Smoking With James Zerndt

by Mary Miller Read the Story March 25, 2013

Rereading “The Last President” again this morning reminded me how much I love it. It has great truths to tell and the structure is incredible, the way past and present work together so seamlessly. The writing feels effortless, as the best stories do. I’m curious—how long did it take you to write it?

I seem to remember the first draft only taking about a half-hour to write. Then, of course, I tinkered with it over the next couple of days. That may sound easy, but it’s only because I’d already written in such detail about the subject (see below).

I’m really interested in your line breaks. Considering how things are broken up, how many paragraphs are single sentences, it seems like the story should feel choppy but it doesn’t. Is this typical of your work?

Yes, I think so. I’m a huge fan of Roddy Doyle (The Woman Who Walked Into Doors) and his use of one-line paragraphs. He does it so incredibly well. My problem is that I sometimes over-do it. Which can make it less effective, I think. I’m working on it though.

Was the story inspired by a particular man, situation, or both?

I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but NPR has a segment called Three-Minute Fiction where they give the listeners prompts and people send in stories that can be read in under three minutes. The prompt this time was presidents. You had to write something that had a president, living/dead/real/or imagined, in it. Unfortunately,” ‘The Last President” didn’t make the cut.

I had also recently finished writing my first novel, The Cloud Seeders, and there’s a president, briefly, in the book. I wanted to write something more about him, something like a prequel to the novel, and that’s where much of the flash piece came from. I knew this president and the other characters already at this point, so the story came out easily because of that I think.

I love when the son asks the father why he never locks the doors of their house, and the father says, “Would you rather live in a prison or a home?” I’m sitting here in my apartment with the doors double locked, wondering what it would feel like if they weren’t. If I could be comfortable in an unlocked home. What was the inspiration for this? Do you lock the doors of your house?

I remembered seeing something on TV about Canadians never locking their doors (I have no idea if this is true—probably only in some parts of Canada is my guess) and a person they interviewed had said something along the lines of, “I don’t lock my doors because then I’d be living in a prison.” I always thought that was good. And, yes, I do lock my doors now. Unfortunately. I used to live in a small Colorado town, Gunnison, and back then we never locked our doors. It was nice. One of the perks, I guess, of small-town life.

How long have you lived in Portland? Do you go to readings a lot? Hang out at Powell’s? Is it heaven there?

I’ve been here about ten years now, I think. I’ve been to a few readings at Reed College but I don’t go much to them anymore. Oh, I saw Kim Addonizio read at a small bar about five years ago. She is incredible. Love that woman. And, no, I don’t go to Powell’s much anymore either, but, yes, it is pretty awesome. Most of my time right now is spent caring for our newborn baby, so I don’t have a lot of time for writing, let alone reading, anymore. And Powell’s would sort of be like browsing in a liquor store for a recovering alcoholic. The last thing you want is to be surrounded by all the beautiful bottles you can’t buy.

What are you working on now?

SLQ actually published a flash piece of mine called “Bungee Jump” back in 2006 that eventually became the center-point of a second book I only just recently finished. At the time I never would have thought it would have turned into something much larger, but seven years later that’s what happened. Flash fiction can be weird that way. You never know where it’s going to lead you. I’m proud to say that The Korean Word For Butterfly will be available on Kindle come March 2013.

About the Author:

James Zerndt lives in Portland, Oregon, where he rarely refers to himself in the third person. His debut novel, The Cloud Seeders, was the inspiration for this piece.