Every once in a while, the writer Jonathan Evison tells me about a book that he insists I have to read. Since I loved West of Here, and I adore him, and he's never been wrong before about a book, I always listen. This time he told me about Vanessa Veselka. Yup, he was right. Zazen is a haunting, brilliant, disturbing and very funny look at the world on the edge of collapse. I'm honored to have Vanessa here.
So, you’ve been a runaway, a sex worker and a musician. How and when did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I always kept journals so I always had the idea that things should be recorded. My first “book” was something I wrote when I was six. My dad and my stepmother packed everything they had into (and on top of) a VW Bug and drove my brother, a large shepherd mix dog, and me from New Jersey to Alaska camping in tents the whole way. I wrote about what I saw. Afterward they added pictures and turned it into a book. I still have a copy. What strikes me about it now is how deep my tendency toward darkness runs. I managed to get a little of the desperation of the moment on the page. They were going somewhere with nothing. And my aesthetic around language is similar to my work today. In the ‘book’ I quoted the line, “All set about with fever trees,” twice. I looked it up. It comes from Kipling. I clearly heard it or read it somewhere and something about it hooked me and I couldn’t let it go. I think I am much the same way today.
Through grade school I wrote. It was a survival skill. If I didn’t do the reading I could be witty on paper. But I didn’t write stories. It was "It was all snappy non-fiction, precocious and predictable.". But I got praise for it. I sold pieces to big magazines in my 20s and then somewhere around 28 I stopped. I couldn’t stomach the voice I wrote in. It was all ‘I know and you know but they don’t know.’ False intimacies of popular narrative designed to make everyone feel clever and mean nothing. I couldn’t write after that and didn’t until I was 36. When I started writing again, it was fiction. That’s the great thing about the artistic mind. It’s just like a child. It grows in its sleep.
Zazen is so richly atmospheric, and so unsettling that at times, the effect is dizzying. Yet, you manage to meld very concrete details (tofu scrambler, for one) with the weirdness of more and more people gradually leaving the country and bombs gradually coming closer and closer. Do you feel this is where things are headed at all?
I don’t know where the world is going to go. I try to fight off the darkest view, not because I’m worried about being too “negative” necessarily, but because that view may be incorrect. Zazen certainly inherited some of my darker views though, but I think the real fear for Della is uncertainty. She doesn’t want to be a part of the world before she knows if it’s going somewhere good. She doesn’t want to watch. My personal guess is that the world is going to go to hell in a million places all at once and rebound in a million others at the same time. But I can’t predict the overall arc. There’s a big difference between not knowing because you want to remain ignorant so you can feel better, and not knowing because it’s all more frighteningly creative, brilliant and deadly and glorious than you can track, and you really don’t know.
What was it like to write Zazen? Who were your influences, or were there any?
It was like taking cheap, strychnine blotter every morning instead of vitamins for breakfast. It was electric and awful and riveting and felt better than anything I ever knew. My whole brain was engaged. I used everything. I felt like a single computer that could smoothly run an entire city, which is also to say it was a megalomaniacal state of extremes. And antisocial. It made me really boring company for over four years. That part is just wearing off. I think.
Influences? So many things affect my thoughts: Emma Goldman, Tolstoy, Neil Gaiman, Neil Young, Brian Eno, Led Zeppelin, Mother Jones, Melville, Devo, Dostoyevsky, Devo, Television (the band and the box), the Pali Canon, Conrad, Eliot (T.S., George, and Smith), Mercator maps, the Permo-Triassic extinction—I’m al over the place. The fire-bombing of Dresden. Sebald. Brad Neely.
What’s your working/writing life like? Are you an outliner or a fly by the seat of your pen kind of writer?
What’s my working/writing life like? Unsustainable and I do it anyway. Probably this is like most writers. I’m not going to get rich writing the kinds of books I like to write. I am too surly to be a copywriter, too dyslexic to be a copyeditor, too spiritually restless to work in communications—none of my talents cross over. I’m nearly unemployable. So it’s always a struggle to support myself and write. But you do it anyway. Just like everyone else. Somehow.
I am a morning writer so I don’t take jobs that cover that time. And I do ‘fly by the seat’ so I need large expanses of time to work my way into a world before I can effectively write in smaller, more convenient stretches. I probably missed my historical niche. I would have been great under a patronage system. Here’s the deal, Veselka. Write me into all your novels as a benevolent force and I’ll pay your rent and food. I’d sign right up. But then again, in the words of the great 18 century Haiku master Kobayashi Issa:
Writing shit about new snow for the rich is not art.
So what’s a girl to do? I’m hoping some bookstore will hire me or someone will teach me a trade.
What’s your experience been like with Red Lemonade? I love the tagline “because the future of publishing starts with the writers.”
I love Red Lemonade and I love Richard Nash. Going with any publisher is a gamble, but gambling on the smartest person you know is a good place to start. That way even if it doesn’t work out, the conversation was better and you haven’t spent three years with a jerk. Earnestly, though, I wouldn’t be a part of Red Lemonade and Cursor if I didn’t believe in its vision. There’s more respect for writers in a way that makes sense. To borrow some playdate language, it’s more consensual. My novel isn’t “bad” because an agent or editor doesn’t like it. It’s just not for them. So there are two levels that kind of talk occurs on:
1) A politically correct pass-off designed to sweep uncomfortable moments under a rug,
2) An actual, real, commentary on the situation, as in they are not your readers.
And all you can ever ask for is that a novel finds its readers, its people. I feel like Red Lemonade allows for that in a more democratic way than a traditional publisher. And I think, in general, writers know more about who their readers would be than any editor. A business model that writers’ aesthetic instincts as well as what they know about their audience is doomed. Hear that? DOOMED. Or at least very silly.
What’s obsessing you now?
Finding a job so I can create enough stability to write the next novel. And the next novel.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have asked?
The poet Crystal Williams raised the question recently (on facebook) of why white writers avoided writing about race. She thought they should. No interviewer has asked me about race yet, despite it being all over the novel. I think this is part of the “polite” white silence on the issue. The social discomfort many feel about not knowing how to enter the discussion. In Zazen, I let a lot of really problematic ideas about race run through. To my mind, I was exposing a particular kind of racism that many of us slip into and trying to satirize it. But recently I had a conversation with a very intelligent woman who felt that satirizing it was still giving it a pass. She wanted, I think, more of an overarching statement or maybe an aside about race. So for the record, I think if we dig deeply, every single person on this planet is racist at some level. We are prejudiced in a million ways, seen and unseen and we still have to figure out how to live together, get over it and be human. I don’t believe in art as social curricula. I don’t believe we, as Americans, close these gaps by covering them with paper or filling them with plaster. I was as shocked as anyone that I decided to write about race in Zazen. But in retrospect, maybe you can’t really write an American novel without it. I’m sure I’m going too far with that. Oh well. It’s my nature.