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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Q&A: Talking mass incarceration, journalism and fiction with Vengeance author Zachary Lazar

Posted By on Thu, Mar 15, 2018 at 1:43 PM

click to enlarge DEBORAH LUSTER

There is a difference, well-known to fiction writers, between what is factual and what is true. Zachary Lazar's masterfully executed novel Vengeance lives in the space between these two things: it's a work of fiction about the hard truths of mass incarceration and systemic racism, populated by New Orleans characters who seem so real (and so resistant to cliche or easy categorization) it's impossible not to ache for them.

Vengeance tells the story of thoughtful, reserved Kendrick King, who is serving a life sentence at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for a murder he may (or may not) have been involved with that might (or might not) have been related to a drug problem, and the book's narrator, who meets King on a visit inspired by a real-life reporting trip Lazar took to the prison. Presented as the continuation and expansion of that journalistic project, the novel blends an almost eerie sense of factualness and verisimilitude with sometimes-conflicting vignettes in Kendrick's perspective about his life up to and surrounding his arrest and incarceration. Told this way, the novel experiments with notions of guilt and innocence, lies and truth, and the impossibility of knowing what happened — or if it matters.

Lazar presents the book at a reading at Octavia Books at 6 p.m. March 22 that also features former Louisiana poet laureate (and fellow Tulane University faculty member) Peter Cooley. Below, he answers a few questions about Vengeance.

This book is kind of unusual in that, in a lot of ways, it seems like a piece of journalism, but in fact it's a novel. Can you talk a bit about the idea you originally had for it, and where that concept came from?

This is the first time I’ve ever done journalism that ended up connecting to a work of fiction, and it’s just because I happened to meet the photographer Deborah Luster. She was about to go to [Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola] to photograph the inmates participating in [a Passion play], and so she asked me if I wanted to come along. The way to do that — to get permission to go — is to get press credentials. So we went there, and I did kind of a magazine piece about the play, but we ended up spending a lot of time
there — we spent a whole week there, which is a lot more time than I thought we
would get to spend. I interviewed probably 40 people or so over the course of that week, [had] some follow-up conversations.

I wrote a long essay about it ... but that couldn’t really contain nearly all the stories I came away with that I wanted to get out. I guess because I’m a fiction writer, I just switched gears and decided to make a novel out of it. But it’s quite a strange hybrid, because the book is kind of presented as a non-fiction book, but it’s not.

So what's the advantage of writing this book in this way? If you're concerned with or want to tell a story about mass incarceration, why not create a work of journalism or nonfiction about that subject?

I think I can fill in some pieces that I would never have been able to fill in if had I stick to the rules of straight journalism. Mostly what I mean by that is, one of the challenges of the book is to write parts of it from the point of view of a man who is in prison. A
journalist obviously is allowed to ask questions about that, and get as much of that experience as they can through the questions, but you’re not allowed to embellish in a way that fiction writers are allowed to. And by embellish, I mean, good fiction to me is more than just embellishing. You’re using your imagination to tell lies that are kind of true, in a way. So It has to be persuasive. The book, if it’s successful — I think it’s successful in the way that I wanted it to be; I think it’s persuasive. What’s fiction in it doesn’t seem like fiction.

One of the things I liked best about Vengeance was its commitment to describing some of the quotidian aspects of the New Orleans landscape — the strange blandness of some of the developments that replaced former housing projects, or how it feels to sit in a room where the air conditioning doesn't work very well in midsummer. Can you talk about your use of setting in this book?

I think it’s always very important. Fiction, to me, if it’s going to be seductive enough to keep me reading, it has to become very visual and sensory. It has to be like a movie. Fiction writers were doing a lot of the things that movies do before there were movies —Joseph Conrad is kind of the primary example of that. One of the things I wanted to capture in the book was the strange distinction between the atmosphere of Angola and the atmosphere of being a free person in New Orleans. It’s dizzying because New Orleans is wonderful, and it’s a very open place, it’s a very sensory place. It’s not a place that you don’t notice. It’s not just a bland background. So to contrast that with say, parts of the novel where I try to describe what it looks and feels like to be in Angola, in a prison dorm, the gray walls and the lighting … I think the point of that is to give the reader kind of a visceral sense of what incarceration is like, compared to what freedom is like.

How much do you think people who haven't experienced incarceration can really know about what it's like?

There is no way to know. I went to visit a friend who’s in prison, and I’m sitting in the waiting room waiting to go see him, and I talked to this guy, a local New Orleanian guy, who’s got a nephew who’s been in prison for 20 years, another nephew who’s been in prison for a long time, life sentences, and he said: We will never know what they’re going through. And these are his close family members.

There’s secrets that are never told even when people get out of prison. So that was another reason why I wanted to do this book the way that I did … one approach to fiction writing is to pretend that you know everything. And then there’s another kind of fiction writing that admits certain kinds of unknowability. It’s not a question I necessarily care
about very much, but in this book I thought it was important because I felt like there were ethical questions about writing this book in the first place, there were political questions. I didn’t want to do a kind of omniscient book where I gave the reader some impression that I knew more than I do about this.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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