Guest Victoria Zackheim
Renowned editor, essayist, screenwriter, teacher, and anthologist.
I met Victoria when she was an instructor in a Master Class at the Kauai Writers Conference. I learned a great deal from her and have maintained a relationship ever since. If you get a chance to hear her speak or teach, do your best to attend. I’m so pleased to have Victoria Zackheim here with us.
Victoria, we would like to hear about how you start a project…whether it’s essay, novel, memoir, or film. We can’t cover all these talents in one visit; you will have to come back for another visit. We’ll let you take the lead—your choice of topic(s) today.
First of all, thank you for the invitation. I’m not so sure about the “renowned” part, but I’ll accept accolades! Now, to your questions…
What inspires you to start a project? I get an idea and cannot shake it. It might be something I’ve read, dreamed, heard in a passing conversation. My novel, The Bone Weaver, started out because I wanted to write a story that dealt with the challenges facing women. In this case, the isolation so many women experience, especially when they focus on their careers. In this case, the protagonist was very successful in her academic environment, but she had no idea how to sustain a relationship. She used her work as her escape. This was fine until a crisis forced her to confront herself.
My film project was more hands-on, in the sense that I overheard someone describing an outrageously funny (and I learned later, serious, and deadly) experience in Northern Ireland, and the story burned through me for several years. It’s now one of my two major projects.
How do you know which genre best fits an idea? Oh, George, you’re asking about my Acorn concept, yes? From an acorn, a nut of an idea comes the project.
I’ve started writing a novel, only to realize early on (hopefully) that it’s a short story…or a personal essay. When I was editing my first anthology, The Other Woman, the essays began arriving. Twenty-one remarkable women were sharing their highly personal stories. From the first essay, I knew this was a play. I saw it. Five women seated on the stage, the script in binders, no memorization, a five-person dialogue about infidelity of all kinds. It’s had dozens of readings, and I never tire of sitting in the audience and watching how actors interpret their roles. And I love that it’s often used as a fundraiser for women’s shelters.
Starting…that is…launching the writing…can be daunting. A lot of people give up at this point. What advice would you like to share about beginning a project? If a project is dumped, it’s often because the grunt work, the preparatory work, wasn’t done. We all read about writers who “just sit down and write” and somehow create a wonderful novel. But I’m guessing there are far more successful projects that result from long hours contemplating the story and character arcs, the plot threads, etc. And then days, sometimes weeks, creating the outline. I have a dear friend, a mystery writer (with 30 million books in print!) who takes at least a week, all day work, to create the first outline, chapter by chapter, scene by scene. Even when she’s satisfied with the outline, she spends more time on it. When she’s certain that it has everything, and in the right order, with characters and plot fully developed, only then does she begin to write.
What happens if a writer begins with a memoir…and then backs away? Family pressure, the guilt of hurting people, or even the fear of a lawsuit. It happens that many of the books I edit (as a freelancer) are memoirs, and I run into this with every project. Dare I reveal this? What will my family/friends/ colleagues think? I recently worked for nearly a year on a memoir with a highly gifted, National Book Award recipient. Her memoir was brilliant, poetic, poignant, charming. Before submitting it to her agent, she shelved it. Too personal, too revealing, family members might feel hurt or angry. I was disappointed because I thought it was a very important work, but I fully supported her decision. Her next step? She was considering reimagining it as a novel.
Have you ever abandoned a project? Why? I have one novel that I wrote sometime in the 80s and put it away. I take it out every few years and noodle with it, but I’m quite sure it will never be published. The plot just doesn’t sing, and I find myself trying too hard to make it relevant. On the other hand, at 3 am, in 1996, I dreamed an entire novel, got up, and wrote a description. I’ve revised that story perhaps a dozen times…and then, last year, at a friend’s urging, I dusted it off and did a major revision. It was soundly and enthusiastically rejected by several agents until TA-DA! A wonderful agent suggested a few changes, which I’m now doing. Who knows? A quarter-century later, that puppy just might get published. Tenacity…or stupidity…I’m not sure. But I’ve always loved the story, so perhaps there’s a chance. Writing is like going to Vegas and placing a bet. Win or lose; we always go back and try again.
At what point does a writer throw it all out? Once thrown out, can a project be resurrected? I have a friend whose first novel was a bestseller. Wait, let me reword that: I have a friend who threw out ten novels, all rejected by agents, before she figured out what wasn’t working…and what was. She wrote, with these guides in place, and she’s had many NY Times bestsellers since then.
But to answer your question: Yes, a project can be resurrected. As we write, we grow, and what might have seemed perfectly fine and gifted writing ten years doesn’t meet our standards today. So…I urge writers to take that old project and see if there’s still life in it. If it excites you, figure out why. If it drags, why? Answer these questions, and you might be ready to revisit the story.
When did you realize you wanted to write and edit? I wanted to write when I was a child. Perhaps it’s because I was pretty lonely, so creating stories in my head kept me occupied? I’m not sure. I took a few writing courses in college, but praise from my professors terrified me. Besides, in “those days,” girls were directed toward “safe” areas: teaching…and…teaching. I knew I didn’t want to teach, so I went into an unrelated field. In fact, I didn’t start teaching until fourteen years ago…and I’ve loved every minute. Online, in a classroom, at writers’ conferences. It’s heaven. And working with so many writers…well, it almost gives me permission to write. I’m a very good writer, but it’s the storytelling that challenges me. Perhaps that’s why I’ve leaned toward editing.
The editing came quite accidentally. I had an idea for an anthology, it sold, and I found myself editing twenty-one personal essays. I have to add that my very first “client” from this anthology was Jane Smiley. I was terrified. I’d never been a real editor, and I was expected to edit a piece written by a Pulitzer Prize recipient? I made myself sick for days, until my agent reminded me that the editor and author work together. So I did the edits, which were few. Jane was a dream. Now, eight anthologies later, and having worked with some of the top writers in the country, I look forward to each project. It’s a rare and often wonderful relationship, this collaboration between author and editor, and both of us want the same result: the best storytelling possible. I’ve worked with perhaps two hundred writers, and there are very few I would never work with again.
Where do you work? In my home office, at my desk, on my orthopedic chair. I also love to write on airplanes. Or I did when there were still airplane flights. Window seat, laptop activated, the world disappears.
Is silence golden, or do you need music to write by? What kind? I love music—classical, mainly—but it’s purposeless to play when I’m working. I hear nothing. Nothing. A fire engine could pull up in front of my house, sirens piercing the air, and I wouldn’t hear it.
How did you get into teaching? A writer friend was teaching online in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and suggested I apply. I felt quite inadequate until she reminded me of all the courses I had created and taught, and was teaching, workshops, and conferences. UCLA was wonderful, helping me to create several courses, all of them in the Creative Nonfiction section. I teach every term and have now for fourteen years.
What’s your quirkiest quirk? Really? You expect me to reveal that? Okay, let me think. I’m still thinking. Oh, dear, I don’t think I have any! And for a writer, that won’t do! If any of my friends are reading this, I welcome your input. Please, find me a quirk!
Everyone, at some point, wishes for a do-over. What’s yours? That’s an easy one. I started college in pre-med and was talked out of it by an advisor who thought girls couldn’t compete. (Hey, I’m old, this was a long time ago!) So I majored in English. Looking back, journalism would have been a good choice, or some path that would have taken me into politics. I’ve written speeches and position papers for candidates (Congress and US Senate), but running for office might have worked.
A funny side story: in the 80s, the Democratic party asked me to run for Congress. A Democrat had NO chance of winning this district, so they needed a candidate who could lose and not be dogged by the loss. (In other words, had no future in politics!) I declined, they chose another candidate, he lost.
What’s your biggest pet peeve? I have an exceedingly difficult time working with writers who have chosen me to edit their work, but secretly believe their work is perfect. I had one client whose essay was 6,000 words, but the publication was clear that 3,000 was the limit. I edited it down, she refused every edit. When I (almost patiently) explained that it was too long, her response was memorable: “Perhaps, but every word is a poem.”
Where do you go from there?
What’s the best book you’ve ever read? Oh, not fair! Especially with so many dear friends who are published authors. So, let me tell you the novel that made me understand the magic of writing: Ole Edvart Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth. I was a teenager and found myself reading the same paragraphs over and over, struck by the images they created, the way I was transported to that time and place. Wallace Stegner’s novels have had a similar effect on me.
What’s on the horizon for you? I’m hoping to complete the revisions of this mystery novel in the next few weeks…but seeing as how I started writing it in the 90s (yes, another century), who knows? I’m working on a screenplay with a very enthusiastic team, and thinking about a two-act play. The outline and a few scenes are written, but it’s a matter of time. I have another play, my favorite of all, but it has a history. I had written all of Act I and II, on my laptop, in an apartment when I was living abroad. I was robbed. He (yes, I saw him) took not only my laptop, but the backup diskette with the entire play and around sixty pages of research. I’ve tried to recreate it, but it’s quite disheartening.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself or projects? I’m very fortunate, because I truly love what I do. Teaching, editing, writing, collaborating. I’m aging, but I become so lost in my writing that I feel ageless. That is, until I have to rise from my chair…
What a great interview. I met Victoria many years ago–I think in San Luis Obispo. She has great ideas and I’ve always admired her skills. Thanks for sharing this.
Lynn, hello! Yes, it’s been ages…years! I hope all is well with you and yours. Life certainly has changed since we met.
Very interesting interview, covering many facets of writing. I don’t know at what stage in her career Victoria edited Jane Smiley’s work, but I can appreciate how terrifying that must have been. I’m glad Victoria didn’t go into politics. I have a feeling she would have been successful even though she was recruited to lose.
Jane was in my first anthology and the first essay that arrived. Thank you for the kind words, Deven.
George, thanks again for the invitation. That conference was nearly year ago…seems like a century…so much has happened to our world since then. I look forward to exchanging ideas with your community.