Monday, June 27, 2011

Writers Forum: Victoria Zackheim on Turning Life into Fiction

Writers Forum, a local group that meets monthly to hear guest speakers present on the craft and business of writing, celebrated it's 5th anniversary this month. Founder and facilitator Marlene Cullen introduced the featured speaker, Victoria Zackheim, author of the novel The Bone Weaver and editor of five anthologies including the upcoming Exit Laughing: How We Use Humor to Take the Sting Out of Death. 

Victoria Zackheim signs her books

Zackheim, a 2010 San Francisco Library Laureate who teaches Personal Essay through UCLA Extension, spoke about turning life events into fiction. She talked to a rapt audience of 25 about the process of researching her family history and writing her novel, an endeavor which took 16 years.

While in college, a publisher asked Zackheim to write a book about her deceased father, a Jewish educator from Compton who worked in the Black community of Los Angeles. By the time she had interviewed countless friends and family members about their memories of him, a new publisher was no longer interested in the project.


Years later she unearthed her records, typed up on parchment paper, typos and all. Intrigued by one  woman's story in Israel--the only survivor of the Holocaust of 38 relatives on her father's side--Zackheim asked her grandmother for more information. "Why would you want to know about that?" was the typical response to a family history entrenched in the pain of genocide.

"What they're holding back is who we are--a major part of our psyche, our emotional ballast," Zackheim said about the importance of family stories. "Who we are is a tapestry of everyone who came before us."

 When she began her novel, covering one year in the life of protagonist Mimi and her mother Rivkah, she realized something was missing: the back story. That's when she wondered if something that happened to a five-year-old girl during an Eastern Europe pogrom (organized, violent attacks on Jewish communities) could affect her grandchild 65 years later. Now the book spans three generations.

"It's the story of a woman who confronts what she thought she'd never confront," she said. Caught up in the psychology of Mimi, whom readers refer to as neurotic, one day the author woke up and realized, "Oh my God, she's me!"

Zackheim, who says she is getting closer to 70 than she'd like to admit, portions her energy throughout the day in order to get to it all. "I can make a note saying 'do it' but then I might wonder where the note is," she joked.

Humor is clearly part of her teaching and writing repertoire, but her newest anthology on humor and death, slated for Spring 2012, is "the hardest one I've ever done." Since her mother passed away last year, Zackheim said reading and editing the essays means reliving her mother's death each time.

Her first anthology, The Other Woman, was initially pitched as a book on mothers-in-law, until she learned there was a book-to-be on that topic. When she did more research and realized there wasn't one recent collection on infidelity, her agent agreed and sold the book before any essays were even written! When publishers saw the list of established authors, including Pam Houston and Jane Smiley (both featured on this blog), they went to bid.

"Selling a book at auction is every writer's orgasm," joked Zackheim, who said the income was enough to live on for one year and pay her contributors.

The esteemed author gave the following advice on how to start turning life stories into fiction:
  1. Write your story--a personal essay, a series or a memoir. Tell about all the wonderful and terrible things that happened, and use real names. 
  2. Dig into your emotions: the family secrets, the infidelities, abuses, etc. Knowing you'll fictionalize it, you can write without guilt. "Write the hard, bitter truth because you'll use subterfuge," she said, referring to fiction as "a literary cloak to obfuscate real characters."
  3. Put it in chronological order or use a timeline so you can add historical research for context. By looking at what went on at that time, you can get clues on how to move your characters through the world.
Ironically, teaching fiction workshops has pushed Zackheim to write more memoir. There's power in the personal essay with its revelatory nature. You can choose safe topics but you'll only avoid that elephant in the room: "That's the elephant in the closet and you're barely breathing."

Zackheim encourages writers in her classes to be honest with who they are--whether they've been heroin addicts or prostitutes, survivors of abuse or eating disorders. Describing one anthology contributor who wrote truthfully for the first time about childhood sexual abuse, the writer "felt 200 years of old woman slip away from her" after delivering a reading from the book.

"It's freeing to write what you've kept secret," said Zackheim. "Meanwhile, you've been able to cancel your last 30 therapy sessions."

Choosing which genre to use depends on how you want to share that truth, she said. "Some memoirists don't care who gets stung." If you aren't willing to devastate the lives of others, consider fiction. Then short, fat Aunt Sally who dropped out of high school can become a successful 5'8" beauty.

3 comments:

rosaria said...

This is such an important topic. Thanks for sharing.

Arletta Dawdy said...

Hi Nicole,
I've been traveling for several weeks and was unable to attend this session of the Forum. Thank you for your fine reportage. I'm going to have to read Zackheim and watch for other appearances by her.
Arletta

Victoria Zackheim said...

A wonderful overview, thank you! This is such an excellent way for the community to learn about writing, and for writers to interact with people who love books. The perfect match!

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