Q&A with Daniel Ray

A square headshot of Daniel Ray is set against an orange-hued photograph of steel tea kettles sitting on a fire. Daniel is wearing tortoiseshell glasses, a black t-shirt and a green corduroy jacket. Daniel is playfully poking his tongue out, and below him is an image of a cartoon frog poking its tongue out. In the background is a wall, windows and two people. Text to the right of the headshot reads ‘AN INTERVIEW WITH Daniel Ray’.

Daniel Ray’s work has been published in Griffith Review, Westerly, Island, Overland, Cordite, and Voiceworks. He is currently studying at the Australian National University.

Our Intern Sarah Pearce talks to Daniel about his fiction piece, ‘Zugzwang’, published in #30: SPICE.

In addition to the richness of the characterisation, the characterisation of the landscape—particularly, the bush—shines through, almost as a character of its own. I’d love it if you could share a little about the role of the landscape in the characters’ lives and in the final piece, and any decisions you made regarding it.

I originally wrote the story backwards (in the style of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal) so the environment at first served a sort of double purpose, with it cinematically signifying the change in time. As it turns out, this wasn’t effective enough (perhaps my technical insufficiency), and most reactions to the first version of the story involved confusion about the chronology (big thanks to Overland and Shenandoah for their feedback), hence why I eventually flipped it. But even in this version, environmental change—both seasonal and human-made—plays a large role. One reason for this is I’m increasingly wary and critical of the ways in which the human subject has been differentiated from its environment in what is this really dominating and extractive power relation.

While I generally prefer not to use quotation marks in my writing, I always try to justify the decision in each story. And this blurring between environment and characters was one of my justifications. I didn’t want to offset dialogue as if it was remarkable or in any way separated from the world which drew it into being.

The title ‘Zugzwang’ is such an evocative and unfamiliar word for (I’m guessing, non-German and non-chess-playing) readers. I know that a few of us at TSR had to Google the meaning! I’m intrigued by your choice—to what degree did you write the piece with the term in mind, or did the term arrive at some point during the writing process?

It arrived organically during the writing process. I began the writing with what I originally wanted to be the final line of the story (now the final line of the first scene) and some sort of idea of seasons passing at a fixed spot by a river. An early working title was ‘Seasons’. One of my first lines in my notebook was an image of checkered sunlight on a naked body, like a chess board, so chess was sort of in the back of my mind from the beginning. This metaphor of chess then jumped into my head when writing some of the dialogue (which bleeds into the next question), where I wanted some sort of tactical battle to be going on, which often the narrator does not recognise and becomes wildly outmanoeuvered. So, chess and zugzwang seemed like a good overarching metaphor for their power relations. In this sense, the term appeared quite early, especially since this story took me so long to write and revise. So, I’d say over half was written with ‘Zugzwang’ already in mind, although I hung onto ‘Seasons’ for a while (even at one point having the incredibly ugly double-barrelled ‘Zugzwang: Seasons’). This was largely because I was reticent about having such a niche word as a title. But I eventually remembered what a previous reader of one of my essays told me, where an unfamiliar word can operate as a hook (look no further than the number of neologisms in novel titles these days). ‘Zugzwang’ is quite ideal for this, I think, because with the ‘w’ and double ‘z’ it just looks interesting.

I think that one of the most powerful aspects of your piece is the way you have captured power dynamics so accurately and, honestly, uncomfortably. I’d love you to speak a little about how you created and maintained the incredibly taut (but also subtle) power relationships between your central characters—really, anything you’d like to add on this aspect!

A lot of ‘Zugzwang’ was influenced by a previous relationship I was in, which was incredibly beautiful and equally untenable. I think this combination of being quite critical of both characters while also caring deeply for them, their relationship, and its eventual breakdown, helped in creating the taut dynamic.

A lot of discourse about power—especially power in romantic and (hetero)sexual relationships—positions power as top-down and male hegemonic. While I’m not denying the existence of patriarchal and misogynistic structures, I really wanted to explore a complex micro power dynamic. This is why it was important to me that the narrator was incredibly passive, which a lot of early readers quite disliked, but to me was integral to the story I was trying to tell. Murakami does something like this a lot: a passive, depressed teenager is led by a vivacious, sexual, and sexualised young woman, but the result is often incredibly normative and sexist, where women are merely catalysts for male (and plot) development (often through sex or death). It was important to me to have the male narrator challenged by someone he doesn’t quite understand, but who the reader can (hopefully) really empathise with and comprehend that her needs just aren’t being met. Some things just aren’t meant to last.