Canadian writer Zsuzsi Gartner is the acclaimed author of the short stories that take readers into an off-kilter world populated by rim pigs*, urban guerrillas, human cheetahs and a group of suburban dads who devolve into cold-blooded murderers.
Gartner will discuss her latest short story collection Better Living Through Plastic Explosives on March 18.
Mengfei Chen: Your name – how do you pronounce it and is there a story behind it?
Zsuzsi Gartner: Zsuzsi is Hungarian for Susan. So not as exotic as it sounds. It’s pronounced zhoo-zhee and I’m often mistaken for Chinese until people meet me. I like to say it’s like Zsazsa (Gabor) but with an 00-EE!
Mengfei: How has your career as a journalist impacted your fiction?
ZZ: Very much, I would say. I’m still a news junkie, and as a lapsed journalist (we’re like Catholics, never ex or former, just lapsed) and greatly interested in the world around me and in politics, social issues, media culture, etc. As a result, most of the stories I write bring the world in, or take place out in the world.
I’ve tried to broaden my canvas of the short story beyond the general perception that short fiction is engaged with minutia, and relationships, and interiors (of mind and place). Interestingly, I haven’t fallen into the trap of writing fiction like a journalist (or so I’ve been told) — maybe because I started with the fiction, slid into journalism, and then slid back.
MC: You’ve published two collections of short stories and edited a third. What do you love about the short story?
ZZ: I love the short story for how you can make every single word count, how language matters so much, as well as how anything goes, really in form and subject matter. A great short story combines in its intensity and narrative the best attributes of novels and poetry combined.
MC: Favorite short story and why?
ZZ: Of my own or others? I love and admire a lot of stories but there are two I adore that I think are exemplars of the form — they combine great prose style, voice, moral dilemmas, humour and heartbreak: Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here” from Birds of America, and George Saunders’s “The Falls” from Pastoralia.
MC: Your stories are very funny, but they drip with anxiety. Are you an anxious person?
ZZ: I’m a very anxious person, though less so now that a few years back. The irony is that while I was writing my first collection, All the Anxious Girls on Earth, I had an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. (My 12-year-old son jokes that the title could also be: All the Worried Women of the World). I struggled with this and had to get it under control before I could complete Better Living With Plastic Explosives. The thing about a severe anxiety disorder for a writer is that while going from zero to imagining the worst case scenario in a nano-second isn’t a good way to live your life it sure helps with conjuring up the fiction itself.
MC: What catastrophe do you fear most and how have you prepared for it? Do you stockpile canned foods? If so, what brands?
ZZ: Funnily (is that a word?), I’m more fearful of small crazy things than real threats like an earthquake, which is a real threat as I live on one of the fault lines and we keep being told the Big One is coming. Our earthquakes kits are fearfully neglected. I’m terribly anxious about food poisoning and check expiry dates cans for dents. I worry about things like a Brinks Security truck pulling up to a bank while I’m making a withdrawal at an ATM and getting caught in the cross-fire between the security guys and bank robbers. I do think about Armageddon and make complicated plans about how I would get to my son’s school if a gap the size of the Grand Canyon opened up between us or if foreign troops landed. Could I kill with my bare hands? I’m currently taking sword-fighting lessons. And I loathe driving over all our bridges.
MC: Of your writing process, you said in an interview, “I usually have my starting point and I write my endings early on, so much of the struggle during the actual writing process is getting from A to Z.” Could you expand on this a bit? For example, take a story from your latest book Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, “Summer of the Flesh Eater.” What was point A? Point Z? And how did you get from one to the other?
ZZ: Point Q in Flesh Eater was the idea of human devolution, point Z was the effect of that devolution on a cul-de-sac of husbands and wives, and Point A was the husbands after the fact narrating everything that has happened to absolve themselves from guilt, a kind of mea maximum culpa. Getting from A to Z then was a matter of pacing and keeping it light in tone while the events themselves kept getting darker and darker. I also had to create a scenario in which the implausible was made completely plausible. The story is written in the first-person plural, so the main struggle was maintaining that Voice and POV throughout.
MC: What are you reading?
ZZ: I’m on a book jury for a “literature of the fantastic” award for both adult and YA fiction, so I’m reading a lot of Canadian speculative, Sci-fi, and fantasy fiction, right now and currently enjoying a cheeky one with my son called “All Good Children” by a writer named Catherine Austen. Unrelated to work, I’m reading Don DeLillo’s story collection “The Angel Esmeralda” and just starting PD James’s dystopian novel “Children of Men.” I just finished British author Sarah Waters’s delicious gothic ghost story, “The Little Stranger.” Now I want to explore some contemporary Chinese fiction in translation before coming to the festival, so if you have any suggestions!
MC: Paper or e-reader?
ZZ: Paper all the way. The book is a fetish object for me.
MC: What are you working on right now?
ZZ: Premature to talk about, but I will say that some of the elements are: hypochondria, angels, and multiple narratives.
*Zsuzsi explains: “a Rim Pig is like Dish Pig (dish washer at a camp is lowest on totem pole, so dish pig, junior copy-editor on copy rim, hence rim pig: a job I actually did during graveyard shift for a summer.”