To wrap up my summer of talking about writing with ladies, here is an interview I conducted with one of Portland’s newest literary darlings, Vanessa Veselka. The kind, funny, and thoughtful writer had plenty to say about the writing process, writing tips, and her writing heroes.
Vanessa Veselka is the author of the novel Zazen, which was nominated for the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction and won the 2012 PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize for fiction. Her short stories have appeard in Tin House, YETI, and Zyzzyva. Her nonfiction is found in GQ, The Atlantic, The American Reader, Salon, and was included in the 2013 Best American Essays.
How long have you been writing? How long have you considered yourself a writer?
In terms of general confidence around written communication I have been a writer my whole life. I started keeping journals at the age of six but mostly they were boring (my deeper insights on the world and descriptions of time and place all went into letters). As far as what I think of as “my writing,” which is tied to my exploration of fiction, 8 years.
Do you believe in the adage that in order to be a writer you have to write every day? Are there any “writing rules” you follow?
No. I do write most days but I know so many writers who do it differently. Women often have to because of childcare and economic disparity. The encouragement to write every day is a good way in to your practice, but in the end, it is YOUR practice. Like sex, what works for others may have very little relevance. I think we are all looking for a doable way to proceed. I’m not the kind who can write 20,000 words in a weekend. I often wish I were.
What is the best advice given to you by another writer?
Karen Shepherd once said to me, “You’re writing for the person who gets the joke,” which I extrapolated as “the person who gets why something is sad or beautiful or transcendent, etc.,” and that statement changed my life. I could not have written Zazen as I did without it. I used it as a mantra throughout.
Is it easier or harder to be a writer in Portland? What is the community like here, especially amongst female writers?
Portland is an awesome land for writers. That’s why there are so many and so many come. Every scene—music, art, academia—has its camps and gargoyles, but none of it feels too bad. There’s a lot of cross over. I count myself lucky to have come out as a writer here.
What are you working on now?
A very long novel.
You are known for your novel Zazen, but do you write nonfiction? What is the difference (in approach, editing, etc.) between writing fiction and nonfiction?
I do write nonfiction, though not memoir really, mostly long-form essay pieces. In many ways my nonfiction career would be considered more successful.
They are very different forms to me, fiction and non fiction. I have often heard the comment that my nonfiction style or voice does not obviously match that of my fiction. I take this as a compliment. I believe in creating real, fictional worlds. I don’t want my characters to be proxies. They are not veiled versions of me, or at least no more than you are, or the grocery clerk is, or my friend Sascha.
My headspace as I write each is radically different. Nonfiction feels like calligraphy to me. Fiction feels like a radical and private freedom. I like both.
Who are some female writers you admire/look up to?
Marguerite Duras, Jean Rhys, George Eliot, Joan Didion, Louise Erdrich, Nami Mun, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Sigrid Undset.
This article originally appeared in The Rearguard in June 2013.
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