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"Forever Married to the Pseudonym": An Interview with Michael Shirzadian

Michael Shirzadian lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he studies and teaches rhetoric at Ohio State University. His stories and essays have appeared in Brevity, The Collagist, theNewerYork, Identity Theory, *82 Review, and elsewhere. Before returning to Columbus, he lived in Grants, New Mexico, where he taught high school English, and Boulder, Colorado, where he earned an MFA in fiction. You can contact Michael at michael.shirzadian@gmail.com.

His essay, "Recessional," appeared in Issue Eighty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, Michael Shirzadian talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about dwelling in scene, writing about family, and whittling down the work.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay “Recessional”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

Originally “Recessional” was a section of a longer, braided essay, but I couldn’t figure the braids out, couldn’t make it work, so I excised the section and retooled it as flash. I wouldn’t have written it otherwise; I’ve got a journal full of memories and writing ideas about my friend Ben, but every time I try my hand at one of them I end up scrapping the piece. Every time. I think “Recessional” works because it wasn’t originally a piece about Ben. I don’t think it is now, even. It’s a family piece. I started writing the first draft because I needed a scene where my parents actually worked together—I needed that scene in the longer, family essay—and the weekend when Ben died was the first scene to come to mind. It was only after my wonderful CNF workshop—led by the brilliant Lee Martin—mentioned that the braid might make for a strong flash essay that I returned to the piece with an eye on the kind of narrative/thematic closure that a standalone piece demands.

There are difficult, personal subjects in this essay: suicide, divorce, grief, and imagining your parents during a happier time. When you’re writing about these things, do you allow yourself to imagine how your family might react to reading it? How do you navigate the choppy waters of writing about family in an honest, vulnerable way?

I struggle with this all the time. Part of the reason I struggle is because I never start writing a piece thinking about this kind of reception. There’s something I want to say, maybe need to say, so I say it. It’s on the back end, just before submitting, that I’m forced to wrestle with those choppy waters. The easiest thing at that point is to roll with a pseudonym—which I do often. Too often, maybe. Honestly, “Recessional” doesn’t take on the most sensitive of my CNF obsessions, so I elected, here, to use my real name. Still, I emailed the piece to my mother for publication approval. That’s been super awkward. She gave a curt “ok” and we haven’t discussed the piece since. For me, a piece dies when I get too caught up in considering this kind of reception before the end. Maybe that means I’ll be forever married to the pseudonym. And there are some constellations of words that will never make it off my hard drive. I used to just think fuck it and submit everything and tell myself that the writing comes above all else. But I learned the hard way to take a more nuanced approach. So I’m still working on it, still improvising. I’m very much open to suggestions.

Your entire essay consists of only a little over 400 words. Is it a challenge for you to write with such concision? How do you achieve this economy of language? (Does it require a lot of revision and/or restraint?)

This piece’s economy derives from its origin as a fragment, one part of a defunct whole. That’s an old, reliable trick for flash-writing: take a longer piece and whittle it down. I’m always surprised at the resonant power a piece can accumulate the more you take out, undo. That’s why I dwell in flash. I’d actually say it’s more challenging for me to write a longer piece, to sustain an essay or story beyond, say, page twelve. After that, my longer stuff’s just stringing together multiple fragments anyway.

As far as restraint goes, I’m always opening new documents while I write, copy/pasting lines or ideas that I had included in the original piece but decided ultimately to excise. One flash might produce ten of these documents. I’d be surprised if even one of these ten generates a new piece, but having them written down somewhere—knowing that they live outside my head—occludes my anxieties long enough for me to finish the original.

Your bio says that you write fiction as well as nonfiction. Have you learned any lessons from one genre that you’ve applied to the other? How does your work in nonfiction inform your fiction, or vice versa?

There’s hardly a difference in my work. I could retool a few sentences from most of my fiction and ethically call it nonfiction. As an essayist, I hate exposition; I’m so so so bad at it. So most of my nonfiction is straight narrative, rendered almost entirely in scene. When one of my essays leaves scene it’s usually for something closer to character interiority than exposition. I’m not sure I can even articulate the difference. So here’s maybe what I’ve learned by crossing genres: to dwell in scene, to move slowly through space and time even in the compressed form, to construct characters and to enter their interiorities when I’m looking for the emotional turn—that moment of recognition or tenderness or grace. Both fiction and nonfiction, for me, rely so heavily on that turn. Why not recycle strategies?

What writing projects are you working on now?

I just completed a collection of essays and stories (I wish I could just say one or the other, but the meaning—at least on the title page—would, I fear, be lost). I’ve begun sending it to contests. I’m also a rhetoric PhD, and my current project interrogates the police body camera and the state’s insistence that it adequately addresses the problem of police violence against black communities.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

My rhetoric research occupies most of my time these days. But I’ll never pass up an opportunity to recommend Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Good Squad or Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. Those are both beautiful exercises in fragmentation. I also really dig Holly Goddard Jones—both her novel, The Next Time You See Me, and her collection of stories, Girl Trouble. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Year’s End (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/12/24/years-end) is sad and lovely. And this strange little piece, 26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss was almost unanimously adored in Ohio State’s most recent graduate fiction workshop: http://www.kijjohnson.com/26_monkeys.htm. I haven’t read Kij Johnson, but after reading 26 Monkeys I’m definitely intrigued.

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