Last week I finished reading a book that left my head spinning. From the first line to the last, I was held captive by the author’s voice. Every sentence felt right. The story was unique, and the characters stayed true. You could tell this writer worked hard, probably for years, to perfect her debut novel.
The book is Zazen by Vanessa Veselka. About a year ago I read her short story “Just before Elena” in Tin House and loved it. Later, I recognized her name in an issue of Poets & Writers, and I made a note to check out her novel. I am so glad that I did. I have several titles waiting on my TBR list, but I’ll probably read Zazen again first.
It’s important to have books like this—the ones we completely fall in love with. They’re the kind we’re told to read, as in “Read the books you want to write.” They’re the kind that made us want to become writers.
But when one is this good, it can be pretty humbling. At some point, all writers must accept the fact that there will always be someone better.
If the payoff is getting to enjoy a book like Zazen, that’s fine. It’s refreshing to read as a reader and not as a writer. I don’t want to dissect the prose and figure out why it works and try to analyze the way Veselka’s character stays sympathetic while she’s terrorizing her city with bomb threats—never mind. It works, that’s all. Let it stay magic.
What I did take away from Veselka’s writing is that I can never let myself become lazy. You can’t imitate talent, but you can embody other qualities of great artists—hard work and high standards—and come up with something fine. After finishing Zazen, I wanted to comb through my own novel and make absolutely sure that each sentence, if it had to stand on its own, was one I could be proud of. When you have the cushion of tens of thousands of words, it’s easy to let a lazy phrase slip through. Well, Veselka didn’t. And I know, as a reader, I appreciate that.