When I first came to Boston, a thousand years ago, I taught a class for a tiny literary outfit called Grub Street. It was held in a dingy high school room and enrollment was, uh, spotty. Only three students showed up consistently: Ellen Litman, Jami Brandli, and Jane Roper. They are all now famous writers with many books and awards and fancy invitations to their names.
Does this mean that everyone who takes a class with me will meet a similar fate? I want to say no, that writing is too involved a process, too fraught with personal meanings and opportunities for self-abuse to be “taught” in the traditional sense, and that the most a teacher can do is inspire her pupils to withstand the slings and arrows of doubt. By which I mean yes.
This feeling is especially verdant right now, because Jane has just published her debut, Eden Lake, a novel that magically synthesizes my two favorite topics: death and the sexual liberation wrought by summer camp.
Next year, St. Martins will publish a memoir loosely based on her popular blog, which documents her experience raising twin daughters. The fact that she has libeled me on the internet legally requires me to interview her.
The Rumpus: Talk me through the class in which we met. Anything you can remember that doesn’t involve how poorly I dressed.
Jane Roper: I remember that you showed up late for the first class, looking all frantic and rather mussed. You had a Wild Turkey bottle filled with water and I thought, Jeez, this guy is trying way too hard to look cool. But I gave you the benefit of the doubt because you were so poorly dressed.
Rumpus: I want to salute your ability to capture, in 50 words, my tardiness, my implied lack of professionalism, my sad and no doubt compensatory effort to look cool, and my poor wardrobe. Still. I’m troubled by the Wild Turkey bottle. It’s just not my style. Is there any chance you meant Hennessy?
Roper: Yes! Entirely possible it was Hennessy. Which makes it somewhat less pathetic as an attempt at cool, I guess. Bourbon is a sort of cliché writer drink, isn’t it? Cognac is much more unexpected.
Rumpus: Let’s move on to how deep I am.
Roper: I remember you continually hounding us about going deeper into what our characters needed and desired and longed for. (You said them in italics). And I remember that you thought the first story I put up for workshop was really strong, which put me over the moon because it was only, like, the fifth short story I’d ever written, and I thought maybe I was some kind of genius. But the second one—whose title I still remember: “The Six-Foot Duffy”—you deemed not so great. (Title notwithstanding.) Which brought me right back down to earth, where I belonged.
Rumpus: A few years after that class, you went off to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I remember feeling a little worried on your behalf, because Iowa is such a tough little aquarium of talent. What was it like?
Roper: Yeah, that place was a bit of a mindfuck. It’s not that the students were outwardly competitive with each other. I really liked my classmates, learned a lot from them, and made some good friends. But the instructors weren’t particularly accessible. And the whole place had an aura of expectation about it; a sense that it was some kind of proving ground, and if you didn’t succeed here, then you probably wouldn’t succeed as a writer, period. Which is, of course, absurd.
The financial aid system at the time (I think it may have changed) was based on “merit,” so you always had the feeling there was this unspoken pecking order of talent. And I was pretty sure I was one of the lowliest and scrawniest of the literary chickens.
To this day, I suspect that I got in as a result of a clerical error. I’m not joking: A few weeks after I was accepted, I got a call from the administrative director of the program who said something weird like, “So, did you get that letter from us?” And then, “Well, do you know what you’re going to do?” Like she was kind of hoping I was going to say no, so they could give my spot to Jean Ropeer or whoever it was they actually meant to admit.
Rumpus: As a former summer camper, I tore through Eden Lake. It felt like you knew that world inside out.
Roper: I spent the first fifteen summers of my life at summer camps in Maine that my parents worked at or owned—all very progressive, idealistic, nontraditional places. So that culture was very much a part of my upbringing, and is recreated in the fictional Camp Eden Lake. The book is very much about how that sort of place—equal parts utopia and rich-kid summer resort—shapes/warps/traps/liberates the people who run it.
Sadly, since I was a “staff brat” at camp and my parents were always around, I never got to experience the sexual liberation that camp was for a lot of other kids. I was way too embarrassed by the idea of my parents catching a glimpse of me canoodling (as opposed to canoeing) with some other camper to act on my crushes, or even respond in the affirmative when boys indicated interest. I still regret saying no when Jeremy Goldstein asked me “out.” But part of it was just that I was a late bloomer. I would have been too chicken even if I had been away at camp on my own.
Rumpus: You have a serious following as a blogger for Babble, writing about your twin girls, Elsa and Clio. How do you toggle between those dispatches and the more serious literary work you do?
Roper: What, you don’t think writing about my children’s toilet habits qualifies as serious literary work? Actually, writing the blog has been huge for me in terms of developing my voice and building my confidence as a writer. And that confidence tends to carry over into the other writing I do.
Rumpus: Do the kids get what you do?
Roper: They know that Mommy is a writer, and that I write words and stories on the computer, and even that I write about them. But it’s all still pretty abstract. When the first copies of my novel were delivered, and I proudly showed them to the girls and said, “Look! Mommy wrote this book!” they were like “Yeah? So?” They write books all the time. We staple little pieces of construction paper together and they draw pictures of giraffes and ladybugs and then dictate stories for us to write down under them. Boom. Easy.
Rumpus: Your husband, Alastair Moock, is a fantastic musician and a very generous poker player. We love him a lot. What’s it like to be married to another artist, nay, a musician?
Roper: Except for the lack of steady income—and thanks, by the way, for your help with that, at the poker table—it’s awesome. I am a huge believer in cross-pollination of the arts, and I love that music and performance is such a big part of our lives. Before Alastair and I met, I listened to crap music. I still listen to crap music, but also a lot of really great music, too, thanks to him.
I also love that both Alastair and I are writers, but of a very different sort. We find a lot of common ground when it comes to the creative process, and we help each other out—I am his first lyrics-listener and he’s my first reader—but there’s never a sense of competition or jealousy or any of the other weird dynamics I imagine that partnered artists working in the exact same medium experience.
Rumpus: What’s next?
Roper: I just finished writing a memoir, inspired by my blog on Babble, about parenting twins and wrestling with clinical depression. That’s going to be published by St. Martin’s sometime in 2012. Once I finish with the revisions on that, I’m going to jump into another novel, this one set in Bridgeport, Connecticut—another setting from my youth. Just like a summer camp in Maine, but with more poverty, crime and human suffering.
Rumpus: That’s hot.
Jane Roper is the author of Eden Lake and Baby Squared, a narrative blog for Babble.com. Her memoir on parenting twins and dealing with clinical depression will be published in 2012. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and twin daughters.
Photo of Roper by Mara Brod.