We Call Upon the Author to Explain: Tara Isabel Zambrano

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Alex DiFrancesco is the editor of this series.

I first became aware of Tara Isabel Zambrano’s stunning flash work when reading for a local literary magazine in Cleveland, Gordon Square Review. Tara’s story that appeared in the issue I read for was called “Sandalwood Remains,” and was about a romantic and sexual encounter on a bus between Jaipur and Jaisalmer. I began following Tara’s published work with a lot of excitement and was thrilled when I heard her collection Death, Desire, and Other Destinations would be published through Okay Donkey Press. The collection includes stories about destination weddings on the moon, love, loss, fabulism, and through it all runs Tara’s careful prose and startling juxtapositions.

When indie publicist Lori Hettler of The Next Best Book Club reached out to me to interview Tara, I jumped at the chance. We talked about inventiveness, the difference between flash and prose poetry, and writing good sex scenes, among other things.

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Alex DiFrancesco: I’ll admit that flash is a little new to me, so bear with this question about form! Your book is a series of stories, most no longer than three or four pages. They often read like plotted, anchored prose poetry. How do you balance the care with language and the plotted aspects in terms of these stories?

Tara Isabel Zambrano: Thank you so much, Alex, for reading my work and taking the time. You are right. To someone new to flash, these stories might come across as prose poetry and hence the care in choosing details and language to describe them. Since they are stories, they have a snapshot of a plot and conflict. And the whole challenge amounts to picking details that propel the story and yet come across as a fresh approach to something you are used to seeing over and again. It takes a lot of editing–stirring the simmering pot, as I call it–and then stop when you have reached the right consistency and volume.

AD: You often have extremely fantastical elements in these stories–destination weddings on the moon, a moon that disappears, a girl who lives inside another girl. Do you feel these elements come easily to you? Does an excess of them inform your choice to write shorter pieces?

TIZ: It’s an instinctive process; stories with fantastical elements often come to me as an opening phrase or an image that I write down and develop, edit and re-edit to see if the concept sticks, and if it has gravity to settle on a ground of reality. I do get a lot of these ideas. Not all of them are able to create a story. Some stay in the background for months, years, or sometimes become parts of other stories. The choice to write shorter or longer pieces depends on the plot, the characters, and the process of how a story represents it. It should be in terms of length, density, and impact. It’s a function of the creative processes within every idea and not their volume.

AD: Location also plays a big part in these pieces. Many take place on the U.S. and in India. Do locations inspire these stories or do they come after other elements for you?

TIZ: The plot, the characters, and the cultural elements that weave them define the location for me. For example, the story “Alligators” is set in India; the road trip and the setup appeared in my head as the characters made their journey and I stayed true to it. “Lunar Love” is based in the U.S. because that’s how it made sense in terms of its characters and their interaction with their surroundings.

AD: You write stunning sex scenes! Do you have any tips for other writers on those? (Many writers don’t do this quite as well as it’s done in this book!)

TIZ: Thank you so much, Alex! Sex is a culmination of desire and to do it effectively and aesthetically, there should be an emotional resonance between the readers and the words. There should be a strong human element in its execution and the little details that are significant to relate to, flawed or perfect. I sound like a broken record when I say that I edit a lot. I let a story sit and then read again to see if the passion in a scene moves me.

AD: At times, I felt as if I was getting to know the narrators of these stories as the stories progressed. Do you start with distinct voices, or are you learning the narrators as they come out on the page?

TIZ: I do start with a distinct voice, but on occasion I have changed it depending on how the story progresses and how the characters transform. And that’s a revelation I always wait and hope for, to have my mind surprise me and take me somewhere where I didn’t think I’d end up. So bold, so new, so unsettling. Just show me the glimpse of that space-time coordinate and I’ll work out the rest.

AD: Another flash question: you manage to portray, at times, decades within a few paragraphs. Where do you decide a scene ends? Are the blank spots between just as important, and are we to fill them in with the guidance of what’s on the page?

TIZ: Yes, blank spots are key. Flash breathes in these white spaces. For me, there is always this sense of urgency between sentences, between words. Almost all the time, something is happening, even if it’s a thought train going at full speed about to fall off its rails. You need these breaks to allow the readers to fill in the details as they perceive it. It places them amid the story, engaged. To answer your question, to end a scene is to fold it and tuck away in a manner that suspends the conflict or begins the confusion. It’s an innate process, so I try different stakes in time and mood to see where these clearances provide the muscle and transformation I need in the story.

AD: The title of this series comes from one of my favorite songs, which contains the line, “Prolix, prolix, nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix,” so my last interview questions here is always: if you had to cut one thing from this book, from a word up to a scene or story, what would it be?

TIZ: That’s a trick question! I would shorten my Acknowledgements page to just, “Thank you everyone who has touched my life.” Because this book is the resultant to all those experiences and the imaginations that came with them.

Death, Desire, and Other Destinations is available through Okay Donkey Press


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Tara Isabel Zambrano works as a semiconductor chip designer. Her work has been published in Tin House Online, The Southampton Review, Slice, Triquarterly, Yemassee, Passages North and others. Her stories have been featured in Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions, and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net. She served as the Flash Fiction editor for Newfound. She lives in Texas with her husband and two grown-up kids.

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Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin House, The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The New Ohio Review, Brevity and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards. Their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021. They are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications.

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