Vanessa Veselka on Giving a Voice, at Least a Little Bit, to a World that Has No Voice

Loosely translated, “Zazen” is Japanese for “seated meditation”. In Vanessa Vesklka’s hands, however, the word means so much more. It means the narrator, 27-year-old Della, who writes the names of those burned by self-immolation on the little strips of paper that come from fortune-cookies. Later, she writes memorials for the dead rats she buries behind the restaurant where she works.

Della describes that restaurant, “Rise Up Singing”, as having a “‘hell but that’s okay cause we don’t have to take out our piercings’ kind of theme”. Zazen is a leftist liberal paradise where the fight for individuality always bubbles below the surface. It is both Portland, Oregon (where Veselka resides) and not Portland, as Veselka asserts in the below video, “Zazen is Not Portland”.

Whatever Zazen is, it’s working. Veselka recently won the PEN Award for Zazen, a prize that comes with a $25,000 check. The judges wrote that “Zazen tackles counter-culture hipsters, geology, Buddhism, consumerism, terrorism, veganism, family drama, and, above all, love. In doing so, Zazen brings to the foreground the most fragile aspects of living the 21st century life, and how, in the end, we as a society can become the very thing we fear.”

Veselka’s first novel, Zazem began as a short story and then went through a stage as a novella before she wrote three drafts of it as a novel. Veselka instills this work ethic into everything she does, whether it’s her own fiction or her recent nonfiction, Recently, she published Violence, cowritten with Lidia Yuknavitch (The Chronology of Water, Dora: A Headcase) after a conversation for The Believer about gender in literature.

Veselka also recently published “The Truck Stop Killer” in GQ, a chilling memoir of her meeting and escaping from a serial killer while hitchhiking. Though Veselka says she hates talking about her own life, she does so in this essay to brilliant ends, giving voice to women who all too easily disappeared– or could have.


I know you wrote short stories before you wrote your novel. Did you find the transition difficult? What was different about the process for you?

I didn’t have a big process to challenge because it all hit me at once. I came to writing fiction very late. I didn’t really try to do it until I was about 36 years old. The story was called “Il Duce” and it was published in Yeti. I wrote that, and then I wrote a story in-between that I didn’t do anything with, and then the third story I wrote was “Zazen”, and that appeared in Tin House. I finished the short story and realized I wasn’t done with the character, the narrator.

Process-wise, I feel like I never think of myself as a short story writer. I do write short stories. I think I always assumed I’d write novels. The short story was always sort of a strange beast for me. There’s just so much stamina when you’re in your novel. You don’t know until you’ve done it, what it really feels like to go all the way. There’s a big difference, at least in my experience, in even having half a novel or two thirds of a novel and having written and revising one. That depends on people’s experience and their process, too. Some people write a big, fat first draft and then go back and they do radical cuts and changes. I have friends who write 350,000 words and then go back and cut it down to 80,000. Whereas I kind of work start-to-finish and I’m kind of neurotic and detailed, so I don’t work that way.

My first draft was probably 73, 74,000 words and my second draft was about 73,000 words, and my third draft was 74 (thousand). Very different process, largely self-edited. So I would just take breaks in between revisions.

There was a time when I thought Zazen was going to be a novella instead of a novel. As a novella, I could have made it even more internal. When I was writing short stories, I would think — and I would hear people say — ‘short stories are hard ’cause it’s all gotta count. You get space for all those other pretty things you want to do in a novel’. Well, then, I found out in a novel, that’s not true at all. A novel, after the first 45 pages, basically spends its entire time justifying itself. ‘Why are you 300 pages?’ You spend all your time in the book making the case that there should be another whatever many pages. And, so, it actually has to pick up pace in a certain way. You almost have to move faster to keep the tension together in a certain way, whereas when a short story does, there’s an expectation that there’s going to be a moment of peace.

So, I think the novella — which is a wonderful form — allows you to kind of take the lyrical intensity of a short story without forcing you to make a plot that justifies 400 pages. So it’s a beautiful art form in-between. I thought about doing Zazen that way, where maybe you don’t know if the wars are real, you don’t know if the bombs are real. Maybe it’s so internal that it’s more about language. In choosing to do the novel, which I did, I had to demystify some of those things.

What other things did you change when you were editing?

There was a character that I intentionally developed to do some work in the short story that was not as important in the beginning. Since the way that I write, I free-write first, it was strange to have a character that I felt like I had a more obvious hand in making rather than exploring, and that was the character of Tamara.

For somebody who hasn’t read the book or doesn’t have a good grasp on the characters, how would you describe the main character, Della?

Della is a very, very intelligent person whose intelligence does not serve her, necessarily. She has kind of an x-ray vision that doesn’t help. Every time she looks at a possibility, she also sees how that possibility ends, so she gets paralyzed. She’s kind of a broken-hearted character in a lot of ways. She has a lot of humor, and she has a lot of social criticism in a lot of ways.

The essential question for her is, in looking at the world, are you in or are you out? I think somehow she thinks she can escape the complicity of being alive, of being involved in things. And yet she sees nothing she feels like she feels she can be involved wholeheartedly in. She’s in a very painful and difficult place.

Were there other dystopic things that inspired you, like The Handmaid’s Tale orBrave New World?

No. They’re all inspiring. Some people see it [Zazen] as purely speculative. I found it pretty literal. I think it matched a lot of how I was experiencing the world, personally.

The world around us is the world of the book. The main difference is that I chose to use figurative language. To me, it’s no more speculative than any form of fiction. Writers use figurative language consistently and always to explode the world we’re in, whether it’s the Whore of Babylon or [whatever]. And now the world looks at it and is like, ‘we have to call them speculative’ or ‘we have to call them metaphorical’. I think it would be good the idea to bring back the idea of figurative language to describe something that’s read and around us, and so that was my experience of it.

It wasn’t that I was creating a speculative world or a dystopian world. I’m mixed on the word “dystopian”, because dystopian literature is usually about an individual trying to assert their self-hood in a utopia that’s gone wrong, that there’s a homogenous world that the individual that is getting lost in. Whereas in Zazen, there is a highly fetishized identity politics world that this individual is getting lost in. In some ways, it’s the opposite.

One of my favorite things about Della is the rat graveyard she had behind the restaurant where she worked. Where did that idea come from?

[Laughs] I worked at a restaurant that did, in fact bury rats in the back. I sort of took that and built it into something slightly more like the Arlington Cemetery of rat graveyards, expanded that idea. So that’s where that idea came from. Because I freewrite a lot of stuff, my experience was that I wrote something about a rat and went with it.

I always wonder what role music plays for writers. Do you remember what music you were listening to while you were writing Zazen, or do you prefer silence when you write?

I don’t listen to music when I write, but I listened to it a lot in the final rewrite. Because I’m a musician, I think, listening to music when I write is too distracting. Music’s not background for me. It’s an active experience. If it’s playing, I’m going to cue into it, and I’m going to be distracted. I actually put in earplugs when I write, even if there’s nothing going on around me. It helps me get into a world of sensory deprivation, which helps me concentrate.

I would say that in the final stages of editing, what I did is, I went back and soundtracked the whole novel by the emotional mood. I have like 2O different songs that track the emotional shifts in the narrator that were my idea what was happening. I used them to pull me back into Della with me. I have songs that are very associated with shifts and transitions between things that I used to get into the action of the story. For instance, I think the song I used write about Grace when I was doing the chapters that were very focused on Grace was “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. There’s lot of Grinderman with Della. I actually published a list with Dave Gutowski who does “Large-Hearted Boy.”

That list can be found here, and I also made a Spotify playlist of the songs available here.

When I’m writing a story, I have trouble separating my own political and social conscience from my characters sometimes. Maybe I’ll have a female character who wants to do something I don’t consider feminist. It’s always a question for me of when to step back and when to put a message out there. When you were writing Zazen, did you face any of those questions?

Only around race. I really feel that art needs its own space away from agenda unless it’s a piece that is meant to be fact. There are a lot of great pieces of art that are meant to be that. It has its own integrity because it’s part of the piece. But I think if it’s something that’s not meant to be agitprop, then I think it’s really important to just let the characters go. I know I was doing things where I heard back from people, “Oh, I wasn’t comfortable with Della throwing the passports in the river,” and things like that because they hate the cops so bad they think that any interaction she has with the cops makes her a traitor. Well, A) she’s a fictional character. B) she can do what the fuck she wants. I have to take that stuff as a compliment that she’s real enough that people are concerned how she’d behave.

But the only place that puzzled me was race. I didn’t want to write about it. I was awkward about it. I was afraid people would think that was how I really thought about it. And yet, I felt like it was a really important piece to put in. Just to be clear, what I’m talking about is there’s a lot of social critique in the book about how lefty-liberal culture actually treats black people as kind of exotic, unknowable things.

In one interview I read with you, you referred to writing Zazen as the “euphoric state of letting go”. Was writing the book a joyful experience for you?

Well, it was many experiences for me. It takes so much time and so many levels of stamina that you don’t think you have, that to look back on the experiences, there’s no way you can break it down into one emotion. I definitely had joyful moments at times. And I had horrible moments, and I had confused moments. When I’m writing well, there’s nothing better. I feel like every single element of my mind, at every level, is engaged. That’s a euphoric experience.

There were two other projects I wanted to touch on briefly. One is Violence, the book you co-wrote with Lidia Yuknavitch. How did you come to know her?

We both live in Portland, and we had some mutual friends who were trying to introduce us for quite a period of time. We were both busy and on Facebook together but didn’t know each other. I’m trying to think about the first time I met Lidia. Maybe a year, a year and a half ago. I just immediately liked her, just the similarities in our lives and our thoughts. It develeoped and it’s been fun, and we’ve done several [published] conversations about different topics. I could talk for hours with her.

I read the one in The Believer and Her Kind, and I ordered Violence Can you say more about Violence?

Violence has a good section of The Believer part, and initially we did it because Sarah McCarry [the publisher] said, “Hey, I’d like to put out that Believer conversation in print. And I said, “Well, we have that, but we have more. Can I give you more?” And she said yes. The Believer section is like one section of it. It’s a chapbook. It’s like 8,OOO words or something. It’s not a huge book. It’s a conversation. And editing it down, which, again, goes on forever. It’s a short conversation in some ways, but really fun to do.

It’s called Violence because that’s a theme that seemed to come through the most. We talked about the way women’s characters were restricted culturally. So there’s a lot more talk about that. So it goes in deeper in Violence than in The Believer.

That reminds me of the Her Kind interview where you talk about how there are certain acceptable female narratives that get published and win wards, like the ones that depend on men, or the ones about rape or abusive relationships. Is that what you’re talking about?

Yes. That’s in there, or some version of that. It would have been longer, even, if there had been more time on our side. I think that conversation could go on. I’m really glad it’s going to be out.

Me too. I wanted to ask you just a couple questions about the GQ article since that’s where you’ve been. How did you come to write it? Did they come to you or did you approach them?

No, they didn’t come to me.

The story is, I left home and lived at truck stops and got away from someone I thought was probably a serial killer. Then this friend sent me a link in this email about a truck-driver serial killer who’d been in prison for years and said, “Is this your guy?” So I looked at pictures of him and tried to figure out if it was, and in the older pictures it did, but it kind of looked like a lot of people. I called the FBI, and I didn’t get a lot of response back from them. I didn’t know this then, but when any serial killer hits the news, everybody calls in claiming to have some relationship with them. It’s wacko-fest on the phone lines. Also, my memory of the event is 27 years old, and I wasn’t even totally sure where it happened.

I called the FBI, I called a few different attorneys’ offices, I just wanted to find somebody whose desk the file was on so I could give them my number in case they thought there was something of use. I was talking to a friend of mine who writes for The New Yorker, The New Republic and a bunch of places, and told him how I was having trouble finding information. He encouraged me to write about it, and I said, “No, I hate writing about my life”. I do. I really, really hate writing about my life. I’ve always said that and I always think people say, “No, you’d like it. You’d get into it.” And I can tell you, no, they’re wrong. I hate writing about my life.

I sat down and I thought, “I don’t want to write about my life. I hate serial killers. I can’t watch a crime show. I don’t want to do reporting. I don’t want to look through tons of information about horrible things done to women.

However, when I think about women in that position, because I was, the chances that women in that position got out of that situation, started writing, harnessed their craft and skill, and now have access to a magazine like GQ, I felt like I was being a coward. I was giving a voice, a little bit, to a world that has no voice. That’s not to over-estimate the grandness of my power. [Laughs’ But I sat with it very solemnly and glumly for a couple of weeks, and GQ bought it in like five seconds. Then I was committed. Then I had to figure out the rest.