By Michelle Mathews
YOUR BOOKS TEND TO FOCUS ON ISSUES IN OUR WORLD, AND YOUR UPCOMING RELEASE, THE APARTMENT ON CALLE URUGUAY, IS NO EXCEPTION. WHAT MAKES YOU WANT TO WRITE ABOUT REAL LIFE ISSUES?
ZL: It’s not so much that I want to write about issues. It’s more that writing fiction has always been a way for me to process the mess of life on earth. The world is clearly messed up. Why and how and what, if anything, can an individual do or even say about it? I often think about Chekhov, who was tormented because he could point out the problems of his time but didn’t have any solutions. It was all about to fall apart. The Russian Revolution was just around the corner, and everyone could feel it. Lenin was a Chekhov fan, but I doubt Chekhov would have been a Lenin fan. If Chekhov came back from the dead, he would probably still feel tormented about not having had the answers. But his stories and plays have value to me when I myself am feeling tormented about not having the answers.
CHRIS AND ANA ARE SUCH BELIEVABLE CHARACTERS. HOW DO YOU CREATE THE CHARACTERS FOR YOUR BOOKS? ARE THEY BASED ON PEOPLE YOU KNOW, OR DO THEY JUST COME TO YOU?
ZL: I’m glad they’re believable. They are not based on anyone. They’re imaginary, but the advantage of being alive for as long as I have been is that I’ve known a lot of people and had a lot of conversations. When I make up characters and dialogue, I don’t have to start with an empty tank. I also know that people are inconsistent, so sometimes that frees you up as a writer to push your characters in various ways and not worry if it will be believable. You can make most things believable if you work at it, and if you can’t, it is probably a sign that you should go in a different direction. But certainly in my experience most of the process is unconscious, and the best writing is always unplanned and improvised.
THE APARTMENT ON CALLE URUGUAY IS WRITTEN IN A UNIQUE WRITING STYLE. ARE THERE ANY AUTHORS WHO INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE IN THIS STYLE? WHY DO YOU THINK YOU WRITE THIS WAY?
ZL: Thank you–I’m glad it came across as unique. I’ve been writing fiction for more than thirty years, which is a ridiculously long time. I think this book is the best expression so far of whatever it is that I do that is unique to me. It doesn’t sound like anyone else. There’s a certain balance between coherence and incoherence, leaps from one sentence to the next that are a little disorienting but not so confusing that you’re just bewildered. I guess it’s an attempt to capture what it actually feels like to live inside a consciousness. When we move around in the world, we don’t understand everything instantly. We kind of negotiate a million little moments of totally understanding, sort of understanding, not understanding at all, finally understanding something from before, and so on, in various combinations. But I didn’t consciously plan and execute any of that. I just went by sound. I like fiction that feels alive in every sentence–not decorative or predictable but dialed-in, concrete, dynamic, and surprising.
WHAT MESSAGE DO YOU HOPE YOUR READERS WILL TAKE AWAY FROM YOUR BOOK?
ZL: I wrote this book out of fear and outrage over the 2016 election. But Trumpism didn’t come out of nowhere, so I was also upset at myself for being surprised by it. I had written a whole novel, I Pity the Poor Immigrant, about the political power of gangsters–after doing that, how could I have been so naive? But also why was this the particular moment when the country finally decided to take off the mask and just openly embrace hatred, cruelty, stupidity, ignorance, and bigotry? To go back to Chekhov, I noticed that in his late work, his plays, there are a lot of people who are baffled by the changing world around them. They’re prone to despair, and they have reason to feel despair because their way of life really is going to disappear. But one of the reasons it’s going to disappear is because they give in so easily to despair. Just thinking about something unpleasant is enough to “fill them with despair.” And in Chekhov’s plays, he’s always sympathetic to them, but he’s also always making fun of his characters for being so fragile. Where I’m going with all this is that I hope one of the take-aways from my book is that despair is a luxury item.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, London’s chimneys were cleaned by children, sometimes as young as four, because they were small enough to fit inside tight spaces. These children often did the work naked, so that their clothes wouldn’t snag on the chimney walls, and sometimes the chimney was actually active when they were inside “sweeping.” There were no bathing facilities, so they couldn’t clean the soot off of their bare skin after the workday, which caused cancer. At night they slept on sacks stuffed with soot they scraped from the chimneys. This was all because their parents had to sell them into servitude because they couldn’t afford to feed them.
There would have been conservatives then arguing that child chimney sweeps were a regrettable but necessary evil–there was no other way to clean chimneys and if you didn’t clean the chimneys, buildings would catch fire and everyone would die. These people would have called reformers dreamers, hypocrites, bleeding hearts, snowflakes, etc. The reformers liked heated buildings just as much as everyone else, so (the argument would have gone) they needed to grow up, put their big boy pants on, etc., and accept the world as it was.
After about a hundred years, this situation changed, and eventually Londoners imagined a less barbaric way to clean their chimneys. The reformers won. After that, there would have been zero people arguing that child chimney sweeps were a regrettable but necessary evil.
There would have been a lot of reason for despair during the hundred or so years it took for this change to take place. But as James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
YOU CURRENTLY TEACH AN INTRODUCTION TO CREATIVE WRITING CLASS WITH YOUR STUDENTS AT TULANE UNIVERSITY AND STUDENTS WHO ARE INCARCERATED. TELL US HOW THAT CAME TO BE AND HOW IT WORKS.
ZL: My class is possible because of Cathy Fontenot, who I met at Angola Prison, where she was a warden. The class takes place at her subsequent places of work, the parish jails in Lafayette and Baton Rouge. It grew out of the journalism and other writing I’ve done about Angola, including my novel Vengeance, and the abundance of creative people I’ve met over the years who happen to be incarcerated. Cathy has given me unusual access and freedom to design the course the way I want it.
Basically, it’s an intro creative writing course that includes an equal number of Tulane students and incarcerated students. They do the same reading and writing assignments and exchange work every week for an entire semester. We are usually able to visit the jail three times to have a “live class”, and the rest is kind of a correspondence course online. Covid has shut everything down for the last two years, but I hope to do it again in the future. It’s been hugely transformative for everyone involved, including me. Anyone who is interested can see a segment about the class on the Netflix documentary, “The Creative Brain.
WHAT’S NEXT? ARE YOU WORKING ON A NEW BOOK? COULD YOU SHARE ANYTHING ABOUT IT?
ZL: I’m hoping to make a trilogy of connected novels that starts with Calle Uruguay. The second one takes place during the pandemic and ends right around the January 6 insurrection. It centers on the same part of Eastern Long Island that Calle Uruguay takes place in and is kind of a riff on Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” More Chekhov references!
About the Book:
THE APARTMENT ON CALLE URUGUAY
A haunting new novel by the author of Vengeance in which a chance encounter between a blocked painter and a journalist leads to a complicated romance that reveals their buried histories and vulnerabilities against the backdrops of an America in chaos and Mexico.
Beginning in the first summer of the post- Obama world, Zachary Lazar’s bewitching and masterful new novel tells the story of Christopher Bell, a blocked painter on the East End of Long Island, and Ana Ramirez, a journalist who fled the crisis in Venezuela and is looking for work in New York. Bell has always felt marked by his foreignness, having emigrated to the U.S. as a child, and has come to believe that “words like ‘identity’ and ‘American’ are somehow very meaningful and very meaningless at the same time.” He has retreated to a modest house near a patch of woods, “a rural nowhere…that sometimes held more meaning for me in its silence than human language.”
Article originally Published in the February / March 2022 Issue: New & Upcoming.