Interview: Koren Zailckas, author of Fury: A Memoir

Monday, September 13th, 2010

By Lisa Qiu

“I thought I was setting out to write a really objective, journalistic book about modern American attitudes about anger. Then my whole life began to implode. It only seemed honest to turn the book into a memoir.”

Koren Zailckas set the tone of her book, Fury, to be a journalistic meditation about the nature of anger. However, during the year she was writing it, her life took an unexpected dip and she began to be consumed by the volatile emotion herself. She was unemployed and moving back into her parents’ house after a failed relationship in another country left her with no other choices. Her suffering was intense and the book quickly morphed into a hybrid of scholarly research and memoir. Although the book is steeped in science and reasoning, Zailckas doesn’t hold back from letting her reader in on the senseless and mortifying ways the emotion personally effected her and deteriorated some of her closest relationships.

When I first dug into the book, I had only known of Zailckas from the fame of her book Smashed, which recounts her drunken girlhood through a sociological lens. In Fury she sardonically notes that her first book made her the “poster girl for binge drinking.”

While traveling on the road with her daughter and husband, Zailckas took time out to Gchat with me about the intense process that led her to turn a journalistic endeavor about anger into a keen and affecting personal story.

Photo by Eamon Hamilton

Photo by Eamon Hamilton

You write in Fury about how hard it was for you to write your second book. Was it because it was hard to make sense of the senseless heat of anger or because you were living through it yourself? How did you force yourself to get it out?
I really didn’t have a choice in the matter. Years ago, I’d committed myself to writing a book about anger. Granted, at the time I thought I was setting out to write a really objective, journalistic book about modern American attitudes about anger. But then my whole life began to implode. Everything that happened was just so relevant to the topic. It only seemed honest at that point to turn the book into a memoir. I didn’t want to write Fury because it represented everything I was afraid of.

What in particular are you afraid of? The book itself, the reaction, delving into your own feelings?
Namely, emotion. And anger in specific. I’d grown up avoiding expressing rage. I had this idea that being angry (even occasionally) compromised people’s love for a person. I was terrified that if I uncovered and addressed the true source of so much repressed anger, I’d lose my family’s love and my readers’ empathy.

You write about how your relationship with your mother gets “on the mend” after your first memoir about teenage binge drinking. Were you worried about her reaction to the book?
My mother’s reaction had a lot to do with my reluctance to write this book. I knew, of course, that I’d have to show it to her at a certain point. I gave Fury to everyone in my family (not to mention my friends and everyone else in the story) very early in the publishing process–much earlier than I revealed Smashed. I also encouraged their edits much more. I really wanted them to have the opportunity to tell me if I had inadvertently misquoted them or muddled some casual detail.

My family’s initial reaction didn’t really surprise me. There were a couple weeks of total silence. No one, aside from my mother, commented at all. Then my mom started sending me emails. She was very hurt in the beginning. I really wanted her to understand some of the later themes. I tried to explain again the ultimate conclusion that I come to in the book: that I was the one who’d gotten our relationship all wrong. That I’d always been bending over backward for her acceptance and love–that I’d been screaming for it–and yet it had always been there. She just loved me in a way I hadn’t been able to understand. Her upbringing meant she only knew how to express affection in a very limited way. Every teenage criticism had been her way of saying she loved me. Her love was there when she told me to put on some lipstick, or stop fidgeting, or keep my hands off my face.

To be cringingly honest, my family relationships began unraveling over the course of the years described in Fury. Ultimately, the conclusion I came to was publishing the book couldn’t make anything much worse.

Since Fury started as a work of journalism–how did you choose your sources; did you consult a professor?
Perhaps I should have. I just waded through it all on my own. I was in that terrible holding pattern that so many writers get themselves into. I got absolutely lost in my research. I couldn’t stop reading up about anger. I went to philosophers, psychologists, linguists, gurus, charlatans, theologists, the list goes on and on. I approached it like a total mad scientist. It was probably too much research. It was an unhealthy defense mechanism. It kept me from writing for a long while. But it gives Fury a lot more depth than if I’d just approached one or two experts. I hope the reader comes away with a real cross section of attitudes, theories, and opinions. That said, a friend sent me A Field Guide to Getting Lost when I was at my absolute lowest. It really pulled me from the depths.

Is that the book that helped you the most to write?
I’m not sure any one book was my inspiration for Fury. That said, whenever I was in doubt, I thought of The Year of Magical Thinking. I love Joan Didion. I’ve often joked that I want to buy one of those WWJD? bracelets and look down at it whenever I’m at my writing desk. Only instead of the “J” standing for “Jesus,” it will stand for “Joan.” On some level, I hoped I could deal with anger as carefully and masterfully as J.D. tells the story of grief.

Yes, there is a lot of grief in your book and many complex emotions that most people would be embarrassed by.
Anger and grief are really difficult to separate. Shrinks say depression is anger turned inward and anger is the airing of depression.

I like your quote, “depression is anger without enthusiasm.”
I always thought that quote was quite funny. And, at least in my experience, true. I was never one of those people who get “enthusiastically” angry. I’m not a Real Housewife-type. I’ve gone my whole life without pulling anyone’s hair or asking them to talk to my hand. I couldn’t bear it. I’ve never been able to so much as raise my voice without feeling terribly guilty. For me, guilt and anger have always gone hand in hand.

Besides informed research about anger–what do you hope your readers get from Fury?
I definitely don’t think Fury sensationalizes anger. It’s also not about me learning to quote-unquote “manage” my anger. It’s more how I came to accept that it’s okay, on occasion, to get angry. It’s the story of how I came to accept that anger is a normal, human emotion that’s there to use in an emergency.

And finally, Koren Zailckas, what is your Six-Word Memoir?
Write as often as I’m wrong.


BUY Fury: A Memoir.

VISIT Koren Zailckas’ website.

FOLLOW Zailckas on Twitter.

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