It's easy to envy Alexi Zentner's abundant gifts -- his lyrical flourishes, his workmanlike output,
his Canadian-ness. It might start with just falling in love with his prose, encountering, say, his
story "Touch," which begins: "The men floated the logs early, in September, a chain of headless trees
jamming the river as far as I and the other children could see."
I saw those headless trees; I was lulled into what I guessed would be a nostalgic kind of story.
But the splendor of Zentner's fictional logging town, Sawgamet, is quickly revealed to have a particularly
brutal side: loggers are crushed by falling trees and drowned in rivers, young kids carried "bloodied
and dead" from the woods. Whiteouts descend in seconds and strand people mere yards away from
safety. Or they crash through panes of ice and remain there, a frozen memorial, until their bodies can be
recovered after the first thaw.
About "Touch," O. Henry Prize jurist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, "I was moved by the elegiac
telling, the unapologetic tenderness that never became maudlin, and the characters -- the men hacking
out a livelihood with a sort of disinterested dignity, the romantic but tough father, the mother who is
determined not to lose any more, the daughter who looks wide eyed at life, the narrator for whom my
heart broke at the end."
Zentner expanded "Touch" into a stunning novel by the same name, published earlier this year by W.W.
Norton. It has garnered widespread critical praise and was recently short-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan
First Novel Prize. On the eve of his visit to Denver, I couldn't help but ask him some selfish questions,
such as how he managed to accomplish so much with two small children at home.
Q. You were a full-time stay-at-home dad when you were working on Touch and ended up
hiring a babysitter for four hours per week in order to write. Can you describe that leap of
faith -- what inspired it and how you and your family took that leap together?
A. My wife is a school psychologist, which means that she makes a teacher's salary, so money
was, as money can be, tight. Even though it was only $20 or $25, that $40 or $50 a week
was a lot of money for us, and it meant that if I was going to hire a babysitter I couldn't
do anything other than fully commit to using that time. The leap of faith wasn't in hiring
the babysitter, but rather in committing fully to being a writer. It meant that I could no
longer give myself any excuses, no longer do anything other than try my absolute hardest
to be a writer. That is a terrifying thing to commit to because it gave me nowhere to
hide if I wasn't successful (you can define success in any way that you want). One of the
things that I quickly figured out when I was paying somebody so that I could write, is
that there is a very big difference between wanting to be a writer and actually writing.
Of course, while I say that the leap of faith was in committing to be a writer, the money
was a real question for us, and I'm incredibly lucky that I have a supportive wife. As much
as I love my daughters, I wasn't happy with only being a stay-at-home-dad, and my wife
encouraged me to try, to really try, at being a writer. More than anything, I didn't want to
let her down. My wife is my first reader and my best reader, and if she likes something I've
written, it almost always does well.
Q. Do you feel there's an inherent tension between writing and parenting small children? Are
there inherent symbioses?
A. There is a huge tension in trying to write with small children, because they demand your
attention and your time with a fierceness that can be matched by nothing else, but if you
are successful in writing while you have small children, I actually think that your writing
is likely to be deeper than it was before. My kids are great, and they were relatively
easy, but I've never been the kind of writer who can just dip in and out of my work. I
need concentrated chunks of time, more than the snatched moments that you can take
when you are watching toddlers. When they napped, I found myself just hitting my stride
when they woke. Of course, when I figured out how to write, how to be disciplined and
productive, I also found that my work had taken a leap forward. Much of that is from
learning how to read as writer, but some of that comes from the very fact of having
children. I've said many times that there only two things to write about: love and death.
And when you have children you remember that the world is full of sharp corners and
dangerous things, and suddenly you have these small, soft creatures which you love
in almost painful way. I'm being a little flip, of course, but more or less, you love your
children and you are scared they might die. Pretty good territory for writing.
Q. What's your favorite non-literary activity with your daughters?
A. My daughters are both funny and smart and lots of fun. They play lacrosse, soccer, musical
instruments, like to cook with me, and are naturals in the swimming pool. Honestly,
though, what I like doing most with them is eating. I've worked really hard to make sure
they are willing to try all sorts of different foods. They don't like all of them, but they'll
try them, and it's fun to help them find something new and different that they like.
Unfortunately, some of the new and different things they like are expensive. My oldest
daughter asked for scallops and lobster for her birthday dinner.
Zentner in Denver
‣ August 26 (Friday) @ 7:30 p.m. - Reading - Denver, CO @ Tattered Cover Colfax Avenue (2526 E
Colfax Ave., Denver, CO, 303.322.7727).
Fly-By Writer's Project at Lighthouse Writers Workshop (1515 Race Street, Denver, CO 303.297.1185)
‣ August 27 (Saturday) @ the Lighthouse Grotto, 1 to 4 PM: Seminar for writers: Telling Details
‣ August 27 (Saturday) @ Lighthouse Writers Workshop, 5 to 9 PM: Survive the Fly-By: Dinner and
Drinks and a performance of Zentner's "Salt," by Stories on Stage's John Hutton, followed by remarks by
Zentner. (Ticketed event.)
‣ August 28 (Sunday) @ the Lighthouse Grotto (1515 Race Street, Denver, CO), 10 AM to 2 PM:
Seminar for Writers on Setting (registration required).
‣ August 29 (Monday) @ 7 p.m. - Reading - Boulder, CO @ Boulder Bookstore (1107 Pearl Street,
Boulder, CO, 303.447.2074).