Q: How did you start writing?

Mark Zero: As soon as I learned the alphabet, I started writing stories. My mother says I would disappear when the rest of the family was watching television, and more often than not they’d find me hiding under the kitchen table with a pencil and paper. I wonder now exactly what I was writing—I have no idea what my five-year-old stories were about. I guess there can be a lot of tragedy surrounding peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But there’s never been a time when I wasn’t writing stories.

Q: So how did you first become a professional writer?

MZ: A college teacher suggested I send a story I wrote to the New Yorker. I got a personal note back rejecting the story but asking for something else. It was the first moment I realized that real people were actually deciding what goes into magazines and books, and that they could decide to offer my work to the public as well. I suppose I could have learned that lesson just as well from an acceptance letter, but rejection can be motivating, too.

Q: And you went on then to write for magazines?

MZ: Right. Mostly I worked as a freelance writer and photographer with niche magazines and small presses. I spent my longest stint as a features editor with a now-defunct motorcycle magazine called CC Motorcycle News.

Q: You’ve also written some for the stage, right?

MZ: Comedy sketches. In college, some friends and I performed in a comedy troupe that was pretty successful, and I had a goofy one-act play produced, but nothing very well-crafted. I like performing, though. I like it when a joke goes over, but in terms of writing, the things that interest me most simply aren’t possible on stage.

Q: Such as?

MZ: In a novel, or even a short story, you can build a whole world out of language, the complexity of the language itself, interior monologues. You can luxuriate in descriptions of places and things, you can stop time to consider something, you can make a world of impossibilities real. For that matter, just in terms of action, you can make things happen that are unlikely or physically impossible in the real world. You can create an existence parallel to the objective world, that reflects it but doesn’t necessarily follow its rules—a world that depends only on your language and the reader’s understanding and imagination to make it real.

Q: Is that what excites you about novels in general? The sense of the impossible?

MZ: Not in terms of science fiction or anything like that. I try to reflect the actual world in my work, but in an idealized way, in a way that gives the world depth and meaning that the natural chaos of events doesn't have. But one of the great things about the novel is how flexible the form is, and how many different things you can do with it. Take something as obvious as “Moby-Dick,” which is a fish story, a reverie, a philosophical treatise and a whaling handbook, all rolled into one—I think it’s also a menu. The novel is just the most complex expression of ideas and emotions we’ve figured out how to make. I mean, symphonies or movies notwithstanding, but a novel is so much more private than those things.

Q: I read in your bio that you lived in East Germany for a while as a youth. Why were you living there?

MZ: I was accidentally studying German culture at Karl Marx University.

Q: Accidentally?

MZ: I earned a scholarship to study there, as part of a Cold War East-West friendship program, but I didn’t intend to. I didn’t even know the program existed before I won the award. The professors in my German department nominated students based on their work, and I was nominated, and some essays that I’d previously written for a German culture class passed the review of the program head, so off I went. I just fell into it.

Q: So the fact that you studied at Karl Marx University isn’t a reflection of your politics?

MZ: I’m not a Marxist, if that’s what you mean. My beard isn’t thick enough, and I keep confusing the Proletariat with the Dictatorship of the Proletariat—which is a problem a lot of Marxists had, too, come to think of it. Anyway, I think my natural insubordinance played a bigger role in my decision to go than any political stance. I always thought most of the so-called Cold War was just junk propaganda, just like the War on Terror now, and many of my decisions as a youth were knee-jerk reactions against it, against my family’s McCarthyism. I went to a progressive high school and took Russian language classes, for instance, more to irritate people than out of any love for borscht or the Kirov.

Q: I read that you also lived in France—was that accidental as well?

MZ: Not entirely, but there was an accidental quality to it. I had helped a woman edit her doctoral dissertation, and when she was finished with her degree, she decided to give herself a treat and go live in France for a while, and she invited me to go along. She was quite rich—I couldn’t have afforded to go on my own. Anyway, she knew someone who had an empty apartment in downtown Paris, and within a few weeks we were walking through the rain in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. But I had never thought of going to France before that, it wasn’t intentional. She said, “Come with me to Paris,” and I went.

Q: And you’ve lived in Washington, Nebraska, California, Missouri, New Mexico and Arizona—

MZ (singing): I've been to Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota—how does that Johnny Cash song go?

Q: “I’ve Been Everywhere, Man?”

MZ: Yeah. (singing) “Crossed the deserts bare, man/breathed the mountain air.” Yeah, I’ve been fairly nomadic, I guess, and I’ve had a bunch of weird jobs, too. I see those things as just normal for a writer. The most important thing for me is always the writing, and the rest of life is almost incidental, so it’s hard for me to say which job I should want or which place I should live. I do feel there’s an arbitrary quality to many of those choices.

Q: So is that still what you’re doing, being nomadic?

MZ: No. I’m fairly well settled now in Tucson. But that’s kind of accidental, too. It’s where my family moved when I was a kid, and it’s cheap to live there. It wasn’t so much that I consciously chose it as the best of all possible alternatives. It’s just how it worked out.

Q: So it sounds like you believe in fate? How things work out is how they’re supposed to work out?

MZ: I don’t believe there’s a “supposed to.” I believe that it’s impossible to know what’s really going on in life, but it’s fun to try to figure it out. It’s the only game in town, right?