What is your most recent writing project? Or, what is a piece you’ve had published recently?
My debut novel, Paper Is White, launches on March 13! If you’re in Oakland, California, come on by to the launch party. I’ll also be heading to New Orleans to read at Saints & Sinners later in the month. More events to come.
If you want a fun, little seasonal taste of my work, my short story “My Triple X Valentine’s at the Far Point Senior Villas” is available as a Kindle Single on Amazon. Originally published in Amazon’s Day One, curated by the stellar Morgan Parker, this story is that rare Valentine’s tale that makes you feel so much better than the protagonist whether you’re coupled or single.
What’s your favorite thing someone else has said about your writing?
I have to say, Alexander Chee’s recent blurb of Paper Is White made me want to polish my combat boots and press my cape. He said: “Written across histories as seemingly varied as Lithuania’s Jewish Kovno Ghetto and Queer Nation San Francisco, Paper Is White connects them in a very different sort of adventure novel, where remembering someone you love becomes one of the most radical things you can do. Zaid is fierce, a rebel with a cause, and her breathtaking leaps of imagination make new worlds possible.” Yow!
What is one craft or writing book you love?
This is kind of old school, but I find Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones timeless and super calming. She’s a Buddhist. It helps.
Who is one other writer you’re excited about right now?
Just one?? There’s so much incredible writing come out right now. Nafissa Thompson-Spire’s Heads of the Colored People springs to mind, along with Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras. Can’t wait to get my hands on those.
What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What’s the best?
Any writing advice that is very prescriptive rubs me the wrong way. Don’t write in second person? You aren’t going to tell me that! No you’re not! The best writing advice is to keep writing. Then there’s craft advice, and that’s different. But if you feel a voice inside you, keep writing.
Do you have a dedicated work space? Do you write in your home or do you prefer to write elsewhere? Can you write while traveling?
I very much prefer to write at home. I don’t like having other people around when I’m writing, so I don’t seek out coffee shops or libraries for that purpose. (Though I love coffee shops and I aim to have my ashes set on a shelf in my local library when the time comes. They don’t know that yet.)
My work set-up is super sexy, as you’ll see from the photo of the child’s chair sitting on top of my dining room table, where I stand up to work with a wireless mouse and keyboard, mostly when no one else is home. When it’s time for dinner, that scriptorum is gone! We’ve always lived in small spaces, which is just fine with me, and it requires a little Abracadabra! To make the writing setup appear and disappear. The nice thing about that is that you can really put your work away.
What are some of your writing habits?
I write during the day because that’s when my family is out, and I require a cup of black tea and some good, high quality chocolate (Equal Exchange 80%, if anyone is asking!). Of course, there’s a lot of “writing” work that happens when not writing—lying in bed at night and walking. Did you know that Wordsworth, who was the most prolific (and long-lived) of the English Romantic poets, logged some 150,000 miles on foot? I often tell this to my writing students: go take a walk!
When you are sitting down to write, what is the first thing you do?
I fear that this may lead to confessions about digital distractions. That’s such a challenge for writers. I usually clear the decks of my e-mail and then go head down, swearing off the rest of the computer for a good 45 minutes.
How do you pay the bills/financially support yourself?
I am a freelance writer and editor. I love working with novelists and memoirists on full-length manuscripts. And I also do corporate work, including both copy and information design. I spent some time in the web development world and in advertising. I love have a variety of projects going at the same time. Today, I wrote postcards for old people for an eldercare service in San Francisco. I love that stuff! (And people who read Paper Is White will give a knowing nod.)
When in your life have you felt your work/life balance to be most in sync? When in your life have you felt the most out of sync? What are the most pressing demands for your time, energy, labor (including emotional labor)? What has worked best for you in terms of balancing those demands with writing?
I’m going to smoosh these questions together because they feel so related. I’m a mother of two sons and, while I’m married to a wonderful woman, I’ve been the go-to parent for the boys for most of their lives. Hardest. Job. Ever. Still, when they were really small, I did some of my most energetic and inspired writing because the time I had to write was so compressed and because I didn’t have to worry about giving up a money-making pursuit to write. I wasn’t making money! There was something about stripping away my entire socially constructed value and replacing it with milk stains and exhausting that was very freeing! These days, I struggle more with allocating myself writing time against the demands of freelance work which are much more immediate and obviously remunerated.
What are the ideal conditions for your creativity?
I sure wouldn’t mind sitting on a load of cash big enough not to have to worry about working for income. I value all the people I work with and I know that I would work helping writers regardless of money, but the stress over money is very depleting creatively.
Do you have any writing rituals? Or any non-writing rituals that feed your writing life?
I’m a big believer in taking care of the body. I start many of my days with a swim, followed by a good long walk with my dogs. And then there’s the tea and chocolate. Rituals are very important to writers. Friedrich Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk and lifted the lid to sniff them before writing. Now we know that rotting apples give off a gas that suppresses panic. The thing about rituals is not to get trapped by them. You don’t want to be unable to write without your lucky pen. That becomes a prison.
A 2017 Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers' Conference, Hilary Zaid is also an alumna of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and the Tin House Writers' Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared in print and online venues including Lilith Magazine, the Southwest Review, the Utne Reader, CALYX, the Santa Monica Review, and the Tahoma Literary Review and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. An alumna of Harvard and Radcliffe, she holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and works as a freelance editor. Hilary lives in the Bay Area with her family.