Abigail De Witt Interviews Lee Zacharias on her New Novel, “What a Wonderful World This Could Be”

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AD: What drew you to write this particular book at this particular time?

LZ: I actually wrote this book quite a while ago, though I restructured and revised it much later. When my first novel, which came out in 1981, was in press, my editor, who was something of a political junkie, told me I should write a political book. That didn’t seem like my thing, but I was having dinner on his terrace, and while he was tending his grill, I picked up the New York Times and saw that Cathy Wilkerson, one of the two women who survived Weatherman’s accidental bombing of her parents’ Greenwich Village townhouse, had turned herself in. The ’60s seemed so long past immediately I began to think about her family and friends. My imagination began working: what if a person who chose to disappear was married? How would that person’s spouse react after all that time? My interest was also spurred by the fact that I felt I’d missed out on the youth culture of the ’60s. I married a grad student right out of college, and during the last four years of the ’60s, years of dramatic cultural change, I was working full time. We lived in Bloomington, Indiana, where all of the impromptu concerts and demonstrations took place in Dunn Meadow, a short stroll from my office. I was an editor for a university research center, but in those days offices had dress codes for women. On my lunch hour I’d drop by to see what was going on, but I never felt as if I was part of it—everyone knows real radicals don’t wear pantyhose. Instead I felt as if I watched the story of my generation unfold each night on the Huntley-Brinkley Report. In 1970 my first husband took a job in Richmond, Virginia. We lived in the Fan, which was very bohemian, but the heyday of the ’60s was over, and though I marched with friends in the last big antiwar demonstration in DC, the Fan’s take on the counter-culture seemed more aesthetic than political.

AD: What were the particular challenges of writing this book?

LZ: The biggest challenge at the time was the familiarity of the material. The ’60s had become a cliché, but I couldn’t simply say my characters—Alex, the protagonist, her husband Ted, and their collective—went to Selma or the March on the Pentagon or the demonstrations outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, got hit on the head, and were changed. I had to write scenes that drew on events that had been covered extensively in the media as well as more personal accounts, such as Mailer’s Armies of the Night. And I think one of the reasons this book did not get published right away was that I finished it—or a much earlier version of it—in 1990. There had been such a media blitz of the ’60s revisited in 1988 and 1989, essentially scripted by the Beatles (“It was 20 years ago today…”), that trying to sell this novel was a bit like trying to sell last year’s pet rock.

AD: What were the particular delights of writing this book?

LZ: I got to experience what I thought I’d missed. A lot of it wasn’t pretty, and I knew from the get-go that it wouldn’t be, but I no longer felt that I had spent my youth standing outside a window that wouldn’t open.

AD: What were the ’60s and ’80s were like for you personally? Are there any autobiographical connections to the book you’d be comfortable sharing?

 LZ: It’s not autobiographical at all, on the surface. It’s about what I didn’t experience instead of what I did. In some ways the ’60s and the ’80s were similar for me: I was working throughout the end of the ’60s and all through the ’80s, but by the ’80s, I was no longer working in an office. I had gone to grad school, published a book, left my first husband, married my second, had a baby, was teaching creative writing full time, directing a graduate writing program, and editing a literary review.

Busy as it was, my life in the ’80s felt much more like it belonged to me. Even though I was technically a faculty member at Indiana University in the late ’60s, I was editing books in linguistics and Uralic and Altaic studies written by middle-aged men with Ph.D.s, many non-native speakers of English, who treated me as if I were clerical help at best. Who was this girl to tell them their subjects didn’t agree with their verbs, their sentences were awkward, their paragraphs repetitious, their footnotes didn’t check out, and in writing a literary history it’s not a good idea to express an opinion about a book you confess you haven’t read? But before that I did work briefly as a darkroom technician for a newspaper, and that experience too was quite sexist, much like Alex’s—we often borrow little details from our lives. And below the surface, I suspect there is always something autobiographical, something of ourselves projected into our characters, no matter how different their circumstances.

In this case, Alex goes as far as I would have been willing to go politically. She risks personal safety but refuses to give up personal or artistic freedom. She recognizes the fatal flaw of ideology taken to extreme. And I once saw a young man who had been beaten on the subway. The image eventually evolved into Ted Neal, but I didn’t follow him as Alex does. I have no idea who he was or what happened to him.

AD: Who were the writers who inspired you in terms of this particular book?

Lee Zacharias (photo by , picture by Michael Gaspeny)

LZ: I didn’t like the novels I had read about the ’60s. They seemed either short-sighted or to rely too heavily on signs of the time—the soundtrack, bellbottoms, peace signs, and tie-dye—to tell the story. I was more interested factual accounts and personal experience, even when my attitude differed greatly from the implied views of the authors. So I think for me it’s less a question of writers who inspired me than writers who informed me. Allen J. Matusow’s The Unraveling of America and Kirkpatrick Sale’s SDS provided helpful overviews. I read memoirs by Tom Hayden, Todd Gitlin, James Miller, Jane Alpert, and Cathy Wilkerson, along with Freedom Summer by Sally Belfrage, a collection of Letters from Mississippi, the Skolnick Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, and numerous other books and articles whose authors are cited in my Acknowledgments.

AD: What are your own opinions of the main characters (especially Alex), as opposed to their opinions of themselves or readers’ opinions of them? What do you see as their greatest strengths/weaknesses?

LZ: What a great question. Lawrence Lipking’s Abandoned Women and Poetic Tradition  made me think about the work I had read in which men return to women they have left—from Homer’s Odysseus to Francis Phelan in William Kennedy’s Ironweed. Odysseus may be a war hero, but he certainly dallies on his way home. Yet the women invariably welcome their men back, and I couldn’t identify with that. Alex has a lot of repressed anger, which makes her too passive at times, but also causes her to act too impulsively at others.

To me her strongest moment comes as she and Stacy are arguing about remaining in the Weather collective, when Alex realizes that she would leave even if Ted chose to stay. It’s a moment that I hope the reader remembers when she makes the decision that she does in the end. She’s not wimping out; she’s going after what she wants. As for Ted—for a long time I wasn’t sure why he disappeared, but he grew up privileged, then took a western civ course with an intellectual Marxist and rejected his privilege, but couldn’t accept his father’s disapproval. He’s committed to working for justice and equal rights, and by the end of the ’60s his approach is more reasoned than many, but the one privilege he has not renounced is his charisma, and when he loses his following he falls apart. He enters as a hero and exits on clay feet.

Kendrick, on the hand, may initially seem to be a bad guy. He falls in love with Alex, but knows he shouldn’t act on those feelings. And when she is his model, he uses her for his art, in the tradition of many male photographers (and painters) who used their wives and/or families as their subjects. All of the characters operate within parameters shaped by the attitudes of their time. But Kendrick comes to understand what he did wrong, and later, when Alex is no longer involved with him, he provides unconditional support. He loves her. Alex is traumatized by what happens at the end of the ’60s and beginning of the ’70s. She withdraws from political action. That might seem unacceptably passive to anyone reading in the political climate of today, but if the novel ended in 2020 or 2021 instead of 1982, she would not be able to ignore the rise of white supremacist groups, global warming, or the divisiveness that threatens democracy. She would be active in some way. Actually some of my favorite characters are secondary: Lizzie, Stacy, Matt, even Nelson. Lizzie comes the closest to seeming faultless, but that’s why it’s not her book. If your characters aren’t flawed, you don’t have a story.

AD: Do you see connections between artistic, sexual, and political awakening?

LZ: Artistic and political awakening take one outside oneself, though in different ways. To an extent sexual awakening does too, unless it is divorced from emotion. As a teenager, Alex falls in love with the man who offers her an artistic awakening, but then, because she is so young, she needs to leave in order to come into her own, to get outside of a self still deeply troubled by a childhood in which she was neglected and unloved, and the political awakening that Ted seems to offer, a way to enlarge the boundaries of her concern, comes from someone so charismatic she can’t resist. So for her they are very connected, but I don’t think it’s unusual for the artistic and/or political to mix themselves with the sexual. We don’t just wake up—we are drawn into consciousness, and there’s a kind of magnetism inherent in all three.

AD: What are your own favorite passages and why?

LZ: Oddly my favorite passages are summaries. This, for example: “That was the year when they could strike up a conversation on the corner and come home with a new cause, a neighborhood center, free lunch, better garbage collection. And while their rhetoric rattled against the paper-thin walls, outside, in a landscape of tarpaper shacks, cars on blocks, rusted wringers, the lowly citizens of a crueler kingdom lifted wordless voices in song, the sweet harmony of tree frogs, crickets, cicadas. When they left the poor for the war, they had yet to decide who their constituents were.”

I had to cover a lot of history in this novel, a lot of transitions in the evolution of the New Left. The challenge was to cover them quickly and yet personalize them. There are other passages that make those leaps, but this one is closest to my heart because I spend a lot of time photographing nature and I’ve written essays about what it means to have memory, what it means to have voice. We tend to privilege human life—to assign it significance—because we can narrate it. We can articulate our passions. My fascination with vultures, which led to my essay “Buzzards,” comes from the fact that they can’t speak. They literally have no voice—they lack a syrinx, the avian equivalent of the human larynx. So in this book that has nothing to do with the natural kingdom, but a lot to do with how people think their “kingdom” should be run, I snuck a bit of the natural world in.

Abigail DeWitt

AD: How, as a writer, do you balance attention to language/lyricism with plot…or do those two always go hand in hand for you?

LZ: I’m not musical—I can’t sing or play a single instrument. Yet rhythm is incredibly important to me in prose. Alliteration. The sound of words. So yes they go hand in hand, but I have to work to join them. I’m a real tinkerer when it comes to language. I’m always astonished by people who speak of having to write five or six drafts. Five or six? Are they kidding? At five or six, I’m just getting started.

AD: When did you know you had finished this book? Was there was a particular moment?

LZ: I restructured it completely, and it’s been through a lot of titles. Originally it was in 5 sections. The first, middle, and last took place in 1982. The second covered the years 1960-64 and the fourth the years 1964-1971. But because the fourth section had more characters, it was longer, and Kendrick never appeared, which obscured the romantic triangle. But the book always ended where it does, so there was never an “aha” moment. I thought it would never see print after a former agent gave up on it and told me just to throw it away and write another. I was teaching a full load of courses at the time and raising a small child, and writing another novel wasn’t something that was going to happen overnight, though eventually I did write two more novels and a book of essays. This sat on a shelf for a long time. I didn’t send it out because no one seemed to want it. Then another agent discovered it, and though she had a lot of valuable suggestions about revision, she too got discouraged. Then Madville Publishing came along. That’s the moment. Not the last sentence, not the last period. The moment when your editor says do you want to make any more changes, and you say no. It’s done.


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