Alyssa Zaczek’s story “Salt in the Pan” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2017 issue, out now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I was born in Chicago and raised in the southwest suburbs. After college, I moved to Saint Cloud, Minnesota, where I currently live and work. My entire family lives in the Midwest, and has always lived in the Midwest.
While many people (writers or no) on either coast might believe life in the Midwest to be more mundane, more beige, I think part of the intrigue of the region is the perceived mundanity. As a writer, it’s my job to tease out the exciting, attention-holding details from day-to-day life in this place, and to simultaneously embrace and subvert those stereotypes. As a child and teenager, I bemoaned the lack of culture in the Midwest, because I felt that had I been raised on either coast my writing would naturally be influenced by those very recognizable energies. I didn’t feel as though I, as a Midwesterner, had an identity. But as I grew as a writer and as a person, I realized that the region absolutely does have a personality all its own, one that is characterized somewhat by a lack of character—a kind of negative space, a dark matter. Something, from within the nothing. I think the Midwest is a canvas, both a character and a setting onto which we as writers can project the thoughts, feelings and ideas of our time.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
Speaking again of the perceived mundanity of the region (truly, it’s not just cornfields and butter sculptures out here), I think that to some degree there is a public perception of “a Midwesterner” as milquetoast—very bland, very middle-of-the-road, very stereotypically white and conservative. And I’m sure those people exist here. But if you scrape the surface of the Midwestern population, not only is it incredibly diverse, but the people themselves have rich inner lives that are not to be overlooked. Midwestern people are the most compelling aspect of the Midwest, because they are never entirely what they seem.
How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?
My memories play an extremely tactile, sensory role in my writing. I’m blessed with a vivid memory, and I do lean on it to bring detail to my work. In what I read and what I write, I love a lush setting, so I draw upon my memories to bring life to scenes in a way that feels real. In “Salt in the Pan,” which can be found in the Summer 2017 issue of Midwestern Gothic, much of the plot and action revolves around wheat fields. I tapped into my own memories of growing up surrounded by farmland, and I think those details helped to elevate the wheat field into more than a setting—it’s a character unto itself.
I also think that the more specific and weird your memories are, the better suited they are for use in fiction. You know that exhausted phrase, “Truth is stranger than fiction?” It’s true, but I’d venture to add an addendum: Your truth is stranger than fiction. While your memories of your grandmother’s house, or the lake with the pebble beach, or your childhood lemonade stand might seem boring to you, that’s only because those stories live in your head. If you let them move around a bit, stretch their legs, you might be surprised by who is moved by them.
Discuss your writing process—inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
I’ve always hated the phrase “process” when it applies to writing, because it implies that writing is something that can be broken down into easy, manageable steps, like the scientific method. Writing, for me, has always been the great untamable beast. In a perfect world, I would sit down every morning in a well-stocked library in my home and write for three or four hours every day, handily meeting my daily word count and cranking out a book a year. In reality, I write when and where I can—on the couch, at work, on my phone, on airplanes; I’ve even tapped out paragraphs of prose in my notes app while driving (yes, I know this is terrible and yes, I have stopped since the incident in question). My writing process is messy and temperamental and a gigantic pain in my ass. Writer’s block is a constant companion, though I’ve recently discovered that, much like a spider in the corner of your shower, it’s less scary if you pretend it isn’t there.
I am at the stage in my career where I am still trying to learn about myself, and learn what my best practices are. I am trying to embrace the maddening spontaneity of inspiration while wrangling myself into some kind of regular writing schedule, some kind of rhythm and flow that I can tap into by gentle force. Right now, my mantra is “forward motion.” I’ve never responded well to stagnancy—I fall so easily into writer’s block and depression—so I must, must keep moving forward. Even if it’s only a few paragraphs a day, that is enough, so long as there’s more words on the page today than there was yesterday.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
When I’m seriously working on a piece it develops its own energy in my mind, its own vibrations. As I’m working, I can feel holes in a piece—need to nip that line here and tuck that line there, something’s missing in that paragraph, that bit is too full of words, that bit not full enough—and I seek to fill them. It’s very much done by feel. I struggled with “Salt in the Pan” when it was in its third or fourth draft, because I felt the holes, but couldn’t pinpoint exactly where they were. That’s when I turned to a critique partner for a new set of eyes on it, and it worked miracles. I know a piece is done when I can feel its energy sing in my mind as I read it—when I get that feeling, I know I can be satisfied with the work I’ve done.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
Audrey Niffenegger (a former professor at my alma mater and a Midwesterner to boot) wrote my favorite book of all time, The Time Traveler’s Wife. It was one of those books that at first glance, I thought I’d hate—ugh, another sappy romance novel for middle-aged moms, right? But it sucked me in because of details—Clare’s wine-colored velvet dress on her first date with Henry, the concert at the legendary Aragon Ballroom, two Henrys learning to pickpocket in the halls of the Art Institute of Chicago. At one point the characters drive down the exact highway my family and I took to get to our summer vacation spot in Michigan each year. It’s a book that couldn’t have happened without the Midwest. It’s also deeply romantic, surprisingly funny, and has a boatload of truth shimmering just under the surface of its science-fiction premises. I could go on and on.
What’s next for you?
By day, I’m a journalist—I write features for a local paper that exists within the USA Today family of newspapers—so that takes up a great deal of my time and creative energies. But I’m in the process of completing my debut novel, which is a young adult story. Middle grade and young adult books are very near and dear to my heart, as they were my closest friends and companions growing up. Young adult literature made me who I am, and I’m so thrilled to (hopefully) contribute to that corner of the literary world with my work.
Where can we find more information about you?
I’ll get around to making a website eventually, but in the meantime, follow me on Twitter: @AlyssaDZaczek. And if you’re following me because you read my work in Midwestern Gothic and/or read this interview, drop me a line and let me know! I love to meet my fellow writers and Midwesterners—just so long as you’re comfortable with the ludicrous amount of puns and memes I retweet when I’m not talking about writing.