The life of Trent Zelazny has been a trip to Hell and back. And he carries the scars to prove it. He opens up to us in an interview you will not soon forget.
Life can be tough for children living in the shadows of a famous parent. But it should never be this tough. It takes a special type of person to be able to endure the tumult experienced in the relatively short life of talented author Trent Zelazny. While the interview we conducted with him can only provide a glimpse into the anguish of his past, it does offer clear insight into the enduring strength of his character.
Zelazny is an award-winning author, international playwright, editor and, as we learn, has a very important people person in his life. With an unapologetic style, he tells us his story of love, loss and new life fueled by creative passion and the desire to overcome adversity. Zelazny’s is the tale of an underdog, intent upon clawing his way to the top of the heap.
Thirty-seven years ago on that November day in 1976, there was no silver spoon anywhere near the Santa Fe hospital room where Zelazny took his first breath in a world that, unknowingly, would seek to defeat him. And, we suspect, if there had been, he would have spit it out of his mouth in order to take control in the only way he would come to know how—by facing seemingly insurmountable challenges head on.
Zelazny has fought numerous battles with the immensely powerful demons of addiction, depression, trauma, health and suicide. We recently had the great pleasure to be able to sit down with him for a deeply moving, sometimes heartbreaking and always uncensored look into the life of a very special man who simply refuses give up.
Grey Matter Press (GMP): Trent, thanks for talking with us today. We very much appreciate you taking time away from your projects in order to answer our questions. So, jumping right in… You recently wrote on your blog that being the son of famed science fiction and fantasy author Roger Zelazny has been a roadblock rather than an open road. In what ways has having a recognized last name been an obstacle in your career?
Trent Zelazny (TZ): It’s been an obstacle in many ways. I’m actually planning on writing an essay about this very topic shortly, so I won’t go into too much detail. A lot of people assume that because my father was a successful, multi award-winning writer, that I somehow inherited a bunch of connections. I did not. At all.
I knew some writers who were friends of my dad’s, but that is literally as far as it went. I knew nobody in the writing/publishing world. No one. I was as clueless as anyone else starting out. On occasion, when I would submit a story somewhere, an editor or what have you might say something like, “Wow, I haven’t seen you since you were maybe five,” then reject the story. The more I submitted, and editors realized I wasn’t simply going to go away, the harsher they got with me, unable—from my point of view, anyway—to separate my work from my father’s. If it didn’t have the feel of a Roger Zelazny story, then the name Zelazny should not be on the story.
The late and very great Robert Sheckley once told me over coffee, before I’d sold a thing, “You won’t have any problem getting in. It’ll be staying in that could be the hard part.” He was very wrong. I had a hell of a time getting in, and I still don’t consider myself “in.”
Another drawback, when I started trying to write professionally, my interest was not in science fiction or fantasy. I wanted to write horror and straight dramas. In this case, for the most part, any connections I might have had—which I did not—weren’t going to do me much good. In most cases it wound up essentially being “Who the fuck is this guy?” Bam! More rejections.
I apologize in advance if this offends anybody, they’ll know who they are… But I never have and, to this day, I do not feel a welcome member of the SF&F community (with a couple of exceptions, of course. Less than I could count on one hand). At best I have felt tolerated. The son of a great writer, and isn’t it cute that he’s trying.
When I finally did start selling some shorts, I got a new form of frustration, which I still get now, some fifteen years after my first sale. A decent example would be in 2002, when I went to the HorrorFind Convention in Baltimore. I met some absolutely wonderful people there, but I was also introduced to some not-so-wonderful people, like the guy (I do my best not to name names, but yeah, I know and you know exactly who you are, pal) who, right when the introduction was made, very snidely said, “Zelazny? Zelazny? Well, hell, I wish I had a last name like that helping me along. My career would be doing great if I had a last name like Zelazny.”
And the dude wouldn’t let it go. If I were a different kind of person, I would have punched him right in the face. Just about a year ago, a “close friend” told me, “I don’t think you’d have any career at all, really, if it wasn’t for your name.” We’ve mostly lost touch now. Thank you for the support, close friend.
So, to sum up, I have next to no connections. Editors got harder and harsher. (Tthere’s an exception, but you asked about obstacles). Comparisons and expectations, wanting a Roger Zelazny clone. No sales. Ignored. At times belittled. Then finally some sales. Small ones. To many others it’s because of my last name, which magically brought me connections, coming full circle to having no connections. A complete knuckle-fuckery.
And for those who often suggest writing under another name, now, all these years later, I have four books out under three pseudonyms.
Hopefully I won’t sound as angry in the essay I write.
GMP: Well, if your essay includes that level of insight and passion, we look forward to reading it when it comes out. So, now, your short story collaboration with Edward Morris, “City Song,” appears in our DARK VISIONS: A COLLECTION OF MODERN HORROR – Volume Two which has been on the Amazon bestseller list for several weeks now… But, how did the two of you meet and what brought about the idea to write a story together? How did the process work?
TZ: I met Ed in a kind of silly way. Several years ago I Googled myself (go ahead, laugh; like you’ve never done it) and I saw that someone named Edward Morris had written a story called “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” inspired by my short story “The Day the Leash Gave Way.” I was tickled. I was shocked that I had inspired anyone. I read it. I loved it. I wrote him to tell him how much I loved it, and we hit it off right away and have been friends ever since.
Ed is a man who can literally write anything, in or out of any genre. I can’t express how much I envy and admire him for that. Tell him you need an underwater western involving clothespins, contrails, electronic soup and the hair cut off of a Barbie doll, all told from the point of view of a tattered tennis ball with a 1957 penny inside it, and he’ll write it. And it’ll be good. I dunno how he does it, but the man is incredible. And, I should add, deserves to be much more widely read. The man’s a freaking genius.
“City Song” was a story I’d written some time back. It was fairly different from the version in DARK VISIONS, of course. I knew that it had something, but I also knew that it was missing something, and I just plain couldn’t figure out what that missing something was. I knew exactly who to turn to. I wrote Ed and told him about it. I knew if anyone could figure out what that missing something was, it was Ed. And I was right. What I got back was an inevitable yes! I went over the story again at that point, then sent it back to him. I honestly don’t recall if he made any additional tweaks or not at that point. So, yeah, the characters and the core of the story were mine, but Ed is the one who made it shine.
GMP: And shine it does! “City Song” truly leaves a lasting impression on the discerning reader. One that is both bleak and hopeful, simultaneously. Oh how so many people around the world today could use their own Jessica…
Moving onto a different subject, you consider yourself somewhat of a basketball fan. A fanatic, actually. Did this fanaticism come about in your youth, or is it a more recent development? Do you have a favorite team? Do you play the game yourself?
TZ: I loved basketball as a kid. In my youth it was the fading out of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and the entrance and rise of Michael Jordan. It is the only sport I ever had a genuine interest in. But, like so many kids, that whole puberty bullshit and general teen angst, and being far more creative than athletic, I opted for the whole disassociated artist thing. And where I went to school (maybe just my perspective, but I don’t think so), you couldn’t be a troublemaking creative type and also like sports. So basketball went bye-bye.
Years later, in my early thirties, I became two things: engaged and an alcoholic. I moved to Florida. My time in Florida is a book unto itself. And so, the short version… My drinking eventually caused a separation (some “time apart”) from my fiancé, though we were still engaged. After a lot of crazy drunken shit up and down Florida’s West Coast, including a little jail time, I finally rented a small place on Pine Island. I’d only been there a few weeks, talking and texting with my fiancé regularly, when I received a call from her mother. My fiancé had swiped a gun from her father, put it to her head, and blown her brains out. That was four years ago.
So now with hardcore trauma and grief, and also suffering from depression and multiple anxiety disorders, my drinking got much, much worse. I only had a couple friends on the island, and at best saw them about maybe once a week. I don’t like TV as a general rule, but it was on 24/7, as pretty much my only companion, as I drank and drank and drank, contemplating suicide every single moment I wasn’t passed out from booze, every single day.
Then one day I came across a basketball game and got pulled into it. Denver vs. Someone. It was during the Playoffs, and for a while they were showing two games a night. Every time I thought about killing myself, a voice in my head would say, “No, not today. Phoenix is playing L.A. tonight and you have to see that. You can’t die without knowing how that turns out.” Stuff like that.
As this went on, another curious thing happened. After a short time, when the basketball games started, the drinking stopped, and for a few hours every night I was sober. After the Playoffs, the Lakers winning the 2010 Championship, that was when I finally decided to end it. I failed, or rather fate intervened. I still have a large scar on my left forearm. But basketball kept me alive for a while, and got me sober for a few hours a day. Two players really jumped out at me (pun? neh): LeBron James, and even moreso, Steve Nash. My team is the Heat but I love them all. You can just as easily see me in a Phoenix shirt, or Boston or L.A. On occasion I do play, very, very poorly.
So that’s kind of the basketball thing. In some ways it saved my life. I can never really explain it properly, but my connection to the game these days is much deeper than just being some guy who likes a sport. It’s a blessing. When I checked into rehab, it gave me drive. If I hadn’t had it, I may very well have succeeded in my own death, and I would have missed some incredible things. Seeing my sister graduate from med school. My son become a man. I wouldn’t have written so many books and stories I’m now proud of. I never would have met Laurel, the love of my life, who accepts and loves me for who I am, scars and all, and who I love and accept, scars and all, in return. I would have missed the part of life that is—wow!—so fucking cool. This month, too, I’m three and a half years sober with no interest whatsoever in ever heading down that road again.
GMP: That’s quite a story. And we sincerely congratulate you on your many successes, with your personal battles, overcoming the scars from your past and also for the brilliant work that you’ve created in the aftermath. While it’s unlikely anyone would have predicted the struggle you ultimately went through to get here, it’s likely certain that most people would assume you became a writer because of your father, but is that the reason?
TZ: That’s a good question. When I was very young I wanted to be a writer, like Dad. I learned to type at a very young age. It just came naturally to me. I actually failed Typing in high school because I was faster than the teacher but I didn’t use the proper hand positions (the ones that cause carpal tunnel syndrome). Anyway, my father gave me an old eighties portable word processor. I wrote my first short story on it when I was about eight or nine, while at my grandmother’s house. It was called “Ax Killer” and was basically an eight- or nine-year-old’s interpretation of the scary scenes from the Friday the 13th movies he’d seen. I think it was two or three double-spaced pages. I vividly remember taking it in to my grandmother, very proud of what I’d accomplished. But rather than encouragement or support, Grandma belittled me, made fun of the story and me, too many O’s in “bloody” and this is just plain stupid and stuff like that, as my older brother stood by her side, laughing at me as well. I was reduced to tears, tore the pages up and threw them at her, and didn’t try writing again until high school.
GMP: Was there ever any other career path you had in mind?
TZ: Like a lot of kids, I became a musician. I taught myself several instruments and wasn’t especially good on any of them other than drums—I’m sure to my parents wonderful delight. I played in bands for several years but realized, in my case, anyway, that almost every musician in every band was an asshole. The rock star mentality is beyond asinine, in my opinion, especially if you’re not actually a rock star, but that’s my own issue. And I have many musician friends who are wonderful people; I just never got to jam with them.
I also wanted to be a visual artist, drawing and painting and such. But after trying all different kinds of stuff, writing came back, and I finally accepted it, then embraced it.
My father encouraged me in high school, and we’d spend nights talking about all kinds of things, writing being one of the more common topics. He also had a vast library. Almost any book I wanted to read, he had. A Clockwork Orange, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Naked Lunch are three I specifically remember mentioning wanting to read, and with each one him saying, “Hang on,” perusing a shelf, pulling the title down and handing it to me, telling me to give it back whenever, no rush.
So I wanted to be other things, but in my heart I think I always wanted to be a writer.
GMP: Which you most definitely have become. And, as a writer, you are bound to get a bad review now and then. Can you think of one that helped you to improve your writing in some way?
TZ: I can think of one or two that pissed me off, especially some douche who tried to call me out on Facebook, lecturing and putting me down on a post I was tagged in. Turned out he hadn’t even read the fucking book. But while the dude was a complete ass-hat about it, I think I learned something from it. I think I’ve learned a little something from every review of my work that I’ve read, good and bad. Sometimes it can be a hard lesson—or rather, hard to hear, but there are the good ones, too. The ones that let you know you’re not full of shit. I pay less and less attention to reviews these days, even though, conversely, I wish I had a lot more of them.
GMP: Speaking of that, which of your published works are you most proud?
TZ: Typically I’m proudest of my latest one. For me, it’s currently People Person, a novelette I wrote in one sitting, shortly after my first date with Laurel. She just instantly filled me with inspiration, and so I got home and sat at the computer, and six or seven hours later People Person was done. It inched its way toward a Stoker nomination but, alas, did not receive one, which is fine. While much of my work can be horrific, I don’t think it usually falls into the category of horror. Then again, I don’t know what category my stuff tends to be in. Maybe it’s its own thing, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s nothing.
GMP: Are there any you would like to remove from your bibliography?
TZ: As for works I’d like to remove from my bibliography, there are several short stories. Several that I will do my damnedest to make sure never see the light of day again. From my novelettes up through my novels, no, they can all stick around, for now, anyway. But are there things in them that I wish were different? Absolutely, in every single one. But whatever. Check the rearview mirror occasionally, but focus on the road ahead.
GMP: And what about preferred length? Which do you enjoy more, writing novels or short fiction?
TZ: As for preferred length, I tend to be most comfortable in the novelette and even moreso novella area. That’s generally my comfort zone. Sadly, they’re also probably the hardest damn things to sell. Novels give you room to breathe and play around a bit, whereas with short stories it is the exact opposite. I wanna be able to breathe, but I also wanna tell the damn story. I personally find novellas to be perfect for that.
GMP: Do you have anything in the works that you would like to tell us about?
TZ: Be on the lookout in the near future for another collaborative story by me and masterful Eddie called “Yesterday Man.” Then, in May, I think, an anthology called Lucky 13 should be coming out, edited by Edward J. McFadden III, in which I have a short story called “Quarter, Quarter, How I Wonder.” I have an introduction called “Horseman, Pass By,” which will be in Fantasy for Good: A Charitable Anthology to benefit the Colon Cancer Alliance, edited by Richard Salter and Jordan Ellinger. At some point this year, or possibly early next year, there will be a new novel out from Evil Jester Press called Voiceless, as well as a possible limited edition hardcover of the two Blake Gladstone novellas, Fractal Despondency and A Crack in Melancholy Time, with some additional material and whatnot, from Black Curtain Press. Also currently co-editing an anthology with my good friend Warren Lapine called Shadows and Reflections: A tribute to Roger Zelazny. We’re getting fairly close to the finish line on that. Then, of course, as all of us in this business are, I’m working on a new book.
GMP: Trent, thank you very much for sharing what must be some very painful memories. It was truly illuminating, and we sincerely appreciate you letting us in to your life.
You can find out more about Trent Zelazny at his biography on our website. Or visit is Bloggety Blog. Make sure you follow him on Twitter at @TrentZelazny or at his “Trent Zelazny — The Writer in Ward Eleven” Facebook page.