Zach Wyner on Making Real Sacrifices to Make Things Less Wrong

An interview with Zach Wyner, from The Write Stuff series:

Zach Wyner is a writer and teacher who works with incarcerated youth in the San Francisco Bay Area. HIs debut novel, What We Never Had, was published this month by Rare Bird Books. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of San Francisco and is a contributor to Unbroken Journal, The Good Man Project and Curly Red Stories. Zach lives in Oakland with his wife, stepdaughter and infant son.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

For a long time, I led with teacher. I used to be a classroom teacher, so for a period of time, it was the truth. But it really hasn’t been true since 2007, when I moved from LA to SF to get my MFA at USF. But, even after grad school, when writing became one of the things I was paid to do, I still led with tutor or workshop facilitator. I’d tell them I worked with incarcerated youth—which I’ve been doing for four years now and am more proud of than any other work I’ve ever done. But now I tell them I’m a writer. I have to. As hard as it is to do—because, to me, saying I’m a writer implies a level of self-satisfaction that I’m just not comfortable conveying—I’ve got to do it. Because the less I say it, the less I believe it. And thinking, or even suspecting, that I’m a fraud can be very detrimental to my output. So, yeah. Now I tell people that I’m a writer. And, if they’re still listening, I say I also work with incarcerated youth and that I’m a writing coach for elementary, middle and high-school students.

What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?

Hmm. I think I might have answered this above. Confidence. Believing that I belong. Anxiety. Anxiety is a beast. A highly adaptable beast. I can be dealing with some new symptom—a stomach ache, the chills, fatigue—for months before it occurs to me, shit, this is the beast. Why didn’t I recognize it immediately? The worst part about it is the compulsive monitoring it can provoke. Makes it hard to clear my mind for new characters and stories to take shape.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

I would say, really? All of it? Together? Because the work and the writing and the parenting doesn’t leave much room for sleep. But, in general, I think the key to satisfaction in work is to find that person who’s doing exactly what you want to do and emulate them. And if it’s just the writing they want to do, I’d say, read. A lot. And write everyday, but make sure you’re writing for yourself. Fuck markets. If what you write is good enough to publish, worry about the market later. Right now, you need to work on something that excites you.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

Yes. Very much so. I love my family. I love my work. The fact that sometimes there’s too much work and not enough time for family is something I’m struggling with, but, as long as we live in the Bay Area, probably not something I’m likely to remedy. But I’m happy. And someone liked my novel enough to publish it. That feels like success. Precarious and fleeting perhaps, but success nonetheless.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

Some combination of Richard Pryor stand-up, Andy Kaufman clips and Larry Bird highlights. My wife likes videos of babies laughing and inter-species friendships. I’ll admit that five minutes of those can be pretty restorative.

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

A few years ago my uncle got really into tracing ancestry and he discovered that my dad’s family roots could be traced back to Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, also known as the Vilna Gaon, a famed rabbinical scholar from Lithuania. The day after my uncle told my dad, my dad went out to lunch with his best friend. With no small amount of pride, my dad announced that he was a descendant of the Vilna Gaon, one of the most renowned Jewish thinkers of the 18th century. My dad’s friend put down his soup spoon, smiled and said that he was related to him too. Turns out it’s challenging to find an Ashkenazi Jew who doesn’t manage to trace their lineage back to the Vilna Gaon.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

Larry Bird, Muhammad Ali and Bobby Kennedy were my dad’s Mount Rushmore. I admired them all, but imagined myself being an NBA player like Larry Bird because I loved basketball more than anything in life and because I was too quiet to be a Kennedy or an Ali. In writing this, it’s pretty clear that, while I might have wanted to be an NBA star, the person I admired most was my dad.

Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.

The most idyllic time I’ve ever spent in the wilderness was Glacier National Park in Montana. Would love to replicate it—going for long day hikes, relaxing with a beer and a book on the patio at the Many Glacier Hotel, grabbing an after-dinner slice of huckleberry pie at the Park Café.

Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.

It’s all in the hips. I’m not much of a dancer but I’ve found that if you can feel the beat, and you can move your hips to that beat, you can fake your way through a halfway decent strip tease.

How much money do you have in your checking account?

I’m not telling you that. Let’s just say that I’m thrifty and I don’t live paycheck to paycheck.

What’s wrong with society today?

Wow. Capitalism? White supremacy? Militarized police forces? Drone warfare? The erosion of our civil liberties? Big Oil? Big Agriculture? The War on Terror? How about we start with what’s right with society today. Seems like that’s a shorter list. I’d say the fact that people are, at the moment, looking like they’re ready to make some real sacrifices in order to make things less wrong. That’s what’s right.

Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?

A little Xanax here and there to put out the fires. But swimming at the Y and indulging in a delicious IPA or a glass of bourbon usually suffices. Not everyday. Some days it’s just coffee and herbal tea. And, this might sound corny, but I should list my son Dashiell. He’s four months old and his smile is way better than bourbon.

What is your fondest memory?

It’s a tie. When I was a kid, my family used to rent a house in Cape Cod with my uncle’s family—they had kids approximately our age. Fried clams and games of pickle on the beach by day. Barbecues, ice cream and baseball-card trading through a seemingly endless dusk. I hope I can give memories like those to my kids. Tied with the Cape is the honeymoon my wife and I took to Catalan country and Barcelona last summer. My stepdaughter’s fingers and toes are crossed in the hope that a big Hollywood studio will option my book and I’ll be able to take the whole family back there sometime soon.

How many times do you fall in love each day?

I’m a romantic, and, before I met my wife, I definitely fell in love with plenty of beautiful strangers, but it was more like once every few months. I still remember some of those girls—not because I’d still like to meet them, but because the love was so deep and so true—even though all I ever did was watch them throw around a Frisbee at my freshman-year orientation or read the nutritional facts on a box of Grape Nuts in the cereal aisle at Safeway.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

The abolition of all prisons. A free Palestine. Everything on the new Movement for Black Lives platform. Fifteen years ago, I would have added a Red Sox World Series title to this list, but that lovable band of idiots reversed the curse in ’04 so… screw it. Let’s win one more for the old man. Go Sox.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

Art is connection. And yes. We need it desperately. In a world in which empathy is under a digital siege, and propaganda is sharpening our fears into murderous hatred, we desperately need art so we might connect our experiences to other people’s experiences, and in so doing recognize our shared humanity.

When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?

Have an orgasm? Make sure she has one too? Enjoy it for about 15-20 minutes, sleep for about 15-20 minutes and then get on with my day.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on an essay about dismantling white supremacy, and the specific lessons I’ll be teaching my son so he might contribute to its dismantlement.

What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?

I most admire writing that is narrative and poetic. I read for style. I like reading beautiful ideas expressed beautifully. I like authors who show me something familiar in a brand new way.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

Well, gentrification is the easy answer. I’ll go with a symptom of gentrification and hipster culture—lines. I’d change the compulsion to wait in 45-minute lines for a sandwich or a fucking ice cream cone. Lines draw hipsters like flies to shit. So I’d change that. Somehow. Fuck a line. But I can’t change lines, so let’s just say I’d like to preserve every lineless space.

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?

Back in the day it meant leaving home without knowing with a certainty where that night would take me or how it would end. Now it means a 75-minute dinner throughout which my wife and I look at pictures of our newborn son on our phones.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?

A couple years ago, as my wife, stepdaughter and I were walking down Grand Ave. a well-dressed man who was walking towards us abruptly stopped, took off his dress shoe, brought it to his ear and said, “Hello? What? I told you never to call me on this phone!” Then he casually put the shoe back on and walked past us. I looked closely to make certain he bore no resemblance to the late, great Andy Kaufman.

What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?

Well, one of my jobs now is grant writer. I’m asked to summarize my organization’s mission in 50 words once or twice a week. So, I can do that. As for the $50, I always thought it would be so cool to be a pool hustler and turn small sums of money into fat stacks of cash. But I suck at pool. Best I can do with $50 is get you a weeks’ worth of groceries at Trader Joe’s. Okay, maybe I could turn it into a couple hundred bucks at a Vegas sportsbook.

What are some of your favorite smells?

Coffee. Freshly-baked apple pie. Bacon. Campfires. Yosemite Valley after it rains. My infant son’s breath. I don’t smoke anymore, but a freshly lit cigarette still smells like heaven.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

Can it be annual? I’d like to live, as professional writers, with my wife in a brownstone in Greenwich Village in New York City for six months out of the year. From April through September. Walk down the street in the morning to get coffee and the paper. That’s the life experience I’d most want.

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