40th Anniversary Retrospective: An Interview with Nancy Zafris

Nancy Zafris is the series editor of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, a position she took after nine years as fiction editor of The Kenyon Review. Her fourth book of fiction, a collection of short stories titled The Home Jar, is out this April. She is the recipient of many awards and grants, including two National Endowment for the Arts grants. She has taught at several universities, among them Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, as a Fulbright Fellow. Each June she teaches at the Kenyon Review Adult Writers Workshop. Recently, she took some time to speak with Nick White, fiction editor, to discuss the ways in which she has changed as a writer since her first publication in The Journal: “Late May,” which appeared in Issue 14.2 (Winter 1991).

Nick White: Where were you in your career/work when this piece came out?

Nancy Zafris: I’d won the Flannery O’Connor award for my first book, a collection of stories titled The People I Know. I was in the midst of trying to get my first novel, The Metal Shredders, published.

NW: If you could say something to your younger writer self who wrote this piece, what would you say?

NZ: Smile more. Don’t be afraid to say hi to Lee K. Abbott. Good idea about having a kid. Write more thank-you notes, especially to Buddy Nordan and Andre Dubus.

NW: How does this piece compare to the work you’re currently doing/planning to do in the future?

NZ: I don’t think I would write those pieces today. Phones don’t ring in the den anymore, for one thing. The cell phone has been great for TV soap operas, not so great for the short story. It takes out oft-needed small obstacles. Flat tire on a deserted road? No problem. The writer would now have to account for no reception, dead battery, or no cell phone at all, which might unfairly present a character as a Luddite.

NW: Did you learn anything about writing/yourself as an artist while writing this piece?

NZ: In the story “Furgus” [published in Issue 22.2 (Autumn 1998) as “Furgus Welcomes You”] I realized I was trying to write a story out of a premise and that’s why it gave me trouble: false starts and different incarnations and characters. It’s better for me if I just start with a sentence or paragraph and discover the story, and then I can go back and shape it.

NW: Has your writing changed much (or any) since writing these stories? How so?

NZ: What one gains in technique can lead to deforestation in the writing that is both good and bad. Keep the energy and the willingness to proceed stupidly.

Michael Larson was born and raised on a horse farm in the small town of Rainier, Washington. He earned his B.A. from Dartmouth College, before moving to Mutsu, Japan, where he lived and worked as a middle-school English teacher for two years. He is currently in the Creative Writing MFA Program at The Ohio State University, and serves as online editor for The Journal.