Courtney Zoffness writes fiction and nonfiction. She won the 2018 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, the Arts & Letters Prize in Creative Nonfiction, and an Emerging Writers Fellowship from The Center for Fiction. A recipient of two residency fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, her work has appeared in The Southern Review, Indiana Review, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere, and was listed as “notable” in The Best American Essays 2018. Zoffness directs the Creative Writing Program at Drew University and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Brian DiNuzzo: It has been said that no writer is immune from at least some creative frustration. What do you do when the writing does not come, when no words appear on the page? In other words, how do you manage writer’s block?
Courtney Zoffness: I am a little unsure about the technical definition of writer’s block, so I wonder if that refers to sitting down and wanting to write something, but not knowing what to write or knowing what you want to write but not knowing how to do that. Of course, writing is not an easy process, and it’s not like every time I sit down the words pour out of my fingertips. I have an exceptionally busy life. I have two small children and a full-time job, and so I’m never at a loss for material. I have assembled [my busy life] in such a way that when I get these snatches of time, I am desperate to write.
Certainly, in the writing of [the award-winning story “Peanuts Aren’t Nuts“], I had multiple endings, for example. I was not exactly sure, so I took time away, not necessarily because I thought that was good for the work, though it always is, just because there was no more forward motion available, and I worked on other things, and I think for me that’s a very helpful reality, which is that I have multiple things going on at one time. I write nonfiction as regularly as I write fiction, so there is always something to dig into. I think that is helpful.
B.D.: How important is perfecting the opening sentence of a story, and when do you know you have the sentence you want to keep?
C.Z.: I don’t know about perfection. I don’t know what a perfect first sentence is. I will say that for [“Peanuts Aren’t Nuts”] I never liked the opening until I found a new one, so for years it had a totally different opening. But I could tell that it wasn’t that compelling. I liked the meat of the story, but I didn’t think the opening note had any juice, and then I found a question that was pretty central to the story, so I started it there.
In terms of “how you know,” there are various ways to think about that. Certainly, what compels you as a reader when you start a story is one gauge as to the kind of opening you may want to compose, and, maybe, unlike novels, though I will say I have a short attention span, so this applies to novels for me also, you cannot afford not to entice [readers] early on in a short story. So, I do think not about perfection but my awareness of needing to ensure a reader will stay the course from the first note.
B.D.: Your story “Peanuts Aren’t Nuts” won the 2018 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. How do you describe this story’s structure? Did you have a conscious plan for how you wanted “Peanuts Aren’t Nuts” to unfold, or did the structure emerge as you revised?
C.Z.: I had no conscious plan for how it would unfold. I had a loose idea of a dynamic between two characters, was not sure where that would lead, knew all along that I didn’t want [the protagonist Pam] to have been a physical victim [of the antagonist Mr. Peebles], and knew all along that I wanted [Pam] to be entranced and seduced by his behavior but wasn’t sure what that meant for the story, so I just wrote in to it.
B.D.: In “Peanuts Aren’t Nuts” and your essay “Up in the Trees” the plots seem to arise from a conflict between what is and what is expected, thereby subverting expectations. In “Peanuts” readers expect to learn that “something did happen” between the protagonist Pam and her teacher Mr. Peebles. They expect Pam to say she hates Mr. Peebles or at least found him creepy, but that doesn’t happen. In “Up in the Trees” readers may expect a condemnation of Germany from a Jewish writer whose family “fled the pogroms” and “ensured that I was thoroughly versed in the Holocaust.” But Pam has mostly positive feelings about Mr. Peebles, and you enjoyed Freiburg enough to consider moving there, saying, in fact “what’s not to love.” As a writer, do you spend your time looking for these kinds of expectation-subverting conflicts? Do ideas of conflict or theme lead you to begin writing? Do you approach a story with the conflict or theme in mind and build around that, or does the conflict or theme arise in some other fashion?
C.Z.: I appreciate your drawing a thread between [“Peanuts Aren’t Nuts” and “Up in the Trees”], and I do see that thematic commonality. My approach to narrative, be it fiction or nonfiction, is not always the same. There are some narratives that I do approach because of conflict. Both [“Peanuts Aren’t Nuts” and “Up in the Trees”] are examples, actually. I did feel in conflict in some ways or feel like there was the expectation that I should feel conflict.
In Freiburg and likewise in “Peanuts” we have certain expectation of how [Pam] should feel about [Mr. Peebles], which is not how she does. I will say that I think that sometimes I’m drawn to that tension around expectation, but I’m also interested in how we constantly surprise ourselves in our experiences, in our relationship to people and places, and I think that’s one of the most interesting things about human beings, and something I am certainly interested in as a writer, just the ways in which we can think we know ourselves, but we will continue to surprise ourselves. Who the hell knows what we will do in our lives?
B.D.: In “On De-Purpling Your Prose” you share an early lesson for new writers: avoid purple, flowery, overwritten stories. Would you share one of your recent writing problems and how you overcame it?
C.Z.: I am finishing a book of lyrical essays in which is an essay about privilege. I, when I was sixteen, committed a felony crime, and my racial and economic privilege made sure that this didn’t matter for my future, though I was arrested and book and all of it. [Presently,] I live next to a precinct in Brooklyn, and my four-year-old is obsessed with ‘police-hood’ and wears a uniform all the time and patrols the neighborhood and regularly reports for duty at the precinct, and it’s proven really problematic. We see folks going in and out in handcuffs all the time and, as my seven-year-old pointed out, all of them have brown skin, and my charge in writing this essay was how to talk about the challenges of being a parent in this situation, to speak with candor about all the ways in which my path was paved quite easily, and also with an awareness that I am still a white person, a privileged white person, talking about an issue many people of color deservedly don’t want to hear from. So, that was in conflict with my feelings that not enough white people talk about the ways in which their privilege has facilitated their lives. I had to, on the page, do this really delicate dance, and I hope I succeeded, and I’m sure it won’t be without some push back.
B.D.: So that dance you mentioned, is that writing and rewriting until you find the proper balance?
C.Z.: Yes, and also having readers who would be really candid with me about blind spots I may have had and oversights. People often talk about writing as a solitary act, but for me it’s not at all. Surely, the composition of sentences and paragraphs is, but to get a piece of writing into any decent shape that I would be willing to share with a larger audience necessitates lots of eye balls first, and smart ones!
B.D.: Let’s talk about story endings. Some writers like to end stories with suggestions that hint at the characters’ futures. Other writers seem to tucker out and abruptly end their stories. How do you know when to end a story? How can a writer attune herself to crafting the most fitting ending?
C.Z.: This is probably going to be an unsatisfying answer, but I think it comes from practice. I have been [writing] for a while, and the more time that has gone by, the more stories I have metabolized, as a reader, and the more drafts I have written as a writer. There is—maybe ‘instinct’ is the wrong word, because that does a disservice to all I have read—but there’s an accumulation of understanding and a thoughtfulness that accumulates when you pay attention to the craft of stories you read, and certainly having been a teacher for over a decade forces me to dissect stories all the time in really close ways, which I appreciate. With my class, we look at endings all the time and talk about how [the endings are] suitable, whether or not they are satisfying, and how we define what makes for a satisfying ending. The more I have honed my own answers to those questions, the easier it has been for me to identify [a satisfying ending].
B.D.: Finally, you write both fiction and nonfiction. When embarking on a piece of writing, do you already know if it will become a fiction or nonfiction story? Have you had to push a piece of writing in one direction or another? How does your thinking—your writerly approach—change when working in each medium?
C.Z.: There is one that I can think of that I have written into a draft of a short story, but I feel like it would make a good essay. Most of the time it’s like—holy crap!—I see this thing. I need to write an essay about it, or I have this idea, which is imagined and that makes it clear that it is not an essay. My essays are drawn not only from my own life but from people I want to talk to and learn more about—what they are doing, what they have done. I write heavily researched nonfiction most of the time.