Rick Zollo: A Man Comes Around

Rick Zollo has come in from the cold.  After spending 30 years casting lifelines from out on the perimeter this would-be writer finally has found an audience.  Mind you, Zollo didn’t necessarily care if anyone answered his call, he would have continued firing off communiqués regardless, but getting paid to pursue his life’s passion is a sweet deal all the same.

Since the mid-90’s Zollo has been writing stories for Buckle Down Publishing.  Prior to that he had been trying to find his way into a writing life but degrees from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Literary Nonfiction program served more to define who he was not instead of delivering him his own voice.  There were the freelance pieces that would occasionally get picked up by the alternative press but these paid little to nothing.

It was Doug Paul, the owner of Buckle Down Publishing, then known as Profiles, who recognized Zollo’s ability and brought him in-house to write vignettes in particular that are provided in test booklets to instruct adolescents on how to navigate the standardized testing landscape.  Zollo’s stories are now read by millions of kids nationwide.  It’s a relationship that’s worked out well for all involved and has removed the gorilla from Zollo’s back, enabling him to take life a little easier.

To gain some perspective, Zollo explained some of the referential artists he holds close that have illuminated a roadmap of sorts to help guide him through life.

“In music it would be Louis Armstrong, in writing and letters it would be Walt Whitman and you could add a lot of other people there but Whitman more than anyone else, and in painting and the visual arts it would be Claude Monet,” said Zollo.  “I’m interested in art so those people mean a lot to me.”

He knows this is only his point of view and it is open to contention.  Hell it’s a fight waiting to happen, but these are the folks that fill Zollo’s structural pyramid.  This could be interpreted as brashness, and it most assuredly was in his youth when he often felt compelled to demonstrate his intellectuality, but now it’s institutional knowledge – he’s been down the garden path, several actually – and these are his guys, they work for him, and Zollo is happy to share his tales.

At 64, Zollo has the salt and pepper hair, with beard to match.  He sports the casual dress of academia, jeans and a generic blue sweatshirt over a collared blue button down.  It’s distinguished yet comfortable.  He’s a big guy, but it’s the voice that’s the real attention getter – there’s a booming intensity to his baritone that ensures notice.  It can rise in the excitement over discussing his favorite short story or something mundane like requesting a turkey and ham sandwich, which his charming wife Susan prepared for us.

Zollo is a Boston guy, Connecticut actually, but schooled at Northeastern.  This is where he met his wife, who is his best friend, companion and umpire in the game of life.  She keeps the rules and makes sure her husband stays on track.

“Without her I would be in trouble,” said Zollo.  “We met, fell in love 44 years ago – it was the best thing that ever happened to me.  We’re both English, journalist, lit people, we both wanted to be writers and when we met, we met over writers … 44 years later we’re still best friends.”

Zollo was the oldest of ten kids and grew up middle working class.  With that many siblings there wasn’t a lot to go around but books were one thing that were affordable and available.

As was music through the radio, and after getting past his early desires of being a singing cowboy from Connecticut, Zollo discovered Bill Haley, which led to Elvis, which led to Chuck Berry.

“When I was a kid I really had a weakness for Negro music and hillbilly music, don’t ask me why,” said Zollo.  “I don’t know what it was that appealed to me in those two music’s but they did.”

Zollo applied himself to making music, took lessons, but it didn’t take.  He could play the notes but he wasn’t a musician.  Instead he began assuming the life of a writer.  By the time he reached college he thought he was a well-read guy until he met Susan and heard whom she read and immediately knew he was with someone who was smarter than he.

“I tell you what really opened me up was My Name Is Aram, and a book that wasn’t one of Saroyan’s gems,” said Zollo.  “I read Here Comes There Goes You Know Who, and then I read The Human Comedy, and then I read My Name Is Aram, and when I read him I had that same feeling I had when I read Mark Twain as a kid, that sense of voice.”

An interesting aside into Zollo is he became bored with “The Prince and the Pauper,” due to his inability to identify with the well to do.

“My attitude about rich people is they aren’t going to help you, they don’t care about you,” said Zollo.  “I was raised in an industrial valley, so you always got the feeling that if someone had a lot of money and power and social connections that something nefarious had to happen for them to have gotten that.  You either inherited it or they got it through chicanery.  It’s not a fair judgment to make, but that’s how I approach it – not objectively.  I never felt like sucking up to rich people, it never got me anywhere except maybe a job cleaning out the stable.”

Zollo’s connection to Iowa came through the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  After initially applying in 1967, Zollo gained admission in 1971, an impressive achievement by any standard for an aspiring fiction writer.  What Zollo hadn’t planned on, nor had he considered, was what he might do if his writing wasn’t good enough.

“By the time they let me in, in 1971, I was working on a long thing, it was kind of an attempt at a novel,” said Zollo.  “I was trying to write above my level – and I wasn’t succeeding.”

Having crafted together a 700-page manuscript, and trying to work out the problems and make it interesting – it just didn’t hold together.

“When you make a sobering assessment the first thing you feel when you abandon something is this real sense of loss, and then there is this second sense that I didn’t have the talent,” said Zollo.  “The third consideration was what to do next, so I just kept writing for better or for worse.”

By this time the Zollo’s two boys, Mark and David, were born, and Susan also had returned to school.  In the spirit of a survivalist, Zollo was able to find a brighter inspiration through one of Susan’s professors, Sherman Paul.

“I thought the stuff she was studying was in some ways more authentic than what I was doing in the Writers’ Workshop,” said Zollo.

At a certain point Zollo had to reassess his talent and stop having pretensions of grandeur.  To work through this the Zollos moved out to the country.  Rick had taken a liking to marijuana and grew a long ponytail.  He found an interest in working with handicapped adults and pursued this for the next 13 years, but never ceased writing.

In 1992, Zollo returned to Iowa City to attend the University of Iowa’s Literary Nonfiction program.

“I was never going to give up being a writer,” said Zollo.  “It had become too much a part of me.  I ceased to care.  I mean I did care on one level about money, but in some ways I swore a vow of poverty without knowing it.  I was a writer, I accepted that. I was a failed writer because I didn’t find an audience, and I accepted that.  It didn’t matter, I wasn’t doing it to become famous.  I was doing it because I had to. It was an organic part of my life and without it I didn’t feel alive.”

What turned for Zollo was having Profiles publish some of his freelance material.  With his curiosity and short attention span the vignette was a form he could handle and it became a niche, that paid real money.

He’s been working with Profiles/Buckle Down Publishing ever since.  Zollo estimates he’s written 500 to 600 vignettes, anywhere from 300 to 1500 words long, probably 60 percent nonfiction and 40 percent fiction, of which 300 have made it into print.

“I have a whole host of pen names, and some of my pen names are more famous than I ever imagined I would be,” said Zollo.  “I write as Tom Fitzpatrick, I write as Alicia Monroe, that’s my homage to Alice Munro, the great short story writer, and then I have a writer, Fred Gomez, but then I have all these other writers, too many to count.”

Not only has this professional endeavor been enjoyable, it also has provided Zollo the creative freedom to exercise his particular artistic passion.

“I get to revisit and collaborate with people like Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain and the Bronte sisters,” said Zollo.

Life has continued along for Zollo much as it always has, it just so happens his day job now corresponds with his former hobby and life’s desire.  He still writes on the side and looks at himself as an amateur musicologist and cultural historian.  This has led to stories on subjects including Iowa music legend Greg Brown and the culture behind truck stops.

Zollo doesn’t have to look far to find inspiration.  His youngest son, David, is an accomplished rock musician in his own right.  First forming the influential southern inspired rock band High and Lonesome, then striking out on a successful solo career.  He is a musician with an old soul, which is a product of living in the same house with literary parents and his father’s eclectic music collection.

The family is now helping David struggle through some difficult times involving substance abuse, a failed record label and a troubled marriage, but there is nothing but praise from a proud father for his son and for David’s older brother, Mark.  Zollo’s had his own struggles and has the perspective to see the bigger picture.

“I’m not seeking to be anything except a writer,” said Zollo.  “I just came to the conclusion that I was a writer, that’s what I was, that’s what I was going to be, and that’s what I’ve been in my life.  But it’s just one of the things I do.  I’m a reader, I’m a writer, I’m a cook, I’m a father, I’m a grandfather.  We are pretty much what we do.  When I’m cooking I’m a cook, when I’m walking I’m a walker.  When I’m dreaming I’m a daydreamer.”

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