[This is part of a series of interviews with past and current Timber contributors. In this installment, Poetry Editor Whitney Kerutis chats with Zachary Schomburg. –Ed.]
Whitney Kerutis: Let’s first talk about you as a poet and you as a novelist. How do these roles interact with one another, open different parts of your artistic spirit, and possibly oppose one another?
Zachary Schomburg: I’ve been thinking about poetry since I was twenty-years-old. I consider myself a poet and always have, but I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I thought that since I was a poet and I had written so many poems, I could write a novel too and that it would be like writing a poem but, it was a totally different activity and practice. You use a different part of the brain to write a poem than to write a novel. I never thought it would be easy, but I thought it’d be like putting one foot in front of other. It actually paralyzed me. I had to learn how to write all over again: in new ways, in a way the was constantly opening the narrative to new possibility, new logic, and answering the questions I had created. A poem is immediate and I can present questions that don’t need answering. In a novel, you have to clean up after yourself; poems you can make messes.
I also draw. I’ve gotten really good at drawing lines and faces. I love paintings too and I often go to museums to fall in love with paintings. I know how to draw a face, but when I paint it’s that same sort of transition as poetry and fiction: to start over and learn from the beginning.
It was exciting to see I had the same impulses, starting with those same tropes that come to me when I write poems, even though they are totally different things. I am still exploring how the reckoner tree in my book of poetry Fjords can be a character in Mammother too in order to make myself more comfortable. I don’t know how to put any other tree in a book.
WK: The novel in some ways reminds me of one of your earlier collections of poetry, Fjords Vol. 1, in regards to the small world it creates. Can you talk more about these worlds and what they provide for you as the writer?
ZS: Write what you know and write what you don’t know. I grow more excited about things I don’t know, but discover them by writing about things I do know about--things I know about because I’m a human. I want to explore these feelings such as pain, loss, loneliness, and love, but I’m not interested in how they manifest in my exact life. I want to play and imagine and be inspired. In a novel, I want to play with those feelings like I’m playing with dolls. Those feelings are the dolls’ feelings.
WK: In conjunction with the previous question, I am interested particularly in the novel’s ability to work outside of time. We rarely get a clear indication of people’s ages, amount of time passed, and, in the last section of the book, we even see characters begin to resemble each other and replay the same events, etc.. Can you talk more about the mechanism of time or absence of in this novel?
ZS: I don’t think there was a method for breaking down time, nor did I feel that time was a device within the novel that needed to be intentional. Part of it could be chalked up to being a first-time novelist and feeling overwhelmed with creating accurate mechanics for the novel. The physics of time within the novel were kind of an afterthought and basically lined up on their own (or didn’t). I kind of liked that though, that this world didn’t operate with perfect math, almost dreamlike. What I enjoyed about the characters living in Pie Time was that I never questioned if their ages made sense. Their relationships with each other, falling in and out of love or favor with one another, were far more interesting than how old they were, or if the physics of this tale were accurate. It was about 3/4ths of the way through the novel, thinking of the end, that I thought about how there were no cops, no doctors. I was dreaming this dream and didn’t think of the reality of people dying. In real life, there would be doctors and cops. But I’m writing out a dream, a fable, God and the church were enough like doctors and cops. After accounting for the fact that this wasn’t our world, I didn’t think too much about it. I laughed and said “In this world there are no cops or doctors.” I just said that. They aren’t that interesting to me. I think the whole point of dreaming is to distract from that. I didn’t care if their ages made sense, but I needed enough so it was readable. Mano is seemingly about 13 in parts one and two and by part three he is maybe 26. In my mind, in part three, he feels closer to death, tired, and with the remnants of a whole life literally weighing his giant body down. It’s that feeling that’s more important to me. But, yeah, he’s like 26, I don’t really know.\
But that’s the fun of it, thinking of other people’s responses. The same questions apply to my poems. I’ve always bounced the question off others of whether I would continue to write if I knew nobody was going to read. I answer it in different ways for poems, I think I would still write poems but it’d be more lonely. I doubt I would write a novel if no one would read it because I want to have fun and say look at what I’ve done, I want to talk about it. The reader and writer get to dream the same dream. It’s like when we actually have a dream and we want to share it with others. I think of myself as one of the readers and wanting to entertain and surprise, make people laugh or weird them out. I try to impress myself. I try to push the wildness of a scene, make myself uncomfortable and make myself laugh to see what kind of reaction I can create. I don’t need to be comfortable in a book. I want to get so excited that I have to tell a friend about it. I thought (writing a novel) there was a good chance I could excite someone else too.
WK: You have always seemed, to me, a writer who revels in the company and community of other writers. I can see a very long list of acknowledgements in the back of the book. Did this book feel like it was a community project or a gift for the other writers in your life?
ZS: It makes it more playful to involve people and I like to be involved in other people’s work, to potentially influence their writing and ask questions. The process of writing is my favorite conversation to be a part of. If we are talking about art, something is going well; that we are in a place where this (art) is the most important thing to be talking about. If people are interested then that is a gift in itself.
Several people who read Mammother gave me notes, some I didn’t know too well and others who were close friends, but honestly it was from the people I didn’t know very well, usually novelists, that I got the most from. Those people helped me figure out what a novel is.
WK: The book seems to mimic a fable but doesn’t quite accept itself as one. How do you feel the book operates within other traditions?
ZS: I wasn’t too deliberate about writing in any genre, but I was influenced by the books I was reading and learned some of their tricks. Some of those tricks I learned were from people who do write fable-like books, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. That book is similar to mine in that many characters that have different back stories but interact with each other in one space. Shirley Jackson too, so many of her short stories are like mine: dark, strange, and magical. I am influenced by these authors and aspire to write like them.
WK: Perhaps one of the more ambitious goals of the text is the amount of characters we encounter. How did you manage to curate and sustain each character?
ZS: I didn’t intend to write a book with so many characters, but as problems were being created throughout the novel, I had to create new characters to address those problems. Pepe had to have a backstory, so I had to invent his dad and if his dad was going to be there, I had to invent his mom. But Pepe needs parents to have motivation about keeping his love for Mano a secret. As those problems kept growing and characters followed, I made a character map, tying little connections and color-coding people of the corporation versus Mano’s side. When I had that I could see what characters existed and flowed in and out of one another. It’s really hard to write a novel with so many people. In a poem, you can leave them behind.
WK: This novel has some absolutely breathtaking poetic moments in it. I’m curious, moving into the bigger picture, how you feel about the ability for genres to mingle with one another and where you see the future of genres headed?
ZS: I don’t know if I am capable of saying where we are moving, but it’s interesting to observe the long history of amazing authors that are writing works considered a hybrid of poetry and prose, such as Susan Howe, Bernadette Mayer, and Anne Carson. I don’t know how to classify these pieces, but it is fascinating to think beyond genre and simply being an artist and consider these complicated thoughts we sit with. I hadn’t written a novel, so I was really interested in doing so. I wanted to learn how to write a traditional novel, traditionally in the sense of style, but experimental in how it functioned, such as the narrative, character development, and setting. Those were my initial goals for Mammother, and it evolved itself in further ways I didn’t anticipate, but that’s what was wonderful about the whole experience. I was interested in novel writing in the way that Marquez, Shirley Jackson and Toni Morrison wrote their novels, and still am. I feel like reading novels is just the same, as important, as creative, as writing one. Currently, I'm reading the Diary of Anne Frank for the first time, with my partner, one entry per night before bed. Also, I've been juggling The Story of My Life by Helen Keller and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates for the last two weeks. I've recently finished a couple of mid-century noirs by Dorothy Hughes---In a Lonely Place and The Expendable Man--which taught me a lot about third person omniscient storytelling, and how to keep the page turning fast around one character. And Patrick DeWitt's Sisters Brothers, which is so good. Next up, I got Layli Long Soldier, Bill Knott, Cortazar, Ishiguro, and some re-reads of Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Flannery O'Connor's Wiseblood on the docket. I rarely re-read novels, but I want to change that. But first, I will read Amos Tutuola's Palm-Wine Drinkard. I know nothing about it right now, but my friend, Brandon, just recommended it to me a few minutes ago. I take his recommendations seriously. So, that's next up. It'll probably change everything.