Today I welcome poet, author and filmmaker Jeff Vande Zande. Jeff is the recipient of the 2013 Michigan Notable Book Award. Jeff, please tell us a little about yourself.
Well to begin, I was born in Marquette, MI in the Upper Peninsula. My interest in writing most likely grew from the fact that my father was also a writer. I distinctly remember that we had to be quiet on Saturday mornings so my father could write. I recall watching Saturday morning cartoons, which were sound-tracked by the muted clacking of my father at work on his type-writer. Up until about 20, I rebelled against the idea of also being a writer. Then, while at Northern Michigan University, I took a poetry writing course, and I was hooked. Poetry eventually lead to me writing fiction so, despite my rebellion, this apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.
After graduate school at Eastern Illinois University, where I earned an MA in English Literature, I came back to Michigan…but it was the Lower Peninsula this time. Like my father, I ended up in academia. After some various part-time teaching jobs, I ended up teaching full-time at Delta College where I have been for the last 13 years. I teach a wide variety of courses at Delta, including Fiction Writing, Advanced Creative Writing, and Screenwriting. I also coordinate Delta’s Advanced Certificate in Digital Film Production. Over the past few years, I’ve been writing short film scripts and producing them with director Jim Gleason.
A short film that we made last year was based on a chapter from my novel American Poet (a 2013 Michigan Notable Book Award recipient). In the film, a young man is trying to get a job at a bank, but his only education happens to be a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Poetry. You can see the film (about ten minutes long) here:
In my non-work life, I am a husband, father, and fly fisherman.
I loved this video, and the irony of you as the banker. As you mentioned, it is based on your writing. Talk about the books you’ve written. What were the first seeds of ideas for your books? How did they develop?
My most recent novella is entitled Parable of Weeds, and it is a different kind of book for me in several ways. To begin, Parable of Weeds is my first book to ever be published exclusively as an e-book. The publisher, Untreed Reads, is based in California, and I really enjoy working with them. They make the book available in every possible e-format, which includes having the book sent to one’s computer as a PDF file (so, you don’t have to have an e-reader to read it). I also like that they sell the book for the very reasonable price of $1.99. The e-format challenges me, however, because I don’t really know how to market the book as well as I do a print book. For print, I do readings and book signings and meet with book clubs. I can bring my books with me, and that’s how I make most of my sales. I haven’t figured out how to do that with an e-book. I’m trying, but I’m really out of my element with e-books. I’ve been trying to get the book reviewed, but I even run into some book review sites that won’t take e-books. On the other hand, I run into sites that want e-books to review exclusively. Weird.
Parable of Weeds is also different for me because it is a departure from my typical genre. Usually, I write literary fiction. Parable of Weeds is dystopian/futuristic/speculative. It is set in a not-too-distant future where one can have a screen embedded in their palm (like an I-phone screen) and, if one has enough money, one can live in an exclusive utopian neighborhood. The story follows Ian Baptiste, a widower and father. He has an awakening one night when he goes down to the wall that encloses his neighborhood and sees something through a crack that irreversibly changes his life.
I teach Raymond Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 every semester, so I suppose I’ve been influenced by that. I’m also a fan of 1984, Brave New World, and We (which was written by Russian Yevgeny Zamyatin and might be the first futuristic novel ever to be written). I had written two short stories that were set in the future, and I like the worlds that I had created. In Parable of Weeds, I combine elements of both of those worlds. I imagined it being a novel, but when I was finished it was only about 80 pages long, which may be a very good length for a speculative work.
You juggle many writing projects, plus your teaching career. How do you balance writing, marketing, promoting, bookkeeping, family and work?
From a publisher’s point-of-view, I probably don’t balance them well…meaning that I don’t spend enough time marketing my work. Honestly, I really don’t like marketing or promoting. Marketing and promoting are the two things that make writers very tiresome. Writers talk about themselves and their writing/books far too much. I understand why they have to do it, but I really don’t want to. I have tried marketing here and there, and it is time consuming and dreadful. If I took the hours that I spent marketing and instead worked at a McDonalds, I would have much more money to show for my effort.
Obviously that means bookkeeping is very easy. I just need to enter a $0 in the ledger each month for dollars earned from writing. Very easy to keep the books kept. Okay, it isn’t that bleak, but it certainly isn’t very good. Of course, someone could say, “well, just get on that horse and market yourself more.” But, I hate that horse. Its saddle is full of burs, and I got mites the last time I rode it.
If I ever get significant success from my writing, it won’t have happened from any marketing effort that I made.
The two things that come first are family and work. I can honestly say that my family has never challenged how much time I give to my writing. They really don’t have any complaints. I do write quite a bit, but it’s mainly at night. I seldom let writing get in the way of family or work. After all, my work at Delta College is what gives me a house, cars, food, etc… the little things in life that I like.
Writing really hasn’t given me much. I’m not even sure how much I like doing it. When it’s going well, I suppose I enjoy it, but it’s seldom going well. It’s usually a slog that goes slowly while it’s happening and takes many rewrites to get close to anything readable. It’s really a lot of work…nothing glamorous about it. There’s nothing fun about sitting and watching myself write bad sentences.
If I could quit, I would. But, I can’t. For whatever reason, I find myself drifting downstairs to the keyboard to peck out stories. I wouldn’t call myself driven or passionate. I think I’m just kind of stuck with writing as something that I do. It’s certainly not the money or joy that’s keeping me writing.
Man, I really sound like a curmudgeon, but I just reread what I wrote, and it sounds pretty darn true to me. I’m not deleting it.
Don’t delete it—it’s your truth. But something keeps calling you back to writing. Tell us about the funniest/craziest/most interesting thing that has happened to you as a writer.
A few years back, I had something very interesting happen to me as a writer…maybe one of the best things that ever happened to me. I was checking the stats on my website, and I noticed that I’d had over 100 visitors in one morning. Interestingly, they were all from Canada. I noticed that they were Googling “Jeff Vande Zande The Neighborhood Division”. The “Neighborhood Division” is a short story of mine that was published in a Canadian magazine. In fact, it’s one of the stories that also helped to inspire the world of Parable of Weeds.
Well, the Canadian visits to my site kept coming, and all of them were looking for my story. They were Googling “meaning of The Neighborhood Division” or “summary of The Neighborhood Division.” I didn’t know what to make of it, but I knew that something significant was happening. I was so perplexed, that I eventually put an entry on my website that said, “If you are visiting my site from Canada, please tell me why.” I also left my email. Eventually, a woman wrote to me and told me that my story was on a high school exit exam. As it turns out, the story was put on an English Proficiency Exam in Montreal. Bi-lingual students had to read the story and write a response to it in English. Teachers were trying to get a basic meaning of my story to help them grade the exam.
What followed was a series of emails between me and secretaries at the Ministry of Education in Montreal. The emails took place over four or five days. It dawned on me that they couldn’t just use my story without my permission. In fact, they hadn’t even asked the permission of the magazine. They just did it. It was done. And, as it turns out, I was owed some money. In fact, after a phone call, I learned that I was to be paid for every time that the story appeared on an exam.
I remember telling my wife, “Wow, this could be like $500.00.” I was pretty excited. That would have been the most money I’d ever received from one event involving my writing.
I can still remember opening the email from the secretary telling me that the Ministry of Education would be sending me a check for $4,700.00.
We ended up remodeling our kitchen with that money.
That was a great, great day in my writing career. In fact, they’ve all been downhill since that day. Sure, the Michigan Notable Book Award was great…but I’d trade it in to have another story of mine on a Canadian exam!
Right. I think you’re having some fun here. What are you currently working on?
Right now I am working on another novel. It is tentatively entitled Michigan, and it is literary fiction. I’m on page 125. I’m working on a part of the book that isn’t going very well, so at the moment, I don’t like the book. I know that there is some decent stuff in there, but this slow section has me down. It’s really bothering me because I thought that this part would be a really fun part of the book to write, but it isn’t. It’s a slog.
I’m experimenting with the book…trying to write it so it almost reads like a screenplay, which means we never get into the character’s heads to know what they’re thinking.
It’s about a grandson who is a recovering Oxycontin addict. He takes a road trip in a GTO with his grandfather who wants to reconcile with his two remaining sons.
Man, I almost fell asleep just reading that summary. That’s what worries me about the book. I don’t know if it’s any good. Of course, I didn’t think American Poet was any good, and that won two awards… so maybe my best books are the ones that leave me doubting.
I’m also getting ready to embark on another film project with Jim Gleason. I just finished a new short film screenplay. We are gearing up to break the script down and to get ready to shoot it over the next 6 or 7 months. I do very much enjoy the collaborative aspect of making short films. It’s much less lonely than writing fiction.
I look forward to your next film, and I wish you great success with your writing. Thanks for being my guest today, Jeff.
Jeff Vande Zande teaches English at Delta College and writes poetry, fiction, and screenplays. His books of fiction include Emergency Stopping and Other Stories (Bottom Dog Press), the novel Into the Desperate Country (March Street Press), the novel Landscape with Fragmented Figures (Bottom Dog Press) and Threatened Species and Other Stories (Whistling Shade Press). His poetry has also been collected into a book, and one of his poems was selected by Ted Kooser to appear in Kooser’s syndicated newspaper column, American Life in Poetry. His most recent book is a novel entitled American Poet, which won the Stuart and Vernice Gross Award for Excellence in Writing by a Michigan Author and a Michigan Notable Book Award from the Library of Michigan. He maintains a website at www.jeffvandezande.com.
Buy Jeff’s books at: