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.

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.

What would you say are the most overrated books, or styles of writing?

I get very tired of books that feel emotionally empty. I would much rather have writers err on the side of being overly sentimental than not. I think that the perfect balance is a story that moves you without being maudlin, but I don’t enjoy books that are empty of emotion and there’s no connection to the characters. That doesn’t mean that I have to like the characters, but I do have to feel like there is some reason to read this other than that the author is somewhat witty. I think being witty is sort of a dime a dozen, and there has to be something more. The best stories that are funny also tend to be deeply sad. George Saunders, his best work, the reason it works is not because it is funny and weird, but because it is horrendously sad. And then, likewise, I don’t like writers who are technical virtuosos and that’s sort of all they are. Who do things just for the sake of showing off in terms of their technique or craft. Again, it feels to me like a lot of that stuff is sort of empty. Part of being a successful writer is having a certain amount of confidence. The problem is that bad writers can be just as confident as good writers. Irony for the sake of irony does not tend to be my thing.

I feel like the books that really have stayed with me the most, I have ended up crying at some point or feeling as if it is a cherished thing. I think most writers keep physical books. And for me, the books that I can’t part with—it’s not just that it’s a book but there’s something more to it, I can’t let go of the story that is contained in the book so I need the physical object. Since I have started writing seriously, I read differently. When you’re writing seriously and you’re reading seriously you can see the scaffolding. You can see all the stuff that lies behind the page, the way the story’s put together, and the way the book’s put together. But I think the best books, the ones that I love, are the ones that somehow get me emotionally invested to the point where I no longer see the scaffolding. I no longer see the blueprints.

What are the most underrated books, in your opinion? What books do not get enough attention and should?

Remainder, by Tom McCarthy. I don’t know how well it sold, but it was just a really interesting book that sort of deconstructs the act of creating things and talks about how we control our lives. It was one of the most unique books I read last year. And Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. I have always been a sucker for science fiction, and technically Never Let Me Go is speculative fiction, because it’s literature with a capital “L” because of its author—even though it’s really science fiction, everybody calls it literary fiction. But it’s just a really interesting reworking of where we could be going in medical technology. I like everything Ishiguro writes. I like his voice.

I think Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, by Melissa Bank—even though that sold a bazillion copies I think it is consistently underrated as a literary work. I would argue that if the same book had been written by a man and told from a man’s point of view it would have been enmeshed in the canon in terms of literary voice. She is funny and smart and looks at relationships in an interesting way. But because that and her follow up, Wonder Spot, got put into the “Chick-Lit” camp from a marketing perspective, they were not given as much critical acclaim as they probably deserved, even though they sold a ton of copies. And again, I think that the way that she sort of deftly deals with relationships, and the sense of humor in there, and the intelligence of the character—it’s just a vastly underrated book. I taught this book this semester and it was by far my students’ favorite.

Ann Patchett's Bel Canto is a book that I read once and I haven’t been able to read it again because I loved it so much that I am terrified that I will read it again and not like it as much. I really like Ann Patchett's voice, even the stuff that I have read by her by that I don’t think is her best work I really like. There is something in her voice that I just love. And it makes me wish, desperately wish, I could just take her out for coffee and spend an hour with her because she seems like just—she may not be like this in real life—but the voice of her writing makes me think that she’s just a tremendously warm and kind woman. And I loved that book. I thought it was a really sweet and beautifully written lyrical book. And interestingly, part of the book is writing about music. Any artist writing about art is always a touchy thing, and I think she did it really well.

Sweet Talk, by Stephanie Vaughn. She was actually one of my professors, and come to think of it, a number of my professors have books that I think are underrated. But it’s a collection of short stories, and each one is an incredibly polished, beautiful, and yet moving thing. One of the things that drives me nuts when I read fiction that it is technically proficient, but emotionally empty. I feel like Stephanie’s work manages both to be technically excellent and emotionally moving.

What book is most essential to you?

Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient. I love his lyrical use of language, but to me, The English Patient is one of the premier examples of a book that has this tonally lyrical sense, and yet still actually tells a story and has a plot that pushes through. He is not writing lyrically for the sake of being lyrical, and I see a lot of writing by people who are just trying to write pretty. This is one of those books where he writes in this beautiful style but he also tells an incredible story in it that I love. And that’s a book that I come back to.

—Cotton Codinha