Vanessa returned to Vienna in 1993 for a reunion with her band The Remnant.
Vanessa based the restaurant in Zazen on the old Vita Café on NE Alberta, across the street from its current location.
Photo by Kyle Johnson
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.”
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.”
Zazen by Vanessa Veselka. Red Lemonade, 2011.
Read more about the Osher Scholarships.