Alum Zulema Renee Summerfield Returns to Creative Writing Dept. with Acclaimed Debut Novel

Thursday, October 18, 2018
Photo of Zulema Renee Summerfield talking with student with copy of her book in foreground

When Zulema Renee Summerfield attended San Francisco State, the Gymnasium swimming pool was her safe space to stimulate her writing juices.

“My Creative Writing friends and I would swim and then do a writing group after,” Summerfield says. “Your mind can expend energy while your body moves.”

Summerfield (B.A., ’08; M.F.A., ’10) returned to campus in late September to speak at two of Matthew Clark Davison’s Creative Writing courses. She brought copies of her acclaimed debut novel, Every Other Weekend (Little, Brown and Company, 2018), a comedic and tragic tale about Nenny, an imaginative 8-year-old girl attempting to cope with her parents’ divorce. The book takes place in the 1980s and is based on Summerfield’s own childhood.

“Zulema Renee Summerfield’s Every Other Weekend comes as close as any novel I’ve read to capturing post-divorce depletion, and she does so from a child’s perspective, which is exactly as gut-wrenching as it sounds,” Dean Bakopoulos writes in The New York Times Book Review. “Almost nothing is as sad to witness as a child burnt out by life — and it is this sensation that lends Summerfield’s impressive debut its weight.”

Everything Faces All Ways at Once

Davison assigned his students to read the novel before Summerfield’s appearance. They were ready with questions. She was ready with a Sharpie to sign copies of her book.

One student asked about a scene in the book that takes place at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. A memory from Summerfield’s childhood inspired the scene.

“For my 14th birthday I really wanted to go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but on the way my dad said, ‘Let’s to the tar pits,’” Summerfield recalls. “And we spent all day at the La Brea Tar Pits. By the time we got to LACMA it was closed.”

Years later when writing Every Other Weekend, Summerfield visited the tar pits again. It didn’t turn out to be a place for her to write, but it did provide key realizations: “I was bored out of my mind. I realized that [Nenny and I] are the same person.”

In her visit to Davison’s Short Short Story class, Summerfield also praised several SF State faculty members who made an impact on her writing, including Barbara Tomash, Peter Orner, Michelle Carter and Robert Glück. Summerfield took the Short Short Story class with Tomash, who “completely changed my writing. The generative exercises were mind-blowing.”

Orner taught Summerfield that “novels come in all shapes and sizes and don’t have to follow the three-act formula. It really freed me up.”

“Workshops with Orner were useful in teaching me that every story has value,” she adds. “Even if your first draft is messy and all over the place, something in there is useful and has heart.”

While completing her master’s degree, Summerfield won the Creative Writing Department’s Michael Rubin Award. This resulted in her first published book, Everything Faces All Ways at Once, under the department’s own Fourteen Hills Press. The flash-fiction book offers a peek into Summerfield’s dreams, including a chance run-in with Barack Obama and her first love. Orner is a bit character in the book.

“It was a great experience. It’s validating to have a book published,” she says, “but also, I really think I lucked out because that book is very experimental and bizarre.”

Summerfield is nearly done with her next manuscript, a novel about women in their late teens. If she visits SF State to discuss it, she hopes to find time to swim laps in the new natatorium in the Mashouf Wellness Center.

— Matt Itelson


Photo: Zulema Renee Summerfield (right) signs a copy of her novel Every Other Weekend for a student. Photo by Matthew Clark Davison.

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