TRP Q&A: An Interview with Theodora Ziolkowski

Karisma J. Tobin interviews Texas Review Press author Theodora Ziolkowski

Theodora Ziolkowski is the author of On the Rocks, winner of a 2018 Next Generation Indie Book Award, and Mother Tongues, winner of The Cupboard’s 2015 Contest. A Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets nominee, her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Writer’s Chronicle, Short FictionPrairie Schooner, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the Inprint Marion Barthelme Prize, an Inprint C. Glenn Cambor Fellowship, and her work has received support from the Vermont Studio Center and been featured in Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions (2020). Recently, she served as Poetry Editor for Gulf Coast and Fiction Editor for Big Fiction. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. Visit her at theodoraziolkowski.com.

How are you keeping yourself busy during social distancing?
I invested in a rowing machine when my gym closed and began a new workout routine I do from home. It includes following along to videos of instructors dressed in impressively stylish sportswear who shout at me. I’m also teaching an online novel-writing class with Inprint and have begun preparing for my literature comprehensive examinations, for which I do a lot of reading.

I am also a huge believer in naps—for general wellness as well as creativity—and that belief has intensified during social distancing. My boyfriend and I have cats that set excellent examples of this. I find that I often work out “problems” in my fiction when I take a snooze then return to the page.

What are some of your ‘comfort food’ books, the books you keep coming back to when you need encouragement or escape?
Oh, gosh, when I need an escape, I always pick up Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding or a Ruth Ware mystery. Bridget Jones always makes me laugh; there is so much in that series (the excruciatingly embarrassing moments in particular) that I identify with. Ruth Ware’s thrillers consistently offer deliciously horrific escapes. My favorite is The Woman in Cabin 10.

For encouragement, I look to the prose that made me want to be a writer. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse stand out as novels I hardly understood the first time I read them, but which, moment by moment, struck me so fiercely, I could not help but continue to read and reread them in their entireties.

Recently, I’ve fallen in love with Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Every sentence reads like a poem. It’s inspiring to read work that reminds me of how powerfully my love of reading—and, in turn, of writing—fuels how I experience the world. It comforts me to know that works as exquisite as those that I first found communion with not only exist but continue to do so for other readers. I like the idea of particular books and particular writers getting under the skin of a particular reader(s).

What does your typical writing process look like?
Messy.

I like to write early in the morning, when it’s still dark out. I turn on the coffee, throw on a sweatshirt, mow down a carton of Greek yogurt with Grape-Nuts, and get to it. (Somehow, I’ve managed to convince myself of the wonderfully generative illusion that I’m the only one in the world up at that hour.)

I am a routine person by nature, and while that constancy certainly influences the time and frequency I invest in my writing, my drafting process, across genres, is a catchall drawer. I have never not worked on multiple projects at once. (The same applies to my reading; stacks of poetry, short stories, novels, and creative nonfiction tower my coffee table).

While writing On the Rocks, for instance, I was completing the first draft of a psychological thriller and a collection of poems. Over the past summer, I began writing creative nonfiction, which has been exciting. My fiction, poems, and essays all seem to orbit around similar obsessions, and I find it thrilling to discover how those fixations manifest in different genres.

Did you like to read as a child? Were there any childhood books and authors that were your favorites?
I think I first fell in love with stories by listening to my dad read the Grimm’s story “Mary’s Key” to me. For whatever reason, that was the fairy tale I asked him to read over and again. Now I can see many of the themes in it (lying, a forbidden door and a dangerous forest, the loss and return of speech) that resonates with much of what I write today.

The books I fell in love with reading on my own were, hands down, by Mary Downing Hahn. To say that The Doll in the Garden, Look for Me by Moonlight, Wait Till Helen Comes, The Spanish Kidnapping Disaster, and The Jellyfish Summer (in that particular order) were influential to me is a gross understatement. The images those books made for me as a kid continue to haunt me.

What books are on your nightstand?
Beyond the Self: Conversations between Buddhism and Neuroscience, by Matthieu Ricard and Wolf Singer; My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout; Home,by Toni Morrison; Topics of Conversation,by Miranda Popkey; And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges, by Amber Sparks; Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo; A Children’s Bible, by Lydia Millet; Elegy, by Larry Levis.

What’s your all-time favorite book?
The Turn of the Screw. Hands down. It’s a novella I have, in all likelihood, driven no small number of friends and acquaintances alike nuts talking about.

When reading for pleasure, what do you read?
I’m always reading for pleasure! But if we’re talking pleasure-pleasure…like, I’m-taking-a-bubble-bath-whilst-reading pleasure, then I’ll never turn down perusing a copy of Woman’s World, the magazine. In fact, a lot of the inspiration I had for the crafts and recipes that the narrator of On the Rocks focuses on can most likely be traced to that publication. I always like to take the “What type of sandwich are you?”-type quizzes and, together, my mom and I like to solve the mystery puzzles at the back.

Do you watch television? What is the last thing you binge watched?
I’m not much of a binge-watcher; I get restless after a while and my mind starts to wander. But the show I’ve been steadily chipping away at this spring is The Sopranos. The writing and character development in that show are so great. It’s atmospherically fabulous, too–I grew up not far from the region of New Jersey it takes place in, so it’s been fun to have a window back to the northeast (I currently live in Houston, TX). The show makes me want to dine on red wine and steak.

Where is your favorite place to read? To write?

The idea of not having a book on me alarms me. I keep an “emergency book” in my car because the possibility of ever being expected to wait without a book—or, worse case scenario, unexpectedly stranded somewhere—disturbs me deeply. When I transferred high schools, I began toting around a copy of Mrs. Dalloway to homeroom and the cafeteria until I made friends. That book was as much an escape as it was a kind of shield or good luck charm. This is a long way to say, quite simply, that I love to read anywhere. I feel most at home with a book in my hand. (Though if you’re twisting my arm, I’ll go ahead and say I love to read by the water).

The idea of not having a book on me alarms me.

As far as writing goes, I love working at home—at my desk, on my couch, in bed. . . .

One of my most recent reading/writing memories before the pandemic was working on my novel on a balcony in Galveston. It was December, sweater weather. There was a pinkish hue to the air, which was brush-stroked with sea salt. I look forward to the day I will be able to do that again.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
I’ve been slowly making my way through The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel Van Der Kolk. I’m fascinated by the ways Van Derk Kolk breaks down the relationship between the brain and the body—how memories are activated in different parts of the brain and how the brain’s responses to them can have long-term effects on the physical body. Paging through it now, I notice that early on in the book, I made a tiny checkmark beside the passage on flashbacks. I hadn’t really thought about it before that there is a specific part of your brain that where flashbacks, specifically occur, a function that Van Der Kolk goes on to explain in detail.


Karisma J. Tobin grew up in the mountains of New Mexico and Alaska. She is an MFA and MA candidate at Sam Houston State University. Her work appears in or is forthcoming from Plainsongs, Interim, and others. She is currently Assistant to the Managing Editor at Texas Review Press.

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