The Sweetest Debut: Silas Dent Zobal On Writing 25 Drafts of His Novel and Reading Morrison and McCarthy


The Sweetest Debut is a regular Flavorwire installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

This week we hear from Silas Dent Zobal, author of The People of the Broken Neck an explosive story of a veteran returned from America’s recent spate of wars. “Zobal reveals himself to be a writer of distinctive power,” writes Kirkus. ” A powerful, moving allegory that reflects how post–9/11 missteps scarred the American soul.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

The People of the Broken Neck is the story of Dominick Sawyer, a former Army Ranger and veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, who returns to rural Pennsylvania a changed man, haunted by post-traumatic hallucinations. His wife disappears and, shortly after, he becomes the prime suspect in the shooting death of a Pennsylvania sheriff. So Dominick takes his kids—15-year-old Clarke and 11-year-old Kingsley—on the run in a desperate attempt to keep his family together.

What you tell your relatives it’s about?

I tell them that it’s about the way I felt as a kid. My brother and I were raised poor, and we were around a lot of violence, and we moved a lot. But I also tell my family that The People of the Broken Neck is about the way I now feel, as the father of two kids, a pressing urge to protect my children and to give them more than what I was given.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

I wrote The People of the Broken Neck in 8 months. So, fairly quickly. But the drafting process took another 5 years.

What’s a canonical book you think is overrated?

Maybe this is pretty nerdy, but I like most canonical work. Here’s an admission though. I don’t like the Flannery O’Connor stories that are most often anthologized. Especially “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People.” But I like her novel, Wiseblood, a lot.

What’s a book you’ve read more than two times?

Beloved by Toni Morrison. The Stand by Stephen King. Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee. But you know what beats out all of these? I must have read Fantastic Mr. Fox aloud to my daughter, and quietly to myself, at least one hundred times.

Is there a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project.

I’ll name just two books and two bands. Books: Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. And bands: Beirut (especially “A Sunday Smile” when I started writing the novel) and Explosions in the Sky.

Do you have a favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

Binge watching pretty much disappears once you have children. But here are a few favorites: Deadwood and Slings and Arrows. And one detective show watched more recently: River.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (Not too long ago, I moved to Aix-en-Provence, France, and I haven’t been to a movie since.)

If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?

On one of the San Juan Islands in Washington state. I spend my early childhood in Bellingham, and the Pacific Northwest haunts me.

What did you initially want to be when you grew up?

As a kid I had asthma so bad that I thought I was going to die. (I went to the emergency room about once a week for epinephrine injections. And about once a year I spent a week or two in the hospital.) This made me want to be a physician!

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library for writing?

A silent library is better than a noisy library. That said, there are too many people in a library.

Do you scribble best in a desk, bed or couch?

I like a desk in an office in a house. But when I was writing The People of the Broken Neck I didn’t have a desk available at home, so I wrote in bed.

Morning writing or late-night writing?

I used to like late-night, but now I prefer the morning. This change happened along with having kids. But since having them, I’ve learned I can write at any time.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

When I’m writing I happily believe that I’m perfecting as I go. But when I’m done, and after I’ve let the draft sit for a bit, I find that what I have is messy. I curse a lot. Then I do a lot of drafting and editing. I have twenty-five drafts of The People of the Broken Neck, each significantly different than the last.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

I teach creative writing for the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

I have two tricks, though neither is romantic or glamorous. The first trick is that I share my job with my spouse, Catherine Zobal Dent. (Maybe that is a little romantic!) This give me extra time, though less money. The second trick is that I strictly schedule my writing time. Every hour of every weekday is usually filled on my Google Calendar. Sometimes when I look at it I feel sick. I schedule two hours of writing time every day. If I don’t schedule my two hours and then treat the schedule as incontrovertible, something (a meeting with a student; taking a kid to Tae Kwon Do; an episode of The Wire) will get in the way.

If you could write fanfiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be (e.g. Rihanna or a character from Mad Men)?

Muffit, the robot dog from the original Battlestar Galactica.