Subjects That Interest Most People

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An Interview with Nell Zink

Nell Zink is irrefutably smart and sharp. Her first book, The Wallcreeper, became prominently known through the praise and guidance of acclaimed fictioneer Jonathan Franzen. Soon Zink’s debut was receiving accolades from The New York Times Book Review and appearing on numerous best-of lists for the year.

Mislaid, her second novel, was published by Ecco this May. In it Zink tackles race, sexuality, and class issues through the story of Peggy Vailliancourt, a woman who, upon leaving her husband, starts a new life for herself and her (very white) daughter by stealing the identities of a black woman and child in Virginia during the 1960’s. Peggy turns out to be a lesbian; her husband turns out to be gay. Everyone turns out to be miserable. Zink’s characters are moving parts in a satire that—to paraphrase Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker—makes the term irreverent sound tame and innocuous.

What pulled me towards Mislaid was the unusual narrative of her characters’ respective sexual orientations, particularly during this not-so-distant past. I spoke with Zink about this and other issues in February at a friend’s home in East Williamsburg, where we sat on the floor instead of in chairs. 

—Amy Feltman

I. THE ENDLESS MASS OF BOOKS

THE BELIEVER: Where did the inspiration for this project originate?

NELL ZINK: Mislaid was very directly the result of having another novel rejected by Akashic Books. Johnny Temple, who runs it, didn’t like my first novel, Sailing Towards the Sunset by Avner Schats. And it was very clear to me that he wasn’t going to like it, and it wasn’t my idea to submit to him, so after I looked at what Akashic did, I noticed what seemed to be rather exploitative gender and racial material on their list. And I thought, well, I’m going to show that guy. I originally had the idea almost out of spite; to prove that I could push people’s race and gender buttons in a way they weren’t used to having them pushed. 

And I wanted to create a manuscript that would be easier to sell. I wasn’t trying to be a commercial sell out. I was just trying to make life a little easier for the people who were trying to help me. You know, people wanted to get me published, and my early work was so weird that they weren’t getting anywhere. I thought, okay, I’ll do something that’s just a tad more normal.

BLVR: When you say your early work was “so weird,” what does that mean? What sort of themes were you grappling with, then?

NZ: Well, my first novel, Sailing Towards the Sunset by Avner Schats, is ostensibly about a Masad agent who’s received orders to find and kill the family that might give rise to the messiah. He has to murder the last surviving members of the House of David. It’s sort of an inside joke for my very secular, very leftist Israeli friends whose parents, most of whom emigrated a long time ago to Israel, were socialists. And, as we all know, in the Socialist Revolution in Russia, they did away with the royal family. So I thought, well, to have an effective socialist revolution in Israel, you have to get rid of the royal family. Okay, this is not really the sort of mass market appeal material you can sell to everybody and their brother.

And at the same time this book was also very postmodern. I was pretending to translate a book in Hebrew that I couldn’t understand because my Hebrew wasn’t that good. So I would read little bits of it, and based on what I understood, embroider this story. This is a book that some people like a lot, and wanted to get some small press to publish, but it didn’t work out that way. And then, I thought, well you know, I can write. Why don’t I just write something that directly addresses subjects that interest more people?

BLVR: How have your experiences of a highly racialized America impacted this book? Did you find yourself drawing on personal observations, or did you conduct any sort of research in writing about growing up as a light-skinned Black woman in order to engage with Karen’s storyline? 

NZ: I drew exclusively on personal observations. I didn’t want to write a book that someone else could write. Why bother writing a book that someone else could write—just a historical novel that you research in libraries and on the Internet? Okay, fine, people want to do that, no problem. But I see that as a waste of my time. If I’m going to add a book to the endless mass of books out there, then it should be a book that only I can write. 

So I did no research at all. I sat down with a notebook and made notes about what I remembered, starting around 1970 when I was eight years old and we moved from Southern California to Tidewater, Virginia, and I began having experiences of a racialized America. Because where I was living in Southern California, there were basically two races: us and Mexicans, and Mexicans were definitely much better than we were. They had the pretty dresses and the good food and the piñatas; the fun folk art in their houses. 

And then when I got to rural Virginia, where the schools had just been integrated, it was like two opposing camps that didn’t have a common language. Not all of the black kids, but some of them, I couldn’t understand a word they said. The bus that I took to get home from school was a heavily white bus, because we lived near the subdivision that was all white. But the bus I took to this old plantation where I took riding lessons, which went deep into the woods, had a bus driver who basically looked white, but she was black. One day she pulled the bus over because some kids had been making fun of her, and she made this long speech, just yelling and crying about how she wasn’t half-white, she was a black woman. Now, looking back on it, I think: why was she so adamant about not being half-white? Four years before that, it would’ve been illegal for her parents to be married, if she was half-white. Using the experience that I have now, as an adult, I tried to look back at my memories of my childhood and extrapolate the world they must have taken place in. Because it was so complex and hard to explain. There was this strict segregation, and at the same time, black culture was so central.

BLVR: Can you tell me about the challenges you faced presenting white and heteronormative privilege in this book?

NZ: I’d say it’s never a challenge to present white and heteronormative privilege. The hard thing is to write any other way. The white hegemony was so strong. All those who didn’t conform, even if they were white, were going to experience themselves as outsiders. That’s another thing that I remember from my childhood. In the rural South, the only interesting people were the sexual deviants. Everybody else was able to be part of the mainstream, and could find a way somehow. But if you were constitutionally bent on being a lesbian or something, you were forced into an outsider perspective and would just end up being a much more interesting person than someone who was able to play the role of a good ol’ boy asshole, or play the role of a sweet feminine girl doing the right thing all the time. You know, with nail polish and Greek letters on the butt of your sweatsuit, or whatever.

BLVR: How did you balance political vs. character-driven concerns in the narrative? There are places in the text where I can feel you lean forward and give a direct perspective on an issue. Like that conversation where it’s asserted that gay men are carrying the torches of misogyny.

NZ: Oh, where they’re running the literary magazine, and the Maoist comes out and says that gay men are ruining feminism. And then Lee says, well, women are getting a free ride on the backs of black men.

BLVR: And then he uses the word faggot, and everyone’s like, “Oh, God.”

NZ: Well… I really shouldn’t say this in an interview. However, when he says faggot, he just as easily could’ve said the n-word. But he doesn’t, because I’m not a complete idiot! I’m not going to say the n-word in my book in a place where it could be ascribed to me, because these days everything is autobiography, and if a character says X, it looks like I said it and I’ll be quoted. I figured that out shortly after selling a draft in which I had failed to do that. I had left in sound bites that could reflect poorly on me. In the mouths of characters who were clearly complete racist assholes, but that didn’t seem to matter to anyone. I had editors saying things like, “Well, this book is interesting but I don’t like the queasy-making racial stuff,” and I was like, oh fuck. At the same time, I can say faggot!

BLVR: What I wanted to get into with this question was, do you think of the book as a journey of these characters? Or when you were formulating the novel, was it more a political text about representing different points of view?

NZ: I didn’t do that deliberately, because I just counted on the fact that I’m a political person. The interesting artists I know are the ones doing political work. The most interesting people I know are the people who care about politics. Those are the people I’d like to address, because they’re my favorite people. So I make it as political as I can, but I don’t feel the need to make that explicit. Some of the stuff that’s very directly political in the book was put in later at the request of editors, who just kept saying to me: I can tell there are things in this book that you left on the cutting room floor; there’s too much that’s oblique and tangential and people have to read between the lines and you can’t always count on them to do that in the way that you wanted, so maybe you can give them a couple of hints.

BLVR: What sorts of things did you have to add?

NZ: Well, one thing I’m glad I added, for example, was my pointing out that school vouchers were invented by Harry Byrd—under the unbelievably charming rubric “massive resistance to integration.” That’s what they called school vouchers! It just makes me laugh. 

II. SIMPLE MACHINES

BLVR: Can you speak a bit about how you approach sexuality and sexual orientation within the book?

NZ: I wanted to go back in time from the current American belief that everything is genetic. I’ve been living in Germany, where they hesitate to say anything is genetic at all. You talk to a German scientist, he’s not going to say, “Autism is genetic.” He’ll say, “Autism most likely comes about from a grave insult to the embryo during the tenth to twelfth day of pregnancy.” Well, no one’s going to come out and tell American women that. You know, “You got drunk so your kid’s autistic.” And I’m not saying it’s true—I have no idea what the truth is in a case like that. I just see the difference between believing everything is genetic and believing that environment rules the roost, the way they do in Germany as a result of their past.

I have known so many people who were seduced as children by same-sex partners and then spent their teen years being gay, and then found their way back to heterosexuality as adults. I think that’s a very taboo topic, especially as women. But I can name three women who I know personally who were seduced by their gym teachers. It sounds like a totally absurd cliché, but…

BLVR: Three different gym teachers?

NZ: Yeah. You know, people don’t think of predatory lesbians seducing twelve-year-old girls. It’s not really a huge topic in the media, and I don’t think it deserves to be, either.

At the same time, I thought—it’s interesting for purposes of fiction to play with the idea that people could be pushed onto a certain path of sexuality by their environment. In the first draft, I had Lee actually remarking on it. Because it was something, growing up in the South, that I knew. I knew a gay guy who was extraordinarily good looking, and at college and looking to switch back and be heterosexual. Because, he had simply gotten taken up, at the age of eleven or twelve, by this gay circle, and passed around because he was so gorgeous. You know, like, friends of his father. Like golf partners. It sounds, like, completely nutso. These are just my memories. And, you know, I can’t verify them… I’m not going to track this guy down, find out his name, interview him and say, “Well, was it that you were genetically gay, and those guys could just smell it? And you’re still gay now? Or were you, in fact, a victim of child abuse?”

I don’t know. But when you’re writing fiction, you can think about these things. And the age of sexual initiation in the rural South is sometimes really not what you would wish it would be. While at the same time, of course, most people were Born-Again Christians and not having sex until they were twenty-seven. 

BLVR: I’m just thinking of Peggy’s union with her new female lover as so empowering, so I’m… trying to reconcile that with what you were saying about the history of abuse.

NZ: She’s come to think of herself as a lesbian, she’s a very romantic person; she wants to be loved, and she finds somebody who completely goes for her. And who is definitely attractive. I mean, when I was young there was absolutely no acceptance of the existence of bisexuality. There was a one-drop rule for sperm. If a guy slept with two-hundred women and one man, he was gay. That was among white people. Among black people, it was a little different. If he was always on top, he was straight. Because people only imagined sexual intercourse; it never crossed anybody’s mind that gay men would do anything else. And the same thing with women. Bisexuality is accepted now as a sexuality, but when I was young it was very few people who would claim to be that. Most people I knew would say, “Oh, I’m not one way or the other. I’m just sexual, and sometimes I like somebody in that way and they could be anything—man, woman, whatever.” 

BLVR: So—do you think that’s bullshit? That you can be drawn to a person apart from their gender?

NZ: I think on a certain level it’s bullshit, because people are not like, sea slugs. If I’m talking to an ugly old man and feel myself becoming sexually aroused… you know, do I ask him on a date? No! Because you also have a social sense of yourself, there are so many other factors than just sexuality, per se. People will be turned on by the most absurd things. They’ll see some sort of porno image of a woman who appears to be twelve years old doing splits in a Catholic girl plaid skirt, and feel a rush of desire—well, it doesn’t mean a damn thing. It just means you’re a primate and your eyes are where you get messages that it’s time to feel sexy now. And so, I think there are just so many factors affecting people’s actual behavior. Human beings are just way more complex than they’d like to be.

BLVR: I can agree with that.

NZ: They like to be simple machines. And they’ll set up fantasy scenarios where they’re simple machines, and get hurt and do things they regret.

I knew a lesbian woman who was from deep in Appalachia. Way out in the tip of Virginia. She had joined the army, thinking she was a man. Basically thinking she was trans, but not being able to figure out what she really was. But thinking, okay, I’m into girls, I’m definitely not female, something’s got to give. Then when she got to the army she found out there was such a thing as a lesbian. Like, how are you going to find that out? There was no Ellen DeGeneres on T.V., there was no L Word. Nobody told you.

BLVR Well, but she still was a lesbian, even if she didn’t have the vocabulary to identify as such. Somebody exposed her to an idea, and it was like—this is what you are.

NZ: Right. Right, but at the same time—I had a friend who had been seduced when she was very young, she was extremely cute, and she was living as a lesbian in her 20s, and said, “You know, I often think that I like men better. But this birth control thing, I don’t know, it sounds like such a pain in the ass to try it.” (Laughs) I mean, how do you separate… it seems like a different world from the way people think today. It’s like you can get your embryo tested to see what sexuality it’s going to have. People are like, watching a two-year-old to see how it’s “expressing.” How’s it presenting?

BLVR: Do you mean that we’re obsessed with it in some way?

NZ: No, it’s just different. It’s cute. The main thing—what’s important is the tolerance. If people are not beating other people up, or shooting them for being different, then that’s progress. Even if the ideas that go through their head are fodder for novelists.

BLVR: I do feel like it is genetic, so I’m sort of coming up against you here because—there are a lot of gay people all the way back in my family, so it’s like… never occurred to me that’s purely social. It’s about Uncle Arthur and his “wife,” Dale, is how I thought of it as a child. Of course that’s his wife. That made as much sense to me as anything else. But I do… see what you mean about the shift in the way that our society presents it.

NZ: Well, that’s—it is a shift. What’s interesting to me is the shift. I mean, obviously there’s been tremendous progress on both the racial and the sexual fronts since I was a kid. But you can—although in some ways the racial stuff has gone backwards. The incarceration nation issue is beyond anything… and back then, it wasn’t quite as bad. The sentences were shorter. A lot of the black guys I knew had been in jail, but not for like, eighteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. That’s basically the situation now.

III. COLLECT MY FREE CDS

BLVR: Who would you say has influenced your voice as a writer?

NZ: One thing that influenced me tremendously back when I first started writing longer work was an essay I read by Virginia Woolf. She was writing about the contrast between stuff written by men and women, and she talked about DeQuincy, who wrote Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. She was saying that DeQuincy was the kind of writer who could never be a woman, because DeQuincy thinks everything he has to say is worth saying. If DeQuincy wants to digress, he just does it. If DeQuincy wants to interrupt a story about one thing with a story about another thing, and then tell you about the time he ran into a poet, and then skip back to eating opium, he’ll just ramble on. And this is a result of his white male privilege. He was, more or less, an aristocratic, spoiled little dude. So Woolf said, there’s a huge contrast in the control and mastery and craft you expect from women authors and DeQuincy’s casual acceptance of himself. So I thought: okay! If I want to rise in the world, and not be a girl, maybe I’ll write more like DeQuincy. 

BLVR: I’ve never conceptualized you as someone full of digressions like DeQuincy.

NZ: That’s probably why you can’t say it’s a direct influence. But the willingness… maybe because, when I’m writing, the whole thing is a digression. You know, I could be sitting, drinking hot chocolate somewhere, but I’m writing a novel. Maybe it’s more digressive for me than it is for the reader. I certainly hope so. And of course, when I’m writing, I am always trying to be entertaining. But I find DeQuincy entertaining; I don’t think he’s a bore. And God knows, maybe that same essay by Virginia Woolf has been responsible for some of the worst writing done by men, who can just be endlessly in love with themselves sometimes, when they write. Women too, but I think of it more as a boy thing. That they’ll just write two thousand pages and it’s like, what was that? Whereas DeQuincy was telling a funny anecdote, interrupted by another funny anecdote, which is sort of the effect I’m going for. I’m enough of an anarchist aesthetically, when it comes to art—I want people to be reading my stuff voluntarily. They should be doing it because they want to.

BLVR: I have sort of a splotchy idea of how you came to writing, but I’d love to hear about it in more detail.

NZ: I had been writing since I was a kid. I had stories and novels I’d worked on and never showed anyone. In retrospect, it seems almost hard to believe, but it’s the truth. The same way, in retrospect, now that I have these readers and selling books, I think—a year, two years ago, I was writing for one person and that seemed like plenty. Before that, I did this fanzine; I did that for zero people, and that also seemed enough. I didn’t think I was good enough to publish anything. But what brought me to doing a post-punk fanzine about animals was just that I had always loved writing about animals, because I think people have an aversion to human beings. They’re not willing to anthropomorphize them. The first thing, when you read about a human being, generally, if he’s not just like you or made to be so vague that you can identify with him, you’re going to feel a distance to him.

BLVR: Like “The Everyman” or nothing?

NZ: This is one of the problems faced by minority or women writers. If you say, this character’s a woman of color from another country, you might as well have said, “And by the way, don’t identify with her. She’s meant to be Not-You.” Whereas if the character is a kangaroo that happens to live in Philly and work in a bank, he can be totally unlike you and still an object of identification because it’s just ridiculous. And I like taking advantage of that. So I loved writing stories about animals, and my husband at the time was really heavy into indie rock, and, looking at the indie rock fanzines that were out there, they had very focused topics, like… there was one just completely focused on cars. So I just thought I’d do one with animals. I would write about animals, and other people I knew—guys, mostly—would write about the CDs, and then I would just type it up at work, where I worked as a secretary, and copy it on the weekends for free, and send it out. Collect my free CDs.

BLVR: How long after that did you become acquainted with Jonathan Franzen and start thinking about publishing books for a wider audience?

NZ: Well, the ‘zine was when I was living in Hoboken and then Jersey City and then Philly, in the early 90s. Maybe ’92-’96. And then I moved to Israel for awhile, in 2000 I moved to Germany. Southwestern Germany, not Berlin. I do not live in Berlin.

BLVR: Is that a point of contention?

NZ: Well, people keep saying or assuming I live in Berlin. But when I moved to Germany it was to Tübingen. I continued writing to this friend of mine in Israel, Avner Schats, with no plans to write publically, because I just didn’t see a way to do it. 

In any case, I was in Germany and still writing for this Israeli guy, and not really considering doing anything else, when, because of some guerilla PR I was doing in the enviromental area, for this ornithologist who’s now dead, Martin Schneider-Jacoby, I ended up getting in touch with Franzen.

I had this little project, just for fun. It was my hobby: I was going to make Martin Schneider-Jacoby an international star. And to do that, I needed the help of Jonathan Franzen to get him into The New Yorker. That was my plan.

BLVR: And it worked?

NZ: No, I got him into National Geographic. The Franzen article appeared in National Geographic. However, Franzen’s article—no one ever quotes me on this! If The Believer publishes this I’ll be so happy! Taulant Binot, the former secretary of the Environment of Albania, told me that it was Franzen’s article that led to the hunting ban in Albania. Not that the hunting ban is observed by every hunter, but I would say a 2-year hunting moratorium as a result of a magazine article is more than most journalists can claim. A very happy occasion.

BLVR: I wanted to ask you about something you said in the Paris Review interview with Matthew Jakubowski: “Whatever I was writing at the time, I knew there was no market for it and never would be, because there’s never a market for true art, so my main concern was always to have a job that didn’t require me to write or think.” I was wondering if you could talk a little about that concept, the purity of true art. How do you think of The Wallcreeper and Mislaid within that framework?

NZ: I think there was a lot of heavy irony in what I wrote to Jakubowski that maybe doesn’t get picked up on by everybody. Because what I did was, I came out of college thinking I needed reeducation through labor. I didn’t get any kind of vocational training; I had no qualifications to do any job. I couldn’t even really type. I was on my way to get a job as a cocktail waitress, and ended up running into a bricklayer and getting a job as a bricklayer’s laborer and trying to really hard to keep my mind free of outside influences. I didn’t get any job skills that would allow me to work less than full-time. And what you need if you’re a writer is some really lucrative thing that you can do freelance, that gets a really high hourly rate. Which is why my life got so much better when I moved to Germany, where I could work as a translator. But in America, as an employee, I was just absolutely bottom-feeding. I’d either be working full time to have health insurance with no time at all to do any writing, so I’d be doing the indie rock fanzine for which I’d write one very short short story every three months, or I was unemployed and just running through my savings a mile a minute, because that’s America. You spend so much money just paying for your health insurance and so on. So—I mean, in that sense, I think that answer in The Paris Review gets misunderstood.

As far as there being no market for “true art,” I think that’s also true in the sense that the market isn’t what sanctifies something as art. Literary fiction is not a lucrative genre, and artistically valuable fiction is a small subset of literary fiction and it’s just a loss leder. You know? For most of its practitioners, they work hard so they can do this in their spare time, and the benefits they get are purely social, most of the time. They don’t even get a fellowship. Maybe some of them have jobs teaching. Mostly what they get is the regard of their peers.

BLVR: How do you feel that working as a translator impacts your relationship to language?

NZ: I don’t work as a translator anymore because the impact was just hellish. I know for other people this is different and there are many happy translators out there, but the risk that I was running while living in a foreign country… I really need to keep my English English. Keep it American. Those languages take up different lobes in your brain, and when you first learn a language fluently, if you learn it through immersion in a foreign country, you find translating incredibly difficult. If you learned it in school and people say, like, “The duck. El pato,” you can translate, but if you just learned it just by being there, it’s really difficult to get these neurons to talk to each other. The synapses just aren’t there. And when you start translating, you start hooking them up—getting these two parts of your brain to talk to each other, and what then happens is that, if you spend twenty years outside of the country you just start making mistakes in English. Which I need like a hole in the head, because I really like writing in English, and it’s the best job I’ve ever had. I didn’t want to have to stop doing it. So I was really happy when I got a big advance for Mislaid and I was able to tell all my translation customers to go to hell. I almost had to because they were so in love with me. I always worked—for me it was a lot of money, but maybe I was relatively cheap in the grand scheme of things. I mean, I’d be billing people seventy Euros an hour. It’s not a bad job. But maybe it’s hard to find someone who’s German is as good as mine and who writes as well as I do in English. So I had some very loyal customers that were very disappointed when I got out of it.

Amy Feltman is currently pursuing her M.F.A. in Fiction at Columbia University. Her work has been published in The Rumpus, The Toast, The Sonder Review, Two Serious Ladies, and The Millions, and is forthcoming in Gigantic and Lilith Magazine.