Q&A with Artist in Residence Simone Zelitch

For the month of May, 2018, fiction writer Simone Zelitch will be staying in Rosa di Tufo, working on her sixth novel. She will stay on to play a role in WRiT 2018 as well, leading our writing workshops.

simone headshot

Simone Zelitch has published five novels, including Louisa, which in a 2000 review, The New York Times called “a stunningly good work: highly imaginative, impressively constructed, erudite yet genuinely moving.” She established the creative writing program at Community College of Philadelphia and has taught fiction workshops for over thirty years, including a course in researching and writing historical fiction at the University of Pennsylvania. She received a National Endowment of the Arts grant for an early draft of her most recent novel,Judenstaat (Tor/Macmillan 2016) an alternative history about the establishment of a Jewish state in Germany in 1948. For a fuller scoop, check out Simone’s website here.

I asked Simone to sit for a few questions concerning her upcoming residency in Tufo, and she agreed. First, though: I met Simone in a fiction workshop she led in 2013, and she had a hand in crafting one of the best stories I’ve ever written. In the workshop setting, she draws from a reserve of patience and generosity that feels deeper than it ought to; she reads stories multiple times. Simone treats this writing thing seriously, she is a professional, and it feels all kinds of special to have her out in Tufo this May and June.

Thanks for sitting for some questions, Simone! Okay, let’s take it from the top: why Tufo?

Well, I’ve never been there, but from what I’ve seen, the town looks spectacularly beautiful. The gold stone and all those craggy hills—or are they mountains?—makes it seem like a kind of volcanic Jerusalem. I suspect the wine is better in Tufo than in Jerusalem though.

I know that Tufo is a wonderful base for exploring the natural and historic sites of Southern Italy and that some guy I know (aka you, Patrick) will lead trips to some of those sites, but ultimately, Tufo appeals to me as a place which is entirely out of the context of my life in Philadelphia.   I’m looking forward—fiercely—to a house without internet, interactions with people in a language I don’t know, and living inside my work for a full month.

Can you talk a little bit about how travel might have informed your work in the past?

All of my novels had depended on research, and part of that research has always been travel.  When I wrote a novel about a 14th century English peasant revolt, I went to England.   When I wrote a Anarcho-Feminist retelling of the story of the Exodus, I went to the Sinai desert.   Travel is an essential element in my writing process, and what I discover on the road changes the direction of my fiction.

For instance, when I traveled through Mississippi to write Waveland, my book about the 1964 Freedom Summer,  in Greenwood I met a Jewish shopkeeper who ended up finding his way into the novel.  I still have his business card.  Even in Judenstaat, which is an alternative rather than actual history, I took field trips—to Dresden, to Vilna to learn Yiddish, and to Israel where I attempted to read Yiddish wall-posters by Anti-Zionist hard-line Orthodox Jews.  Those posters ended up in my imaginary Jewish state in Germany.

It’s funny though:   I never actually write fiction abroad.   I write notes in little books, and then I lose those books, but it doesn’t matter.   I’ve absorbed all of that strangeness, and it passes through me and into my work.

How, then, do you plan to spend your month-long residency at Rosa di Tufo? Take me through a typical day, even. Talk a little about process if you could. 

Well, some of this will depend on whether there’s a coffee pot in the kitchen [editor’s note: there is] but here’s what I think will happen:

Let’s pretend it’s week two, once I’ve got my groove.   I’ll be up at 6:00.   I’m a journal-keeper (96 identical black sketch-books and counting) and I’m bound to consider a particularly thorny problem in the journal.   I’ll drink some coffee and eat something, and then go for a walk.   I’ll have a regular route, probably through the town but maybe beyond to those volcanic hills.   My morning walks will take around an hour.   If I can judge by past experience, by the time I get back, my body and brain will have resolved at least some parts of the problem.

Then, when I sit down to write, I tend to get a running start by doing light revision on what I’ve already written.  I write on a lap-top, and something I’ve learned through hard experience is that I can add to my manuscript, but I shouldn’t delete, not yet.  Then, I’ll open a new file for a new chapter and begin.   If I get stuck, I sometimes turn to legal pads to either problem solve or push myself to write by hand.   I can also take another short walk.   If I push myself, a new character or circumstance will pop out of nowhere, but it can also happen when I get up to refill that cup of coffee, open a window, or look out over the hills.

My work-day usually and naturally ends at about four in the afternoon.  Who knows what will happen after that, but it will probably involve a glass of wine.    I’m not sure where or how I’ll eat yet, but I’ll figure that out as I go along.   I might have to learn some Grocery Italian.

What are you going to be working on in Tufo? I’m curious about what goals you might be setting for yourself during the residency in Tufo.

Weirdly enough, in Tufo, I’ll be working on my first novel that takes place in my home town of Philadelphia.   If I can only write about other places at home, maybe I can only write about home in Tufo.

The book is set in a high-end nursing home and follows a character from her admission to Rehab to her final days in the Memory Unit.   I’ve been struggling with this book for a long time.   In many ways, life in that nursing home is a vehicle for exploring how algorithms and crowdsourcing make our choices for us.   When I started writing, some of my ideas and plot devices felt like science fiction, but of course now, technology has leap-frogged over speculation.

As for goals, around a third of the novel has been written.   I have notes for the rest and a detailed structure which probably won’t change much.   Who knows, though?   I’ll be taking a lot of those morning walks.  When I’m at a place where all I do is write, I expect to complete at least five single-spaced pages a day which will mean that by the time the workshop begins, I’ll be the proud mother of a full first draft.   Hold me to that.

You’re also staying on through the retreat, where you’ll be leading workshops for us. Tell me a little about your experience with workshopping writing, and what purpose it serves for a writer. 

I was part of my first writing workshop forty years ago at a summer program, and the method was a revelation.   I was used to a teacher being the only reader of my work, and now my story (or my really awful poem) was read and taken seriously by others (and believe me, fifteen year olds take things very seriously).

Now, I’ve taught writing workshops in various forms for around thirty years, and here is the great gift they provide:   Workshops teach us how to read like writers.  A workshop gives you a language for figuring out the mechanics, aesthetics and ethics of writing.   Also,  sometimes, you’ll find an excellent reader for your own work.   I’ve made writing partnerships through workshops which have lasted decades.

FYI, here’s how I tend to lead a workshop. Everybody reads the piece (or pieces) in advance and writes some comments on it. The writer reads a little bit and then asks a clarifying question.   Then, the writer just listens as the discussion proceeds.   The writer Ursula Le Guin calls this interval “vegetable silence.”   In that silence, things grow.  Towards the end, I have everyone in the group point out a favorite line or moment in the story, and then pass the annotated pieces up to the author, who is now free to speak.   I’ve refined this system over the years. It seems to work.