Member Profile: Caroline Zancan

MEMBER PROFILE: Caroline Zancan

When did you become a member of PEN Center USA?
Just this month!

Why did you become a member of PEN Center USA?
I’ve been going to PEN American Center events since I moved to New York a decade ago, and nominating writers I’ve worked with at Knopf and Holt for PEN awards on both coasts—I’ve long been a fan of the organization. It feels appropriate to be participating in PEN Center USA’s activities, because most of my closest friends from my writing MFA at Bennington College are from Los Angeles. So, I associate the West Coast with my creative life.

What is most exciting to you about PEN Center USA?
Learning about new writers of note—there are so many talented people out there writing about things I’m curious about, and things I should know more about, and it’s hard to keep track of them all. PEN Center USA’s Literary Awards put a spotlight on so many worthy writers. My reading list would have huge holes without the writers they’ve alerted me to.

What is your favorite memory/story of PEN Center USA or a PEN Center USA event?
I’m an East Coaster, so most of my PEN experiences are with PEN American Center. I have very fond memories of a party they held at the top of The Standard hotel in New York a few years ago to welcome new members—I went with a close friend of mine who had just joined. There was an unforgettable, almost eerily clear view of the city, a city that has inspired and been home to so many brilliant writers. And it was a little like reading Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”—it closed the gap between the present and the past. I look forward to events that celebrate the rich literary history of Los Angeles, and the rest of the West. Joan Didion is one of my three favorite writers, so I’m sure an event in the city that has inspired her work (and served as the setting to my all time favorite novel, Play It As It Lays), would have a similarly powerful effect.

PEN Centers share a Freedom To Write mission, which means we believe that people should be able to read and write freely. What does Freedom To Write mean to you?
That all writers of all beliefs and topics should be allowed to exist, even flourish in the world, not only the ones whose beliefs are en vogue or politically correct. Reading dissenting views on any topic is how you learn more about it—it fosters discussion. I was very much behind PEN American Center’s recent decision to honor Charlie Hebdo.

What do you wish other people knew about PEN Center USA?
In addition to being a wonderful organization that works toward noble, important aims, it brings together a community of creative, passionate people through its events.

In light of the changing ways in which news is being shared, what role, if any, do you think writers and journalists play in disseminating information or encouraging action?
I’m mostly a writer and an editor of fiction, and I’m always weary of fiction having too much of a political agenda. I think a good story leaves you with more questions than it does answers—it makes you examine all of the angles of whatever topics or issues its characters grapple with, without telling you what to think about them. I think more than anything, it allows us to live the lives of others, which creates empathy. The more empathetic we are toward people from different walks of life—the more insight we have into human experiences very foreign to our own—the more compassionate and emotionally intelligent members of the human species we are, which is always a good thing. I don’t have as much insight into the world of journalism, but I do think the speed at which we have access to information, and the extent to which we watch news stories unfold in real time allows us to have a more informed opinion of the major events occurring in the world, which is empowering. There’s less and less of a middle man, so we all have more direct access to the stories we follow.

What are you reading now?
I recently finished Missoula by Jon Krakauer, and I’m halfway through Bennington Girls are Easy by Charlotte Silver (as a Bennington MFA grad, I couldn’t resist).

Tell us a story in one sentence.
They finally arrived at dusk and started digging—they knew the others would be there before long, and wished they hadn’t shed all their clothes along the way.

Caroline Zancan is the author of Local Girls (Riverhead Books, June 2015). She is a graduate of Kenyon College and holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Zancan is an editor at Henry Holt, and lives in Brooklyn with her husband.

Check out our past Member Profiles here.