Vanessa Veselka’s strange route to literary stardom

veselka_long.jpgVanessa Veselka looks to the future (All images MPR photos/Euan Kerr)

Vanessa Veselka, author of the cult hit dystopian novel Zazen, is a complicated kind of writer. This time last year she says she was driving a cab over night and living off food stamps. Now she’s touring the country with her book. It’s the latest twist in a life which has produced an eye-grabbing biography.

It reads: Vanessa Veselka (Portland, OR) has been, at various times, a teenage runaway, a sex-worker, a union organizer, a student of paleontology, an expatriate, an independent record label owner, a train-hopper, a waitress, and a mother.

Veselka admits she wrote it in a burst of frustration a while back.

“I had been applying for jobs and getting turned down,” she said during a recent visit to MPR. “And I don’t mean high-end career jobs, I mean like McDonalds won’t hire me, all these kinds of things. And part of it is when you put my resume together there are large holes in it everywhere.”

These were the result of a peripatetic life often driven by circumstance rather than design. She was reluctant at first to include many of her experiences because they rarely seemed like good career building moves. Finally she said something snapped.

“And I went and I wrote my real resume like teenage sex worker, sold flowers on the LA freeway – learned to deal with different multi-racial cultures!” she laughed. “I wrote down in human resources-speak, which is kind of offensive to me. I sat and I wrote down my real life experience with no breaks.”

She admits she sometimes still asks herself if it’s the best idea to have this floating out there as her biography.

When I jokingly say I’d hire her she immediately responds “Yeah, to do what? That’s the question, right?”

veselka1.jpgThe answer to that seems to be as a writer.

Veselka is an energetic conversationalist, who weaves together ideas, stories, and recollections into an experiential blanket. Her writing takes this even deeper, although it is so easy to absorb a reader may not be aware initially how much is going on below the surface.

Her debut novel is “Zazen,” named for the Buddhist meditation practice. It is the story of Della, a young woman living in a community a little in the future and not too different from our own, but apparently on the brink of destruction. At 27 she is recovering from a breakdown after finishing her doctorate in paleontology.

“And in the world that she is in there are multiple wars,” Veselka said. “Bombs are starting to go off, people are leaving the country, some people have moved to the mountains, some people are starting urban farms, people are throwing sex parties, people are organizing unions, people are building box mall churches, and she looks at all of these ways to respond to the world she sees, and none of them work for her.”

Della wants to escape, but doesn’t have the energy. So Veselka says she loses herself in a macabre project.

“She becomes obsessed with people who set themselves on fire in the beginning of the book and begins to track immolations.”

The story weaves the complicated circumstances of Della life around what Veselka said are Della’s two basic issues.

“The dominant question for her with the title Zazen is this question: can you sit still on fire? When you don’t like anything around you when all the options don’t seem to lead anywhere can you sit still on fire? This is the question that is behind her mind in the book.”

“Also the question: are you in or are you out? She wants to step back, if she doesn’t engage then it’s not her fault. she’s not sure if she wants to be part of the human race.”

Veselka will admit she drew on her own experiences in writing the novel. She describes novelists as ‘terrible scavengers.’

“We can take the most precious meaningful intimate situation and just break it open and stick it somewhere else, you know pretty callously. So I just completely ravaged my history for details, because what you need when you are writing is lots of details.”

veselka2.jpgBut she stressed that only goes so far.

“What I know as a writer she is not me. What is me, is her urgency,” she said

Veselka said she’s the kind of person who constantly wants to figure things out, and she admits sometimes it’s not a pleasant way to live.

Veselka’s bleak vision has attracted a great deal of reader love. One fan, who apparently doesn’t believe in capital letters, wrote on the site the far-reaching extent of his affection.

“I’m going to publicly declare unadulterated book love. if i could marry this book, i would, but human-biblio marriages are not yet on the public radar. if i could have this book’s baby, i would. if it were my life or this book’s life, i would throw mine down gladly. five stars is not enough; if i could adorn this book with the night sky, i’d do it.”

While the book is a little difficult to find in the stores, Veselka’s readings have drawn rock star crowds.

Veselka said it’s been a blast, and the success of the book has led to a lot of freelance writing gigs and the prospect of more novels.

Veselka is part of a wave of female writers wrestling with a dystopian view of the world. Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy is the most high profile series at the moment. When asked why she thinks this is happening, Veselka said she thinks it’s an interesting question.

“I think there has always been within sci-fi this feminist utopian,’ she said, “Starting from like Doris Lessing and Ursula le Guin, this really socially utopian direction that has also question gender and class a lot.”

She says women writers bring a different perspective to the dystopian narratives.

“I think that there is this sense that needing to navigate those social utopias gone wrong, brings in the question of who survives? There is a different pressure in the narrative for women to survive,” she said bluntly. “They are breeders. When a woman survives it has a different meaning, just at the basic level than if a man survives.”

She said she believes women writers are finding their toughness now, and that is what may be coming through.


One of the weirder parts of her experience has been how so many things which she wrote about in “Zazen” have become part of the news since the book has been published. There has been a remarkable number of self-immolations recently, a fact which has not escaped the notice of her fans. They keep contacting her about how the real world reflects her fiction.

“It does have that ghost walking over your grave kind of feeling,” she said. She said it’s been a strange experience to see it happen.

“And it’s not because I am psychic,” she laughed. “I wish I was psychic because that would make it so much easier.”

You can listen to Vanessa Veselka read the opening to ‘Zazen’ below.

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