An Interview with Zachary German
The first time I met Zachary German was at a restaurant where they had noodles and beer. Zach had thick glasses and would be quiet a long time and then suddenly start asking a lot of short questions. He has big eyes sometimes. Later, a bunch of people walked to an apartment and Zach smoked a pipe and when we got there he went and bought several 40s and we talked about rap.
This was right before Zach’s Bear Parade ebook version of Eat When You Feel Sad came out. Reading EWYFS in this form I remember feeling both confused and intrigued, the blankness of it, and the feeling behind the blankness that I couldn’t name, and why I wanted to keep looking at it. Zach’s is surely a voice unlike most any other for this way of its small, selected observations, the rendering of time and space in direct, neutral seconds, which somehow in cohesion form a center you could not have labeled in another way.
Last month Melville House Publishing released the full version of Eat When You Feel Sad, a novel, which takes off from the place the original excerpt began and develops that indirect interiority even beyond what I’d expected in the first taste. Herein, Zach offers an answer for one of the bitchiest matters in books: How to deliver presence or “heart” without sounding predictable or like a dolt. It’s truly a refreshing and oddly powerful collage of moments, music, staring, speaking, eating, boredom. This is a new thing, an odd object that somehow opens great feeling in its calm.
Over email I talked with Zach about the book’s creation, his manners of selection, minimalism, his humor influences, bedtime, revision, and so on.
BB: One of the first things I heard about your novel, before I read it in excerpt on Bear Parade, was that it had been composed of the shortest most direct sentences several people had ever seen. When did you start writing the book? How did it begin?
ZG: I started writing the novel in the fall of 2007, without ever really thinking about it. I was just posting these short, sort of minimal scenes from my life or from indie movies or whatever on my blog, and as a joke titling the posts “from “Eat When You Feel Sad.” ” It seemed funny, to imagine the stupid scenes I was writing actually published in a book with that stupid name (funny, right?). Then I wrote more and more of them and one day it must have been really nice out or something and I felt good and put them all into one Word document and saw that it was however many words and felt good, and then decided I would keep writing until it got to some other number of words. And then I guess at some point I was depressed again and was talking to Tao Lin on Gmail about how I didn’t want to work on the book anymore and maybe I should just see if Gene Morgan wanted to put what I had then on Bear Parade, and Tao said I could probably have a draft on Bear Parade and then still work on the novel and maybe get the whole thing published later, so I did that.
I hadn’t really looked at the Bear Parade thing in a while, but I’m looking at it today for this and one other interview I’m doing. God, seems like the sentences are so not short and not direct!
Here is the end of the American Apparel scene in the Bear Parade book:
In the check out line Robert remembers he wanted underwear. Robert walks to where there is underwear and picks up a package of three pairs of small underwear. Robert is happy that he will have new underwear. He thinks “I will take a shower and then put them on.” Robert gets back in the checkout line. Robert feels happy.
Here is the end of that same scene in the novel:
He walks to where there is underwear. He picks up a pair of underwear. He looks at the underwear. He picks up four pairs of underwear. He looks at them. He is holding five pairs of underwear. He stands in a line.
Just from the above, I split up compound sentences, took out words like “remembers,” phrases like “is happy,” “gets back in,” “checkout line.” I feel like the entire time I was writing my goal was, as you said above, to have the shortest most direct sentences, like, ever, and the more I did it the better, or something, I got at it. So that’s how that happened.
BB: That is a nice comparison of those sections. So did you end up spending more time editing than composing? I also wonder about the selection of object references through the book. The way you use names of songs, food, and other products in a funny way seems to give a very specific kind of air to the novel, even in a different manner than has happened with people like Ellis or Delillo using products to develop space. How did you select what songs would be mentioned, or how much was it a mirror of your own Zachary day? Did you ever mention a song and then go back and realize that another song should be there?
ZG: I started writing what would become the novel in fall of 2007 and submitted a ~30,000 word first draft in summer 2008. Then there were a lot of changes and I handed in a ~30,000 word final draft in fall 2009. So yeah, I guess a lot more time spent on editing than composing.
With the songs it was either what made sense or in some cases things I actually remembered. I don’t remember the song “Crimewave” by Crystal Castles and Health playing at the specific party that a scene in the novel is based on, but based on the time period and demographics or whatever it would make the most sense. I think it’s the most honest choice of a song to be playing at that party. With the song “Heartbeats” by The Knife, which plays in two different forms in other parts of that scene, I do remember that song playing, and I thought it worked.
What I tried not to do was pick songs that would illustrate the mood or something, just to illustrate the mood or something. For example, in one scene Robert throws up at a party and in the morning has to wake up for work. He plays the song “Paper Planes” by M.I.A., which maybe doesn’t make the most sense, but that was a song that I listened to a lot in that period of time, sometimes in situations like that, so I thought I would use it, and I think it kind of makes the scene funny, to imagine someone really fucking hungover listening to M.I.A. at eight fifteen in the morning. So with the music choices there wasn’t a lot of going back and changing things; if I changed anything it was from one song to another similar song that maybe seemed more iconic or something.
BB: It seems like there are two scenes or moments in the book that for me stand out on a emotional level from the very sublime and simultaneous mesmerizing/building that is going on with the literal reportage of small things. Those would be (1) when Robert witnesses a car accident and (b) when Robert and Alison realize their odd relationship is not going to work. I was wondering how these points came about and were dealt with by you in composition, such as, were they intended to be variations in the small flow, like the way days actually come on in life, out of nowhere, and in contrast to the calm, and if you struggled at all with their texture in the overall weave of the book? At first I was kind of taken aback by them, in the way they serve as a spike in Robert’s otherwise mostly very placid, casually methodical manners. Maybe another way of asking a similar thing is, How does a scene come out when you are writing, by sentences, by emotion, or something else?
ZG: It was absolutely no different to write about the car crash or that scene with Alison than it was to write about going to PathMark or taking a shower. What I struggled most with in the car crash scene was what to call the “button on the key ring” which locks Robert’s car doors. In my life, and I guess life in general, there are situations which would make boring scenes in novels and there are situations which would make exciting or interesting scenes. I live through both of them and don’t really see an objective difference.
The choice to include both of those scenes was much less of a desire for contrast than of one for honesty: many days of nothing, witnessing a car crash, many days of nothing, an emotionally difficult scene with an ex-girlfriend. That’s just how life is, sometimes, and so that’s what I wanted the book to be. Not that it would be dishonest for there to be nothing but masturbation and listening to indie music, just these other things seem to happen sometimes, and so they happen in the book.
BB: The idea of ‘dishonest’ versus honest is interesting, as fiction. One of the wonderful things to me about the novel is how beautifully you were able to narrow down days where nothing happens into small paragraphs that in the end seem like a series of repetitions with little difference, that together somehow end up feeling even more powerful for how little power they demand. Andy Warhol was always in some way talking about this by not directly talking about it. He said, “The most exciting thing is not doing it.” This book never really does it, and that is at least part of why it is exciting. Your videos of people eating are also rather reminiscent of Warhol, I wonder how you feel about what he made, or him. how do you?
Also: What do you do while you are writing?
What do you do to get ready for bed?
ZG: I like Andy Warhol a lot. His book “From A to B and Back Again” is very funny, to me. I haven’t read “a” and don’t think I will, but the idea seems funny. I like some of his painting and movies. He seems good, overall.
The eating videos I made were always made with an awareness of Warhol’s films; his influence is present in the blog, too. While nothing he wrote, that I am aware of, specifically influenced the novel, quotes like the one above lead me to think that he and I were probably trying to do similar things, in terms of seeing the very ordinary as very exciting.
In writing the book I guess I was most affected by a few book I liked a lot, and the ideas of accepting that nothing new in art is necessarily possible, while at the same time there was a specific book that I wanted to exist that I didn’t think existed yet. There is a lot grammatically wrong with that last sentence, I think.
I usually listen to music and sometimes drink alcohol and / or smoke tobacco while writing.
To get ready for bed I take out contact lenses if I am wearing them, wash my face and brush my teeth. I always bring a glass of water with me to bed and usually set an alarm on my cell phone.
BB: I’m glad you mentioned humor here, it seems an important thing to mention in particular with your book. Something about the minimal reportage and the details chosen to leave in or leave out result in some amazing moments that made me laugh in the same way the Warhol interviews do, as well as in ways I don’t think I’ve seen occur in writing. I think I laugh a lot at things in book inside, but it takes something particular to actually make me make noise.
Here’s a scene of yours where that really worked, and is totally a product of detail selection:
Robert looks out the window. He stands up. His sits near his laptop computer. He looks at pornography. Robert thinks “When I look at pornography I mostly focus on facial cumshots. I should focus on something else, I think. I don’t know.” Robert looks at himself in the mirror. He plays the song “Underneath It All” by No Doubt. Robert ejaculates. He walks to the bathroom. He takes a shower.
It’s pretty wonderful, I think, the way you can say so much by saying so little here. The choice of “laptop computer” versus just “laptop” or “computer,” and the plain but complex line “He looks at pornography.”
I guess I’m thinking out loud here, but I think your sense of humor is an important part of what makes this book so singular. I wonder about your parents. Maybe this is asking too much, but what was your home like where you grew up? Are you parents funny? Who is funny? What books make you laugh?
Sorry that this is such a multifangled question.
ZG: My parents are nice. I’ve never thought of them as being funny, really, though they appreciate humor, I guess. I used to make my mom laugh a lot, if memory serves, when I was younger.
Some of my friends are pretty funny. I probably laugh the most based on things my close friends say, either in person or via gchat.
Steve Martin’s “Cruel Shoes” made me laugh audibly, I remember, in addition to his records, which made me laugh really really audibly. Woody Allen’s first three prose collections made me laugh. I read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut books when I was younger, though I don’t really remember them making me laugh. They seem funny though, in memory. I’m having a hard time remembering other books that make me laugh. Wow, I know there was one recently, I was laughing in bed. I really can’t remember though. Oh, Deb Olin Unferth’s fiction always makes me laugh. Some of Rebecca Curtis’s stories have made me laugh, I think. For some reason I am thinking of Don DeLillo’s “End Zone,” though I can’t remember any specific funny parts in that. Ogden Nash’s poetry is pretty funny, usually, especially when read aloud. I think I mostly just smirk though, with the Nash.
There was a time in high school when I wanted to be intellectual or something, and I read Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu Plays,” hoping that they would be funny, and perhaps pretending, for a time, that they were. They never made me laugh though; they seemed boring.
BB: Now that your first book is finished and you’ve begun work on a second novel, I wonder if you feel different with this book in the world? Did the experience of publishing a book change you as a person, or how you think about writing, or the way you write?
ZG: I only feel different in that I thought I would feel different, and I don’t feel different, so now I know it hasn’t made me feel different. I don’t think I’ve changed in the few weeks since the novel’s publication any more than I change every few weeks. Maybe next time…
[Buy Eat When You Feel Sad from Melville House, Amazon, or Powell’s. Visit Zach at his blog every time a police officer gets shot i throw a party or at the official Eat When You Feel Sad site.]