This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Zachary Pace, whose debut book, I Sing to Use the Waiting: A Collection of Essays About the Women Singers Who’ve Made Me Who I Am, is out today from Two Dollar Radio. In these intimate and thoughtful essays, Pace offers a personal queer history, an inquiry into human expressivity, and a meditation on the formative influence of popular culture. Beginning with an exploration of the author’s own “queer voice”—and the way social norms encode gender into certain vocal sounds—the collection considers nearly a dozen female performers and how they affected Pace’s worldview, self-conception, and artistic sensibility. Pace approaches his subjects with a mix of memoir, reportage, and critical theory, including Madonna’s engagement with Jewish Kabbalah, Rihanna’s personal and musical “multiplicity,” and even the Pocahontas character from the eponymous Disney film, whose song “Colors of the Wind” enthralled a ten-year-old Pace. Poet and literary critic Wayne Koestenbaum praises I Sing to Use the Waiting: “This impeccable book sends me back, with a renewed heart, to the songs Pace masterfully covers, with a delivery as splendid, as emotionally impressive, as the lauded originals.” Zachary Pace is a writer and editor who lives in New York City. Their writing has been published in BOMB, Bookforum, Boston Review, Literary Hub, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.
1. How long did it take you to write I Sing to Use the Waiting?
I started the first piece in 2016 and finished the last piece in 2023, then spent a year editing with the Two Dollar Radio team. Two weeks before the book went to the printer, I got a round of somewhat heavy edits that ended up bringing the whole thing home in a major way.
2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
I’ve been worried, and I’m worried now, about having revealed too much information about myself and the people in these essays. In the intimacy of the book, I feel very vulnerable.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I take notes while walking and riding the subway. I e-mail notes to myself while I’m at work during the day, then I’ll transfer the notes to a Word document on my laptop, where I tinker at night. I have a desk in my apartment that’s meant for working on the computer, but I always end up sitting on the couch with my laptop perched on a pile of coffee-table books and my elbows propped on my knees.
4. What are you reading right now?
Why Mariah Carey Matters by Andrew Chan, On Michael Jackson by Margo Jefferson, The Krishnamurti Reader, and The Book of Life: Daily Meditations With J. Krishnamurti.
5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Too many to name in one place, but most crucially: Lucie Brock-Broido, Jorie Graham, Richard Siken, Carl Phillips, Maggie Nelson, Wayne Koestenbaum, Hilton Als, Cathy Park Hong, Greil Marcus, and Hanif Abdurraqib.
6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
I think it’s one good way to meet friends and teachers who will encourage and inspire you. Going to readings, taking some workshops online or in person, joining a book group—these are great ways too.
7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
Eric Obenauf of Two Dollar Radio gave me the first of a few rounds of revisions, and I’m going to include a comment from that Word document here—a comment that galvanized me during the whole yearlong editorial process: “Tie this in to the broader themes of this collection as a whole...to better understand this whitewashing of history, or how music managers try to cover a singer’s identity to better align with a public persona so that it fits within a straight, white, patriarchal view of how things should be in our society. And how this affects queer children struggling to understand their own identity within this framework.” Eric understood what the book was meant to be even better than I did at this point, and I kept returning to these words to remind myself while revising.
8. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of I Sing to Use the Waiting?
I was surprised by how much information I ultimately let go. I’m a completist, through and through, so in the earliest drafts I compiled every detail that felt remotely relevant and tried to keep all the information totally up-to-date. I’m still surprised by how many details that once struck me as interesting and important are no longer part of the book. At some point I felt more comfortable focusing on certain events without having to recreate an exhaustive history.
9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Miles and miles of walking. Often when I walk away from the computer, I think of the words I was trying to find, and I have to rush back to my laptop or type them on my phone before I forget. I walk several miles a day and spend that time thinking about whatever I’m working on. And I listen to the musicians I’m writing about, while walking and otherwise, for hours and hours a day—obsessive, repetitive listening is both work and life-affirming pleasure for me.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
It’s not exactly advice, but a game-changing bit of feedback resonates with me to this day. In my first year as an MFA student, a well-known poet visited to give a guest workshop, and I brought a poem that I was especially proud of to class. The poet didn’t like my poem at all. I realize now that it relied entirely on sound and wordplay and had nothing profound to say. The poet asked me, “What is the price of music?” This question led me to appreciate the value of not only using lyrical language but telling a meaningful story.