Surly Questions: Yuvi Zalkow

If you aren’t already watching the brilliant, funny,  videos of soft-spoken and self-deprecating Yuvi Zalkow, you should be. A self-confessed “failed writer,” Yuvi nonetheless keeps turning out content, including his latest novel, A Brilliant Novel in the Works, which is available on Kindle now. Which is a great hook for some cheap, “Who’s on first” type comedy:
“I have a brilliant novel in the works.”
“What’s it called?”
“A Brilliant Novel in the Works. “
“Yeah, but what’s the title?”
Thanks for the great interview, Yuvi!

1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I was pretty late to the party. It wasn’t until my college years (when I was studying to be a computer engineer) that I realized how badly I wanted to tell stories. I was a bit of an emotional wreck during those years and I was dying to get those feelings out of me and onto the page. Those first stories were way too self-absorbed and melodramatic, but I kept at it. It was another ten years before I got any good at telling stories. Now with 33% less self-absorbed-ness and melodrama!

2. The tagline of your website reads “novelist, failed writer, schmo.” What does “failure” mean to you?

I just got asked that question over lunch recently and I realized that I change the meaning of “failure” on a weekly basis. In one of my Failed Writer videos I try to tackle the subject. That attempt is probably as good as any. But to sum up, my take is that feeling like a failure is a state of mind. And not necessarily a bad state of mind. There is a constructive aspect and a dangerous aspect. The bad part is the way I can carry around a paralyzing feeling of shame. The good part is the attitude that I always have a lot more to learn and I should never pretend like I know what I’m doing. I move between these worlds more than I’d like to admit.

3. What inspired your video series?

I knew I wanted a venue for having a conversation with other creative types. I started out attempting to blog but it just didn’t flow right for me. A week after every blog post, I’d delete the post in disgust. In 2010, I did a video slideshow as part of a lecture when getting my MFA at Antioch University. A few months later I started thinking just how much fun it was to make that video and present it. And so I tried another one. And another one. They got more complex and quirky each time — that goes for both the content and the way the videos were made. I started animating them using my terrible artistic skills. Pretty soon, I realized that a common theme running through my videos were about the crooked writer’s life, and in particular, the ways I’ve slipped up along the way. So I created the I’m a Failed Writer video series using that theme.

4. What equipment do you use to produce the videos?

This could turn into a very long and very geeky answer if I’m not careful. The main screen recording software I use is ScreenFlow ($99) for the Mac. This is a nice, easy way to capture the screen, as well as edit video and audio. I also use my iPhone to film video footage. I have a Blue Yeti USB mic ($99) for audio. And I use other tools, depending on the video. It seems like each video, I try to learn something new. Which explains why it takes me so many damn hours to make these things. I’m constantly stumbling through new tools.

5. Self-deprecation seems to play a big part in your videos. Is this just your sense of humor at work? Is it a way of coping? Both? Neither?

Both. Definitely. It was born out of a deep sense of shame I felt as a child. But at some point (between the ages of 18 and 30?), I learned to intentionally use self-deprecation for humor. Both to cope with a genuine, low self-esteem, but more and more because it is so much fun to watch others get caught off guard by how willing I am to throw all my flaws out on the table for them to look at. My novel is an exploration on how far I can go with that sort of persona.

6. What does your wife really think of your writing and your video series?

Wow. Now that’s a question from someone who has really been watching my videos! Nice. Just last month, when I made my wife review my video Beyond Microsoft Word, she said something along the lines of, “You know, I don’t *really* get that upset with you.” And that was when I realized that I make her out to be a lot more annoyed with me than she is. The wife character in my novel (which is about a writer named Yuvi) is also an unrealistic depiction of my real wife. Don’t get me wrong, she gets annoyed with my many quirks, but not quite like how I portray her in my storytelling… Then again, maybe I’m lying here too 🙂

7. What has been the most rewarding thing about connecting with other writers through social media?

I never thought I would join the social media game. And I’m still horrible at Facebook (even though I stupidly have an author page, a book page, and a personal page). I do feel more at home with Twitter: I love its brevity. What is satisfying for me is to see people who really know how to shine on these forms of social media… not just annoying self-promotion, not just stories about their pets, not just complaints after going to the post office, but the right balance of many things. It’s easy to make fun of people who spend eight hours a day on Facebook instead of writing, but I think there’s also an amazing aspect to the virtual communities that form in these social media realms. Having a satisfying banter with smart, funny people on Twitter every few days is a real joy for me.

OK. I haven’t answered your question. I guess I don’t know what is most rewarding. But it’s nice, especially for writers I think, to have this way to connect with others during their lonely and isolating pursuit. You don’t even need to put your pants on. Which is a plus.

Just don’t ask me about Pinterest. I still don’t get it.

8. What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

I honestly don’t know if I made this up or someone actually told it to me but the advice goes like this: “follow the advice that speaks to you and disregard the rest.” It’s sort of a meta-advice piece of advice. But it was helpful for me because there is so much good-sounding advice out there that is actually bad to pay attention to, depending on where you are at in your writing and in your life.

9. Can you give us any hints about your “next big novel”?

Well. I do have a novel in the works. It’s about this Polish Jewish immigrant family who moves to rural Georgia in the 1930s. It’s quite different than novel #1, largely because this one doesn’t play with the novel/memoir boundary. And I actually have to do some (AHHHHH!!!!!) research. I’ve got a completed draft at this point, but I can tell it needs LOTS of work. Much harder and more audacious a project than anything I’ve attempted before. So look for it between 2013 and 2043.

10. Are there any other exciting projects in your future?

My next projects involve working on novel #2 and finding a new angle on the Failed Writer series. Let’s see how well I fail at those two things.

11. What are your top five “desert island” books?

The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, Herzog by Saul Bellow, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky… and Sugarcane Island, by… somebody… It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure story that was my favorite as a kid. I haven’t read it in 30 years so who knows how corny it is now. But it seems like good stranded-on-an-island material.

Oh wait. Scratch that Sugarcane Island crap! What about Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Chekhov, Cheryl Strayed, Alice Munro, David Sedaris, John Updike, Malamud, IB Singer, Kafka, Marquez… I NEED MORE TIME! GIVE ME MORE TIME! I can’t decide! Too many choices!!! For the love of God, give me more f!@#$!ing time to choose my desert island books!!!

Are you an author looking for an interview? Know anyone who is? I’m always interested in talking with authors. Email me