Interview with Caroline Zancan
By Caroline Zancan
Riverhead Books, June 2015
Caroline Zancan, an editor at Henry Holt, is the author of the debut novel Local Girls (Riverhead Books, 2015). Named by People, Glamour, and The Huffington Post as one of summer’s best books, this story explores the night three high school graduates are forced to face the reality of adulthood in an unexpected and tragic way.
Location plays a big part in shaping the lives of your characters in Local Girls. Do you feel like the places you have lived have shaped your own relationship to not just life but your writing?
Yes, absolutely. I’ve always been enchanted by the baked weirdness of Florida. There are so many unique people and creatures and it’s so damn hot it can kind of scramble your brain. There’s kind of an “anything can happen at any moment vibe” that has always struck me. I grew up going there, and I often thought that it would be a fantastic place to set a novel. As soon as I had the basic idea for Local Girls—a long bar conversation between a movie star and three of his most devoted fans—I knew I would set it in Florida. I wanted the heaviness of the night—of knowing something bad happens by the end of it right up front—to be matched by the sleepy, heavy suffocating humidity that permeates the state in late August.
Is there any part of Local Girls that makes you feel exposed, as if it were closer to a memoir than fiction?
I’m very different from all of the characters here—I’m not a movie star, obviously, and I didn’t grow up in Florida. And though I was definitely restless at this age, I had already left home. But I share something major with each of the characters. Like Sam, I don’t believe in moderation—I like to stay up all night and then sleep all day; read a thousand page book in a few days without doing much else until I finish; eat an epic meal and then go run seven miles. Like Nina I was once on the losing end of a love triangle. And I definitely had a Nina in my life—a kind of electric alpha girl who seemed preternaturally wise and unafraid of the world. I struggled with leaving home the way Maggie does, even if my path was a little clearer, and I think I have Max’s curiosity and wonder. I think that’s generally how fiction works—you take scraps of your own life and traits you recognize in yourself and those around you and build something bigger from them. But there was no thread or plot twist here that I took directly from my own life.
What was the first thread of an idea for this novel? Was it a character, a location, an event, a theme, or did it seem to come all at once?
A celebrity very different from Sam Decker died of a drug overdose, and it was reported that the night he died, he was drinking in a bar in a kind of random city by himself. I just kept thinking about how crazy it must have been to be a patron in that bar that night—to go from being excited to seeing him, to sad and haunted by the fact that he had died, and being one of the last people to see him. We all place so much importance on our celebrity sightings these days—we love to trade stories—and it just seemed like such a powerful case of that. I kept wanting to hear the stories people from that bar had. So I started with a long bar conversation between a movie star who was about to die of an overdose and fans in a bar very much off the Hollywood circuit. But the more I wrote, the more intrigued I was by the girls he was talking to—my attention kept going to them. And my hope is that peoples’ reading experience will mirror my writing experience. At first you’re curious what this movie star has to say, but it’s the girls’ story that holds the real drama. It’s their secrets that you’re ultimately leaning forward to hear.
How have you balanced your writing life with your personal life?
I probably didn’t have a very balanced life as I was writing this and revising it for publication—there were a lot of nights with very little sleep and a lot of cancelling very fun plans, and not seeing as much of my friends as I would’ve liked to. I think you can do it all and have it all but not at the same time. So I kind of wrote this in a tornado, at the expense of a lot of my free time and perhaps sanity and quality of life, but in the months since it’s come out I’ve been enjoying life at a slower pace—there’s been a lot of drinking wine in the park in the middle of the day.
What is the most productive criticism you have received so far about your writing or writing life?
When I first got to [the] Bennington [Writing Seminars] my writing was very clunky on a line by line basis—too many adverbs and modifiers. I think I wanted my writing to sound pretty. By the time I finished the program I wanted each of my sentences to convey whatever it was trying to as efficiently and clearly as possible. I wanted to be accurate and say something true simply and straightforwardly enough that most people could identify and perhaps empathize with it. David Gates had me read On Writing by Stephen King my first term, and it was immeasurably helpful.
Do you have any manuscripts or other literary projects you felt you had to abandon before you finished Local Girls?
Dozens of them! But I don’t regret any of them. They all collectively got me to the place I needed to be in before I could write Local Girls. I don’t think most people publish their first major creative undertaking.
Was there any book in particular that helped shape your vision of Local Girls?
I worked with Jill McCorkle my fourth term [of the Bennington Writing Seminars]. I had just started Local Girls, and knew I wanted the entire thing to take place in one night. Jill suggested I read That Night, by Alice McDermott, which also focuses on one night, and its many repercussions. I literally read it in one day, and it remains one of my favorite books. I’m not sure why it was so helpful to my own book, because they’re very different, but the month I read it was a huge turning point for me.
Are there any words or phrases that you loathe?
I hate verbs of utterance—”he snarled”; “she shrieked.” As [one of my professors] Bret Anthony Johnston always said in his craft lectures, really good dialogue speaks for itself. If you’ve written a good conversation, “he said” or “she said” should be enough.
What do you believe is the most beautiful word in the English language?
I love the phonetics and unapologetic drama and fuss of the word “exquisite,” but I love the specificity of the definition of “crestfallen.” It captures such a specific combination of feelings.
Is there any piece of advice that helped you finish and publish your novel when things got tough?
Don’t worry about the end result—who is going to publish it, etc. Write the very best book you can, and worry about the rest only when you’re confident you’ve done that. Once you publish something, it’s out in the world forever. Make sure it’s an accurate representation of what you’re capable of. I think the publishing process intimidates people and trips them up. Just focus on the words on the page, and the rest will come.
Book jacket design by Rachel Willey
Book jacket image: Original photo, Audra Luciero (altered)
Author photo: Melanie McLean