Full disclosure: I blurbed Oliver Zarandi’s new collection Soft Fruit in the Sun, so I’m not exactly an impartial observer when it comes to his writing. But that’s not a bad thing: Zarandi is a writer worth championing, someone whose writing takes readers to wholly unexpected places and revels in bizarre yet familiar imagery. And so we talked about the making of his collection, the writers he admirers most, and what his take is on the current Premier League season.
Both with the writings in Soft Fruit in the Sun and some of the work you’ve published at Vol.1 Brooklyn, you’ve pushed at the limits of certain forms — essays that read like fiction, fiction that uses the structure of an essay. What draws you to those liminal spaces? And when did you first begin experimenting with structure in this way?
I just want the work to be fun to read. If that means writing it like a list, then so be it. I went to university to study writing back in 2014, but I dropped out. I remember my teacher just talking about writers like Richard Ford and so on and when I read Ford, I thought yes, this is good writing, but it’s not me. Why do I need to write this way? It’s like a lot of these MFA courses. I remember one of the teachers on the course invited us all into her office. I won’t name the writer, but she’s well known, let’s put it that way. She said ‘none of you will become writers’. I thought, wow, you’re being paid to say this shit. She then said, look, short stories should always be at least 8000 words. Again – why? What if I wanted to write one that was 100 words long? I just hated all these made up rules on writing. All those disappointed faces in her office. If it’s interesting, it’s interesting. I experiment with the way a story is because that’s the only way I know how to say what’s in my head. I read a lot and try and write in a way that can only be me. I don’t want to write a New Yorker story – I want to write my story and if somebody wants to publish it, great. If not, then I’m not upset.
At what point in the writing process does the structure come into focus? Do the themes of a story come first, or does the way the story will be arranged?
I always read a few short stories before I even start writing. I underline them, I digest them and then when I begin, I always believe it should fall into place. It doesn’t. Everything about the way I approach writing is a shit show. My brain is just too packed and my left arm twitches a lot. I’ll take huge breaks and think, think, think and then go back to it. I sometimes just test myself and write a first sentence. I just go for it and see where each sentence takes me. A lot of the time these experiments take me absolutely nowhere. Dead ends. But a few times, a good story comes out of it and, looking back on some of these stories, I have no idea how I even got to that point.
“The Chair,” for example, was all written by hand because I broke my laptop. I’d been watching a documentary about Hugh Hefner and thought ‘what if Hugh Hefner were a 5 year old child, a real piece of shit and visited the Wild West?’ So I started writing it that way and the story came from it that way.
A story like “Blood!,” however, was written in San Francisco. I could only afford a soup that day and it was pretty cold, so I sat down outside a cafe near the Castro and sipped my soup. I looked inside a cafe and a very overwhelming woman was shouting and laughing and I could see food stuck in the corners of her mouth. A lot of people were looking at her as if to say who is this woman? Why is she here? So I started writing that story. But it was boring. So I changed it and put this large woman inside of a bath tub because she bleeds all the time. What could be more annoying, I thought, than somebody bleeding all the time in your favourite cafe? But the story is about those intrusive thoughts too, about how we do sometimes want to remove people from our society. All those people in that cafe that day, just looking like they wanted to kill this outsider. What gives them the right? Why are we all so territorial?
I’m sometimes amazed at how dumb people can be and if you want to really know a good writing starting point, it’s the fact I can’t figure out why the human race – one I like quite a lot – can be so cruel and fucking stupid at the same time.
The title Soft Fruit in the Sun is both eminently descriptive and a little unsettling. When in the process of putting this collection together did it become apparent that it was the title that worked best for the book?
I wanted a title that was a little less abrasive than the original title I had in mind. I’m actually too embarrassed to tell you what it was, but trust me when I say it was dog shit. I’m inspired by paintings a lot of the time and have a bunch of books on that right in front of me. I need to have those images in front of me, to reference as I write. So the idea of soft fruit in the sun actually came from a still life painting I saw in a massive art book. I’m working on a second collection of short stories right now called Women And Men In Different States of Unrest and this was inspired firstly by a few paintings I saw by Falk Gernegross and from reading too much Grace Paley.
Some of your work — I’m thinking of “Blood!” in particular — takes the visceral to a surreal level. What draws you to this convergence of the visceral and the weird?
It began with my eating disorder. I didn’t eat solid food for years – literally years – and, oddly enough, this brought me a lot closer to my body. I’d focus on each part of my body like they were chapters in a book, scenes on a DVD. I started watching horror films. Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead. The Fly. Basket Case. Zombie Flesh Eaters. But there were films like Taxi Driver, Spoorloos, Irreversible, Le souffle au cœur, Ichi The Killer, films that, at the time, opened things up for me.
But in terms of books, I’ve always been drawn to the weird, the gothic. I read out of compulsion a lot of the time, sometimes with 5, 6, 7 books on the go. It’s odd and unsettling and very painful to carry that many books around. But when I was younger – say, 18 – I was obsessed with writers I like to call masculine. Bukowski, Joyce, Salinger, Fante. And as much as I still enjoy some of those books, you start to see how ugly and privileged some of that writing is.
I think mostly all of my favourite writers are women now. Grace Paley changed the way I look at sentences and dialogue. Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood is great, but The Violent Bear It Away is one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. It is all about the body – in a religious sense and in a meaty way too. It starts with a corpse and, if you haven’t read it, the ending still makes me want to vomit. I love it. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye or Sula, two masterpieces that are unlike anything I’ve read before. I like writing things that will make people laugh too, so reading writers like John Jodzio, Patrick DeWitt and Ottesa Moshfegh, Miranda July, Amy Hempel. And then there’s Amelia Gray. Gutshot was unlike anything I’d read and spoke to me in a very personal way. I think back to that writer at the university who said short stories needed to be 8000 words and Amelia just shits on that. Her stories are hilarious. I met her and Ben Loory a few weeks ago in LA and they were lovely people. We ate some cake.
Certain elements of modern technology work their way into your fiction — the dating app in “A Tragic Life,” for instance — while other examples of it feel timeless. As a writer, how beholden do you feel to the specifics of a particular time and place?
It’s an odd one, because I do try and keep modern things out of my stories – but I guess it’s inevitable. In these stories, I found it difficult to put names to a lot of the characters. I wanted them to all blend into each other. If I do use names, I will mostly always use the same names, again and again.
So in Soft Fruit in the Sun, I wanted to be outside of this things we call 2019 and just exist in this odd space where people are nameless or where you’re never sure what city it’s taking place in. I’d love to say this was a Beckett influence or something, but it wasn’t at all. When I was sick all those years ago, when I wasn’t eating, I would get quite delirious. I felt like I was floating for 5 or 6 years and that the city I’m from – Wolverhampton – wasn’t a real place at all, but a sort of prison. Those years have all, strangely, collapsed in on one another like a compressed accordion. Sometimes I can stretch it back out and look in on it all, but it always snaps back shut. So the idea of time and place definitely comes from this feeling of isolation and illness, of feeling completely helpless in ones body.
I think for the next collection, though, I’m already moving away from this. I saw a painting of a Polish dwarf in the National Portrait Gallery for example and wrote a story about him, about his life. I did a bit of research too, but I’m fascinated by real figures from the past. Imagine E.L. Doctorow but if he had a fixation on boils and genitals and syphilis.
Closing with a sports question: where do you see Wolverhampton finishing this season?
I’d say after beating Man City last week, Wolves have maybe got the kick-start their season needs. I’d say 8th or 9th – definitely top half. It won’t quite be the same as last year and we didn’t invest in enough proven players this time round, but they’re a great team. Now, my question for you is where do you think Spurs will finish?!