10 Questions with David Zellnik

Blogger: 
Amal Zaman


"NINE YEARS AFTER my mother died, I saw her in Berlin. She was Turkish this time, religious too from the look of it so there was a headscarf. Her skin was slightly darker but it was her, no doubt. The same shocking blue eyes, almond at the edges, and the same huge belly she'd had in the final, dandelion-puff phase of her life: round and fragile, apt to blow away. Luckily, I knew a bit of Turkish from two trips to Istanbul..."
--from "Oranges" which appears in the Spring 2017 issue (Volume 58, Issue 1).

Tell us about one of the first pieces you’ve written

When I was 11 and my brother was 13 we wrote our first musical theatre song, me writing the words, Joe writing the music. The song was – I swear – called “Epicurean.” Where did I learn that word? I have no idea. It was supposed to be sung by a sort of male Auntie Mame.

I was a very gay child.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?

A friend gave me Alice Munro’s “Moons of Jupiter” when I was 24 and about to travel alone for two months. I fell hard for her, I reread each story the moment I finished it, both  to see how she had masterfully done what at first glance seemed effortless, and also to make the book last longer. In my ignorance, I thought she was some obscure writer my friend had discovered. Everything that I believe a short story should contain is somehow wrapped up in reading Munro.

What other professions have you worked in?

I’m a playwright, which doubtless has affected how I see language and stories. I’m also a lyricist, a form that requires absolute concision. Also I tutor kids on the SAT twice a week, which keeps me awake to the comedy and pathos and sheer ridiculousness of being 17.

What did you want to be when you were young?

Pretty sure I wanted to be an actor. Singing the “Great American Songbook” was my surest way of feeling joy in the world. Also pursuing a life in the arts was deeply prized in my house growing up. I sometimes say to people I had one of the few Jewish mothers who would have been sad if I’d told her I wanted to be a doctor.

What inspired you to write this piece?

I was alone in Berlin, a city that means a lot to me. And walking down a side street in Kreuzberg, the first line announced itself to me. I sat and wrote the first third of the story longhand in a café, wondering why I wasn’t writing a play. 

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?

On that note, there’s nothing I like better than to sit writing in a café somewhere in the world, preferably far away from home, all old school. Perhaps it’s because my father came from Vienna.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?

At least for me, the language itself has to contain the music or something is not working.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?

My husband. Aside from everything else, I’m very lucky to have his eyes on my every first draft.

What are you working on currently?

A new draft of a newish play, also set in Berlin called THE LETTERS. It’s also about memory and how love changes through time. But this one, though personal, is not nearly as intimately bound up in my own life experiences. It follows a triangle of just-post-college students, their love of languages, ancient and modern, how real languages split and change, and how the language they speak with each other splits and changes, till we see them in their mid 30s in New York by the end of the play. 

What are you reading right now?

“Imagine Me Gone” Adam Haslett; “Sapiens” Yuval Noah Harari; “A Hora Da Estrella” Clarice Lispector (beautiful story…and helping me with my Portuguese!)


David Zellnik is the author of numerous plays and musicals performed in America and internationally, including the Off-Broadway musical Yank!, which received seven Drama Desk nominations; and the plays The Udmurts, Serendib, Ariel Sharon Stands at the Temple Mount and Dreams of Theodor Herzl, and Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom. He has been given grants from the Sloan Foundation, Jerome Foundation, and recently, with collaborator Ismail Khalidi, founded the theatre project ‘Break the Wall.” This is his first short story.