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Bad Artist Statement #6: Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle
Zarah and I talk about writing as a little peepshow, being sad and bleak, autofiction, and alt-lit.
Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle is a writer based in Auckland, New Zealand. She’s the author of Autobiography of a Marguerite (2014) and the recently released Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life (2021). Her writing has appeared in The Nervous Breakdown, The Fanzine, X-R-A-Y and Best NZ Poems. Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life was one of the best things I read all of last year. I think the book’s a flash of lightning. It leaves the smell of ozone in its wake.
Zarah and I spoke over Instagram messenger about writing as a little peepshow, being sad and bleak, autofiction, and alt-lit.
Paul Dalla Rosa: Hey, are you good for now?
Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle: Yes! I'm just making a raw cacao hot chocolate with collagen powder lol and then I'm ready. Ok ready! I'm feeling spacey and insane as usual lol, so hopefully I will be able to say something articulate.
PDR: I'm sure you'll be great. I'm excited about this conversation. I told my partner that I was going to interview you because I thought you were cool and an interview was an excuse to hang out, and he's like, 'Paul, that's really sad.'
ZBM: Lmao I don't think it's sad. I have no friends. I don't know how to hang out with people or talk to them, it seems reasonable to have an interview as a way of doing both lol.
PDR: I think it's a good way to go. What have you done today? You had class?
ZBM: Yeh, I'm doing a one-year course at polytec for mental health support work. But it's been... Not the best... Hectic staff and students. A guy in zoom class today was like aren't you guys going to ask me about the elephants in my profile picture and began to explain he had pet elephants in Sri Lanka.
ZBM: What have you done today?
PDR: I spent the morning editing then had this embarrassing thing happen. I was taking a break and rapping a Kanye West song. My study looks out onto the street, and I didn't realise someone was standing outside my window watching and listening to me. Then when I turned and saw them, they laughed.
ZBM: Lmaoooo. I'm grinning.
PDR: But it was fine. I really love Kanye.
ZBM: lol I've never listened to Kanye.
PDR: I won't try and convince you.
ZBM: I try and avoid things that are popular. Aquarius moon.
PDR: He's popular but that's fine. I sometimes have these moments with art that feel ecstatic or have like rushes of joy, and I feel that listening to Kanye. And I felt that, admittedly in a slightly different way, reading Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life.
ZBM: I'm glad! That is cool/flattering ❤
PDR: We can start the 'interview' interview. I have a note here that just reads 'The Autofiction Question' but I don't know what I was referring to. We can skip that one.
ZBM: Haha. I think autofiction is probably an accurate descriptor. I was reading through some of your short stories today and thinking, 'oh Paul is intimidating, he's like a real fiction writer.' I don't feel like I'm a fiction writer even though my book says fiction on the cover.
PDR: I think you're a 'real' fiction writer though I don't really know what that means.
ZBM: I think I like the word prose rather than fiction.
PDR: That makes sense. Your work reminds me of Sarah Manguso or sometimes Lydia Davis in that the work really is about the prose, like language poems almost. Prose poems.
ZBM: My 'training' lol is in poetry and I've written prose poems a lot. The stuff in Nostalgia is more on the prose side of prose poetry but felt like poems while I was writing it.
PDR: Yeah, I was thinking about that a lot reading it. What I like about prose poems is the elevation of style. I think your style makes me most excited when I read you. You're so concise and controlled. Your writing reminds me of cutting a gem, like one sentence will travel in one direction, then you'll cut it and the sentence, the facet, moves somewhere else. It's almost like those science experiments you'd do in high school where you'd have a lightbox and then put a lens or mirror in front of the beam so it refracts. It has extreme precision.
ZBM: I think that jumping and parataxis I got from language poetry originally, like Lyn Hejinian. Because before I read her and other language writers /New Narrative writers, I was writing lyric poems where you have to stick to one subject mostly.
PDR: Who were the other New Narrative writers you were reading?
ZBM: Not recently but I liked Mary Burger, Renee Gladman. Amina Cain isn't really New Narrative but she's like not your traditional fiction writer either. She's been important to me. Allison Carter too. I think I see things as like little performances or something. So they operate as poems but also little prose things, like an intimate square to just look into—a peep show.
PDR: They have that quality that seems written for performance or reading aloud.
ZBM: Yeah I think they became more that way, more anecdotal and for reading aloud. In Melbourne, I had a friend who ran little house shows for poetry and comedy, and I'd often get invited to read. That probably did have some influence on what I wrote, maybe. I think it did.
PDR: Yeah, I remember you mentioning those parties at your launch, and I was like, how are these happening in Melbourne? Why aren't I going to them? Then I remembered that I rarely go to writer things.
ZBM: Yeah, I think they weren't really advertised, it was just a word of mouth, casual thing at someone's home, but they were good. Writer events can be... Annoying.
PDR: Well, it's like everyone's performing which can be boring.
ZBM: Yeah, for sure. I can't stand that. I'm not interested in networking and sucking up to people.
PDR: I remember being in Brooklyn and being at this party drinking Mang-O-Ritas in a bedroom, lying on the bed where all the coats were, and this person came in and awkwardly got a coat, and my friend was like 'Oh my god, do you know who that was? They're on the National Book Critics Circle' or something like that.
PDR: And I just feel like, I don't know, going to an editor's party or whatever isn't going to make you a better writer or be discovered. I'd rather just go to a club. These events always seem so loaded, but it's cool if, as you said, there was an actual performance-performance element that made your work stronger.
ZBM: Yeah, I don't really like going to events just because it's like cool, etc. or networking.
PDR: Yeah. Back on Nostalgia. I think parataxis makes a lot of sense with what you're doing. You often have these moments that are composed of non sequiturs. Like something like: "My sister has fallen in love with a $64 fish. I'm really depressed, maybe I should have a baby." That juxtaposition.
ZBM: Parataxis, yes. I feel like people will make connections between juxtapositions or, I mean, there are connections but sitting right next to each other, they give each other something more than if they were there alone.
PDR: Yeah. I find those leaps between them is where a lot of the humour comes from.
PDR: And there is an emotional connection between them. It's not random.
ZBM: Yeah it's not random, there has to be some similar texture or mood or they add up to something. Juxtaposition in some language poetry often can feel random and I think people hate experimental work often because it seems like random bits of shit thrown together. And the reader has to do all the work.
PDR: That's where the vignettes, which I don't know if that's the right description of what you're doing, really have been constructed carefully and deliberately.
ZBM: Yeah, I often use the word vignettes to describe them. I see them as little scenes. I don't know how to do plot, I just see little scenes in my mind with a certain mood. I think with the humour it's the leap between them. I think that's how life is (lol) like things are both bleak and funny at the same time.
PDR: Yeah, I agree with that. Sometimes I have readers who will be like 'oh your characters are so sad and bleak' and I don't see it like that. I think everyone's life can be sad and bleak. People are just good at blocking awareness of it. I don't actually find the narrator sad and bleak in Nostalgia. I just think they're honest.
ZBM: Yeah exactly. Like do people expect things to be nice and happy all the time? They also aren't sad for no reason/it's not even really the point. I feel like your characters are just living their life. There's no judgment on them for being however they are. And everyone's life can be sad or bleak. Anything can be interpreted that way. Eating a pizza can be bleak as hell or it can be a happy experience....
PDR: It can be a peak experience. Maybe it's because my life was extremely similar to Nostalgia at a certain time, but it doesn't read as sad to me either. It reads as living.
ZBM: I remember talking to this guy on a date about my life and he told me my life was bleak. And I was thinking like excuse me! Fuck him Lmao.
PDR: There's this really funny moment in Leonard Michaels' diaries, Time Out of Mind. I don't know if you know him but he's really good.
ZBM: Oh I don't know him.
PDR: Oh, he's this incredible American writer. I think you'd like him. Anyway, he has this entry where he runs into a friend at a bookstore, and the friend says, I'm paraphrasing, 'I read one of your stories and the characters are so grotesque.' And Michaels writes how he's surprised and thinks his characters aren't grotesque at all. They're just the people he knows. I love that.
ZBM: Yeah it's just realistic to how things are. I think people only find it sad because they realise they don't want to live like that or something. Or they are worried they also might be unemployed. Or sick. Or fucked up.
PDR: There can be fear. I think there's a fear of that.
PDR: How do you feel being identified as a chronically ill writer? I sometimes have a resistance to being called a gay writer. Like I am one and it doesn’t offend me. I understand why it happens and why it can be helpful, historically, contextually, but I think sometimes it's used as a diminutive. You can be collapsed or treated in a certain way. There are certain assumptions. It's like, well I'm writing about that but actually I'm writing about a lot of things.
ZBM: Hmm yeah. Yeah and those things are in your experience but that's just by chance. Yeah I agree. I don't want to be categorised because it feels limiting even though I do write about chronic illness etc, or whatever.
PDR: It's complicated. And I know sometimes it's a marketing thing. Like saying this person is a "needed" voice, and it's like, I don't know, what exactly does that mean. How do you feel about that and your work?
ZBM: Yeah, at the launch I was asked about being political or something. I did have a message from someone the other day, which was like, 'this really resonated with me as someone who's been unemployed a lot and chronically ill.' And I liked that it spoke to their experience. But yeah I also don't want to be like... the poster child for those themes too lol.
I often feel averse to the idea of political work because I imagine work that hits you over the head with its themes and it's often like spoken word or some shit. I don't want to do work like that. But being political isn't avoidable in a way, maybe, because being non-political is still a response.
When I was writing Nostalgia I was trying to communicate a message about illness and capitalism, those things arose naturally because of just trying to write about how life is, and then it became intentional. Depression is political because we blame the individual often and say they just need to adapt or try harder, but I'm depressed because being financially stable is not an option for me, nor is maintaining mental or physical health without struggle. People treat depression like a personal failure but depression or bleakness is actually a normal response to impending doom and lack of resources and fucked society. Why are millennials so depressed? It's not because of social media lol, it's because we have no future. Working harder isn't going to cure your depression, nor make you wealthy anymore. My dad grew up poor and working class but through 'hard work' was able to become middle class and own property. That's not really possible these days unless you inherit wealth.
ZBM: I got advertised a reel on Instagram yesterday from a 27-year-old millionaire who was encouraging people to invest early and to have a side hustle on top of a 9-5 job. How does anyone have the energy for that? I'm so tired just writing an email and doing a few hours of work. It is insane that being a workaholic is so normal and expected of people to survive these days. Working full time is also not viable for many people with physical or mental illness/disabilities, so they can't win at capitalism, but they can't opt out either.
PDR: I get that. I agree. I find all of these things are in your book, the absurdity of it all. The book reflects that, but it forms naturally, like you said. I think something I see a lot is people talking about authors interchangeably with issues, which so often collapses the work because the work does something that's like relevant or salient at that moment. And I think that can be a disservice to the writer because it isn't fully engaging with them or engages with their work superficially in the service of something else, which is usually a reference to joining a vague and amorphous "conversation".
ZBM: Yeah and with the political theme or whatever, I think people these days expect writing to be about something and people use that to justify funding and shit, like you always have to fill in grant forms or when you're applying for a residency or something. You have to say what your work is about and so I feel like people are more focused on that. It's not enough to just say you're writing a story about something. It's not enough to be really vague anymore about what you're doing. You have to justify it. But I feel like the ideas should come after, not really before. It can ruin the writing.
PDR: I feel that completely. I've been working on a grant application this month, and I haven't applied for anything in years. I find the process kills the thing that I'm working on because I have to tie it to, I don't know, like buzz words. Tying it into all these things that the actual work will be about anyway, but maybe in a more subtle form. I actually can't write while I'm making an application. I have to take a break from it. So right now, I'm writing about the writing I will be doing, which ironically makes me unable to write.
ZBM: Yes, it's a nightmare. It kills writing to write about it beforehand. Like if you could write about it nicely without having to write the book then you wouldn't write it. Like if you can paraphrase the book and explain the themes neatly, why do it at all. But yeah, you box yourself in beforehand, even though it will probably end up being about those things.
PDR: I took a lot of writing advice from Giancarlo DiTrapano, who did Tyrant Books. He had this thing where he would say never talk about the book until you've written it because otherwise, you'll kill it. I know other people say that. But he'd say it and then if you tried to say anything about the book or a story or whatever, he just wouldn't listen. I'd say what to do you think about this, and he'd get indignant. He'd be like, 'Don't tell me, man. Don't tell me!'
ZBM: Yes it's true! I agree that it's good to just do it without speaking about it too much first.
PDR: I actually remember 'The Autofiction Question' now. How do you find the experience now of people reading the book, and do they confuse you with the narrator?
ZBM: People love to do this.
PDR: How do you react?
ZBM: My first book is called Autobiography of a Marguerite and my mum's name is Marguerite, so I felt like I sort of set myself up for being asked that question first time around because it is very autobiographical and it even has photos of me and my family in it, even though not all of it is true. Maybe 90% of it is based on real things. So I just don't really blame people and also, with Nostalgia there are large chunks of it that are things that have happened to me. People I've gone on dates with can recognise themselves even if there are things that I made up. So I don't feel annoyed when people think everything's me because, yeah, it's natural to think that.
PDR: How have people who recognise themselves responded?
ZBM: There were a few people I had to tell that they were in the book or they'd be able to see themselves in the book. Because when I'm writing I often write about events or scenarios that have stuck with me and have happened in real life, plus maybe I'll mix them with another scenario so people might be a composite character. My friend bought the book and then I had to tell him, well I didn't have to tell him, but I felt like I had written about him in a way that he would recognise himself, and I felt really awkward, and so I messaged him saying, hey there's a bit in the book that you might recognise yourself in. I told one guy that he was in the book as well because he said he was buying it.
It made him really nervous. It’s the guy in the couple from the book, and so I had to tell him, well I mean, I felt awkward not to tell him or warn him, and he was like, fuck, I'm really concerned about what you've written about me, and I was like it's not that bad. So he made me show the paragraph about him, and he was like, oh, things weren't really like that about the job, you didn't have to come over to my house for the job, and I was like, I know, it's exaggerated.
I also had someone reach out to me about a specific line and was like, omg did someone say that, and I was like, no, but then I felt like, oh shit I don't know. It's awkward to say which bits are true and which are made up.
PDR: Once it's in the book, it turns into the creative work. The work of art becomes separate.
ZBM: Yeah. I think I have just run into issues in the past with people. I had an ex message me out of the blue and we had been broken up for months. He messaged to say that he would appreciate it if I wouldn't write about him. And I was just like wtf. It was very odd to get a message out of the blue like that, that he was really paranoid that I would write about him.
ZBM: I found it very fascinating because I think he'd read my first book and was worried about things getting written about but, I don't know, him telling me that just made me want to. I talked to my sister and she was like you can't ever write about him ever, and I was like, well I already have and I don't want to take it out. I think it's fine. I really wanted to write about the fact he told me not to write about him, and my sister was like, you can't you just need to stay away, and I'm like, but it's so fascinating that he felt the need to contact me out of the blue.
PDR: That's funny. Like, I've already written about it and it's good, so I don't want to change it. I could see myself thinking that. I don't know what I would do.
ZBM: I've had to change a bit about my sister she didn't like. I really don't like having to do that ever.
PDR: I do believe there's a fundamental leap between reality and art. Especially when it’s a work of fiction. I also find that when people recognise themselves in my work, the thing they think is about them isn't about them at all.
ZBM: Oh yeah.
PDR: An aspect of them might be somewhere else in a different form. Like my partner thinks he's the boyfriend in one of my stories, but that's in an extremely superficial way. Like the character and him have been to Iceland. That's the resemblance. Parts of him are probably in that story but are actually somewhere else.
ZBM: Yeah people sort of see what they want to see. I was also going to say that yesterday someone I've been on a date with had read my book and he was like, 'I'm not in it.' He was disappointed, and I had to say, I'm sorry, I guess you weren't annoying or fucked up enough, but next time maybe. He was like, damn.
PDR: You can't win.
ZBM: I've run into trouble many times lol. Ages ago, writing about my cousins, my auntie read it and was mad. This was when I was 14. I haven't learnt.
PDR: You haven't haha. I wanted to ask about alt-lit. I remember at your launch, you mentioned it and I know we've messaged about it before. You mentioned Megan Boyle, Tao Lin, and Noah Cicero. And I'm interested in how you feel your book fits in with them.
ZBM: I guess a lot of fiction I feel irritated by is because it's trying really hard to be smart and literary. When I'm reading fiction, I often feel like I can see someone in their writing studio with a vase of flowers overlooking a nice suburban garden thinking to themselves, I'm writing a novel. I find it hard to read writing when I sense that, even if the writing is technically good. I get annoyed with a lot of nice descriptions and stuff too. I don't get annoyed when I read Tao Lin or Noah Cicero or Sam Pink. They don't feel like they're trying hard to sound literary or interesting and the way it's written also feels more real about how someone's life actually is. Megan and Sam Pink are very good at doing mundane, funny, bleak things, through attention to detail and just being neurotic. Shoplifting from American Apparel is my favourite Tao Lin book. Bed is more self-consciously literary with its long sentences and stuff, so I like it less.
But I guess in alt-lit, I'm interested in surface details and vignette style and less focus on plot, not going deep down into inner life of characters but still feeling very intimate. Every time I try to try to write more inner life of characters, it ends up sounding tacky and try hard.
I got asked to turn my book into more literary fiction by one publisher and to expand things and go deeper into the character but I thought it would kill it if I did. Megan and Noah and Sam feel honest, some would say bleak, but it doesn't feel like the narrator wants pity or anything from anyone. They just present things how someone is living their life.
PDR: I agree with you. That response to the publisher is the right one. Your book is in its final form. That's what it is.
I actually really like Bed because I like seeing how Tao does short fiction, which, working in the same form, interests me. I think 'Sasquatch' is one of the best short stories written in the past two decades. It's really incredible. It achieves a state of grace.
ZBM: Your stories remind me of Bed and Taipei, but in a good way, some of Bed annoys me lol, but yours don't annoy me.
PDR: Haha thank you. I'm glad I don't annoy you. I think there's an immediacy in alt-lit that I guess you were talking about before and is mirrored in Nostalgia. It portrays life somehow less mediated by attempting to sound or appear literary. MFA conventions, whatever. And actually, I don't think the writing, in the end, is less literary. Often, I think it's more literary because so much of alt-lit, or certain writers in that orbit anyway, I don't like all of them, is actually taking joy in language, cadence, and voice while updating it for contemporary life. Updating consciousness. That's more literary to me than a lot of what I see out today. I think that's something really clear in your work which is it's revitalised by voice. It doesn't really care about conceptions of what's fiction, poetry, or prose poetry.
ZBM: Yeah that's true. It's like the attitude prior to writing. I don't really care about genre that much. It's just writing and whatever the form is it's because it suits the work.
PDR: Completely. Okay, we've been talking for three hours. It's almost dark now. I feel like I might end out the interview on something you said at your launch, which is maybe cheating. It made me laugh. You said, "I hate the word fiction."
ZBM: It's true. I do hate that word.