Location, Metaphor, and Writing in Public: A Conversation with Debut Novelist Vanessa Veselka
Vanessa Veselka’s debut novel, ZAZEN, marks the debut of Richard Nash’s new publishing venture. Founder and CEO of Cursor and Publisher of Red Lemonade, Nash, who ran Soft Skull Press from 2001 to 2007, has set out to create a new platform both for writers and readers, combining traditional publishing with an experimental online platform. Red Lemonade is an ever-evolving idea and is best understood by joining the community. If ZAZEN is any indication of what’s to come, Red Lemonade will take the publishing world by storm.
Set in an unnamed city and focused around a group of punks, anarchists, and vegans, ZAZEN is grunge all grown up. Della Mylinek, having just completed her doctorate in paleontology, has moved in with her brother and his pregnant wife. Her future is uncertain.
Instead of making use of her degree, she joins the ambivalent waitstaff of Rise Up Singing, a predominantly vegan restaurant complete with multicultural murals praising diversity while the surrounding neighborhood gentrifies; it’s a quintessential brunch spot that will feel familiar to those who, at some point in their lives, dyed their hair with Manic Panic—as will its employees who offer comic relief by way of its snark and flippancy. They grab tofu out of large bins with their gloveless, dirty hands, refuse to turn on the neon “Open” sign in fear of encouraging patrons, and bury poisoned rats in the backyard, marking the graves with Popsicle stick crosses.
Life seems pretty mundane—and then the bombs start.
Vanessa Veselka, a writer and musician living in Portland, Oregon, has been, at various times, a teenage runaway, a sex-worker, a union organizer, a student of paleontology, an expatriate, an independent record label owner, a train-hopper, a waitress, and a mother. Her work has appeared in Bust, Bitch, Maximumrocknroll, YETI magazine, and Tin House. She was kind enough to chat with me about location in literature, metaphor, and writing in public.
Portland, Oregon was instrumental (pardon the pun) in shaping the music scene of the 1990s—it brought grunge to angsty teens all across the country. ZAZEN feels like a natural outgrowth of that era. If this sounds accurate to you, while you were writing the characters did you feel its influence?
I don’t think I related the characters so much to grunge as I did the diasporas of the punk ethos I saw over the years. The Pacific Northwest though, with its cheaper rents and ‘frontierism,’ was a natural place for these various ideologies to take root, so in that way I think the characters are related to the music here. But when I was writing I was listening to way more Radiohead and Brian Eno than Built To Spill or Soundgarden. Still, music affects everything I do. I am a musician and I think in rhythms when I write. Almost all of my writing at the paragraph level is about beats and counter beats. It’s my primary editing tool. As anyone who watches me write—I mutter incessantly. What I’m doing is checking the rhythms against some sonic template I inherited from god knows where. We all have our ways, I suppose.
Not to put too fine a point on it but location is very strong in your book: Rise Up Singing, the restaurant that caters mainly to vegetarians, the cropping up of Corporate America that irks the punk kids, the anarchist farm far from the city center—it’s all very vivid, and familiar. What are some of your thoughts on location—in life and in literature?
The psychogeography of ZAZEN is wrought out of cities like Portland and Seattle, but it is also the Mission District and Williamsburg, the Lower East Side and other places too. I’ve always had dreams of amalgamated cities. When I started writing ZAZEN the city showed up already built. I never said, “I’m going to put this here so that it works for this scene.” It was more like, “Man, I had no idea there was a boarded up International district over that hill, how do I use it?” I didn’t name the city because it was very, very important to me that it be a certain kind of archetypal city and not a solid location, but rather a location that emerged out of a constellation of certain ideas, more like a set of chemical reactions whose compound always contains the same properties. The Situationists Anthology may have marked me for life. I read it when I was eighteen. It was either that or PK Dick.
I was struck by Della’s introspection and thought you did a great job putting her mental state on paper. Was writing a largely internal novel a natural choice for you? If so, what drew you to that approach? Any heroes of the technique?
Della’s internal because she is a mental exile. Whose fault that is, I don’t know. She’s pretty misanthropic at times. Most exiles like that are self-imposed and hers is probably no different. I don’t remember it being so much a choice to write her one way or another as much as a choice as to write her at all. I wasn’t sure I wanted to have her in my head for four years. Would you? My first response was more like—Back, beast of madness! You are not welcome. After a while I gave up and just decorated her room. People like Rilke and Hamsun were masters of interior narrative of course, but I don’t see them in my work. I think my tendencies are a little more garish than that. But I love the humor of pathos and every great interior narrator I’ve read has it. It often goes unnoticed but if you listen carefully you can hear them all laughing at their own misery and self-obsession. I love that more than anything. It sounds like freedom.
I must admit, while reading ZAZEN I kept noticing metaphor and symbolism, or what I took to be metaphor and symbolism, yet when I read your blog post for Powell’s you say that you relied heavily on the language of geology—Della has a degree in paleontology—and that it’s easy to look at it and think “metaphor”. You go on to say that “geology is as real as it gets” and that rather than nature being the metaphor it’s “our social consciousness, our culture and habits” that are the metaphor. I thought that was interesting that, as you say, our thinking is backwards but can’t quite wrap my head around it. Can you explain further and maybe say how flipping the notion can alter the reading of your book?
It’s funny that you mention that comment because I got reprimanded for it by a guy (Ed, Logic’s Only Son?) who complained that since social consciousness was a construct it couldn’t be a metaphor, by which he meant (I think) that “we” cannot be the metaphor because a rock formation is incapable of creating a mental construct. So now that I know that sediment can’t actually think, I may retract my remarks. Seriously though, symbols and metaphors are a bit of a shell game. I like them best when they contradict each other. I think when you read something and think oh! I get it! the fish in the boat is her father! It’s pretty disappointing. I like it when symbols are discordant. And there’s a difference between figurative language and metaphor, which gets lost sometimes. We’re so used to reading every fantastical passage for a hidden meaning. We’re actually trained for it in lit and writing classes. The trick is to avoid simplifying something when we’re trying to appreciate its complexities, which is pretty easy to do.
ZAZEN has been described as dystopic. In another one of your guest posts for Powell’s you reject the idea that you’ve written a dystopian novel, mainly because it lacks a totalitarian government and champions individuality rather than demonizes it. I’m going to agree with you. While reading ZAZEN l found it to be eerily realistic and timely. We currently live with bomb threats, both real and imagined, on small scales and on larger ones and, as with the people living in your story, we carry on, keeping the violence below the surface and not letting it disrupt our daily lives. Do you feel that ZAZEN is a novel very much of our moment? If so, what does that say about us?
Throughout the writing of ZAZEN things seemed to come true after I wrote them. It was, and is, uncanny. I was just making a list of them actually because someone on Twitter called me the new Miss Cleo. But I can’t claim psychic powers. There’s a zeitgeist to ZAZEN, I felt it all along. To me it was never an unreal world. It looked like what was outside my window. But then we get back to figurative language. It wasn’t the future I was describing. It was now in figurative terms. People started sending me links and photos when stuff from the book happened—the Black Friday Walmart stampede, the preacher praying for the SUVs on the cover of the times, the waves of immolations, substation fires, sports riots, etc…but it’s all just a matter of looking around in a certain way and in a certain mood. One eye on the abyss. It lacks charm though, I have to say. As to what the world of Zazen says about us, I don’t know. I’m part of us and sometimes I don’t want to be.
You mention writing in public and in your acknowledgments you thank Beulahland and Staccato Gelato for letting you camp out for hours. Some authors might find this distracting, what about writing in public appeals to you? Has it provided inspiration that wouldn’t have come to you had you been working in a home office?
I think what I actually like most about writing in public is the feeling of decadence. I love to be hanging out in a café when other people are at work. It’s the shameless libertine in me. But I also need the human interaction when I’m deep in the writing. It also makes my work hours more official, which I can’t seem to do at home. And then there’s the coffee and food. Or donuts as the case may be. And the fact that I live with five other people.
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