Summer Fiction Supplement
An Interview and Excerpt from Jeff Vande Zande
By Gina Myers
Midland-resident and Delta College professor Jeff Vande Zande is the author of two novels, a collection of short stories, and a selection of poems. In early 2009, Bottom Dog Press published his second novel, Landscape with Fragmented Figures. Set mostly in Mid-Michigan, the novel is centered on the story of Ray, an art teacher, and his dysfunctional relationships with his girlfriend Diane and his brother Sammy. Vande Zande took the time to discuss his latest book and his current projects via e-mail. To find out more information about Vande Zande and his books, visit his website at http://jeffvandezande.com.
Review: One of the major concerns in your novel seems to revolve around the issue of artists at work--not at work creating their art, but at work teaching, working in a grocery store, or waiting tables. In particular, the protagonist Ray seems incapable of balancing teaching with painting. This seems to be addressing a larger issue--perhaps, that the arts are under-valued in our society. Is this what you were getting at?
Jeff Vande Zande: I guess anyone who seriously pursues an art of any kind is faced with the question, How am I going to pay the bills? More often than not, the art doesn't pay the bills. How we pay the bills can either get in the way of the art or feed the art. In Ray's case, I think his problem goes beyond just his job. In his desire to be cutting edge, to do something new, he lost himself as an artist. He doesn't know what he wants to be after with his paintings, and this makes everything else in his life--teaching, his relationship--seem like a burden.
Review: Like Ray, you are someone who pursues an art and teaches. However, unlike Ray, you seem to be able to balance the two. How much of Ray was based on your own personal experiences/frustrations?
Vande Zande: Ray and I are pretty different, I think. But, I've been through dark times where I doubted whether or not I should even be writing. There were times when it felt like I would never be inspired to write again. I drew from those times to help create Ray's conflict. For a writer, a painter, a sculptor . . . I think the worst think is to be "not working" on one's work. I don't know about other writers, but I know that if I haven't written anything for a few weeks, I get cranky. If it's been too long, I get depressed. For me, I have no problem balancing teaching and writing because I have to write. I have to make that time. It's a part of me. Period. But, I do allow my teaching to fuel my writing, too. I like working with students. I like getting them to appreciate fiction. And, I like being taught by them sometimes, too. The classroom can be a place of discovery for both the students and the teacher.
Review: What advice regarding this challenge of balancing working life and artistic pursuit do you give your students who wish to pursue writing?
Vande Zande: Sounds cliché, but write every day. When I'm working on something, I pretty much write every night from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. As I'm getting older, that's getting harder, but it's served me well. When I hear people tell me, "I'm going to write a book when I get time", I always think, "No you're not." If the writing were important, the person would be working on it, not dreaming of day when there will be more time. There's never more time. There's always something. If not snow blowing, lawn mowing. A writer simply has to put in the seat time. It's not really debatable. It's either that, or don't write.
Review: On the other side of the spectrum from Ray, who is educated, employed, and unhappy, we have his brother Sammy, who is uneducated, unemployed, and unhappy. There is a lot of tension between the two brothers, and Ray seems largely unsympathetic towards Sammy's situation. Can you tell me a little about Sammy's character and what he represents?
Vande Zande: Sammy is Sammy. But, in a way, he's the archetype of the factory worker--though I'm not suggesting that all factory workers are as messed up as Sammy. Truly, Sammy is the archetype of the abandoned factory worker...the worker who asks, what happened to my job, my security, my life? Post-industrial America is in transition and some, like Sammy, are having trouble making the transition.
Review: This novel is set in Mid-Michigan and a lot of the places in it seem to be fictionalized versions of real places here--Dow University for SVSU, Tri-City Community College for Delta, and the Seagull Bar for I'm not sure which bar in Bay City, just to name a few. It sounds kind of like a fun game--to fictionalize the city you live in. Can you tell me a little about this process?
Vande Zande: It was just random. The Seagull Bar seems perfect for downtown Bay City. The other choices....I guess I didn't want to write Saginaw Valley State University a bunch of times. I like the sound of Tri-County Community College, too. Some things I didn't fictionalize, though. Like, Fisherville. It's write there on the map near Auburn. What a perfect place for Claude Kleminger to live...the novel's wounded Fisher King. Really, that I intended ...for Kleminger to be a Fisher King. Did you know that the Fisher King had an ancient-looking dog? Well, so does Claude Kleminger.
Review: With the novel based in Michigan and Ohio, the problems that the characters face resonate with these areas. Do you think the troubles Ray and particularly Sammy face appeal to a wider national and international audience?
Vande Zande: I would think so. I know not all areas are nearly as affected by the auto industry as the Midwest, but each area tends to have its own local industry . . . and they feel the effects when that industry is threatened or floundering or dying. Plus, with our present economy, I think many could sympathize with what Sammy is experiencing.
Review: You are currently editing an anthology of work-related short stories. Can you tell me a little about that project? Why is this theme so important to you?
Vande Zande: Yes, the anthology is called On the Clock, and it's going to be published by Bottom Dog Press in the Fall of 2010. We are hoping to collect stories that show characters affected by and dealing with a post-industrial America.
I think work has such a huge impact on our lives. Of course, wages and benefits are significant, but consider the spiritual and mental aspects of a job. What you do, you do for 40 to 50 hours a week. You give your best waking hours to it. And, what if you hate it? What if it means nothing to you? How terrible. And yet, we need that paycheck. For many of us, we don't have a job . . . the job has us. Work and money are an incredible source of conflict in most people's lives, and fiction is all about conflict.)
Review: What else are you currently at work on? What can we look forward to in the future?
Vande Zande: Well, this fall I have a collection coming out from Whistling Shade Press called Threatened Species and Other Stories. The bulk of the book is the novella, Threatened Species. Its setting is mainly Michigan, and it deals with a father who has two weeks to spend with his son before the son, the ex-wife, and the new husband move to France. During the two weeks, the father decides that he is going to kidnap his son.
As far as writing, I am taking an Advanced Screenwriting course online. In the course, I'm fine tuning a completed screenplay while also starting a new one. The new screenplay is called American Poet, and it's set in Saginaw. The main character goes on a mission to save the Theodore Roethke House from possible demolition.
Stoop shouldered, Sammy stood before their father’s open grave. His baggy, bloodshot eyes made him look tired, and his belly nearly untucked his white shirt from his pants. He needed a haircut. Punched out and missing a button, his sports coat really belonged on a Salvation Army rack. Ray remembered it as the same coat Sammy had worn to their mother’s funeral ten years ago. Breast cancer.
Sammy had told the priest that he wanted to say a few words. Only a handful of people had come, but Sammy immediately beaded with sweat when he stood up and faced them. He dragged his mammoth palm across his forehead, looked at it, and smiled absently. Stammering at first, he started a sentiment about his father being a great man, and then stopped and stared out at the small gathering. Given the belts he’d taken from his flask, it didn’t surprise Ray that his brother couldn’t put together a eulogy. He guessed that Sammy hadn’t given any thought ahead of time to what he might say. He had always been such a train wreck.
Hands deep in his pockets, Sammy leaned from foot to foot. “I don’t . . . I wanted to say something . . . something nice. Somebody should say something nice, but not me. I’m not very . . .” He searched the faces and soon locked his moist eyes on Ray.
No, Ray thought. An uncomfortable warmth tingled just under his skin.
“Ray Ray, you should do this.” Sammy pointed, smiling. “You’re the professor. You should say something about dad.”
Ray felt everyone suddenly studying him. He took a deep breath, nodded once and rose. Sammy stepped forward, hugged Ray, and then collapsed into the seat Ray had just emptied. Ray’s shoulder was wet with his brother’s tears. He stopped near the casket and set his hand on it. Bronze. His father had gotten a deal on a pre-pay package. “One of us is going to go out of this world in style,” he’d said, after burying his wife in the cheapest steel casket they had. It had bothered him that he couldn’t afford something better for her.
Ray didn’t know what to say about his father, at least not anything good. He and the man had been so different. And, he hadn’t seen his father in years. He walked over to the spot where his brother had stood and looked into the fresh hole. Gathered in their folding chairs, the attendants had the detached look of people in Hopper paintings. He looked at Sammy and into his teary eyes. His cheeks shined wetly. Sammy snorted in a breath of air and nodded encouragement at Ray. Ray was puzzled by his brother’s sadness. How could anyone have felt so close to a man like their father?
Ray had driven down to Ohio the day before. He’d given himself time to take the Lodge Freeway so he could stop by the Detroit Institute of Arts for a few hours, mainly to see the Diego Rivera murals. It was a route he knew well. In the past, he’d made a point of taking his painting students down for field trips. It’d been at least five years since he’d arranged such a trip, but he still knew the way. Just past Oak Park, Detroit’s skyline began to make an appearance on the horizon. He looked around, hoping that the city had started some kind of recovery since his last visit. It was always so depressing. Burned-out houses, smashed windows, graffiti – an entire city slowly rusting away. Even some of the tallest buildings were gloomy with abandonment. When the exit for the arts institute had finally come up, he drove past it. The city and its lingering death had sucked his enthusiasm away. He didn’t want to see Rivera’s murals. They were archaic given what the city had become. Detroit Industry. Where? Or maybe he was just jealous of Rivera. The man had known the messages he wanted his art to express. He’d never faltered. Ray wasn’t up to being face to face with what that meant.
Instead, he drove and his thoughts turned to Diane. He missed her and ached with the missing. Why couldn’t she have just stayed? He had to fight the impulse to call her and tell her about his father. It would be plotting for a sympathy visit. No, he wasn’t that pathetic. Not yet.
His thoughts then stayed with his father. Doubting his eighteen-year-old son’s chances as an artist, the old man had helped him get a position in a Cincinnati tire manufacturing company. “Paint at night if that’s what ya gotta do, but you’re going to earn money,” his father said. By the third day, Ray knew that the hot work wasn’t for him. He told the foreman as much.
That night his father gave him a stinging backhand across the face. “You fucking think jobs grow on trees?” he shouted. It was the only time his father had struck him. It was enough. Ray moved out, found work as a cook, and eventually saved enough to take some college classes. Student loans followed – loans he was only able to finally pay off within the last five years. Before Ray left for Europe that first time, his father called him. “So, you made something out of yourself, eh? I’m happy for you. You just gotta understand the way I saw it. You were looking like you had your head up your ass. That was a good job you quit. I had to pull strings to get you in there.”
Ray told himself he forgave the man, but seldom returned home in the following years. He kept contact only through infrequent phone calls. He remembered a message his father had left on his answering machine. “Okay, you’re mad at me. Maybe forever. But, it’s your mother that’s suffering. You’re cutting her out, too.”
Ray cleared his throat. The people in their seats, none of whom he recognized, watched him expectantly. Their smiles seemed to try to encourage him.
“My father,” he began, “was a hard-working man. He believed in work. He tried to instill the idea of hard work into his sons.” He pointed at Sammy. “My brother has worked hard all of his life.”
A few of the older men raised their eyebrows. They looked at each other.
Ray guessed what they were thinking. They were probably friends of his father’s. If they were, they knew something about hard work because all of his father’s friends were the same. They taxed their hands into arthritis, watched baseball, and didn’t give a great deal of thought to the morality of the death penalty. What did they think of Hank’s artist son of whom they’d probably heard stories? Hadn’t he once done a painting of his own penis? Wasn’t that his idea of a self portrait? And hadn’t some professor at the University of Cincinnati given him an A on the painting, calling it the most honest piece he’d seen in a long time? “Probably a penis-loving faggot,” Ray could imagine his father saying.
“That idea of hard work was passed on to me, too,” Ray continued. His forehead went warm and moist. “Except I apply it to my paintings. I work hard on my art.” He motioned toward the casket. “I owe the man something for my work ethic.”
Ray felt relieved when the old men in front of him nodded. He tried to remember what else people said at funerals. Then it came to him. They told stories – heart-warming stories of the deceased’s kindness or idiosyncrasies. Were there any such stories about his father? Sammy could probably tell them. Why the hell wasn’t he up here? Ray glanced at his brother. Sweat still dripped down the side of his bloated face. Pale, he looked like he might have his own heart attack soon. His eyes were far away, blurred. His hand played with his shirt pocket where a pack of cigarettes made a rectangle in the thin material.
Something came to Ray. It felt right. “Sammy,” he said, “do you remember the moon landing?”
Sammy blinked and his eyes came into focus. A smile lifted his face and he nodded.
“My father,” Ray said, “wanted us to see the moon landing. He wanted us to see the astronauts. I think he really thought we might be able to. He spent money that he probably didn’t have on a telescope.” He told them how their father said that they wouldn’t be able to see anything from the city. Too many lights. “He drove us north, past Dayton, and then got off the highway and into miles and miles of farm country. Do you remember, Sammy? The horizon looked so far away.” Their father told them that that’s how it had looked to the settlers. “‘Can you imagine,’ our dad said. ‘that much land. They must have felt like their futures could hold anything.’” He told his boys that theirs was a generous country – a country with space. “Then he took us to a field and fed us cold hotdogs without buns, and waited for the sky to go black. I can still see that sky, bigger than anything I’d ever seen. It was so dark, and yet I wasn’t afraid at all with my father nearby. We took turns looking through the telescope, trying to see Armstrong and Aldrin walking around. The way our father talked, we really believed we might see them. I can still see that moon. I can feel the telescope pressed to my eye.” Ray closed his left eye, tilted his head down. “Dad said that the moon looked like a black and white picture of a rotting orange.” A few people laughed. His father had been disappointed that they hadn’t seen the astronauts. “We stayed so late, he had to call into work the next day,” Ray explained.
He wasn’t sure why the memory had stayed so strong with him. Was it the first time – maybe the only time – his father had been so giving, so adventurous? He could have just watched on television or listened to the radio like so many others. Sammy had fallen asleep on the ride back to Cincinnati. What had his father said? “I wish I were up there, Ray Ray. Man, what those bastards are seeing. I didn’t do enough to give myself a big life. You get one life and you should try to live it big.”
Ray looked out at his audience. They were waiting. He hadn’t said anything since he’d told them about his father calling in to work. Even Sammy looked impatient, as though many other better stories to tell had come to him.
“My father wasn’t a perfect man,” Ray said, trying to finish. “Are any of us? But he gave to his sons when he could, and now he’s gone from the world, and we should remember him.” After a pause, he spotted an empty seat in the second row and made for it without looking at anybody.
Nobody spoke. Ray stared at his hands, the half moons in his thumbnails. A heat started at the back of his neck. Then there was a sound. A click. He looked up. His brother had lit a cigarette, and the priest stepped forward. He thanked Ray for speaking and sharing such a wonderful story.
Sammy sobbed openly when the casket sank into the ground. He and Ray were asked to step forward and throw a shovelful of dirt. Afterwards, Sammy nearly collapsed onto Ray and shook with his sadness. Ray could feel that if he let go, his brother would fall.