Thursday, June 3, 2021

Q&A with Lee Zacharias



Photo by Michael Gaspeny


Lee Zacharias is the author of the new novel What a Wonderful World This Could Be. Her other books include the novel Across the Great Lake. She lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.



Q: What inspired you to write What a Wonderful World This Could Be, and to create your character Alex?


A: In July 1980, Cathy Wilkerson, one of two women who escaped the accidental bombing of her family's Greenwich Village townhouse, turned herself in after 10 years in the Weather Underground. That was the catalyst for this novel.


It may seem an oversimplification to suggest that this bombing, on March 6, 1970, and what is now known as the Kent State Massacre a little less than two months later were the coup de grace of the 1960s, but in a public sense they were.


In 1971 I went to Washington, D.C., for the last national antiwar march. Weatherman, the radical offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society, the young New Left political organization that dominated protest headlines in the late 1960s and was responsible for the townhouse bombing, had gone underground, the Vietnam War wound down, and over the late '70s some of the Weathermen quietly surfaced, almost as footnotes. The world tends to have a fairly brief attention span.


But Cathy Wilkerson's surrender jolted me, just as the bombing had jolted America 10 years before. Though we were from very different backgrounds, she from Eastern privilege and wealth, me from the blue-collar industrial Midwest, we were the same age, and a lot had changed in my life during the '70s.


What I began to speculate about was not what had happened to her but what happened to those left behind, family, friends.


In the 1960s I'd felt left behind. In college I had a boyfriend who went to the 1965 Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Though I had participated in a protest on campus, I didn't have the money to go, not to mention that would have been the end of college for me. Higher education was suspect in the circles in which I grew up, and my father hadn't wanted me to go in the first place.


One thing people may not remember is how affluent many of the white activists were. Weatherman used to joke that you couldn't join unless your father was a millionaire.


As soon as I finished my degree, I married my first husband, who was a graduate student, and I spent the last four years of the '60s working full time to support us.


We were living in Bloomington, Indiana, and there was a certain left-behind-ness in that too, because Indiana University could never quite measure up to the University of Michigan or the University of Wisconsin as a hotbed, as if the politics of youth were just another Big Ten competition.


Most of the impromptu concerts and political activity at IU took place in Dunn Meadow, around the corner from my office, and though I often dropped by on my lunch hour, in the A-line dresses and pantyhose my job required, I didn't look like a participant; instead I felt that I watched the story of my generation unfold each night on the news.

None of my fiction is autobiographical—probably the fact that I've written a good bit of personal nonfiction takes care of any desire I might have to write about my own life—but I do find it necessary to be able to identify with and project myself into my protagonists. I created Alex, the woman whose activist husband, Ted Neal, deserts her when he goes underground, out of that feeling of having missed out.


The novel begins with her husband's surrender. Unlike Cathy Wilkerson, Ted wasn't on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List, he hadn't been charged with murder, which makes his disappearance and reappearance 11 years later all the more mysterious to Alex. I know why he vanished, of course.


His motivation is in the submerged part of the iceberg Hemingway talked about in Death in the Afternoon, where he explained his theory of omission by saying that "if a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader…will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water."


But it took me a while to figure Ted out, and that was a flaw in early drafts. I didn't know him well enough, and it took time to get to know Ted because I had been the unhappy, married working girl instead of the privileged boy who could afford to rebel.


I'd sat on the sidelines for four years of such rapid cultural change they came to define the '60s. Even when your fiction is as un-autobiographical as mine, I suspect there is always a personal entry point, and that was mine.


Q: Did you need to do much research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that surprised you?


A: I did an enormous amount of research on the Civil Rights Movement and the history of the New Left, much of it reading, some as I went, especially as more and more memoirs came out, which gave me an inside picture of the movement I was lacking, at the same time I was reading journalistic texts and analyses like Allen J. Matusow's The Unraveling of America. I went to Selma and retraced the route of the March.


One thing that surprised me was that the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery is at the foot of Capitol Hill, practically on its doorstep. I suppose you could discover that by looking at a map, but seeing it drove this home: every day George Wallace spent as Governor of Alabama he looked out his office window at Martin Luther King's church. Can you imagine how it must have galled him?


The other thing that surprised me is how ordinary the lives of so many members of the Weather Underground actually were. They essentially went missing in plain sight.


The one thing I didn’t have to research was photography. Alex is a photographer because I know my way around a camera and in a past technology has made obsolete, a darkroom.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Oh, I always make changes along the way. There were a few changes in events, personal events, not political ones. In an earlier version of the novel Alex's friend Lizzie dies. The more rigid ideologists Leah, Cal, and Tulip, who join the political collective Ted has established once it moves to a larger house, were not part of my original conception, although they found their way into the first drafts.


The biggest changes that I made were structural. For a long time the novel was framed by the 1982 timeline, the year that Ted surfaces. The first, third, and fifth sections were all set in 1982. The second section followed Alex from 1960, when she meets Steve Kendrick, to 1964, when she leaves him for Ted Neal, and the fourth section covered her years with Ted, 1964-1971.


There was a clarity to that timeline that I liked—I also liked the titles I gave the five sections—but the fourth section, "Bringing the War Home," had so many characters and events it was inevitably longer, Kendrick, Alex's first love, didn't appear, and the romantic triangle got lost.


I think I knew to some degree right off how the novel would have to end. There is a tradition of abandoned women in literature who take back long-absent men, from Penelope in The Odyssey to Annie in William Kennedy's Ironweed, and that bothered me. I wanted Alex to be more conflicted and less forgiving.


But I debated for a long time about including the last page, the postscript that takes Alex into the future. In my mind what that last page tells the reader was always where she was going, but I did consider leaving the end ambiguous. In short, that was another part of the iceberg I considered keeping beneath the surface.


The novel's probably had at least 20 different titles. And I'm forever revising sentences, because in the end words and the way they're put together, the way they sound, is what writing is all about.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: That's a great question, because it's never the first one I think about when I start a book—I start with a line or an image, and everything comes from that. In this case it was the image of Alex's face in the locker room of the YMCA when she learns that her husband has reappeared. But this is the question that writers finally need to consider.


Of course I hope that readers are sympathetic to Alex, that they understand how her childhood shaped her longing for family, made her vulnerable to falling in love with an older man when she was 15, and created such a deeply troubled young woman that she also needed to leave him for Ted Neal, who essentially promises to get her outside herself and her own sorrows, to widen the bounds of her sympathies and teach her to care about justice and economic inequity.


But even more than her personal story I hope readers take away a sense of the 1960s that goes beyond the cliché the era tends to summon. I hope the story makes a time that is so often portrayed by its symbols—the bellbottoms and miniskirts, the music, the slogans—feel fresh.


I want to plunk them right down in the middle of the experience I felt I missed so that they take away some knowledge of the way political thinking evolves, how it corrupts, and learn a bit of history the cliché glosses over.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A memoir focused primarily on my mother, her history, her life, and my relationship with her. Its title, which I don't think will change, is Undeclared Wars, Unspoken Truces.


It's the first manuscript I've worked on that includes photographs and scans of letters (my father's letters to her from 1941) as part of the text, so I've spent a good bit of time dealing with the technical challenges of pasting those things to a single document, along with the usual challenges of shaping a story, especially one so personal.


My mother's mother died when she was 7, and my mother had no memory of her. Her mother left six living children, the family was split up, and my mother's longing for family, her longing to have known her mother, was the central fact of her life.


I'm her only daughter, and she wanted me to know her. She lived to be 98, so I had ample time, but as is nearly always the case I didn't know her in the way she wanted to be known.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Oh my! This is one of those ask-your-own-question questions. And if you had asked my mother, she'd give you a list. She was very controlling.


Perhaps since Alex is a photographer, I should say that I have never worked as a professional photographer, though I have had exhibitions and did, very briefly when young, work as a photo-lithographer for a TV tuner plant and as a darkroom technician, just as Alex does.


My career was words—for 35 years I taught creative writing and literature—but all my life I have been torn between the visual and the verbal. I think of writing as a way of seeing: what is the lens I am looking through in this story? What is its focal range—how wide, how close, how long, how narrow?


Also when you're a photographer you don't just think about the subject; you have to think about the background. Setting is enormously important to me. Writers are squatters: we occupy the worlds we steal or invent. We all want more than one life. Writing is a way of getting that.


Readers who would like to learn about my other books or see samples of my photography can visit my website:


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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