July 30, 2013

Tangled Up In Youth: an interview with Ilan Mochari, author of "Zinsky the Obscure"

About the author: Ilan Mochari’s short stories have appeared in Keyhole, Stymie, Oysters & Chocolate, and Ruthie’s Club. Another short story was a finalist in a Glimmer Train competition. He is Chief Writer for The Build Network and a contributor to Cognoscenti, the online magazine for Boston's NPR news station. (Listen to his radio interview.) He has a B.A. in English from Yale. He used it to wait tables for nine years at various restaurants in the Boston area. - bio from http://www.zinskytheobscure.com/

About Zinsky the Obscure: Thirty-year-old Manhattan bachelor Ariel Zinsky is still recovering from his abusive childhood when he realizes no one -- including his few living relatives -- is truly interested in his narrative. While they numb themselves with the latest celebrity rehab story or the third-world atrocities replayed without ceasing on cable news, he sets out to write his autobiography as an exercise in his own self-medication, recasting himself as the hero in a coming-of-age story. Fans of A Confederacy of Dunces and The Perks of Being a Wallflower will relate to this tale of overcoming your childhood's traumas, and the world's indifference to them.

Gef: Zinsky the Obscure has garnered a fair amount of praise, even provoking mentions of the names Charles Dickens and John Irving. Not too shabby for a debut novel. So, just how many years have you been working on this overnight success?

Ilan: About the song "Tangled Up In Blue," Bob Dylan once said that it took him "ten years to live and two years to write." A similar calculus applies to Zinsky. On some level, I'd been preparing most of my life to write it, probably beginning in 1987 or 1988 when I was in seventh and eighth grade. It was at this time I started to have strong emotional reactions to the novels I was reading both in and out of school. It was also at this time I began writing short stories. In terms of the actual time spent composing Zinsky, the beginning was in the summer of 2003. The first four years were intense drafting and redrafting. From 2007-2011, I continued to revise, but it was something I'd turn to for a few months every year. Then there was the final edit in late 2011, once Fomite Press accepted the manuscript. 

Gef: If there's anything more difficult than writing horror, it's gotta be writing humor. Did you find any difficulties adding those lighter touches to your novel or did they just come about organically while you wrote it?

Ilan: Most of them came organically. When you're creating characters, part of what you're doing is creating their myriad senses of humor. Once these characters are in certain scenarios within the novel, you find that they'll crack a joke or two, making light of a situation or trying to impress or offend others in the room. In other words, they joke for the same reasons most of us do. They'll also joke to get their minds off sadder situations. That's something Ariel Zinsky learns to do as a very young boy.

Gef: I've heard it said that writers always put a bit of themselves in the characters they create. In Ariel Zinsky's case, he's gone whole-hog and cast himself as the star of a coming-of-age book. Is that something you've ever felt tempted to do yourself?
Ilan: No, but I've always appreciated David Copperfield's line, "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show." That line in particular, and David Copperfield in general, informed a lot of my thinking about how Ariel would tell his own story. 

Gef: Since Ariel Zinsky is seeking a bit of catharsis in writing an autobiography, have you ever had a similar attitude towards your own writing?

Ilan: Absolutely. And it pertains both to minor, daily problems, and longer term issues. For example, I keep a journal, and there's no question that it helps cleanse me from everyday nuisances -- road rage, rejections, a busted Internet connection. Likewise, the fiction and poetry I write help me deal with larger questions -- heartbreaks, family ties, existential and spiritual woes. 

Gef: Since you worked as a waiter in Boston for a few years, how does that measure up to the abuse one might endure during childhood?

Ilan: It doesn't compare at all. As a waiter, you're a grownup, and you're compensated for your problems. You don't last at the job if you don't find a way to get professionally numb to all the crap that customers and employers will give you. As a child, you don't yet know how to fortify yourself. You're often not even conscious that you're being abused -- it's just what's happening to you at a given moment, and only years later do you realize that it was severe mistreatment, and not just another interaction where someone was mad at you. 

Gef: Thanks, Ilan. As for the rest of you, be sure to keep track of Ilan's blog tour by visiting TLC Blog Tours. Just click here.


  1. Gef, thanks for interviewing me!

  2. You're quite welcome, Ilan. Best of luck with the book's success, though it looks like luck won't be necessary.

  3. Thanks for featuring Ilan for the tour!

  4. Boy, what a great insight into child abuse. Kids really don't know what's going on at the time is abuse -- that's something you figure out much much later on in life.

    Great interview!