Nell Zink Talks Southern California Novel ‘Avalon’ and Success After Years of Tough and Thankless Work – Orange County Register

As “Avalon” opens, Bran, the young woman at the heart of Nell Zink’s coming-of-age story, sprawled across a grassy hillside in Southern California and imagines that the “stain of moonlight” in front of her leads to Avalon.

Not the island town of Santa Catalina, although a few paragraphs later she remembers a childhood trip to the island off the coast of southern California, one of her few memories to good half of life before his mother abandons him.

Related: Sign up for our free newsletter about books, authors, reading and more

For Bran, it is the island of Arthurian legend, a place of beauty and love beyond the mists that obscure him from the disappointments and disorder of his real life.

“Because life itself, reality, is a bit dystopian,” Zink says of Bran’s dreams during a video call from his home one hour from Berlin, Germany.

“The alternative, it doesn’t have to be high fantasy,” she says of Bran’s penchant for books such as TH White’s “The Once and Future King,” which is about King Arthur. and Avalon. “When you think about it, something like the Christian myth, or a lot of things that people say.

“That, in fact, is not all there is. There is a well-organized, valid, fair, just and beautiful parallel universe.

“And that tends to be a bit fantastical.”

Create the character

In “Avalon”, Bran’s mother leaves her with an extended family of not quite relatives who run a sketchy landscaping business by day and party with their biker gang pals by night.

She works all day without pay in nurseries located under a power line in Torrance and sleeps in a lean-to outside the family home at night.

It’s a Hard Life, though more darkly comic than dark in Zell’s narrative. Bran finds friends among the other misfits in the high school literary magazine, including his best friend Jay, whose delusional belief in his skill as a flamenco dancer provides some of the novel’s funniest moments.

But when the friends all leave for college and the promise of a bright future, Bran sees starting his own small landscaping business and living out of his car as his best option.

“That kind of fantasy life is something Bran tries to develop,” Zink says. “But she has a kind of underdeveloped imagination. When she’s younger, her fantasies don’t go very far at all.

“They’re like, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll be abducted and I won’t have to live here anymore,’” she laughs. “But they don’t say where she’s going. It has no goal, no destination.

“And so she imagines Avalon and tries to make it real to herself.”

Peter, who is aware of Bran’s feelings and shares them to some degree, is a particularly awful potential boyfriend. Yet despite his explaining and knowing-it-all ways, he encourages Bran to reach for something bigger than herself. It just doesn’t include him fully reciprocating his feelings.

Zink says she started “Avalon” with Peter in mind more than Bran, almost as a challenge to herself and her readers.

“I’ve spoken to a few women who have read it and sometimes come across some really cerebral guys who thrive on female attention and are very low key,” she says. “They thought I had managed to capture that character flaw pretty well.

“When I write a novel, I want something to be a bit paradoxical and hard even for me to understand,” Zink says. “That is, who would be attracted to him and stay attracted to him? Who would need to have someone like that in their life?

Peter gives Bran the attention she needs and encourages her to explore her creativity through writing. In him, she begins to find herself, and her fallow imagination blossoms.

Grounded in reality

So far, “Avalon” has received strong reviews, with some noted similarities in Bran’s character and bits of Zink’s own biography.

This is her first book set in Southern California, where she was born and lived as a child. And in some ways, she, like Bran, found her way to a writer’s life down an unlikely path.

“There’s a sense in which I did it,” Zink says when asked if his own life influenced any Bran tracks. “Because I was raised to work hard and get paid by the hour, and I thought that was how I would succeed in life.

“So I had to learn through long, hard suffering that hard work is unrewarded,” she says of her previous adult life as a secretary and waitress, construction worker and technical writer.

“It’s one aspect,” Zink said. “The other is when you start hanging out in literary New York, one thing you start to notice is that this kind of training, I don’t mean it’s rare, it’s non-existent. It’s really hard to find someone who isn’t a complete upper-middle-class child of trust funds.

In “Avalon”, she notes that Peter encourages Bran to write to bring another kind of voice to the world of literature.

“He’s like, ‘You know, Bran, you have to write or all the other writers will be global golden youth’ – golden youth – ‘forced to choose between a career in literature and yacht racing.’

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Zink said. “But you may feel like that’s what you’re up against if you’re from the lower strata of American society, as I unfortunately ended up being, because I was such a food of background economically, still doing any job. could get.”

Still a writer

The year Zink turned 50, she published her first novel “The Wallcreeper,” which was later named one of The New York Times’ 100 Notable Books in 2014. “Mislaid,” which came a year later later was shortlisted for the National Book Award. .

This all fits nicely into the tale of a writer who found her creative voice later in life, but Zink is clear that she’s always been a writer. It was just the published career of someone she had neglected as a young author.

“There was the first phase where I wrote for literally no one,” Zink says. “I wrote all these stories, some of which I remember quite well.

“I remember a guy who was actually in love with a Tide box because the graphics on the Tide box were so beautiful,” she says. “They were more beautiful, more radiant, more luminous and more moving than anything he had ever seen in his life, and he was completely in love with them.”

In the 90s, she created, wrote and published a zine called Animal Review, in which she often interviewed punk rock musicians about their pets and wrote about anything she liked.

“I had the experience of being a cult author there,” Zink says. “People thinking, ‘Oh my God, Nell, you’re so famous, everyone knows your zine.’ And I’d say, ‘No, no, the draw is 80’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, that can’t be true.’

This ultimately contributed to Zink’s decision to write for herself and a few friends and avoid the hierarchies of the publishing industry.

“It was like, why bother posting?” she says. “Because the six or seven people who are going to like it, you can just give it to them. So that’s what I did. »

And maybe it was until novelist Jonathan Franzen fell into Zink’s orbit in 2010.

Zink decided to write Franzen after reading an article in The New Yorker about the slaughter of songbirds in the Mediterranean, hoping to tell him about a similar environmental disaster in the Balkans.

“I took it really seriously,” Zink says. “I actually wrote it, slept on it one night, edited it the next day, then sent it off. It was a very good letter, written in a playful literary way also because I said to myself: “Oh, he’s a writer, he’ll be charmed. He’ll be more interested if I don’t make the letter boring.

Franzen replied, apparently so impressed with the letter that he assumed Zink must have been a published writer.

“He responded by saying, ‘Wow, your letter was so not boring,'” she said. Because there is no Nell Zink on the Internet. Which at the time was really true.

Franzen’s praise and subsequent efforts to help Zink find a publisher for his work were mind-boggling, Zink says.

“I wrote a lot,” she says. “And all of a sudden I had this guy who’s like a kingmaker in the scene telling me I’m really good and I can make a living.

“Like I said, I was a serious writer,” she says.

Irene B. Bowles