In the neighborhoods, streets, homes, rooms, and basements of author Jeff Vande Zande’s new short story collection, The Neighborhood Division, people live out their lives, their relationships, and their struggles.
Yet, something is always a little unsettled. A car that follows a character on his run, with threats emerging from the driver. The paranoia of being mugged haunts a female character. A man lives shackled in the basement, unbeknownst to the residents. A neighborhood, where no outsiders are supposed to come in, restricts its residents under the guise of making lives better for them.
These stories peer into the disarray of lives behind the four walls that they call home and also question the character’s choices. In the story called “That Which We Are,” a widower reflects on his marriage. His wife used to save money during the year so that she could give it to people in need during the holidays. Yet, he coveted the money for household expenses and splurges, like a television. He reconsiders:
“I was an idiot,” he said. “The next year, I was after her all the time about that money. If we had a car repair or you boys needed something, I was always telling her that we should just use the Christmas Eve fund. I wore her down to the point that in August she just gave it to me. Four hundred and eighty bucks. Said she didn’t want to do it anymore anyway. That I was right about needing it for the family.” He looked up at me again with watery eyes. “She said, ‘It’s silly. I mean, giving money way. I don’t know what I was thinking.’ He sniffed in a melancholy breath. “Kinda rips me up that I can still hear her voice saying it, you know. I made her feel stupid about wanting to be nice to other people.”
While he realizes what he wished he would have done instead, there is nothing that he can do about it anymore. This dilemma drives his subsequent actions, as all the characters must face their individual situations.
Vande Zande, who goes by Van, has been teaching at Delta College for 20 years and lives in Midland. He will be doing a virtual reading along with poet Ken Meisel (Pulp interview) on Wednesday, March 24, at 7 pm, hosted by the Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle.
Q: How do you know Ken Meisel, the author with whom you’re reading in the Crazy Wisdom event?
A: Ken and I met over 25 years ago. I was the poetry editor of a magazine called The Driftwood Review. Ken sent me some poems, which I rejected, but with helpful comments. He sent one of the poems back, and I accepted it. Then, I was giving a reading down near Detroit, and Ken showed up. We’ve been close friends ever since.
Q: Neat, you two go way back. So, tell us about how you came to be a writer and filmmaker.
A: My father, John Vande Zande, was a writer so there was always writing and books in the house. I remember having to be quiet on Saturday mornings because my dad was writing. For the longest time, I thought that’s what all fathers did. So, I think the writing was just in the blood for me.
The filmmaking is a longer story. When I was teaching my fiction class at Delta College, I was running into students who really wanted to write screenplays. So, I went back to school to learn screenwriting and subsequently brought a screenwriting course back to Delta. From there, working with the broadcasting department, I helped design a certificate in film production and then a two-year degree in film production. After a few years, our technical person left the college so, on a sabbatical, I went back to school to learn camera operation, cinematography, and editing.
Q: Since your new book, The Neighborhood Division, is a collection of short stories, I’m curious about your previous poetry writing, too. Do you still write poetry? What makes you decide that something should be written about as fiction rather than a poem?
A: I believe I started out writing poems because my dad was a fiction writer. That was my rebellion. But, by my early thirties I largely moved away from poetry and focused on fiction. My poems were often described as “narrative” so I think it made sense for me to move to stories. I still write a little poetry, maybe one poem a year.
Q: It’s not every day that books have trailers, as The Neighborhood Division does. What compelled you to create one for this book?
A: I’d seen where writers were using book trailers to promote their books. My book came out in June of 2020—so, a pandemic publication. That meant no opportunities for a book release, book signings, or any kind of physical readings. I thought the book trailer might be one more way to market the book online. For the trailer, I just ended up using footage from short films that I’d made, so I didn’t need to shoot anything new to make it.
Q: You also made a short film of the story "Distance" in this collection. What did it take to convert your story into the film?
A: I adapted “Distance” into the short film Light and Shadow long before I knew I was going to collect my stories into a book. “Distance” just always struck me as a very cinematic story. The story was challenging to adapt into a short film screenplay because so much of the story takes place in my character’s head while he’s running. You can’t really express in film what a character is thinking, and doing so in voiceover is considered a bit of a no-no. Beyond the screenplay challenges, I was also brand new to filmmaking when I shot Light and Shadow as a part of completing my sabbatical. As far as financially, I have always challenged myself to make my films on the slimmest budget possible. I probably only spent $300 on the film.
Q: The trailer highlights the idea of “self versus community” illustrated in these short stories. Why did you pick this theme? What do you want your stories to reveal about “self versus community?”
A: The stories in the book were written over a 10-year period. I don’t think I set out to write a collection around this theme. It must just be a theme that subconsciously interests me. I believe it’s human to feel the pull of just wanting to protect the self and those in our immediate circle. But looking out for each other, showing compassion to strangers—that’s our greatest calling, I believe. But it’s difficult to do. Giving energy to one seems to take energy from another. It’s like the wife says in my story “Lilac in October”—her husband, burned out on his job and the perpetual pursuit of more money, talks about how he wants to do something, work in a soup kitchen or do some kind of charity. She laughs and says, “You have a charity right here,” meaning their son. He recognizes too that she’s right. He’s out on the road for sales calls so often that he spends very little time with his son. In the end, I think we have to strike a balance between self and community. But that’s easier to write than it is to practice.
Q: The stories in The Neighborhood Division feel very plot-driven as the characters navigate those challenges and conflicts in relationships and within themselves. Since these stories are relatively short at less than 15 pages each, do you write them in one sitting or have a different process?
A: For some people that could be the perception of a short story: It’s short so it couldn’t have taken that long to write. For myself, I usually write a short story’s first draft in a couple weeks. But then, once I start editing and rewriting, it could be another month or even two before I feel it’s truly finished.
Q: I am interested in how the characters tend to follow what they want to do, such as how Jared asks his father, Wayne, whether he should get married in “Caring for the Dogs.” Wayne considers his own happiness when he married his wife and had kids at a young age, so he encourages his son to get married, despite the mistake his son could be making in giving up school. Do you think the characters are just trying to do what they’ve wanted to do all along?
A: I’m not sure my characters know exactly what they want. They want to believe they know what they want. Like anyone, I suppose, they want to believe they’ve chosen a path that will lead to some kind of happiness or fulfillment or meaningful life. But do we ever really know that what we are pursuing is what we should be pursuing? In Wayne’s case, I wrote him as a character that’s really good at the beginning of things but has little follow-through. He’s good with kids when they’re young and full of promise. He’s not so good once those kids become autonomous and start making mistakes. He likes puppies, but he’s not so great once those puppies become dogs. He likes the beginning of home projects when the demolition goes fast and feels productive. He’s not so great at the hard work of putting it all back together again.
Q: As mentioned, you teach fiction writing and film at Delta College in Bay City. With the pandemic, education has shifted online. Are you still teaching online? How have your classes changed (or not) in the virtual environment?
A: I am teaching online. I feel some of my courses are actually stronger online. I think my fiction students are getting a better experience in the online environment. Knowing I was going to be teaching online in the fall of 2020, I spent the summer writing blog posts about many aspects of fiction writing. Now, as a part of my online class, I send my students to those blog posts. That class I will probably choose to keep online. Cinematography, on the other hand, is more difficult to teach. I taught cinematography as a hybrid course. We’d meet face-to-face and then it would be three weeks before we’d meet face-to-face again. During the online weeks, they did their reading and took quizzes. It worked out well enough, but for that class to really work, we need to be face-to-face more often. It’s a hands-on course.
Q: What’s on your stack of books to read and recommend?
A: I’ve made a point of buying books exclusively from smaller presses this year. I’ve also been reviewing them on my blog. Currently I’m reading a collection of short stories titled Reincarnations (Montag Press) by Nathan Elias. I would also recommend Suitcase Charlie (Kasva Press) by John Guzlowski and a book called L by Theresa Smith, out from Expat Press. One of the best and most challenging books I read recently is M Against M by Declan Tan, also out from Montag Press.
Q: And what draws you to seek out small press books?
A: I read and support small press books because small presses will likely be what publishes my future work. I want to support the presses that might eventually support me. I mean, sure, when I finish a novel, I usually try to query some agents. Nothing has ever come of that. That’s when I begin submitting my work to small presses. Small presses don’t seem as concerned about profit, though I’m sure any of them would love to see a spike in sales. The larger presses and agents want to know how marketable a book is before anything else. Small presses, and I could be romanticizing them a bit here, but they seem more driven by the art. The larger New York presses seem to be asking, “What other best-selling books could your book be compared to?” where small presses seem to be asking, “How is your book unlike anything else out there?” Small presses really seem to be passion projects for the people involved. The Neighborhood Division was published by Whistling Shade Press, a small press in St. Paul, Minnesota. Whistling Shade is definitely a passion project for Joel Van Valin, the editor and publisher. I like that small presses are out there taking chances on books that might otherwise never see the light of day.
Q: What writing and/or film projects are you working on next?
A: Film for me has largely been on hold. I did shoot a few projects last summer, but I’m itching to shoot something soon. Filmmaking is collaborative, and so covid-19 has made it a very difficult pursuit, to say the least. I was able to stay productive with fiction during lock-down. I wrote two novels in 2020—a dystopian called Falling Sky and then a literary horror called The Dance of Rotten Sticks. I’m in the process of looking for agents/presses. I have an idea for a new short story that I’m just letting simmer right now. If the idea is still eating at me in a month, I’ll start writing it. Also during 2020, I developed a card game for writers called Writer’s Block. I’m in the process of getting ready to market the game through an Etsy shop.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.