"Something happened and turned on as soon as I gave birth," Kate Zambreno told me, "where the drive and the desire to write was stronger than ever."
We were sitting on stools in Sycamore, a bar-and-flower-shop in Brooklyn, talking about Zambreno's latest book, Screen Tests, a wide-ranging collection of stories and other writing snippets that manage to possess both urgency and a feeling of smallness, all the better to stick inside you with the precision of a splinter.
Like Zambreno's other work, Screen Tests feels vaguely confrontational in the best possible way; it's a challenge to readers to interrogate the ways they think about things like aging, art, celebrity, and productivity. It's also a delight; I dog-eared countless of its pages, always finding new moments of recognition, feeling the same kind of glee as when I discover a new friend shares a particular obsession of mine.
It's a book filled with the serious contemplation of petty things—grievances and enthusiasms, alike—and Zambreno wrote much of it while in the midst of a profound life change: early motherhood.
"I felt desperate," Zambreno told me, "because it was more difficult than ever time-wise. So I had to suddenly start thinking about time and brevity in a totally different way. And I think that Screen Tests, the shorter pieces that make up most of the collection, emerge from that period of intensity and a real sharpness of also not having time."
This specificity permeates much of the book, and is balanced by what Zambreno calls the "driftiness" of its longer essays, leading to a reading experience that resembles time's constant and nebulous shifts, a reminder of the way that our perception of life and our place in it can warp at any moment.
Below, Zambreno and I talk about Screen Tests, pregnancy, aging, capitalism, visual ASMR, and the tragedy of watching Rob Kardashian.
A lot of Screen Tests was written after you had your daughter, and not much was written while you were pregnant with her. It's interesting to think of pregnancy, then, as being a period that isn't super creatively generative. Because you're using everything you have to create, actually, a life.
The second half of my novel, Drifts [forthcoming in 2020], deals with a period of pregnancy in a fictionalized way. It was also the lead-up to the election. So there was so much happening in terms of tragedies in the news every day, as well. I also got super into Scandinavian noir and crime procedurals, and I don't know whether it was a desire for a better justice system or whether there was something about the formula of it that I found deeply soothing. But besides those crime procedurals, I couldn't watch much. I couldn't watch something that made me too sad. I couldn't watch something that made me feel too stimulated. And I would write to my friends who were writers, who would say to me, "Oh yeah, all I could read was Agatha Christie or Maeve Binchy or romance novels when I was pregnant." Finally, I read Flaubert's Sentimental Education, and I would just be like, oh, all these descriptions of gloves, you know, or these 12 descriptions of mustard were so sensuous and so wonderful.
All I watched when I was pregnant was old Law and Order episodes until, like, 4am every night.
I did start reading some 19th-century realist novels, but I watched the Kardashians a lot when I was pregnant, and I found it very trance-like. But then I couldn't watch Rob Kardashian because it made me too sad. It was too much tragedy, like I could only watch them talking about how boring everything was. It was something about the rhythm of it. I would go to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and I would just sit there and just look at the roses.
I feel like it was a very anxious time for me, because I didn't know if I wanted to be pregnant. Then I found myself pregnant at 38, and so I decided to go with it and go toward the transformational aspect of it, but I was freaked out a lot of the times. I wish now I would not have been as freaked out, but it really threw me into an existential crisis. But I do think it was creative, it just wasn't productive. It was a very lazy period, and it was a very intense period. Like, I would look at Vermeers online, I would get all these Vermeer books from the library, and then I would go to The Frick, and I would look at the one Vermeer. And then I would go in that tropical room in The Frick and just sit there. It was very much like being in a trance.
I feel like all of these things, whether it's being inside The Frick—and I think Vermeer visually is like this and the Kardashians, their voices are definitely like this—it's all a kind of ASMR. It's just so soothing.
It's visual ASMR.
The Brooklyn Botanical Garden also has that effect too; it's really easy to get disoriented there, even though it's actually quite small. It's such a peculiar experience of knowing exactly where you are but losing track of where that is.
I remember I was there in overalls, but it was June, and it was super hot. And I staggered around, and a security guard followed me—a very nice man—from paces away because he thought I was going to faint. I just felt very stoned most of my pregnancy. I mean, I was very sick for four months, and then I kept on waiting for a spirit of buoyancy. And it did come, but that buoyancy still felt like it wasn't really a state where I felt like writing. I more felt like being and existing in the present tense—which I do think was a certain way of being creative.
I think productivity is overrated anyway. As is our conception of just doing one project, and then moving on to another, and this idea of completion. I wonder if the attraction to things like crime procedurals and the discrete way that they're proportioned and their narrative redundancy… it's so similar in a sense to pregnancy, which is just a bizarre capsule of time that has an agreed-upon shape.
What's interesting about pregnancy is everyone has this narrative. It's a very overdetermined narrative, and everyone kept on determining this happy narrative or this cute narrative, but I just felt it was very goth, very grotesque, very perverse, very stimulating in weird ways. It was just a weird state to be in, and it was so much about time, like, a meditational time.
Did you read any pregnancy books?
I resisted getting a stroller until after she was born. I canceled my birthing classes because I was like, I have to work on my novel. I was basically on this deadline on my novel for years without actually working much on it. I canceled the birthing classes. I got the books, and then I would just throw the books out. I remember I was two weeks overdue and I was supposed to read a birthing book, and I read Sebald's Rings of Saturn instead. Not because I was so intellectual my whole pregnancy—I wasn't. I found the birthing books, for the most part, to be antiquated, racist, sexist, classist. They were pretty defeating, that narrative... There have been more books that have come out about how pregnant people and mothers are treated. What they're supposed to eat, how they're supposed to act. I found it all very infantilizing.
I totally agree with you that there's too much emphasis on productivity in writing. There's not enough emphasis on inertia and thinking. But for me, I found that breastfeeding was very contemplative. I would have books on top of the couch when I was nursing them that I would just pick up, read a couple pages, journal. It felt like a playful period. There's so much of being a new mother that's like, you're a ghost. Family visits, they don't really care about how your body is doing. They don't care how you're doing at all. It's this incredibly erasing period in a way. But, I think that boredom can be incredibly profound.
There's a point in Screen Tests when you write about wanting to do a book about famous actresses, how many of them died young and how many of them died old. I was thinking about what's in between that, like, Is it possible to die in the middle? But maybe that middle death, that's having children. As you just said, you become this ghost. But then you have to come alive again, and put the fragments together. The style of Screen Tests is really reflective of that. But, I think a lot of people think that short pieces of writing, even if they can admire a sentence or a paragraph, they don't give it respect, because they think that kind o writing is intuitive. Which is sort of like how motherhood isn't given respect, since that's thought to be natural.
It's interesting too how some of the Screen Tests were published in The Paris Review, so I went to the Paris Review Gala. It was very out of my element, because I don't usually socialize in such rarefied circles. They sat me next to Diane Williams, and I was almost hyperventilating. She had no idea who I was, but I told her how much I love her and how much I love her work; how much I've always been really inspired the flash form.
I think writing short and writing works of elegance and brevity that seem like not writing, in a way, has been my ambition ever since I wanted to be a writer. When I started writing a lot of Screen Tests I had, like, two hours a day to write something. I wanted to feel like I had finished something.
When you're a mother, and you're at the playground, or any parent of any gender, no one knows your name. We don't exist, we are our child's name. These pieces are thin. It's interesting, I don't really write about being a mother in most of them, but the form is very inspired by constraint. When I gave birth, I was struggling and thinking, like, What is this new identity? My very good friend, the writer Sofia Samatar, wrote me, "Motherhood is already a constraint." So you have this constraint, and I don't think I've ever written with that sense of constraint before.
But I love what you say about the actresses... As I've gotten older, I think I understand more who is erased, who is anonymous, and different aspects of disappearance. There's one part of Screen Tests where you write about the ecstatic acquiescence to failure. I think in some ways that really happens when you become a parent, because it's the embrace of your own morality. It's the acknowledgment of the ultimate failure, that we're going to die.
I think that a lot of my writing, if not all of my writing, is shaped by grief. I used to think that my consideration was the self, but I actually think I'm interested in time. For me, having a child and falling in love with a child made me reckon with mortality in a way that I hadn't before, and I think that really changed me. I think that sense of acquiescence is there in the new work and also the recognition of how small my work is. I think that's why it's gotten smaller, because it's not more important to me than life—it may have been before, but now life is more important to me and writing happens in the margins. There's a beauty to that. There's a beauty to that practice, to that ritual, to that longing, to that desire, and it's also really small.
There's this discussion of what stands the test of time, there's this discussion of what will be read a hundred years from now, that I used to be really interested in. But I think now with our political movement, with our degradation of the environment and the world, my writing feels all the more meaningless, which also makes it more joyful somehow, because it's so small. I've said something like that to my editor, and he's horrified. Because we're supposed to say that what we're doing is so consequential and part of changing minds and changing lives, and I think a lot of work is like that. But for me, I'm just interested in the time and subjectivity, and looking at art, the day, it's like a sort of practice. It's less about the consumable object.
I mean, it's not very capitalist, so I like that approach.
Publishing has gotten to the point where they want all books to break through, they want a book to have this creamy, clear concept, and to appeal to the largest amount of people as possible, when, honestly, a lot of books that people do love don't follow that. Something like Clare-Louise Bennett's Pond doesn't follow that. Can you imagine that being pitched somewhere as a book? But it's so strange and atmospheric and small and weird. I'm not against social media at all, but readers like weird books. It's just very hard now, there's a lot going on with Trump and Brexit, etc. It's really hard to get people to focus on the smaller books. Books disappear.
I feel like the books that have come out now have been in this queer, feminist speculative tradition, like Samantha Schweblin's Fever Dream or Carmen Maria Machado. I was just reading this Alice Sola Kim story that was sort of referencing Me Too. She is great. We live in this enormously weird time that is for literature and other art forms to respond to. People often really value writers. Writers are the ones who tune out the noise to be able to meditate upon the contemporary, but it's really readers who are pretty miraculous now. Readers who are reading beyond the five books every season people tell you to read, I think that's its own art form.
Screen Tests is available for purchase on July 23.
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