“Fehst is a writer to watch.” - Publishers Weekly
Zach Fehst writes stories that are big on mystery and adventure. He also hosted the Emmy-nominated nature show, “The Ultimate Guide to the Awesome,” on the Discovery Kids network. He is married to author Heather Demetrios. His debut novel, American Magic, is out now from Simon & Schuster (Atria/Emily Bestler Books). His writing also appears in the YA anthology Dear Heartbreak, published by Macmillan (Henry Holt). He has traveled to over thirty countries, but makes his home in Durham, North Carolina.
Thoughts on the kind of writing I do:
To me, all fiction is genre fiction. What we deem “literary” fiction is marked by its own set of conventions (florid or insightful prose, unhurried pacing, “deep” themes of love/loss/death, family dysfunction and dissolution, existential angst, etc.). I appreciate reading literary fiction and believe there’s a place for it in my life and in the lives of all serious readers—but most of the time I love other genre fiction more, probably because I think that at the end of the day, reading a novel should usually be fun.
I enjoy genre fiction when someone executes it extremely well. Gillian Flynn’s work has bang-on voice, plotting, characters, and bone-dry macabre humor. Jeff VanderMeer’s “Annihilation” is a relentless, claustrophobic, feverish descent into mind-melting terror. And I especially enjoy it when someone does something a little different within a genre, even if it’s not always one-hundred percent successful. Paul Auster’s “New York Trilogy” reimagines the detective story as a psychic black hole, with gumshoes who end up investigating themselves, going mad, and finding non-clues that pile up and lead nowhere. It’s fascinating, if not always fully satisfying. Unexpected hybrids thrill me, too: Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is an intricately plotted science fiction tale that’s also a touching romance.
Genre writing has to satisfy certain conventions, but it doesn’t have to be predictable or one-note. For example, I’m mostly a Scotch drinker—that’s the genre of booze I like—but the variety of flavors within the world of whiskey is astounding. I appreciate some that are straight-forward—sweet-smelling and sweet-tasting, right down the line. Others burn with spice or smoke from start to finish. Great, too. Then there are those spirits whose complexity means that they tell an intriguing story, with a bit of misdirection from nose to body: I was initially socked with a smoke bomb, but now I’m tasting lemon-toffee pudding, and yet the whole thing works beautifully. This is the kind of story I try to write. My first book, “American Magic,” is an urban fantasy with the DNA of a thriller. My upcoming project, “Liminal,” is a deep space noir.
It’s important to me not to write junk food: think Thai lime-and-chili cashews, not Doritos. Fun writing doesn’t have to be silly, nor does it have to pander to our baser instincts. At its worst, genre fiction can be conservative, even retrograde. We’ve all read romances that enshrine misogyny, or thrillers that glorify jingoism and mindless violence. That’s not me. The protagonist in “American Magic,” ex-CIA agent Ben Zolstra, experiences pangs of conscience over his past, and what brutality he’s forced to dish out haunts him. There’s also a feminist counter narrative smuggled into the traditionally male-oriented thriller in the character arc of Eila Mack; it’s not always overt, but it’s there. It mattered to me that it be there. “Liminal,” aside from being a detective tale, is also an inquiry into what happens to human minds and societies when they are completely divorced from the natural world they evolved over millennia to thrive in.
So what kind of writer am I? I adore the meta-fictive puzzles of Borges, the formal daring of Mark Danielewski’s “House of Leaves,” and particularly the dream logic, shifting identities, and nebulous resolutions favored by artists like Haruki Murakami and filmmaker David Lynch. It’s terrifically heady stuff, and hints of these elements can find their way into my own writing. But most of the time, I write page-turning speculative fiction with characters you enjoy being around, and stories that are big on mystery and adventure, with a twist—books that are fun to read while also leaving you with a little something to think about. I’d call them high concept and plot-driven. I hope they can be embraced by genre fans and general readers alike.