Ray Zacek spent nearly three decades with the federal government. He now has a second career as a fiction author, producing tales of horror, dark fiction, and more. He spoke with The Loftus Party about his body of work. He also discussed how arts and entertainment affects our culture, and how to write a good story that integrates current events—including controversial topics—without becoming preachy.
Ray and I worked with Dave Dubrow to author Appalling Stories: 13 Tales of Social Injustice. And we’re working on Appalling Stories 2 (scheduled to publish at the end of this year). Appalling Stories serves as a great introduction to Ray’s work if you aren’t familiar with him. But he’s done a lot more than that—in the realm of fiction and life in general.
“Many moons ago I graduated with a degree in English (and a lot of courses in history and anthropology) from Northern Illinois University and passed on attending graduate school,” Ray said when I asked him about his background. “This was in 1978 before the social sciences and liberal arts were thoroughly politicized.”
From the get-go, he wanted to put that English degree to good use. “I’ve always had this yen to write fiction though writing never yielded any but negligible pecuniary result,” he said. “Pursuit of the craft itself became the reward, or the compulsion. Writing is my dopamine.”
And since he couldn’t survive on dopamine alone, he established a career in a different field.
“To make a living I worked for the feds for 29 years, for Internal Revenue Service, one of its most onerous agencies (up to the advent of Strzok and McCabe),” he said. “I can take some consolation that Cervantes was a tax collector and Jesus chose a publican for a disciple, leaving open the possibilities of both literature and redemption. And of course Kafka labored in Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy. My distrust of bureaucracy and the administrative state has been thus formed at the source. Washington D.C. I regard as The Forbidden City, bounded by Beltway and filled with upper and midlevel mandarins removed from and often disdainful of the people over whom they exercise authority.”
Working for the IRS didn’t last forever, of course, and now Ray spends his time on more enjoyable labor, including writing stories, which are “mostly genre: horror, crime/noir, dark fiction.”
“[I’ve had] short stuff published on-line in Out of the Gutter, Shotgun Honey, and Liberty Island,” he said. “[My] stories [have also appeared] in Sirens Call, and All Due Respect, a noir pub.” He also has “[a] small slew of KDP works available on Amazon. I’ve just put out a quartet of horror stories, including a novella, about ‘tourism gone awry.’” [The header image for this article is excerpted from the cover of that novella, The Belly of Provence (and Other Tales).]
Ray’s tales are entertaining, but like every other creation of worthwhile fiction, they are part of a bigger picture as well. And with CNN recently running “a hyperbolic new documentary” that compares The Handmaid’s Tale to modern America, I asked Ray what role fiction plays in culture and how it affects society.
“A vital one,” he told me. “But let me offer two caveats: this is a ponderous subject which I am hardly qualified to opine upon. And I confess my own efforts are miniscule: I’m just one scribbler without much influence,” he said.
“I will contend that popular culture (in media, the arts, entertainment, pop music, celebrity cults, et al) is dominated by a liberal consensus; the conservative-libertarian-contrarian view remains the minority,” he explained. “And not a minority that is granted much credence either. Politics has become pervasive. And limited. Its purpose is to celebrate and reinforce that liberal consensus. And if you don’t subscribe to it, well, you better get your mind right. Because there’s something wrong with you, you racist, rapist, xenophobe, trans/homophobe, hater. And traitor too.”
He provided examples for how this plays out. “Frinstance: every award show (Grammy, Oscars, MTV, Golden Globe, whatever) is translated into a parade of progressive posturing and, lately, an excoriation of Trump and his supporters. Ditto for the performance of any comedian or talk show host. And no invective, insult or crude obscenity is verboten: DeNiro got a standing ovation, Michelle Wolf got her own show on cable and opportunity to be a (literal) cheerleader for abortion, Colbert’s cock holster joke didn’t earn a slap on his Rolex-clad wrist. The egregious is now standard,” he said.
So if liberals control arts and entertainment, and if arts and entertainment play an important role in culture and society, then people who don’t subscribe to the liberal worldview had better start creating their own works. But doing so isn’t easy.
People who complain about liberal politics in arts and entertainment often say they don’t want politics or controversial issues of any kind—liberal or conservative—in the fiction they consume. Yet it makes no sense to avoid current events in stories that are set in the present—it detracts from verisimilitude. So how can someone write a story involving current events, including controversial issues, without toeing the liberal perspective and without coming off as preachy?
“Simple rule: put craft first,” Ray said. “Mind all the traditional elements of a story: plot, character, setting, and so on and so forth. If you want to preach, rent a pulpit. Or in the apocryphal remark attributed to that impresario of popular taste, Sam Goldwyn: if you have a message, call Western Union (or, these days, Tweet). I’m all for tackling controversy and current events, and for getting people riled, but if you do not polish your craft, promulgating politics will prove a crashing bore,” he added.
Ray, Dave, and I did this in Appalling Stories. His short story contribution “Detainer” particularly resonated with what is happening with immigrants, refugees, and aliens invading the nation right now.
“In ‘Detainer’ I tried to weave current issues into the plot but you must deploy a sustainable plot into which you weave those elements and not merely wrap string around a pointy stick,” he said. “I tried also to create a credible protagonist, a recognizable but a driven and flawed man, and draw the reader along with him on his journey and, in the denouement, take both protagonist and reader right over the edge.”
Give Ray’s fiction a try if you haven’t already done so. You’ll find something different than what you’re getting from legacy sources. And different doesn’t mean “preachy.” You’ll get entertaining reads where story comes first.
Header image © Ray Zacek, 2018.