Interview Fiction 2009

Husband on the Home Front

Alexi Zentner, author of the short story “Furlough” in the 2009 Fiction Issue, discusses the new military family and the fine line between emotion and sentimentality.
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Alexi Zentner
Alexi Zentner

What do you want to explore with your writing?

I think, for me, the intersection of love and duty. The place where your obligations to your family, or your obligations to community, come in conflict with the pull of desire. I guess what I mean by that is the way in which we all have things that we want to do, and feel like we need to do and are essential to us, that are often at odds with what we are supposed to and what we know we have to do. I am interested in exploring how people deal with those things. Questions of duty and obligation.

In “Furlough” particularly, the question that I really thought about when I was writing was—there have always been women involved in wars. Of course throughout history as civilians, and certainly in the World Wars in terms of nurses, but it seems like it’s a particularly modern thing, in the current war in Iraq, for women to be casualties, much more so than other wars. And I was really interested in that question, of what happens when it’s the man who stays on the home front? That seems like a new thing, or a newer phenomenon. What obligations come with that, and what situation does that put him in?

Who is the biggest influence on your writing?

My wife has been incredibly supportive of me as a writer. Trying really hard to make sure I get the space and time I need to work as a writer and being willing to make some of the sacrifices that you have to make to live the life of an artist. Like, for instance, she has a real job. If I think of a reader while I am writing, the only reader who really matters for me is my wife. It’s most important to me that she likes what I write.

What is the first thing you wrote that made you realize you could be a writer?

I think that I always kind of thought, Oh, I am a pretty good writer. But it hasn’t been that long that I actually realized there is a difference between writing and working at writing. And that it makes a difference. I think in the last couple of years I have become a better writer. The moment where I thought, Oh I could do this, was when I brought in an early draft of the story “Touch” to my wife. “Touch” was printed originally in Tin House and then reprinted in the O. Henry Prize Stories 2008. We had just hired a babysitter to come in twice a week, so I had been going out to a coffee shop and trying to crank out as much as I could. And it really made a difference, this feeling that I was actually paying somebody so that I could write. So I brought in this draft to my wife, and I went off to do something else in the house, to do some chore, and I came back 15 or 20 minutes later. And I walked into our living room, and she is sobbing on the couch. And my immediate response was, “Oh my God, what’s wrong, did somebody die?” And it was from the story. She read the story and started crying. And that was the moment when I thought, OK, I think that is a good sign. Actually, I think I asked, “Is that a good thing that you’re crying?” And I think there was probably a little piece of me that was thinking, Did I just waste all that babysitting money?

Do you have any rituals related to your writing?

Well, I worked for a while as a journalist doing freelance and at community newspapers, and I realized that as a journalist, if you haven’t finished your work by the time the deadline comes, you get fired. I learned that when I have to write, I have to write. And with the young kids, I was a stay-at-home father, and I was paying somebody to come in to give me time to write. And the first day I went out and I didn’t get anything done, and I had to go home and hand over cash to a babysitter to pay for essentially the privilege of sitting in front of a screen for two hours and doing nothing, which made me realize that I couldn’t afford to waste that time. So I try to be pretty good about getting my butt in the chair and working. Some days are better than others.

If you were not a writer, what would you do?

I would be tempted to teach kindergarten or first grade, but the primary thing that I would love to do, and I would love to do now as a writer, is to teach creative writing. I taught creative writing at Cornell, and I think I am good at teaching it, but also it is tremendously fun. One of the most satisfying things you can do is help somebody who doesn’t get a concept, help figure out a way to explain that concept to them in such a way that they can hear what you are saying. You always get students who understand everything right away, but it’s really satisfying when you have students who don’t necessarily get everything the first time and you need to figure out how to change what you’re saying so they can hear it. I have found it to be one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.

What do you think of children’s literature? What children’s book would you continue to pick up?

I think so much of young adult literature sort of gets ghettoized—the title young adult makes people immediately discount it. And just like with books that get written for adults, there is plenty of young adult literature that is bad. But there is also plenty of young adult literature that is brilliant. That deals with some of the same issues and questions that adult literature does. And you think of how many classic novels that are supposedly for adults that are really sort of coming-of-age novels. In some ways, the differences between them and a young adult book a lot of times is just simply a marketing label. It seems like right now is a really ripe time for young adult authors. And they’re really pushing the form in a way that is interesting to see. I would argue, too—and I don’t care what book it is, or how snobby you want to be about it—that anything that gets teenagers reading a book is a good book. There are plenty of books that I see teenagers reading that I probably would not want to read, but I don’t care, they’re reading. So I will take that any day of the week.

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