Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen is destined to be an auspicious debut. When my former editor, Richard Nash, asked me to read Zazen in manuscript and told me it would be his first debut at Red Lemonade, I jumped at the opportunity. I knew it would be good. I quickly devoured it, and this is what I had to say (I love quoting myself!): “At turns hilarious, unsettling, and improbably sweet, Veselka’s debut is, above all, a highly engaging, and totally unique experience, which will have you re-reading passages and dog-earing pages. But best of all, in the end, Zazen is that rare novel which dares to be hopeful in the face of despair, and succeeds.”
I’ll stand by those words. And I’ll probably quote them again somewhere soon. In the meantime, I’m gonna interview Vanessa. One of the reasons I think Vanessa has so much voice, and such confidence in her voice, is that she is not a child of the classroom, but a child of the world. She’s been a runaway, a cab driver, and a sex worker along the way, and a whole lot more.
JE: V, tell me how your occupational life has informed your outlook, and informed your writing?
VV: I rely heavily on my personal experience and not always in the way people think. The popular image is of a writer plucking a character or a situation out of their past and dropping it in their fiction wholesale. But I’m an amoral scavenger. I’ll take an extremely painful, meaningful experience, pulverize it to dust and use the remaining grains somewhere utterly frivolous, meaningless and transitory with no regard for their feelings. I’m craven. That said, in Zazen, I used temporary careers of mine to employ a whole cast of characters. Working a lot of different jobs, moving around, dating a zillion people, changing majors like hair color leads to a lot of financial and emotional instability—I mean it’s a friggin’ disaster really, a bad idea—but gold for writing. More than the personal trials that come from that, what I got was an education in different social and economic classes. I became practiced in the vernacular of sub-cultures. It’s really a very American thing.
As a classroom student of writing, I have failed. My one brief interlude of trying a more traditional route was a fiasco. I’m not suited for it.
JE: Whatever you’re doing, it’s working. Zazen suspended my disbelief in a way that many dystopian novels fail to. While we’re on the subject of using our experience to color our art, talk to me about the nuances and differences of using narrative as your vehicle versus music. And tell us a little bit about your musical background, so we might have a little context.
VV: Most of my life I was about music. I was in a band called Bell in the 1990s and after that in a two-piece called The Pinkos with Steve from The Gits. I ran a label (into the ground) and booked tours. I did a lot of van-touring, which basically means working the equivalent of two low-wage jobs for nine months for the seedy glory of visiting 40 towns that didn’t particularly want you there in the first place. All so you can play for 16 people and sleep in a van. I loved it. None of my bands were hugely successful but we made records and friends and, to my mind, anything that breaks the relentlessness of a dumb job is good. Perspective. Worth it at any cost. When I had my daughter, I no longer had the leeway to tour, financially or childcare-wise. I didn’t do anything for a couple years and it nearly killed me. I wrote some songs but didn’t have money to make a record or tour. Then I started writing fiction when she was about three or four. A couple of short stories. They got published and then I started on Zazen. The differences in narrative are huge. I think I was always trying to tell a story that was too large for a song. If I had been a Dylan kind of writer it would have been fine but I was in love with rock and roll. I had a 19th century novel in my head and was trying to make it sound like AC/DC, Neil Young, and The Fumes. It was a strange pony. Knock-kneed, oddly dappled. I was always trying to take things out. Writing my first novel I was in a euphoric state of letting it all come, like the restriction was gone and I could finally throw down. People have said to me several times that Zazen could only have been written by a musician. I’m not totally sure what they mean but I do work a lot from sentence rhythm. I read everything aloud.
JE: Thank God for your kid! Your touring experiences have prepared you well for the literary life, btw! It is not glamorous, but it is essential. So, I’ve gotta’ ask about being a runaway and a sex-worker, because, well, people wanna’ know.
VV: That bio came out of a funny thing. I was writing up a resume (for some dumb job again) and was getting pretty demoralized. So I threw it away and wrote a real resume reflecting my actual human experience. It had things in it like, “Sold flowers on the LA freeway June ’84 – Jun ’84. Worked with cash and successfully stayed out of the way of gangs. Often changed water before it was absolutely necessary.” Believe me, that resume was far racier than my writer bio. I did it as an exercise—you know, what we do for 15-20 years really shouldn’t fit on a sheet of paper—but it turned out to be empowering in a back-handed way. When Arthurmag.com asked for a bio I gave them a shorter, cleaner version of that. It was kind of a small flag on a small hill. I didn’t think much about it. Now that it’s all over the place, I do get a little shy about it but it seems cowardly to excise the sex-worker part. The Millions even used my bio in a piece debating whether writers should just put ‘legitimate’ stuff like their MFA experience and quarterly publications. The writer admitted (albeit somewhat shyly) that she worried people who didn’t get MFA’s weren’t serious about their writing, but rather, they were out there doing other things instead. My answer would be, you tell me how “serious” you have to be about writing to do it with a 2 year-old and a shitty job and on food stamps. A lot more serious than you have to be to get funded to sit in an MFA program and contemplate Flannery O’Connor. Again. That said, the writer was pretty fair and I thought it was a good piece.
Ok, so back to your question about sex work and being a runaway. There are a lot of women (men too, of course) out there who work these jobs and have no public representation. It is an honest part of my past and it affected me greatly so I included it. But my experience wasn’t a glamorous one. In the last fifteen years there have been a lot of gains made giving visibility and credit to workers in the sex industry. I know a zillion hot, confident, vibrant women with other options who choose to do sex-work at some point in their life. The stigma has receded in the urban, high paying jobs. So that’s great. But I didn’t experience it as empowering. People forget that it’s not all pretty 25 year-olds with degrees in Women’s Studies swinging around those poles. It is also (and more often) uneducated moms barely making stage fees out by the airport too. As an underage sex-worker, I was closer to that. The world I was in was dangerous, mean-spirited, and frightening. It was a world without power. I did all that from 15-19 years old. I wasn’t really a hooker but I was more than a stripper. How’s that for diplomatically vague? Bigger than a breadbox smaller than a Volvo? Ultimately being a teenage sex-worker is like being a teenage anything else—you fall in love with stupid people, dye your hair a lot and obsess over how your body looks. You’re just doing it in a more dangerous world. And if you think high school girls are mean, you should try bitter, cracked-out 35 year-old strippers who are trying to keep their regulars.
JE: This all comes back to what I said in my intro about you. I really believe that one of the big reasons you have such a unique voice is because you’ve lived a unique life, and exposed yourself (no pun intended) to so much in the way of unique experiences. On the surface, there’s nothing terribly unique about the collegiate experience, or the corporate experience, or the experience of suburban malaise–not to say there hasn’t been wonderful bodies of work produced out of those experiences, but each is beholden to a certain degree of conformity. I feel like this conformity would likely suffocate you, even more than most writers. Aside from your wayward MFA experience, have you ever found yourself trapped in a situation which threatened to suffocate your, shall we say, uniqueness?
VV: I find a lot of things suffocating that others don’t. If it’s a flaw in my character, it’s a deep one. I have to point out that while I’ve had a lot of experience with vagrancy, alienation, debauchery, etc. I have also lived among the upper-middle class, been expelled from private schools, and eaten in a lot of fancy restaurants. I mention that because there is more writer cred attached to poverty and desperation but not so much to privilege and in my case both are true. And it’s the range that has helped me most as a writer. I have never thought of myself as rebellious so much as stubborn. It’s always been highly disturbing to me that the things I value above all others are socially meaningless and seem to be associated with a dissolute life. I never woke up and said, I’m pissed off and I’m going to do whatever they tell me not to! I just woke up and went about my business and it looked that way. It often happens that someone in a position of authority gets mad at me because they think I’m challenging them, but really it’s because I haven’t noticed their authority at all. I’m kind of authority blind. As a writer, this has helped me hear my own voice. But I’ve also never had to find it. What I have had to do is work hard to figure out how to write about anything that meant something to me without feeling I was reducing it to glibness.
So have I ever found myself in a situation that threatened to suffocate my “uniqueness?” (Just thought I’d return to your actual question Johnny!) Yes. And no. I have an eject button for situations like that and it works pretty well. But like most eject buttons, it brings about a new set of problems. So what do I find suffocating? Jobs that expect you to care more about their customer base than being a vibrant human being. Educational models that reward adoration. Living around people that are absolutely satisfied with television and pot and $125 Ozzy Tickets.
And…I should say, I’m not against MFAs. It’s like guns, you know? Guns don’t kill people, people kill people? MFAs aren’t to blame for boring writing. Then again I’ve never really agreed with that argument about guns… If they’re there, you’re more tempted to use them. Like MFAs. Seriously though, I’m not anti-MFA. Some of my best friends went to MFAs.
JE: Technically, it’s the bullets that kill people–not to be a stickler, or anything. So, now that your auspicious debut is behind you, in terms of the writing, I mean, what’s next? Anything you can talk about?
VV: Well Johnny, technically death kills people. But who is quibbling? What’s after Zazen? I’m still ranging around between two different novels. Like most writers, the more I talk about it the less I’ll write. Currently, I’m not writing anything because if I were trying to write now I’d be a cranky bastard and wouldn’t be able to have this wonderful conversation with you. And I’m not being sarcastic. Everything in its time. When things settle down I’ll be back at it 3-6 hours a day. Living the dream. Building intimate relationships with imaginary people. It’s a tricky deal, this fiction thing. Highly anti-social. It’s kind of a relief to step aside and enjoy the moment. And it will be a great relief to return to the discipline too.