The PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize winner on her debut dystopian novel and the role of American fiction in the face of escalating violence.
Image via Heather Hawksford Photography
Vanessa Veselka will not be pinned down easily. Ask her a question and she will work her way through it in rings, half-respectful, half-indignant, apologizing for her cyclical ruminations as she goes. Ruthlessly self-aware and beguilingly unwilling to give a pat response, Veselka tends to dig in her heels, to stay put, and to allow her reactions to complicate—which is, in a sense, the authorial genius behind her debut novel, Zazen.
The book follows Della, a twenty-seven-year-old intellectual with a Ph.D. in Geology who is waitressing at a vegan restaurant in Portland as America’s Walmart-clogged arteries begin to collapse. When bombs start to drop, it’s unclear whether Della has summoned them with magical-punk thinking, or if her nerves are so shot that she’s fused the ongoing violence with her own frayed hopes. Everyone she knows is either on the verge of fleeing to Honduras or claiming commune anarchy while privately clinging to escapist fantasies: an expatriate’s life in Paris, half-committed activist role play, ingeniously planned raves in industrial warehouses. Della’s conundrum is not whether to flee, but how to stand her ground and remain alive to the abundant, despairing flaws and small miracles around her.
It’s a predicament not unlike what Veselka faced when it came time to publish the novel. No major publishing house picked up Zazen. Without an agent, she found her way to Red Lemonade, an alternative press that requires membership before a writer can submit a manuscript, and asks its members to read a certain number of submissions a year, thereby replacing the conventional vetting process with a grassroots community.
We spoke on the phone not long after Veselka had accepted the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize awarded to a fiction debut. Her searing essay about the years she spent hitchhiking as a teen and the run-in she had with a possible serial killer had just come out in GQ. She’d completed a trilogy of short stories that explores how a voice changes over time—the first had been published in Tin House’s Portland-Brooklyn issue and the remaining two were forthcoming in Zzyzzyva and Swink. With so much on the horizon, Veselka was contemplating tossing her hat back in the agent-editor ring, willing to take on the potential pitfalls and possible gains of a relationship she’d shucked. Though she would say little about the new novel she is working on beyond the fact that it deals with a question that’s been occupying her thoughts, it was clear that, as with all that had come before, she was determined to follow her own instincts. To do it the hard way.
—Melissa Seley for Guernica
Guernica: When you accepted your PEN debut fiction award, you thanked the translators in the room for allowing you to read some of the books that have most influenced you. What books are those?
Vanessa Veselka: I have seven bookshelves, but only half of one of those shelves is dedicated to American fiction. I like Jonathan Lethem. I have the classics. Henry Miller. Blood Meridian. Boarder Trilogy stuff. Invisible Man. Rat Bohemia.
Guernica: Which country takes up the largest amount of space?
Vanessa Veselka: I used to think it was all Russia, but France is taking up way more space than I thought it did, mostly because I’ve given out all of my Russian novels.
Guernica: Which author on those seven shelves of yours do you most identify with?
Vanessa Veselka: I think about identifying with interests more than personality or styles. Conrad on exploring gothic capitalism. Duras and Jean Rhys on inhabiting raw sensuality. Dostoyevsky on brilliant comic timing and Tolstoy on loving every single character he ever created whether they deserved it or not—but I’m not really in that league.
Guernica: Where did you grow up?
Vanessa Veselka: Mostly in New York. My mom was a news reporter so that meant she was getting moved from desk to desk, affiliate to affiliate. It’s kind of like being a military brat—every three years you have a new home. That happened until I was nine or ten, and then I was in Greenwich Village until I moved out of the house. I lived in Europe from ’87 to ’91 and then I went to Alaska to give up music, then California, then Seattle for ten years before Portland. I was born in Texas.
Both sides of my family were from Texas and were deeply steeped in what, if you wrote it all down, would look a lot like Southern Gothic, which is to say that there are things you don’t speak of—people ask you a question and you tell them a story.
Guernica: What was your mom’s beat?
Vanessa Veselka: She covered Capitol Hill at one point. She moved fairly early on into doing her own magazine-based shows.
Guernica: What was your household like?
Vanessa Veselka: My dad was a pretty devoted revolutionary communist thinker-activist. He mostly worked steel mills, mining construction. Rarely ever made more than 12,000 dollars a year. My mom became very successful in television media when I was around twelve. Once that happened, I spent all of my afternoons up at 30 Rockefeller Center, watching the shows that were being shot. It’s not a secret–I wrote that GQ piece recently–I wasn’t happy and I left home.
Both sides of my family were from Texas and were deeply steeped in what, if you wrote it all down, would look a lot like Southern Gothic, which is to say that there are things you don’t speak of—people ask you a question and you tell them a story. There are really dark underpinnings that are treated as if they don’t exist.
My grandmother lived in a ranch house out by the highway in the suburbs in Houston in the ‘50s, very modest post-war sort of house, but she was going to climb the social ladder; she came from a small mill town. So she had her husband buy her furs and get her a black maid. This black woman was her best friend. For thirty years they sat at a table in a ranch house with three-inch harvest gold rugs that you had to rake, and bad orange paintings of ships at sea in bad pineapple gold frames and pretended that they weren’t coming from the same place. When people came over, Lilly Pearl, which was the woman’s name, had to dress up and call her ma’am.
Guernica: Was your family religious? Are you?
Vanessa Veselka: My grandmother was, but I think she was the only one. I was given little cards with the New Testament, which was the only one they cared about, to memorize as a kid. The only person I can compare to my dad’s atheism is Christopher Hitchens. Next to my dad, Hitchens looks like a mystic. My mom is spiritually open-minded and opportunistic.
There’s a big part of me that’s atheist. There’s a big part of me that’s agnostic. And there’s a big part of me that tends towards the mystic. The thing that I find is most important in all of that is to retain my sense of wonder and the idea that I don’t actually know what’s going to happen.
I light candles. I meditate. And I don’t believe in anything. By default I move simultaneously towards mysticism and atheism. It’s not something that’s ever going to get fixed.
Guernica: What has been your experience with the politics of the publishing industry?
Vanessa Veselka: Being well-mannered and gracious and kind are things that I value really highly. It doesn’t mean I always live up to them, but I value them with extreme prejudice. Those aren’t necessarily the values of the gatekeepers of the publishing industry. If you want to do something differently or if you don’t want the authority of the dominant viewpoint, you’re just bad to the letter. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of stance from the outside of that world to disagree.
If you’re with an agent and they don’t like where your work is going—the pressure behind it is the pressure of the hierarchy which says “I know what I am talking about,” which I find offensive. I think there’s validity in saying, “I have a lot of experience in this industry and I’m a smart talented person who can give you a window into what’s being bought and sold.” I don’t want myself, or other artist friends, or artists in general to give away their relationship to their own instinctual voice. It seems like you have to fight really hard for that in ways that shouldn’t be so hard.
On the other hand, I have felt nothing but gratitude for the way Zazen has been received. I want to have respect my own autonomy in that world and be able to say, “You know what, there are things that are normal for you guys and normal for you to ask, but I’m not sure I want to participate in. Go ahead and do what you’re doing but…” I want to say that in the most well-mannered way possible. I don’t want to say, “This is my identity. I’m the one on the mountain who will not move for anybody.”
I do not currently have an agent. I haven’t had an agent for the past few years. I was told I’d never be able to publish without an agent. I was told I’d never be able to place stuff in Tin House without an agent. I was told I’d never be able to place stuff in GQ or The Atlantic without an agent and that I would never be considered for awards. None of that was true.
People in the industry read pornographically. They come in with a certain literary erotic map, you know—DeLillo did this for me in college—and that’s their set of instincts.
I’ve been able to do this up to this point because I’ve had Richard Nash. He has been everything for me—my agent, my publisher, the intern, the co-schemer—any help or contacts he’s been able to provide, he has. I’ve benefitted from that and from other writers sending my work to editors. So it’s not that I’ve done it alone.
To sum it all up, I have mixed feelings about the hierarchies within the publishing power structure. By that, I do not mean that I want to stay in anarchist spokescamp. What I mean is the sense that, “We know what good fiction is and you don’t and you have to listen to us and beg entry. If you don’t convince us then your fiction is not good. If you do convince us then you’re here on our good graces.” There is a way that the industry is self-serving and self-promoting. The financials of it don’t bother me. We live in a capitalist world—I get that. But the social, artistic aspects—when I look at a lot of stuff, I say: “Don’t you think you’re killing American fiction?” I’m speaking in grand terms. I’m not some rogue outside the gates. But I am trying to figure out how I interact.
I don’t automatically honor authority. I don’t necessarily respect you because you’re a professional reader. A lot of times people in the industry read pornographically. They come in with a certain literary erotic map, you know —DeLillo did this for me in college—and that’s their set of instincts. They love books. They’re very passionate about that. But as you begin to read one or two thousand pages a year, you’re beginning to work off a very stale erotic map because you’re looking for something that does it to you more. You’re having the same fantasy over and over, looking for something that’s going to flip that switch again and it has to be louder and louder. You’re not reading the way a person who picks up a book in a bookstore reads. That’s not the only way that something should be valued. I want to see us revalue basic critical thought.
I don’t think that someone working without healthcare, decent conditions and a living wage should “just be glad they have a job.” I don’t think an artist should “just be glad they’re not eating rats in the subway and playing for quarters.”
As a songwriter and musician, it strikes me that in music, a certain territorial nature when it comes to one’s own autonomy around life and art is common and understood. Setting aside “punk” and all that, there are still many, many archetypes of surliness like Dylan and Neil Young—a truly rich tradition to draw on. That attitude, which is so prevalent in music, is less obvious in the world of lit. It’s changing, and that’s good I think. Just like I don’t think that someone working without healthcare, decent conditions, and a living wage should “just be glad they have a job,” I don’t think an artist should “just be glad they’re not eating rats in the subway and playing for quarters.” I know I sound preachy. For me it comes down to one thing: I’m trying to follow my own nature; I’m not trying to comment on yours. It ain’t personal.
Guernica: In Zazen, Della says, “The problem with symbolic gestures” is that “people never take them far enough.” Do you think you took Zazen far enough? Did you take it too far for the publishing industry?
Vanessa Veselka: I feel proud of Zazen and done with it. Because no one was interested in it, I was allowed to develop it completely to my own tastes. When Richard took it, he went page by page and made notes. At the end, we only changed ten lines and a handful of paragraphs that I rewrote myself. So it really was the book I came with. The things he pointed out and changed really helped so that’s not to diminish his role. I had done three revisions before he saw it. I’d taken it as far as I could take it. If I was going to try to fix the problems in the book I’d just be rewriting it from scratch. When you’re doing a novel, you’re getting better as you go. You’re a better writer when you finish. So you go back and redo the beginning and then the end’s not as good and it’s lopsided again. It’s like cutting bangs for yourself. At some point you just have to stop and say it’s a little lopsided and move on. I feel like I got to that point with Zazen. At that point, I felt like, this is my life, in this book. I’ve been to the emergency room ten times in the past year. I’ve been on food stamps for three and a half years. I’ve been driving night cabs. My daughter was four or five when I started writing it—part of her childhood is trapped in this book, the time I could have spent with her—the financial ability to go on a vacation once in a while. So at that point someone’s opinion of what I should do with the book didn’t matter that much to me. With all due respect, it was my life. I really needed to do it that way and Richard let me do it that way. I had to learn the hard way with Zazen. The book has flaws, but it is itself, and what more can you ask for? It’s been so much more successful than I ever expected in my wildest dreams. I realize that from other people’s perspectives, it looks like, “Well, it’s been appreciated by a small cult of people in the fringe literary circuit.”
Guernica: Where does that contrarian, stubborn streak in you come from?
Vanessa Veselka: Oh, God. Well, I had this thing happen over and over when I was a kid. When I was thirty-five someone finally explained it to me when they saw it. I had experiences from the first grade on where a teacher or somebody would get upset with me and get more and more agitated around me. I did not understand what it was about me that was so upsetting. I have a lot of annoying characteristics, but it wasn’t that simple. I began to understand later in life that in a situation with someone of authority, they frequently think I’m not respecting their authority when I actually don’t even see it. I’m authority blind. I’ve learned to go, “Oh, they’re in a position of authority and they think I’m intentionally being rude about it. I don’t mean that at all.” I’m somebody with authority Asperger’s. I’ve had to learn social cues. Like, “Oh, they need my face to look softer. They need me to look down more. I need to preface my sentences with, ‘Perhaps we could look at it this way…’”
Guernica: Speaking of authority, are there writing rules or regimens that you follow or like to break?
Vanessa Veselka: I get really affected by other people’s opinions. For a million years, people have been like, “Well, you need to get over it.” The truth is, I’m forty-three. This may be as good as I get. I’m not going to be a rocket scientist in this life. Or a Joffrey ballet dancer. The truth is, in response to harsh criticism my instinct is to stop writing. I don’t read reviews. I don’t do writing groups. I keep to myself until I’ve given myself a comfort zone. In all of my attempts at writing all I’m trying to do is to forget everyone who’s out there. When you get down to it, there’s only one big rule and that is: Try not to suck. That sounds crass but in a way that’s where the rules end. You can write in the passive voice, but try not to suck. It’s all internal—what are you hunting? My process is all about trying to get down to the place where I can hear and trust my own instinctual moves.
Guernica: Almost all of Zazen’s main characters are female—they’re not easy characters, not immediately likeable. Were you conscious as you wrote of wanting to create characters that would defy conventions and complicate the reader’s experience with them?
Vanessa Veselka: No. First of all, I find them eminently likeable, which says a lot about my sense of humor. I love Raskolnikov. He’s one of my favorites. It was at first surprising to me that people were like, “Wow, Della’s really unlikeable.” And I was like, “Really?” Nobody has fucking Holden Caulfield cry. We’re still in a very gendered process in terms of what likeable and unlikeable is. We’re still dealing with not as much variety as I’d like to see in female characters. All of the characters in Zazen are hard to take. It’s not my process though to write with an intellectual agenda. I wrote her as I met her rather than intentionally pushed her.
Guernica: Is writing a form of self-immolation?
Vanessa Veselka: You can make anything a form of self-immolation, that’s the funny thing about being alive. Writing is a form of burning away things. It can be a terrifyingly martyring process or a purifying process. Somebody famous said this; I heard it through somebody else. I have no idea who said it but it’s brilliant—Tolstoy, who knows—“A novel is a question that it takes the whole book to answer.” That’s how I relate to novels. There was a question in Zazen that I could not answer for the life of me and I think that I did almost answer it.
Guernica: What was the question?
Vanessa Veselka: Della’s question is: Can you sit still on fire? When you don’t agree with all of the options provided, when you’re not willing to be complicit, when you’re not okay with what’s going on around you, can you sit still on fire? Can you be there and be fully present to everything when it’s not right and be alive? Della’s crisis is a crisis of withholding. She had this idea that she hasn’t given her consent to the world to be the way it is, and because of that, she’s negotiating whether she’s in or out.
That’s the number one question: Are you in or are you out? That’s a question I always struggle with. My response really shifted after Zazen came out. The writing shifted it, my exploration shifted it, but what really shifted it was the amount of conversation I’ve had with people who’ve read the book and their thoughts on it. I didn’t think anyone would read the book and care. It showed me how many people are struggling with that same question. And that changed my orientation and alienation to it. I felt really humbled because I had accidentally tripped over something that could actually mean something to somebody. The emotional experience in response is not one of pride. It’s of humility. It’s like when you say something that meant nothing to you and you find out ten years later find out that it really impacted someone. That’s a fairly terrifying and humbling experience. I write from the dominant questions in my life. You raised that question earlier about faith. I’ve been working on a trilogy of short stories, “The Elena Stories.” One ran in Tin House, another is coming out in Zzyzzyva and a third will appear in Swink. The second story is all about the crisis of faith. The crisis is autobiographical. I take questions that are really driving me nuts and work them out through characters.
Guernica: What’s the question of the new novel you’re working on now?
Vanessa Veselka: Sorry. State secret. Even my longtime boyfriend doesn’t know. The only one who knows is my ten year-old daughter and she doesn’t care.
Guernica: In what ways did your years of hitchhiking and being “invisible” as you put it in your essay for GQ inform the necessary resilience to finish your novel and get it out there, despite a publishing industry that might have kept it out of sight?
Vanessa Veselka: I learned to live in my own head. I learned to follow intuition and more than anything, I learned what was important to me. As pompous as it sounds, freedom means more to me than anything (except maybe kindness), and I know exactly what I’ll give up to get or keep it. That’s important when you’re writing and bringing work to an industry that assumes its authority is absolute. What I got from those years was a clear sense of what the deal was: I don’t have to agree and you don’t have to like it. I don’t have to listen to you if it goes against my instincts and you don’t have to give me your money. It’s a reasonable deal on all sides.
Ultimately, geologically speaking, we’re not in a crisis. We’re in an epic.
Guernica: You take on American violence fairly unflinchingly. Do you experience our culture’s violence as escalating? Do you regard fiction or art as an antidote?
Vanessa Veselka: I’ve had a lot of self-condemnation over the years to do enough in terms of activism or a variety of group political actions, or as a union organizer. I found that I was very good at it and very traumatized by it. I was always face to face with total futility and powerlessness. I was never somebody who could celebrate the victories because I always felt that the large fucking shoe of capitalism was coming down on you, whether now or a year from now or twenty years from now, it doesn’t matter. The machine is well-funded and you are tired. Zazen was the place where I put a lot of grief and fatigue around: What is the purpose of political action? And at the same time, trying to be more consciously nonviolent, yet feeling a lot of rage. Not experiencing the kind of calm and passivity I would see other nonviolent people have. I’m really bad at being nonviolent. I can’t say that I think resistance fighters shouldn’t do A, B and C. At the same time, I can’t make the leap to take a gun and go fucking end someone’s life. Again, with the atheism and mysticism, I feel both violence and nonviolence in equal and opposite directions.
It’s the big secret weapon: art.
In the book, I wanted to take on easy ideas of symbolism and violence on the left and ways that it’s like a soccer game riot. I’ve come to the point in my life where I trust someone’s humanity over their politics. I have seen people who claim to have certain politics not act that way at all, on both sides of the fence. Somebody whose humanity is intact doesn’t act unethically that much, whereas somebody whose ideology is in intact has almost always sacrificed their humanity to get there. At the same time, I have to ask myself everyday, “What is complicity and what is not complicity?” One of the things that I’m going to be doing that’s not very organizational is at an AIDS hospice I’m going to be playing music for people who are in the final stages of death. It doesn’t build power. It doesn’t challenge the system. It’s something fucking neutral I can do. I do think that there is a role for art and literature in change. Organizing needs to be backed by a culture of something else. If something is made, whether a painting or a play, that a whole bunch of people find commonality in, if there’s the slightest spark of a new idea in it, that’s one of the only ways to blow the numbers game. It’s the big secret weapon: art. I am certainly not someone who claims to be able to move large masses of people to change their minds on things. I’ve taken criticism from friends and anarchists on the left who felt like, “Hey, this is not a good, true representation of us and it’s a criticism.” On the other hand, I fought really hard to make sure the characters didn’t come off as “bad anarchists.” I wanted them to be a viable option. The characters are chastised ultimately for not sticking around and doing what they say they’re going to do.
Guernica: Why rats?
Vanessa Veselka: I worked in a vegetarian restaurant with a rat graveyard in the back. Not as fleshed out as the one in the book, but there was definitely a moment when someone explained to me that the owner used poison and that “we usually bury them out in the back.” The way I write is, I tend to riff. Tiny liver hearts. I wrote a song called “Tiny Liver Hearts” the same week I wrote the first chapter of Zazen. The pregnant rat in the second chapter becomes the rat queen later on. She’s like the Whore of Babylon in Berlin Alexanderplatz. She’s what’s released from the gentrified neighborhood that they’re in as the cracks in the earth shift. She’s my vision of something that’s neither good nor bad, but has its own logic.
Guernica: If you could write a fortune to be read at the end of the world, what would it say?
Vanessa Veselka: “Not now, later and better.” You know, the world that we’re in, a lot of it should end. Not in the big apocalyptic “dun dun dun” sense. But a lot of it should go. It’s hard, what you save and what you let go of. Ultimately, geologically speaking, we’re not in a crisis. We’re in an epic.
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