Interviews > Published on April 4th, 2012

5 Questions With LitReactor's Latest Instructor, Vanessa Veselka; 'Leading With Voice' Starts Monday

In an interview with Literary Kicks, Vanessa Veselka discussed her debut novel Zazen, and this is how the interviewer described the book:

[Zazen is] a hilarious satire on hipster counterculture, a touching family drama, a dystopian nightmare, a meditation upon Buddhism and geology, and a suspenseful story about urban terrorism. It's got fortune cookies, a head-of-John-the-Baptist pinata, countless conversations about veganism, and a surprisingly well-organized orgy. What IS this book?

I'm only ten chapters in, but so far, I can tell you what Zazen is to me--the kind of book that makes me jealous, for fear I may never write this well (though that fear is quickly overtaken by the desperate need to sit down and write).

So, it's incredibly exciting that Veselka has joined the roster of instructors at LitReactor University. Her class, Leading With Voice, will explore the difference between your voice as the author, and the voice of your narrator. The goal: Produce at least one 1,500-2,500 word passage of first-person narration that is strong and intentional. But more than that, this class will give you the tools to write the kind of narrative that reaches off the page and grabs the reader by the throat. 

The class starts on Monday, and to introduce you to Veselka, I posed a few questions to her:

Rob Hart: What attracts you to the first-person narrative?

Vanessa Veselka: I love the speed and the edge. It reminds me of what lit did to me when I first started reading. From Dostoyevsky to Melville, Celine—to all the modern classics of identity and manhood like Happy Baby, Fight Club or things like that. It drives. You hear the voice of the narrator and inside that, you hear your own. It’s a drug. What it lacks in sweeping majesty it makes up for in intensity. I like intensity.

RH: Your class is about the writer getting out of the way of the character. During the process of writing Zazen, did you find yourself getting in the way of your narrator, Della?

VV: I think Della got in the way of me. I heard her voice in my head for four years. It was a little overwhelming. When I finished Zazen it took some time to pull away from her voice. I didn’t know what was hers, meaning it belonged in Zazen and not in other books, and what was mine to keep. I have a pretty good sense of that now, but she was a bit of a bully.

RH: Do you ever worry about revealing too much of yourself? And in that vein, do you ever feel any trepidation, when someone you know reads your work?

In my work I swim toward discomfort. I think most writers do because there’s energy there.

VV: Yes. And… yes. In my work I swim toward discomfort. I think most writers do because there’s energy there. I want to find places where I am intensely ambivalent and that is a naked prospect.

On the other hand, I have maybe a prudish sense of public decorum. I don’t blog about intimate details. I don’t write essays about things I consider to be supremely private. While there are amazing people who can write essays like that, Lidia Yuknavitch for one, my guess is that they have found a language, which leaves them some kind of privacy in the midst of all that they are revealing, AND that there is a point to revealing it, for instance it is a territory we are taught to be silent about. That’s potent.

And as for being nervous about someone I know reading my work and seeing into me… My boyfriend recently said he was astounded that I could comfortably ask for all kinds of sex books at the bookstore or library but would make him go buy a tarot deck for me and stash it in a paper bag. My point is, what embarrasses us is not so obvious. What a person reading Zazen might think about me personally is probably totally different than the shape of my fears.

RH: Which authors, contemporary or classic, do you believe are exceedingly adept at writing compelling first-person narratives?

VV: I mentioned some of my favorites above, but also The Lover by Marguerite Duras and Heart of a Dog by [Mikhail] Bulgakov—there really are so many. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson is another great one.

RH: Can you tell us a little about your ideal writing environment?

VV: It has a big desk by a window. There’s coffee and daylight and I’m alone.

Click here to learn more about the class. 

About the author

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor. His latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, will be released on Feb. 22 by Ballantine. He also wrote The Warehouse, which sold in more than 20 languages and was optioned for film by Ron Howard. Other titles include the Ash McKenna crime series, the short story collection Take-Out, and Scott Free with James Patterson. Find more at

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