Love, Loss and a Great Read

by Rona Berg

Author Nora Zelevansky recounts her path and process in fiction, and shares insight into her new novel

Nora Zelevansky is the author of novels Will You Won't You Want Me?, Semi-Charmed Life and her latest, Competitive Grieving. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, ELLE, Town & Country, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair and our very own Organic Spa Magazine. Her new book, Competitive Grieving, follows a woman named Wren as she navigates the social and personal minefields following a childhood friend’s death. Thought-provoking and introspective, Zelevansky’s witty and stylish novel is the perfect summer page-turner for the beach, the barbeque or the backyard.

Rona Berg: Have you always written fiction? When did you start?

Nora Zelevansky: No, definitely not! I always loved to write. I was editor of my high school literary magazine, but I only ever wrote personal essays. That was my first love. I was obsessed with Joan Didion, to put it mildly.

It wasn’t until many years later, after working in film and politics and then becoming a freelance journalist, that I began to wonder about fiction. There was something seductive about the idea of writing without constraint after years of working to match a particular voice for each particular publication.

I think it was November 2010 when I decided to give National Novel Writing Month a shot. I followed their rules, working without an outline, inspired only by some amorphous idea of a character I had dreamed about on vacation in the Caribbean earlier that year. I wrote the allotted 1,677-plus words a day for a month without stopping or editing, and, by the end, I had, well, a hot mess. But it was the beginning of a novel. Something to work from. And that, after many, many revisions, became my first novel,Semi-Charmed Life. 

RB: How does it compare with journalism and magazine writing, where you've had a successful career as a creative non-fiction writer? 

NZ: Writing novels is such a different beast than writing articles. I do appreciate the finite nature of journalism in certain ways, and I still love nothing more than trying to encapsulate, for a reader, something that I’ve personally seen or experienced. When an article is working, it’s like you can feel the structure click into place, kind of like a puzzle. There’s a kind of pleasing sharpness to it.

For me, in fiction, that can happen with certain passages, but mostly, it’s much more meandering. You can explore some of the corners that, in shorter form, you might otherwise ignore. It’s more emotionally wrought. It’s also more solitary. In journalism, you’re interacting with interview subjects. You’re engaging directly with the world. You’re meeting people and exploring new things. When you’re writing fiction, it’s really just you and that blank page. You’re exploring what’s in your own head.

RB: What inspires you? 

NZ: People with quirky characteristics and personalities or who I think I have pegged but then have unexpected dimensions. The absurdity of human behavior and of cultural trends. Pop culture, in general, is a huge inspiration for me.Just marveling at what people are focused on at a particular time.

My own experiences, sometimes—things I see, places I go, negative and positive occurrences. Fraught emotional moments that feel both bad and good, like reunions or visiting a former home or returning to a city where you once lived. I guess traveling back to the past to revisit former versions of yourself. I tend to write delayed coming-of-age stories, so I guess I’m fascinated by the idea of perpetual reinvention in life and of the ways in which people sometimes get stuck.

I often write down snippets of conversations I overhear. I rarely remember them once I jot them down, but I do tend to note them when I think they’re compelling or funny.

RB: Novelists each have their own unique process—what's yours? Do you write in cafes? Do you write every day? Do you set goals for yourself?

NZ: I used to have a process—and then I had kids. I’m kidding…sort of. These days, it can be rare for me to have what I once would have considered an ideal scenario for writing, so I take the windows when they come.

When I’m writing a first draft of a novel, I do generally tend to push through, as I did during that first National Novel Writing Month. I feel much calmer once I have a draft, even if it’s a wreck, so I tend to try to write every day, even if it’s literally just a sentence. Then, I’m more relaxed about the process once that initial draft is complete.

RB: Competitive Grieving has an untimely death at its center, yet you manage to keep the book upbeat--and it's a page-turner! Was that something you were conscious of when writing it? How did you pull that off? 

NZ: You know, I’m not entirely sure. My approach to life, especially its difficulties, involves a lot of humor. And I appreciate a story that tackles difficult issues, but also offers some escape, especially right now. I guess I’m compelled by life’s absurdities, and that means approaching even the darker moments with at least some lightness. That, fortunately, seems to have come through in this book. (I hope!)

RB: I know everyone asks this, but how personal was the story? How many degrees of separation exist between you and your work?

NZ: It’s a fair question and one that’s difficult to untangle. Competitive Grieving was inspired by the death of one of my oldest friends not long ago. The aftermath was messy, as was navigating all his relationships. I started to realize that there were all these different versions of him, that we all wanted to feel like we were special to him, but that he wasn’t around to validate us. That confusion pushed people to behave in intense ways. And that pretty universal experience struck a chord with me. So, the idea for the book is definitely inspired by something I lived through in real life, but the story itself is complete fiction. It’s not my friend’s story, and it’s not mine. But the themes and, okay, maybe a snippet of conversation or two are drawn from personal experience.

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