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Michael Allen Zell
“Zell dissolves the familiar dross of New Orleans noir in the potent solvent of his imagination, an alchemical process that yields literary gold.” —The Times-Picayune
“Zell’s style, which is elegant and fluent, carries a studied affectlessness, not unlike Beckett’s or Bernhard’s.” —New Orleans Review
I’ve been an avid reader since my early years, despite the fact that the only book in our house not religiously-based was Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. My librarian neighbor regularly smuggled various titles home for me since I quickly finished the school’s weekly maximum of books checked out. I also spelled words forward and backward in my mind, making new words from them. Language and stories have always been important to me.
My eventual degree in education afforded me the opportunity to be a market research manager, janitor, temp, caterer, mortgage writer, substitute teacher, and a few other even less enterprising positions. A mollycoddled life was not in the cards for me, but reading was always in the foreground.
Accordingly, I’ve worked in the book business since 1999, first with new book indies, and then in the used and antiquarian trade at Crescent City Books since 2004, a few months after moving to New Orleans.
Like some readers, I’d wondered if I had a book in me but never enough to follow through on trying it. The essential components to being a writer of any merit, much less a published author, are discipline, precision of thought, and having something to say. Many may possess the individual qualities, fewer with all in conjunction, but I was self- aware enough to know I could claim none of them. I was content with existing as a good reader rather than a middling writer.
As with others in New Orleans, my catalyst (along with living life) for change and growth was Hurricane Katrina and the flooding aftermath from the massive levee failures. After the corresponding pain, grief, and subsequent search for meaning, I felt a need for expression, to write about my city, but I had absolutely no idea how to start. My author heroes include Borges, Saramago, and Hrabal. I wanted to be the next link in the chain, to write about NOLA the way they wrote about their cities, not as carbon copies, but with the common traits of stylistic individualism, depth of thought, and literary innovation.
I stumbled around, wrote seven short stories to try on different styles and structures (straightforward, absurdist, monologue, dialogue, epistolary, et al.) as a learning exercise and eventually built up enough drafts and nerve to submit a few of them to literary journals.
My first public step was the publication of What Do You Say To A Shadow? (the monologue story) by the now defunct Cerise Press. I continually revised the stories and eventually spent a year working on the philosophical noir Errata, my first novel. Among the publishers to whom I submitted Stitches of Light (the collected stories) and Errata was UNO Press, then helmed by Bill Lavender. Bill felt that while Errata was ready to go, Stitches wasn’t, wisdom for which I am now mighty grateful.
A few months later that same year (2012), Bill was no longer with UNO because of dirty dealing on the part of a few there. Errata ended up being the inaugural book of the newly recharged Lavender Ink, Bill’s imprint. Though I didn’t expect critical attention, the book was nicely reviewed by The Times-Picayune and included in their end of the year Top 10 Book of the Year list. Errata also received a stellar HTML Giant review.
While working on Errata, I was simultaneously adapting Shadow as a one-act play. It hit the boards in September 2013, was well-reviewed by The Times-Picayune, and noted by them as a Top 10 Play of the Year. Later that year, another project came to fruition, a book with photo-based artists Louviere + Vanessa. The Oblivion Atlas was a circular collaboration in which I wrote new short stories inspired by L + V’s decade of work and they in turn did new work inspired by the stories. In my biased view OA is groundbreaking, and I hope it receives its public due as such some day.
It should also be mentioned that up until this time I had the pleasure and learning experience of hosting the monthly Black Widow Salon at the bookshop. The sheer amount of prep time, combined with increasing demands of my own work, made it necessary to cease with the salons after two years.
2014 brought a few essays, literary journal inclusions, a mostly non-spoken play called Thin Walls, and the flowering of two new projects. The first completed (which I’d slowly been working on for a few years) was Talker, the kick-off title to a quartet that builds upon Errata’s model of a large idea-filled book at novella length. The second was Run Baby Run, a straight-up New Orleans crime novel, the beginning of a series featuring protagonist Bobby Delery. RBR came about by way of reading Chester Himes and Jim Thompson, as well as plunging into select books and films of the 70’s.
In one of those welcome cases that finds the universe in agreement with one’s own place, I was asked to write a piece for the notable Los Angeles Review of Books. LARB is a regular Sunday read, and the distinction at hanging my byline there was enhanced by having a national platform to talk about New Orleans and noir just six months before my own entry into the genre was published by Lavender Ink.
The future brings the theatrical adaptation of Errata, the entirety of the before-mentioned literary quartet, the continuing Bobby Delery series, and more plays, essays, and collaborations to be hatched, perhaps even a puppet show based on OA.
Along the way I’ve learned a few things, chief among them that if anyone were to come across my writing prior to the 6th or 7th draft, I’d be thought an absolute imbecile. I appreciate all the unaware who’ve assisted in perpetuating this cover-up. A proper thank you list would be too numerous to try here (plus I’d forget someone essential), so I’ll merely say that you know who you are, I know who you are, and you won’t be forgotten.
Hopefully I won’t leave too many footprints on the shoulders of Borges, Himes, and countless others.
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