The Zoe Zolbrod interview

Zoe Zolbrod portraits by Elizabeth McQuern Oct 2015 -1b.jpgChicagoans: Just a reminder, Funny Ha-Ha: The Cool Kids is tonight!

Today's interviewee is an writer and editor who lives in my home town. She is most recently the author of The Telling, an acclaimed memoir anchored by her experiences being sexually abused as a child by a family member. She also is the author of the novel Currency and is the Sunday editor at The Rumpus. You can learn a lot more about her here, and, if you live in Chicago, on August 4 you can catch her reading at the Book Cellar as part of Ben Tanzer's book release party.

What were your biggest fears as you wrote The Telling, either in what the process would do to you or the feedback you'd receive on it?
I say in the book that for much of my life, I was unsure whether my sexual abuse was a big deal. One great fear I had was that I was writing a book about something that was small potatoes, that I was making too much of it. That I was whining--or maybe more to the point, that I would be seen as a whiner rather than as a writer of substance. I wrote myself out of that fear for the most part--it was a big deal in my life; it's ok to have feelings about it; this topic is no less worthy of literary attention than any other--but it still flared up until the end.

The other fears were ones you might expect: that I would hurt people I cared about; that I would anger people I didn't care so much about but who might come after me in some way; that I was making myself vulnerable by writing about sex and my honest feelings.

What did you learn from writing it that might prepare you for a future project?
You know, probably the most important thing I learned is that I can do it the way my life is now, write a whole book. I had already written and revised (for the first of many times) my novel before I became a parent, and I despaired of ever being able to complete another book once I did. But now I know I can work full-time and parent two kids and still somehow get it done.

What books (or movies or other pieces of art) helped inform you as you wrote The Telling, either guiding you towards what you hoped the book would be or steering you away from what you didn't?
Vivian Gornick's memoir Fierce Attachments was my earliest guiding light. She wove sections of present-time, middle-aged scene and reflection with chapters closely set in her childhood and coming of age.  Consciously or unconsciously, this presented me with a structure. Because I fell in love with that book, I read her craft book, The Situation and the Story. I don't tend toward craft books, but that one was very useful to me.  Other memoirs that inspired me were Lidia Yuknavitch's Chronology of Water and Stephen Elliot's The Adderall Diaries, which both opened up for the form for me. And a book called The Trauma Myth: The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children and its Aftermath, by Susan A. Clancy was so important to me that there's a whole chapter about me finding it and reading it toward the end of The Telling.

I just worked on a magazine piece about teaching your children about sexuality and how difficult that is for any parent--do you think being abused informed much what you taught your children on that particular topic?
To be honest, it was writing the book--especially doing the research for it--that more directly affected how I talked to them, and even that I did talk to them, about childhood sexual abuse specifically. Some of the advice came naturally to me, and I was already doing it--like give kids the vocabulary to talk about their bodies. But in my research I picked up some good tips I would have never have thought of, like to ask them directly if anyone has tried to touch their genitals or asked them to touch someone else's. Just generally to check in about stuff at an age-appropriate level and tone. I find it harder than I expected to, and I'm glad that writing the book has forced me to do it. I'm like: Come on, you wrote a whole book about this stuff! It's going to look bad if you don't talk the talk.

You're a working writer/mom like I am but your kids are a bit older than mine are. What stage of their lives was the most difficult for you when it came to balancing or incorporating your professional/creative side with family obligations?
Claire, I'd like to offer a ray of hope here, but man, they're at the ages eight and fifteen and it's still difficult, in the sense that my head always feels like it's going to burst. It must have been a lot harder when the youngest was two and the oldest was nine, right? That must be true? That's how old they were when Currency came out, but I managed. I basically weaned Lilli by going on a little book tour and dealing with swollen, burning, painful boobs. Then there was the stage during her preschool years when she and I really had a hard time finding equilibrium, and most mornings would include a knock-down tantrum before I got us off to work and daycare. But yet I was writing a lot, then, somehow. More than I am now, it feels. Maybe the crisis conditions gave me great urgency and self-discipline? And daycare goes till 6:00 pm has fewer days off and fewer things that involved parental involvement than elementary school does. (But I don't meant to paint myself as a slacker. I've been promoting this book, and that takes time.) I do love having a teenager who can get himself all around Evanston on his own and is at the age where I can tell myself that he's SUPPOSED to be taking more responsibility for his own life, and I'm not just dropping the ball when he, like, doesn't get his forms for the honor society in on time or remember to try out for something or whatever. 

What tips and tricks can I learn from how on how to conduct engaging author interviews consisting of well-considered, relatively unique questions?
Our mutual friend Emily Tedrowe just conducted a great interview with Louise Erdrich for The Rumpus, where I'm an editor, and I think three reasons why it turned out so well are 1) Emily is a deep reader and knew Erdrich's work, 2) they met in person and seemed to have a rapport and 3) they talked both about the work but also about broad topics like parenting, generational change, and Planned Parenthood. Reading an author's work thoughtfully enough to come up with questions that expand outward from it seems key.

What's one thing writers can do to make their editors' lives easier? What's one thing editors can do to make their writers' lives easier?
For the writers: Put your contact information on your manuscript unless directed not to. You'd be surprised how many people don't do this! If it's a short piece, paste it into an email as well as attach it. And to editors I'd like to say that those of us submitting work would always like some sort of response, even if it must be a form rejection.

As an alumna of Oberlin I wondered if you read this piece in The New Yorker about the school being a microcosm for forms of unrest at liberal arts colleges. Do you have differing reactions as the woman you are, the student you were, and the mother of future (I assume) college students?
I did read that piece with interest. It seems like a lot of people my age--including Oberlin alums-- are very impatient, to say the least, with students who are outspoken in their demands for greater sensitivity, but I don't share their scorn. In some ways, the situation now doesn't seem that different than when I was there in the late 80s. Back then, students of color were critical and active, and I know it took a toll on some of them; there was an incident with racist graffiti that sparked a confrontational assembly; classroom discussion could become contentious; there was criticism that, among other things, there weren't enough faculty of color. And the fact is, there weren't. And another fact is, most white students do have a lot of unexamined privilege. And you know, the inequality in this country remains so vast, and the mechanisms of it so complex. I think we become jaded to that as we age, if we ever recognized it in the first place, and that it's understandable that young people react with anger as it comes into focus for them. If some of the anger seems misdirected--the stuff about the dining hall food. . . well, to me, that's better than utter complacency.

That said, I also think, you know, that students should encounter a wide range of viewpoints and complete their assignments and read material that makes them uncomfortable. I'm not immune from an occasional shiver that some trends on the left could have a Maoist effect. As for being the mother of future college students, the absolute number one thing I worry about is the cost. It keeps me up at night. My fear is not that liberal arts education is somehow producing candy asses who can't handle a dissenting view, but that liberal arts education is becoming further out of reach but for ruinous debt to ever greater numbers of people, including even conventionally bright kids from the middle class. And to justify that, pundits now trash talk the very notion of it. Sometimes it seems like that's a big part of the agenda when it comes to shining the spotlight on the extremes of campus activism: to devalue intellectualism and critical thinking. To make it look wasteful and silly, so people can tell themselves they don't want their kids to go to no stinking college even if they could afford to send them. I thought the article did a decent job at exposing some of the contradictions in elite private education.  

What do you love about living in Evanston? What do you not love about it?
I love the community, the great neighbors and fellow parents and fellow gym goers and sidewalk walkers and road-sharers. So many of them are smart and kind and interesting and generous. I love that I can walk or bike to most places I need to go, and that my son has been able to tool around town on his own since he was 12. I love the lake and the pretty trees. But sometimes the privilege-bubble of upper middle class Evanston gets to me. And I miss the thrum and variety of the city.

Your white streak is badass. Do you do anything to maintain it or is it just good luck and genetics?
Thank you! Now that the rest of my head is sprouting plenty of single gray hairs, I go to a stylist to color those and she wraps the streaks in tinfoil to keep them pure. 

How does it feel to be the 418th person interviewed for
Very very special.