Kicking off a new week with another author interview to learn about their journey to publication!
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Jeff Vande Zande teaches fiction writing, screenwriting, and film production at Delta College in Michigan. His award-winning short films have been accepted over 175 times in national and international film festivals. His other books of fiction include the story collections Emergency Stopping (Bottom Dog Press) and Threatened Species (Whistling Shade Press). His novels include Into the Desperate Country (March Street Press), Landscape with Fragmented Figures (Bottom Dog Press), American Poet (Bottom Dog Press) and Detroit Muscle (Whistling Shade Press). In 2012, American Poet won a Michigan Notable Book Award from the Library of Michigan.
Jeff Vande Zande’s latest story collection travels down the shady lanes of the American neighborhood. From kids egging windows to lost joggers and insomniacs to basement prisoners and Orwellian gated communities, these stories grow ever more surreal, holding a darkened mirror up to that which we are—and may become.
“Turgenev said that we all come from beneath ‘The Overcoat,’ and the wardrobe one discovers in Jeff Vande Zande’s The Neighborhood Division and Other Stories truly unbuttons startling new revelations. These fictions are a Sartor Resartus of the form and content found in the linings of the heart, fierce and bold patterns that brilliantly retailor the whole grotesque haberdashery of Winesburg, Ohio. This read was quite the runway show.”
-Michael Martone, Author of The Moon Over Wapakoneta and Brooding
“Two shots realism, one shot speculative, a dash of horror-- the genre-bending stories in Jeff Vande Zande’s The Neighborhood Division and Other Stories shows us what happens when suburbia takes on a rebellious, sometimes eerie and always dangerous, life of its own. Vande Zande’s earnest, well-meaning characters are fated to discover that the seemingly benevolent perks of privilege they’ve come to rely upon are in fact the greatest threat to their security. From a family trapped in their own basement by an aggressive home renovation to a tenant’s crusade to save his building from collapsing under the load of his neighbors’ excessive possessions, these stories reveal the unexpected joys and perils of taking a closer look at our most familiar neighborhoods.”
-Laura Hulthen Thomas, author of States of Motion
“Don’t be fooled by what initially seems familiar in Jeff’s stories. An unsettling, almost surreal quality quickly spins the characters into uncertain territory where you truly don’t know what will happen. Each of them face harrowing challenges that are theirs alone, and there's no going back. I found these stories as compelling as they were chilling.”
- Linda K. Sienkiewicz, author of In the Context of Love
Follow these links to view Jeff's short films based on stories from the book!
Light and Shadow
Who are you and what do you write?
My name is Jeff Vande Zande from Midland, MI. I write a little bit of everything. I started out as a poet, but then turned to fiction in my late 20s. I’d still write a couple poems a year, but most of my time went to stories… and then eventually novels. Somehow that morphed into writing short film screenplays, which eventually saw me go back to school to learn camera operation and digital film editing. Then, quarantine hit, and suddenly I found myself writing a novel again. I finished the first draft of it in 3 ½ weeks. I spent another three weeks editing it. It’s called Falling Sky, and I’m currently seeking representation. The novel is actually an expansion of a story (“Load”) from my new collection.
Where and when and how did the writing life begin for you?
My father was a writer. When I was little, I figured all fathers were writers. I just figured that’s what fathers do. I remember having to have my Saturday morning cartoons turned down low because my dad was in his study writing. Emulating him, I started writing stories when I was really young – like five or six. My parents had a cassette tape of me reading my first story called “The Strange Bug.” I can still remember the opening line: “First I was run over by a plane, then I was run over by a train, and I was hurt, and I had to go to the hospital.”
Later, in my early twenties, still wanting to write, I wrote poetry. I guess that was my form of rebellion to everyone saying, “Oh, you want to be a writer just like your dad.” Well, my dad was a fiction writer, so I rebelled for about 8 years with poetry. Got some publications. Got a few books… an award here or there. I remember when Ted Kooser included a poem of mine in his syndicated newspaper column, “American Life in Poetry.” That was cool, but I guess storytelling was in the blood. Hence, fiction and then eventually screenwriting.
How has the journey to this point been? Can you give us a basic rundown?
Like I said, it’s gone from poetry to fiction to screenwriting and then a combination of screenwriting/fiction. I didn’t go to school for creative writing; I’m a lit major. Most of my books have come out from small presses. Haven’t had an agent yet… fingers crossed, though. Had some little victories along the way. My novel American Poet won a Michigan Notable Book Award from the Library of Michigan. Also, a story of mine called “The Neighborhood Division” (which, not surprisingly is in this new collection, The Neighborhood Division and Other Stories) was published in a Canadian magazine called Existere. As a result, about 5 months later, I kept getting all of these hits on my blog from people Googling “Explanation of Jeff Vande Zande’s ‘Neighborhood Division’” It turns out, my story had ended up on the reading portion of an English as a Second Language exam in Montreal. The upshot? Well, they paid me for every exam that the story appeared on. I got a nice cheque for $4,700. It’s kinda been downhill from that moment.
What's been the hardest part of your writing/publishing experience so far? And the most enjoyable?
The hardest has been getting representation. Also, marketing your work is not super enjoyable. When you have a book… well, at least for me, I become someone I don’t enjoy being. I mean, I feel I have to market the thing because I owe it to the small press for taking a chance on my book. But, then I see myself becoming what I find hard to stomach from writers on Twitter. The constant “I have a book!” tweets. All the banal ways we try to engage on social media… well, they are pretty see-through (and the goal is always sales). I’ve met some genuine folks on Twitter, but many just follow you, mute you, and then inundate you with links to their amazon page for their book. I’ll say this much, that approach does not entice me. Plus, I think we end up being writers marketing to writers who have their own books to sell. The trick? I think you have to reach readers on Twitter… and that’s tricky too. And, agents/publishers expect that you’ve branded yourself and have a “platform” etc. So, you kind of can’t avoid it.
I think of stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald and how someone from the publishing house would meet him at the train when he’d come into a town for a reading. That person’s job? To make sure Fitzgerald didn’t get too drunk before the reading. I think those days are long over. Now, publishers want to know what YOU are going to do to market the book. And, in this age, that makes sense. It’s just the whole game… it isn’t fun.
What’s most enjoyable is to be working on something I really believe in. “Enjoy the writing,” I often tell my students, “because everything after you finish will likely be disappointing.”
Would you go back and change anything?
I’d have spent more time with my dad talking books, etc. He died way too early… 68. I miss him. For years after he died, if I got something published, my first thought was, “I gotta call Dad.” Then, I’d remember I couldn’t. But now, I don’t get that impulse to call him anymore. It’s been over 10 years since he died. With me turning 50 in June, I’m starting to see that it’s not so much what you accomplish in life, but how you spent the time you had with the people you love.
Cliché? Yeah. But clichés are usually clichés because there’s a note of truth in them.
Where would you like to be in 5 years time? And 10? Or, what are your plans for the future?
I don’t really have goals like that. I just want to keep creating… be it fiction or films. I’d like to see Falling Sky land with a bigger press someday. But, I have no complaints about working with Whistling Shade Press. Joel, the editor/publisher, is very collaborative. He does what he can with the budget he has.
What's one piece of advice you'd give to new writers just starting out?
Don’t worry so much about the publishing. Enjoy the writing. Whatever you’re working on, if you could be told in advance, “this will never get published” would you stop working on it?
If the answer is yes, then you probably shouldn’t have been working on it to begin with.
Just enjoy the writing.
And most importantly...
Ketchup or Mayo? – more of a mustard guy
Night or Day? – was night, but as I’m aging… Day
Inside or Outside? – Outside, ideally fly fishing on a river
Dogs or Cats? - Dogs
Twitter or Facebook? - Twitter
e-book or Paperback? - paperback
Sun or Rain? – Sun (can’t easily fish in the rain)
Keyboard or Pencil & Notebook? - keyboard
Comedy or Drama? - comedy
Chips or Chocolate? - chips
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