Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Zach Yontz

by John Milas Read the Story March 19, 2018

The narrator in “Winter Light” seems to address the reader at one point to say, “I want to make sure … there is a record of this.” I don’t see a direct address here in the same sense as a letter, but I wonder who is meant to hear this story?

Without going too deep into it, some major events happened over the past year or so of my life that had been sort of simmering for a long time. And the resolution was pretty painful, and so for a long time I’ve been trying to frame the story in my mind to make sense of it or find some good explanation for how things happened. And no matter how many different ways I try to explain it to myself, it isn’t resolved and there isn’t some happy ending that can be reached by cycling it over and over again in my brain. So that line sort of stems from that, that I wrote this story at a point of time where I was trying very hard to get those feelings onto the page, either for me or for someone else.

We talked a bit about struggling with titles. What do you think successful titles should do? What are some of your favorite and least favorites? 

It’s difficult for me to give things names. That’s a pretty consistent theme in my writing, not giving characters names and not ever really giving my stories names until I absolutely have to. And even then, the title is almost always words from the story itself. I think a successful title should probably be evocative in some sense, give the reader (or listener or viewer) a feeling for what this thing is. But oftentimes I don’t really know what the thing is when I sit down to write. I don’t know what the story necessarily will be, other than a feeling I have that I need to write it. And I don’t know who these characters will be, so it’s hard to name them (or title my story) and define them before they even exist.

One of the titles that immediately came to mind when you asked for a favorite is the song “Gathering Storm” by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. That’s exactly what that song is. It can’t be anything else. A bad title is like Bill O’Reilly writing some bullshit like Give Please a Chance. What a turd.

Can you recall the physical sensations or the spatial details within the moment you knew you would write the piece?

I’d been struggling to make sense of some things that had happened over the past year or so that to me didn’t have much of an explanation. I think when I sat down to write this, it was a day or two after the time change and it was getting dark very early in Chicago. So you wake up in the dark and go home in the dark. I want to say it was snowing out, but I feel like that doesn’t make sense? But mostly I just felt tired; I had just gotten off work, it was dark, these things had happened, I had been struggling with being depressed for an extended period of time. I just felt heavy and tired and worn out.

The scene in which the narrator quits his job draws my attention. His struggles are specific to his situation, but I can’t shake the way this scene resonates with me on a universal level. I wonder where this part of the story comes from.

That comes from just that feeling of depression and trying to figure out why it is that I feel this way. And I guess about what gives your life meaning? Is it supposed to be your job? What if it’s not fulfilling to you, but you still need it for all the reasons you need a job? How do you become unstuck from that? For some reason I remember hearing in probably high school that Thoreau quote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And as a kid, I thought, oh, that will never be me. I won’t fall into that trap. But it’s so hard to avoid.

I wonder about the situation the speaker falls into: “I can’t get anyone else to see [the circling thing]. I am told it is a mistake in my brain, in my eyes, that everything is the same.” What are some things in your daily life that no one sees but you?

This comes from something that I’ve been told by a few people, which is that I just don’t see myself clearly. There’s this sort of oppressive negativity sometimes that I feel towards myself, that I see myself as this terrible thing and I’m convinced it’s true. But at the risk of saying too much about myself, there’s also that stigma about depression, where you’re supposed to hide how you feel, and anyway no one can see it, so only you really know how you feel. And it can be very isolating. So this story is sort of an attempt to maybe come to some understanding of that hidden thing.

About the Author:

Fiction editor of Gigantic Sequins. Bus rider.

About the Interviewer:

John Milas studies fiction writing in the MFA program at Purdue University. He previously studied creative writing at the University of Illinois. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming at Superstition Review, O-Dark-Thirty, Hypertext Magazine, and elsewhere.

About the Artist:

Find more of Ryoji Iwata's photography on Unsplash.