I zoomed past Alice’s Tea Cup and didn’t notice until I was several blocks away. Admiring the sidewalk’s carpet of rain-soaked leaves, I also must have been thinking about the countless plates I had spinning in the air, not to mention all those pink poodles jumping through hoops in my brain. I still arrived before it was time to meet with Leni Zumas, writer of Farewell Navigator, though. After my hustle in the rain, it felt good to slow down within this warm and whimsical setting. With the sound of clinking porcelain in my ears, I sat down and saw an old woman doting on a little girl at the table beside me.
“Look! You can be a fairy,” the woman said, pointing to glittering wings hanging from a hook, the nails on her milky fingers gleaming like little garnets.
“I don’t want to Grandma,” the girl said.
The old woman stood up. Large bronze bangles slid down her wrist. “How about the pink one?” she said, a smile pasted on her face.
“I said, ‘I don’t want one.'” She glared until her grandmother looked away.
Her mother, who’d just come back from the bathroom, whispered something in the girl’s ear. With a smile mirroring the old woman’s, the mother said, “Let’s get some ice cream.”
“That would be nice,” the grandmother said.
I lost the thread of the family’s conversation when the waitress came to take my order. After she left, I noticed I sat at an antique sewing machine table. It still had its cast-iron treadle. I thought about how spinning strands was an apt metaphor for storytelling, whorls of time and such, and then I recalled the grandmother’s failure to force a narrative on the little girl, who I’m sure would—were she given the freedom to—spin a story seemingly out of nothing, from nowhere. But I forgot all of this when Zumas arrived.
Meeting Leni Zumas for the first time is like encountering a Mark Rothko painting. I’m not talking about awe and grandeur here, but that sense of gravity, of weight, and also a kind of darkness, the feeling of passing denuded trees at night. Once we started talking though, I thought of that smart girl back in high school, you know, the one with black eyeliner, black fingernails, who wore some Victorian and punk hybrid outfit, and who always sat alone in the back of the class, her loose-leaf binder covered with the names of bands you were too dumb to know, and who seemed entirely uninterested in what was going on, but who, when the teacher called on her, would always make the most incisive comments about whatever was being discussed. As our conversation continued, those impressions were replaced by the very real presence of a woman who’s clearly in love with language and with stories, what they can do, and how they offer opportunity for play and transformation. While Zumas is certainly Ginsu-knife sharp with her observations, her comments come from self-reflective inquiry and a deep engagement with others, her surroundings, with literature, politics, history, culture, etc. Zumas wouldn’t put it this way, but she’s clearly on a search for meaning and purpose, and maybe even transcendence.
Our conversation veered all over the place. From Zumas’ upbringing in D.C. to isolation and connection in New York City, from her excitement about Obama’s inauguration to my despair at yet another non-progressive presidency (Riffing on T.S. Eliot: The election is over. Universal peace is declared and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry), from her post-punk rock band’s final show to a celebration of tabla lessons I’d taken, to tangents like sleep deprivation as a means of getting things done, and of course we talked a lot about her book Farewell Navigator. A number of times Zumas turned around and asked me a bunch of questions. Throughout the interview, she sipped from her cup of Rooibos Earl Grey, a tea with its own legends involving the 19th Century British Prime Minister and either his rescuing of an Indian raja’s son from a tiger or saving a Chinese mandarin’s child from drowning.
As I fiddled with my mini-disc recorder, we talked about my various “field recordings,” about sound quality, etc. It’s always great when you can talk to someone about the sound of a kick drum. Somehow Steve Albini, famed musician (Big Black, Shellac) and recording engineer (Pixies, P.J. Harvey, Nirvana, etc.), came up. While Zumas certainly respects his work as an engineer and musician, she had other things to say about him, namely that he’s a shameless provocateur. This led to a discussion about how moral failures are conventionally accepted as givens for geniuses, especially men, and how sexist attitudes shape and dominate the discourse of genius.
John Madera: There are so many examples of artists, musicians, writers whose work is challenging and progressive, yet their ethics just make you want to scream.
Leni Zumas: Yeah. Have you ever met a writer whose work you really adored and you meet the person and you’re disappointed? I build up these narratives of what someone will be like and, without naming any names—I’ve hung out with people after readings and find myself thinking, “Oh, she’s a diva and he’s a name-dropping, seemingly insecure, pompous person,” whereas what they write is transcendent or groundbreaking. There’s a danger of having the membrane be too porous between the biography and the work. I think there should be a pretty solid wall there. And we shouldn’t bring expectations to the persona based on the work. Faulkner, for example, was one of the first writers who floored me. The first thing I read was As I Lay Dying in high school, but Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom! were the first to amaze me.
JM: I think Absalom, Absalom! is my favorite.
LZ: Yeah, mine too. In college, I took a great class called “Proust, Joyce, and Faulkner.” It’s probably where I first read Light in August. A lot of the class was about ways of negotiating time and memory—the usual obsessions of any writer—how to move through time, how to deal with the past.
JM: Speaking of Proust, have you ever seen that Monty Python sketch where there’s—
LZ: Something to do with a madeleine?
JM: No, it’s a contest where they have to summarize Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in something like ten seconds. It’s hilarious.
LZ: What do they say?
JM: It’s really more about what they don’t, or can’t say that makes it so funny. Racing against the clock. Pretty ironic considering the subject. You have to check it out. (You can find it here.)
LZ: I took another class on Faulkner in grad school. The professor was like, “He cheated on his wife, neglected his daughter”—you know, those elements of the biography can be disappointing, even when they have little to do with how we engage with the work.
JM: It rankles. Especially when you’ve given them a piece of yourself—they’re in your head, they’re in your heart. And then to get slapped with some—it’s like sitting down with one member of a couple you know, both of whom you love, and he or she tells you, “Oh, I’ve been cheating on her,” or something like that. It’s so devastating. Reading Miles Davis’ autobiography was often a disappointment in that way. I mean, the guy was a pig to himself and many others, so hurtful to people. You know, he was an amateur boxer and one day he punched a musician in his mouth and ruined his embouchure.
LZ: One of the things that interests me a lot is the cultural mythology around artists—the license we give people to behave badly, especially male artists. The Beat poets, Jack Kerouac—like hard drinking, devil-may-care, wouldn’t make a good husband, but that’s okay. Do you know the movie My Architect? It’s about Louis Kahn, a designer of many famous buildings. The movie was made by his son. It turned out he had three different families—a wife plus hidden mistresses and kids—and he had been leading this triple life for decades. He was found dead of a heart attack in a bathroom in Penn Station. One of the guiding questions in the film was: “If someone’s a genius, should we really hold them accountable for neglecting their duties as a human being?” I just think there’s a lot of romanticizing—whether it’s glamorizing substance abuse or self-destruction. It becomes tedious and really just another convention to follow.
JM: Society has set up this myth where that kind of behavior is almost an expectation, so it spawns megalomaniacs who think, “Hey, I’m going to be forgiven no matter what I do.”
LZ: I really like that question of “What does deep genius excuse?” or “What will we excuse of genius?” Especially male genius. If there had been a woman who’d hidden the fact that she had other children, or abandoned some element of her family—Courtney Love is taken a lot more to task for neglecting her kid than Kurt Cobain was.
JM: You know, I love Kurt. I love Nirvana. And seeing him subvert, rebel, whine even—and then there’s all of his pranks like spitting at cameras, kissing Krist Noveselic on Saturday Night Live, wearing his lacy dresses, all that stuff—but the guy fucking killed himself. Left his child behind without a father. It’s ironic that here’s an artist who crafts these weird elliptical lyrics within these incredibly concise and powerful tunes and he leaves behind one of the stupidest letters. There it is: a flawed human being. A genius who commits a terrible act, yet gets valorized. Yeah, it’s a double-standard.
LZ: It’s like John and Yoko.
JM: I wanted to talk more about as you put it, “the language, the minimal, and the more decorative, and lyrical elements” of your work. Where is it coming from, I mean your sensibility? You know, as I read your stories, I thought, at times, of Donald Barthelme so I was immediately drawn in. Stories like “Heart Sockets” and a number of others seemed to develop from experiments, but then evolve into fully-realized stories. Like the piece constructed primarily from pronouns—
LZ: “Waste No Time If This Method Fails”
JM: It’s one of my favorite stories of yours.
LZ: Thanks. I’m a big fan of constraint-based writing and playing around with limitations. I started that story on the subway after seeing this improv comedy thing somewhere in Midtown. I personally strongly dislike improv comedy. I had become kind of enraged—a friend of mine was in the thing, so I’d gone for his sake—but I really didn’t like it. The pathos of seeing people try to be funny but not—I mean, I think it’s a really brave thing to do. They’re braver probably than I am to get up there and—
JM: Make up a story?
LZ: Yeah, make up a story, or try to cause delight and surprise at the same moment. I think it’s just an aesthetic aversion, maybe an aversion to the awkwardness of it. I admire it, but don’t want to look at it. Watching it, I felt really white. Do you know what I mean?
JM: Do you have a cleaning lady? Now that’s really white. (Laughter)
LZ: I do not have a cleaning lady. Anyway I don’t mean to harp on it too much. I was on the train—I just felt like I needed some delivery from what I’d just seen, and I pictured a character who hates improv. What else would he like and what else would he dislike. So I made a list of statements starting with “He dislikes improv comedy” and then, “He likes blah-blah-blah-blah.” I didn’t think I was starting a story. I was just fucking around while I waited for the train and then, after seeing the list of He, He, He, I was like, “Okay, what if I wrote a story where every sentence had to start with He?” That was the constraint I gave myself and then—
JM: The brevity—
LZ: Yeah, I tried for everything to be just one sentence, if possible, but then the disconnectedness in between and among the different statements, and that kind of paratactical style, rather than any kind of linkage between—that led me to a sort of mindset, maybe someone with a disjointed mindset, someone who wasn’t making certain connections between events and causality. And that’s where I got the mental institution. So the very setting and state of mind was actually coming from the formal constraint.
JM: So once you came up with this form, you imagined this character, you started to feel this presence?
LZ: Yeah. Again, it definitely wasn’t “Let me write about a guy who finds himself in a mental institution.” It didn’t come from that at all. It was from the sentences themselves and I had this idea of someone observing him. That’s where I got the cafeteria worker.
JM: A number of your stories depict characters struggling with illness, a physical disability, are in recovery, transition, or in therapy. And they’re set in a mental hospital, clinic, eating disorder treatment center, etc. like “Blotilla Takes the Cake” and “How He Was a Wicked Son.” What’s attracted you to those spaces? For “Waste No Time If This Method Fails” you said it was the language that inspired the mindset, which in turn conjured the space, the place where—
LZ: I have a very personal attraction to institutional living. I feel comfortable in confined caretaking situations. I have lived in a halfway house much like the one in “How He Was a Wicked Son,” where a boy falls in love with another boy who betrays him. That was based on an actual place, as was “Blotilla.”
JM: You definitely captured those places really well. From the way it was described, I felt I was there. I’ve never been in that kind of situation, although I worked in a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Many of the mothers and children there suffered from serious trauma, acute psychological problems, so I guess I connected your stories with my experiences, how I situated it for myself. I actually just thought about that now. You display a compassionate understanding of the weird, troubled, and beautiful kinds of things that are going on in that kind of setting.
LZ: I had a strong response to being in those places because I felt very taken care of. The relief of having the world kept at bay, to be in certainly reduced circumstances, to kind of have this reassuring order to life, in the same way that I imagine people feel in maybe boarding school, and, honestly, in a nursing home. “Every day at five, you can go down to dinner.” Not having to make your own decisions—it’s a very childish response, I think. I’m not using that word judgmentally—
LZ: Childlike, or maybe a child’s desire for structure and order and someone saying, “Hey, here are your clean sheets. You don’t have to do your own laundry.” It was a while ago when I was in those situations. About a decade ago. I have a lot of tenderness for it. It was a bunch of people from very different circumstances who all kind of found themselves in this place no one really wanted to be. The solidarity was quite strong.
JM: I really got that sense of solidarity that you’re talking about in “Blotilla” where they’re all very supportive of this girl committing this very violent act. I was empathetic as well. You brought me to that point.
LZ: Good, good.
JM: I mean, it’s not something I’d approve of normally, but when she gets her revenge I was applauding along with them.
LZ: I’m glad. I was trying to evoke that sense of alliance, of— “We’ve all been hurt or felt hurt, so we will respond to you in a different way than we would, let’s say, to a person who has been successful in life or always felt comfortable.” I know I’m certainly not alone among fiction writers or poets who are interested less in the successful or the triumphant than in the stumbling, or the stuttering. People who don’t feel very adept at living. There was one review of my book that started with a Hemingway quote: “America is wide lawns and narrow minds.” This wasn’t the most friendly review. It was saying, “Oh, these people are so shut down.” To me there is some reaching out in the book or attempting to connect with other people. Even though not always successful.
JM: While these are certainly troubled people there are many examples of connection, intimacy, relationship. I mean, how can you read the title story and not see that? Or read “Heart Sockets” and not feel this woman’s strong desire and even love?
LZ: Also started from an exercise.
JM: Interesting. You know, I hope that this doesn’t bother you. But I love taking things apart and tinkering with them.
LZ: No, not at all.
JM: Reading “Heart Sockets” I thought of Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue series. It’s centered in a dystopia where women are stripped of their constitutional rights, their civil rights. The clock has been reversed. Not that we’ve achieved full equality yet. An insurgent group of women create a new language called Láadan as an act of defiance, it sparks off a revolution. It’s a language that many fans of the book actually have learned to speak. They’ve got websites on the grammar and dictionaries for it. I also thought of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and Jack Womack’s work, where they create an unusual syntax and grammar for their respective novels. Would you talk about how you approached language in that piece? You said it was also based on an experiment.
LZ: One summer, every day I set up some tiny grammar exercise, where I’d focus on some kind of element—a literary term like anadiplosis, for example, which is a pattern of repetition—and write five sentences that use it. With “Heart Sockets,” it was writing ten sentences that used parts of speech as other parts of speech—a verb that doesn’t typically get used as a noun becomes a noun, or vice-versa. The original line isn’t still in the story, but it was something about making things from flesh that weren’t actually flesh. So that’s where I got the image of people sitting around making hearts. And of course, I was immediately worried because the word “heart” is fraught, loaded, symbolic, it’s almost as bad as using the word “soul,” but then I figured, “Fuck it, I’m going to do it somehow.”
I was in the post office near my mom’s house in Maryland and it had a list on the wall of names for baby animals. Here was the regular animal and then the baby’s name next to it. Owl and owlet. Salmon and smolt. I asked the lady if I could copy it and she made a photocopy of it for me. I took that home and put the baby animals and the heart factory together.
JM: She’s nursing these animals.
JM: You know about Oulipo?
LZ: Yeah, totally.
JM: I think one of their exercises is you take a poem and every time you encounter a noun, you replace it with another noun. I thought that “Heart Sockets” was based on something like that. But, at least with my attempts, that exercise tends to end up feeling very mechanical. The sentences in “Heart Sockets,” however, really flow. They have an internal logic that’s much more organic.
LZ: You’re talking about the “N+7” exercise where you work with the dictionary and you replace each original noun with the seventh one before or after it.
JM: Reminds me of something Bernadette Mayer would recommend.
LZ: A lot of my exercises for students come from Bernadette Mayer’s and Charles Bernstein’s experiments, which are great. Students really like them. Whatever has worked for me, I’ll try to give to my students.
JM: Do you know Kiteley’s book 3 A.M. Epiphanies?
LZ: I’ve heard of it.
JM: It’s really good. His whole thing is a rally for the beneficial aspects of exercises, how it’s just another tool. Some people really frown on exercises. They feel it’s so formulaic. I think someone like Robert Olen Butler would say to stay away from them. “What are you doing? You’ve got to surrender to the dream. Tap into your white hot center.” I feel like one shouldn’t supersede the other, they can work in tandem. If you want to go into the dream—
LZ: I think you can often only surprise yourself, or get into the dream in a different way, by having a constraint, because if we’re always left to our own devices, you know, “Oh the blank page. Just write what’s in your heart,” then I think our brain, our language tend to go along some pretty rutted grooves, choose the same types of things. Anything to interfere with our own tendencies is gold.
JM: I think most writers employ these things in some way, consciously or unconsciously. They’re tricking themselves into the dream. You only have so much material—
JM: —at any given time. You have to play games.
LZ: Have you read Ben Marcus’ notorious refutation of Jonathan Franzen’s claims about experimental fiction?
LZ: It was an essay in Harper’s, entitled “Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it: a correction.” It’s basically responding to Franzen’s allegedly populist assertion that literature is in competition with videogames and TV— that it shouldn’t be so bloody difficult. Franzen positions himself as speaking against the elitists, “those crazy experimental fiction writers,” and argues that literature needs to be more accessible.
JM: As if there’s this cabal of—
LZ: I know. It’s kind of like people saying Obama’s an elitist. He was raised by a working-class single mother! Anyway, I’ll send you Marcus’s essay. It’s amazing. It talks about how reading can make new pathways in our brains, and good writing invites us to see the world in a way we’ve never looked at it before, rather than simply reaffirming what we think and feel about the world. It’s a manifesto, really. It’s kind of a call-to-arms to resist the dumbing down of fiction.
JM: Who are some of the writers Jonathan Franzen’s talking about? It kind of sounds like Meyer’s A Reader’s Manifesto where he attacks Annie Proulx, Don Delillo, Cormac McCarthy. Is it that kind of thing?
LZ: Yeah, I think what you’re talking about was originally in The Atlantic Monthly and Marcus’s piece is part of the same ongoing conversation—about this so-called battle between hard-to-read “experimenters” and easy-to-read “realists.”
JM: I read Meyer’s book out of curiosity. I mean, I love Annie Proulx, Don Delillo—I think I’ve read most of his work—and Cormac McCarthy, especially his early stuff. And The Road is great. It’s very different especially compared to his earliest stuff, I mean, talking about Faulkner, this guy had mixed Faulkner with some kind of drug. But The Road is written in this concise, sparse, bone-dry style which suits the subject and its post-apocalyptic setting. Unfortunately, they’re turning it into a movie with Viggo Mortensen—
LZ: Is he playing the father?
JM: Yeah. You know, Meyer’s a bit of a crank, but to give him a chance, a part what he was doing, that I thought may have been valid, was his criticism of how reviewers isolate passages from these books that aren’t really so great, or even representative of what’s best in these writers. Taken out of context, they don’t look beautiful. I think it was attacking the valorization of these writers.
LZ: Yeah, Ben Marcus’s essay—it was one of those things I read on the subway and immediately went, “Fuck yeah.” I mean, it was a little over the top and almost a massacring, he went on for pages more than he needed to, but it really felt like, “Fuck you, Mr. Oprah’s Book Club.”
JM: Oprah is such a phenomenon. I don’t think I’ve ever sat and watched a show. What’s amazing is how powerful the Book Club is. I think that people just follow and buy whatever has that sticker, but I don’t think most of those books are even read.
LZ: Why do you think so?
JM: Cormac McCarthy was on it.
LZ: For The Road.
JM: Yeah. Even though it’s his most accessible book, not having quotation marks and his eccentric punctuation still makes it difficult for most people, I think. It’s like people who don’t want to see a movie because there are subtitles. It’s hard to relate to that.
LZ: I recently gave a reading on Staten Island and somebody asked me, “Why don’t you use quotes around dialogue?” People ask me about that all the time.
JM: Come on! James Joyce didn’t use quotes. And you can keep going back from there. The dialogue in The Iliad doesn’t have quotes. Quotes are a new thing. I don’t have an aversion to them. I can deal with either. So what if the movie has subtitles, or even if it doesn’t? I’ve sat through movies in languages I don’t speak and without subtitles. You know, whatever you don’t know, you can just make up. Take Saramago for instance. If you were to make his punctuation conform to more general conventions, it’d be immediately more accessible. So I think that since people are so lazy, that any barrier will keep them from completing a book like The Road.
LZ: And that’s one of the things that Marcus addresses. So what if it’s hard to read? Move up to it, rather than fall down on it. You have to climb. I feel like I tend to be kind of reactionary and Luddite when it comes to the internet. I think people’s habits of reading and habits of mind are being so shaped by it. We learn to want something that can be consumed in a page.
JM: Yeah, people don’t even want to scroll down. It’s got to be in that frame.
LZ: We get bored easily. So a point Jonathan Franzen has made is that we—writers—are competing against videogames, the internet, etc., so we really need to capture our readers’ attention. But Marcus is like “Screw that. We need to engage a different kind of reader, or train readers.”
JM: I wanted to talk to you some more about your work as a teacher. I checked out a blog Peter Selgin has for his students. In one, he blasted them for not doing an assigned reading and because of their complaint that it was boring. What are some things that you encounter in the classroom? How do you shake things up? What’s your approach?
LZ: I like to think about it as a laboratory, a language laboratory. So we do experiments and exercises. Steering them away from this essentializing idea of, “I have something inside that I want to say and I want to express it.” It’s more like, start in the other direction. Focus on techniques, technologies, and strategies of expression and see what comes through that. I try to introduce them, especially with fiction, to unconventional writing. With poetry, students tend to think it’s weird anyway, so anything will be strange—but with fiction, we’ll read things by people like Gary Lutz…I mean, I love him, his made-up words, and all these little different unhinging things he likes to do. If you look in his work for theme and content, almost every story is the same. A guy who wants to have sex with men, but is married or dating a woman. So I really try to get them to focus on the language. With George Saunders, they’ll say, “I’ve never really read something like this. Super funny but also futuristic.” They love George Saunders. I’ll give them a couple of texts and have them focus on a particular element, such as voice, neologisms, or unnerving syntax. Look at the way all the adjectives come after the nouns, what’s that doing to us? And then I’ll have them try these things out for themselves, in short exercises. To connect the reading with their own experimentation.
JM: What have the results been like?
LZ: Often very good. Especially when they do imitations. Initially they’ll complain, “Why am I doing this? I want to write my own stuff.” I tell them: In order to get at your own voice, it helps to know what it feels like to inhabit the sentences of Woolf, Baldwin, and so on.
JM: Would you talk some more about the strategies you use in your classroom. How does one “inhabit” another writer’s sentences? Who are some writers that you’ve tried to inhabit or have inhabited you?
LZ: Most writers favor (consciously or un-) a certain type of sentence. Brief and virtually adjective-free vs. long and baroque; simple vs. compound-complex, etc. I think it’s valuable to practice using constructions that are very different from the ones you naturally lean toward. Interrupt your own tendencies. To “inhabit” Woolf’s sentences means to try on her syntax, her use of appositive phrases, her patterns of repetition—to climb inside her machine and learn how it works. I’ve enjoyed doing imitations of, among others, Proust, Stein, Melville, O’Connor, and Hrabal.
JM: What are some specific exercises you like to introduce? What are some specific texts you like to explore with your students? What are some of your methods for thinking out of the box?
LZ: Sample texts: poems by Dickinson, Myles, Neruda, and Sayers Ellis; short fiction by Baldwin, Davis, Elkin, and Paley; Carson’s Autobiography of Red; Stevens’s Harmonium; essays “Art as Technique,” by Viktor Shklovsky and “The Sentence Seeks Its Form,” by William Gass.
Sample assigned exercises: write a story in which two people want the same thing, and only one of them gets it; write a villanelle; write a scene that completely defamiliarizes the experience of a common emotion.
Sample in-class exercises: Running Dragons, a collaborative poetry form from China; make a list of things you’re scared to write about; finish the story whose first line is, “I left the leg on the table.”
JM: Imitation is difficult. And then, once you’ve “mastered” another’s voice, it’s hard to shake it off. But, I guess, if you’re sampling lots of different writers, then you’ll be free of that. You’re absorbing things that are ultimately probably yours to begin with.
LZ: I really learned to write by reading. A writer who doesn’t read is as bizarre as a musician who says, I never go to shows. Or I don’t listen to records.
JM: Dilettantes—they aren’t serious. They say, “I don’t want to be influenced by anybody.” It’s so pervasive. You know, I’m not really part of a writing community, and pretty much every time I reach out, I encounter people who aren’t very serious. I don’t really have first readers.
LZ: Have you done an MFA?
JM: No, I’ve never taken a creative writing course.
LZ: I think that’s pretty refreshing.
JM: Yeah? I’ve never gone to music school either. But that’s a whole different story. I think if you find the right context, then schooling may prove beneficial for you. But it’s so hard to find the right context. I keep finding people want me to write a “New Yorker” story.
LZ: Don’t ever do that.
JM: Hey, I love “New Yorker” stories.
LZ: Do you really?
JM: Yeah, I really do. They just had a story of Le Clezio in there. “The New Yorker” kind of stories aren’t the only stuff I read, but there’s some great work there sometimes.
LZ: Right on. I am a huge fan of Saunders and Alice Munro and a few other amazing people who get published in there regularly. But I find most of the shit so middle-ground. Obeying the formula that says we need to know the problem in the first paragraph.
JM: Yeah, the Chekovian template. But you know, my tastes are pretty catholic. I’ll read almost anything, mostly good stuff, some bad stuff from time to time.
Talk about your journey as a writer. When did you know you were a writer, that this was your vocation, your life? What were some pivotal moments, touchstones, milestones for you?
LZ: This is a hard question, because I don’t want to sound too mystical or highfalutin about the process. I was in second grade when I decided I wanted to be a writer—I’d received praise for a story I’d done, and I wanted more praise. Another (not quite so shamelessly ego-based) reason was that writing just came easier to me than most things did.
JM: So how long have you been teaching?
LZ: Six years. I started when I was in grad school. I’ve taught undergrads at Hunter for three years. Next semester, I’ll be teaching at Columbia in undergraduate fiction. I also have to fucking finish my book! I’ve been working on this novel for way too long. The last year or so—My dad was really sick and then he passed away. I was down in D.C. a lot because of that. I feel as if every season there are things that keep me away from the book, and I just want to finish it. I’m so different as a writer from the person who started this novel. I feel like I could work on it endlessly. But I need to move on to another project.
JM: Is that how you work, from start to finish?
LZ: No, I work from a sentence to another scene, back to a sentence fifty pages earlier. I hop around a lot.
JM: Do you work on one thing at a time? I read somewhere that Tom Wolfe works standing up and works on different things, hopping around from a novel to an article to an essay. Dan Chaon’s working on two novels now at the same time.
LZ: If I’m working on a novel, I write short stories as relief from the novel. I was recently solicited by a magazine to write something that is reader-interactive somehow, whether it’s collage, choose your own adventure, self-help, or a quiz, etc. That’s a short kind of thing that I’m working on instead of the novel. But I’m a slow writer, really slow.
JM: Aren’t most writers slow?
LZ: Not if you’re Joyce Carol Oates. Stephen King’s probably not a slow writer.
JM: What do you think of them?
LZ: I was really into Stephen King when I was twelve because I love horror. Plus I had gothy tendencies. I don’t think he’s a good writer.
JM: What about as a storyteller?
LZ: Yeah, I think he’s a good storyteller. But when sentences are not well-made, that impedes the pleasure so much. The story could be the most amazing story in the world, but I’d rather someone tell that story to me while we’re taking a walk. Joyce Carol Oates—I don’t think of her as a bad writer. I just have never read her.
JM: For similar reasons to your aversion to The New Yorker’s stories?
LZ: Yeah, maybe. I also have an unfortunate tendency as a reader to react against popularity—if everybody is reading blah-blah-blah, then I won’t read it purely for that reason. For instance, I still haven’t read Everything is Illuminated. Because about fourteen people were like “Leni you have to read this.”
JM: I picked it up a while ago and didn’t get past the first page.
LZ: Who are you reading right now besides Chaon?
JM: I’m all over the place. Pound’s ABC of Reading. I veer between books on the craft of writing and novels and short stories. Classics and new stuff. A lot of what I’m reading is on my blog, although I’m reading faster than I can write about it unfortunately. Stanley G. Crawford has been an awakening (You can find my review of Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine here). Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces.
LZ: I’ve taught that book. Some students have a hard time with it. There’s a lot to pick out in that book about narrative and memory, the different registers of narration—
JM: The different voices.
LZ: Exactly. Where do you do read?
JM: Everywhere. I read on the train. I was reading before you got here. The bathroom, there’s always something there. Waiting on line. Late at night. I’m a night owl. I’ve trained myself since high school to stay up late and wake up early.
LZ: Have you read anything by Sebald? I think he’s amazing. The Rings of Saturn is a great book. And Austerlitz. And he has a collection of essays I’d also recommend, called On the Natural History of Destruction. One piece is about the bombing of Dresden and the German people’s reaction to that. Their national identity had to absorb this idea that though so many German citizens had been killed, the German people didn’t get to suffer, because they were the “bad guys.” Sebald’s a very interesting mind to watch work on the page.
JM: One last thing, I read an interview with Umberto Eco in The Paris Review where he mentions that in addition to loving the original Starsky and Hutch series, he likes CSI, Miami Vice, ER, and, most of all, Columbo. So what are some of your guilty pleasures? Food, books, movies, television, etc.?
LZ: Food: Mary’s Gone Crackers and Sabra hummus.
Television: British detective series. Good ones, like Prime Suspect and Cracker, but also severely mediocre ones like Inspector Morse or Midsomer Murders. When I watch the latter type, I feel an unsettling affinity with wrinkled ladies crocheting in retirement villages.
After we spoke, we walked to Hunter College where Leni teaches, and where my writers’ group meets. She recommended William Gass to me particularly Fiction and the Figures of Life (You can find it here). She also shared that she ordered Delany’s About Writing because of my references to it in my review of her book (Click here for it). If I can turn anyone on to Delany, especially a strong writer with an experimental and sometimes fabulist bent, like Leni Zumas, then I know I’ve made a positive ripple in the universe.
About the author:
John Madera is a writer living in New York City. His work has appeared in elimae, Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation, New Pages, and forthcoming in The Diagram. You may find him at hitherandthithering waters and My Pet Earworm.