A CONVERSATION WITH MICKEY Z.
I'm a big fan of minimalist writing. For me, such a writer is like a sculptor...chipping away the unnecessary to get to what exists below. Did you come to this style naturally?
I'm glad you appreciate my minimalist approach. One reader described the format of my new book as "flashes of light amid darkness." I like that descriptionit seems to summarizes the effect I was aiming for. I construct stories by taking vivid images or incidents and arranging them so that the narrative coheres to some extent, has a beginning and end.
"Images" is a key word here. I started college as a fine arts major, and ended up with a double majorpainting and English literature. Then I went to grad school for creative writing. So the visual and verbal aspects hopefully come together in my work.
The subtitle of my book is "A Novel in Fractals." I didn't come up with the idea of fractalsa writing colleague suggested it when she read my work. She said that each of my sentences is a story, each paragraph is a story, and so is each chapter. Together, they add up to a novel, whose shape reflects the shape of the building blocks.
I didn't set out to write a novel in fractals. I just wanted to present a clear picture (a pointillist picture?) of unusual family life, and of later adult urban life. I do distill, revise, and rearrange. I chip away at the raw material, but I also add where I think more is needed. I'm conscious of shape and form when I work, but these concerns are almost secondary to what the story is about, the subject matter.
Yeah, it's great to learn how much went intoTetched because it reads so smoothly. The space between the fractals almost feels like a movie "fade-out/fade-in." Yet, while we readers may not get see the process, we can definitely feel it. Sorry, but I have to ask: Was much of Tetched culled from your own experiences?
Like many writers, I draw on my experiences to create a fictional world. But, as I said, I distill and reshape what I remember for dramatic effect. My characters may be composites of more than one person I've known. The incidents in my stories may have come from my life, from what someone else has told me, or from my imagination.
A large part of Tetched is a family story. The father is a frustrated artist, and the mother is an Asian immigrant. The son (the book's narrator) witnesses his parents' struggle to live and work in rural America.
In real life, my father was a teacher; he went to Columbia Teachers College after studying art and chemistry. He had a number of odd jobs in addition to teaching gigshe worked as a commercial artist and as a bookmobile librarian. Those facts aren't in my book, because I wanted to focus on the emotional reality of trying to succeed as an artistmy father's main priority. There's no formula for such success, and being a bit unhinged doesn't help.
My father was, in fact, an Army veteran; he joined at the end of the Second World War. He wasn't in the service long, but the experience stayed with him. I often refer to that side of his personality in my book.
My mother was born and raised in China, in Kunming City, and came to the U.S. to go to college. (She met my father at school.) But I've never been to Asia, so the references I make to Asian culture are secondhand (absorbed from my mother) or from books. I read poetry by Li Po and Tu Fu to come up with some of the mother's dialogue.
The later sections of my book have to do with college life and adult relationships. Again, I did draw on my experiences to write these chapters, but I'm afraid I exaggerated things. I believe that a philosopher (Santayana?) said that "art is reality recast in idea." My idea with this book was to focus on the offbeat, because I think that's more interesting than the everyday. Most of my life was, and is, quite routine.
"Routine" is a relative term. As a writer as someone challenging the cookie-cutter formula by definition your life is "different." As kids, we're told to follow our dreams, but if we do that, we're often ridiculed as adults. The father character in Tetched knows this all too well.
By "routine," I meant that I have a day job, part-time teaching jobs, and a family. To write, I go to an urban colony, The Writers Room, here in the East Village. My spouse is understanding enough to allow me to go to out-of-town art colonies as well, which is where I do most of my work. I go during vacations from my day job.
I also read my work in public a lot, which involves traveling. Today, I'm going to Albany to read. I'll stay in the house of the host, whom I've never met. It's a little nervous-making, but it'll be fun.
However, there are conflicts: Do I want to spend time with my family, or spend time writing? I want to do both. There's no question about having to be at work in the office and at class. Sometimes, I feel as if I'm leading a double life. I often think about how to lead a more one-track life, but for a writer in New York, that's not easy. Do you write a perennial best-seller, or what? Maybe someday I'll figure it out.
I think my father was more troubled than I am by the issue of the artist's life. He had children early. He was in his 20s when his kids were born, and for him that was a problem. I was 46 when our daughter was born. But my father had the luxury of time at home, in his studio. My mother had a regular job, in a hospital lab, so my father stayed home much of the time. That might be why I have more to say about my father in my fictionI saw him more than I saw my mother.
That's it: You've gotta write a best-seller, Thad. Have you had well-meaning folks, maybe even family members, suggest that you write something mainstream so you establish yourself and make lots of money and after that, you can write about whatever you want?
I was joking about the best-seller, and no one's been bugging me to write one. I know what you mean, though, when you say that you could possibly have a hita hit book, a hit songand then have the freedom to experiment. I started out by taking an experimental approach. My early influences were Richard Brautigan and Donald Barthelme. They are established figures, with literary reputations and wide recognition, but you wouldn't call them mainstream.
I actually tried to incorporate more traditional elements in my new book. I tried to make the narrative more continuous, the chapters more equally weighted. I think my first novel, Roughhouse, consisted of two distinct halves, and the "chapters" in the second half tended to bounce from one subject to another. In Tetched, I wanted a more cohesive package. I also wanted to produce a story that was more profound and poignant.
Where do you teach?
I'm now teaching a summer workshop in prose poetry at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Sleepy Hollow. I teach fiction the rest of the year at the Writer's Voice of the West Side YMCA here in Manhattan.
In "Tetched," the father character isn't shy about his politics, and the overall theme seems like a challenge to many standard American family myths. Is there a political/social message you're trying to share?
The father character does talk about politics. In a way, he sees the political system as a cause of his difficulties. To the extent that regulations affect people's lives, he may have a point. His vision, his dream, is to live independently, self-sufficiently, outside the system. Having to bend to the system frustrates him.
But the father character is complicated, perhaps the most complicated in the book. He married someone not of his race. His children also are "other." He has mixed feelings about having a family in the first place. Will his fatherly duties take away from his creative work? He thinks so. His children change as they grow up, altering whatever balance there once was. He has a drinking problem. He denies that he has a problem.
I think the message is obvious, though it isn't simple. I'm saying, among other things, that behavior patterns don't go away quickly, so you'd best think hard before you go setting patterns. However, I leave it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. I don't comment much about the incidents in the book. I just present them.
I do have another question: Tetched feels, to me, like it picks up speed as you read it. Maybe the chapters or fractals are literally shorter, but they read faster and more happens. It makes one feel like they are rolling downhill, picking up speed, and very much at the mercy of some unknown force. Was this a conscious decision?
Actually, no, the narrative isn't intended to move faster as the book progresses. The chapters are short throughout the book, yes, but they don't get shorter as the story goes on. (If they did get shorter, they'd disappear.) The text is supposed to read fairly quickly. There is a lot of incident, and not much exposition. The experience of reading may get easier simply because it becomes more predictableyou get used to the writing style. The tone, the voice and the sentence structure are fairly consistent throughout.
Surely you realize that your readers will wonder if you share your protagonist's sexual fetishes. Did you consider this before writing Tetched, and does it concern you?
The quirky sexuality you mention is part of the relationships that play out in the second half of the book. Mainly, the odd practices are factors in the breakup of relationships. In writing these bits, I was trying to understand dating, how it sometimes leads to happy experiences, but often leads to a feeling of loss or disconnection.
The narrator is obsessive, and this doesn't help his meetings with women. Still, I tried to add a note of humor, or absurdity, by exaggerating the incidents. In real life, things don't happen so fast, or in such a focused way.
As I said earlier, I do draw on my experiences for my fictional material. I also combine events for dramatic effect. My characters are often composites of people I've known. And some of the stuff is just made up.
Also, do you feel your multi-racial background is a factor in the way you write?
As for my biracial background (my mother is Chinese and my father was of Polish descent), it is definitely a factor in what I write about. But it's not a factor in the way I write, in my writing style. Identity is an idea that's very interesting to me, because it is, by definition, unique to each person. When you're biracial, you pretty much have to make a choice as to how to identify yourself, but your choice may change as you find yourself in different situations, or as you get older. You may want more anonymity, or you may want to belong to a group. These are issues I'd like to deal with in more depth in my future work.
This interview was conducted by author Mickey Z. for Counterpunch. October 2005.