Daniel Zomparelli is a poet, fiction writer, podcaster, and editor whose latest book, Everything is Awful and You’re a Terrible Person, was published earlier this year by Arsenal Pulp Press. I spoke with Daniel to discuss the collection, what he gains from collaborative work, and the lasting influence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Jason Purcell: Your first short story collection is about young gay men in the digital age seeking various types of connections and often failing. Despite seeming to be in constant connection thanks to our attachment to phones and technology, I also sense that there is a degree to which technology in these stories operates as a way of blocking connection and intimacy. Some of the stories in this collection are arranged as transcripts of online conversations; all dialogue, no narrative context to cushion these direct and sometimes abrasive exchanges. I know you’re coming to these stories as someone who wrote and published poetry first and I’m interested if you could talk about these formal qualities. Is there an interest in what might be lost through these types of connections?
Daniel Zomparelli: In the story, you specifically follow a guy named Ryan and those are all his conversations. You’re seeing those conversations with his dates. I wanted to reveal a character only through dates and reveal that he wasn’t a bad guy but that he wasn’t the best. How he interacts online is important. Everyone thinks they’re in the right on a Grindr chat or wherever. People screengrab them all the time and post them to show how right they are in every situation. I wanted to show that we never know the background of what’s happening and we all bring our own personal baggage to a simple app. This app is very loaded because it’s about sex, dating, or relationships. All you get is a small bio that’s usually a falsified notion of self. It’s impossible to know yourself enough and also explain yourself.
You don’t get to know people very well through these very fast versions of dates. It plays into the story “Tongue-Out Smiley Face” where even an emoji creates an inability to read a person’s feelings or emotions or anything beyond because it’s the most vague. Emojis are supposed to help create an additional way of knowing what a person is feeling when they’re writing something. There’s a character who’s an online troll and I wanted to show that there’s an inability to see what’s happening in a small conversation, but it’s how we all see each other, on Twitter messages and Facebook posts and Instagram posts. We’re all quite judgmental about those things, and I wanted to show the person behind it, and say, yeah, maybe they’re a bit of a fuck-up, but there’s also a reason why they’re a bit of a fuck-up.
JP: I’m thinking of the ways in which some of the characters are identified only by usernames and handles. It’s as though this is another way of making sure one isn’t truly seen by another, a way of warding off identification, intimacy, and vulnerability. Do you think there is a fear of being seen by oneself and by others that’s present within the gay community? And if so, is this collection looking for a way out of this?
DZ: I do believe everyone is engaging in this. Tinder and online dating, Twitter, you’re producing a brand, sometimes inadvertently and sometimes consciously. On Tinder, you’re putting your best foot forward in a way you want to be perceived. Within the gay community, you can see a lot of it is very catfishy. People have talked about being catfished. They say they’re one person and they meet someone else. I’m not saying the gay community is entirely focused on that, but there is a bit of what we give in to with masculinity. That’s why mascmusc exists. A lot of us so desperately are trying to achieve this quality of maleness that we all fail by and I wanted to highlight that.
JP: This collection is cynical with a dark humour, and many of the characters are caught in this place where they might be read as “terrible people,” But I had this sense as a reader that these are people who might be approaching a turning point, a space where whatever situations are bearing down on them might let up and give them space to be another type of person. Some of these stories and these characters felt—or I hoped—to be represented in the moment or moments before change, and that by wondering if they were terrible people, they were giving themselves permission to imagine other ways of being. Is there a thread of hope or optimism running through this collection?
DZ: I think it’s really easy to read this as a cynical book and I was hoping people wouldn’t. I think the point of highlighting cynical characters was for the reader to look at it and say, “Whenever I see an asshole, there’s a reason for it, and there’s hope for change.” I wanted to highlight mental-health issues that were unchecked, unchecked privilege, unchecked oppression, unchecked anxiety. It’s very hard to get through those or to even know they exist, so the characters come across as terrible, but at each point I purposefully end the stories before you see change. I wanted to show everyone at their breaking point. I didn’t want to give everyone a happy ending, because some people don’t change. Some people reach that break and keep going and get worse, and some people reach that break and recover. It seemed more sincere to stop there and let the reader create their own version of the ending. You can create your own happy ending or your own sad ending[...]. It’s up to the reader if it’s hopeful or not.
JP: This collection is populated by ghosts. I can think of a number of metaphors, but I’d be interested to hear from you what it meant to look to ghosts in a collection that is about trying for but missing connections. Ghosts are so interesting because of the lack of boundaries. What’s on the other side, haunting this collection?
DZ: Ghosts are an important thing to me because they represent someone’s psychology. Whether you believe in ghosts or not or the way you imagine ghosts is interesting because you have your own personal ghosts—maybe people have passed in your life—and the way you imagine those ghosts is how you interact with other people. The character in the ghost story has this struggle to let go of a ghost who happens to be an ex. It becomes a really obvious metaphor about baggage from a previous relationship and can you manage it or not. Do you have to let that ghost go and fuck up a bit to move on, or does that ghost follow you wherever you go?
There’s also this way in which ghosts represent otherness. Ghosts, if you take as real, in the history of human existence have never harmed a human, so a fear of ghost is just a fear of otherness. This is how I tried to interlay ghosts and ghosting throughout the book.
JP: While we’re on the top of the supernatural, I’d hate myself if I didn’t ask you about this: your story “Like Buffy.” The line, “Sometimes I feel like maybe I’m Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I’m like, walking around fighting demons in leather suits, and like, no one gets me.” I can’t overstate this show’s importance to me growing up queer, and I’m just now showing it to my boyfriend who has never seen it before, and I was wondering if you could speak to what you think made that show important, and that identification with someone not quite ordinary going through the world, slaying these demons but not always having someone to share that with, someone who really understood?
DZ: There are two episodes that you might see weave through the book because I’m obsessed with the show. There’s the episode where Buffy is in a psychiatric hospital and she’s actually made up her whole life. I remember seeing that episode and because I have an anxiety disorder being like, “Oh no! Is that what this is?” I’ll have random moments in my life, every two weeks or so, where I think, “What if whenever I’m doing something, I’m actually doing something completely different in another realm?” There is a story where I don’t explicitly say who the character is talking to. They may be in a different realm or don’t exist or ghosted them or are dead. These are the options I give the reader because I’m an asshole. I wanted to show how a character could create an idea of a person and become obsessed with that idea, but then also pull it away and ask, what if none of this is real?
There’s also an episode where a first-year university psychology student who has become a vampire interacts with Buffy and he has this moment where he diagnoses her with a superiority complex but with an inferiority complex about it. I kept imagining this as how we interact on dating sites. We think we’re better than everyone else but we also think we’re shit.
JP: I’d like to move on to talk about a few of your other projects beginning with Poetry Is Dead magazine, of which you’re Editor-in-Chief. Can you tell me how Poetry Is Dead came to be?
DZ: I started it in 2009 in response to not liking some of the poetry events I was seeing. I was very young and it was a different age group at the time. I was a young partier who wanted to have fun boozefest reading events. I wanted to read a lot more of what young people were doing. And young is definitely not about age but stylistically what was new, because the age range in the first Poetry Is Dead went up to 60. I created that to make sure I had fun with poetry. It was sometimes a bit of a boring scene. I was already working in magazines at Adbusters and I was looking at the other literary magazines, which were great, but there was something that I thought was missing for Canadian literary magazines. I took my savings that I was meant to invest in an apartment and started printing the magazine with zero subscriber base and zero guarantee there would be newsstand sales. I printed 1,500 copies. Luckily it all got picked up quickly. It was definitely a gamble.
JP: What has it meant to work in that capacity, to not only be a writer but also someone who contributes to literary production as an editor and, in a sense, a curator?
DZ: If I’m investing in my writing, it feels very selfish. With writing, I try to balance with what I want to create and what will help others create. When I was working in poetry, I wanted to create a space that I thought would be fun and that would help newer writers. Whenever I go on some writing venture, I’m usually trying to also give back. Even with this fiction book, I’ve started offering free mentorships for writers and editing manuscripts for free. Writing feels so selfish, but it probably isn’t. It’s probably my Catholic guilt.
JP: What type of work do you find really exciting right now?
DZ: Beni Xiao, David Ly, and Megan Jones. I’m still waiting for Gillian Christmas to have her book out. She’s already a hyper-successful spoken-word artist but she has a book that I know she’s working on and I just want to see that.
JP: While being a writer and editor-in-chief of an important literary magazine would be more than enough work for many people, you haven’t stopped there; you’re also a podcaster, working with Dina Del Bucchia on Can’t Lit. What has the podcast medium offered you in terms of engaging with Canada’s literary scene?
DZ: Once again, it’s always about fun. I love books and I love reading but I’m not very good with self-seriousness. It’s always a shutdown mechanism for me. I wanted to see a space where we could talk about books but it didn’t have to be so direct and so serious. Authors have such huge personalities that you can figure out how they came to their books if you have a conversation with them about their favourite things or their least favourite things and that, to me, is the most fun way to get at a book. There’s so much space already for seriousness and I wanted to have some outlet where writers can finally just say a bunch of jokes if they want.
JP: There is such a strong sense of celebration around the idea of collaboration and conversation that I feel when I listen to the podcast, and I really see that sense of community among Canada’s young writers. I have seen collaboration dismissed in particular writing communities, particularly academic ones, but you engage in collaborative work often. Can you talk about what collaboration and community has meant to you?
DZ: I love collaboration. I love writing and having my personal control on a project, but my husband’s in TV writing and that’s always collaborative and some of the best writing we have right now is on TV. That’s twelve to fourteen people. I wonder about how much weight we put on books to have one author and whether that’s just ego. Or maybe it’s just easier. Maybe writers get into writing because they don’t want to interact with other people. People ask if I’d start to write for TV because of my husband, and I say that if there was a way for me to do it without having to interact with fourteen people, I would. But I also find writing very lonely. If someone wants to collaborate and I like their idea, I’m always very into it. Everything that I’ve created in collaboration has been so much fun. I love Rom Com. I think it’s such a weirdo book and I don’t think anything is taken away from it because there are two authors.
I did a project with a programmer and a visual artist and we had to find a way to get a program to produce poetry. The results were incredible. They were truly bonkers and wonderful. It’s also so damn fun. Everyone who was there at the show enjoyed the pieces. I’m very pro-collaboration.
JP: I’d be interested to hear about your relationship to writing and to work. You’re someone who wears a number of hats: poet, short story writer, editor, podcaster, etc. How do you work? How do you stay motivated?
DZ: I constantly approach everything as a project. If I have a book idea, I have to think of it as a project. I have to research X, Y, Z, then I have to write it. I do this with every project. I allow myself to be focused on one thing and then I can move on. I’m not very good at doing multiple projects at once. I’m a very slow writer. I have to force myself to write. I can always think of something else to do. It’s always a matter of treating each thing as its own special project that I’m going to work on and giving myself lots of time and also giving myself permission not to start it right away. When I finish a book, I give myself six months to a year off. I’ll keep notes but I won’t write.
JP: How do you care for yourself when you feel burnt out? Is time off the answer?
DZ: My anxiety gets very high after releasing a project. This last project was the worst anxiety because it was doing well. Getting a New York Times review made me frantic and I had a very bad moment like Buffy, where I thought I made it all up. I was getting so many reviews. Goodreads and Amazon were doing well. I can’t help but check constantly, so it throws me off very hard.
JP: What’s next for Daniel Zomparelli?
DZ: My husband is going to help me produce a weirdo radio show podcast on fears. It’s selfishly the research for my next book idea. I’ll be reading and studying a lot about fear and fear anxiety.