Sara Zuckerman’s Yuck is the latest work to be released to be released by Undergraduate Students for Publishing’s Wilde Press. The first novella to be published by the group, Yuck tracks precocious nine-year old Sam’s fascination with worms and words during a tumultuous summer. Nicole Shelby, co-editor-in-chief of The Emerson Review, sat down with Zuckerman to talk about inspirations, workshops, and the future.
Nicole Shelby: How did the story come about? What were the ideas and inspirations? Sara Zuckerman: I just had this idea to write about a girl who likes worms. When I was a little kid my dad would force me to help him in his garden, and now I have a really stupid phobia of all things insect-like. Back when I was a kid I thought worms were really cool; I don’t know what happened to change it. But then I had this idea about this little girl playing with them, then I had this idea about four-letter words and how you could misconstrue that phrase, “four letter words means curses” and whatnot, and I was like “let’s put them together!” I thought it would be ten pages but it was like “I’m not gonna be ten pages, I’m gonna be 75 pages!” And it just kinda went from there.
NS: I noticed that the dedication thanks your family for not being like the family in the story. The story that the Emerson Review published is also about a family. Why do you think you’re drawn to writing stories about family drama? SZ: Family drama … Every family has drama, like my family, through compared to other people I had a pretty idyllic childhood. But we still have our own things that were bad and affected me or my brother or my parents in a certain way. I just kinda like the idea of taking something from my own experience and turning it into something completely different. I know a big thing from fiction is “write what you know,” but if you just stick with telling it exactly like it happened you’re not really challenging yourself. When I was a kid I really liked worms so I kinda wanted to play with the idea of this little girl who’s, you know, kind of smart and likes weird things and just go from there. I didn’t want her to grow up in a nuclear family in New York with a mother, a father, an older brother. I wanted it to be kind of different so I could see if I could do it in a way that felt real. I think that my being chosen by the pub club kinda validates that.
NS: Does the main character, Sam, have a lot in common with you or was your own experience just a jumping-off point? SZ: I was a jumping-off point. I don’t think I have much of anything…I mean, at one point she zombie walks, I did that once. I think that all my characters, like any writer’s characters, have a bit of them in them, but I mean if I wanted to write about me I would just write non-fiction. I don’t mutilate myself or make up weird word games for myself the way she does, but I think a character that does that is more interesting than, you know, me.
NS: Would you ever consider writing about yourself or your childhood? SZ: I think in the story that got published in the Emerson Review about a young kid dealing with a sibling’s mental health issues, I kind of did it there. I don’t know if at this point in my life I could really analyze my childhood well enough for it to not just be like “this is what happened when I was a kid and it was really upsetting.” Maybe when I'm older, but for now I feel more comfortable and I feel like I’m honing my craft better when I take from myself and turn it into something new.
NS: Did you workshop this story? SZ: This is just me. I thought it was going to be for workshop but it wasn’t because no one in workshop wants to read something that’s that long.
NS: You write mainly fiction – would you consider writing non-fiction in the future? SZ: I like non-fiction, I’m not sure I want to write about me, but I definitely want to write about other people. I know a lot of interesting people – or non-interesting people – who’ve had wacky experiences that I’d like to write about. But as a book like this one? Maybe not so much.
NS: Is there the possibility of expanding this story or do you think this one is done? SZ: Yes, there will be a sequel called “Huuugh!” I mean, I could go back to it. I think it would be interesting to see what Sam is like as an adult, but for the most part I think it’s done. I think her story at this part of her life is finished.
NS: How has your experience at Emerson been as a writer? Have the workshops been helpful? SZ: I find that when you have the right mix of the right people and the right professor, that makes workshops work. I’ve had really, really excellent workshops that I feel have really made me grow as a writer and I’ve had ones where it’s been like “oh my god I’m paying fifty thousand dollars a year to sit through this, are you kidding me?” It’s interesting because through this experience with the Publishing Club… I’ve taken workshop classes where they teach you to hone your skills and deal with criticism, I think those are the two main things you really learn there, and I’ve taken publishing classes where you learn about publishing and you learn how the publishing experience works from the publisher’s point of view, but there’s nothing really here that teaches you how it works from the writer’s perspective. And even then, it’s like … This took two months to put this together, but a real publishing house would take so much longer and have so much more with it. I thought that was probably one of the best learning experiences I’ve had.
NS: Is there anything specific you've learned from this experience? SZ: So much! It’s all based on you! I don’t think I’d ever really taken classes, or it had never really sunk in that when they’re publishing your book the whole thing is about you. And so much pressure is put on you. You have to finish this, you have to tell them what’s wrong and what’s right. And it’s like, “What if I don’t know if I want you to put this in, what if I like it but I don’t know if it will work?” I’m not used to focusing on myself in that way and it was really weird for a little while!
NS: What was the editing process for this book like? SZ: The substantive editing team read through it and they wrote me this ten page double spaced letter of what they wanted me to change. And they were like “You can pick what you want to change, don’t worry about it!” So then I did that and I sent it back and then just the main editors read through it and they told me really specific things they wanted to see changed and then it was just copy-edited and done.
NS: What are your plans for after graduation and in trying to become a writer? SZ: I do want to be one! It’s difficult. This is definitely something fantastic to put on a resume or a cover letter: “Just so you know, I already got a book published.” Kind of cool. I want to take some time off after I graduate. I’m certified to teach English as a second language so I want to do that, see the world a little bit and get paid to do it. …Which will give me a lot more to write about, I feel. And then from there, come back, maybe go into the publishing sector, work in that, get some contacts, and throughout all that just send stories out, try to save up the money to do conferences. Just get my name known, and then hopefully that’ll lead to a contract, and hopefully that’ll lead to a career, and hopefully that’ll lead to the great American novel, written by Ms. Sara Zuckerman.