In Conversation: Zuri McWhorter

Zuri McWhorter—born and rooted in Detroit, Michigan—is carving out a place for her work as a writer, photographer, and filmmaker. Since 2015 she has self-published two poetry collections, Woes of a Well Lit City, and Not too Far from China. In 2017, Zuri started her own lit and art zine for independent creators, Juste Milieu. Each zine contains a smattering of words, illustrations, and mixed media. The design defies rigidity—my copy of Issue 4 has a short poem by Zuri scribbled quickly in the margins with the smeared pink of a gel pen. The theme for forthcoming Issue 13 is acidic. It calls for expressions that are “sour, uncomfortable, and invigorating.”

While her main focus at the moment has shifted to film and screenwriting, Zuri still finds her natural voice in poetry and prose. On a day that promises winter’s end, she chats with me over Zoom from her car. We discuss subjects that haunt her work, compromising for your art, and current projects prompting dormant inspiration to reemerge. She’s working on a short fiction piece––a doomed love story set in the desert.

Zuri McWhorter: I found the dude that is the desert boy. 

Molly Gunther: You found him in your mind?

Z: Oh no, he’s a real person. He’s not from the desert, but he’s going to be the boy that I base him on. I don’t know who the girl is yet, but I’m starting to piece together the actual betrayal, and that’s the most important part. The love story will come, but it’s gotta be gruesome in some way. It’s not gonna end well. 

This isn’t one of those. 

M: What does the desert setting mean to you?

Z: When I close my eyes and I need to meditate, or if I need to take a step away—for some reason now my brain goes to a two lane highway in the desert with no manmade structures. That’s the thing. 

To be in the desert, just somewhere there’s not any of this [gestures wildy out her car window] and you are the only you that’s there. Oh my god, it’s an amazing feeling. I remember just looking at the fucking sunset behind the rocks—then how dark it got, how cold it got. It’s like another planet. It’s crazy. And there’s so much of it. There’s so much desert everywhere. 

M: And you want the story to be sort of dark?

Z: If I’m reading fiction, I like scary things. I like kinda gross things. My favorite writer, of course, is Toni Morrison. And the first book I read from her was––was it Beloved? No, it was Song of Solomon. And my other favorite writer is Edgar Allen Poe. The first thing I read from him was, Cask of Amontillado, and those are two kind of disgusting stories when you think about it. It’s like the elements of the stories are terrifying. I like to be spooked. I love a good love story, but my favorite to read would probably be suspense, thriller, horror.

M: Your historical flash fiction piece, Bait, which has been published five times, I think falls into that category. What is your connection to this story now? 

Z: I love Bait. I love how I wrote it. I think it should be a film. I’m not thrilled that it’s about slave babies. I don’t know if its success is due to my amazing writing, or society’s tragedy addiction. But I do revisit it and try to lengthen it from time to time. Give the Mama more of a story, more control over her “life” as a woman in the antebellum South. 

M: Do you have a book that you open whenever you need inspiration? 

Z: Last year a book for me was Character Breakdown by Zawe Ashton. She is a British actress. And it’s her memoir and she’s pretty young––like thirty five. But, I was interested because she’s been acting since she was six and like she could’ve been bagging groceries for 25 years, and it probably would have been interesting because she’d been doing it for so long. 

She had this really good chapter about how she had to play a sex worker and she was calling sex hotlines and making friends with sex workers and shit and they were really receptive to it. So I think that reading that book in particular after watching her on television for so long and knowing that character more than knowing who Zawe is––just hearing her write about herself was really inspiring. 

It inspires me to give my characters more voices because a lot of my characters end up sounding like me, of course. But being able to see a real person break down the characters that they have played and how they played them is really cool. And I’m obsessive so when I find something I’m pretty much into it until something new comes along. 

M: Do you do a lot of research? 

Z: Yeah. And you know I’ll do it because I want to know it and not necessarily like, ‘Oh I’m doing this because I want to write something about it.’ I’m doing this so that I know. Then, if I do want to write something about it, I’ll have it there. I just pick up things from other people. I wouldn’t say that my imagination is as wide as other writers. Like, I’m not very fanciful, but I am really good at taking bits and pieces of things and making them make sense to everybody. I try to be very relative in my work. I’ll dabble in something or I’ll be really interested in something and I’ll pick stuff up from there. I’ll be interested in a person or be obsessed with a person and pick up things from there, and eventually kind of put it all together into a smorgasbord of words and art.

M: What themes come up in your work over and over?

Z: Siblings because I don’t have any. I tend to write a lot of sibling stories based on what I think having a sibling would be like. Almost everything, at least like, the short stories and stuff, there’s always sisters.

M: What do you imagine having a sister is like?

Z: The closest thing I ever had to a sister was my first cousin Erica and she is twelve years older than me but we would just get into it all the time. Like for no reason. And now we are best friends. I don’t really know when that happened but I like to explore the transition between those emotions. One story I wrote that was my favorite story that I never really finished was about the dynamic of these three sisters. They’re like the same person but they’re all going in different directions and I think that’s really interesting, because as a single child, an only child, I had to be all these different people for myself. I had to talk myself into things, I had to talk myself out of stuff. I had to deal with my parents’ divorce on my own. I had to deal with my dad’s passing on my own. I had to be all these different people and I like to expand those people into siblings when I write. 

But other than siblings, I write, like, feelings––I write a lot about lust and being in love. Not so much about heartbreak but things that I’m missing. I like to write about being somewhere else, kind of ethereal. But I want to be more observational. That’s gonna be my new thing. 

M: And how are you working on that? 

Z: Taking more pictures. Taking pictures helps. I do voice memos, like I’ll just be recording stuff sometimes. Nobody knows that. 

I know being out in the last year or so has not been possible and I’m sure that gave my writing a beating. I was set to write about stuff that was going on. I’m an avid traveler. A lot of my work stems from my travels. I had prepared to travel a lot and I was opening myself up to meeting new people and doing new things and then I couldn’t.

M: Yeah me too. I was like, this year I’m gonna cultivate friendships and then it was like––no you can’t do anything. 

Z: Yeah! That was the whole thing. I was gonna do music festivals and I was gonna do the whole shit. I was just like look, who are the people? Where are the people? Let’s see what these people are talking about and then they were like, ‘No, don’t go near any fucking people.’ So I didn’t and now, well, I have to open myself back up. So that’s the first thing. 

I have to open myself back up. Stop being so distant. Stop pushing people away, and just observe real interactions. 

M: What other projects are you working on now? Writing or film.

Z: What am I doing? I am compiling my third poetry book. I’ve got about fifteen pages of that. Let’s just say right now it’s called Spoonfed, and it’s gonna be out eventually. This book is set in a place where falling in love with someone else’s somebody is cool. We spoon-feed each other this fake life. Sure, the idea of feeding another person is an extension of love, but on the outside looking in, it’s pretty disgusting.

But film wise, I’m doing a lot of studying. I talked to my agent a couple of weeks ago and he was like, ‘I need you to work on your story structure.’ And that comes from me writing short pieces, you know what I’m saying? It’s like I’m writing this—this is just what it is—it doesn’t connect to anything. It’s just kind of a fragment of a thought. But since I’ve been doing that for so long and I want to write good movies, I have to work on my story structure. So I’m doing a lot of reading and I’ve been reading some scripts and talking to some writers. 

M: Which scripts have you been reading? 

Z: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And then these two really obscure scripts that my agent sent me. Right now it’s less physical work, more working on my brain. Training myself to be a better writer. I want it somewhere between overtly beautiful and extremely unlikely. So I guess that would mean—what would that mean? You don’t necessarily have to learn anything, but I do want you to think. When I say extremely unlikely, I think I mean, to me. Say I write a story about a girl who finds love in a grocery store parking lot. Cute, but extremely unlikely to happen to me because I don’t stop for men in parking lots. But it could be twisted and modernized and artistically done to make it more romantic and less cheesy or creepy. Especially since we all have to stand in lines—why not meet your soulmate at Trader Joe’s?

M: Do you feel with film that you have to compromise when you’re writing because it has to sell?

Z: For sure. Unless you have your own million dollars to fund your own movie, you’re gonna have a lot of people talking to you and telling you what you can and can’t and shouldn’t be doing. Even with like, Coming to America, or literally any other big blockbuster movie, they’re hiring writers who can weave a tale, but they can also treat it like one long ad. 

You know, I don’t want my writing to do that. I don’t want someone to be like, ‘Okay we’ll fund your film, but make sure you put ten minutes of this in it.’ You can see that a lot in television, you can tell when the show runner is like, ‘Oh now we need to put this in here about this because this happened last week and this will give us some more views.’ It’s just too much politics I think. That’s why I hope that once I get a real career going I can stay me. Keep as much creative control as I want, cause it’s really important. 

M: What do you have the hardest time putting into words?

Z: That’s a great question. The hardest time? In writing the thing I have the hardest time putting into words—movement. Maybe growth of a character. I always miss that central part in my character development. Cause it’s like yes, this will be a really good story about this girl who ends up being this. 

But how do we get there? And that’s the problem I’m having with the desert story. That’s the problem I have with all my stories. Cause I have a character and I know who this person is.

M: The arc, the story structure!

Z: Yeah! You know what I’m saying? I just have a hard time expanding things. 

M: I was reading another interview of yours and you said the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten is to be uncomfortable but intuitive. What does that mean to you?

Z: Oh my god. My intuition is—when I start writing—like today, even today I was writing a poem. 

M: Oh yeah I saw that [on Instagram]. 

Z: I was really proud of that. Cause it took a minute to get it out of me. When I started writing it, I was like okay, I’m just gonna write, I’m not gonna lift my pen up and it’s just gonna be whatever. And the uncomfortable part—what I meant by uncomfortable is this probably isn’t good. 

Like you’re using basic words and you’re using very basic sentence structure. You’re just trying to get it out. So that’s the uncomfortable part for me. But the intuitive part is you know that once you get it out you can make it sound better. So I wrote the poem and then I would be like, ‘Hey Siri, what’s another word for chaotic?’

M: I feel like everyone does that too. Everyone writes something and then they go and ask a thesaurus for this word. 

Z: Yeah and it isn’t anything special it’s just like what’s gonna sound right. 

M: What sort of sparked you to write that poem today?

Z: You really want me to tell you?

M: Yes! No, don’t answer the questions. 

Z: I’ve been kinda living my best life and I’ve been around some really good company. It was just time to write it down. I woke up from a dream and I was like, that was a very vivid dream. So I started to write the dream down and then the dream kinda turned into me scribbling some poetic words. Honestly, I’ve noticed that even in my first two books. The first book was sad. The second book was kinda sad. I realized I write more intentionally when I’m not in a good place. So when I’m happy I kind of have to force myself to write. So today I forced myself to write because I’m like, things are going too good. I gotta record some of this stuff. 

M: Why do you think that is, that it’s easier to write when you’re sad?

Z: I think it’s because it’s a way of talking to myself and talking myself into or out of something. Sometimes I write a poem or a piece and it’s just that. It’s just me writing down a feeling. But when I’m happy, you can tell that I’m happy. You can tell that I exude happiness, but I try not to put my sadness on display, so I write it. 

M: Do you feel like doubt has played a role in your work at all?

Z: Oh yeah, all the time. Not being able to feel like an intellectual makes me doubtful of my work, but also feeling too smart makes me doubtful, like I don’t wanna be a pompous asshole using stupid big words for no reason. You know what I’m saying? Like that doubt is within me. It’s not with anybody else. It’s with me. I just don’t want to be lumped in with anybody. I really don’t. I don’t want anybody calling me the next anything. I don’t want to be compared to anybody. I just want to write this stuff down and I hope that y’all like it. That’s it. 

M: How do you want to be seen, if at all?

Z: I want to be seen as a real ass person! Because that’s the thing. I know that you may not like what I’m doing, but you can be real about it and you can be on board with it. But I want people to see me as someone who knew what she was talking about the whole time. Like she knew it. She may not have told us, but she knew. That’s why she was acting like that. 

M: Can you kind of describe your relationship to academic writing?

Z: Yeah, so at Michigan State I took the typical freshman route, you know you take all your pre reqs or whatever. And I had a writing class, it was a technical writing class. And I had one creative writing class. And just the teaching style, the curriculum obviously, but just the overall vibe—we use that word a lot—the vibe of the classes were different.

In technical writing they’re like, here’s this topic and we want you to write it correctly. So, we’re working on the same topic for weeks and weeks at a time right? Whereas in the time it took for me to finish one paper in technical writing, I had written poetry and prose and blackout poems and learned all this other stuff about creative writing and it just didn’t feel like I needed to know how to properly format something to get my point across. You know what I mean? That burst of creativity was how I knew that technical writing was for me, bullshit. And you know it’s kinda long. My pieces are short. I try to be concise on purpose because I know how people think. 

M: What draws you to blackout poetry? 

Z: You know sometimes I’ll pick a book that I like and do blackout poetry, but most of the time it’s a book that I don’t like or a book that I think is overrated. Like I use Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird a lot to make blackout poems. And that was just me rebelling against what people were trying to make us read in high school and in college. But I didn’t even know that erasure or blackout poetry was even a thing until I went to college. I’d never thought to destroy another piece of writing. People make collages visually, but I never thought about it in a literary way. So yeah I definitely use blackout poetry as a rebellion against classical literature.

M: You started your own lit mag in 2017, what are the most rewarding parts of that?

Z: Oh my god. I don’t even know, they’re all so good because they happen and there’s a process. I get the submissions and I’m like oh perfect, I love looking at these submissions. But then I have to decide what’s going in the zine. And that part is sad. 

M: Are you doing that part alone?

Z: Yeah. Picking and choosing pieces, that’s the most daunting part. But then the most rewarding part would probably be shipping them out. I love shipping them across the world. I don’t care if it costs 15 dollars, 20 dollars to ship this one little baby magazine. I love that. And I love it when the writers do their social media posting like, hey I’ve been published. Because that’s why I made Juste Milieu. At first it was like okay I’m not getting published. People are not picking up my poems and I know that I’m pretty good. It’s just not in the right place at the right time. That’s all I’m thinking. It’s not nothing against me. So that’s why I made it. I’m like well I’m gonna publish my stuff and then I’ll put other people in here and we’ll see where it goes. And it went really far. And I’m really happy about that.

M: How do you go about choosing something that you think will resonate with a lot of people?

Z: Well, I definitely have to make the space in my brain to not be biased. That’s the first step. It’s like, all right what kind of mood are you in today? Are you just picking stuff that looks pretty cause you’re sad? So that’s the first step: to just kind of step back and be a clean slate. 

M: You just have to be in a good mood or at least not a bad mood. 

Z: Yeah you can’t be in a bad mood. You can’t be searching for a feeling. What I do is, I rarely read bios of artists so if they send me this long bio and all this stuff, I don’t necessarily read it. I just look at the work and read it.

M: Do you feel like you have a writing community at all or do you feel pretty solitary?

Z: I’m very solitary. Honestly I have more screenwriting friends than poets or fiction writers. People have movie ideas and then learn how to write a screenplay. I trust people to read my screenplays more than my prose or my poetry if that makes sense. We’ve got a few people. I’ve been writing for how many years now? Publicly since 2015, so six years I’ve been on “the scene.” 

M: Can you describe the Detroit scene?

Z: It’s a big little city with a lot of heart and soul and if you treat it right, it will protect you. If you are kind to the streets, the streets will be kind to you. So I have been proven. Artistically, corporately, like whatever you want to do you can do it in Detroit, and you’ll probably be successful. I know everyone wants to go to New York and LA and Atlanta and make it, but I’m like if you can come here and cultivate your stuff, you can make it anywhere. Cause you’ll just have that mindset, like, ‘Oh I’m just a hustler doing my hustle thing and there ain’t no reason for me to stop.’ 

There’s no plateau.  

Molly Gunther is a writer and editor from the Pacific Northwest, currently living in Chicago. Her work appears in Twenty Five-Rooms: Selections from the Hotel Archive, Hooligan Magazine, and elsewhere on the internet. Find her on Instagram @zimawarriorprincess.

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, prose, reviews, and interviews from marginalized creators.