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Making Connections through Writing

Zachary Lazar is the author of five books, including the novels Vengeance, Sway, and I Pity the Poor Immigrant, a New York Times Notable Book of 2014. His honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, and the 2015 John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for “a writer in mid-career whose work has demonstrated consistent excellence.” His most recent novel Vengeance is the 2019 selection for One Book One New Orleans. Lazar’s journalism has appeared in the New York Times, NPR’s All Things Considered, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. He serves on the advisory board of the PEN Writing for Justice Fellowship and is on the Literature for Justice committee of the National Book Foundation. A member of the creative writing faculty at Tulane since 2011, he teaches an introductory creative writing course that pairs Tulane students with an equal number of students incarcerated at Lafayette Correctional Center and East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. 

You’ve been a professor at Tulane for eight years — what’s been your experience teaching and writing on this campus?

“I came to Tulane when it and the city were still very much in the rebuilding process after Hurricane Katrina. I was struck by the intelligence of my students, which was often combined with idealism, and not in a naïve way, and I think this had something to do with the aftermath of the storm and perhaps in particular the university’s service learning initiatives, its reassessment of its relationship to New Orleans. Every year I’m still amazed by yet another crop of brilliant young people. My writing is not really affected by my teaching, and vice versa—one is private and the other public—but in addition to so many gratifying teaching experiences, Tulane has given me enormous support as a writer.”

Explain your intro creative writing class. What do you hope students at Tulane and in Lafayette Correctional Center/East Baton Rouge Parish Prison get out of this experience?

“The class is half Tulane students and half incarcerated students. They all do the same reading and writing assignments and exchange work every week for an entire semester. Most of this happens by correspondence, though we always have three class meetings together at the jail. Writing is obviously a form of communication, stranger to stranger, and so it is inherently a way of forming communities. In the intro creative writing classes, the students all learn a lot about the craft of writing but more importantly about how writing, if it’s any good, is always an expression of an individual sensibility. The students have to risk presenting themselves to each other and they do this for three months. At the beginning of the semester, it’s pretty much inevitable that everyone will enter the class with preconceptions and even stereotypes, but after a semester of exchanging writing, that all goes away. Everyone sees each other as an individual and they also see that they are more similar than they ever could have known before.”

Tell us briefly what the Reading Project is.

“The Reading Project is a shared intellectual experience for the entire incoming freshman class. They all read the same book before the start of the semester, then spend time during orientation week discussing it and digging in deeper through connected programs and events.”

 

Zachary Lazar, professor of English

 

Students discussing themes in Vengeance during NSO

 

 
How did you find out Vengeance was going to be the Tulane Reading Project book (as well as the 2019 One Book One New Orleans selection)?

“Well, you get an email that you didn’t expect to get. Then you stand up from your desk and you tell your people and you go out to lunch. It’s an incredible feeling to get an email like that.” 

What was the inspiration behind Vengeance?

“In 2013, I met my friend the photographer, Deborah Luster, who invited me to go with her to do a collaborative project about a passion play being performed at the Louisiana State Prison in Angola. I thought we would go for a day, maybe two, but it turned out we were invited to spend a whole week there, spending the nights on the prison grounds, watching the play rehearsals, having meals with the incarcerated actors or the prison staff and administration. I interviewed almost 40 people, often in several sessions over the course of the week, and got to know many of them on an intimate personal level that I never would have anticipated. I went back again and again and still do, having made some friendships that have lasted six years now. It changed my life.” 

What are the main messages behind Vengeance? What is it that you hope students take away from reading your novel? 

“I hope that the book brings to life through an imagined individual’s specific story a range of issues that students have probably already heard about or know firsthand, mass incarceration and racism being the most obvious ones. But I don’t write novels to convey a simple message — that’s not what novels are for, in my opinion. The message of Vengeance is two hundred and something pages long. I guess I want the students to go through some of the questioning and self-questioning that I went through in the four years of writing it.”

Why is it important that students start off the year having these types of discussions (during NSO)?

“College is a lot of things at this point, but one thing it should always be is a place where one learns to think better. This sounds obvious, but what I mean is that thinking consists of debate — debate with others, and debate with one’s self. You have an idea, you think it’s smart, then you stand back from it and see if you can poke holes in it. In this way, you learn not to fear or be ashamed of your own ignorance, which is where we all start, all the time. I hope the discussions encourage this kind of vulnerability, curiosity, and willingness to grow.”

Do you integrate the themes of the book into your classes? How?

“The prison class is an obvious extension of the book — the book produced the class. When I spent that first week at Angola, I was struck by how many creative people I met — people who made art, wrote poems, made music, etc — and I don’t mean this in a superficial way. They made art for spiritual reasons and sometimes for money, too, and both motives meant they took their craftsmanship seriously. I never liked the phrase “creative writing” — all writing is creative, and the word “creative” is so overused that it’s like this flavorless glob. I’m saying this because I think that literature is actually very important, but rather than try to explain to my classes why I think that, I try to demonstrate why. The stock advice in creative writing classes is “show, don’t tell,” and though it’s stock, I do agree with it.”

Read more about the Reading Project