Zach Powers is a pillar of the Savannah literary community. His first book, Gravity Changes, a collection of odd short stories, is already garnering rave reviews. I asked Zach about his childhood, how place informs his writing and how he has come to embrace the oddity of the world.
Savannah Magazine: Tell me about growing up in Savannah. Did its quirkiness seem evident as a child?
Zach Powers: I think you’re always a little bit sheltered from the real world growing up, and mine was a suburban childhood. Even more than Savannah, I think that suburban-ness shows up in my writing. I also spent my entire adolescence in the Metro Atlanta area, subdivisions and shopping strips for miles in every direction. What is suburbia of not a dreamscape?
I recognized Savannah’s smallness even as a kid. We couldn’t walk through Oglethorpe Mall without my dad having to stop several times to chat with someone he knew. That sort of intimacy plays a role in the stories I tell. Discovering something familiar in unexpected places. I was a notoriously shy child, so the social nature of Savannah challenged me, and I think you can see that battle of public versus private in a bunch of the stories, too.
SM: The going wisdom is that you have to leave a place to truly understand it. What do you think?
ZP: I think the opposite was true for me. I never meant to stick around Savannah after college, but I ended up living there 15 years. It took a decent chunk of that time for me to learn what Savannah was all about and everything it had to offer. Moving away has thrown the things I loved about Savannah into stark relief.
Right now, as I answer these questions, I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Fairfax, Virginia, and I haven’t spoken to anyone all morning. That would never have happened at Gallery Espresso. I would have been pleasantly interrupted by numerous friends passing through. So while I feel like I already understood Savannah pretty well, I have a greater appreciation of what made it special now that I’m not there every day.
SM: So, wait. You won an Emmy? What was that all about?
ZP: I actually won four regional Emmy awards when I worked at WTOC. One of those was for short-form writing – commercials and such. The others were for various production-type things, including one for a show I edited with the late, fantastic Mike Manhatton. So yes, I had a decade-long career in local television. I like to claim that for a two-year span, I had a hand in making more than half of Savannah’s worst TV commercials.
SM: Some people tend to read novels and are not used to the short story format. How would you entice them to read your book?
ZP: There’s an inverse proportion between the length of a piece of fiction and the amount of effort it takes to read. In a novel, every time you read a new chapter, you’re reinforcing the things you read in previous chapters. The impression you have of the book, what you’ll remember when you’re finished, builds and builds and builds.
With a short work, it’s usually one and done. It’s an entirely different reading process, one that almost asks you to put the book aside at the end of a story and sit and think about it.
For the writer, short stories are also harder to write. A single weak passage in a 400-page novel won’t ruin the book. I would argue that almost every novel has several such passages. But in a story, one moment of weak writing can kill the whole thing. So if you want to read writers at their best, check out their stories.
The greats like Flannery O’Connor, Jim Shepard, and Aimee Bender don’t waste a single word. The language is so pure and beautiful, and you can take in every phrase in one sitting. That’s a different experience, and while I love and write novels, too, they can’t replicate it.
SM: Your stories display a certain oddity while maintaining realism. How do you know how far to push the envelope?
ZP: I tried to write a purely realistic story once. That lasted about three pages before something weird happened. So it’s not an issue of pushing the limits, because weird is my default. The plot of a Bugs Bunny cartoon has as much validity to me as the plot of a Tolstoy novel. Or at least the one Tolstoy novel I’ve actually read.
Do I have to sometimes rein in my weirdness? Of course. And the writer of speculative fiction has the added responsibility of being even truer to detail and setting and character. To sell something odd, you have to nail the these other elements. And you don’t always nail it, but you get better at it, hopefully, every time you dive into a new, weird world.
Gravity Changes won the short fiction prize, which includes publication, from BOA Editions, Ltd. The book comes out May. Visit www.zachpowers.com for more.
When I was a boy we walked on walls. The kids these days climb trees like it’s some sort of accomplishment. Look how high they go. How high! Nervous mothers look up at them and urge care, or coax them down with cookies to the flat, flat ground. Play in the mud and dirty your clothes, children. Press flat. Stay low.
I’m no physicist, so I can’t explain it. Gravity just worked different back then. I walked on the ground, came to a wall, and kept walking right up it. Oh, how I remember eaves and overhangs! Dangling upside down with the sidewalk overhead. We didn’t think of up and down, though. The ground was something different, we knew that, but down denotes the pull of gravity, and with the pull so uncertain we had no word to describe it.
In summer I would stand on the brick wall of the old bank building and drop a ball to my best friend who stood on the wall across the street. I say drop because, once released, the ball would fall away from me without propulsion. It simply fell, like it knew in which direction I wanted gravity to pull it. My friend would drop the ball from his side and it would fall back to me. Sometimes another friend would pass on the street below. We would drop the ball to him, and he, in turn, would drop it back to one of us. In the middle of the game one day, I missed the ball. It struck the wall and bounced off at a crazy angle, darting around in open space, like a hovering fly, until it finally fell to the ground and bounced to a halt.
From this, we first conceived the idea of flying. It was a simple act of will. I shouldn’t say simple. There were many bruises and busted noses as we perfected the process. Was it rightly flying? I don’t think so, not by the standards we have today, when flying is a fight against the concept of down, but we didn’t have that concept back then. In reality, we were falling, which I guess is the opposite of flying. But if you fall in one direction just a little faster than you’re falling in the other direction, then you can glide through the air, suspended between the warring tugs. At first, we fell too fast, a dozen boys tumbling through the open space above Main Street. My best friend broke an arm on his initial attempt, falling uncontrolled from one wall to another and smacking with a gross crack against the orange bricks, just missing a window, which surely would have cut him all to hell. There were tears in his eyes but he wasn’t crying. He looked up at the wall he’d fallen from like it was a thing he didn’t understand. When he came back from the hospital his arm was encased in a bright white cast, which we all signed, and then he walked to the center of the wall and tried to fly again. He came back from the hospital a second time with a cast on his other arm, and we signed that one, too. Before he could try another flight his mother showed up. She took his hand and pulled him from the wall to the ground and led him away down the sidewalk. He was forced to stay in his room for the rest of the summer, pacing the floor, the walls, the ceiling.
By this point, a number of us had achieved our first jerky flights between buildings. The first time I flew it was like the opposite of a bouncing ball. I floated away from the wall, mere inches, then fell back. I floated a little farther, then fell back. Twice as far still, and then back. After a number of these inverse bounces, I reached the middle, dead center between the two walls. I fell back once more, and with a grin I’m sure was wide (missing, at the time, one baby tooth knocked out in a previous failed flight attempt), I pushed off and sailed across the expanse. As I neared the other side, I slowed myself, beckoning to the gravity of the other wall, and landed with just a tap of my toes against the brick.
The other boys cheered and laughed and smacked each other on the back. So much laughing! Even a few adults, watching from the street, clapped their approval. The adrenalin of success pumping through me, I pushed off again, reached the middle, that beautiful point of no return, and I stopped. I floated there. I spun myself, arms spread wide, above me the sky and below me the ground and vice versa. I list that moment with my wedding and the birth of my children as the happiest of my life. In fact, at the wedding, after kissing my bride, I stepped back and spread my arms and recreated that twirling triumph, this time on the ground, which by then had in fact become down and inescapable. I didn’t think it sad then, but looking back perhaps it was a dark gesture, though I’d intended exuberance. I’d intended nothing at all.
For the rest of the summer we floated between buildings, above the ground. Seldom in the city did we walk. Flying became natural. While our parents had been skeptical after our initial injuries, they warmed to the practice, and eventually praised us for our grace. A few parents even joined in, but remained awkward in that way adults are when taking on something new so late in life. My own father tried to fly, but he never managed to get more than a few inches off the wall.
School began again in September. We returned to the tight hallways, where we floated from class to class. But as the year wore on, routine pressed down upon us and soon enough we were walking like everyone else. Outside the air grew colder, and the naked space between the flat walls seemed inhospitable. Only sometimes, in a moment of whimsy, would one of us rise from a wall, usually the old bank building, which somehow felt more solid than all the rest, and float against the biting winds that pushed harder than gravity pulled.
Even as the air warmed, we walked like everyone else. The heat hunched us over like something we carried on our backs. It was the first time I ever noticed the drops of sweat running down my face. I think we were still able to fly. It just never crossed our minds to make the attempt.
Looking back, I’m not sure if it was the heat making us feel heavy, or our own heaviness that made us feel the heat. In the sky, in our place, floated a group of boys too young the year before to participate. It was them turning in the air, gliding from point to point. Gliding to nowhere in particular. We looked up, not with envy, but with regret. That’s the only thing left when you land.
Slowly, without anyone noticing, without comment, we abandoned even the walls and walked only on the ground. The walls became something new, defined in terms different from the sidewalk. Even before gravity changed, our perception of the world had changed as if to accommodate what was to come.
I remember the first time I went around a building instead of over it. It was the old bank, its walls a place I’d walked since I could remember. But that day, to even think of walking up it felt like effort. I turned and followed the sidewalk beside the wall, dragging my fingers across the brick. I wasn’t the only one grounded. My friends were right there with me, funneling through the streets of the city. We looked up from the ground at the new generation of flying children. Free, so free! And still we didn’t join them.
I came home from college, dressed in my school colors, and found the town I had left strangely flat. The walls still stood tall as ever, but I saw them as walls. In my education I had learned the word down, and my feet treated the concept as law. With each step, I reiterated my orientation. My legs felt heavy. Too heavy. I grew weary and leaned against the wall of the old bank. The brick pressed into my cheek, rough and wonderful. I pushed my palm into the surface, felt the skin take on the inverse of the jagged texture. So heavy! I sank to the ground, sat back against my beloved wall.
Above me I saw the current generation of flying children. One little girl was teaching herself how to fly, never venturing far from the wall from which she had launched, all the time looking up at her bolder friends. I felt lighter just watching them. They glided, as I once had. I remembered games played weightless in empty space. We’d swoop down on the girls and flip the backs of their skirts over their heads. We’d jump from the roofs of buildings and turn somersaults in the air, perform loops and cartwheels. We’d tie streamers to our feet, pretending to be kites. I pushed against the ground, lifted myself up with difficulty.
I don’t know why, but that’s when it changed. That’s when gravity turned into what we know it as today. Down transformed from a concept to a fact, perpendicular became an impediment, and flight became impossible. I realized it, somewhere inside, even before the screaming. The children fell from the sky. Dozens of them. I ran to where they were falling, I guess to try to catch them. They fell too fast. Their little throats screamed such high sweet notes that I cried even though the meaning of what was happening hadn’t sunk in. The screams stopped short with a series of noises I won’t relate, because I don’t have the language or the desire to relate them. Little bodies dotted the street, and the first of many mothers wailed. This new scream was deep and throaty and echoed between the walls.
The little body nearest me was mine. It felt like mine. I saw myself, the boy that I had been, dead on the street on the ground I’d once thought conquered. I felt nothing but a curious detachment. Had I a stick, I would have poked the body.
More parents screaming. Sirens in the distance, getting closer.
Below these louder sounds, I heard a whimper coming from above me. The little girl I’d noticed earlier hung from the gutter of the old bank. Her fingertips clutched the sharp edge of the metal, knuckles buckling under the unidirectional pull of this new gravity. I ran beneath her. Fall, I yelled. Come down. She looked at me, shook her head. It’s just like flying, I said. Let go and I’ll catch you. She shook her head again, but at the same moment her little fingers, bloody and tired, gave out and she fell. Down she came. She landed in my arms, and the weight of her knocked me to the ground. My head smacked against the pavement. Stars danced in the bright blue of the afternoon sky. The clouds remained aloft.
The whole town crowded into the cemetery. One by one the little caskets were lowered, down past the level of the ground. I saw some of my old friends among the mourners. We didn’t speak to each other. I think we felt guilty. It was our summer of flight, which seemed impossibly long ago, that had led in the end to this. I comfort myself with the fact that everything ends with a funeral.
The little girl, the one I’d caught, huddled close to the thigh of her father, pigtails bouncing whenever she moved. How pigtails give me hope. How they resist the pull of gravity.
“Gravity Changes” from Gravity Changes copyright 2017 by Zach Powers, published courtesy of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.