In Aspenite’s debut novel, a Goethe hero lost at sea | AspenTimes.com

In Aspenite’s debut novel, a Goethe hero lost at sea

In 1949, luminaries from 46 states and 11 countries came to Aspen for the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation. The gathering to celebrate the 200th birthday of the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe led to the founding of the Aspen Music Festival and the Aspen Institute, and it provided the foundation of what became known as the "Aspen Idea." It was the "big bang" moment for modern Aspen.

Six and a half decades later, Goethe has inspired the burgeoning literary career of Aspen's John Zelazny, who drew on Goethe's first novel, "The Sorrows of Young Werther," for a parody treatment in his own fiction debut, "The Sorrows of Young Mike."

The novel reimagines Goethe's doomed, dreaming hero as a college student on a semester at sea in the early '00s. It follows four months of Mike's journal entries, with quick-draw impressions of ports of call in Cuba, India and Japan. But, like so many college kids, Mike is too self-involved to linger very long on the places he's seeing and cultures he's experiencing. Instead, he's consumed in his diary by girls, partying, the Goethe book that is shaking his soul and the professor who won't give him a break — but mostly girls.

He has a girlfriend back on shore — with whom he corresponds via AOL Instant Messenger in transcribed emoticon-peppered exchanges that are by turns funny and gut-wrenching — and another love interest on the ship. Zelazny undercuts Mike's philosophical, melodramatic musings on love and existence with touches of nihilistic humor and moments of ridiculous angst.

"I spend most days on the ship getting tan at the pool," Mike reports as the cruise ship circles Africa. "The boat is the same story every time. Today sucked: Angela didn't remember to talk to me on the Internet because she sucks and likes to make me scream."

A Nebraska native, Zelazny, 31, worked on the book for 10 years after spending a semester at sea himself in 2004, when he was a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He used his own journal, memories of his own AIM conversations with a girlfriend and his own period of obsessively reading Goethe as a jumping off point for this fictional narrative.

Recommended Stories For You

"I read the real journal again a few days ago," Zelazny said over lunch at Justice Snow's this week. "It's not the same at all."

That hasn't stopped some of his shipmates from asking whether characters are based on them, and it hasn't quelled concerns from his family about some of the novel's sordid episodes.

"A lot of my family is afraid to even talk to me about it," he said. "My mom is like, 'We send you around the world, and this is what you do?'"

After tweaking the manuscript over and over, and getting feedback from friends and semester-at-sea classmates on it, he set summer 2014 as his deadline for finally finishing it. He hit the goal, self-publishing through Amazon in August.

Zelazny moved here to be a ski bum after college in 2006 and has since balanced his time between skiing, apres-skiing, paying the bills (he's working at Surefoot these days) and writing. He's penned a music column for the Aspen Daily News since 2009 while plugging away on fiction. He keeps a file of scraps of fiction — pieces of dialogue, phrases, observations — that slowly make their way into his narratives. He aims to write an hour a day and to devote at least one full eight-hour day to writing fiction each week.

"Writing takes a long time for me," he said. "It's like I have to write for eight hours, five different times before I get something — three days will be average, one day I'll get nothing done, and one time I'll strike something incredible."

Now that "The Sorrows of Young Mike" is out, he's working on two new novels and hopes to publish both simultaneously. Hopefully, he said, they won't take him another 10 years.

atravers@aspentimes.com