Likely I’ll fail to properly introduce Zachary Tyler Vickers’ debut, Congratulations on Your Martyrdom!, so I’ll make no fancy words about it: this collection of interconnected stories—comprised of blue collar oddballs, dead fathers and sons, and drunk neighbors sick with chronic regret—is, well, as George Saunders said, “full of heart and energy, by an intense, fervent writer whose dedication shows in every line”—and indeed Vickers himself is, per Michelle Huneven, “a true original, with a wild and rambunctious imagination, and deadeye for the funnybone.” These accolades, in others’ words, all ring true.
Vickers’ stories exist in or in the wake of disaster—the small, upstate New York town in which they’re located having recently suffered both a catastrophic tornado and a tragic cannonballing accident, both of which become a part of the town’s persona. And in addition to dazzling stories, Vickers also crafts these gorgeous, stop-your-heart-on-a-dime sentences. I mean, if you have a copy already, just shut your eyes. Crack it open to a random page, place your finger anywhere, and open. Wherever your finger lies, underneath is a sentence armed and capable of lashing your heartstrings into overtime. (I’ll do it myself. Page 20. The sentence reads: “My father was the last to go, discovered in his recliner, covered in sitcom light.”)
You can see what I mean. But because we had such a great conversation, I’m just going to get right into it. I’d like to thank Vickers for his enormous kindness, and for answering the following questions.
The collection is headed with an epigraph from Wilde’s “The Portrait of Mr. W.H”: “You forget that a thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.” It primes the investigatory nature of these interlinked stories in which you’ve provided readers an opportunity to explore ideas and characters from the perspective of other characters, through different lenses, with additional insights. That said, this is very much a short story collection in that each story holds its own weight. Most of the connections lie in the details. But these details, in their culmination, add so much more to the experience. Having made the connections, I understand this town, its inhabitants, and all of their strange and meaningful nuances. I’m moderately- to hyper-obsessive about the things I enjoy, and reading this gave me the aching compulsion—which I fulfilled—to create to the best of my ability a physical charting including a timeline, character relationships, and the sad story of a small town in upstate New York that can never get a break. And a more comfortable, less anxious version of myself would include my chart—with all its colored connectives lines and accompanying notes—and include it here as proof of the book’s meticulous construction. That said, doing such would deprive readers of the fun and rewarding experience of mapping it themselves. This circuitous commentary all brings me to my first question: what, for you, was the reason for structuring the collection like this?
First, thanks so much for taking the time to do this.
The book began one story at a time, each operating on its own. After writing maybe a half-dozen, I began to see patterns, connections—in theme, like sacrifice, and in locations and characters. This got me thinking about umbrella narratives. In the opening story, the brief image of the boy’s ghost falling off the Palisades was where I found an opportunity. The book’s question then became: who was this boy, and where did his body go after it struck the boat?
As a writer and reader, I have a short attention span. I think it’s the primary reason I write stories, because I’m in love with brevity, efficiency, and urgency. And with this collection I wanted to instill these functions over an entire narrative arc. In a way, I wanted the book to feel collapsible—a collection within a collection. The tornado midway through serves as a sort of checkpoint, a payoff (I hope) during a journey toward an even bigger, more emotional payoff about the boy—both of which are overt payoffs. On a subtle plane, I tried to instill what you’ve mapped—characters and details woven into different stories (sometimes a main character will find him- or herself as a fleeting/dismissible character in the periphery of another story, etc.). As a reader I like doing work, and I hope the reader’s work here is rewarding in a comparable way.
Many of your characters seem incapable of escaping the odd logic of their youth. Like in “Elvis the Pelvis,” as our main guy trails a specter of his past—“the stud varsity quarterback” from his high school days—back to his home where he spies through the man’s window, observing the details of his decline and noting how the world he lives in is still one big popularity contest. The collection is fraught with this adherence to the rules and ways of the past. Is the general course of human life dictated, to the point of obsession, by its formative experiences? Why, in these stories, is youth so inescapable? And what’s the deal behind these oddball adults?
There’s the short and the long answer here. The short being, Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The other short, being: I myself am an oddball adult.
The long, being: we’re walking raw nerves when we’re young. Every new experience leaves its singing mark. I think as writers, we’re incapable of escaping elements of youth because of the weight it holds, and we’re compelled to make sense of the world retrospectively, at a time when we only have so much to work with. Our emotions are short-circuiting, our groins and brains are playing tug-of-war—we’re just not equipped experientially or biologically to really investigate what it all means as we’re living it. But as we get older, see, feel, and learn more, etc., we are more capable of negotiating the complexity of emotion—and the writer’s job is to explore this and everything else, and do it justice (when necessary) with equally complex narrative structures.
Many of these stories were written a long time ago—some almost by a decade. Being twenty-twoish when I wrote the first story in the collection, “Disfigured Paper Animals,” there’s a kind of essayistic working-out of what it meant to be human with the ammunition I had at the time. I don’t have giant fleshy hands, nor have I worked in a mall “Stuff-a-Bear,” or (looking at “Elvis the Pelvis”) I wasn’t in Band, nor was I wedgied by jocks; however I did grow up, and I did live within forty-five minutes of my hometown when I wrote a chunk of this book. So, as much as these stories question adolescence, it also tackles the friction between return and stagnancy, between place and complacency. Some of these characters come back to this town, changed—and therefore see it differently as well as themselves, then and now. Some characters are more static, stuck in the town, but still have a yearning to change in a location that already has a definition for them. There’s a struggle of identifying, identity, and finding your place via place.
There’s something to be said for the tension between these characters’ lives—often their somewhat orderly, corporate lives while on the clock—and the immature-child lives they can’t leave behind. Here you have this sad sap sitting in an office setting, entrusted to some position of relative importance, while his outside life is the spectral opposite of orderly. Everything is falling apart, everywhere, and every single character—even the topdogs—are underdogs. How are these folk born onto the page? Why do they persist through life, downtrodden and hopeless, despite all the signs urging them not to?
All of the stories begin with some nugget—an image, a sentence, a strand of dialogue, a quirk, etc. Then I just sort of sit back and let them organically move around on the page—writing feels anthropological to me. I’m sort of crouching in the weeds, watching them shit where they eat, so to speak.
I can only observe a character I care about. It’s gut and heart labor—I revise and rewrite until I have a character that feels heavier than paper, more like a living creature you have a responsibility to.
Then I allow terrible, unforgivable things to happen to them. I want to see what they’re made of—the character or my characters. What do they want? How bad do they want it? How do they handle failure and loss of said want? They all have choices—to fester, to bitch and moan, to change, to do good or bad, to be good or bad. I don’t make these choices, they do. I write/delete until the choice he/she makes feels the closest to who that character is. The story will show itself to me based on these noble/clumsy/foul/etc. decisions.
They persist because we all have to, or we don’t. That’s the beauty and horror of it.
In the same vain—and I’m sure you’ve prepared yourself for this one—what differentiates this collection from, say, a novel—or a sort a fictional biography of place, if that makes sense? I feel like I hear the question “Is is a novel?” more and more, so given the stigma attached writers without books debuting with a collection, regardless of its merit, was there any internal debate in how to market the book?
I think if someone wants to tell me that this collection is a novel, I’d ask him/her why out of curiosity, just to learn how they define the two. But beyond that I’m not too interested in these stigmas or definitions, especially from an artistic perspective. I’m aware of the whole Hey-Cool-Collection-But-Where’s-Your-Novel aspect of the economy, as writers we can’t not be. But as soon as I start playing that game whatever I write will be such a giant pile of shit people will detour off the highway to get their picture taken beside it.
I write because I have an urgency in me that is, at times, crippling. I do it to try and create some kind of art, and work out for myself what it means to be alive and living in a world where reality feels trendy, surreal, and absurd. Maybe one could argue that this collection could have been a novel—it’s been done. But that’s for other people to decide—my work is on the page.
That said, I do know how difficult it is for a story collection to get out in the world and be read in this climate, and so it only adds to my tremendous gratitude to Break Away Books, Indiana University Press for publishing this book because they cared about it and believed in it—it’s all I could ask for.
Next up: destruction, ruination. The aftermath of a catastrophic tornado incident lurks in the background of these stories—in place, interactions—except in “Tornadic,” where it tears through the narrative in real time. Same goes for the tragic cannonball jump that punctuates the collection. The whole town is concentrated on rebuilding, both physically and emotionally, despite most everything lying in complete disrepair. Destruction seems to provide an opportunity worth aspiring toward. Or back toward, as many characters seem only to want things back as they once existed. Perhaps I’m wrong all over the place. But I’m curious about these two events and how they made their respective ways to the page.
I think we all want things back on some level—and in its most rudimentary form, nostalgia isn’t really that interesting. But I think trying to examine why we’re nostalgic for a particular thing is interesting.
As for how the events made it onto the page: they happened.
I grew up near a lake in upstate New York. As a kid, my Dad told me how he used to cliff jump with friends there. He’d point out the spot as we drove around the dam, one he (and others) called “the Palisades.” Now, that tree line overlooking the lake is fenced off because someone did jump off and crash into a boat below. I was young when my Dad told me and it stuck. This also goes back to our discussion earlier about youth’s imprint—I wasn’t really capable of processing the complexity of the moment, or the emotions associated with it—things like the idea of loss from the parents’ or friends’ perspectives; or how fragile we really are since as a kid we think we’re invincible, etc. I was haunted by a thing that I could feel holding more weight than I understood at the time. That kid is always the same age, part of me is that age remembering when my father told me, the times I drove around that dam—in many ways we’re looping.
The tornado was also real. In the fourth grade we moved out of a trailer park across town into a home my Dad built (he’s an incredibly talented woodworker). Less than a year after we moved, a tornado touched down and ripped through that trailer park. Maybe a week later, my Mom drove us through. Our old trailer was still intact—so was the shed and club house my Dad built. But, not far away, there were trailers completely (to paraphrase the book) “corn flaked” between two untouched trailers; there was a lamppost bent at a ninety-degree angle (though, no tire swing); trees down, large items displaced, etc.
Both of these events have a cyclical and destructive nature to them, whether it be as overt as a “cyclone” or something less so, like obsession.
In the introduction I mentioned your sentences, which are like ‘knock-knock,’ ‘who’s there?’ ‘your heart, and I quit two beats ago.’ Just listening to them, the sound, it’s just like: how, time after time, do you string these beautiful sequences of words into such perfect, gut-wrenching turns of phrase? What does your process look like on an individual sentence level?
It’s very meticulous—I revise and revise and revise. It’s given my OCD a real reason to crack its knuckles. I revise as I write. I read the draft again and again, and then aloud, and then to myself again. I wait a month, when I think it’s done, and then I read it aloud again. And so on. Once I have the story’s heart, and I feel it is structurally and mechanically in good shape, I’ll go through it one sentence at a time. I listen for the sounds, the rhythm and cadence, word choice in an isolated sentence, and then how it interacts musically and linguistically with those around it. It’s utterly exhausting and my favorite part.
Do you have any weird habits before you start writing? Tics? Superstitions? A thorough and exhausting desk cleaning? Any strange, compulsory motions?
I have this OCD thing that I really have to fight against when I find it creeping into my work in a detrimental way. I like dialogue that’s no longer than one paragraph line—I hate two line paragraphs in general, but especially dialogue. I find them to be ugly. If it doesn’t fit on one line, it needs to be on three lines. I also don’t like when a couple words at the end of a paragraph fall onto their own line—it’s aesthetically jarring to me, and always makes the story feel “drafty.” These are either called “widows” or “orphans,” I forget which. When I’m finished with a story I will justify the rag or else it looks too much like a college term paper. I justify to justify, I guess. Side note: there is also a thing in most word processers called “Widow/Orphan Control,” which always makes me think of the Orkin Man.
So with your first book completed, lauded—that’s one hell of a blurb haul—and now, at last, released, what’s to come in the ZTV world? Rumors are aswirl about a film adaptation of your story, “Karst.”
Those blurbs are incredibly humbling and I can’t thank those folks enough for writing them. They have all had a hand in this book and my development.
To your aswirling, I am co-writing an adaptation of “Karst.” I really wasn’t ready to leave those characters or that logic, and so the story has been slightly reworked, too, and will serve as the opening “chapter/story” of a new “novel in stories” (just covering all of my marketing bases)—a book I am obsessed with and possessed by. It’s a frigging monster right now.
Wonderful—so new stuff on the horizon. Let the sadness ensue. You know, this was one of those books that I wasn’t quite ready to put down, so I’ll be looking forward. Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. I’ll leave you with a simple question. Any last words?
Thanks so much, again, for taking the time to chat with me, Pat. And thanks to Hobart for not only giving me this space, but for publishing two of my stories: one that’s in this collection, and the other in the next book, fingers crossed.
Read Zachary Tyler Vickers on Hobart here: http://www.hobartpulp.com/web_features/the-quandary-of-the-pointy-objects-annex
And here: http://www.hobartpulp.com/web_features/elbows