Zachary Lazar is a writer, journalist and professor. He resides in New Orleans where he teaches English at Tulane University. Lazar earned his A.B. degree at Brown University and an M.F.A from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. He is the author of five books, including Sway, Evening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder, I Pity the Poor Immigrant, and most recently, the novel Vengeance. I Pity the Poor Immigrant was a New York Times Notable Book of 2014. Sway was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award and an Editor’s Choice at the New York Times Book Review, as well as a best book of 2008 in the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Publishers Weekly, and several other publications.
In 2013, Lazar visited Louisiana State Penitentiary, or better known Angola Prison, as a journalist covering a Passion Play, but after interviewing next to 40 inmates something else resulted from the trip, his newest novel Vengeance. The novel begins with the narrator, Lazar, going to Angola Prison and meeting the central character, Kendrick King, who is serving life in prison for a murder he may or may not have truly committed. Throughout the novel the reader is taken alongside the narrator on a personal investigation of sorts to attempt to find the truth in Kendrick King’s case. The novel provides a compelling combination of fact and fiction that creates a solid foundation for questioning many of America’s deeply rooted issues involving violence, as well as social and racial injustice.
Interview with Zachary Lazar by Amelia Looney
AL: To get started, can you give us a visual of what your ideal setting would be for your time spent writing?
ZL: I can write anywhere, including in my barren cubicle in the library at Tulane University, where I teach. In fact, the barren cubicle is advantageous—no distractions! I’m weird, I have been in places that were too lavish for me to get comfortable in, that made me feel self-conscious. Writing for me is a trance state that I have to trick myself into. Silence is the only thing that is really essential.
AL: How would you describe what being a writer means to you?
ZL: Writing fiction is my way of making sense of the world. It makes me think in a less chaotic and scattered way, and at its best it makes me somehow smarter than I really am in my actual life. I like fiction because it integrates the mind, the body, the emotions, and the spirit. It’s not enough to put forth ideas in fiction. You have to evoke physicality and all the nuance of human emotions. It may or may not be a path to enlightenment but somehow I got on the path and I know it’s not just because I wanted to tell stories. I like stories that are well-told, obviously, but for me stories are much more than entertainment.
AL: The first novel I read of yours was, Evening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder, in which within the first thirteen pages you admit, “I have always had two ideas: that one day I would write about my father’s story, and that if I ever did so I would never be able to write another thing again.” Considering this comment, how does it feel to know you not only continued to write, but wrote about the opposite side of the story, about the murderer not the murdered, in your new book Vengeance?
ZL: I really did feel that way when I wrote Evening’s Empire, it wasn’t just a rhetorical flourish. Writing about my father’s murder reaffirmed my sense that, yes, that event is at the root of all my work. If the murder hadn’t happened, I would probably still be a writer, but I would probably be a shallower one, a writer without a real subject. But what surprised me about writing Vengeance was that it was far more cathartic than writing Evening’s Empire. I think Vengeance took the trauma to a new place, connected it to American history (particularly with regard to race), injustice, and to a world of people who had limitless new information for me to confront and consider.
AL: In Vengeance, Kendrick King, the inmate the book centers around, compares life imprisonment as such: “Imagine you’re trapped in a barn. Now imagine that the barn is on fire. You will do anything you can to get out of that barn,” seeing as the lines between what is fiction and nonfiction in the novel are blurred, where did the idea for this analogy come from, actual inmates or self-observation?
ZL: I gave that line to Kendrick, who is a fictional character, but it was actually something a real person said when I was at Angola prison as a journalist in 2013. The man who said that has almost nothing else in common with Kendrick other than keen powers of insight.
AL: If you could describe Angola Prison in one word what would it be?
AL: You take your Tulane students to Angola Prison to work alongside inmates throughout their semester, just how important do you feel this interaction impacts the writing process for both parties?
ZL: It’s actually not Angola we go to but a facility in Lafayette. I think the interaction is very powerful for everyone—it’s one of the main objectives of the class. Both sides come in on the first day with preconceived notions of each other, but it becomes very clear very quickly that individuals always defy such notions. I think it’s also valuable for them to all see that formal training/technique is important but not sufficient. Good writing has to have soulfulness—pathos, humor, etc.—and this can come through even when the writer is still struggling with mechanics. This struggle with craft and expression is something that both the Tulane students and the incarcerated students are visibly dealing with throughout the semester. Both groups of students do better work, I think, by doing it for each other (writers writing for an audience).
AL: Is there any one book, or books, you would recommend aspiring writers to read?
ZL: I think the culture is so atomized that there’s no one book that anyone can point to and say, this is something that everyone should read. What has helped me is reading canonical authors, just because you see the huge vision many of them had and it gives you something to strive toward. But okay, if I had to choose one book I would say the Bible, which I have been struggling with my whole writing life. It’s not easy to read, it doesn’t help me in a nuts-and-bolts way as a novelist, but it is so ancient, the product of such a different culture from ours, that it forces me to ask questions about the big picture of human nature. What have people cared about throughout the millennia? How do we stack up against the culture that produced those stories and that wisdom, and vice versa.
AL: What is a good writing prompt you would give for creative writing students?
ZL: Write a story about getting lost.
AL: What can we expect from you in the future?
ZL: Basically I’m writing fiction now purely as a form of psychological and spiritual survival. I’m just trying to keep my head above water in a country that seems to be drowning itself for no definite reason. I love writing, even if I don’t enjoy the publication process, which feels like the opposite of the writing process. In any case, I’m thankful for the question, and I hope there are people expecting something from me, and if they are, what they can expect is a strange novel about living in America right now, Mexico, prison, the crisis in Venezuela, and the mystical Jewish shekinah,the feminine aspect of God.