“Robert Thinks ‘Bill Murray.’” — Zachary German
Zachary German was born in southern New Jersey in 1988. In 2006, he dropped out of high school and moved to Philadelphia. He delivered pizza and other things on his bicycle, and later worked at a thrift store. In 2007, his story “letting me out first part” was selected by Dennis Cooper for inclusion in the Userlands anthology from Akashic Press, and an early excerpt from Eat When You Feel Sad was published as an e-book by Bear Parade. In 2008, he moved to Brooklyn, where he completed Eat When You Feel Sad (Melville House). He currently works as a dog walker in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Dennis Cooper says, “Zachary German’s nimble, catwalking, archeological, surface dwelling, emotionally unpaved prose is a thing of total wonder and my favorite drug, language-based or otherwise. Eat When You Feel Sad is so bright and pleasurable and full of excellence, it’s positively serene.”
Michael Kimball: You signed my copy of Eat When You Feel Sad with a signature that I’m pretty envious of. Did you practice your autograph?
Zachary German: I did practice my autograph, on an envelope at Melville House when I first got copies of the book. I wrote it once, and when I looked at my signature, or maybe while I was writing it, I realized I really don’t like it and never will, probably, and decided to stop practicing and just let it be how it is. I think it looks dumb, really sloppy in a non-sexy way. I mean it. Sore spot.
Kimball: I still love it, even if you don’t, but I won’t ask anything else about it. Let’s switch topics. The action in the first paragraph of Eat When You Feel Sad takes places years before the rest of the book (and none of the rest of the book does). It’s a simple and beautiful way into the narrative and I’m wondering, besides that, what the thinking was there?
German: Initially I had just written a lot of scenes that could be in a person’s life, and not necessarily in order. Then when I started to try to make what I had written into a novel I arranged them chronologically. I didn’t really mean for the bulk of the book to take place in a few years in the character’s early twenties, it just happened that way. When I submitted it to my publisher, there was no “Years later,” — and it was just a scene which seems to involve a young child, a scene which maybe involves an adolescent, a scene with “young adult.” So the “Years later,” was the influence of Dennis Loy Johnson, which at first I doubted, but eventually I realized would be helpful and perhaps funny, and perhaps the other nice things you said about it in the question.
Kimball: Since we’re talking about parts of the book that changed, what other kinds of changes did you make as you made the Bear Parade ebook of Eat When You Feel Sad into the paperback Eat When You Feel Sad?
German: Oh so many things. I took out all “Robert feels happy” / “Robert feels sad” / “Robert feels [whatever]” completely. Took out “Robert hates himself,” etc. I changed all sentences like “Robert thinks about [something]” to sentences like “Robert thinks “[something].” I split up all compound sentences. I just tried to make all the narration very consistent, and to not try to do anything. In the Bear Parade version, there is a scene where the narration breaks into first person and becomes fairly “meta.” Editing, I realized I didn’t need that gimmick, and that it probably took away from what I was trying to do overall.
A big thing was just getting all the characters to make sense. Throughout, I would just write scenes I thought of, or maybe remembered, or something, and of course not always in order. So when I was compiling everything into one extended narrative I had to rearrange all the scenes in such a way that would make sense. Which is complicated because what might make sense to me, or be funny to me, might be confusing to the reader. So I had to think a lot about that. I made maps, kind of, of what page numbers different characters were on, and how Robert’s relationship to each of them was. I had done that to a very small scale when I was working on the draft for Bear Parade, but that was a many-hour process for the novel.
I feel like the Bear Parade book can function as a totally nondescript twenty-something American whatever, but for the novel, which takes place on a larger scale and of course just has more going on, it seemed like I should maybe try to make it a little more clear. The scenes from childhood, from the character visiting his hometown, I tried to make the relationships clear while still not using much narration, no “They had always had a tense relationship.”
Kimball: Why did you cut the “feels” sentences?
German: I tried to make Eat When You Feel Sad as realistic as possible — to make every sentence a fact. “Robert feels sad,” which was very heavily used in early drafts, is not a fact. The word “sad” is used in the novel, in thoughts and dialogue, but I refrained from using it, or words like it, in the prose, as I really don’t think it means anything.
“Robert says ‘That makes me feel sad.’” seems a lot different than “Robert feels sad.” One is a fact, from which you can see how a character might react to a situation, how he talks, how he uses the word “sad.” The other gives a very vague idea of a character’s emotional state. It really does nothing.
Kimball: And why did you cut “about” from sentences?
German: The “about” sentences were really just a consistency thing – “Robert thinks ‘Bill Murray.’” seems to go better with the style than “Robert think about Bill Murray.”
Kimball: Yes, much better, and why did you break the compound sentences?
German: I think when I was reading over the novel in the early drafts there were already a lot of simple sentences, and I was really enjoying them, and felt kind of annoyed when I would come to a compound sentence, like it interrupted something. Which could be helpful, sometimes, but for this book I just thought it would read better with all simple sentences.
Kimball: I like that Eat When You Feel Sad is mostly scenes, but I’m curious about why you kept the narration limited?
German: I think it just went with everything else about the novel. I don’t have anything against narration, giving a brief summary of a character’s experience before or during the action of the story, it just didn’t seem like something that would be consistent with the rest of the novel. I wanted each scene to just be a scene. Initially I had thought about doing something like what Mary Robinson did with Why Did I Ever, just having a lot of scenes about one character, that could be taken in any order. That desire eventually gave way to a more linear narrative, but I still wanted each scene to be able to work by itself, just as five minutes or an hour or five hours in time.
Kimball: A huge percentage of the book is made up of things that Robert (the main character) says, thinks, and does. A small percentage of the book is made up of things that other characters say and do. And an even smaller percentage of the book is made up of description of place and setting. Can you talk about that content emphasis (or lack of)?
German: The book is about one person, Robert. He’s not very social. He spends a lot of time on his own. So that’s why there’s so much of him, thinking and whatever. I didn’t really think about this at the time, but I think something I just ended up doing was giving relatively equal gravity to everything that happens to him in the course of the book. I don’t think there is more time spent on relationships than there is on masturbation, than there is on reading alone than there is on getting drunk at parties, etc.
As for description it just didn’t seem necessary to the style. I wanted it to be able to take place anywhere, and to me, descriptions of place just aren’t very interesting; I would always choose to read what someone is doing over what the sky looks like.
The Believer calls Michael Kimball’s third novel, DEAR EVERYBODY, “a curatorial masterpiece.” His three critically acclaimed novels are (or will soon be) translated into many languages. His work has been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Prairie Schooner, Open City, Unsaid, and New York Tyrant. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard) and the documentaries, I WILL SMASH YOU (2009) and 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES (2010).
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