Conversations in the Author's Corner: Zak Salih
About the Book (via Algonquin Books): It is 2015, weeks after the Supreme Court marriage equality ruling, and all Sebastian Mote wants is to settle down. A high school art history teacher, newly single and desperately lonely, he envies his queer students their freedom to live openly the youth he lost to fear and shame. When he runs into his childhood friend Oscar Burnham at a wedding in Washington, D.C., he can’t help but see it as a second chance. Now thirty-five, the men haven’t seen each other in more than a decade. But Oscar has no interest in their shared history, nor in the sense of belonging Sebastian craves. Instead, he’s outraged by what he sees as the death of gay culture: bars overrun with bachelorette parties, friends coupling off and having babies. For Oscar, conformity isn’t peace, it’s surrender. While Oscar and Sebastian struggle to find their place in a rapidly changing world, each is drawn into a cross-generational friendship that treads the line between envy and obsession: Sebastian with one of his students, Oscar with an older icon of the AIDS era. And as they collide again and again, both men must reckon not just with one another but with themselves.
Provocative, moving, and rich with sharply drawn characters, Let’s Get Back to the Party introduces an exciting and contemporary new talent.
About the Author: Zak Salih lives in Washington, D.C. His writing has appeared in Crazyhorse, Foglifter, Epiphany, the Chattahoochee Review, the Millions, the Rumpus, and other publications. This is his first novel.
Kiera Wolfe: Let’s Get Back to the Party is your first novel.
Zak Salih: Yes. It’s been out in the world for a few months and I feel the rush of debuting a book has settled. Now, I realize I actually have to sit down and write more -- the life of a writer (hopefully) doesn’t culminate in just one book. I’ve been very fortunate that the novel has been well received. I’ve received a lot of endearing messages from strangers. It sounds trite, but it’s true that those mean the world. I think when any reader responds to your work and feels compelled to tell you how much they enjoyed it, it’s a soul boost.
KW: How was the transition between the short fiction/nonfiction you’ve written previously and such a longform project?
ZS: For my personal journey, I spent so much time reviewing books because I was terrified of sitting down and writing my own novel, really of working on fiction. In the winter of 2017, I committed myself to writing a draft of this novel I had bouncing around in my head. In-between drafts I experimented with short fiction. These last three or four years have been about focusing on fiction -- seeing what works and what doesn’t, what I enjoy about short vs. novel-size projects.
KW: Is there anything you would do differently for your next novel?
ZS: Whatreally helped me as a writer was recognizing that if a first draft is not a piece of shit, you’re not doing it right. That part of writing is embracing the shit, and to disgustingly extend the metaphor, plow through it. First drafts are about getting everything down on the page, even if 90% of it is terrible. You need to give yourself the freedom to make a mess, to think of yourself as a kindergartener playing with finger paint. Creativity is messy. I think I really started to take myself seriously as a writer when I found more enjoyment in revising than writing a first draft.
KW: The novel is incredibly precise when it comes to time and place. We jump into Sebastian and Oscar’s lives shortly after the legalization of gay marriage, and close the novel in the wake of the Pulse shooting. How did the timeline of the book develop?
ZS: For me, the beating heart of this novel, as unapologetically gay as it is, is about how people cope and fail to cope with the passing of time. (There’s more drama, of course, in people who fail to cope.) So time was always important to the story. I knew I wanted to set it in this distinct year, between these two very public moments in gay and queer history. The Supreme Court ruling was a moment of public joy and celebration, followed almost exactly a year later by the Pulse nightclub shooting. A year bracketed by these high and low moments seemed an interesting lab in which to experiment with the way these two men are trying to come to terms with who they are and their place in the community. I’ve started to describe it not as a coming out novel, but a “coming into” novel. Let’s assume these characters have finished the “coming out” process (of course, we can argue it’s never finished). What happens after? How do they come into a community, and find their place in it?
KW: I’ve seen this novel labelled as a “coming of age” story, despite the characters being older than traditional for that genre. How do you think about “coming of age” in the context of queer narratives? Where that experience is often different in time and scale?
ZS: A lot of book marketing is not up to the writer, so I never thought of this as a “coming of age” novel. But it makes sense. In respect to this novel, we’re talking about a different kind of growth and development, not one necessarily related to age but to one’s sense of self and community. There’s a theme throughout the book of making a transition from boyhood to manhood. In my mind, while the characters are technically men, there are certain things holding them back from the maturity we expect from adults. In this case manhood is realizing you have a place in a lineage -- sometimes you’re the future, sometimes you’re the present, and sometimes you’re the past. It’s about making a transition from an “I” perspective on the world to a “we” perspective.
KW: At the core of the novel are cross-generational queer relationships. We can read the development of Sebastian and Oscar in their first person narration, but how did you find the voices for high-schooler Arthur and especially “AIDS-era icon” Sean? Sean’s letter towards the end of the novel was one of my favorite sections.
ZS: Trial and error, I think. That’s an area where having other readers and an editor helps, as I belong to neither of those generations. I operate as a writer under the assumption that there’s some kind of commonality I share with a 17-year-old high schooler or a man in his 60s, and I approach it from that perspective. While there aren’t necessarily shared experiences, there are shared emotions, shared attitudes. Searching for that was a good entryway into inhabiting those lives briefly, although we never inhabit them in the same way we do Oscar and Sebastian. In the beginning I had played with opening up the novel and inhabiting all four voices equally, but I really wanted this story to be about Oscar and Sebastian and how they perceive -- and fail to perceive -- the world. How the things we see in people aren’t really there, how the people who we idolize let us down not because they’ve done something wrong, but because they’re human.
KW: Another thing that is central to this text is visual art. I found myself reading next to my laptop, Googling paintings as they opened new sections. What is your experience with visual art and how does it inform your writing?
ZS: I’m no scholar of visual art. I didn’t even take AP Art History in high school. I bring nothing to it other than an appreciation. I can’t paint, sculpt, or draw, but I can look at a painting, sculpture, or drawing and get lost in it. That was my through line. Making Sebastian an art history teacher allowed me to insert these memories he has inspired by works of art he teaches to his students. It reflects something else I enjoy about appreciating and viewing art: it’s always a two-way street. You’re interpreting the artwork in front of you -- but artists can also spark memories or feelings that are personal in the viewer, that the artist has no awareness of. It’s these moments in Sebastian’s narrative where we hear his history as sparked by these works of art. I don’t think a whole novel built around memories sparked by specific works of art could have been sustainable, but those ekphrastic passages in Sebastian’s narrative were the most enjoyable parts to write.
KW: For our Author’s Corner project, we’re promoting authors who have published with small, indie presses. Can you talk us through your publication process and your experience with Algonquin Books?
ZS: Algonquin has been publishing some of the most amazing fiction over the last few years. It’s been an incredible privilege to work with them. My path to publication was fairly “traditional.”I spent six months trying to find an agent, revised the book, tried again, and finally connected with an amazing agent. She and I worked on the novel for a spell, she sent it out, Algonquin saw something in it, they bought it, and then I worked with my brilliant editor on several rounds of edits. Algonquin publishes a smaller list than some other publishers, but that means they put a lot more care into each of their books.
But whether you’re working with an indie publisher or one of the Big Five, the most important thing is collaborating with people who get what you’re trying to do. That’s certainly what I felt at Algonquin.
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About The Inner Loop: The Inner Loop is a literary reading series and network for creative writers in the Washington, D.C. metro area. We aim to create a space for both emerging and established writers to connect with their community, and to transform the written word into a shared experience through the act of reading aloud. This interview is part of our Author’s Corner campaign, promoting local authors publishing with indie presses. Visit theinnerlooplit.org/authorscorner for more.