by Jeff Von Ward
Zarina Zabrisky started to publish her work in 2011. Since then her work appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Canada and Nepal and three of her short stories are nominated for Pushcart Prize. (Nominations by Eleven Eleven Journal of Literature and Art, Red Fez Literary Magazine and Epic Rites Press Publishing.) Amy Hempel has picked her short story for distinction as Finalist in The Normal School’s Normal Prize in Fiction, 2012. Her debut collection of short stories, IRON, was recently published by Epic Rites Press. She has been touring and reading all over the western United States in support of it. I recently caught up with Zarina to ask about her amazing book.
What inspired you to write IRON?
IRON is a tribute. Each of the four stories is inspired by the people I loved and lost and my whole lost generation, the generation that came of age during the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Is there a uniquely Russian sensibility to literature and, if so, do you feel like you’re writing in or against this tradition?
Like many Russians I do have a passionate love affair with books. I arrived in America with a cat and a couple of suitcases, one of them filled with my family’s books. I could not leave them behind. It’s fairly common. Do I follow the tradition? I think we all internalize parts of our culture, only to rebel against it later. What results might be our true unique selves.
What does the title refer to, beyond the specific item that Vera uses in the title story?
The Iron Curtain. Iron lady. Iron maiden. Iron symbolizes power. Iron women are strong women. But pure iron is soft! Steel is hard, not iron. What is the real power? Is there power in softness?
I loved the nicknames of the characters in “Weeping Poppies”: Pilot, Philosopher, Legs. Do you consider yourself an allegorical writer?
The underworld’s nicknames are always poetic.
Also, it recently occurred to me that Europeans grow up with allegory all around. The statue you walk by on the way to school is not just a woman with a shell in her hand, it symbolizes the sea, the port, the motherland and the victory in some long forgotten battle. The hand with a stick represents the supreme power and the dynasty of monarchs long gone. You grow up learning this language of secret signs. If you happen to be a writer you most likely will use it at some point, one way or another.
Is it Philosopher’s sensitivity that leads to his downfall?
All philosophers are doomed, junkies or not. You know the legend about Nietzsche’s last mental breakdown, when he saw a horse being flogged and covered the animal with his body to stop its torture? Sensitivity is a gift but it comes at an enormous price.
Is “The Hungry Duck” based on a real location?
Yes. I lived close to there. The Hungry Duck was an infamous Moscow bar of the 1990s. It was called the Den of Sin. The Duck’s “Ladies Night” was exceptionally popular, bringing almost one thousand women in a single night. Women danced on the bars and stripped. It was fun, but also dangerous—the bar tops were slippery and narrow. The Duck was owned by a Canadian businessman and Georgian mafia—like pretty much everything else those days. Everything belonged to expats and mafia.
You write really strong female protagonists. Do you consider yourself a political writer? Is the book, in part, about the political made personal? I’m thinking, in particular, of the title story. It feels like there are both geopolitical and gender issues at play, but ultimately it is a kind of hair-raising escape.
I feel that in life everything is mixed, politics, personal and gender issues. A young woman losing her fiancé because he is killed at war—is it political or personal? A family leaving their home to become refugees? The women in my stories are survivors, not politicians. But by making their choices they make history.
Is Marina too naïve or just a romantic? Is there any problem with that? How does one balance “street savvy” or cynicism with being open to new experiences?
Marina is a dreamer. Blinded by her dream, she refuses to see reality. Young people tend to think they are invincible and immortal. Songs of Innocence and Experience. I think the question is: How does one learn life lessons and stay optimistic?
One of my favorite minor characters was Sergey, the ne’er-do-well brother and hanger-on who perpetuates the family curse in “The Hungry Duck.” I feel like we’ve all known people like him. Have familial bonds for people become more or less important in Russia since the arrival of capitalism?
Depends on the family, really. I left Russia a long time ago, and it is hard for me to tell. I like Sergey, too. Impossible to live with, hard to leave. Also, the Russian intelligentsia stereotype: bookish, bright, super-sensitive, yet hopeless.
“The Cross of David” was the only story in this collection set in America. Do you share David’s cynicism about religion? When it comes to magical thinking, are Russians and Americans both guilty of the same excesses?
My position is very similar to the protagonist’s view. I am a bitter atheist. I’m not cynical about religion or faith. It is lonely here and people want to feel protected and loved. I respect that. I’m cynical about those who use religion to control, brainwash or profit off others in need.
Religion in Russia is a whole different animal. In the last hundred years Russia went from burning churches and banning crosses to mandatory religious education in schools. I think Americans are way more subdued.
Can you talk about your treatment of violence? For example, in the stories “Weeping Poppies” “The Hungry Duck” and “Iron”? Is it harder to write about violence than to see it in a Tarantino movie? How do you know what to imply and where to linger?
Sadly, I’ve seen a lot of violence in life. It is not exciting. I don’t like writing about rape, fist fights or shootings. I don’t like writing about death either. But… as Siddur, a Jewish prayer book, says, “It is darkness which makes us aware of the stars.”
I write from moving pictures in my head. It is like a movie so I don’t really decide about the scene. I can choose details to cut or to leave when I’m editing. I prefer a minimalist style.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
I don’t feel like I’m in a place to give advice. I think it would be: Write, read and never listen to anyone telling you that you can’t write.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a novel and two short story collections. My novel, “Light Catchers” is a story of three artists pursuing perfection in art and finding deadly passion instead. One short story collection explores love and death in the extreme conditions of a remote Kazakh oilfield. The other one is based on my travelling in Europe and Africa.
Zarina Zabrisky started to write at six in Russia. She escaped the aftermath of a collapsing communist empire and wrote traveling around the world as a street artist, translator, and a kickboxing instructor. Her work appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Canada and Nepal. Zabrisky now lives in San Francisco. IRON is her debut short story collection.
by Jeff Von Ward
Twenty-three hours worth of eternity, reliving each piece of a lifetime; thinking in strings of thought, helplessly conjuring the ghosts of the past. Then escorted down the hall in silence for a solitary shower. Which is the only thing that goes by fast…
From the void of solitary confinement comes Paulie Gaeta’s harrowing story of crime and glory; from his Boston roots with an Italian crime family to his climb up the underworld pedestal as a bare-knuckle champion.
With dozens of illegal prize fights under his belt, Paulie loses a gamble with fate, and earns a 24-year sentence for narco-trafficking. In prison he finds himself surrounded by potential enemies and impossible choices, losing touch with the outside world which cast him out. Faced with insurmountable odds, Paulie must fight his way to the top again and again as he battles images of his past. And through it all, a recurring choice: death or quarter.
Death or Quarter is a dark saga of triumph and suffering, rooted deep in the mind of a philosophical killer, and underscored by shocking brutality and surprising sensitivity.
I sat down with Paul recently to talk about his debut novel.
What inspired you to write Death or Quarter?
I don’t know that I was inspired so much as a world opened before me and I couldn’t help but hitch my skirt and dive right in. I came in contact with this guy who said he had been a bare-knuckle fighter. We talked about doing a book, and he told me some stories from his life. Some crazy shit he spun, which is woven into the novel. And then he had some legal troubles—something, he said, about Whitey Bulger—and then I haven’t heard from him since.
The book, through one guy’s knuckle-scarred experience, is about what it means to be a conscious human, alone and flailing in this chaotic and capricious world. My characters tend to be thinkers—and whether bare-knuckle champion or high-class hooker, they are very much self aware. This is a direction I think humanity is (and has always been) (and maybe should be more) headed in; it’s a question only of how to represent it.
What does the title refer to?
The title sort of brings the piece together. It’s the rug from Big Lebowski. It’s what life’s about. Connections. A Unified Theory justification. A set of indelible choices: cease to exist, or suffer a deadly blow to pride and our aggressive competitive instincts. Who ever wants to surrender? The character, Paulie Gaeta, lives on the edge of death at all times. His life (and ours, by extension) boils down to the universe’s responses to choices. The old action/reaction thing, on whichever scale you choose to measure by.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
The hardest part of writing is always the actual Sit Down And Write part. We are very good at distracting ourselves, at finding innumerable other activities that need to get done before we can write a word. Moments of focus were few and far between, until I passed the 100-page mark, and it flew pretty fast from there. Then, the hardest part becomes figuring out which connective tissue I needed between certain scenes.
Why did you decide to self-publish?
We’re at the edge of something here, a breakthrough decided by folks who live the philosophy The only things necessary in this business are writers and readers. And that was said by a middleman millionaire. I don’t like the idea of rotting in a slush pile. I prefer the Valhalla hell of direct marketing; of side-stepping the rank-and-file and scraping by on my own bootstraps. Where every measure of success is one I’ve had my fingers in. In many years, I may look back and bemoan the worst decision in my life. Or I may look back and congratulate myself. There’s only one way to find out…
Do you have any advice for other writers?
There’s really no way for one writer to advise another. We can share techniques, tools, knowledge. But when it comes down to it, writing is about as individual an experience as you can get. You’re alone; no one really understands, but you’re trying anyway, you’re reaching out to embrace unfathomable concepts, and you have to express them in a series of dots, lines, and curves arranged in well-established, alphabetized patterns. My only advice is Listen. Listen to the universe, to your muse, to the humanity all around. Your perception is all there really is.
What are you working on now?
At some strange point in my MFA career, I decided I wanted to turn in a bit of constrained writing as my thesis. Why not do something outrageous, to really earn that title of Master? But then it turned into “the first English book with no verbs.” About a revolution and a trio of young rebels. The more people I told about it, the more committed I was. The only problem is, it has been difficult enough to build the obstacle, let alone climb over it. That’s what I’m working on now.
Paul D Blumer is the author of the new novel Death or Quarter, and an MFA candidate at California College of the Arts. He invites you to visit his website, Paulblumer.com.