Interview with Foglifter Contributor Zak Salih, Author of Let’s Get Back to the Party
Zak Salih is the author of Let’s Get Back to the Party (Algonquin Books). His writing has appeared in Foglifter, Epiphany, Crazyhorse, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Chattahoochee Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications. He lives in Washington, DC. www.zaksalih.com
Foglifter contributor Zak Salih’s new novel Let’s Get Back to the Party is a glittery, gay account of two men navigating through the complex arrays of marriage, sex, and friendship. But more than just a queer ode, the novel is also deeply concerned with our capacity to heal, and how the passage of time gives us opportunities to reconcile difficult relationships from our past.
At the end of January, I had the chance to speak with Zak, where he provided more inspiring insights about his approach to the novel. Below is an excerpt from our discussion. The full interview will be released in our forthcoming Fall 2021 issue.
And be sure to order Zak’s fabulous debut novel, available here!
DM: First of all it was such a pleasure reading the book. I just loved that it was for gay men, and I just thank you so much for putting it out there for gay men.
ZS: I’m happy to hear you say that, because there was a lot of pressure in the early stages of writing this novel. You’re obviously taking upon yourself a huge responsibility when you write, even a work of fiction, about a marginalized group. In the initial planning stages of this novel, I felt this immense pressure, because the gay male community is in itself just so incredibly diverse, to encompass every single perspective.
The real key to writing this book came when I just let go of that responsibility. I don’t think it’s a writer’s responsibility to carry the burden of an entire community on their shoulders, specifically because there’s absolutely no way a single sustained work of fiction could encompass every single gay man’s perspective and experience, let alone that of the larger queer community.
Absolved of that responsibility, I could make Oscar and Sebastian as sad and as angry and misunderstood and hypocritical as I wanted to, because, first and foremost, they’re not just gay men, they’re human, regardless of what groups they identify with. While this book is unapologetically intended for gay men, I hope it speaks to as many people as possible. I myself have other interests, including how people cope with the passing of time—something that’s not exclusive to gay men or even to queer people.
DM: Yes, definitely. And I don’t want to make it seem like these characters are two dimensional, in any way, because I think there’re so many instances in the book where the main characters, they need some sort of compassion, not just from readers, but from other characters.
ZS: Right, right. They’re looking for something in each of their—I guess for lack of a better term—intergenerational foils, right? Sebastian is looking for something in his student, Arthur, and Oscar is looking for something in the writer, Sean, and they spend so much time obsessing over this. I mean, Sean has made a career of being a sort of gay ethnographer and writing these passages that Oscar finds very titillating. But he also ends up getting married. There’s a larger discussion to be had: You think about the people in our own lives that we objectify or obsess over, and you’re never seeing the whole picture. You’re only getting fragments, and that’s why these people end up disappointing us in one way or another. Not because they’re bad people but because they’re human. There will always be a part of them that is unknown and unknowable.
DM: When I read queer literature, whether intentional or not, I always have this question in the back of my mind where I’m like, How should gay men love? I’m always looking for a representation of good love, you know what I mean?
ZS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I never really thought of this novel as a love story. I was more interested in the friendship angle. The thrust of this novel was never about: Are they going to fall in love, are they going to be in a relationship, are they going to get married? Those stories are wonderful, of course. But in the case of Oscar and Sebastian, it felt a little too simplistic. I’m in my late 30s, and I’ve been in a relationship for almost 10 years now, and I think back to when I was in my 20s and how preoccupied I was with things like sex and romance; now, I’m more interested in the concept of friendship. That, to me, is so much more interesting. So it was never a question of whether Oscar and Sebastian were going to fall in love. It’s, How are they going to navigate these gaps in their understanding of the world, and what does that mean for their potential to be friends, or to not be friends at all?
DM: I didn’t want to pigeonhole this as a love story, because I don’t think it’s that at all. I think part of the tension, though, is how are these people actually trying to make themselves whole? Not just love for someone else, but the love for self that you have to establish first, which I think was really emphasized and really beautiful in your book.
ZS: That’s a great way to put it. Therein is the essence of pride, right? It’s really about how you feel about yourself when you’re alone in a room. I could go to all the parties, and get laid all the time, but if I’m in a room by myself, and I hate myself, I would argue that I probably don’t have a healthy level of pride. I mean, the project of pride is communal, but I think the more important work, at least in my experience as a gay man, is that no one can help you with that but yourself. This is something that I kind of flirted with in the novel, this idea of being a part of a community but also needing (or feeling) set apart from that community. We need each other to survive, but there are certain things you can only do by yourself. One of them, I think, is cultivating a truly authentic sense of pride.
DM: Yes, and in a marginalized community that’s had to create our own examples of pride and love, it’s hard to go out there and be proud or self-loving. I think something else I appreciated in your book is how you’ve incorporated these characters that serve as mentors, especially in these very human mentorships, because they’re not perfect. In fact, sometimes they’re anger-inducing, and sometimes awkward, especially when you watch the relationship between Arthur and Sebastian. I’m just wondering if that was intentional on your part.
ZS: It absolutely was. The idea was to ground the experience of Oscar and Sebastian in this kind of continuity of gay history. There’s this kind of solipsistic idea of feeling like you’re always the present, and you forget there are people who came before you, and people coming after you whose experiences are incredibly different from your own.. A lot of that was drawn from my own feelings about what it means to be a member of a generation suspended between two completely different experiences of living as a gay man. The ideal relationship is that these mentors are here to teach you—but what happens when you envy them, when you get lost in this idea that they’ve lived (or are living) a more authentic life than yours?
Years and years ago, there was a YouTube clip of this older gay gentleman—he must have been in his late 60s—and a teenage boy, and they were sitting on a stage across from one other talking about their experiences as gay. It was delightfully heartwarming and inspiring. But I also remember thinking, Man, if I were this old man confronted with this boy, there would be a part of me embittered by how easy this boy has it compared to me. That’s obviously not a very generous thought, but those subterranean feelings and emotions you’re not proud to articulate are often the wellspring for an interesting story.
DM: I love that, because it really does capture the timelessness of that bumpy transfer of knowledge. I’m thinking about how it’s laid out in your novel, because you have Sean, who is the oldest of them, with Oscar looking at Sean, and he’s envying the nostalgia of whatever Sean’s life was, and then you have Sebastian looking at Arthur, envying the freedom of youth.
ZS: I’m so glad you latched on to that. But it’s also, to use the cliche, like they’re looking at it through rose tinted glasses. Oscar obviously objectifies the experiences Sean has had. But Oscar’s problem, to me, is that he has no respect for the past. He’s objectifying all this sex and not paying much credence to the more serious experiences of Sean’s generation. So you have someone like Oscar, who couldn’t be bothered to care about the past, and then you have someone like Sebastian, who cares way too much for it.
DM: You know, I do want to take a moment to promote your Instagram account, because you’re always posting what you’re reading and you have impeccable taste in literature. How do you let reading influence your own writing?
ZS: Oh, thank you for saying that. I have no academic training in writing. Everything I learned about writing, and have yet to learn, comes from writing, but more importantly, from reading. There really is nothing else one needs to do but read and write in order to become a writer. If you have the means to join an MFA program, I think that’s great. The one thing I regret about not having participated in an MFA program is that I have to go out there and forge a community of writers on my own. Like tapping the shoulders of strangers at a party and saying, Hey, can I join the conversation? I imagine there’s a vibrant feeling of community that comes from an MFA program that you can’t get from just reading and writing by yourself. Reading, though, is why I wanted to do this to begin with. If I had to choose between writing and reading, I would quit writing tomorrow. And just read.
Let’s Get Back to the Party by Zak Salih, available HERE February 16!
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