"As Long as Your Ambition is About the Writing, you're Okay": A Q&A with Nancy Zafris, author of The Home Jar
PROPELLER: The protagonists in The Home Jar include a llama thief, Japanese flight attendant, semi-retired chef, Midwestern mom, Eritrean immigrant, wax artist, metal shredder, and leper chaser. Though there’s no typical Zafris character, I do recognize some recurring traits: vitality, scrappy singularity, voice. Where do these people come from?
NANCY ZAFRIS: Observing a person I don’t know is what triggers my imagination. In the book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how someone’s important personality traits can often be better identified by strangers than friends. Strangers were asked to examine dorm rooms in order to understand the personalities of their occupants. If a shelf of books and CDs revealed a love of art and opera, they came up with astute perceptions without being prejudiced by the fact that the room belonged to a 275-pound football lineman. If I hear about a lineman or a welder, say, who loves opera, I’m immediately interested in exploring that person—which is quite different from explaining that person. So something small and seemingly contradictory usually gets me going. What I’ve realized is that most people want their characters explained (especially in book clubs) so that all the notched puzzle pieces fit neatly into their prescribed spots, as in a screenplay. Life is mysterious, however, and people are mysterious. I find that mystery exciting. I want to explore it but I also want to respect it. Some readers of my story “Prix Fixe” in the collection have taken me to task for not explaining better that the character is gay. Is the character gay? I didn’t know that. Or maybe he’s bi-sexual. Is that the right label? It wasn’t a question for me. His relationship is another layer in a complicated personality. With a welder who loves opera, for example, who is not Italian, should we mention that one of his parents was an aspiring opera singer? Does that explain it now? Ironically, as we develop more and more slots for people to fit into—the LGBT acronym keeps growing letters—our views of people have become increasingly reductive.
PROPELLER: Several stories in The Home Jar feature characters from different countries drawn to one another. Eros plays second fiddle to what feels like a platonic, but no less urgent, curiosity. I’m interested about this choice to illustrate a dimension of desire that’s not primarily sexual.
NANCY ZAFRIS: I hope I’m not wrong in believing that the urge to connect and understand others is one of our strongest desires—there seems to be a lot of evidence to the contrary these days. I think that learning another language and living in a foreign country is an especially powerful and wondrous way to open up this innate desire. It takes a lot of time, effort, and intellectual commitment to reach a point where you can casually connect—and that very casualness, that very quotidian connection thrills beyond measure. I spent fourteen months of college in Japan, choosing that country for no reason other than the fact that it was paid for, but it began a three-year period of intense study there which included a year’s apprenticeship with a master calligrapher. I lived with a family and grew very close to them—word by word, as it were, having arrived with no words. On my first visit to them, they drew pictures and more pictures to try to explain to me how to get on the back part of the train because it was going to fork off at Kodaira station. All these sorts of ordinary things were fraught with the joy of finally comprehending and connecting. I had an intense desire to understand the non-Western logic of the Japanese mind and, in my view, this could only be done through language and trying to connect with people through the inside out. Language, I believed, good philosophy major that I was, wired and built thoughts rather than vice versa. I guess I’ve given this desire to the non-Americans in my stories, who try to connect to America through language. You are so right that the driving Eros in my stories is platonic in nature. Sexual urgency clouds everything, just as it clouds everything from age fourteen to 64. Sex is plot to me, an overwhelming plot, and I’m more interested in the quieter morphology below.
PROPELLER: You’ve published two novels and two collections of stories. Does your fiction writing process change depending on whether you are writing something long or short? How has your approach to writing fiction changed over time?
NANCY ZAFRIS: When I’m writing a novel, I try to keep more toward the top of the story, to keep it moving forward. The short story tends to circle back as it moves forward; it’s being layered every step of the way. I tend to make it harder on myself in a novel since I end up layering as I go. But that’s a challenge I like, and it’s where the unexpected happens for me. But that also can stop the story’s progression. I end up taking all the stuff I most enjoyed writing out of the novel.
PROPELLER: I’m curious about the current state of your ambition as a writer. Do you find yourself more interested in trying to do something—in terms of craft—you haven’t tried before? Or are you more compelled and driven by your subject? As funny as many of the stories in The Home Jar are—and I frequently couldn’t help laughing out loud—taken together, their import is dead serious.
NANCY ZAFRIS: I guess I’m focused on craft since I believe subject matter finds you, or at least it finds me. I don’t worry too much about that. Teaching has made me understand the craft quite well, but that understanding can be inhibiting. Right now I feel a little hemmed in, so I’ve taken to writing screenplays, some essay-type things, and I’ve also started writing poetry. It’s nice to be a beginner, you end up taking more risks because you don’t know any better, and it’s freeing and fun. It also allows the people I’ve taught to turn the tables on me. I write screenplays with a writing partner, Nicola Dixon, and I enjoy that camaraderie. I enjoy her right-on humor and watching her brain go to work. I have a couple of writing friends, Brad Kessler and Ad Hudler, who have expressed a need to break out of the novel-writing box, just as I’m experiencing the same thing, so there must be something going around. Ad and I are thinking of collaborating on a project where we just do anything, just go outside the box, as a way to refresh ourselves. As for ambition, that’s a funny thing. As long as your ambition is about the writing, you’re okay. Ambition about the reception of your work—any reception—gets diluted as you grow older and become sandwiched between the major concerns of children, nieces, and nephews growing up and parents and loved ones growing old. And it’s a good thing it does. About fifteen years ago, in an MFA class I taught, it seemed that so many of the guys wanted to write like Richard Ford. I substituted for an MFA class last semester and mentioned Richard Ford as an example, and not only had none of the folks read him, no one even knew who he was! They had ambitions to be somebody else now.
PROPELLER: The Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction was awarded to you for your first story collection, The People I Know, and now you’re the series editor for that award. In The Home Jar, both “Stealing the Llama Farm” and “Digging the Hole” featured particularly Flannery-esque scenarios, protagonists, and preoccupations. What is your relationship to O’Connor’s work? Where do you see O’Connor in the American literary firmament?
NANCY ZAFRIS: My mother is still alive, with a vital, curious mind, and she was born two years before Flannery O’Connor. I think Flannery O’Connor’s death at age 39 in 1964 is probably twentieth century literature’s greatest loss. She had no personal vanity, she cared not for fame; she was our biggest truth-teller. If she were alive, I’m sure she would have some wry, choice words for us Flannery O’Connor winners and the invocation of her name whenever something a bit odd or grotesque pops up in one of our stories. I don’t think of her as a writer of the grotesque at all. I think of her stories as naturalistic (though I don’t think she’d like this word, so let me say selectively naturalistic) and humble (she would like this word). She’s become our go-to gal when contemporary writers want to list the exemplar they look to for guidance. This confuses me since her moral vision and her emphasis on telling the story on the humble, concrete level are two things less seen in short fiction these days. There’s a lot of stepping out of the contemporary story to deliver outré information or highlight a clever authorial strategy. There are epiphanies addicted to their own epiphanic writing. One of the things I struggled with was the wax artist story where I deliver some historical background. I’m pretty sure what her advice to me would have been: “Don’t feed the reader or don’t write the story.” She’s one of the few writers whose works function on all levels, including the spiritual, but never never never will she step out and draw attention to herself and her writing. The sun shining through the trees on the lost souls as the Misfit rides over the crest is the sun shining through the trees—no figurative language to guide us toward the anagogic, no metaphor. To use her as an exemplar would be to render your work invisible and today it’s all about making your writing visible and more visible. The writer today either doesn’t trust herself to keep it on this level or doesn’t trust the reader to understand that there is more to it. I think it’s probably true that readers don’t read as closely and astutely as they used to. Unreliable narrators are taken literally, for example—writer beware. Reviews are media-shapings rather than critical analyses. So writers feel like they have to make a bigger statement to make themselves heard or understood.
PROPELLER: How do the literary parts of your life fit together: writer, teacher, and editor? I’m especially interested to know if you feel you need to protect the writer part, and if so, how you do that.
NANCY ZAFRIS: Editing is a job I do solo, so in that sense, it’s not as enervating as teaching. I love teaching, but I always wanted to be a writer. I think if I wanted to teach as a career, I might have chosen high school since a high school teacher can make such a difference in someone’s life. But I didn’t choose teaching, I chose writing, so I eschewed any tenure-track type jobs at universities. I’ve taught at several universities but it’s always been as a substitute teacher, more or less, filling in for someone who’s on sabbatical or what-not. Teaching, when done right, is a huge commitment, a full-time job. Even though I don't teach full-time, it seems I'm always doing it, always getting another email or this and that request. I'm still trying to come up with strategies to protect myself, but I'm not very good at saying no. But this year, yes! I mean no. There are so many people who want to be writers and a fair number of them need a lot of help, and at times it’s like being the equivalent of a track coach: they’re running the 200-yard dash and I click my stopwatch and it says “97 seconds!” So what am I going to do as a good coach, tell them the truth and then get them down to 70 seconds, 50 seconds? It’s still not good enough. The thing is, as a track coach I simply need to show them the stopwatch as proof and shake my head sympathetically. See, you can’t get on the bus to go to the tournament yet. But in writing there is no stopwatch, and the writing equivalent of a 50-second runner can wave the story in my face and say I think it’s really good and you’re being a meanie! There isn’t such quantitative measure in writing. Well, let me correct myself. In a way, there is. There are now venues and certain types of online mags where the 50-second runners can get published, can even win contests with long impressive names so that it sounds like they’ve won the Nobel prize. You can rock the online world if that’s what you need for yourself. I’m glad, frankly, that I’m not committed full-time to teaching because I would feel I’m committing fraud. The teaching I do do, every summer at the Kenyon Review workshop, is something I love and the writing that comes out of it is really exciting.
PROPELLER: Much of your writing, including the essay you published not long ago in the New England Review about being a census worker, is concerned with social class, profession, race, and geography. How do you think being an Ohioan shapes these concerns?
NANCY ZAFRIS: First, about Ohio: Ohio is interesting to me because it has a strong middle class that earns wages high enough so that their lives aren’t so harsh, the way they are farther east where the middle class can hardly survive. Their lives aren’t always blocked by plot/survival so there is a chance for introspection and exploration. Ohio is unlike the East, where class and status seem so important every minute of the day. Ohioans’ choices and devotions are not so gothic as in Southern literature nor so adventurous as in Western or Southwestern. So you have to look harder to see what they’re about, and I enjoy that. Class: That’s a big issue. There are very few class-jumpers. Class seems to cement people in place, and others usually look no further than class to evaluate a person, and that evaluation is instant. It’s especially poignant to find people of talent, sensibility, and intelligence who may not even be aware of the pathways available to maximize their potential. Yet we see all the time people of moderate talent and intelligence become quite successful, the logical destiny of their class and knowing how to proceed, what the next step is and how that step is perceived and ranked. Being trapped with talent immediately creates tension, and that’s good for storytelling but not for life. There was a moment in that census essay you mention when I met the one person who seemed to want to jump out of his class but didn’t know how. He had given yuppie names to his children and even while he reamed me out while dressed in a wife-beater I began to understand him. I still think of him and wish him well and often wonder if he understands what the next step should be for his kids. It’s the big secret of class—that it’s a secret.
Nancy Zafris’s new story collection, The Home Jar, was published earlier this month by Switchgrass Books. Mary Rechner is the author of the story collection Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women.