An Interview with Christopher Barzak
Christopher Barzak's a noted short story writer whose first story appeared in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet in 1999. His second novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing, has just been released and his first novel, One for Sorrow, won the Crawford Award. The Love We Share Without Knowing is set in Japan and was written during the two years that Barzak spent there teaching English. Like his first book, it is a searching and haunting work that explores both adolescence and the connections to other people that are found or sought in life, and also in things that may be beyond life.
Elizabeth Hand, in the Village Voice, described Barzak's first novel, One for Sorrow, as "a lyrical ghost story as moving -- and credible -- as it is unsettling." One for Sorrow offers a supernatural glimpse that makes one wonder if Holden Caulfield and Teddy McCardle secretly attended the same high school in a working class town outside of Youngstown, Ohio. On the release of One for Sorrow an extensive "Barzak Day" was celebrated in the blogosphere and his first published story, "A Mad Tea Party" from LCRW #5, can be found online. The writer Meghan McCarron summed him and his work up on Barzak Day by saying, "Chris is one of those rare, remarkable people who makes whatever you're doing a little more meaningful, a little more fun and maybe even beautiful. Even more remarkable, these same qualities translate to his writing." Christopher Barzak's blog is Meditations in an Emergency and he loves receiving surprise postcards.
What was it like when your first book came out?
When One for Sorrow came out, I got a lot of requests from local news and radio and TV interviews. I guess that is what happens when a guy from a dead steel town publishes a novel. I felt like I was running around non-stop and I don't think it was a completely sane experience. Life was really, really weird for several months. Having my first book published changed my life in a lot of good ways, but it was also oddly stressful. I hadn’t realized or anticipated these aspects prior to having a book published. I’d been publishing short stories since I was twenty-four, and had received positive response for those, but that was a smaller audience reading those stories, so it didn’t feel as present and in my foreground to the same extent that publishing a novel did. Despite the somewhat stressful and anxiety-inducing aspects of making something so private into a public thing, I was elated, and hoped the high wouldn't wear off too quickly. Being a writer is what I’ve wanted to be and have worked toward since I was a little kid, so realizing that dream was more overwhelming for me because I’d been so driven and focused on it for so long. Different aspects of the world and living suddenly came into a very sharp focus because of it happening.
How are you and what have you been writing?
I'm doing fairly well lately, thanks, especially since it's summer and I'm taking a break from everything but having fun in general. I've been working on my third novel, Wonders of the Invisible World, which is a sort of coming of age/family chronicle told from the perspective of one of the family's youngest, most recent members, who is a sort of very non-mystical seer. But the rub is, he can't see into the future, only the past. So the book is largely about hindsight and nostalgia and the effects of looking backward.
Where do you write?
I usually write in my office, on a laptop, at home. I sometimes go to a cafe or restaurant to work, or a library, but only when I feel like I need to get out of the house and have a change of scenery. I don't get much done in these other places, though, because I'm constantly distracted by other people's conversations and the general hubbub of a coffee shop atmosphere. It's good for a day if I need that change of scenery, though.
Have you been reading lately? Any books worth mentioning?
I've been reading a lot lately. Dan Chaon's collection, Among the Missing. Re-reading Isabelle Allende's novel, The House of the Spirits. And also reading a non-fiction book called, Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead by Christine Wicker. I love Dan Chaon's writing, and in this collection he's at the top of his game. I like re-reading books years after reading them for the first time, as a measure of my memory of the book and also to see if I understand it in a different way, and re-reading Allende's novel ten years after my first encounter with it has been extremely rewarding. I think I understand politics better now than I did when I was twenty-three, and that’s helped me not only enjoy The House of the Spirits more, but has made me understand the heart of its argument a lot better, too. Possibly the enjoyment and comprehension of a book are very related for me in this case. The Lily Dale book is mostly for research on communities that form around supernatural beliefs that aren't generally approved of or taken seriously by society. It's something to do with the third novel I'm working on at the moment.
You mentioned your third novel. When is the second being released and what's it about?
The second novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing, is being released November 25th. It's set in Japan, where I lived for two years, and is told through multiple characters' perspectives. It's about love in its many forms -- love of country, familial love, romantic love, same-sex love, opposite-sex love, doomed love, and lots of other kinds too -- and it's about how people are connected to each other without always realizing those connections, how deep they go, and how they influence and affect one another's lives without knowing. The characters range from a fifteen year old boy whose father has relocated their family to a somewhat remote town in Japan for a job, a group of Americans teaching English in Japan, one in particular who has lost her Japanese lover in 9/11, a Japanese man who goes blind when he is seen by a blind man, a young girl searching for her true identity in a confusing po-mo Tokyo, and the survivor of a suicide club. There are other storylines involved, but that's a sample of what you'll find in the book.
How does writing affect you physically? If you're going to be writing nonstop for a long weekend, do you eat anything special or do stretches?
I tend to get physically exhausted if I do long periods of writing, which I don't often do. Two to four hours at a time seems to be what I'm capable of doing before I start to feel cramped and begin losing focus and want to cast my attention on something other than the computer screen or notebook. While I'm writing, it's sort of like how I feel when I actually am working out at the gym. I tend to zone out a bit. The rest of the world becomes background and my foreground becomes intensely focused on whatever I'm imagining. It's only when the exercise I'm doing, or the position in which I'm sitting to do my writing, becomes physically annoying or painful that I stop what I'm doing and need to move on to something else. Other than that, I tend to keep a glass of wine nearby when I'm writing. Or, if I'm not feeling up for wine, it's green tea or coffee.
What books are within your reach or on your desk at the moment?
Marguerite Duras's The Lover (this month's book club selection here in Youngstown), Edward Carey's Observatory Mansions, which is weird and wonderful, and Kevin Brockmeier's new collection, The View from the Seventh Layer, which is as magical as everything else he's written.
Also, a Japanese dictionary, very beat up and dog-eared. It was with me during the two years I lived in Japan, and I still use it occasionally when I'm stuck with writing to distract me. I like looking at foreign words and getting outside of English when it seems to be defeating me or eluding me in some way.
In some circles, people mention how you pressed Kelly Link's Stranger Things Happen into their hands with at least a smidge of zeal. What was it about her first collection that spoke to you?
The first time I read a Kelly Link story, I felt like I had stumbled across someone who saw the world and people in it in a completely different way than any other writer I’d been reading. The structures of her stories and the originality of her sentences simply make me a happier person, in that way that is not always explainable, the way your best friends or wife or husband or girlfriend or boyfriend or certain co-workers or pets tend to make us happier. But if I were to try to analyze what Kelly’s writing for what exactly it is about it that gets me, it’s how each of her stories have their own individual existence, and work on their own terms. This is a very rare kind of writer. I think more often, writers have a certain kind of story they can tell, and a few different ways to tell it. Kelly seems to have a gazillion ways to tell her stories. I’m always excited when another one is published.
How far along is Wonders of the Invisible World?
I’ve written about 275 pages of it so far, and anticipate that it will range somewhere between 450-500 in its final form. Of course, I could also be horribly wrong about the length, but because it’s trying to capture not only the personal story of its narrator but a larger story of his family (and perhaps by way of their story, a cultural story of America), it feels like it needs more pages than the first two novels, which are smaller in scope. I try to figure out how to write a different kind of story or how to write a different kind of structure (sometimes both) in each book that I do. This one is me trying to figure out the big novel, the family generational saga, The Great American Novel (which feels like such an outdated kind of thing, and yet I find myself interested in it as a concept that feels somewhat foreign in the twenty-first century. It’s an old notion, and I like old things.)
Would you say that nostalgia for youth is a driving theme in your work, or, if it's not nostalgia, what appeals to your aesthetics and that theme?
I’m not sure if nostalgia for youth is a driving theme in my work, but youth and the perspective of youth certainly is. What I mean is, I’m not sure if it’s nostalgia for youth itself, but the way of seeing that we have as young people, when everything is for the first time. The world is a more mysterious place. It is always mysterious, but it feels even more so, I think, when we’re encountering it as children and young adults for the first time, before we grow used to certain aspects of it and the structures we’ve made for ourselves to live in. I think it’s when our perceptual faculties are at their cleanest, mainly because we often have a more limited amount of and kinds of experience as young people, and so have little to compare and contrast with the world we’re processing at that time. And because I feel a kinship with Franz Kafka’s values in regards to books, that they should be an ax to break up the frozen sea within us, I think taking the perspectives of youth in our fiction is one way to break out of what we think we know by returning to a time and place in our lives when we were looking at things with fewer expectations.
How did you get involved with Rabid Transit and what led to it evolving from a zine to a press?
Rabid Transit was an annual mini-anthology that I and a few friends (Kristin Livdahl, Alan DeNiro, and Barth Anderson) who I attended a writing workshop with in the late '90s started putting together sometime around year 2000, I think. We started out doing it as a lark, and each contributed one of our own stories. Then people actually read the thing, and we continued putting one out each year after that for several year, inviting writers whose work attracted us to submit, particularly writers who were just starting out. Then Barth’s life got a lot busier, but Alan and Kristin and I continued with the project, and eventually decided that we needed to take a different direction. One of our mission statements was to provide a space for weird stories, for innovative writing, for stories that didn’t seem like they could fit anywhere else. But over the years, it seemed like there were a lot of places like Rabid Transit starting to crop up online and in zine form, etc, and we decided to continue evolving by publishing novellas instead. The novella is a form that doesn’t get a lot of play these days because it’s too long for magazines, which make most of their money off of advertising and don’t want to give so much space to a long story, and also because they’re not long enough for book publishers, who want novels above anything else. We started our new novella line, Electrum Novellas, this year, with a novella called The Sun Inside, by David J. Schwartz, the very fine writer of the novel Superpowers.
And now, today, your second book is officially out on its own in the world, perhaps showing that slow conversations can have a purpose after all. How does it compare to the first time?