The Do-or-Die Novelist: An Interview with Elliott Holt

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I’ve admired Elliott Holt’s writing for years, ever since we were in graduate school together, and so I started reading her first novel as soon as the galley slid through my mail slot. I tore through it; I know I’ll want to read it again. You Are One of Them is a wonderful book, astute and mysterious, wry and true, about a friendship changed by the Cold War. Others have agreed. In the New York Times, for instance, Maggie Shipstead called it a “hugely absorbing first novel from a writer with a fluid, vivid style,” and, in Bookforum, Roxane Gay praised it as “both a compelling character study and a psychological thriller with a ferociously intelligent ending.”

Elliott has received a Pushcart Prize and was the runner-up of the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award. We talked online about the loneliness of writing, the uses and limits of social media, the evils of lunch, and the key to good fiction.

The Millions: I think sometimes of a lunch we had in Chicago, when I asked how you’d finished your novel and you said you’d put a sign above your desk exhorting yourself to “make it happen,” and Lauren Groff noted she had a sign above her desk, and I thought, Aha! I need a sign. I went home and made one — “finish your novel” — and it’s helped. Can you tell me more about how you got yourself to finish your novel?

Elliott Holt: It felt like a do-or-die moment for me. I’d just gone through this break-up and was feeling crushed and heartbroken, but I also felt suddenly like my writing was all I had. I had quit my salaried staff job in advertising (after saving up some money to write full time for a while) and I was running out of money/time, so I said, that’s it. I have to do this. I have nothing else. I have to make this happen. I have to give it my all and actually finish this novel I’ve been toying with for four years. I was lonely and I was near broke, so I had nothing to lose!

And I wanted to publish a book before I was 40. Which is a totally arbitrary deadline, since writers mature at totally different rates. But anyway, I finished the book a few weeks before my 38th birthday. And it was published when I was 39. A 39-year-old woman can’t help but be aware of her waning fertility, but I made a conscious choice to focus on writing and not have children. So now I have to produce another book child.

TM: I forget which writer said every baby is a failed novel, but I think of that sometimes when I get asked why I’m not having a child. How’d you know the novel was done? What did it feel like to finish it and send it off?

EH: Some people will say it’s still not finished! (I’m joking because so many people hate the ending.)

TM: I love the ending, by the way.

EH: Oh, thanks. I knew that the book would end with that letter (I hope I’m not giving anything away) and I was writing to that point, though there were plenty of surprises along the way. I can’t really explain how I knew I was done. The same intuitive way I know I’m done with a story. It’s usually about the beats, the tone.

TM: I know we’ve talked in the past about how writing can crowd out most of everything else, especially social interaction. Sometimes I’ll realize I’ve gone all day without talking to anyone, and I think it helps my writing — at least, that’s what I tell myself — but sometimes I do get tired of the loneliness. How do you balance the two, the writer’s need for isolation versus the desire for human company?

EH: Oh, man, I do a terrible job of balancing the two. The year I was finishing my novel was the loneliest year of my life. I hardly saw or talked to anyone. l find that I have to check out of socializing in order to work well — I can’t just shift gears after a day of work and go to a cocktail party — but I’m single and I live alone so that means it’s easy for me to go weeks at a time without spending time with other people. And that’s not good. Everyone needs human contact and I don’t get enough of it. I was at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference this summer and I was so happy because I was surrounded by smart, fun, like-minded people. It had been so long since I’d had spent so much time with other people. And I was like, oh, right, I love people! I miss hanging out! I need to do a better job at balancing my writing life and my social life.

TM: Exactly — it’s hard, while working, to switch gears and go to a party. I once read a letter by Dickens in which he complains to a woman about her wanting to have lunch with him, how it’s not “only” a lunch because the interruption will destroy his entire day’s productivity. You’re very active online, especially on Twitter — The Millions once called you a “fixture of the literary Twittersphere” — do you find that social media helps with the balancing act?

EH: First of all, I’m with Dickens on lunch. I don’t do lunch. And the virtual banter of Twitter can provide what I miss of office life (the random chats about TV shows, etc.). But when I’m composing new material, even Twitter is distracting. So I won’t be on Twitter much for the next few months. I get tired of it.

TM: I go through ups and downs with online interaction. I’ve read a couple of articles lately about how use of social media seems to add to people’s feelings of depression. One article suggested that a problem with online interactions is that people tend to present a more manicured, upbeat version of their lives, mostly or only discussing what’s going well for them. Part of what I like and admire about your online self is that you aren’t relentlessly upbeat. What has brought about or inspired your openness?

EH: I can’t say that I’m totally open. I’m actually a very private person. But I have a dark sense of humor and I appreciate the absurd aspects of life. I just can’t help being irreverent. I guess I like social media that feels unfiltered, even though the truth is, it’s all filtered through personas.

TM: Have you ever found that, because of Twitter and whatnot, people think they know more about you than they really do?

EH: Yes, all the time. But anyone who “knows” me from social media doesn’t really know me. That’s another reason I want to take a break from Twitter. Twitter is fun, but I’m a writer, not a tweeter, but a lot of people know me from Twitter, not from my writing.

TM: You also wrote a great Twitter story that Slate, among others, praised. It was the first Twitter fiction I’ve seen that actually took advantage of the medium by making use of different feeds’ points of view. Can you talk about what it was like to write this story? How was it different from — or similar to — writing more traditional prose?

EH: Writing that story for the Twitter fiction festival was a lot of fun. It was similar to other fiction writing in the sense that I was thinking a lot about beats, about voice, about pacing. But storytelling should adapt to its delivery system. We tell stories in films differently than we do in books, or on stage. So I wanted to use Twitter to tell that story. I wrote a story in tweets instead of tweeting lines of a story.

TM: If I remember correctly, we started becoming friends when we realized we shared a love of Norman Rush. You often evangelize for books you’ve been enjoying — I can think of several books I’ve bought on your recommendation — and I wonder what makes you decide you’ll keep reading. What pulls you in?

EH: Voice and tone. If I love the voice, I’m sold. And then, when I fall in love with a book, I tell everyone I know about it. I get very excited.

TM: What are some books you’ve read recently that you’ve loved?

EH: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, & Sons by David Gilbert, Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman (it came out last year, but I just read it), and story collections by my friends Jamie Quatro, Ramona Ausubel, and Laura van den Berg. Also Hangsamen by Shirley Jackson. I’ve long loved Jackson, but didn’t read that novel until this summer. And it is such a wonderfully unsettling portrait of existential loneliness. It’s weird and brilliant.

TM: I think I’ve only ever read Jackson’s collected stories — now I’m curious. What’s one of the more astute things you’ve learned about your writing from one of your teachers, or a friend or editor, or from anyone else?

EH: Hmm. I was in a workshop with Charlie D’Ambrosio (who is one of the very best writers working today, in my humble opinion) at the Tin House Writers Workshop and he told me that a story I’d written was constructed to avoid the one thing it most needed to confront. He said, this story is so well written, but you’re avoiding the real issue. He was right.

Charlie has no patience for cowardice on the page.

But I’ve also been told that I create good details — and details are the key to good fiction, I think. The judges of the PEN Emerging Writers’ Award in 2011 wrote this really nice thing in their citation: “The physical details Holt tosses down (so easily it seems!) do double duty, creating a rich sensory world while deepening and complicating character. She can’t be called a miniaturist, though her gaze on the details of family life is focused and keen. She strives for — and succeeds at — an admirable largeness, an emotional awareness that borders on uncanny. Her prose is a thrill to read.” And I really needed to hear that. It meant a lot to me.

TM: I love that about the details. It’s true — I remember vividly, for example, the shimmering chartreuse of the leaves in You Are One of Them, and the film burning on the projector. You’ve mentioned the Tin House and Sewanee writers’ conferences, and you’ve been to Yaddo — have you found writers’ conferences and colonies to be helpful to your writing?

EH: Ah yes, I love having writer friends and I really value a sense of community with other writers. I loved being at Yaddo. I loved the Sewanee and Tin House conferences. The friends I’ve made in those places are some of my very closest friends and readers.

TM: Part of what I love about your novel is its intelligence about friendship. I’ve been rereading Bellow’s Ravelstein and Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, and it’s occurred to me that there really aren’t enough novels addressing friendship, especially friendship between women and girls. Is this a lack that came to mind when you started thinking about your novel?

EH: Actually, I wasn’t thinking about the lack of fiction about friendship — though you’re right that there are a lot more books about romantic love than about love between friends. It was an intuitive decision to write about a friendship (and its attendant rivalries). Maybe because all my most intimate relationships have been with friends, not lovers.

A History of Violence: An Interview with Eugene Cross

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In the first story of Eugene Cross’ debut story collection, Fires of Our Choosing, a boy takes another boy to a corner of the playground and beats him up because he can, and because he’s sad. In Cross’ stories, hurt people hurt people, and while sorrow and unhappiness might not excuse their behavior, it can illuminate. This is what Cross accomplishes with his bullies, harvesters, housepainters, housebreakers, and pool sharks — he lights them up, and reveals their humanity. Tout savoir c’est tout pardonner: to know all is to forgive all.

Cross’s stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine, American Short Fiction, Story Quarterly, TriQuarterly, and Callaloo, among other publications. His collection was published by Dzanc and recently was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

The Millions: Reading your stories, I thought often of Flannery O’Connor’s work, and what she said about violence being an “extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially.” What role might violence play in your writing?

Eugene Cross: When I set out to write the book, I didn’t intend for violence to play such a pivotal role. However, many of the characters in Fires are at their breaking points, especially some of the younger ones. Like many adolescents, rather than deal with a situation rationally, they act out with violence. Having been a kid myself (and having held onto that mentality for much longer than society would deem appropriate), and having worked with kids in the past, I’ve seen violence from both sides, the bully and the bullied. I tried to explore that in these stories, and also was intrigued by just how quickly those roles, the abuser and the abused, can reverse.

TM: Erie, Presque Isle Bay, Waterford, I-79: from what Google tells me, much of your collection is set in northwestern Pennsylvania. Nomad that I’ve been, I’m ever interested in the ways writers like, say, Munro and Faulkner root their fiction in a particular location. Do you feel any storytelling attachment to this part of Pennsylvania?

EC: I do! Like so many beginning writers, I tried desperately to escape where I was from. From my first creative writing class on, I was hellbent on writing stories that took place anywhere but where I grew up. I wrote stories set in the swanky social circles of Manhattan, places where people drank gimlets and actually used words like swanky. Or pieces set in Hawaii or Texas or the underbelly of LA or even, God forgive me, stories set nowhere.

TM: What changed?

EC: A teacher of mine very kindly pointed out that all these exotic and vague locales sort of sounded like the same place — that is, they began to sound like the place I’d been trying to escape all along. The place I was from. And so finally I embraced it and all it had to offer. The farmlands of northwestern PA, the grit and resilience of cities like Pittsburgh and my hometown of Erie. The people and places I’d spent my whole life observing.

TM: You say you tried desperately to escape where you were from. What do you think pulled you away from home?

EC: In large part, I thought that most people wouldn’t find where I was from interesting enough to read stories set there. This, however, was a product of my own restless adolescence. Like many kids raised in small towns I couldn’t wait to get out, to see the big city, to move on to other places where I was certain life was exciting and magnificent, and moved at an altogether faster pace. And so I used my stories as a sort of escape, until I myself could escape for a while. When I gained some distance and grew up a bit, I finally realized that the place I was from wasn’t all that bad, and was in fact pretty great. That the people who built their lives there and the stories that occurred were the foundation of my life.

TM: Before publishing your collection with Dzanc, you also received a Dzanc Prize for a community service project with refugees in Erie. Can you tell me about the project?

EC: Dzanc very kindly provided me with the means to run a creative writing workshop for refugees living in my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. The class was composed mainly of Bhutanese refugees who’d been living in refugee camps in Nepal. The United States served as a third-country resettlement for them. That being said, the bulk of participants were high-school-age students, kids who’d been born and raised in the refugee camps and lived their whole lives under extremely difficult circumstances, usually without electricity and running water. When they were resettled in the United States they came to live in cities like Erie and Pittsburgh and were often placed in the poorest areas of town and attended public schools with the worst reputations.

Take all of that and add a language and cultural barrier and it would be enough to break almost anyone, but not them. We did exercises where they wrote letters to friends and family they’d left behind in the camps, or who had been resettled elsewhere, and they were heartbreaking and amazing.

TM: You seem to have a particular affinity for younger characters. If you could give your younger self some advice, what would you say?

EC: I would say, “Younger self, stop taking everything so seriously and brooding all the time, and stop worrying so much about being accepted and just try and be yourself for a little bit, whoever that is, and be nicer to your parents and sister who love you, and don’t get annoyed when they want to talk to you and ask you questions they won’t always be there to ask, and don’t think you have to screw up and get into loads of trouble to be a writer, and enjoy your life, every second, ‘cause it all goes so fast. And stop letting your mom, as much as you love her, dress you in those god-awful turtle-neck sweaters with the deer printed on them, especially on picture day at school. It’s not helping you or her or anybody.”

TM: Speaking of previous editions, I remember having read an earlier version of your first story, “Rosaleen, If You Know What I Mean.” Do I remember correctly that you changed the first line of that story? If so, do you mind talking about what changed, and why?

EC: In the original version of the story, the opening line read, “The day after his brother left the house for good, Marty Hanson picked out the smallest boy in his sixth grade class and beat him badly.” The line now reads, “The day after his brother left the house for good, Marty Hanson picked out the smallest boy in his sixth grade class and waited until the boy was alone.”

What happened is that I got the opportunity to take a workshop with the wonderful writer and teacher, Charles Baxter, as well as with an amazing group of fellow students (including the incredible author conducting this interview!). Baxter pointed to the line immediately and told me I was “telegraphing my scene.” In other words I was telling the reader what would happen before it happened. When writing the story, I needed this hint, as it was one of the first things that came to me and pointed me in the direction the story would eventually take. However, in revision, I could pull it out and hence create tension for the reader. Baxter’s advice seemed so simple, and yet, I never would have come to it on my own. It made perfect sense and so I went back and changed the line.

TM: I’ve been thinking recently about what makes a story collection versus a pile of stories. Fires of Our Crossing feels very much like a collection, with unities of place, situation, and tone. When did these stories start coming together as a collection for you, or had you planned them as such from the beginning?

EC: Thanks so much for saying that, as I’d definitely hoped for it to come across as such. At first, I was just trying to write good stories that could stand on their own, attempting as best I could (and probably quite naively) to ignore how I would someday market the book, or try to sell it. Thankfully, the stories began to link themselves in terms of place and theme, and for that I was grateful. I don’t know if I’ll be as lucky in the future, but my goal is always to write strong work in the hopes that it will organically coalesce. I never want to try and force a theme or a character or connect stories that otherwise wouldn’t benefit from it, simply because it would make a book more marketable.

TM: Can you tell me more about the collection’s title?

EC: Well, first off, I’ve found that it’s a bit divisive. People seem to really like it or really hate it. I’ve felt both ways. But mostly it has something to do with a certain amount of accountability. The characters in the book have awful things happen to them. There are fires (obviously), drownings, robberies, break-ups, impending imprisonments, and all nature of tragedy, and through it all many of these characters are looking to blame anyone around them, anyone but themselves. Growing up, a lot of my friends were like that. I was like that. Willing to take credit for anything positive that came my way, but so quick to dismiss trouble as not being self-inflicted.

TM: The characters of Fires of Our Choosing seem to look for their respective salvations in, by turns, work, gambling, or violence. Which do you think is most likely to save us?

EC: I’d love to say gambling, but I’m a subpar card player who never knows when to stand up and cash in, Kenny Rogers be damned. Truthfully, I don’t think any of these can save us, but I’m often less interested in the outcome than the attempt. What do we turn to and why? Leisure and work, they both have their places, but require balance. Raymond Carver has a story entitled “What Do You Do In San Francisco?” where a postman contemplates how work got him through the toughest times in his life: the disintegration of his marriage, two kids he hasn’t seen in twenty years, and so on. “A man who isn’t working has got too much time on his hands, too much time to dwell on himself and his problems,” he states. But there’s also the reverse. No time at all to dwell, so much work that we can forget those around us, reassess our priorities and cloud our losses.

TM: What about you — what are you working on these days?

EC: I’m in the very early stages of a novel that is so tiny and clouded for me that it resembles one of those magic-grow capsules you had as a kid, that, when dropped into a tub of warm water, would expand into a giant foam turtle or dinosaur. My only hope is that mine doesn’t expand into a giant foam short story.

TM: What’s your workday like?

EC: I’d love to say that when I’m writing I sit down and stay put. That I “don’t leave the room” as the wonderful Ron Carlson suggests. But that would be a lie. I do. As my third grade teacher told my horrified mother many years ago, “He’s like a fish out of water.” I pace. I stall. I hit the fridge. I research, oftentimes too much. But once I’ve gotten some of that restless energy out, I’m ready to work. Sometimes it’s for a couple of hours, usually not more than three or four. I shoot for a page, knowing full well it might get tossed later and yet I try to treat it like it’s the most precious thing I’ve ever written. Whether it finds itself into the finished piece or not, every line deserves as much.

The Millions Interview: Alexi Zentner

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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.

In 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.