The Millions Interview: Alexi Zentner

April 6, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 2 8 min read

One of the more heartening news stories of the past couple of weeks must have been the tale of Hideaki Akaiwa. The 43-year-old Japanese man, upon finding himself separated from his family by the recent tsunami, put on scuba gear and plunged into the waters to find and rescue his wife, his mother, and a bevy of trapped strangers. Part of the appeal of the story, surely, had to do with its demonstration of human ingenuity triumphing over natural forces. But, of course, humans often can’t outwit nature, and eventually death comes for us all.

coverIn Alexi Zentner’s debut novel Touch, as in life, nature is impersonal and brutish, as unpredictable as it is beautiful. Taking place in turn-of-the-century northern Canada in a small frontier logging town, this luminous novel tells the story of a pastor who, in returning home to his dying mother, has to confront the mysteries and ghosts of his childhood, and so of the woods. I first came across Zentner’s work in the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories collection; his fiction has also appeared in the Atlantic, Tin House, Narrative, Orion, Slice, and elsewhere. J. Robert Lennon calls Touch “a sublime haunting,” and Téa Obreht says the novel is “stunning and provocative.”

Zentner and I first met as fellow work-study scholars at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference; more recently, we met to talk about Touch, monsters, the wild, ambition, and the upsides of making his wife cry.

The Millions: Reading your book about the natural perils of life in a frontier town while also reading about the tsunami in Japan felt a little like reading about the fall of Rome anytime in the past ten years or so: the dangers of long ago kept reminding me of present-day disasters. While writing Touch, were you at all influenced by present-day environmental or natural-hazard concerns?

Alexi Zentner: If you keep up with the news, it’s hard not to be influenced by those concerns, but I think the bigger pressures for me were closer to home. I used to rock climb —avidly, though not very well— and do enough outdoor activities that I’m aware of how much of a role both preparation and luck can play in survival. What probably brought the hazards of the natural world more to the forefront, however, was simply having children. It’s amazing how dangerous the world can suddenly look when you’ve got a little kid running around. There are a lot of sharp corners and hard surfaces in life.

TM: Can we talk about the monsters? There’s an array of supernatural monsters and other magical beings in your novel, all of whom lurk in the wild. Just to name a few, there are the qallupilluit: sea witches who smell like rotting meat, the wehtiko: men-cum-cannibals who are always hungry, and the mahaha: creatures who tickle you until you die. What informed your choice to incorporate magic and otherworldly creatures into the natural world of your novel?

AZ: I was interested in how, in North America, we once had a frontier. We had myths and monsters in the United States with Bigfoot, that sort of creature, and in Canada we had Inuit legends that I’ve appropriated. So, I picked and chose. The qallupilluit is a classic Inuit story of witches that call you down to the ice, formerly used as a way to keep children away from unsafe ice. It’s a cautionary tale: the monsters stand in for the ways in which nature can unpredictable. Today, when you go into a natural environment, you’ve got your Gore-Tex jacket and your GPS, but a hundred years ago, the place where Sawgamet is set is an uncharted wilderness.

One of the characters, Jeannot, is the first white man there, so when he hears legends about these myths and monsters, he can’t really say that they’re not true. In the vastness of the woods, it’s not really clear what is or is not in there. In the book, they’re not illusions. And the wehtiko—that’s a cannibal myth. When you live in these harsh climates, cannibalism happens. Again, the myths are a way of enforcing the taboo.

TM: How did you first come across these legends?

AZ: The qallupilluit comes from a children’s book by Robert Munsch. In the children’s book, the story is less scary, of course: it’s a book that I’ve read to my kids. At the back of the book there’s a bit about how a little girl in the village told him the story, so I looked it up, and of course I bastardized it to my own ends, in the same way any person who comes into a culture and tries to take away its myths bastardizes it. This is what I’ve done with Jeannot, and what the characters of the book have done. In the book, the monsters respond to that—they’ve been transformed by the settlers themselves. As the settlers transform the land, they also transform its myths.

TM: What interested you in the first place in the wilderness and the frontier?

AZ: The novel started with a simple image I had of a girl falling through the ice and getting frozen underneath. A town grew around that, then I thought of the father of this girl. Once I started writing him, his actions became preordained because he was the sort of man who would never be able to just watch his daughter die, the sort of man who had to act, and he didn’t have much choice in what he did when his daughter fell through the ice. He’s not a character who could have done anything other than what he did. There’s something about that logging landscape that allows you to distill characters to their essence, because there are so many times when it really is just them, and there’s nothing else to rely on.

TM: And so often, it’s not enough. I was moved by the tenuousness of loss in Touch: when people die, they’re not quite dead, or at least there’s the hope that they’re not entirely dead. Jeannot comes back to the town of Sawgamet to raise the dead—in this case to raise his wife, whom he’d lost a long time ago—and Jeannot tells his grandson Stephen that if he would just believe, he, too, could find all his dead. Is there something specific about Sawgamet and the frontier that creates this tenuousness, or is it specific to Stephen and his family?

AZ: In many ways, the family pays for the sins of the father and the grandfather. Jeannot was the first one to sully the wilderness, so the wilderness strikes back at him: people are trying to claw civilization from the wilderness and the wilderness is trying to claw it back. I think that’s why death doesn’t seem entirely final. In the vastness of the landscape, there’s a sense that there may be things greater than God. If you live in a place where there really are monsters and witches, it seems easy to believe that the flip side could be true. Jeannot was trained to be a priest and left the ministry as a young man, and Stephen, the narrator, is a priest. For them, part and parcel with this belief of monsters comes the possibility of glorious things.

TM: Yes, glorious things. There’s more that’s supernatural in Touch than the monsters. There are also golden caribou, a singing dog, and strange intrusions of the past into the present, and vice versa.

AZ: With what I’m writing, I call it mythical realism instead of magical realism, because magical realism is so heavily identified with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Latin America. I think what I’m doing takes that same sense of magic, but I’m writing in a distinctively North American style, which is not done. I think what people have done is that they’ve taken magical realism and overlaid it on North America. I don’t think that’s the most successful strategy, so I was very interested in how I could do that in a way that was uniquely my own.

TM: I remember that on the first day I met you, at Bread Loaf, we had a late-night conversation in the barn about ambition: we confessed that we want our writing to compete with the greats, and that we want to add something of note to the literature we love. Donald Hall said, “I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.” Can you say more about that ambition and how that affects your writing, particularly as a debut writer?

AZ: I think I’m more willing to fail. I don’t know whether or not my writing will stand the test of time, but that’s what I want to try and do. I want to try to write the kind of books that people will be reading generations from now, and that will change people’s lives. The kind of books that people read and press upon their friends, saying, You have to read this. But I think that to write that way you have to be willing to take chances in what you are doing, and that means that sometimes you can fail really badly. And I think it also means you have to be serious in your endeavors.

TM: Serious in what sense?

AZ: I don’t mean all you do is think about writing, but there are some sacrifices you make. Also, I think most writers would love to sell a lot of copies and win awards and do well, because people want to be successful. I understand that, but you can’t think about that while you’re writing. If you want to think about that when you’re done for the day, go for it. But while you’re actually writing, you have to do things because you believe they’re right. There have been times in my writing process when I’ve had a chorus of people say to me, “You need to make this change,” and I haven’t, because they were wrong and I was right. There have been other times when I’ve had to handle a chorus who’ve said to me, “This is brilliant, you shouldn’t change it, but I’ve heard one person say, “This isn’t working,” and I know that last voice is right. It’s a balancing act.

TM: In your comments in the PEN/O. Henry collection, you wrote that you knew you could become a writer when you showed the story to your wife and she read it, and started crying. Did you have a lot of doubt before that about whether or not you could write fiction? What about that moment was revelatory for you?

AZ: My poor wife. I was a stay-at-home father at that time and I was trying to write, so we hired a babysitter to come for two hours twice a week. My wife is a school psychologist making a teacher’s salary, so that extra $50 a week was an investment for us. Maybe a month into it, I wrote what ended up becoming the O. Henry story. I showed it to her and I went to do some errands around the house, then I came back 20 minutes later, and she was crying. I think my first response was, What’s wrong? And when she said it was just the story I thought, All right.

Early on, I was very scared about whether or not I was good enough. I’d been a writer for a very long time, but also, not really. The thing is, I had tried, but not very hard. Because if you don’t try very hard, and you fail, you don’t have to feel that badly about it. I think it’s terrifying when you say, “I’m really committed to this,” and you try your hardest and do your absolute best work. Then, if you fail, you don’t have anything to hide behind.

I have been fortunate in that I’ve had enough success with things that when things go poorly for me with my writing I’m able to look at outside successes to help them bolster my internal confidence. It helps that I’m an unnaturally cheery person.

TM: Does your wife continue to read your work?

AZ: Yes, and to this day, if my wife reads something and she cries, that usually means that I did something right. It’s funny—I can’t predict it. My wife is a very good reader, and she’s not a writer, and that’s a hugely helpful thing. She’s a canary in a coal mine, a great test for how well other people will respond to a piece.

When you give a piece to writers, you often get a very difference response from what the public response will be. If you’re a construction worker and you look at a house, you see the trusses and the framing, and the way it’s built; if you go to buy a house you think, oh, look at the kitchen, and there’s a walk-in closet. Similarly, when you’re a writer, you see the bones of a story: why things work and why they don’t, whereas when you’re a reader you think of why you liked it or didn’t like it.

TM: Yes. The reader thinks: I believed, I didn’t believe. I was moved by it, I wasn’t moved by it. I cared, I didn’t.

AZ: As a writer, you lose sight of that. You lose sight of the question, Do I like this book? When I teach, one of the things I say to a student is that the most important question is, Do I want to keep reading this? And if the answer is no, nothing else matters. I’ve read some novels that are stylistically brilliant, but I have no emotion about them. Then I’ve read some books and stories that are really flawed, but that really moved me and stayed with me, and, given a choice, I’d rather be that writer. I’d rather risk being overly sentimental than risk nothing.

's writing has appeared in Ploughshares, the Southern Review, Believer, and elsewhere. The recipient of scholarships from Yaddo and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, she has been named one of Narrative’s "30 Below 30" writers. She is working on a novel.

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