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Pen America: An Interview with Michele Zackheim

Date: Jun 16 2014

The PEN Ten is PEN America's biweekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand. This week Lauren talks to Michele Zackheim, whose work as a visual artist was widely exhibited before her turn towards the written word. Vanessa Redgrave will read from and discuss Zackheim's fourth and most recent novel, Last Train to Paris, published in January 2014, with her at McNally Jackson on June 23rd.


When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?


In 1991, at the age of fifty, I made a colossal leap. I was a visual artist, but I had been noticing that my work was becoming more and more literary. In my last project, The Café Series, I had almost written myself off the canvas; one of the four-by-five-foot pieces in the series was filled with many images of words that related to words themselves. The only other image was of an obviously confused woman looking at the words.


One autumn evening I was sitting with my husband in a bar, drinking wine and complaining about not writing.


“Why don’t you do something about it?” he dared me.


It happened, just like that. The idea of writing a book landed on the dark wood bar between our two glasses of red wine. The possibility was irresistible.


Now that the challenge had been so clearly presented, I decided to revisit the work of my favorite French writer, Violette Leduc. I reread her book La Bâtarde. The language she used to describe her life was filled with astonishing colors and images. In my imagination, she danced before her canvas, delicately brushing the page with nuanced strokes, sweeps of charcoal, using the side of her hand to feather from dark and light. She became beautiful, although her mentor, Simone de Beauvoir, had called her “the ugly woman.”


I was never an easel painter. My visual projects were always made in a series–all pieces that could almost be read like books. The art required a good deal of physical involvement, so it was no surprise that I wrote my first book by hand. With an imitation Blanzy-Poure pen, and purple ink (like the ink Leduc had used), I wrote upon lavender quadrille pages in an orange notebook. The physicality of writing with smooth, flowing ink on soft paper evoked in me the same feeling as applying cobalt blue to a sanded-smooth gesso canvas.


I showed the handwritten manuscript to a friend, who told me that it had to be typed. I learned how to type. An agent signed me, and the tenth publisher, Riverhead Books, bought my book Violette’s Embrace.


Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?


I know that this is an odd combination, but it would be a toss-up between Violette Leduc and Virginia Woolf. Leduc, for the reasons noted above; Woolf because of her astonishing ability to write both conceptually and intimately.


Where is your favorite place to write?


I’ve always worked at home. Before I turned to writing, I drew and painted at the kitchen table, as my children were napping or sleeping at night. Now, when I write, I sit in a corner facing a wall, with a window at my left that invites occasional people-watching. I’ve never been able to work away from home, and never have had the desire to apply for residencies. Well, that’s not entirely true: Once I thought that being a real writer meant that I should apply to a residency. I mailed an application and was turned down – and have never applied again.


Have you ever been arrested?


I lean far to the political left, and have protested against many wars and many injustices. To my chagrin, I’ve never been arrested. Please don’t get me wrong – I know the difference between most civil-disobedience arrests in New York City and a profound, life-changing arrest in other parts of the world.


Obsessions are influences – what are yours?


I have an insatiable curiosity that used to get me into trouble; people glared at me and told me to mind my own business. I’m always ease dropping on conversations; looking through lit windows at night, watching people as they talk, sing to themselves – but fortunately now, because of my age, no one pays attention and I’m a Peeping Tom who has been liberated.


What’s the more daring thing you’ve ever put into words?


Writing about the death of Rose Manon’s mother in Last Train to Paris. I had a seriously tempestuous relationship with my mother. It wasn’t until she died that I could write the final scene in our relationship through Rose’s eyes.


What is the responsibility of the writer?


If I write with a broad-brush stroke of transparent watercolor over a difficult, perhaps ugly portrait, I must be responsible about what I write, and not muddy the truth. Whether the truth is darkly disturbing or luminously exhilarating, my responsibility is to write it well, clearly, and honestly.


I belong to PEN’s Freedom to Write Committee. On behalf of that committee, I have a cherished responsibility to write about writers who are in prison. We work hard to get their stories out to the general public, always hoping to elicit change in restrictive governments.


While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?


Of course! I’m happy to see that there are now communities of intellectual writers who have a variety of committed beliefs. Our world is too big to rely on a handful of public intellectual stars. The romantic days of Sartre, the singular intellectual, are over; it is up to the rest of us to take a stand on issues that concern us all.


What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?


It depends on the leader. Some of the books I’d consider would be Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country; July’s People by Nadine Gordimer; all of the poems by Mahmoud Darwish; Prisoner Without a Name: A Cell Without a Number by Jacobo Timerman; and The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.


Where is the line between observation and surveillance?


Keen observation enriches a painting for the viewer to contemplate and discover new feelings and ideas. Surveillance is menacing; a matte-black painting that shrouds the light and has no reflection, nowhere to go.