Interview with James Zarzana
by Abigail Fellin
James Zarzana was our guest blogger of the essay "Madness" and the author of the Marsco Saga (which can be found on Amazon). Below is a collection of excerpts from an email interview with him over his experience with literature and writing.
Why did you decide to study literature?
I committed to studying English in my undergraduate days…But, I love stories. I love the way a story can bring the reader into a life or taut situation, and the reader comes away understanding “life” and possibly themselves better. (Yes, I’m that type of idealist.)
Loved Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens. I leaned toward British writers. At first, I was going to specialize in the 18th Century British lit with its urbane and witty verse, but once I dug into the 19th C British novel, I was hooked.
I read on your website that after retiring from teaching, you took on the full-time job of writing. Why writing?
You know, when a student would ask me “why?” my response often was, “well, why not?” I was in the classroom or at an administrator’s desk for 41 years. I wanted to retire “early” (by only two years) so I could devote myself to fulltime writing. I had one Marsco novel published by then, it was getting great reviews, and I wanted to be flexible about my writing and my time to present. I wanted to focus on my writing while I was “young” enough to finish all the works I had in draft form.
I have always written something. I wrote a novel in college, which looking back, I realize now was “fan fiction,” a term that did not exist in 1970. (Exist to me, at any rate.)
So, why write? Why not? I have these stories to tell, they are timely—a megacorporation takes over the world, sound too much like today. Alt-news, the end of our democracy, violence everywhere, rule of law gone. As Wilfred Owen, the great World War One poet, wrote, “All poets can do is warn.” I write to warn.
While “Madness” is a short essay, you typically write longer fiction novels that have more of a futuristic feeling to them. Why do you like to write in this genre?
Marsco came naturally to me. I just started writing it, just jumped in. Now, I organize more, I outline ahead, and think about my characters much more before I write than when I jumped into Marsco. As a teen, I read a good deal of sci-fi from HG Wells to Julies Verne to the modern Americans (Bradbury). I was a high school junior when Star Trek started on TV. (“Live long and prosper!” I was a trekkie before there were trekkies.) I was teaching high school and finishing my MA when Star Wars hit. And yes, I stood in line for three hours to see it during its opening weekend. This was before Netflix and movie rentals, but I managed to see it seven times over the next few months, including once seeing it as a pirated copy shown at a pizza parlor—grainy and with poor audio.
Sci-fi gives the writer a chance to set all the rules. If I wrote a Civil War novel or a World War II novel (and I have outlines for both of these), then to be accurate, I would have to limit the role and condition of women, for example. Although the Federal Army fought to free the slaves, they were hardly thinking of racial equality the way—I hope—we think about it today. So, writing set in another era has to deal with all that era’s dust under the rug.
With my sci-fi, I can set my own agenda…Sci-fi also allows me to write about today without directly doing it, naming it.
You have already published two books of your four-book saga. What challenges and rewards have you come across along the way?
The rewards are that I do have a print copy I can hold up. My work is available as a Kindle download to any Kindle-ready device. I have had people read it on their phones, on Nooks, on laptops. You can order a print-on-demand copy. So, it’s rewarding in that sense. I received a very favorable, stared review from Blue Ink Review, which reviews mostly self-published writers and is used by libraries across the country to highlight self-published authors like myself. I noticed my sales to libraries spiked. So, that’s good.
I went with self-publishing after years and years of trying to secure a literary agent. Self-published writers are growing in number, and the publishing world and book sales world is changing as that number grows. Amazon commands the market, not brick-and-mortar stores like Barnes and Nobles. So, publishing as I do, any reader can find it anywhere in the world if they can get to the Internet. So, no one from North Korea is reading it, but I have had sales in Europe, in Canada, in the US.
So, challenges: seeking an agent and not finding one. I sent out over 100 query letters. Very frustrating. When I do my next sci-fi novel, my non-Marsco novel set in London, I will again seek an agent. But, now, with half the series self-published, it is hard to find anyone interested in me. I’ll try fresh with my next series. Who knows? Maybe I’ll ride an elevator with Steven Spielberg and he’ll make Marsco into a movie.
Another reward is that, with the two books in print, I have the cred to speak on writing. I love giving Q&A format discussions about my work, about writing in general. (Several of these are on YouTube under James Zarzana.) I also present a workshop titled, “Getting Started Writing Ficton.” I have given that at libraries, like ours in Marshall and up in Alexandria, Minnesota.