Alexis Zanghi

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ALEXIS ZANGHI

Artist-in-Residence

 
 

About the Artist

 
 

Zanghi is a writer and editor currently based in Minneapolis. She has written for the Collagist, Full Stop, The Point, CityLab, TheAtlantic.com, and elsewhere. Her writing has been supported by the University of Minnesota’s Graduate Research Partnership Program, Center for German and European Studies, and Human Rights Program, and others.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 

Interview

with Katie Angermeier Haab, January 2019

You're the only non-visual artist at Wassaic right now. We talked a little bit about how that affects your process. I know your narrative is primarily about the visual art world, so it integrates pretty darn well. Would you expand on that?

Most of the creative people I knew when I was starting out were visual artists, and I learned how to be an artist from them first: work when you don’t feel like working, read everything you can get your hands on, go to every show, go for a run, have a beer, take a shower, go to sleep, go to work, do it again. Artists work through ideas in a way that’s very tactile and very grounded in reality. They’re working on physical projects, that are, like, done when they say they’re done: a sculpture is finished when it’s finished, not when it’s shown. So there’s a level of concrete material attention to the thing itself that is really refreshing to be around.

In contrast, I spend a lot of time in my head, so I like being around visual artists because they’re very relaxed and fun and when I’m “in the pit,” I am extremely not. It’s sort of like when you go to another country, where you don’t speak the language, so you don’t talk to anyone for a month except to order coffee; then, when you encounter someone who does, your head just sort of opens up and there’s no filter. Like, people here would ask how my day went and I’d just start talking about Antigone and the 2015 Biennale and the library’s collection of back issues of October, which is, you know, not how you respond to a friendly, in-passing greeting! So I am 1) sorry to everyone who tried to say hello to me in the past three weeks and 2) very grateful to everyone for putting up with me.

 

Will you delve into the "donut effect" that you explained to me, regarding one abusive person and their influence on their community? Tell us about the "donut" in your story.

You write mostly from the point-of-view of women characters, but have a little bit in your work from the point-of-view of a man. What delights and challenges are in writing from another gender's point of view?

The first character that I created was Franco Whelply, the wayward, destructive father from whom all of the primary point of view characters really spin out — he’s the hole at the center of their donut. In 2014, I wrote a short story from his point of view, because I wanted to understand why men like him operated the way he did. But in doing that, I’d totally preempted any opportunity for meaningful conflict because the suffering of others doesn’t represent anything more than an inconvenience to that kind of person. His lack of morality and self-awareness means he’s at his most useful as an antagonist. The manuscript is around 100,000 words but Franco’s perspective only gets about 8,000 of them — it’s really about the impact that he has on his wife and his daughters. If you look at other novels that are shaped by a Problematic Man, and especially, a Problematic Patriarch, there are snippets of that person’s consciousness here and there, but ultimately the most important interrogations of their decisions happen by those most impacted by them.

So your novel-in-progress is a work that's been with you for a while. Since it spans three generations — a family saga — how do you think your personal evolution over the years with this work has affected the evolution within the story? Has it matured with you? Are there parts you've revised with a similar horror as when you've reread your teenage diary?

I think probably the biggest evolution was realizing I was writing a novel to begin with. I wrote five short stories with plot lines and characters that wound up being contained in this manuscript; a lot of the criticism and reporting that I did during that time informed it as well. During my MFA, I took a novel writing seminar with V.V. Ganeshananthan, where I realized that what I’d been writing all along was the novel I’m revising now. 

Ganeshananthan said that the writing of the book itself changes you, which is something I’ve found to be true. I think a lot of that happens in small, incremental ways. If you’re working on a large-scale project over several years, you make a series of daily decisions to support that, whether it’s not drinking, or eating and wearing the same thing every day, or staying in, or waking up early, or whatever. That causes larger changes within yourself, but more importantly within the work over time, because it makes the work its own thing. So I don’t feel any kind of horror or angst, really: I just see something to rework or cut. Maybe that’s closer to the workmanship that I’ve noticed in visual artists.

You have loads of knowledge about historic trends, having read so much pre-WWII literature, delved so deep in the history of the art world, as well as effects that credit crises have across several platforms, which is all mind-blowingly smart and interesting and we could talk about that basically forever. But it makes me super curious about what current trends sneak into your work and shape your words. Do you listen to Kelly Clarkson while you write? How do you deal with modern technology in your narrative? How have current politics pushed your themes?

I consider myself really lucky in that my day job is as a PhD student, which means I get to read all kinds of things, all the time. (And eventually wring my hands about a second manuscript.) In a class I took last fall, one of my professors said something that really stuck with me: “it’s older than you think.” I think that there’s a lot of truth to that; there is less of a divide between what is “current” and what is “past” than jacket copy might have us believe — just look at how many reissues there are now!

I do have a Spotify playlist with songs for every character, and some for specific scenes, that I listen to obsessively on repeat. (I think a lot of fiction writers do this; it’s so that I can feel what I think the characters or the scene should feel like.) There’s a lot of CAN and Steely Dan and Stereolab, but no Kelly Clarkson. This does sort of get at your question on modern technology, though, which I think can be sort of a false fretting point. The answer for me is always: how does this come up for my characters and how would they engage with it? The other day I was revising a scene in which a character had to go into the suburbs for a personal errand and was in a taxi, but I realized it was totally wrong: it was 2016; the character works in finance; she’d be in an Uber.

Beyond that, though, I guess I don’t really view history as a linear progress narrative. This also shows up formally, in how the novel is structured. Debt narratives are extremely common throughout literature, and often in novels that we don’t think of as being about debt or money, it’s still a driving factor. People have been writing novels for a long time; everything is older than we think.

We briefly discussed credit crisis novels, a subject I've never considered that definitely blew open a few doors in my brain. Will you talk about how the subject of class is covered in your writing? You're a hard-working woman, who has held lots of jobs in order to finance her writing and I'm curious how that is woven into a narrative about the generally high-dollar world of art.

I think that sometimes, when a novel is described as addressing class, the expectation is that it’s a tale of hardscrabble living or a socialist realist narrative about the struggles of a downtrodden proletariat. (I have read — and learned from, and loved — a lot of these novels!) But people don’t magically become poor or downtrodden: they’re exploited, in one way or another.

I’m interested in examining how these dynamics are created, perpetuated, and evolve over time. The fiction I admire most finds its thesis within its diegesis; its politics are intrinsic to its world. (I think, as far as contemporary writers go, that Deborah Eisenberg and Rachel Kushner are real masters of this.) Class comes up because many of my characters sell their labor and their time in exchange for a wage, or they sell commodities in exchange for money, instead of living off of money begetting more money. They have bosses or clients who live off money making more money; some of them are in this manuscript, too. Many of the people who sell labor or goods often have so-called “cultural capital” — and that can be useful, but ultimately, it can’t pay your rent; there’s a limit to how much prestige can feed you.

As acute as these individual precarities might be within the art world, I think they’re inextricable from the inequality that’s created and perpetuated by the hoarding of wealth on a global scale. That’s something that art plays an increasingly active role in, as it’s seen as an investment or an “asset class.” So the “art world” is sort of a misnomer, right, in that it implies that it’s somehow contained completely or happening within its own vacuum, when it really isn’t. There’s a certain amount of looking away that perpetuates class and inequality on both an individual and a systemic level, and that’s what’s interesting to me. We’re in a place where people’s extreme comfort comes at the cost of other people’s survival — what kind of responsibility does art bear in this scenario?

You have a dog that you rescued from a CVS parking lot. How does she inform your writing (other than bark-whispering full paragraphs in your ear while you sleep)? Are there any little buddies in your novel?

Gracie is a wonderful writing companion, in that she helps to get me back on earth and out of my head, and Wassaic’s welcoming attitude towards animals was a really big factor in my applying! I am a total softie about all animals, and my relationship to them is probably one of the few things in my life that I haven’t overthought at this point.

But I guess, for those reasons, that’s why I don’t really have companion animals in my manuscript. I think in a novel that’s very much about reckonings, if a character is both strongly attached to and responsible for someone that’s very vulnerable, such as an animal or a child, then it’s just not going to end well for that animal or child. I haven’t had a problem writing about terrible things happening to children, but I still flinch when it comes to animals.

We didn't talk much about setting. Would you tell me a bit about how place is a character to you? Being away from home in Wassaic, moving from place-to-place, jumping from job-to-job to support your writing: how are your backdrops built?

Place has always been really important to me as a writer, no matter what genre I’m working in. Many of the thinkers I draw on in my academic work deal with questions of space and geography; a lot of my reporting has dealt with urban policy in some way.

But place, that’s also part of diegesis, right? When I’ve taught fiction workshops, one of the biggest things I emphasized was that setting wasn’t what a character objectively had around them — it was what that character saw around them, on a given day, at a certain time, and it was informed by the whole total of everything that had come before it and after it. Often, one of the most powerful ways that a work of writing can evidence change is through having a character see the same place over time.

In terms of my writing, being at Wassaic — away from both my novel’s settings and my daily life — has provided an important buffer, a kind of literal authorial distance that I’d really wanted, that allowed me to make major revisions in a relatively short period of time.

There was a snowstorm at Wassaic over the weekend. Did you take advantage of it? Did any extra snow scenes make it into your novel?

I’m mostly in revisions out here, so no new snow scenes, but I did manage to take a sled run down the hill behind the barn. A real highlight was catching the moon Sunday night. The sky here is amazing, I saw stars that I forgot existed.

If all goes well, when can we expect to read this book? I'd obviously like to preorder at least a dozen copies.

That is very kind of you, thank you! But I came to Wassaic to prepare my manuscript for submission to agents — so that’s a giant question mark. That the Wassaic Project had confidence in my novel based solely on my sample has been an important milestone for me, in and of itself, so I’m especially grateful to the Wassaic Project for giving me this opportunity without a pub date in sight.

 
 

People have been writing novels for a long time; everything is older than we think.
— Alexis Zanghi
 
 
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Photos by Jeff Barnett-Winsby