By Emily Lovejoy
A ghoulish tale of sex, drugs, rock and roll and murder is told by English professor Zachary Lazar in his novel, Sway.
With his second novel, Sway, Hofstra’s own Zachary Lazar has received the kind of literary attention most writers can only dream of.
Set in the 1960s, Sway weaves together the stories of the Rolling Stones, filmmaker Kenneth Anger and the infamous Manson family into a haunting mix of both fact and fiction.
The three intersecting stories in Sway have a ghoulish quality and the novel reads almost like a sophisticated campfire tale. The book contains elements of Satanism and murder. “Things like Charles Manson were recent enough that they were still in the common culture and they were sort of like ghost stories,” Lazar says. “It was always stuff I was really interested in when I was a kid growing up.”
Sway is considered a work of fiction, but it is based in fact. According to Lazar, “none of the events are made up, except for little mundane things, conversations, behind-the-scenes kinds of interactions, but the big events are all true.” For someone who is not well acquainted with the Rolling Stones, the Manson family or Kenneth Anger this may seem hard to believe; the exploits of these people are larger than life. “The challenge of the book was to stick to what was true because it was bizarre and extreme in a lot of ways, murders and crazy drug episodes and this sex, drugs and rock and roll stuff. The trick was to make it seem real,” Lazar explains.
Although he wasn’t alive during the 1960s, Lazar says he consulted a wide variety of sources before writing the book. “When you read many accounts of the same event they’re always different so you can kind of make an educated guess about which is the best or truest version,” he says. The ultimate test of the novel’s truth came when it was released in England: “There were a bunch of people who were a part of the Stones’ circle in the ‘60s and several of them read it and said I got it right,” Lazar says.
Kenneth Anger, says Lazar “was someone I didn’t know really about until I started this book and his name kept cropping up in books about the Rolling Stones that I read.” According to Lazar, Anger, now in his eighties, wasn’t thrilled about his portrayal in Sway. Lazar isn’t aware if Keith Richards or Mick Jagger have read the novel. Was he nervous writing about real people? “Not as nervous as I should have been,” he says. “I just didn’t really think of the possibility of them even really reading it. … I’m glad I didn’t think about it before because maybe I wouldn’t have written it.
The critical response to Sway has been impressive. “It got a lot of good reviews,” Lazar says. The New York Times gave one of those rave reviews, saying, Sway “reads like your parents’ nightmare idea of what would happen to you if you fell under the spell of rock ’n’ roll.”
Lazar’s third book is already completed, but not yet released. The book will focus on his own father’s tragic murder after testifying against a Bernie Madoff-style real estate billionaire. Again, Lazar will be putting a creative turn on true events, but this time around, the novel will be considered non-fiction.
Like every great writer Lazar is influenced by others. “My favorite writers are still people like Fitzgerald and Hemingway,” he says, “who I read when I was in college and formed my idea of what I wanted to do.”
Lazar is well aware of the difficulties that come along with trying to become a successful published author, “Just persevere because you face lots of rejection and struggle for many years before any of this happens like Sway. So, you just have to be very patient,” he advises.
Lazar recently received a fellowship to write a Princeton for a year, but hopes to return to Hofstra, where he currently teaches part-time, offering courses in Creative Writing.