Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Vivian Zenari’s fiction piece, bill
John: It’s really hard to write a character with cognitive dysfunction, as you’ve done here, but your narrator feels authentic. Any tips on how this is done?
Vivian: I try not to see the character as dysfunctional but as someone with a particular world view. I am also willing to see myself as someone who has that world view at least in part, and I draw on those parts of myself that intersect with my character. It’s kind of like method acting (not that I’m an actor): you enter the character and try to react to situations in the way the character does.
The slow reveal in this piece is very effective. Did you plan how you were going to do this, or are you more a seat-of-the-pants writer?
I’ve rewritten this story a million times! If you gave me the opportunity, I would continue to rewrite it. Getting a story published is the only way I know to keep myself from rewriting it. I see the value in a quick draft; that is how I start. I am never satisfied, however, with what I write—whether the first draft, the fourth draft, or the eighteenth draft.
The gradual loss of the mind has left your narrator with very little beyond his habits. Is this all we are—a collection of habitual behavior, or is there something more?
I think we are a collection of habits, but those habits can be eroded and rebuilt by interactions with the world. I guess my view of human behaviour is like my revision practice: the story (person) is there at the centre, but the details of the story, including formal details, are changeable, even to the point where the core is altered. Bill idealizes his past; he may get more pleasure from it than perhaps he did while he was living it.
This story also touches on entitlement and its loss. Is the narrator’s lingering sense that he is owed something just one more piece of habitual behavior, or does it go deeper than that?
Bill revels in a past that gives him more pleasure than his present does. That past is still part of him, yes, yet he can only access it through memory and through the vestiges of that past that remain in the material world, such as the existence of his old neighbourhood. Remembering the past, recycling it, even, permits him to feel that pleasure again. For him, the present represents a loss of a glorious past, so he dwells on the present only insofar as it contrasts negatively with his past. That, I suppose, is one way to look at “entitlement”: a sense that the present should be as good as the past was, and disappointment/anger at not having that goodness anymore. Some people may try to regain the pleasure of the past, and I suppose some people can get it back if they have enough economic and social power. Other people, though, live in circumstances so different from their past ones that reifying past pleasures is impossible.