspace in Chicago, which gives me a sanctuary. And I think often of a book I read when I was pregnant with my first child, A Question of Balance, in which women writers talk frankly about… well, you know. I try not to blame family life for writing frustrations. There’s always something. When I do get time now, I seldom lack inspiration.
What are you working on?
I’m practicing what to say about this: “I’m working on a memoir exploring the lens through which I’ve viewed my childhood sexual assault.” How does that sound? I think it connotes something a little more dramatic and heavy than is accurate (which is one of the issues I’m interested in, what we bring to the term sexual molestation) but it’s what I’ve got right now.
I’m terrified and motivated by this project. I can carve out six or eight hours for myself come up for air at the end feeling simultaneously wrung out and energized, lightened, like I’ve covered so much ground, only to find that I’ve written maybe three or four new pages.
Because it’s so hard to find time and I worry about the effect on my family life, and because I need to earn a living and have discarded the dream that I can do that through my personal writing, I have tried at times to suppress the urge to write. We can be so cost-benefit oriented in this culture. But that feeling of exhaustion and absorption, the journey from the not-known to the spoken, the molding of words to create a rhythm that becomes part of the sense of them, that reveals some sense in the world. . . I crave it. Right now, it’s benefit enough.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs athttp://megpokrass.com.