Zsuzsi Gartner is the author of the short story collections All the Anxious Girls on Earth and Better Living through Plastic Explosives (shortlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize), and the editor of Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow. In November 2014, she appeared at KPU as a part of the “Women Writers: How Do They Work” panel.
I’m struck by the use of reoccurring motifs in your stories. I was delighted every time I came across terry cloth shorts in Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. Do you deliberately make these distinctive images reappear to give cohesion to a collection of stories, or is there a different motive?
You’ve identified one of the idiot-savant-ish aspects of my writing. Certain things are deliberate, such as the Biblical motifs, while other things, like the terry cloth shorts are a result of just too much stuff jostling about in my brain that it ends up as flotsam rather than jetsam. I guess in the case of the too-short terry cloth shorts they’re a kind of shorthand for a certain kind of gal—sassy, ballsy, and somewhat tacky. When I combed through the page proof of both my books, I was shocked and pleased by the recurring motifs that seemed to hang together. And in both books there’s the sudden violence and explosions—I was more aware of this while writing Better Living than Anxious Girls.
I heard a rumour that whenever you read a story, you start with the last page. What’s the though process behind that choice?
That’s not true at all, but I can see how the rumour got started. I’ve talked about writing my ending first or very early in the process. So I think that got turned into, like during that whispering game, Telephone, me reading endings first. I’ve never done that and never will. Not with stories, novels, non-fiction, anything.
Endings come to me fully formed pretty easily—not simply the “what” happens, but the entire last paragraph or last page, and I rarely change a word of them. The challenge becomes earning the ending and the whole struggle is closing the gap between the opening and the ending, whether that’s five pages, 10 pages, or 30 pages.
Many of your stories are set in a stylized, futuristic version of Vancouver. Is this a consistent world that you revisit in multiple stories, or are you starting from scratch each time?
The majority of the time I write about the physical city exactly as it exists in reality, using real places and place names, bus number and routes, shops, parks etc. Vancouver is a weird place which is simultaneously still inventing and reinventing itself, it’s “a work in progress,” as Doug Coupland has said. You could map all my Vancouver stories on a current map of Vancouver. But the things that happen in that realistic physical space are slant or outright fantastical. I do set some stories a few years into the future so that I’m more free to invent. But time catches up with me. For example, when I wrote “Investment Results May Vary” (in which Nina has to perform community service for a minor crime, promoting the upcoming Vancouver 2010 Olympics by wearing a Marmot mascot costume and parading around Granville Island) the Olympics were at least four years off. When the story was published in book form (it had been published in a magazine in 2007), they were recent history. But since things happen in the story, such as houses being sucked into the ground, that didn’t happen in “real life,” it’s a kind of slant history.
I try very hard to make the implausible plausible by grounding everything else as specifically as I can in the real world. So, to use “Investment Results” as an example again, when the houses disappear into the earth, the media reports and speculates on the phenomenon and I quote the media reports; various groups visit the sites of the disappearances, including Native groups, and hold ceremonies; real estate agents and home owners are fucked over as there are no insurance policies to cover what happens, and this deeply affects a secondary character, Honey Fortunata, who needs mega-bucks in order to save her heroin-addicted hooker sister. And I deliver this is in a deadpan, rather than excited and melodramatic way, in order to make it more convincing. In the title story, Lucy attends a 12-step group for recovering terrorists, but everything else in the story is completely realistic (or so I like to think!). The four-sided neon clock on the top of city hall really does, or did for a long while, shows different times on each face. I used that detail to convey a sense of disconnection for Lucy when she visits city hall with her son.
The greater the specificity of your writing, the greater the verisimilitude. I like to quote modernist architect Mies van der Rohe on this: “God is in the details.” (Although he wasn’t the originator of the phrase, he made it well known)
Can you explain your process of how a story comes to be? Do you have a sense, when you begin, of where the story is going, or does it catch you by surprise?
A lot of my stories are concept-driven, rather than character or image-driven. There is an idea I want to explore and need to find the vehicle with which to explore it. For example, in “The Nature of Pure Evil,” in Anxious Girls, I was interested in the idea of happiness being a mental disorder, as recently reported at the time in Harper’s Magazine, and, as I continue to be, in the nature of evil and in revenge and vengeance. With “The Summer of the Flesh Eater,” in Better Living, I was interested in the idea of devolution and also had been reading a lot of Darwin and wanted to write a story in which I could use Darwin, his ideas, but also, Darwin the man. The other thing I was interested in at the time, and still am, is how hard it must be to be a man in the 21st century. How do men choose what kind of man to be? It all came together when I was sitting in my shrink’s waiting room reading a Maclean’s Magazine that had a “special report” on the state of manhood, including an article about metrosexuals. That all sounds kind of overly intellectualized, but then I try to have fun with the ideas and the characters before arriving somewhere darker and heartbreaking with it all.
You have said that many of your stories are “questioning the commonplace that faith/belief have to stand in opposition to science.” How do you take a rather large and complicated issue, like this faith vs. science fallacy, and bring it to life in a story?
Well, I think I have yet to succeed. The story in which I tackle this most transparently, head on, in fact, is “Someone is Killing the Great Motivational Speakers of Amerika,” in which the protagonist, who is a successful, though not great, motivational speaker, is escaping from what she perceives are physical reprisals by scientists (Tony Robbins has disappeared, although no body has been found after eight months; two other motivational speakers have died under mysterious circumstances; and Deepak Chopra travels around wrapped in Kevlar and with armed guards). Granted, her faith is not in religion, but the more metaphyscial “bioenergetics.” But she is willing to use science to serve her own ends. Meanwhile, her son’s girlfriend, Samantha, is a Christian and wears a purity ring, signifying a promise to God to stay “pure” until marriage, which disgusts the motivational speaker. So she thinks of her own “faith” as more powerful than science, while denigrating Sam’s faith in God and her son Dodge’s “misplaced faith in science.” I loved writing this story. The language of science is so fantastic and lends itself well to fiction and poetry. I worked really hard to create verisimilitude in this story, did tons of research, and had fun writing it. And yet, I think of it as a failed story as I don’t think anyone actually liked it or got it.
The short story, as a medium, seems to be getting some extra attention since Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize. Do you feel this has made lasting difference for short story writers?
Yeah, and George Saunders won the inaugural Folio Prize last spring. But I’m afraid not. Just this week I learned of a fantastic story collection by a friend of mine being rejected, even though the editor championing the book was head-over-heels with it, because it wasn’t a novel. When last year’s Giller Prize nominees were announced, every shortlisted book made the G&M Canadian bestseller list except Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing, the only story collection. After Lynn won, there was a bit of a bump, but nothing like even the most esoteric novels that have won have received. My own collection Better Living was turned down by British and U.S. publishers who told my Canadian publisher (Penguin), “love the writing, let us know when she has a novel.” Three examples. I could offer a myriad more, but I’d just end up getting really steamed.
You’ve taught writing in various capacities, including the UBC MFA program and the Banff Centre. Do you believe that writing can be taught? Looking back on your own career trajectory, can you pinpoint what programs or experiences taught you to be a writer?
Talent can’t be taught. Techniques can be taught. Reading as a writer can be taught. The wide range of possibilities can be presented to those willing to take the leap. The choice of path is very specific to each individual, each program, the mentor/s you end up with or don’t end up with, etc. I recommend the book MFA VS NYC edited by Chad Harbach to anyone trying to decide between applying to a Creative Writing program or just doing it. It’s very American, but speaks to what’s happening to a lesser extent in Canada as well. At the Banff Centre, except for the Writing with Style program, it isn’t so much “teaching” writing as mentoring writers and critiquing existing writing one-on-one. Reading and writing taught me how to write. Working as a journalist and just bumbling through life has provided the material. What I wouldn’t recommend is a first and only undergraduate degree straight out of high school being creative writing—that’s 15-20 blind people in the room trying to describe an elephant while the trainer cleans up the huge dollops of poop.
Here’s some advice I gave wanna-be authors in another interview a few years ago:
Read, read more, think about why you want to write the things you write, read, read, write sentences, loads of sentences, read some more, think about how you want to write the things you write, read, read & read more, take writing and the world seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously, don’t be precious, and read some more. Eat yummy food, drink modestly (at times immodestly), have fun, listen to your children and your letter carrier, read some more. Take up piano or tap dancing or medieval sword fighting. Learn to make pizza on the BBQ. Read YA steam punk and graphic novels. Read the newspaper. Don’t fret about genre divisions. Don’t worry about whether it’s too weird. Enjoy fruitful emotions like anger and guilt. Don’t worry about whether your mother will like it. Throw out more of your writing than you keep (20X more, 50X more). Someday you may have a book.
I could add to that: Go ride an elephant.
interview by Stephanie Peters, from Issue #9, Fall 2014