Arts & Humanities

Road Warrior

Runaway. Street musician. Cab driver. Author. Vanessa Veselka ’10 built a career—and wrote a novel—that defies convention.

By Randall S. Barton | March 1, 2012

Distant wars are coming home to roost. People are leaving the country in droves to escape the mushrooming violence. The unrelenting doom menaces Della, a 27-year-old waitress who works in a vegan cafe in some alternate America.

“The world is a violent child,” she says, “and none of us will get to see it grow up.” She has nothing but scorn for sleepwalking middle-class Americans who shop in big-box stores and watch reality shows as the world crumbles around them. “I was sick of people acting against their own interests,” she says. “Mooing about how to refinance the slaughterhouse. Putting skylights in the killing pen and pretending the bolt in the brain was a pathway to a better field.”

To jolt the bourgeois out of their complacency, she begins calling in fake bomb threats. A bomb threat, she reasons, is like Mom saying you’re in trouble, but not telling you why. It forces you to catalog your misdeeds. When real explosions begin striking her list of targets, however, Della is drawn into a world of disturbing consequences.

Della is the narrator in Zazen, a literary novel by Vanessa Veselka in which exquisite turns of phrase entwine with an engaging story about survival in a world gone wrong. “Zazen has a power beyond the satire and the clever reimagining of today’s counterculture trends,” reviewer Katie Schneider writes in the Oregonian. “It also has heart and soul.” Judy Krueger in the New York Journal of Books calls it “a streaking flash of barbed satire and 21st- century malaise.” The book is one of five finalists for the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction.

Vanessa is as dynamic as her novel. Her thesis adviser, Lena Lencek [Russian 1977–], has a vivid memory of their first meeting. “She burst into my office filled with an intensity and focus that felt like a laser beam had bored its way through the wall,” she says. “It was clear she had managed to acquire a complex and deep biography.”

Born in 1969, Vanessa grew up in Manhattan, the daughter of a prominent journalist and a communist cowboy Marine.  She toddled off to 30 Rockefeller Center after school to nap in the green room. By the time she was tucked into bed, it was often 3 a.m. Although she grew up in a world of privilege, meeting celebrities in five-star restaurants, there was turmoil at home.

“Both of my parents were exceptionally charismatic people,” Vanessa says. “But charisma is volatile. It is a glamour that doesn’t always show you what’s there.”

Vanessa had a rebellious streak. Expelled from high school for truancy, she left home when she was 15 and hitchhiked across the country with her boyfriend, a 21-year-old petty thief who had jumped bail from Rikers Island. They picked up odd jobs in New Orleans and roamed up and down Interstate 10 looking for seasonal farm work. They parted ways outside Gila Bend, Arizona. Vanessa dug ditches near Dateland, sold flowers on freeway onramps in L.A., and surfed couches in Spokane.

She inhabited a twilight state of sleep deprivation, bedding down under bridges and in squats. Hitching rides with long-haul truck drivers provided snatches of sleep, lulled by the thrum of the engine. But Vanessa’s eyes would pop open with every shift of the gears, alert to potential danger.

When she was 18 years old, she bought a one-way ticket to Europe, drifted through Turkey and Yugoslavia, strumming her guitar on street corners, until she wound up in Vienna. 

“Vienna is the place where I was born as an artist,” she says. “I love Vienna. It’s still my favorite city.”

There she formed her first band, the Remnant, which gained critical success and opened for the Ramones and Faith No More.

Vanessa returned to the United States in 1991 and formed a rock band in Seattle named Bell. She enrolled for a brief stint at the University of Washington, but left midsemester to go touring. Bell played gigs, released albums, and roamed the country in a van. They opened for acts like John Doe and the White Stripes, which Vanessa suggests owed more to her band’s longevity than any real promise. (Later she formed a band called the Pinkos with Steve Moriarty from the Gits.)

Vanessa moved to Portland; got married; gave birth to a daughter, Violet; and got divorced. She was working 50 to 80 hours a week as an organizer for the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) when she began to ask, “What is it I love?”

A nontraditional student

During a walk along the Oregon coast, it hit her. She loved rocks; for years, she had dreamed of returning to school to study geology. Tired of being a dilettante (who hopes to rescue that word from ignominy), she decided it was time to make her fantasy a reality. Needing to stay in Portland to share parenting duties with her ex-husband, she had one obvious choice: Reed College.

High school dropout, former teenage runaway, rock musician, union organizer—Vanessa’s résumé was anything but conventional. Nonetheless, her intellectual passion leaped off the pages of her application. She also carried the strong endorsement of paleontologist Peter Ward and astrophysicist Mark Hammergren, two scientists she worked with at UW. Reed admitted her in 2004 with a full scholarship.

Vanessa was thrilled. She was also 36 years old with a toddler in tow. Study groups in chemistry, her intended major, tended to meet in the dorms at night—long after she’d picked up Violet from daycare. Though the DoJo now offers tutoring during class hours, at the time there was no math or science tutoring until 7 p.m.

Worse, chemistry requires calculus, and taking calculus at Reed with no preparation in trigonometry, geometry, or intermediate algebra proved disastrous.

“I was actually doing really well in chemistry but, like Alice after the rabbit, I was chasing calculus down a hole,” Vanessa remembers.

She hit the books every night, valiantly trying to overcome the deficiencies in her preparation through sheer force of will. She had never worked harder. But she could not catch up. 

Her final grade for the course was a D.

It was time to stop fooling herself. She switched her major to English and decided to pursue something she was actually good at—writing.

Vanessa loved her classes, but social interactions did not come easily. It was sometimes awkward being 15 years older than other students. Where Reed students typically call their professors by their first name, Vanessa preferred to respect the student-teacher relationship by keeping her distance and using their honorific titles—Professor Lencek, Dr. Steinman.

“Vanessa challenged me in ways that really forced me to stretch and grow as a teacher,” Lencek says. “She had set herself an impossible task: to write and revise, polish, and revise again a longish novella or a short novel. I came on board in the second semester of her project.”

Vanessa had already generated a big chapter in the novella, drilling down into her experience in Vienna. She was adamant she did not want to write a memoir.

“I realized that I would have to do two mutually exclusive things in advising her on her thesis,” Lencek says, “get out of the way, and create and maintain a controlled structure of writing so she would not conflate her protagonist with herself.”

In addition to her thesis, she was raising Violet and working as a waitress at the Vita Cafe, a vegan restaurant on Alberta Street in Northeast Portland. “There was no Daddy Warbucks to sponsor her Reed education,” Lencek says. “She did it all. Vanessa drew on her proven survival skills—among them the experience of having given birth to a child and of having grown into a responsible parent—to pace herself, keep her emotions in check, and keep her eye on the goal. It was an impressive performance.”

Vanessa took two and a half years off from Reed to work on Zazen. Typically students are required to reapply to the college after a two-year leave, but professors argued on her behalf. Lisa Steinman [English 1976–] argued that Vanessa was a writer of serious merit and should be given more time to finish her degree.

“She hardly needed an advocate,” Steinman says, “being something like a force of nature quite on her own.”

In 2007, Vanessa received an Osher Reentry Scholarship, awarded to talented students between the ages of 24 and 50 working to complete their first bachelor’s degree. The scholarship, combined with her income from driving a cab at night, allowed her to graduate in 2010.

“Reed was the school I was always meant to be at,” Vanessa says. “I wish I had found it earlier, but then I might not have appreciated it. You have the thrill of learning at the best teaching college in the country. No matter what you’re taking, I never saw a bad teacher there.”

A novel approach

Zazen’s postgrunge setting will be familiar to anyone who has lived in the Pacific Northwest. Della, the protagonist, has just completed her doctorate in paleontology and lives in an unnamed city that isn’t Portland, but shares some of its characteristics. She works at a vegan restaurant, Rise Up Singing, where the workers’ refrain is “We all work in hell, but that’s okay ‘cause we don’t have to take out our piercings.”

The book’s title refers to a Zen Buddhist meditation to calm the mind and body. 

“It was only on the second or third rewrite I realized what this book was about,” Vanessa says. “Can you sit still on fire? In a lot of ways that’s what we are asked to do in the world. Sit in that point where there are not necessarily any answers around you and just be horribly emotional and uncomfortable, but present. It’s a frightening kind of presence in some ways. It’s a sublime kind of presence. It’s not a hippie kind of presence.”

No one is sitting still in Zazen. A bomb always looms, ticking like a metronome. The taut suspense serves as a high wire for Vanessa’s surefooted prose.

Her heroine dispatches phonies like Holden Caulfield armed with a PhD. Della’s quixotic battles with restaurant patrons include using her dirty hands to scoop up tofu and operating the blender on “chop” because it’s louder. She narrates like a Raymond Chandler gumshoe: “It was the kind of talk you could get anywhere over spelt cookies and a microbrew.”

When a fellow conspirator questions the efficacy of her plan to topple a high-voltage tower, Della pounces. “I’d defended my dissertation against some of the best scientists in the world. Real jerks, some of them, and I didn’t feel like getting talked down to by some tinkering Robinson Crusoe of Anarchy Island.”

Published last summer by Red Lemonade, Zazen has what Vanessa calls a high rate of recidivism. Readers are buying multiple copies of the book to share with friends. “Zazen is an amazing achievement,” reads a typical comment on her website. “I found myself grinning frequently whilst reading . . . I loved everything about this book. Through your use of first-person, female characters with male (red-neck) names, your encyclopedic knowledge of all things yoga and vegan, love of rats, and fry-oil burning Mercedes, you won my heart forever and ever.”

In addition to teaching writing workshops, Vanessa pays the bills ghostwriting and writing feature stories and is busy writing her second novel.

Her writing—like her life—has been shaped by frequently being some distance from the center. “Two extremes held in opposition is another form of balance,” she says.

Call it faith or delusion: some degree of self-confidence is required to write 30 hours a week for three and a half years with only the dim prospect of ever being paid. Vanessa proceeds with abandon because she is not afraid to fail.

“I really believe it is better to try to do something really big and leap into failure, than to constantly stay on the side of irony,” she says. “Failure expresses our desires in such an open, vulnerable way.”

Further Reading

Zazen by Vanessa Veselka. Red Lemonade, 2011.

redlemona.de/vanessa-veselka/zazen

Read more about the Osher Scholarships at www.reed.edu/ir/osher.html

Tags: Alumni, Books, Film, Music