As “Avalon” opens, Bran, the young woman at the heart of Nell Zink’s coming-of-age story, sprawls on a grassy Southern California hillside and imagines that the “smear of moonlight” before her leads to Avalon.
Not the town on Santa Catalina Island, though a few paragraphs later she recalls a childhood trip to the island off the Southern California coast, one of her few half-good memories of life before her abandoned mother.
For Bran, it’s the isle of Arthurian legend, a place of beauty and love beyond the mists that obscure it from the disappointments and disorder of her real life.
“Because life itself, reality, is a bit dystopian,” Zink says of Bran’s dreams on a video call from her home an hour outside of Berlin, Germany.
“The alternative, it doesn’t have to be high fantasy,” she says of Bran’s fondness for books such as TH White’s “The Once and Future King,” which tells of King Arthur and Avalon. “When you think about it, something like Christian myth, or a lot of the things people say.
“That, actually, this isn’t all there is. There’s a parallel universe that’s well organized, worthwhile, just, fair and beautiful.
“And it tends to be a bit fantastic.”
In “Avalon,” Bran’s mother leaves her with an extended family of not-quite-relatives who run a sketchy landscaping business by day and party with their motorcycle gang pals by night.
She works all day for no pay in the nurseries beneath a power line right-of-way in Torrance and sleeps in a lean-to outside the family’s house at night.
It’s a difficult life, though more darkly comedic than grim in Zell’s telling. Bran finds friends among the fellow misfits of the high school literary magazine, including her best friend Jay, whose deluded belief in his talent as a flamenco dancer provides some of the funniest moments in the novel.
But when the friends all leave for college and the promise of bright futures, Bran sees starting her own small landscaping business and living in her car as her best option.
“This kind of fantasy life is something that Bran tries to develop,” Zink says. “But she has kind of an underdeveloped imagination. When she’s younger, her fantasies do not go very far at all.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll be abducted and not have to live here anymore,'” she says, and laughs. “But they don’t say where she goes. She has no goal, no destination.
“And so she imagines Avalon and tries to make it real for herself.”
Peter, who is aware of Bran’s feelings, and shares them to a degree, is a particularly awful would-be boyfriend. Yet despite his mansplaining and know-it-all ways, he does encourage Bran to reach for something bigger than herself. It just doesn’t include him fully reciprocating her feelings.
Zink says she started “Avalon” thinking of Peter more than Bran, almost as a challenge to herself and her readers.
“I’ve talked to a couple of women who’ve read it who were occasionally confronted with really cerebral guys who feed on female attention and are very withholding,” she says. “They thought I managed to capture that character flaws pretty well.
“When I write a novel, I want something about it to be a little bit paradoxical and difficult even for me to get my head around,” Zink says. “Which is, Who would be drawn to him and stay drawn to him? Who would have a need to have someone like that in her life?”
Peter does give Bran the attention she craves and encourages her to explore her creativity through writing. In him, she begins to find herself, and her fallow imagination blossoms.
Rooted in reality
So far, “Avalon” has earned strong reviews, with some noting similarities in the character of Bran and pieces of Zink’s own biography.
It is her first book set in Southern California, where she was born and lived as a child. And in some ways, she, like Bran, found their way to the life of a writer down an unlikely path.
“There’s a sense in which I did,” Zink says when asked if her own life influenced pieces of Bran. “Because I was raised to work hard and be paid by the hour, and I thought that was how I would achieve success in life.
“So I had to learn through long hard suffering that work is not rewarded,” she says of her earlier adult life as a secretary and waitress, construction worker and technical writer.
“That’s one aspect,” Zink says. “The other is that when you get to start hanging around literary New York, one thing you begin to notice is that this kind of background, I don’t want to say it’s rare, it’s nonexistent. It’s really hard to find somebody who’s not a complete trust fund kid from the upper middle-class.”
In “Avalon,” she notes that Peter encourages Bran to write to bring a different kind of voice to the world of literature.
He’s like, ‘You know, Bran, you need to write or all the other writers will be global jeunesse dorée’ – the gilded youth – ‘forced to choose between their career in literature and yacht racing.’
“I wouldn’t go quite that far,” Zink says. “But you can feel like this is what you’re up against if you’re from the lower depths of American society, as I sadly pretty much ended up being, because I was such a bottom feeder economically, always doing just whatever job I could get.”
Always a writer
The year Zink turned 50 she published her debut novel “The Wallcreeper,” which went on to be named one of the New York Times 100 notable books of 2014. “Mislaid,” which arrived a year later, was longlisted for the National Book Award .
All of that fit neatly into a narrative of a writer who’d found her creative voice later in life, but Zink is clear that she was always a writer. It was only the published career of one she’d neglected as a younger author.
“There was the early phase where I wrote for literally nobody,” Zink says. “I wrote all these stories, some of them I can remember pretty well.
“I remember one about a guy who was actually in love with a box of Tide because the graphics on the Tide box were so beautiful,” she says. “They were more beautiful, radiant, luminous and moving than anything he’d ever seen in his life, and he was completely in love.”
In the ’90s, she created, wrote and published a zine called Animal Review, in which she often interviewed punk rock musicians about their pets, and wrote about whatever else she fancied.
“There, I had the experience of a cult author,” Zink says. “Of people thinking, ‘Oh my God, Nell, you’re so famous, everybody knows your zine.’ And I’d be like, ‘No, no, the circulation is 80,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, that can’t be true.’”
That ultimately contributed to Zink’s decision to write for herself and a few friends and avoid the hierarchies of the publishing industry.
“It was like, Why bother publishing?” she says. “Because the six or seven people who are gonna like it, you can just give it to them. So that’s what I did.”
And that might have been that until the novelist Jonathan Franzen fell into Zink’s orbit in 2010.
Zink decided to write Franzen after reading a New Yorker article on the slaughter of songbirds in the Mediterranean, hoping to tell him about a similar environmental disaster in the Balkans.
“I really took it seriously,” Zink says. “I actually wrote it, slept over it one night, edited it the next day, and then sent it. It was a really good letter, written in a sort of playful literary way as well because I thought, ‘Oh, he’s a writer, this will charm him.’ He’ll be more interested if I don’t make the letter boring.”
Franzen replied, apparently so impressed by the letter that he assumed Zink must be a published writer.
“He wrote back saying, ‘Wow, your letter was so not boring,'” she says. “Pretty soon he was asking, ‘Well, what’s your pen name? Because there’s no Nell Zink in the internet.’ Which at that time was really true.”
Franzen’s praise, and subsequent efforts to help Zink find a publisher for her work, was mind-blowing, Zink says.
“I was doing a lot of writing,” she says. “And suddenly I had this guy who’s like a kingmaker in the scene telling me I’m actually good and that I could make a living.
“Like I said, I was a serious writer,” she says.