Zachary Lazar is a journalist and the author of six books, most recently a novel, entitled Vengeance, set in part at Louisiana’s Angola prison. He’s based here in New Orleans and teaches at Tulane University. WRBH’s David Benedetto sat down with Lazar last month to talk about his experiences at Angola, writing and trauma, and helpful criteria on reviewing books for the New York Times.
WRBH’s David Benedetto: The book’s been out for a couple of months now. How are you feeling about it?
Zachary Lazar: I’m feeling good! It’s gotten some good response and still we’ll get some more now. It’s been a five-year project so it’s nice to have it see the light of day.
DB: The beginning of this book kind of owes its genesis to a passion play you saw put on by the inmates at Angola. And I was really interested with how you found yourself in that position and what—in that experience, in that moment— what kind of inspired you to make this a project that you wanted to write about?
ZL: Well, I moved to New Orleans seven years ago and people were constantly telling me that I needed to meet this photographer named Deborah Luster who is now a very good friend of mine. But I didn’t know her until I moved here. And the reason people kept saying we should meet is because we both do work that has a lot to do with crime and its consequences. And the reason we do that is personal—to be reductive about it. We’ve both had a parent who was murdered and what’s more bizarre is that her mother and my father were both murdered in the same city in Phoenix, Arizona. These were both contract killings, the same detective worked both cases for a while, and then many years later just by sheer coincidence, we ended up living in New Orleans where neither of us is from, living two blocks away from each other.
So she had done a lot of photography already at Angola and other prisons around the state, but she was going back to Angola to do this new project about the performance of a passion play they were doing at which involved men from Angola and women from St. Gabriel [who would] come over every day to do rehearsals and eventually the performance. And we ended up going together, Deborah and I, just right after we first met and she told me, very wisely, that I shouldn’t prepare for what I was going to experience. That if I wanted to do research and homework I could do that afterwards, but [not to] do it before. That was great advice. So we ended up spending a whole week there, which was a surprise.
Kathy Fontenot, the Assistant Warden there at the time, gave us a ranch to have a place to sleep every night and then we just spent the whole day, every day [with] Deborah taking photographs while I was kind of just wandering around talking to the incarcerated folks who were acting in this play and they were rehearsing. And there were 70 of them so a lot of the time they were really just standing around waiting for their scene to come up—which meant that they had a lot of time to talk to me. And once they started talking they would go very deep and tell me a lot. And so, I talked to about 40 people over the course of the week at length and I just came away from the experience with a lot of information, a lot of stories about what it’s like to be in prison, what it’s like to end up in prison, how does one do that, what does that trajectory look like. And I wrote a non-fiction piece about that, but then I had a lot more to say and that was what led to this novel.
DB: And people were willing to come and talk to you about stuff? Like, “Oh, this is somebody I can give something to of myself.” What was that like?
ZL: When I first arrived at the prison they were practicing this play in the rodeo arena and there was no orientation session so I was just there. Not even realizing at first who were the incarcerated people and who weren’t because they were all dressed in street clothes
And then I had to just sort of insinuate myself into the scene and walk up to people and tell them what I was doing and why I was doing that which was [Laughing] at the first part of that experience, kind of awkward and even a little daunting. But once it became obvious [and] people could see what I was doing—I had my notebook out and all of that—then it was not effortful at all. People were just coming up to me because they wanted to tell their story. They wanted to tell it to me and have me spread the word. So there was a lot of reason for them to want to talk to someone like me who was going to write about it.
And then you just get into this interesting and confusing space where you’re hearing all these very personal stories. Told by people who have been convicted of a crime— usually a violent crime. And you’re trying to listen very carefully and empathetically and you’re also trying to be objective and sort of see as best you can what is the real story, if there is a real story. Obviously people who are serving long sentences in prison have a self-interest in telling a story a certain way. And yet I found myself in most cases very drawn to the people who I was talking to. There was a strange bond that I felt and I think they did too— even though they were there in prison most of the time for violent crimes and, in a certain sense, I’m a victim of a violent crime. My father was murdered. [And] when I tell them that it would change the dynamic of the conversation. But I think it also made the conversations deeper and richer.
I was forming these pretty intense connections with the people I was speaking to all the while nominally wearing this journalist hat which was the hat of someone who is trying to be skeptical, trying to be evaluative. A very simple example of what I’m talking about—and this didn’t happen very often—but if somebody were to say, “I’m innocent. I don’t belong here. I didn’t do the crime.” Are you supposed to believe that or not? How can you assess a story like that? And that’s part of what I ended up writing about in this book.
DB: At the very beginning of the book, you quote Percival Everett quote from his book Erasure which I think comes to the heart of your book. And that quote goes:
“I have often stared into the mirror and considered the differences between the following statements:
1) He looks guilty
2) He seems guilty
3) He appears guilty
4) He is guilty.”
Could you talk about that epigraph?
ZL: It’s kind of an enigmatic—and also funny—quote about stigma I think. And about the way that stigma can make one paranoid and the way that paranoia can become a kind of truth. And the main character in this book says that he didn’t do the crime that he’s in prison for, he says that he was coerced into giving a false confession. And that’s sort of what got me thinking about that Percival Everett quote as I was writing this book because I wanted to imagine how that would be possible for someone to give a false confession. To say that, “I was involved in this murder,” when I wasn’t involved in a murder. Why would anybody do that?
And I did research about why someone might, but the research says things like well, this is usually someone who’s very young. You know, a teenager would do that maybe because they’re just so out of their depth. That’s sort of what happened with the Central Park Five. Or they are developmentally challenged or they are on drugs, etc. These are like the common explanations of why someone would do that.
But I wanted my character—I wanted the explanation to be less simple than that. When I created the character in my book I wanted more to imagine if somebody had the mental landscape that I have. If I was in that position, how would it be possible that I might end up making that choice after being interrogated for more than ten hours? What would that feel like? And what would it be that would finally cause me to perhaps give a false narrative that incriminates me?
DB: And then that narrative becomes your identity. You’ve talked about that a little bit in other interviews I’ve heard. I think that’s one of the more fascinating aspects of the book: how you delve into the caricature that we have in our minds that an inmate is supposed to be a certain thing. You talk about in the beginning of the book about this almost surreal scene of having the Angola newspaper writer writing a story alongside you, which should be super normal, right? l But inside of a prison, inside of this place, inside of this thing that you have preconceived notions about in your mind and you project on other people—it all becomes surreal and you have to kind of balance yourself and that’s really interesting.
ZL: Yeah, one of the first and most traumatic experiences I had that first day being in the prison as a journalist was the immediate confrontation with all of these stereotypes and prejudices I didn’t realize that I had. Which I think we might all have just from consuming as much media as we all do. But it was so striking to me how ordinary people were.
And that journalist, for example, then told me his whole story. You know he’s in there for murder [and] he told me the story of a crime. And I will say this now and I’m not sure that it will really reach anybody – but I hope that the book explicates this in a deeper way than I’m gonna be able to do right now— but what I’m going to say is that prison ends up kind of reducing somebody to this one or more things that they did, a violent act that they committed. And that resonates so much with our imaginations that it can be very—I guess surprising would be the word—surprising to see how that one act does not define someone entirely. And that people who are otherwise just like you and me can still go on and commit these acts—which is to say that probably we could too. That sounds like a cliché when I say it, but I think when you when you see it 40 or 50 times in the space of a few days it ceases to be a cliché. And it becomes overwhelming, you know?
And it’s a hard thing to —in this case, I think [it’s] hard for me because I’m not used to speaking in the language of social activism or political activism. This book has forced me to do that in a way that I’m fine with. I’m a writer so I can do it that way. But what I’m trying to just talk to people about [is] what it was like there and what it has been like there. I mean I’ve become friends with people who are in prison and I’ve been friends with them now for five years. And so other friends often ask me, “What is that like?” And it’s hard. I really have to slow down with it and kind of allow myself a few paragraphs to describe it. You know it’s a ridiculous thing to actually say that people in prison are humans. Or that they need to be humanized, you know? They are already human! They don’t need to be humanized. But there’s still that tension there.
DB: Yeah, I think it’s also like one of the big, big questions of us as humans—what do you do with somebody when they do something bad? And after thousands of years we still haven’t figured out a good answer for that or at least a general consensus for that.
ZL: It is interesting. And that’s another question that I’m often asked is, “Am I a prison abolitionist?” because this book is very critical of prisons. You know I think I stated in this book—kind of as simply as I could, in whatever my personal view is worth—that what I believe is that the only possible justification for prison is to protect the public from someone who’s dangerous [and] who’s going to commit other crimes. But I also think it’s complicated. Even that is complicated. And I think that’s not the reason why most of the people in prison are in prison now. I think most people in prison now are there for other reasons that aren’t rational reasons. And so I think that if we could at least address the irrational part of this, that would be a huge start. And then we can talk about the rational part. But there’s so much irrational right now that’s going on especially in this state with the length of those sentences and the pathetic lack of resources spent to run a public defender’s office, the short trials, all of those things. There’s no way to justify any of that in a rational way.
DB: It’s interesting looking at that and then if you look back at history—you can use that irrationality we see today as a visceral example of why certain things happened in the past that have been wrong. Where the narrative should be multifaceted and complicated, but what we take away is, “Well, they didn’t do anything about it even though they knew.” And this is good insight to why things don’t happen and why things remain rationalized like those ideas.
ZL: It’s something I think about all the time. One of the historical episodes that I’ve been looking at a lot the last couple of years at least is the run up to the Civil War and what were the arguments that people managed to make against abolitionism. What were people actually able to think of to say to justify this thing that nobody agrees with anymore. Because I think that the way incarceration works is very much like that. Now the only thing I can I can come to is that there’s always going to be a skeptical, cynical side of these arguments that is used to sort of keep the status quo in place. And there just seems to be this universal, eternal need for there to be some other people putting pressure on the other side of that. Whether they win or not—I don’t think or feel that the side that I’m on is winning at all right now. For my whole lifetime, I feel like the kinds of things that I believe in have been on the run. But on all of these issues whether it’s incarceration, gun control, et cetera—that there is a need to have a group of idealists who are at least pushing that agenda
DB: To kind of pivot to something more craft focused. How do you approach writing dialogue? When writing dialogue in fiction what are some of the important things for you to kind of showcase on the page?
ZL: That’s a great question. Dialogue is often challenging for me. Sometimes it’s hit or miss. In other words, sometimes I can just summon it up and it sounds OK [and] sometimes I really struggle. But I think what I always try to do is not have the dialogue be to directly about what is at stake. That character should sort of talk around the target area a little bit and it usually works best if [there is] some degree of conflict between the two characters so that there’s some kind of back and forth pressure. Someone says something that the other one pushes back. And then in this book—there were lots of different kinds of Americans speech in this book and so that was another extra challenge for me to do Black New Orleans dialogue. I did the best I could with it, but I kind of enjoyed that challenge too.
DB: You know you had a lot of constraints for this book. Being a white author trying to navigate this space where the majority of people are black or people of color. What was that like for you in the writing process and what were some of the strategies that you developed to address those issues?
ZL: Yeah, when I left the prison after that week I knew I wanted to write about it. And then I wrote the essay and I knew that I had more to write about and then I just wanted to do this. And I said, “Well I can either do this or I can walk away from it and not do it.” And the safer choice is to not do it [Laughing] because I’m not even from Louisiana. I am a white person writing a lot about black spaces, like you said, and that’s a very vexed thing to do. And so I decided that the only way to do it—for me anyway—was to make that problem a part of the book.
To write this strange novel—strange in the formal sense—in which it starts out really as almost straight up non-fiction: a guy who is almost exactly like me goes to prison, does this project that I did, see this play that then makes a turn. Which I hope is kind of an invisible turn into fiction where I start to explore. I start to imagine what if—after that week instead of just= going about my life—I got really involved in the story at one of the people that I met that day that week? And so that’s what the book is. And I just wanted the narrator to be someone who’s essentially me so that I could interrogate all of these things that I was doing while I was portraying them on the page. What business is it of this narrator to do this? What is a about this world that he can see and what is it about it he can’t see and what’s his stake in all of this? And I wanted that to be personal because I just felt that that would be more potent.
DB: Throughout your work, you have investigated a lot of aspects of violence and the consequences of violence, as well as the people that commit it and your own personal history with that. What was it like kind of approaching that for the first time in your first book, Sway, as well as the memoir you wrote about your father’s murder? Was it hard for you really look into this? Has understanding it made coping with your own personal traumas easier?
ZL: It’s a good question. So before I wrote Sway—which was 2008 when that book came out—I spent 10 years writing a very strange, long postmodern-y kind of novel that did all kinds of things. It was never published. I tried out a million different things in that book. It was 600 pages long. And what I learned from that experience, which was a very disappointing experience because that book was never published, but I learned a lot about myself as a writer and what I learned was surprising: one of the things that I seemed good at doing in that book was writing about violence which I never thought I would be. That’s not anything I wanted to do.
Now it seems quite obvious to me why that that is the case because of my father being murdered I was 6 years old. I think one of the ways that I chose to deal with that was that I didn’t want to be defined by that, you know? I didn’t choose for that to happen. I didn’t want to think of myself as the victim of violence, the victim of anything. I wanted to be an independent person with agency etc., but the further I went to try to run away from that I think that the more futile that fleeing became. And so I wrote Sway, which is an exploration of a different kind of violence, but the themes of that book are throughout all of my works—charisma, violence, how do people fall under the spell of something that is, for lack of a better word, evil.
I suppose Sway was a first attempt to do that and then I wrote the book about my father right after that which was the first real non-fiction work I ever did. And then Vengeance is very much a companion piece to that book about my father. And that was a challenge to keep referencing this other book that the reader probably hasn’t read so you’re going to be filling in the gaps a little bit. And what’s interesting that I think—and I can’t promise that this is true—but writing the book about my father didn’t purge me of the need to write about this stuff because I wrote I Pity the Poor Immigrant and then I wrote this book, both of which are about more violence. But something about this book unlike the one that’s literally about my father [is] this book seems to have done something for me where I just don’t feel I need to go there anymore. I’m not pulled into that direction. Which is kind of a relief after four books about violence. [Laughing]
DB: [Laughing] I can imagine. So your next book is going to be a charming comedy?
ZL: Yeah, about puppies and old people drinking tea and solving mysteries. [Laughing] No, I don’t know what it will be.
DB: I know you write for the New York Times Book Review on occasion. I’m interested in your approach on how to tackle criticism and writing critically about books and reviewing literature. Because I know there are several camps that people can fall and I was wondering what’s your kind of guiding principle in that realm?
ZL: Well I have strong opinions about what I think fiction should do and how it should do it. And I don’t think that I’m in the majority with my opinions about those things, but I do fairly often get the chance to articulate that in the book reviews for The New York Times. I’m not out to settle scores or attack anyone personally, but fiction matters to me. I’ve been writing it for 27 years, very seriously [and] with a lot of dedication.
So when I write a review, there are four questions [I ask] and they are not my questions. They are Philip Larkin’s questions from when he judged the Booker Prize once. And so he had these four easy questions and I use these all the time. Could I read it? is the first question because sometimes you just simply can’t read something, as in it’s badly written. And the second question is If I could read it could I believe it? Which is an odd thing to ask about a work of fiction because obviously fiction is not true. Could you believe it? If I could believe it did I care? And if I cared, what was the quality of my caring and would it last? I think those are a pretty good way or a good rubric to look at a work of fiction. I guess my mantra would be that fiction has always got to be entertaining, but I always want it to be more than just entertaining.
This interview was transcribed from an episode of The Writer’s Forum, a weekly program on WRBH Reading Radio for the Blind and Print Impaired focused on showcasing local and national authors, poets, historians, journalists and historians. You can find the full archive of programs here: www.soundcloud.com/WRBHreadingradio/sets/the-writers-forum
WRBH Reading Radio is a New Orleans station whose mission is to turn the printed word into the spoken word so that the blind and print handicapped can receive the same ease of access to current information as their sighted peers. You can listen to your favorite books, magazines, and interviews locally at 88.3 FM or stream on WRBH’s website www.WRBH.org.
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.