Q&A with Magdalena Zyzak: Writing is Like Balding

The narrator of Magdalena Zyzak's debut novel, The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel (Henry Holt & Co,), professes early on that the eponymous "young hero's heart is like that of a lion and a little like that of an ass." This description rings true in virtually all of the scenes in which Barnabas righteously adventures on his semi-trusty short legged steed, Wilhelm. Barnabas, a teenaged pig herder, is brave and gutsy, but he has an incredibly thick skull.

Zyzak sets Barnabas' adventures in the tiny village of Odolechka, located in the fictional nation of Scalvusia. It's 1939, and Scalvusia stands right in the Nazis' way as they sweep through Europe. The town's priest has gone missing, and the mayor's wife, Apollonia, blames Roosha Papusha, a gypsy concubine who Barnabas is in love with, and her sister. A vicious witch hunt ensues, and Barnabas won't stand up to this nonsense. When a Nazi officer named Boguswav Bobek parachutes into Odolechk and teaches Apollonia about racial purity, Barnabas and the reader witness a dark historical moment in the ridiculous village. By injecting the story with her lewd and witty humor, Zyzak depicts moral panic and racial condemnation as totally absurd and darkly hysterical.

Ballad is an impressively poly-genre novel: it's a bizarre love story, a Quixotic journey of a dumb hero, a historical and societal parody. Zyzak answered our questions on how she strung together Barnabas' ballad.

These chapters are funny and wild and self-contained, and yet there's an overarching narrative. Did you write them thinking they could be read individually?

No. Chapters, like choirboys and vodka shots, have a more powerful effect in groups.

Your satire is so rich here. It's set up like Gulliver's Travels to me. What's the most challenging aspect of writing satire?

Recently someone in my family asked me to sign a non-disclosure agreement before participating in a conversation over dinner.

This is your debut novel. How long have you been planning, executing, and fine-tuning Barnabas' adventures?

Writing novels is an extremely unpleasant compulsive activity. Then again, perhaps it’s not at all compulsive. I wonder if it’s like baldness in men. You lose a couple of strands per day. Eventually you’re bald, and you have a book. Then you send it to your editor, and she goes bald. Eventually the readers all have widow’s peaks, and you find yourself baldly answering questions on the Internet. Who can say how long it takes. Some people never finish going bald.

Were you self-conscious about mocking Nazis?

It’s ill-advised. And yet, if a book will mock provincial Slavs in 1939, it ought to mock their aggressors as well. There’s nothing more provincial than a Nazi.

I love the funny and self-conscious voice of the narrator, who's watching all of this hilarity ensue. How did you decide when and when not to insert that voice?

Voice is a troubled term in contemporary fiction. I hear people speaking of their interest in “voice-driven” fiction. As far as I can tell, no fiction is not voice-driven. Some voices are erudite omniscient third, some colloquial close first. Possibly this “voice-driven” concept is an unconscious smokescreen for fiction that is not particularly precise? Blame it on the voice of the character and call it a strength? Not to say that’s what you meant by voice. Forgive me for hijacking your question.

Image: Anthony Patch