Vanessa Veselka by Kate Bernheimer

Kate Bernheimer talks to Vanessa Veselka, the author of Zazen, about realness, Tinker Bell, and the acoustics of writing.

Vanessa Veselka

Vanessa Veselka, Photo: Heather Hawksford

J. R. R. Tolkien coined a phrase for the happy endings of fairy tales, eucatastrophe. These happy endings do not, despite prejudices against them, actually deny the sorrow that always precedes them; they are, for Tolkien, as for so many among us, “poignant as grief.” I even used his definition of eucatastrophe as the epigraph to my most recent novel. Together, tragic endings and happy endings make a literary flip doll of epic proportions. Strangely, it is the happy ending that is maligned today as literature’s ugly stepsister. Still, the happy ending lives blissfully on in fairy tales of all shapes and sizes. Without spoiling the plot—as intricate and precise as any map of terror and wonder must be—the whole of Zazen embraces Tolkien’s idea of the happy ending. It is a big, bad fairy tale.

Zazen is Vanessa Veselka’s first novel and an original, domestic myth. Its hero, Della, has lost everything—and seeks nothing, in her own way. She is content at a sex party to sit in a room set up like a motel, and gaze out of the industrial window. Horrified by greed and false power, she also is sad, in the grips of a haunt or a hunt. There is a mysterious war going on in the city. Bombs are going off—Della might, or might not, be to blame. Dazed yoga chants. Cocktails and vegans. Car rides and gentrification. Rain. More rain. More bomb threats. Beautiful people saying terrible and wonderful things. Of course the malls are teeming with shoppers, with children. The children are lost. Amidst all the derangement, Della’s family gathers to bang drinks on a table and mourn. As in fairy tales, Zazen teaches us that in order to be radical, we must lose everything we ever wanted or loved.

Richard Nash, founder of Cursor and its literary imprint, Red Lemonade, sent me a copy ofZazen, one of Red Lemonade’s debut titles, thinking it was a book I might like. He was correct, no surprise, because Richard Nash is telepathic, but beyond admiring the book I grew enchanted by its author, Vanessa Veselka, via some email exchanges. We discovered that we share many favorite books and also old haunts and many musician friends in Portland, Oregon, the beloved city where I once lived and which she still calls home. This interview is part of our continuing conversation about horror, motherhood, novels, and more.

Kate Bernheimer Your first novel, Zazen, could be placed, very accurately, pretty much anywhere along the Wonderland spectrum of real to fantastic. That is, it evokes paradox. How would you describe your relationship to paradox as a writer?

Vanessa Veselka You know how people talk about peeling an onion? Like each layer brings you closer to some essential truth? Well, on my onion every layer contradicts the last one. That’s how my head works, particularly around ethics. I wish it didn’t because it means there is no rest.

But I like your idea of a Wonderland spectrum, and it reminds me of a conversation you and I had about what was “real.” I think we both came down on the side of: “it’s ALL real, man” (though I think you were more poetic about it). The thing is, just because something is fantastical:

a) Does not make it less real.

b) Does not mean it’s a metaphor or allegorical.

And yet these are the two categories we have for it. It’s genre or it’s lit-crit. It’s P. K. Dick or it’s Kafka. I think people get into fiction to tell the truth of what they see. And that gets back to your comment about paradox. Another way of thinking about it might be: why do we need to bend the mundane to say something about the world we’re all in? And I think that is a simple matter of perspective—you have to be a little outside of something to actually see it.

KB Famously, along these lines, one might think of productions based on Peter Pan where, when asked to clap if they believe in fairies in order to revive tiny, mean, fading Tinker Bell from expiration, children go wild with clapping. They’re fevered, excited, alive. Sometimes in the programs, when the play is produced, there are instructions that grown-ups need not participate in the applause, that it is only children who may save the fairy. Very sad, but also quite true: many grown-ups seem intent on death to fairies of all kinds and I can’t think of anything worse. There is—as J. M. Barrie knows, as J. R. R. Tolkien knows, as Kathryn Davis knows, as Gilles Deleuze knows, each in their different and same glittering and terrible worlds—no need to ask if fairies are real. It is the wrong question. The question is not what is real, but how will we become … what it is we are becoming? Becoming real, becoming fairy … these are variations of the same thing.

About bending the mundane: that’s interesting. When I write I feel I am trying to articulate things just as I sense them, which means almost nothing, I guess, because who knows if what I sense is what’s really out there. I know I’m not representing any reality, nor do I try, though I am seeking to be accurate in effect. It’s all a little upsetting, I fear.

Do people sometimes ask you how you “get your ideas”? As if your way of seeing is an exercise in confabulation?

VV Let me start off by saying that Tinker Bell is such a backstabbing specter of socially selected arch-feminine rivalry for male attention that one has to consider the call to let her die by refusing to believe in her as somewhat just. Almost like a feminist incantation … still, I don’t sanction the murder of fairies under any circumstances. Whew! Got that off my chest. OK. To your point: you’re saying that the movement toward real (as in The Velveteen Rabbit /Blade Runner’s replicants, etc.) and the movement toward faerie are both the act of becoming and that this act of becoming is what is essentially constricted by genre norms so that real, transcendent change stays culturally sublimated. I’m a little horrified that the previous sentence just came out of my mouth. It missed the sexy train. What I mean to say is that: “The Man” is afraid of “real” getting questioned and so he shunts it off into children’s tales and women’s fiction and pubescent boy Bildungsromans. Yes? I think that it’s fair to say that novels that stray into other worlds / possibilities are inherently forms of social criticism. Even if the social critique level is restricted to: “Dude, I totally think we should both have swords.”

As to where I “get my ideas,” my ideas/ images of the world aren’t things I construct; they’re things that can’t get out of my head. I feel a little guilty about putting them on the page sometimes. My brother started reading Zazen then told me that he couldn’t read it at night because it gave him panic attacks. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “I like it, but more like the way I ‘like’ going to Haiti after the earthquake.” He’s a director who frequently shoots in destabilized places like Kabul and post-Tsunami Japan. The fact that Zazen was too much for him to read at night is probably due to the unmoored sense of reality than the actual bombs. Oddly, he seems reasonably relaxed in his “real” life about bombs, Tsunamis, earthquakes—but then this is the power of speculative fiction, to reach beneath and rattle the underpinnings. It isn’t really very kind. I feel a little like I’m spear-fishing puppy dogs … ugh.

Sometimes I think of things in terms of acoustics. I’m a musician, and like any engineer will tell you, the shape of a room changes the tone of every voice or instrument. Similarly, how we craft the world of the novel affects the quality of sound, the harmonics, and the level of natural reverb or echo in the work. You do that in your books. In The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, the sorrow seems very tonal to me. Do you ever think of “world” or “realness” in terms of sound?

KB Your brother sounds great. I’m really close to my brother, an architect. We’re collaborating—he’s designing houses for little fairy tales of mine—and I feel so guilty every time I send him another sad story about lost children.

Speaking of which, I have to go back to Tinker Bell and revive her. Poor Tink. Though I figure you’re talking about a certain, iconic American depiction who leaves much to be desired in various ways. Still, it can be argued that that little vixen has served, in some clever fashion, to protect one of her most marvelous and complicated, great sources, and fairy tales. Tinker Bell = Troubling Beauty = Sublime? Art? The dread wonder of coming alive? Have you read J. M. Barrie’s haunting, very adult Peter Pan cycle (The Little White BirdPeter and Wendy, andPeter Pan, or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up, published from 1902 to 1928)? You’d love it—and this should be on everyone’s reading list. Simply one of the 20th century’s most under-read and acutely eerie and moving meditations on gender and domesticity—along with so many other closed sets. Tinker Bell, Peter, Wendy: such poignant creatures, living elegies for possibility spaces—and impossibility spaces—like adulthood, like sex. Neverlands. And Mrs Darling, she takes their dreams out to hang them like laundry and keep them clean! Barrie depicts all kinds of freakish, by which I mean excellent, forms of desire. Tink, that peculiar meddler, that six-inch fairy, in the Barrie, she only ever says, “Silly ass!” Such scorn. And I get it: this world is a lunacy sphere. There are a lot of silly asses among us.

Tinker Bell, too, embodies a great example of the power of books mixed with readers. It is reading that animates Tink, brings her to life—the audience reading the play, sensing the scene. Of course, as a feminist and mother I’m completely psyched that my seven-year-old daughter has been Peter Pan for the past two Halloweens and shows no interest in a Tinker Bell costume.

Kathy Acker once wrote that “Peter Pan proves that only girls exist”—like Barrie’s story itself that statement is an indecipherable puzzle but wonderful too. Certainly the most well-known contemporary interpretations of Tinker Bell have exploited an exploitative stereotype of girl-on-girl competition for dramatic effect, but wouldn’t it be as outlandish as not believing in fairies to say that female-on-female ambivalence does not exist?

And assuming it does exist, it has the tonality of horror, of tragic mistake because there’s simply no room for unkindness in any ethical house. Human Earth, it turns out, is a rather unethical home, which is part of why I write novels: to create other homes with more endless potential or where hating this one can be seen as a possibly beautiful thing. As such I definitely think in terms of sound—though I’m famously a terrible singer. I used to do late-night performances at Portland after-parties: monotone recitations of “Rainy Days and Mondays” and manifesto-like deliveries of “You’re So Vain.”

What is the sound of sadness? To me Ketzia has that, as Merry has the sound of madness, and Lucy of bliss. They’re variations in tone—the differences are by degree, the changes are minor. I celebrate the minor with that trilogy. I’m working on a new novel now that is in the tone of dread. Most of the novel takes place in a little bar where the main character sips tiny glasses of beer and tomato juice. Tones have nouns, do you know what I mean?

VV I love the philosophical sub-floor of there being no room for unkindness in any ethical house.

So I want to talk about horror. I’m not a lit-crit pro or anything so I’m probably going to bastardize a bunch of terms that mean something to someone else but, I want to go back to horror—not the uncanny, eerie kind, but the awful, violent, horribly unfair kind. The Grimm’s kind. Today our children’s stories are forms of social advocacy rather than warnings about the cruel world or what is out in the woods, if you know what I mean. We tell stories about what we wish our world was. If people believe it enough, they’ll make it real. That’s the hope, and I’m guilty of it. I do it all the time. You and I both have daughters, and we have spoken before about feeling bad about painting such dark pictures for them to read. But I have found that the language of fairy tale goes where our social aspiration of kindness can’t. When I hear horrific tales of random violence against children, for instance, the language of social constructionism doesn’t have any meaning. “He must have had a hard childhood, and that’s why he kidnapped that little boy and … . ” Really? But there is a language that makes sense and that is the language of fairy tales, the language of monsters. There are monsters, I can tell my daughter. You need to watch for them. It’s the language you use in Horse, Flower, Bird to speak of the holocaust. You conflate the witch’s ovens with those from history, and I have to admit that this language makes more sense than, say, an analysis of the burden of German reparations.

Oven (n): a chamber used for baking, heating, or drying. All tone.

So what I want to know is … is our work advocacy? I like to think mine isn’t but following my comment from before about speculative fiction being necessarily social critique, am I just lying to myself? I feel like Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog is critique, not advocacy. Same with the stories in Borges’ Labyrinths—let me clarify, when I say “advocacy” I mean, is it a fairy tale inside a fairy tale? If we use the speculative world to depict our own more accurately, are we hiding another fantasy inside it? Another form of social advocacy?

KB This conversation is a fairy tale inside a fairy tale, and we’re having it with Borges and Bulgakov. If there is advocacy in my stories, an idea that I like, it is not my primary intention but a logical effect because my fictional worlds are not representative of the world. As I write I seek to create new worlds, create new affects and new ways of thinking, whether it’s a children’s book or adult fairy tale. The worlds tend to run counter to socially limiting anti-possibility spaces. My characters find themselves with lines of flight—and they are always becoming, even if they are becoming quite dead. We’re in congress with worms here. Fairy tales know that. So do you, Vanessa. It’s been awfully nice to talk to you here. Thank you.

VV Kate, you’re a star. Thank you.

KB Vanessa doesn’t know that I’m continuing this interview alone to say that her last comment made me cry. I’m such a softie, and so is she, which is what makes the swagger and glory of Zazen so moving, like a great Western. It’s a wonderful first book.

 Vanessa Veselka has been, at various times, a teenage runaway, a sex-worker, a union organizer, a student of paleontology, an expatriate, an independent record label owner, a train-hopper, a waitress, and a mother. Her work has appeared in Arthur, Bust, Bitch, Maximum Rock ’n’ Roll, and elsewhere. Zazen (Red Lemonade, 2010) is her first novel. 

Kate Bernheimer is the author of a story collection illustrated by Rikki Ducornet called Horse, Flower, Bird (Coffee House Press, 2010) and a novel trilogy, ending with The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold (FC2 2011). Her most recent fairy-tale anthology is a World Fantasy Award nominee My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (Penguin, 2010), which she edited, is a nominee for the World Fantasy Award. She founded the literary journal Fairy Tale Review and teaches each spring at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.

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