Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Emily Zasada’s fiction piece, Morning Sun
Sommer: I find this story beautiful and empowering—empowering because here we have a female protagonist being allowed to NOT be a Janet with her red dress, gold earrings, and brilliant laugh. You have created an entirely human woman in this story, not one held captive by what society and culture are constantly demanding from women: beauty, lightness, whimsy, simplicity, intrigue, sensuality. Where do you go to read about complex women in fiction? Do you have any favorite books or authors who focus on truthful, multifaceted, challenging female characters?
Emily: I love this question! And, yes—I can think of several authors who create complicated female characters. They’re mostly short story writers, but that’s probably because I read a lot of short stories! Joy Williams is one of the first ones who comes to mind. For example, her story “Chicken Hill” is about an elderly woman near the end of her life who is an entirely believable mix of longing and crusty independence. Tessa Hadley is another author who creates magnificent complex female characters. “Under the Sign of the Moon” is a story about an older woman who meets a man that she’s both strangely drawn to and repulsed by. I love it when authors can create characters like these that have entirely separate desires and wishes that exist simultaneously, and sometimes in opposition to one another. It’s almost like listening to complex harmonies, except in the form of a story rather than music.
Additionally, as readers, how can we guard against seeking out and indulging in “safe,” expected portrayals of women? In other words, how can we learn to go to those places and people in fiction that make us feel uncomfortable, and are better for it?
Reading good literature in school is probably a start. I think it’s important to see from as young an age as possible that a female character can be complex. Expected portrayals of women can’t ring true in contrast—they’re shown to be false narratives.
I love, love your long sentences. I sometimes wonder if the longer sentence is the feminine creative spirit’s defiance of the domineering masculine hold upon literature. How conscious are you of this as you craft a story, and what do you think longer, complex sentences can add to the elements of a story?
When I first thought of this story, it wrote itself in my mind in these long sentences, and it seemed like the only way to approach it. For me, long complex sentences are very freeing; there’s something almost musical about the way they can be used to string thoughts and images together. I always try to figure out why I like certain stories so much. Of course, sometimes that’s not easy to pin down, but some of my favorites give an impression that there’s something like a cold wind blowing straight through them from the beginning to the end, or maybe it’s like entering rushing water—a sense of constant movement, of time shifting. Long sentences are a tool that help to create that effect, but they’re only a tool; the core subject also has to lend itself to that overall impression as well. In the case of this story, Nora has a sense that time is slipping away from her—at times it’s either compressing, or folding backwards, or accelerating into the future—and the long sentences are a tool to sweep that feeling along through the story.
This is a story without much action, yet it is very compelling. What tools did you use in order to bring movement into a fairly static story?
Again, probably the long sentences, as well as a lot of imagery. Light, in particular, is something I’m always conscious of including in all of my stories. Light is very active: it fades, it brightens, it denotes time, it leaves shadows. Details are important too; they’re little anchors that carve out moments, and then those moments are strung together, which can sometimes give a sense of movement—possibly it creates an impression of something similar to a fast slideshow.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
To tell you the truth, I always see rejection as a marvelous thing, because it means that I’m writing! It’s impossible to be rejected if you aren’t writing—and for someone who is a writer, not writing can be very frustrating. All that really matters is that I’m creating something. Not everything works, and that’s fine.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!