February 2010

Tao Lin


An Interview with Zachary German

Zachary German (b. 1988) is the author of Eat When You Feel Sad, which is out this month from Melville House. It is his first novel and first book. Dennis Cooper said of it: ďZachary Germanís nimble, catwalking, archeological, surface dwelling, emotionally unpaved prose is a thing of total wonder and my favorite drug, language-based or otherwise. Eat When You Feel Sad is so bright and pleasurable and full of excellence, itís positively serene.Ē I said of it: "Moving, funny, emotional, and -- in a revolutionary way -- both highly-readable and avant-garde, Eat When You Feel Sad excites me very much in terms of literature and also life itself.Ē Other work by Zachary can be found by clicking "selected work" on his main website, where one can also find links to his other websites. I first met Zachary†in person June 28, 2006, when he read at KGB Bar with me, Noah Cicero, Tony O'Neill, Ned Vizzini, and Ellen Kennedy. I first corresponded with Zachary in a sustained manner July, 2007 in a series of emails that began July 6, a Friday night, at 10:57 PM. I first "hung out" with Zachary at some point early in 2008, I think, when he moved from Philadelphia to Brooklyn, where he lives today.

Eat When You Feel Sad has, I feel, a distinct and consistent prose style, made up of two prose styles (one for characters' thoughts, one for the third-person narrator of the book). Can you describe these prose styles?

I think the style of narration initially came out of trying to copy your style in Eeeee Eee Eeee, actually. Right after I read that book, I just tried to write about my own experiences while emulating that style. As time went by I read other books and thought about what I wanted, what would make me happy to have written. I thought about fiction and how you can only really choose what facts to tell and how to tell those facts. As far as facts go, one can choose what the facts are, and which facts to mention. When it comes to the telling the facts, there's really just syntax and word choice. I sort of knew from the start what the facts would be: a young man in a present day city, listening to music, getting drunk, trying to find meaning or a girlfriend. I knew I could write however many words about that I wanted, based on my own experiences and those of people I know, scenes from independent movies, whatever. As far as which facts to mention, I don't think I was too revolutionary; sometimes I would mention what color a character's shirt is, other times not. I realize that there are a lot of books about my subject matter, and I didn't kid myself that the experiences I could†summon would be any more powerful than that of the others. I felt like the only way to really make the work new and interesting would be through style, and the style I chose was a very consistent form of minimalism, in my syntax and word choice. I would always tell facts the same way. If someone were to say something, I would always use the word "say." If someone were to walk into a building, I would always use the phrase "walk into," never "go into," stuff like that. There are two lights in the main character's bedroom; when he used them, I would say "Robert turns on the overhead lamp," "Robert turns off the overhead lamp," "Robert turns on his bedside lamp," "Robert turns off his bedside lamp." So that was my thought process as far as that goes.

As with the dialogue, I really just tried to make the character's thoughts as realistic as possible. I realize that's a crazy / presumptuous thing to say; I guess I just chose a style that seemed to mirror the way I think, if, admittedly, very, very simplified.

What effect do you feel the prose styles of Eat When You Feel Sad will have on a reader that likes similar things that you like?

I would hope that a reader similar to me would take pleasure in seeing elements of their own experience written in a way they might not be used to. I would hope that they would welcome my attempt at objectivity, and perhaps use it as an occasion to reflect on their world and relationships, as I did on mine in writing the novel.

What facts did you decide to leave out of Eat When You Feel Sad?

In early drafts there is a lot of ďRobert feels happy,Ē ďRobert feels sad.Ē Those arenít really facts; to a lesser extent neither are thoughts, and I questioned leaving them in, as well. But I definitely took out the ďfeelsĒ sentences. Occasionally I changed bits of dialogue that seemed clunky to just ďRobert and Tom talk,Ē something like that. Otherwise just a lot of adjectives and adverbs.

What was your life like while writing the first draft of Eat When You Feel Sad? When did you work on it usually?

While writing the first draft, I was living in Philadelphia, and working at a thrift store five days a week from eleven forty-five a.m. to eight fifteen p.m. in a thrift store. I lived in a house with a roommate who I wasnít close with, but was a good guy who I got along with pretty well, and three cats, one of which was mine. I was vegan, and ate a diet high in carbohydrates. I would get drunk at parties, and sometimes go out with girls for brief periods of time. I usually worked on the novel after work, between around ten p.m. and two a.m., and some mornings / afternoons when I didnít have work, often writing about what I had done the night before.

What is your life like now? Are you working on a second novel?

Now I live in Brooklyn, and work five days a week, from about eleven a.m. to about four p.m., Monday through Friday, walking dogs in Manhattan. I live in an apartment with my girlfriend and three cats, one of which is mine. You live with us too, but are leaving soon. I eat meat and other things now, but my diet is probably healthier overall than when I lived in Philadelphia. Iím working on a second novel, though my writing schedule is pretty unorganized. Iím also writing poetry.

Can you tell us some things about your poetry? What are some things you've written poems about?

I think my poetry is a lot freer, or something. A lot less structured. My poetry is usually about personal experiences that are either too brief or confusing for me to be able to write about in prose. Sometimes it will be a combination of personal experience and other things. I have also written poems that were sort of reviews, of businesses or movies. One time I wrote a lot of poems about Jay-Z and then later a lot of poems about Young Jeezy, I think. I want to write a book-length poem about the Rolling Stones. Thatís something I think will happen some day. †

What books affected you most when you were in middle school and why?

Kurt Vonnegut was probably the first serious author I really got into. The summer after fifth grade, I think, my dad suggested a number of his books that were already in the house. I read The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, Cat's Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions. I think I was most taken with it by its feeling of freedom, that the author could do anything he wanted. While extremely readable, those books dealt with so much, from human emotion to politics to space and time travel. I really didn't have a context to relate it to, I just felt like it was magic.

I also read Justine by Marquis de Sade in, I think, sixth grade. I was interested in the questions of morality, the stories about people doing things for reasons that had nothing to do with the standards of society.

High school?

I got into Dennis Cooper the summer after eighth grade, I think, and read the George Miles cycle and a few of his other books. Really, for the same reason as Vonnegut, I was just really excited by what he was doing, I didn't understand it, necessarily, I just knew it was new, to me at least. Also, I started to write around then, and his use of dialogue, which seemed really honest and effective, influenced me right away.

I read American Psycho and Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis in high school too, and liked both of those books a lot. I remember texting someone that American Psycho was "epic," and my first attempt at a long-form prose piece was an attempt at rewriting the first one third of Glamorama, to be set on a large yacht.

Since dropping out of high school?

The whole "K-Mart realism" aesthetic has appealed to me a lot in recent years. I like the dialogue a lot, as well as the subject matter. I kind of got burnt out, or something, of the extreme subject matter I had been reading before, and was excited to see so much interesting writing about totally normal things. I liked the dialogue and narration in Ann Beattie's Chilly Scenes of Winter a lot. The whole thing seemed really matter-of-fact, even when dealing with obviously painful relationship issues.

Bob the Gambler by Frederick Barthelme really affected me. I had enjoyed his other novels, for similar reasons as I did Beattie's work, but when I read his description of gambling in Bob the Gambler my heart started beating really fast. He seemed to capture a feeling, the feeling of gambling, in a way I had never read any feeling described before. That scene only lasted maybe five pages, with the rest of the book, again, very matter-of-fact. The conclusion, of lives going on after the loss of many thousands of dollars, excited me, too. Money was gone, a house had to be sold, but lives went on. No resolution, nothing would really change.

I read Ellis's earlier work when out of high school, too. Less than Zero and Rules of Attraction affected me a lot, in their dialogue, narration, and sense of time. Also, I consciously chose to not make my novel extreme, as Ellis's work has been categorized, both for my desire to not be viewed that way, and my own distaste for those elements in his otherwise mundane portraits of disaffected youth culture.

Kobo Abe's Inter Ice Age IV, while probably typical of science fiction, excited me in the way the characters seemed to deal with personal matters very nonchalantly, while spending the majority of their mental energy on questions of science. I haven't written anything like this yet, though I feel like I probably will in the future. It all seemed very funny and sad, particularly the dialogue between scientist husband and homemaker wife.

Can you elaborate on your aversion to extreme elements, such as rape and murder, in portraits of disaffected youth culture?

I think I find those elements more unnecessary than anything else. I feel that in the first two thirds of so of Less Than Zero everything that Ellis wanted to get across about his generation had been gotten across. I felt like the violence at the end added nothing of value to the novel, while giving certain people an excuse to write it off as pornography. While it no doubt added a level of buzz, or something, I donít think it was an even trade. It just wasnít something I needed.

How do you envision, ideally, your writing career to be like?

Ideally, I would write and have published several more novels, in different styles and perhaps with different subject matter. I would write and have published several books of poetry. I would write and have published nonfiction books, including the histories of Harlem-based hip hop group The Diplomats and the America clothing retailer Aeropostale.

How do you envision, most disastrously, your writing career to be like?

I could imagine Eat When You Feel Sad being released to scattered lukewarm or negative reviews, me being unable to complete further work, Eat When You Feel Sad failing to sell its original print run, and stuff like that.

How would you compare Bret Easton Ellis' career with Jay McInerney's? Are you attracted or do you feel aversion toward elements of their careers when thinking about your own career?

Jeez. I guess I see Ellis as being a literary novelist and McInerney as being some other kind of novelist. Like a popular novelist or something. I donít know. Itís hard for me to really understand. I wish I knew how many copies of each of their books were sold, for each country. Also I would like to know how much money they each have, and how many cars and homes they each have. Without that information itís really hard for me to judge. I feel like they are equally successful, but that a graph mapping their successes throughout the years would be impossible to view, somehow.

I guess I am attracted to the fact that I think Jay McInerney writes a wine column for a famous magazine, but mostly feel aversion towards his career. I feel nothing but attraction towards Bret Easton Ellisís career.

One time we went at a Chinese restaurant with other people and you went in the bathroom and then came to the table and sat with us. Later I learned you had chugged a Sparks caffeinated alcoholic beverage in the privacy of the bathroom. Can you describe the drinking of the Sparks using the prose style of Eat When You Feel Sad? And then do it using a different kind of prose style?

Zachary is wearing a blue jacket. He is in a Chinese restaurant. Zachary looks at Tao. He looks at Jamie. Zachary says "I'm going to the bathroom." Zachary walks down stairs. He walks into a bathroom. He locks the door. Zachary looks at himself in the mirror. He thinks "Fuck." Zachary looks at himself in the mirror. He opens his mouth. He closes his mouth. There is a can of Sparks malt beverage in Zachary's jacket pocket. He picks up the can of Sparks malt beverage. He opens it. Zachary drinks from the can of Sparks malt beverage. He picks up his cell phone. Zachary looks at his cell phone. He takes a picture of himself with his cell phone, in the mirror. He puts his cell phone into his pocket. He finishes drinking the Sparks malt beverage. He puts the can of Sparks malt beverage into a trash can. He pees. He washes his hands. Zachary washes his face. He picks up a paper towel. He rubs the paper towel against his face. Zachary puts the paper towel into the trash can. He picks up a paper towel. He rubs the paper towel against his face. He puts the paper towel into the trash can. Zachary looks at himself in the mirror. He thinks "Fuck." He opens the door. He walks out of the bathroom. He walks up stairs. He sits down.

Chinese restaurant. Blue jacket. Says something. Walking. White people, Chinese people. Sees a Mexican. Knocks on a door, knocks again, opens the door. Locks the door, opens a can of Sparks. Thinks about what's happening, his girlfriend, thinks about his friend. The event he was at earlier, his novel, publisher. He has some Sparks in his jacket, takes it out, opens it, drinks it. Looks at his cell phone, takes a picture of himself in the mirror. Looks at his cell phone. Thinks about the internet. Puts his phone in his pocket, the Sparks in the trash. Pees, spits in the sink. Washes his face, hands. Thinks some more, looks at himself in the mirror. Remembers high school, rubs a paper towel against his face, another paper towel against his face. His face is dry. Opens the door, two people are waiting, walks upstairs, sits down.

How is your second novel currently different than your first novel?

The style is totally different. I donít think there are any quotation marks, or character names. While I want it to be a based on a certain structure, it wonít be as obvious as the subject predicate object format of every sentence in Eat When You Feel Sad. Itís a lot painterlier.

Besides prose style what are some other things that you think about when writing a novel?

I always want my writing to be engaging and relatable to peopleís lives. There is certain writing I have read which, while doing very interesting things with style, really removes any sort of human element from the narrative. I admire a lot of such work, but itís just not what I want to do. I canít speak for what I will do in the distant future, but for Eat When You Feel Sad and the novel Iím working on now, I aim to combine an interesting and hopefully unique style with characters and a narrative that reflects the human experience, hopefully in such a way that the two elements compliment each other.

Do you think every book you write will use a different -- however slight the difference is -- prose style? Or could you see yourself using the same prose style for a few different books, covering different subject manner?

I wonít say Iíll never do the same thing twice. I might. I donít really know whatís going to happen.

Tao Lin (b. 1983) is the author of five books of fiction and poetry. His second novel, Richard Yates, will be published September 2010. He has a blog.