HOW DO YOU WRITE about someone who has disappeared? You slowly rebuild their image in the small fragments left in your memory, reactivating these little nodes. Suddenly, a picture emerges. Everything comes into view.
In Kate Zambreno’s Screen Tests, these fragments are shifts in tone, rhythm, and voice that slowly build into a bigger picture — an essay. At times, Zambreno summons Susan Sontag, Barbara Loden, Gertrude Stein, and actresses who were wiped out by the Old Hollywood system. At some point, she inflicts the exercise on herself, “conjuring up and murdering the girl I was and have allowed myself to become.”
This collection of short stories and essays becomes a meditation on failure and success, fiction and autobiography. The author of O Fallen Angel, Heroines, Green Girl, Book of Mutter, and Appendix Project recently spoke to me during a recent email interview about the themes she revisits, memory, and self-reflection. Screen Tests is something that takes time and various sittings to fully absorb; those pauses and reflections are what further catalyze Zambreno’s rhythm and voice.
SARA BLACK MCCULLOCH: Screen Tests starts out with small fragments — like watching Henry Fool or Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests — and these fragments then build into something more when they are contextualized in your own memories: it eventually connects to Ronnie, your roommate, who watched Henry Fool, her life, your fights and struggles. They’re often launchpads or memory triggers that lead to greater reflection.
KATE ZAMBRENO: The collection is divided up into two parts. The “screen tests” are brief pieces that exist in the space of fiction that were inspired by the stories of Lydia Davis and Fleur Jaeggy, as well as Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator and Brian Evenson and Gerald Murnane’s reports. They also play with Warhol’s Screen Tests project — his moving stills meditating on fame. In the screen tests, all written in the past few years, I fictionalize periods of my life and writing that I’ve written about in other, sometimes more direct ways, including in the essays published in the second half of the book, written years earlier in the period post-Heroines and during my first years living in New York.
In the first half of the book, there are the paired stories you’re referring to, one called “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” and another called “Henry Fool,” that think through my attachments with both the David Markson novel and the Hal Hartley film but also circle around an unnamed past roommate. Readers might recognize her as Ronnie, who appears in the last essay in the book, “One Can Be Dumb and Unhappy at Exactly the Same Time,” a long drifting essay about Barbara Loden and her film Wanda and nostalgia for my 20s and living bored and alone in the South, having just finished Heroines.
It’s interesting what you say about the feeling of deepening throughout the book. I don’t know what it’s like to read from beginning to end as a new reader. I do think of it as a collection, made up of individual parts that play off of each other. They’re much more reflective, more direct and emotional, and less unified as formal experiments. I thought perhaps I could cut up the essays for parts, but I realized that an essay is a container of time, of one’s time and obsessions and connections, and I was interested in how these two sections chimed with each other, that confusion and slipperiness, and how these figures kept on repeating.
You’ve always been more invested in marginal figures — the people left out of history or whose narratives have been controlled by others. You reference Old Hollywood actresses like Veronica Lake and Marilyn Monroe, but I’m especially fascinated with Barbara Loden — how Wanda was written so that Loden could avoid that life and outcome. These women were all victims of a larger system, and the cycle hasn’t ended. As a writer and a public one, have you often felt this way, too? Do you feel writing or making art is a way of controlling your own perception? How have these women helped you to better understand yourself and your work?
For a long time, around the time I was incubating Heroines, I was fascinated by the starlets who were victims of the studio system. I tried to write a series of intersecting monologues for years that reimagined the interiority of Veronica Lake, Marilyn Monroe, Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and others in their later years and thought of them as subjects, as readers, as writers. The monologues were really terrible! I was interested in these famous women, how they were constructed in public, how they became grotesques or suicides or hermits. I think this is why I became fascinated by Zelda Fitzgerald and Vivienne Eliot, it was around the same time period, and with Heroines I was really interested in these women who became characters in other people’s books, what that did to their sense of self and interiority and their ability to be writers, and how they were later demonized. I woke up in a rage trying to understand them.
Barbara Loden’s film Wanda and her performance in it moved me deeply. When I was writing Book of Mutter, I became interested in how Elia Kazan, her husband, dismissed Barbara Loden as this femme fatale in his memoir The Arrangement, in the film made out of it, and in her role in his Splendor in the Grass. Then I was interested in Loden’s movement of becoming an actress and then an artist by making Wanda, as a way to escape first her childhood poverty and then the expectations of her role as a rich and famous man’s wife. The character of Wanda offered an alternative timeline for her, an exploration of another possible life. I grew up in a rather strict environment — Catholic, Midwestern, lower middle class — and I do think being a writer has been a way to write out of that. In Screen Tests, I often meditate on one’s origins and class, as well as friends and doubles in my past who didn’t make it out, either through suicide or because their opportunities were much more depleted than mine, as was the case of Ronnie. My continued writing about Ronnie is a way to think about how I have avoided certain outcomes and how I feel haunted by other possible lives.
I have always been interested in concepts of the marginal and the margins — those who weren’t allowed to write, who were erased from history, or who wrote the minor language. I think this is still important — who is allowed to tell their own narrative, whose narrative is dismissed or demonized or erased. I’m interested in women who feel oppressed in their daily existences, or are not given the space and time to become writers. But thinking about actresses in Screen Tests or famous literary wives in Heroines or even myself — even with these complications of class — is still a consideration of the extremely privileged and white. It’s difficult to talk about my book within this framework of marginalization and erasure when thinking of who’s the most vulnerable in our society right now. Abortion bans, for example, disproportionately affect women of color and poor women. A lot of the screen tests were written last summer while feeling consumed by the horror and helplessness of the treatment of these children at the border. And the average life expectancy for black trans women is just 35, and there are constant reports of the murder of black trans women, which are mostly ignored.
We’re also living in a time where so many writers, especially writers of color and queer and trans writers, are increasingly marginalized and left to live in precarity, if not poverty, unable to create more work because of the pressures of their daily lives. This history keeps on repeating. A lot of the book elegizes and celebrates the work of queer artists, many who died of AIDS, like Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowicz, and Ethyl Eichelberger, who committed suicide while struggling with the disease. Even though many of those artists are now being celebrated, many of them weren’t in their lifetime, which is so often the case with writers and artists making work from the margins. But what’s great about all of these artists is that they made art as a form of beauty and wit and resistance against hegemony and erasure and cruelty and horror, and as a form of community and friendship. Their lives were also often their art, and they became artists not for success but as a way to transcend where they came from.
Do you feel that in order to be a writer, you need to be published? Or working on something so big and grand? You talk about Valerie Solanas, who wanted to be recognized as one, and even in her final days, was allegedly furiously hacking away at something.
Capitalism and precarity dictate that for someone to be a writer they need to be published, but of course multitudes write privately, in diaries, notebooks, gardening journals, manifestos, books of disquiet. Some of that is later read as literature. Before I published a book, I thought there was a line that I would cross, once published, that would make me feel, Yes, I am a Writer. But I actually think being a writer is often a tension between desiring recognition and visibility and feeling more often than not invisible. The truth is I more often than not don’t feel like a writer. If you become a writer because you are looking for that level of recognition and success, you are probably going to be dissatisfied.
Whether it be between writers or women, do you still believe in the possibility of a community? I find that if there is one, it’s often transactional or strictly for social media purposes.
I absolutely believe in the possibility of community among writers, and among women — but I think within that possibility is also its impossibility, its failure. I think all of my thinking and writing in the past few years has been interested in this question. My novel Drifts especially focuses on the narrator’s friendships with other writers, mostly women and non-binary writers, and I think some of the screen tests lightly satirize but also meditate on the possibility and limits of friendships with other women writers. I think there can be so much competition among women writers because capitalism tends to pit women against each other — especially the white, straight, cis women who unfairly get the lion’s share of attention and recognition and space in the media and within publishing.
So many of the screen tests are about New York, lightly tweaking how relationships here have felt more competitive, more transactional. There’s this concept in publishing that basically only a few women writers can exist at one time, and I think the slippery and more opaque and complicated books get lost in the fast publishing cycle. That’s why it’s been necessary for me to cultivate non-competitive friendships with women and non-binary writers, almost all of whom do not live in New York. Most of them are not even on social media anymore; it’s so deadly for literature. I know some find a community on Twitter, as well as urgent writing and thinking (Anne Boyer’s Twitter is a work of literature, for example), but the idea of writing for Twitter can quickly become toxic — publishers are worried about hot takes, or want the hot takes, or want writers who are inspiring or quotable or influential enough, or only publish books that will do well on Twitter and Instagram.
In Screen Tests, I’m often interested in the failures and fragilities of communities of women who felt isolated and alienated from one another, like the encounter between Shulamith Firestone and Valerie Solanas that Firestone writes to so beautifully in Airless Spaces, a text I reference throughout. I’m interested in how isolated and ostracized both of them were at the end, but also in the wrongness of their own manifestos, however radical. This corresponded with the failures of feminism historically to be intersectional, its failure to acknowledge white supremacy and transphobia, to ostracize and exclude others — Audre Lorde’s master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.
Do you find yourself listening less to others and listening to your own instincts more?
For a while I didn’t listen to anybody, because when I did, I often just felt discouraged. Being an alt-weekly journalist until my mid-20s, I became a different sort of writer in this way that felt private, antithetical to the market, which I was only aware of in a distant way. I didn’t start showing my work to other people until I started my blog and began to post notes toward these projects. I doubt that O Fallen Angel would have even been written if I had listened to anybody. Sometimes when my books were being rejected over and over, some of the criticism leaked through, but often I found myself reacting against it, because it made me have to really think about what that criticism was saying. Were they saying this is better for the book as a book, or to reach a wider audience? I doubt anyone in publishing would have advised me to write these two collections I have just published because in publishing now, writers are supposed to write the One Book, every five years — the Big Book, not this constant stream of weird talks and poem-essay-story-things. Now, the aim is to have a coherent brand in order to break through.
That said, I’ve learned to listen to readers who understand what I want out of writing. Besides my partner John Vincler, who has been my first reader for now 15 years, and my Riverhead editor Cal Morgan, I often send my work to the writers I admire most in the world, who were often the ones responding to me on my blog when I was starting out: Danielle Dutton, Bhanu Kapil, Suzanne Scanlon, T. Fleischmann, Amina Cain, and especially Sofia Samatar, who has become the reader I’m always writing toward. My last couple of projects I’ve finished have grown out of our written correspondence, and some of her recent nonfiction work has as well. When one of these readers has a note, I know it’s to make something stranger or more mysterious, to move it more toward this tradition we share. I’ve learned to listen more to readers I admire who get what I’m trying to do. I think being a writer involves being porous and open to reading and edits that move you toward the vision you want, while also being able to not invite in every critique or publishing note that stops you.