Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Zach VandeZande’s fiction piece, Custom / Conditional
Sommer: With, “What can I say?,” you the author become a character in your own story even though you begin the story in close third from the Rodeo Queen’s point of view. I really love this playing with and breaking of a typical narrative. In this respect, it feels as if you’re breaking some of the customs and conditions of a “correct” narration. How conscious are you, when writing, of breaking certain writerly customs? Should writers attempt to push those literary constructs more?
Zach: I’ll work backwards here: yes, absolutely, I love it when writers push against established literary constructs, whether it’s the ones they’ve established in their own reader-author contract or more general ones. Done well, it can be like a magic trick, and when I come across a writer who does it really well (like how Joshua Ferris ends Then We Came to the End, for example, where [spoiler!] the 1st person plural POV becomes 2nd person inclusive of the reader) you get invited into the world of the story and feel complicit in this way that sort of blooms to the edges of your brain. Which is to say that I do it on purpose when I’m writing, in part because I get really jazzed when I find moments to surprise myself, to make little keyholes for me and the reader to look through and see each other a little better. And I think of writing, particularly flash, as performative, an act of creation between reader and author, and I like the idea that I can seed my stories with moments that invite the reader into the work.
Part of what your story shows us is that when girls and women stop being looked at as pretty things, they seem to lose their value in society—they disappear. Why, do you think? And what are some of the conditions keeping such a truth in place?
(caveat: as a cis-presenting white man with pretty significant blindspots sometimes, I’m probably super qualified to really dig into this question.) You know, one of the things I think about when I think of fairy tales is that we love to monster women. The quest that we’re shown over and over again for women is to enter into domesticity, at which point a woman ceases to have a narrative worth telling according to fairy tale convention, or else they don’t achieve this and become witches, temptresses, or otherwise evil. It’s obviously gross when you look it in its face, but it’s also so pervasive in every aspect of our culture that we stop seeing it.
One of the things I wanted to do in this piece, and in the series of pieces that it comes from, is push against those ideas, to try and make them plain and visible. Like, I want this ugly stuff to be seen and then rejected in my stories, and whether that’s an act of wish-fulfillment/naivete or not is sort of above my paygrade. But when you ask what conditions keep it in place, I think it’s stories. It’s narrative. Marginalizing women and other minoritized groups isn’t natural; it’s told, in the way all stories are told. And so I think I have a responsibility as a writer to think about the power I have when I’m telling a story, which is small, but not nothing.
It is so hard to write a complete and satisfying piece of flash fiction. I greatly admire what you’ve done here! How do you approach writing something that’s very, very short? Do you know ahead of time or does the subject determine the length? Finally, what are the differences for you between writing flash fiction and longer fiction, and at what point do you find satisfaction and call it a wrap?
I normally have some gut instinct in the first line whether what I’m beginning is going to be short or long. In fact, most of the flash fiction pieces I write come from me not having any story idea whatsoever when I sit down to write, and so it’s almost a different mode of writing entirely than when I’m writing something longer. This has led to a piece of advice I give my students when they’re stuck or they don’t know what to do: write the first declarative sentence that pops into your head, no matter how dumb or bad, and then spend the rest of your time with the piece reacting to that first sentence.
So the flash fiction usually springs from an idea or an emotional reality that I stumble across, but longer stuff like a 20-pager or the novel I’m working on spring from a character I’m thinking on. And I can say that I almost never feel satisfied with a longer piece, but with flash I sort of know when I’ve moved the narrative or the idea I’m working with into an emotionally powerful place, and by then I know any more screwing with it is probably just my anxiety working.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
YES! First, go read Elisa Gabbert’s Blunt Instrument column on rejection and then Kim Liao’s “Why you Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year” over at Lit Hub, because they lay it out better than I can. The short version is this: aim for rejection. Make the world tell you no instead of telling it to yourself. Focus this part of the writing job on process, not success.
I pulled this off when I first started submitting by gamifying it. I gave myself points when I submitted, and then I could spend those points on dumb stuff I would normally feel guilty about buying for myself. It doesn’t have to be so craven and capitalist as that, but you’ve got to find ways to strip the emotional labor/anxiety out of the process and just say “I submitted something to five places today, and that means I won.”
Thank you for doing this with me, and congratulations!
Thank you so much!