A Conversation with Kim Zarins
Kim Zarins is a professor of medieval literature who writes about Norse mythology, the 14th-century poetry of John Gower, and, most recently, teenage identity, sexuality, and the complexities of friendship. Zarins’s debut novel, a modern YA reimagining of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, was published by Simon & Schuster in fall 2016. Sometimes We Tell the Truth is the story of a busload of high school seniors taking a civics trip to Washington, D.C., who, like Chaucer’s famous pilgrims, pass the time with a storytelling competition. Through their narratives, Jeff Chaucer, the novel’s young protagonist, begins to see the students more deeply, even as he fears the contest’s impact on his own intellectual and social reputation. Meanwhile, he struggles with the forced proximity to his former best friend, Pard, and with the mounting conviction that he can no longer avoid the issues that drove them apart. Literary Mama’s Senior Editor and Literary Reflections Editor Libby Maxey talked with Zarins about her adaptation.
Libby Maxey: First off, I loved your book. It’s smart, genuinely funny, and also devastatingly sensitive. I’m glad you included that useful section in the back where you explain some of the choices you made adapting Chaucer’s work. What gave you the idea to modernize The Canterbury Tales for teens? Was it more challenging or easier than you had expected?
Kim Zarins: My editors deserve the credit for the initial idea—they thought that a Chaucer adaptation would be fun and started asking around for writers to send sample chapters. I was one of those writers, and, luckily, they liked my chapters. The story flowed easily. I made mistakes and had to rewrite parts, but I loved writing this novel and holding all these characters in my head. I miss them! I wrote obsessively. I would often wake up, quickly list all the things I needed to write that day, and get to work.
LM: Are you a long-time fan of YA lit, then? It seems like you would have to be in order for a book like this to take shape so easily. You incorporate many references to books that a teen audience might recognize, but, I wonder, when you started in on this project, were you inspired by any YA books in particular?
KZ: I am a fan, actually! I love the diversity and vibrancy of this genre. I wanted to capture that diversity in the book, and, yes, I incorporate YA references—sometimes just a nod to authors, but sometimes I draw on the settings of other fictional worlds. Partly, I wanted some of my Chaucer stories to feel like YA retellings, just like Chaucer’s readers might have seen his stories as Ovid’s or Boccaccio’s retold. Also, using YA to layer the retellings was fun. I didn’t have any YA books specifically in mind when I began this project, but I was thinking of a Breakfast Club vibe where the teens get together, and, in the process of sharing stories, develop insights about each other.
LM: And the insights are very interesting, considering the way you’ve stuck with Chaucer’s model by making the characters, to a certain extent, “types.” You certainly gave your narrator much more character than Chaucer’s narrator has; his narrative voice is believable, too. Since you don’t have any experience being an 18-year-old boy, how did you find Jeff Chaucer’s voice?
KZ: I felt very comfortable using Jeff’s voice, and it felt natural to write within his limited perspective. I think the ease partly came from giving him some of my own flaws and insecurities, as well as imparting an introvert’s need for some kind of voice, even if it’s all a monologue in one’s head—you know, inwardly making some trenchant commentary but not having the guts to say it out loud. I also felt for him socially. When he struggles with merely approaching a cluster of chatting teens, that was pretty much teen me feeling the same misery. He wants popularity more than I ever did, but many of our motivations are similar, and I could write from that space and feel like I was in his head. He frustrated me at times, because he is his own worst enemy in so many ways, but I also really cared about him and understood his inadequacies as mine.
LM: I think any reader could feel that sympathy seeping out of the page. And maybe that’s part of the answer to my next question: Why do you feel drawn to write for young people? You’ve published a few picture books for the preschool set, and now this. How do you shift between scholar and, for lack of a better word, entertainer?
KZ: I’ve been writing for young people for about 20 years, so it doesn’t feel like a new thing to me; it’s a natural way to express myself, in a way that I can’t in academic writing. I like writing without footnotes. I like writing to feel face to face. Young people have excellent radar for detecting what is real and what is fake; they set a high bar. They’re an audience that I respect and care about. Their hearts are open, and I find that amazing. Also, when I think about books that have changed my life forever, they are the books I read when I was young.
LM: Many people would be impressed that your first novel was picked up by a big-name press. Does that make you feel like you’ve “arrived,” or is it more complicated than that?
KZ: I think I’m the type of person who will never feel like I’ve “arrived.” A big press is an honor, but even when you’re published by a “big-five” publisher, there’s still the awareness that you are probably their puniest author ever. I try to focus on the writing and less on the arrived-ness or lack thereof. But it can be hard to do that!
LM: So, are you already working on the Next Thing? (Or at least operating under the assumption that there will be a “next thing”?)
KZ: I’m doing more “daily life” than “next thing” right now, but I have a few ideas just waiting for time to write. You know how that is!
LM: How do you fit writing in around your academic career and having a family? We ask that question in almost every interview; we want to know if somebody else has some wondrous system that effectively makes time stop. Do you have a wondrous system, perchance?
KZ: Deadlines are wondrous systems! The publisher wanted the manuscript by X date; I would have sat on it otherwise!
LM: Do you have any advice for other would-be novelists?
KZ: I’d say write for yourself. Don’t worry about trends. Don’t write magazine articles because it’s a rite of passage before you can do a book. Write the thing that you really want to write, and write it in the order that you’re in the mood for. Don’t write the boring parts to get to the good parts. Write the parts you’re excited about and then patch it all together. It’s messier but way more fun.