Interview with Lee Zacharias

You wrote this book years ago and yet it is timely, addressing social unrest and other concerns we are facing now. Are you surprised by the timeliness of your novel?

Yes and no, though probably in reverse order. No, because political and social history tends to move in cycles. But yes, because I did not foresee how deeply divided our country would be today. I can’t celebrate the timeliness of this novel. There’s so much shouting, so much name-calling—from both sides—that finding our way to any common ground seems impossible. And of course when I wrote the novel I couldn’t possibly have envisioned that it would be published in 2021. I thought it would be published in 1992, and then I thought it would never be published at all. The whole thing is a shock, by which I mean the publication and the vitriol that exists in American politics right now. 

You write about a photographer, and you are a photographer. Why did you make Alex a photographer in the novel?

I am a photographer, but not nearly as good or as accomplished as Alex. Nor do I shoot the same kind of images. She’s a documentary photographer; she photographs people; I photograph landscapes and animals. But we both know the exhilaration of shooting, of being totally involved in the moment, which is very different from writing, because even when you project yourself into a character that character is moving through time. Words belong to sentences, sentences to paragraphs, and if you’re lucky paragraphs to a book. To be honest, making Alex a photographer initially felt like a short cut. My first novel was about a classical clarinetist, a world I had to research. I thought I’d make this book easier by having my protagonist do something I knew. But ultimately her role as a photographer became much more than a convenience; it allowed me to explore the tension between politics and art, between the dedication to the common good and a commitment to individual vision. “Freedom” was a buzzword in the ’60s, but there are different kinds of freedom, and artistic freedom is one.

How did the story originate? How did you discover Alex’s voice? 

The seed of the novel was planted when Cathy Wilkerson, one of the two Weatherwomen who escaped the accidental explosion of her father’s townhouse, where three other Weathermen were assembling bombs in the basement, turned herself in after ten years underground. In the 1960s I felt left behind. I married a graduate student right out of college and spent the last four years of the decade, four years of profound cultural change, working to support us. This was in Bloomington, Indiana, and most of the civil rights and antiwar protests took place in Dunn Meadow, around a corner from my office. I had the long hair, but in my work clothes—dresses and pantyhose—it was hard to feel part of the action. Instead I came home after work and watched it on TV. The townhouse bombing on March 6, 1970, and the Kent State massacre, which happened less than two months later, brought the curtain down on any notion of the ’60s as a celebration of “peace and love.” By that September, when my then-husband and I arrived in Richmond, Virginia, where he taught at VCU for a few years, I was wandering the streets looking for a time that was over. And by 1980, when Cathy Wilkerson turned herself in, my life had changed—I had left my husband, gone to grad school, published a collection of short stories, and had a career instead of a job. For me her surrender was a staggering moment of déjà vu. Already the ’60s seemed so long ago. 

Instead of thinking about what her life might have been like underground, I wondered about the people she left behind. How do you respond when someone seems to fall off the planet and then reappears? That’s how I came to write about Alex, the woman who is abandoned, rather than Ted, her husband, the activist who disappears. Initially I imagined the story would be told in the first person by one of her female photography students, but rejected that idea after a few pages. Because Alex is so beautiful I liked the idea of someone looking at her from the outside, but there was simply too much the student wouldn’t know. When I decided on Alex’s point of view, I shifted to third person, to keep just enough distance to convey her physical beauty without having her seem to be vain. 

How as a writer do you write about difficult or painful subjects?

Slowly. Because my fiction is so un-autobiographical in terms of circumstance, it’s somewhat easier to write about painful subjects that have that remove. But I’ve written a great many personal essays and am working on a memoir focused on my mother that forces me to revisit a difficult relationship and some of the most painful aspects of a very unhappy childhood, and there are some days when I don’t write at all just because I don’t want to go there. Yet it feels necessary if I’m ever to make sense of what happened. And that’s ultimately what stories, fiction or nonfiction, are about, the why, not the what, even when some aspects of the why are destined to remain elusive.

Did you have to do much research for this novel?  

Oh yes! Photography was the only thing I didn’t have to research. I had to learn the New Left from inside and out, its shifts, and the history that was happening around it. I read scores of books, from “impartial” observations to analyses to the more personal new journalism to memoirs, lots of memoirs as more and more people who had participated began to release them. Eventually I read Cathy Wilkerson’s, which didn’t come out until 2007, well after Todd Gitlin, James Miller, Tom Hayden, Mark Rudd, and Bill Ayers had published theirs (among others). I love research. I love learning. It can also be a way of feeling productive even when you’re not writing, but inevitably you have to leave a lot of what you learn out, or else your fiction loses momentum. That’s been a challenge in both this and my last novel—I get so fascinated by worlds that weren’t mine I have to remind myself that if the reader wanted to know everything I’ve found, they’d skip my novel and go straight to my sources. 

Some of my research was hands-on.  I walked the across the Pettus Bridge and visited Brown’s Chapel AME Church in Selma, then retraced the route of the March along route 80. I found a brand new park dedicated to the martyrs of the Civil Right Movement just across the river from Selma. It was going on dusk, and when I reached the bottom of steps, the names I knew so well from memory and research seemed to float up at me. It was an experience that could have been unnerving—a woman who’d left her car in an empty parking lot walking by herself beneath a bridge in the dark—but I was too moved to feel fear. The wood-burned plaques that were planted in the ground and nailed to trees hadn’t yet weathered. They were very pale, and each one held a name. There’s such power in a name. That’s why the Wall dedicated to those who lost their lives Vietnam and the 9/11 Memorial in New York feel so sacred. And that evening outside of Selma, it was as if the spirits of the slain were speaking to me. That is the other side of research, when the past begins to whisper. It’s not just information, because the feeling it instills will find its way into the work even when you have to leave some of the information out.

Much of the novel is about politics. Do you consider the novel political?

Yes. Even though Alex withdraws from activism after Ted’s disappearance, she is a documentary photographer, and the novel speaks to the heart of the political that is often lost, and that is the balance between humanity and ideology, between individual freedom and the general good. Politics cannot exist without ideology, but the danger in ideology is that it can become—often becomes—rigid. It speaks but doesn’t listen.  All art is political in that sense. It asks to be heard. It reminds the politician of the individual.  It reminds governments and reformists that someone objects. 

The novel has many threads and spans decades. How did you manage all the threads and keep track of everything? Any practical tips?

The timelines were easier to keep track of in earlier drafts. I initially wrote the novel in five sections. Sections one, three, and five followed the 1982 timeline in a linear way. Section two covered the years 1960-64, from the time Alex meets her first love Kendrick to leaving him for Ted Neal, the man she will marry; section four covered the years 1964-71, the years Alex spends with Ted; and they too were linear. Even so I had detailed timelines taped up on the walls of the library office where I wrote. One was for Alex and the events in her life; another was for the history of the New Left; and a third was for national and international events. That way I always knew what was going on not just in my characters’ lives but at the same time in the world. I abandoned that structure somewhat reluctantly; it had a coherence I liked. But the number of characters and enormous cultural and political changes in the later years of the ’60s inevitably made the fourth section longer. The reader’s eye was on Ted, but I didn’t know him well enough yet, and Kendrick all but disappeared. When I broke the chronology of the novel up, I had those earlier drafts to help me keep track of time and the different narrative threads. 

By then I was no longer writing in the same office, and the time charts had disappeared, but I highly recommend keeping as many as a writer needs. My first novel covered twenty-five years, and so in the novel I wrote after this one, At Random, which was published in 2013, I was determined to cover only a short period of time. It takes place over the course of two months, but I still kept a time chart. There were two point-of-view characters in that novel, and I needed not only to keep track of a legal process but what each of those two characters was doing and thinking at all times. My advice is to make charts. Use pictures. Though both of the main characters are American, At Random deals with a community of Montagnard refugees, and on my desk I kept a snapshot of three Montagnard children showing me little frogs they’d found at a Montagnard picnic I attended as part my hands-on research. While I was writing What a Wonderful World This Could Be, I taped up a copy of the wire service photo of the defendants in the trial for the murders of the three civil workers in 1964 cheering in the courtroom when the not-guilty verdict of the all-white Mississippi jury was announced. I had a few pictures from the Chicago police riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention taped up too, but they were to my back. The faces I looked at every day were those of the deputy sheriff of Neshoba County and his cronies laughing it up as they literally got away with murder. The late short story writer Peter Taylor, whose work had a great deal of influence on me, especially on my essays, used to make floor plans for the houses his characters occupied. That was his way of knowing their space. Draw pictures, collect photographs, make floor plans and maps, keep charts. I don’t mean a plot outline. Charts are like calendars or clocks; they anchor you in time, but they don’t tell the future.  

This book had a long path to publication. Can you share that path with us?

In some ways it’s the classic story of a second novel: it took too long to write. I was teaching full time, directing a writing program, editing a literary journal, and I had a baby. I couldn’t get a leave, and when I finally did, it was the one winter in Greensboro when it snowed and snowed and snowed. My son’s daycare was closed much of the time. I didn’t have a draft to send off to my agent until January of 1990. Houghton Mifflin, which had published my first novel, had an option for first refusal. My editor had seen parts and was very enthusiastic, but she left the company before I finished, and the editor who inherited me didn’t like realistic fiction. 

From there we went to a few more of the big New York houses. The second editor wanted revisions I thought too drastic for a second submission with no guarantee of acceptance. I did make a few changes and told my agent not to send it back to him because I wanted to keep the more drastic revision as an option, but she sent it to him anyway, and he turned it down. From there it went to editors who wanted it but got fired before we could draw up a contract or else couldn’t get house support. And after four or five submissions, my agent—who’d initially been ecstatic about the book—told me just to throw it away and write another. I sent it out a few more times myself—in those days if you had a track record, you could get an un-agented novel read in New York—and it came close, but there had been so much media coverage of the 1960s in 1988 and 1989 it was the wrong subject at the wrong time. A couple of houses lost the manuscript and never answered queries. 

Finally I put it on a shelf. There weren’t the number of small presses then that there are now, and the one or two times I sent to a small press, they never got back to me. I took up photography again—writing What a Wonderful World had made me miss it—and didn’t write for a year or so, but then I wrote At Random. I didn’t have an agent—I’d gotten another along the way, but she wanted revisions even before I finished—she also wanted a happy ending that felt false to me. And before I could rethink the novel my father died. I was the executor of his estate, and by the time I got back to the book she’d lost interest and it was no longer possible to get an un-agented book read in New York. At some point I sent it to another agent who admired it but didn’t think it would sell and asked if I had anything else, so I blew the dust of What a Wonderful World (which had a different title then—it’s had probably fifteen different titles), and she loved it. Restructuring was her idea, and she was enthusiastic about my revisions. It was turned down a couple of times, with what she called “good” rejections, but then she left New York, and she too lost interest. I sometimes read Acknowledgments that thank the agent who stuck by the author through a hundred rejections and wonder who are those agents? Four or five rejections, and that was it for all of mine. 

In the meantime I published At Random with a teeny-tiny press, a collection of essays with Hub City, and the University of Wisconsin Press issued my last novel, Across the Great Lake, which won several awards. I agreed to co-edit an anthology for Madville Publishing, and one of my co-editors suggested I send a novel there, and here it is at last, a book that took nine years to write and only twenty-nine to sell. I suppose I could say the moral of the story is persist, but I don’t many young writers would take much heart from the prospect of waiting that many years. Still, that is the message. I didn’t throw the novel away because I believed in it. And I’m very grateful to Kim Davis and Madville for giving it an audience. It’s not yesterday’s news any more. It’s become historical.