I was first introduced to Vanessa Veselka about ten years ago, when an envelope arrived at my North Beach apartment, from our mutual friend Christine in Portland, containing a computer-printed copy of a short story titled “Il Duce.” I made myself an Irish coffee and read it in the dim living room, overlooking the giant urban schoolyard across the street. It was only seven or eight pages, but from the very first sentence I was riveted. The first-person tale of a 13 year-old girl in New York City, just about to graduate from eighth grade, it crackled with energy and humor and intelligence. Tautly rendered, not a word wasted or out of place, it conjured up a whole clear and breathing world, sensual and mysterious and fully alive, expansive way beyond the narrow frame of its words. The language had an almost overwhelming physicality to it that I could feel in my jaw and between my temples, and a little flame of awe grew in my chest as I was swept along from one mesmerizing sentence to another. I folded over the last page, smiling, and finally let out a full breath. It was clear that this had been written by someone with an uncanny mastery of her craft. I had no idea that it was the first short story she had ever written.
Vanessa and I corresponded a little after that, and I asked if I could publish the story in a magazine I was putting together. However, it had already been promised to Yeti. We stayed loosely in touch after that, and I checked in now and then on her endeavors — the short story “Zazen,” published in Tin House, and the news that she was embarking on a novel. When I moved to Portland in 2012, Zazen, the novel which had sprung from the Tin House story, was out, and there was a palpable buzz around it. I picked up my own copy at Powell’s and it was immediately clear that the rush of pure talent I had sensed in “Il Duce” had really caught fire, and that this was a writer’s vision that had pierced deep into the heart of the Zeitgeist. I was thrilled, but not at all surprised, when soon after, the novel was awarded the Pen/Bingham Prize.
I last saw Vanessa in 2013, when she gave a reading of some new work at Backspace. A lot has has happened with her and her work since then, so it seemed like a good time to catch up with an interview. She graciously agreed to meet me for lunch at Cup and Saucer on Hawthorne, but when she arrived, we both decided that for recording purposes, it might be better to post up at Bread and Ink down the street, where it would be a little less crowded. As we settled into our table, I asked her what she had been doing that morning. She said she had been trying to work out the arrangement of “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” from Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall 1971, and she finally got it wrangled. I told her how much I love that version, as well as the rest of that entire concert, and so she pulled out a piece of scrap paper and drew out the tablature for me, explaining the nuances of the tuning and the progression and some of the more obscure chord formations. (I admit I haven’t tackled the song yet, but I will soon. I really will!) We ordered our food, caught up a little more, and then we dove in to the following conversation.
Todd Gleason: So music was your whole thing for awhile, and then at 35, “Il Duce” was your first short story. Was that the first thing you wrote?
Vanessa Veselka: Well, in the 90s I wrote an article called “The Collapsible Woman” for Bitch Magazine that got way too much attention. I’ve been very fortunate with my writing, in that I haven’t really written that much, but what I have written has found an audience, in general. And this did and I got kind of freaked out about it. I wrote it in my mid-twenties, I was probably twenty-four or twenty-five… maybe I was a little older. And I was really hard on Katie Roiphe in there, in a way that… I would have been far more gracious today. Not necessarily because I would agree with her more but because I wouldn’t have been so attacking… and you know, just being in my mid-twenties and not thinking anyone was actually going to read this.
TG: Well, that’s interesting. Did you see the thing this week, the women from Broad City interviewing Sleater-Kinney?
VV: No. Uh-uh.
TG: One of the things that came up was they were talking about their younger days in Olympia, the Riot Grrrl days, and how they were much more confrontational about things. And now, fifteen to twenty years on, they find themselves a lot less so. They’ve eased up in that way. Not because they care less, or that there is less conflict necessarily, but because as you get older, more nuance comes about, you are able to see gray areas more. I’m of course paraphrasing, probably badly, but…
VV: Well the way I think about it… I was never somebody who was intentionally confrontational as much a people perceived that to be the case. For instance, I’ve never had any conception of myself as a rebel or any conception of myself in this, you know, fantasy narrative of an uphill fighter. That is not in my mind. It’s more that I feel that by standing where I stand and paying attention to what I pay attention to, I actually then run across belief systems or humans or structures of power that I have no intention of running into, except for them standing there and we’re set on a course to collide. I mean, I don’t have the sense that “I’m gonna throw over authority!” I have more of the sense that I didn’t see or recognize it as authority to begin with, and that I’ve offended something that I didn’t mean to, but it’s just the natural aspect of doing something. So, in general, I would say I wasn’t confrontational in the way that Sleater-Kinney was in that, but I ran afoul of things all the time, and couldn’t change that or help it. But what I think maybe you’re getting at is, you know, maybe one possible level of the conversation, is that as people are shaping their identities, very often, they’re shaping them, particularly around music, to what they are not. To what they are not into and into. I mean, I watched a band get into a fistfight over which was the best Ramones record. [laughs] Like, literally get into a fistfight.
TG: Awesome. And ridiculous.
VV: I mean, clearly the answer is Rocket to Russia, but I mean, there was a debate and it became a fistfight on my porch. So, you know, there’s that kind of identity jousting that goes along with it. Something that I think about a lot now that I sometimes find very problematic, but I’m starting to accept a little more is that I’m kind of cursed with feeling like I see all sides of something. And so… I mean, this came up in Zazen… but I can’t help but see the emotional reality of humanity in different points of any kind of conflict, and that means that sometimes I’m not the best leftist or not the best radical or I’m not the best union organizer. And I don’t mean just to pitch it towards the Left, but in general… sometimes the lines that do need to be drawn, I’m not a great person to draw them as an activist, because I have the entire experience in my head. It turns out that it’s helped me as a novelist, particularly in my new book, but it often makes me feel like a coward or really bitchy or not pure enough as a person and an activist.
TG: Well, I agree with you in that way, and I have the same curse. And that… something I’ve often thought about, and it does seem like it’s contained in Zazen, and maybe you were thinking about it in a different way, but to me, it seems like the Right, or at least what constitutes the Right in America right now, is very unified in its agenda and its ideology. And they find ways to unify on one issue. And the problem with our side of things is that there are so many different ways to go about it, because if you believe in right things and are trying to make change in right ways, you can go in a lot of different directions. You’re going to see gray areas, and you can even be empathetic towards even the worst of people, because you’re on the human side of things.
VV: I was reading, and somebody had a Camus quote that I saw and I’d never heard it. I’m paraphrasing, and I don’t know exactly, but he said something like “It’s the job of every thinking man to not be on the side of the executioners.”
TG: Right. That seems like a reasonable place to start.
VV: And also, just speaking in terms of structurally, there’s a long history of self-critique within the Leftist tradition that at times is not helpful, because it still gets used by the power structure a lot and becomes a kind of internal form of policing, and I wrote about that in Zazen too. But I think the thing that is most damaging is identity politics. I really do. I feel like the thing that really kills forward movement is, you know “We’ll let you be transgender, we’ll let you look different, we’ll let you be different, but don’t ever ask about actual economic justice. Don’t ask for any real power.” And these things should be happening in society anyway, so I’m not talking about pitting them against each other. But people have taken that train over and over and over. I was at Peet’s Coffee the other day, and one of my least favorite things that happens… I try to keep my mouth shut but I can’t help it… I had to go in there and I had to use a card and there’s a very nice woman behind the counter, and it’s the kind of card you can’t put tips on. And she tells me this thing that they’ve all been told forever, which is “Oh, it’s really for our benefit, because we don’t have to claim the taxes.” This is what has always been told to these people. That’s not a fucking benefit. If you get taxed you don’t get paid and you didn’t get the money. So I said, “How many of your transactions are credit cards?” and she said “About 90%.” That’s 90% of people that can’t tip you and you think that it’s for your benefit, because the system is cheaper for them to use. They got a deal on that, instead of paying for one that would have a tip on it.
TG: And their line goes faster when you don’t have to fill in the tip.
VV: Right. It’s the production line. And yet every single worker at Starbucks or Peet’s or any place that has this system, hears that same line over and over, “We do this for you, so you don’t have to claim your tips.” And it’s this uninvestigated thing, and I was being polite, and I wasn’t trying to be a jerk, but I told her “Well, it’s actually like this and it frustrates me because I think you should get a tip even if I don’t have cash.” And she said “Well, I’d rather not think about it. At least I have health insurance.” And I’m thinking “But you can’t even afford to access those benefits if anything actually happened.” And the basic thing is that 25 years ago, a ten dollar an hour wage is what I got for doing really low, low end work, and I still hear people day and night say “I’m grateful to have ten dollars an hour.” In 1998 I was making ten dollars an hour, and when I’m still in the workforce now, I’m making ten dollars an hour. That’s a fucking problem, you know? “Oh, but I can go to work with green hair. I can have piercings. I can be openly gay.” That’s the nature of the trade in identity politics, and I don’t think we should trade it. I think you should have that and economic justice.
TG: Yeah, well, you can sense that in Zazen… it’s almost like identity politics have been fetishized, and it really does appear to be one of the things that’s holding us back. So, Zazen started out as a short story, am I right? In Tin House?
VV: Eight million years ago. Zazen is so far in the past in my mind, that it doesn’t really come into my mind very often.
TG: Did you know when you wrote that as a story that it was going to evolve into a novel?
VV: Yes, very shortly after I started, and I was angry about it.
TG: (laughs) Because you wanted to be done with it?
VV: I wanted to be done with it, and I had a different idea. At that point, I had written that short story “Il Duce” and that was actually because I had another novel in my mind, which was actually about a hitchhiker, and I had a couple chapters of that, and in trying to learn how to write that and get into the character more, I took the main character, the narrator, back in time, as an exercise, to sort of see what it was like before she was toughened up in a certain way. I wanted to hear the voice in that range. So as an exercise I just took her back to age 13 and wrote “Il Duce.” And so in my mind, I was going to practice on short stories, and then the next year or two write short stories, and then I was going to write the novel of that girl a little bit later in her life. So I had a whole plan. And then when I started writing Zazen, the whole fucking plan fell apart. I finished the story, sent it off, and literally kept writing the same day. And I was so angry. It took me a couple months. This wasn’t the book I wanted to write, and I didn’t want to be held hostage by this voice. And of course, in my mind, I was still thinking I could write this in six months. And I was really kinda angry. I felt very taken hostage by the character and now that’s okay. I feel like that’s part of the process I’m more familiar with now. At the time it felt like everything was falling apart in the wrong way.
TG: Did you know that it was going to go the direction that it did, with the bombs and the revolutionary aspect of it?
VV: Yeah, in general. I probably wrote the Walmart scene within two weeks of starting the novel, but I didn’t know how I was going to get there. I don’t think about things that way. I sort of think about my characters as having Greek destinies. The son’s gonna meet his mom on the road, and I know what the Oedipus story there is gonna be, but I don’t know how to get there. So I think of every character or every place as having a fulfillment for that storyline. But more in the sense of karma or destiny than in the sense of events.
TG: So, I know we’re jumping around a bit, but … so you wrote this thing for Bitch Magazine and then…
VV: Yeah… I got asked to write for a couple big magazines and the money was really good and they were 1000-word, 1200-word pieces, and I wrote two, and my experience with it was so horrifying on several levels that I just decided I would never write again.
TG: All journalistic stuff?
VV: I wouldn’t call it “journalistic.”
TG: But non-fiction?
VV: Yeah, non-fiction. You know, first-person narratives about… Well, what they were pitched as and what they became were very different things. They were both for Jane, and it was just gross. I can’t look at those pieces if they still exist.
TG: Because of the way they were edited?
VV: Not just the way they were edited, but the way they were like “We want this” but it turns out they don’t want that. They want just what you think they fuckin’ want, and they try to convince you otherwise, and of course it’s not true. And then you’re in a contractual relationship where you have to figure out how to navigate it. And nobody teaches you how to work within that. It’s always a series of compromises that happen where you don’t quite say “Fuck you” and walk away at that moment. Okay, so my daughter… well, she still does it… but she used to have this thing she would do when she was like 4, and the reason it would take her five hours to walk across a playground, because each request in and of itself was perfectly reasonable. “I just want to do this for a second. I just need to button my shirt. I just need to change my shoelaces.” Whatever it was, each request in and of itself was reasonable, but the trajectory was just this massive drag on time. And so it’s the same thing with “Would you change this and change this, we’d like a little more of this.” And they cut shit out and they don’t care, and I look at it and I’m like “I’m embarrassed to be a human. This is everything I hate.” So I had this experience twice with Jane. And I recognized on the page the cadence… you know, I write a lot by sound… and I recognized on the page the cadence of the irreverent Janeane Garofolo sort of outsider that that particular culture loves to embrace as this idea of being clever. And nothing against Janeane Garofolo, I think she’s great. But what I mean is there’s a particular kind of irreverent outsider girl voice that became very popular in the nineties as a sort of way of giving commentary on everything. I recognized and saw those cadences in my own writing and I was horrified by it. I was like “I know exactly what it is and I don’t want any part of this and I’m not gonna write until that’s not in me.” So I just didn’t write. It’s kind of weird because a lot of people’s process is that they started writing, they worked really hard, they workshopped things, they got tools… My process was I’m not writing until it doesn’t suck. [laughter] So I had this sort of brief entree into non-fiction in ’95 and ’97, and I’m okay with the Bitch piece…
TG: Did you go to school for it at all or did you just write the piece because you felt it needed to be written?
VV: Yeah. When Bitch first came out, I remember something that Lisa Jervis, one of the co-founders, said that just hit so deeply with me. And this was height of… like when Bust was first starting out of the ashes of Sassy, and Jane was starting, and part of this was great. But part of it was this whole movement of Third Wave feminists, and part of it was if you’re just taking the models and the norms and the images of the patriarchy, but infusing them with some sense of irony, then I’m not really sure that does anything for me. Anyway, I read this thing that Lisa Jervis said in Bitch magazine, when it was just like the first issue, when it was more of a zine, and she said “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation ogling shoes” and I was just like “That’s fucking it.” That’s so fucking true. It was such a great paraphrasing of how I felt. And yet they were doing such great conversations. You know, such great, heavy stuff. And I had this idea about something that had been bothering me for awhile, and I just wrote them and said “Hey can I try to write this article for you,” and that’s how that went. And other than that, like I said, the Jane pieces I wrote, and I think I did one tour diary for the Seattle Weekly. And the Jane thing, like I said, I just didn’t want to write until that voice, that sound, was gone.
TG: So 35, that was the age when that happened? Well, you had switched to fiction then, so…
VV: That was a big part of it, switching to fiction. I don’t think I could have done it if I hadn’t gone into fiction. I think of them as very different. I think of them as two different mediums. I think of fiction and non-fiction for me as differently as I think of music and writing. But some of that was also that I was not touring, I was not making music, I hated everything I’d done that was on record… pretty much. There was one record I didn’t mind so much. I was really, really, really broke. I was on food stamps for like four years, I was trying to go to school. That year that I started Zazen, we were actually going to the Emergency Food Bank, and everything just kinda sucked, you know? And I wrote a few songs and at that point it felt like I had really broken my heart around my music and I was just exhausted by it. I had made terms in it that I didn’t want to make. And I was exhausted by raising a child, and you know, you never sleep. She never slept because she was three and a half, so she slept like four hours. And was always really, really, really tired. And I was at Reed and I had to give up doing a Science Degree because I was just to sleep-deprived to make the leap. You have to take Calculus. They don’t do math under Calculus at Reed. So I was trying to take Calculus, and it’s based on the Princeton Math Honors Calculus, which is meant to de-familiarize Calculus. The assumption, of course of de-familiarizing is that you’ve had it before, so every kid in that classroom coming in had had Calculus, and this was meant to teach them a new way to think about math. There are no numbers, no formulas, you build everything. You do integrals first. It’s meant to be emotionally disruptive and creatively disruptive to an incoming math student who feels very competent in that area. But I didn’t go to high school. I’d never had Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, Geometry or Calculus, and I was having to try and take this. And I cried all the time and I got a D. The only D I ever got, and I worked harder for that D than any grade I’ve ever gotten.
TG: I was gonna say, that’s pretty good, considering…
VV: I was just a disaster. And I was a single mom and all this stuff, and it sucked. And at the end of the semester, I was like “Well, I’ve kind of failed to do a Science Degree here.” I had studied Paleontology at the University of Washington before, and that’s what I thought I was going to get back into. But I couldn’t do the math at that point in that way, and I was just too tired too fight it so I said “I’m gonna get a fucking English degree.” And I was so depressed, because I love the sciences, you know, but I walked across campus and I got everything signed off and I had to sign up for something in English, so I took a Creative Writing course and I wrote “Il Duce” as an assignment for the course. And that was the first short story. And it was just like everything went from there, and it was like game on for writing at that point.
TG: The thing that’s so impressive about that to me is that when Christine sent me that story back in the day, I was so blown away by it, and I remember being struck by how fully formed it was. Do you feel like writing just comes naturally to you or was it a lot of work to get there? One of the things in particular, and I haven’t read it in so long, but it ends with the kiss. And I remember it had that sense of resonant mystery that really good short stories have.
VV: Thank you.
TG: Were you conscious of what you were doing with that story at the time? Because the structure and the craft of it is so tight.
VV: Well, I didn’t read short stories at all.
TG: At all?
VV: I don’t know if I’d ever read a short story at that point. To this this day, one of the great failures I have is I’ve pretty much only read 19th and early 20th Century literature. I really am kind of a failure at the contemporary lit thing. I have really old precepts around it. The thing that was freeing about that was very quickly, when I started to write, I just felt the rhythms of voice in it. And a lot of things that are in that piece are now things that I sort of put off limits to myself, because I feel like I’ve done them to death. There are certain things in there that were a new sort of understanding of how to tell a story. Not that I put them off limits, but now I tend to not go there.
TG: What sort of things?
VV: Well, you know one of the things that came out of that story is there’s a character in the story that is not in the story, the obviously creepy older lech guy that the narrator keeps referencing again and again. You get a lot of interiority out of somebody referencing another person in their mind over and over without explaining it. It gives you a whole register to work with, in terms of ways to interrupt a scene, in terms of ways to undercut something and says it means something different than what you think. It tells me this person has got their center completely somewhere else. There’s a lot of tools that come with that that are very effective, and it did something that opened a way to tell a story for me. And I obviously used it in Zazen. Like it’s on the first page, and at this point I’d rather not see that in most of what I’m writing. It worked very well, it was a technique that I learned. If I need to use it at some point, I’m not saying I’ll never say “So and so says” in an interior mind, but it was something I picked up, I worked through, I learned, I used it for what it was, and now it’s not a tool anymore.
TG: So are you still writing a new novel? Are you done with it or are you still writing?
VV: Okay, so here’s what’s going on. I wrote a novella and there was something wrong with it. And I hadn’t figured it out completely, except I did actually kind of figure it out. So I decided I wanted to hold off, not publish it now, and bind it with short stories later in a collection. But I didn’t want it to be… it wasn’t a novel. It didn’t feel like a novel, and I wanted to go ahead and do another novel. I really like it, and know now exactly what was wrong with it, but at the time I didn’t know what wasn’t doing it for me. So when I started writing the new novel… I try to know as little about it as is feasible as I’m writing. I try to let it be in the unconscious or the subconscious or wherever it goes… the ether… by not turning towards it too much, keeping it in the periphery. But it seemed a little different with this one. And I knew from the beginning that I was actually writing my version of a 19th Century novel…. and I know some people have said they’re writing versions of the 19th Century novel, and I’m totally on the bus. And it was very clear to me and I was like “What are the things that I didn’t write about in Zazen that I’m afraid to write about?” and it came down to some really basic things. And that’s what I wanted to write about. And it was very scary to start down this road because I really didn’t want to write in first person, because I’d done a bunch of stuff that way, but I hated writing in third person. Third person has a sort of normalizing effect on things by its nature… Not normalizing in the sense that I’m the kind of person who thinks “It should be radical!” But something about the rhythms of it that started to fall into a certain thing that I didn’t like. So I decided “What do I like about writing in the first person?” and took that and thought “Why don’t I just stick that in the third person and write my version of third person?” and it was again that thing that everybody goes through where they remember that they don’t have to follow any fucking rules. So then I started to open up and thought “Yeah, this is something I’m interested in.” So I started writing this thing, and then what became horrifyingly obvious from very early on was that it was a long book. So my editor saw the first twenty pages and said “This is about 380-400 pages.” Because she’s really good, she can actually say that. Which is funny, because I had actually thought that it was about that range, and when she said that, I was like “That’s really creepy.” But it was “Okay, so I’m writing a long book.” And then it turned out, the realization of this January… The last year I just had to work all the time. The first year, basically my advance paid for me to write, so I did the first 200-plus pages during that time. But then I had to work all year doing non-fiction and just got back into writing the novel again and I’m loving it and I’m so excited. The one drawback is it’s really clear that it’s a 600 page book.
TG: Oh man.
VV: And I’m like “Fuck, I don’t want to write a 600 page book!” It’s unsupportable. For a lot of reasons. Some have to do with theories, and some have to do with the sort of stamina it takes to do something like that.
TG: Is it because there are multiple characters and points of view?
VV: There are three main characters. And there is also a way I use voice and narrative in it that does something to the shape. The story is really big. Because when I decided I was writing my 19th Century novel, like I guess everybody else does… I was oblivious to this, but…
TG: Yours is more War and Peace than Notes From Underground?
VV: I’ve read War and Peace five times.
TG: [laughing]Have you? That’s where you’re going?
VV: [laughs] Hopefully not. But in earnestness, the novel is extremely ambitious at that level. I was like “What are my favorite books ever? Why are these my favorite books? What is is that I’m afraid to write about, the subjects that are in these books? What’s the scariest thing in the world to write about?” Love. For some people. Writing about love is a very scary thing for me. As a writer, I have a lot of anxieties and fears that I can’t pull off the kind of story that I’m starting to write. And that’s exactly where I believe I should be able to write. So from the beginning the project has failed. I’m not gonna write War and Peace. I’m not gonna write Great Expectations. But those are the underpinnings of the consciousness that I’m in line with, so it has automatically failed. I’m not being coy. I cannot do that. I cannot write Moby Dick. But I’m enjoying it. The thing is… I want to be moved. You know? The last thing I want from a novel is a knowing wink. [laughter] It’s the last thing I want. When I read or when I write. I wanna fall in love. Like for real. I don’t mean with a love interest. I want to fall in love with what I’m reading. And I feel like this novel has been about accepting this. And really risking, and putting things on the table that are really uncool, you know, these other elements. So with three characters and a lot of fucking plot movement and these vast ambitions that cannot happen, it’s a long fucking book. I’ve shown sections of it to a couple people and they’ve been very encouraging. And I love this book, but I don’t know if I will be able to do it. I’ll finish it, but I don’t know. It may not be something I can pull off to anybody else’s satisfaction.
TG: Well, there must be something that sustains it. For you to know this far into it what it is or isn’t becoming. What other things are you putting into it, inside the structure and development of characters and plot?
VV: Well, I never talk about anything I haven’t written. I can only talk about things up to the point that I’ve already written it. There’s just changes in life that have to happen with these characters and they’re all on different tracks and they’re all in different worlds. I don’t mean that in a science fiction way, but they’re all in different worlds. And so it just got longer because of that, and very expansive. I feel so foolish talking about it this way, “It’s very grand and expansive!” War and Peace is not really what I mean, but it is in a way. I mean, if you’re not out to try and do something fucking great, I don’t know how you keep writing. I know that’s the exact opposite of a lot of other people’s practice. The process for them is to keep it as simple as humanly possible. I don’t know, maybe because I’m such an addict by mindset, I need delusions of grandeur. I need to get up and believe that what I’m doing matters, to you know, keep wanting to do it. Maybe if I was writing really short work I would have a more Zen view of it. Like “I finished this poem, I’m evolving.” Which is not easier, it’s just different. But the thing that keeps me going is that I love these characters. And when I really get down to it, if I think about them not being in the world… they’re already in my world… but when I think about them not ever being in the world, I wanna fucking cry. I really believe that they have a place in this world, and if I don’t write ’em they’re not gonna be here. It’s that simple.ξ
Vanessa Veselka is the author of the novel, Zazen, which won the 2012 PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize for fiction. Her short stories appear in Tin House, YETI, and Zyzzyva. Her nonfiction is found in GQ, The Atlantic, Matter, The Atavist, and Salon, and is included in the 2013 Best American Essays.