“Believe with Me”: An Interview with Zach VandeZande by Dana Diehl

When I learned Zach VandeZande had a new short story collection coming out, I jumped at the opportunity to read it early. I already knew I loved his work from encountering it in  journals and in his first collection, Liminal Domestic. VandeZande’s stories are both melancholic and hopeful. He approaches his characters with tenderness, but also humor, and you can tell from his work that he’s someone who is deeply interested in people—their complexity, their inconsistencies, and what drives them forward.

In this interview, we chat about VandeZande’s newest collection, Lesser American Boys. We talk about video games, the reader-author contract, and how “art is about building a home in a world that’s crumbling around you.”

You can get your own copy of Lesser American Boys here.

Dana Diehl: Your story, “Spite House,” ends with the speaker saying, “I like to think that not everything is ruined about the world. I like to think I still have time to build.” Is this a feeling you share, particularly when it comes to creating art?

Zach VandeZande: I’m deeply ambivalent, I think. You know, I set out to write a book about empathy with these stories, a book that looks at all the ways we’re looking past each other instead of into each other, and how that’s the problem. I like to think that the effort itself might be a kind of answer. But also: I started writing these stories years ago when our reality looked a lot different, and in a few cases, I don’t know if I could write them today. I thought we’d have more time.

Here’s what I can say: all art is about building a home in a world that’s crumbling around you. For me, that often means reaching across the void of language and saying “Look, I know this happens one word at a time instead of all at once, and I know it’s artifice, and I know that I’m not really here with you, but I’m here with you. Will you believe with me?” I guess I tend to be a lot more focused on me and the reader than on me and the story, which is a very specific artistic strategy that probably doesn’t really work, but I think it’s worth doing.

And still, I’m ambivalent about that because it’s essentially a fairy tale. Language is as often a weapon as it is a tool for love, and not everyone deserves the kind of empathy I’m exploring in these stories. But that’s what fiction’s for: making a world worth believing in. Ultimately, I don’t think that’s naïve, but is it an active, precarious decision.

(You did want me to ramble, right?!)

DD: Your comment about focusing on yourself and the reader more than yourself and the story stands out to me. Reading your collection, I did notice a pattern of the “you” being referenced. Every time, it made me feel like the story was an intimate conversation between me and the character. How does this focus on the reader effect the choices you make as a writer?

ZV: It’s so great to hear that! That’s what I hope for. I think this focus makes me more interested in the moments where the reader-author contract sort of gets fuzzy or friction is introduced. A lot of conversations I’ve had with writers over the years seem to indicate that a lot of people think those moments are cheap or some kind of metafictive trick—I actually had a really tense conversation with a MacArthur fellow about this once!—but to me, that’s where the real work of narrative happens.

I’m thinking about the moment where Chekhov shifts his pronouns slightly and says that the cliffs of Oreanda will exist well past “the eternal sleep that awaits us.” Suddenly, it’s him and me in the room together watching Gurov and Anna’s despair. Or Susan Steinberg’s narrator in “Superstar” tilting her head on the listener’s knee and saying, “I kind of, admit it, own you.” And she does! Or the way Joshua Ferris ends Then We Came to the End with “Then it was just you and me.” Boom. Book over. A magic trick! And the magic, for a moment? Worth believing in. We can call this free indirect discourse or we can call it the kairotic now or we can call it teledildonic. Really, it’s just that plain old zzzzzt of recognition. I can only hope to get to that moment in my stories. I think I’ve ventured close a time or two. Something to reach for.

DD: You say that you couldn’t have written some of these stories today, in our present reality. That makes me so curious—which of these stories might be different if you wrote them today? How have the last few years changed your writing?

ZV: You know, a few of these stories were first drafted in 2014 and 2015. I think my story about Rick Perry holding in a fart in particular is hard to feel great about, personally, after 4+ years of overt hatred and disregard for people I love from the political right in this country. Who would it be today? Ted Cruz? Lindsay Graham? Fascist Goblins! And Perry was, too, in his way. What privilege on my part, to think that these things that became more visible to me lately are “new”!

But really what I was writing toward there was an understanding of the people from my hometown of Houston, and my dad in particular. The kind of people that tend to get automatically discounted in online spaces or literary spaces. And I’m trying to write in general about empathy and forgiveness as a pathway to hope on a no-thanks planet. What can you do? What small grace is there to give, even if you yourself are horrible? And is it even worth doing? Those are the questions that drove these stories. I don’t have answers.

DD: You present the characters in your stories with such tenderness and humor. Here are some of my favorite details:

“She’s got a friendly face and lousy posture, which is a combination I can trust.”

“She was a bad hugger, her discomfort came through, but she did it anyway.”

These imperfections are endearing, partially because they are instantly familiar and relatable to me. It made me curious about how you develop character. Do you draw heavily on observations you make of people in your everyday life?

ZV: That first one’s funny, because it came out of me as a direct response to someone who criticized my posture. I remember thinking, “Why would I want to be someone who was faking it like that, putting on the play-acting of confidence and happiness?” Which of course says a lot about me and what I think authenticity looks like.

Most of my characters are drawn from my life that way. I’m lucky that I have lots of interesting people in my life that I can carve little bits from when they’re not looking, and my writing habit before the pandemic was to go to a coffee shop as early as possible and watch people be in public during a part of the day that felt a little more intimate. This sounds a little too poptimist for my taste, but I do try to be curious about everyone, and I’m rewarded for that regularly.

I’m also a very anxious person, so there tends to be a layer of that in most of my characters, that they’re interpreting the world through a lens of not belonging, of needing to perform. Getting to see that friction in a character feels endearing to me, as long as it doesn’t tip into full Ben Marcus or Don DeLillo territory (two authors I love! But I’m not trying to be such a tough hang).

DD: Is there a character in this book you feel especially fond of or close to? Or maybe one that you put the most of yourself into?

ZV: The one I’m most fond of is probably the narrator of “Tucumcari.” That feeling of trying so hard to believe in something speaks to me. The anxious insomniac with a fixation on whether or not there is a cockroach in the house in “Imperative” is the most like me, unfortunately!

DD: What aspect of your non-writing life do you feel has the biggest impact on your stories or writing process?

ZV: Dana, you know I’m saying videogames! I think many of the most interesting explorations of story’s function are happening there, and when a game really has your trust and imagination, then it creates this dual feeling of being fully invested in another reality while also feeling like you’re in conversation with the creators. There’s a friction in that, but I don’t feel it. I’m thinking of arty stuff like The Witness or The Return of the Obra Dinn, which are very overt about this dynamic, but also the Dark Souls franchise or Stardew Valley or Hitman or many other games that don’t have lofty ambitions beyond lizard-brain pleasure. I’m just reading Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, which articulates the value of games much better than I could, but play is deeply meaningful to me.

Other things: watching all kinds of movies, good and bad. When I watch a movie, I try to keep my intellectual or aesthetic judgment out of it, so I end up liking a lot more things than many people do and learning things from movies that I know are “terrible” (a distinction I’m not really interested in). Going on walks with the dog or jogging along the lake—anything that forces me to be alone with the weird animal of my body tends to give me creative energy. Cooking elaborate meals and baking bread force me to pay attention to the particular, which is an important thing for my process. And I hope it goes without saying that I try to read a lot more than I write.

Two things that I think have a negative impact (that I do anyway): tweeting and listening to podcasts. Absolute creative poison!

DD: Just for fun, imagine that one of your stories was adapted into a video game. What would that look like? What genre of game would it be?

ZV: This is the thought experiment I did not know I needed in my life! I have been picking at this story for months now about a couple who goes into the woods for a vacation after a miscarriage, and they get snowed in, to weird results. Frankly, it’s Silent Hill, which I’m only realizing just now.

But I think most of my creative energy would be closer to something that’s kind of a formalist exercise, where the rules of the game become clear as a way of communicating more meaning. Something a little more punk rock and engaged with what it means to be itself. The Stanley Parable for lonely hearts.

DD: What are you working on these days (writing or otherwise)?

ZV: I’ve got another book of stories cooking, which I’ve largely been keeping to myself this time after aggressively submitting and publishing with the first two, and I’ve got a novel that is way too ambitious that, at this point, is more of a meditative fidget spinner that I sit with often.

I deliberately left academia right before the pandemic started, which was a very scary decision that turned out to be absolutely correct for me. I felt like I didn’t belong like I had wanted to, and it made me very sad, living in that space every day that I thought I was supposed to love. For a little while, that extended to the lit scene as well. I felt the need to step back, to be very quiet and unambitious and focus on what first moved me about working with language. And now I’m doing that. One day, probably soon, I’ll start to share it with people again.

But also, I’ve just been … living? Free of the assumption that I should be some way or be pursuing something? It’s pretty nice!

Dana Diehl is the author of Our Dreams Might Align (Splice UK, 2018) and the collaborative collection, The Classroom (Gold Wake Press, 2019). Her chapbook, TV Girls, won the 2017-2018 New Delta Review Chapbook Contest judged by Chen Chen. Diehl earned her MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in North American Review, Passages North, Necessary Fiction, Waxwing, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere.

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