1. Where are you from and where are you now? How does (or doesn’t) place influence your work?
I grew up in Texas, and now I’m teaching in a little town called Ellensburg, Washington. This story was written during a year I spent outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina—a year in which I’d just finished my PhD and worked just enough to make rent and did very little socializing and spent most of the time with my own thoughts and my dog while my partner was busy with grad school. Though NC itself doesn’t have much influence on this piece, that sense of self-imposed isolation does.
2. What’s your number one rule of writing?
It may not be my number one rule, but I think it’s very important to chase down all your ideas, even the ones that might initially seem terrible or strange or devoid of merit. I don’t want to give away where this story came from, because it might put some stink on it that would influence a reader in a way that I don’t really want, but trust that it came from a dumb, weird place. But: I don’t let myself think that when I’m writing. I don’t try to be cool or smart. It’s dishonest, for one—I’m a dope down at the core. More than that, though, I think that doubt fosters an impulse to be palatable instead of real, which to me seems to lead to a lot of stories that are the bad kind of boring. And the nice thing, for me at least, is chasing an idea becomes a kind of dare—can I write a story about a boy eating rocks? Can I write a story about the governor holding in a fart? Can I write a story about a bleeding wall? It’s exhilarating to find out that I can, even if no one actually wants to read them. It keeps me going during the slumps in story acceptances or the bad business news or even when I just feel like I’m doing hackwork.
3. What is strangest about your writing process?
I either hand write or use an old mechanical typewriter for pretty much everything I do, which I guess is not that terribly strange. I do it because it forces me to slow down a little bit, and then it forces me to make conscious decisions when I type it up again. I have a tendency to start glossing over my own writing, and that active process of rewriting keeps me honest.
4. Describe the lifespan of this piece: how did it start, how was it revised, how drastically did it change? What was the most difficult part of writing it?
This one actually came together (mercifully) quickly. I’m working out my next collection, which is tentatively called Liminal Domestic and is about all the ways people fail as families or as parents or et cetera, and the germ of the story—a boy eating rocks—kind of gelled with another idea I had of a father being unable to move beyond the fear and hurt in him. It sort of fell out of my head onto a page from there. What you read in the journal is pretty close to the first complete draft except for some guidance that the editors gave me. I have a tendency to over-explain when I write—there’s always at least one paragraph where I’m like hey this is what the story is about hello it’s me Zach VandeZande—and Tracie and the other editors at Yemassee did a good job of quashing that. Other than that, this one was easy. I wish they all were. Most of them take months of tweaking and re-reading and poking. Please don’t think I’m good at this.
5. How does (or doesn’t) this piece fit in with your larger body of work?
I really should have read all of these questions before I started answering them, because I keep half-answering questions before you ask them. Oh well. Like I said, this has a definite spot in my next collection, but more than that, I think a lot of my work is about individual perception and the way that we take making sense for granted when more often than not it’s an active process of creation. The world is so strange, and here we are in it. That’s one reason I write.
6. The Yemassee crew seriously admires how the language enacts the story itself, with the constraints of the perspective mirroring the narrator's physical confinement. How do you work with such constraints to create tension in your writing? Do you find setting limits helps or hurts the writing process?
I think limits definitely help the process. Most of my stories are in first person, because that seems to me more honest—we’re all trapped in ourselves, and we all want to get out somehow, and every story is about that impossible need in one way or another. And so if I want to write a story that’s really about empathy (I do), it needs to enact that Self-Other dichotomy.
I’m also big on trying to tell stories in as tight a space as possible, whether that’s one setting or one specific moment or whatever. I think if you narrow things down like that you find all sorts of interesting things to say or to pay attention to that would otherwise have gone by you in writing the story.
7. What’s your procrastination of choice?
What’s not my procrastination of choice! I’ve read so much Wikipedia; I’ve seen 30 Rock 5 or 6 times through by now; my Monster Hunter rank is absurd; I’ve followed my dog around narrating what she does on many occasions; I stopped in the middle of answering these interview questions to go buy a little succulent for my office. If there’s a way out of work, I’ll pursue it. I’ve learned to leave the house or otherwise put myself in a situation where getting up and leaving or goofing off would feel silly, which works (most of the time).