The Shorty Q & A with Rodes Fishburne

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The hero of Rodes Fishburne’s first novel, Going to See the Elephant, comes to San Francisco with only a trunk full of first-edition19th-century novels and an equally heavy load of gumption. Slater Brown wants to be a writer–and not just any writer, but a famous writer; and not just any famous writer, but a justly famous writer. All he lacks is skill and experience and perspective. He lands a job at a fallen newspaper, but–to no one’s surprise–screws that up and immediately gets fired.

But when the pocket radio he acquires from a Mexican shaman in a Mission District taqueria starts tuning in private phone calls through the city’s electrified mass-transit system, Slater Brown stumbles into a treasure trove of story tips. To everyone’s surprise, he becomes a muckraking maven overnight.

Making trouble for the purveyors of municipal malfeasance, and making a name for himself, is only the beginning. Because San Francisco is, as Slater scrawls in one of his many notebooks, “a city where fate and luck collide in an explosion of destiny,” it’s only natural that he also should cross paths with one Milo Magnet, the odd-duck inventor, super-genius scientist and coyly reluctant public intellectual whose work most recently and ominously involves harnessing the power of the elements.

Fishburne brings it all together in a classically styled, gently exaggerated romp. Having worked as a journalist for The New Yorker, The New York Times and Forbes ASAP, among other publications, he has a practiced knack for storytelling. Here, he briefly describes it.

Rumpus: Elsewhere in The Rumpus, Rabih Alameddine wrote of being advised by a writer friend about what to expect upon the publication of his first novel: “It doesn’t matter what novel you write, she said, you will be asked how true it is.” So you can see where I’m going here…

Fishburne: Ah yes, the “Is this novel really a thinly disguised version of you” question! I wonder why this is such an evergreen question. It must be because people who don’t write novels are trying to figure out how to reverse engineer the novel writing process and the first and easiest way to do this is to suppose that in the search for a main character one need look no further than oneself! But the truth is that the least interesting character in my head is me.

Rumpus: Whom do you consider your literary models?

Fishburne: I’m not sure these are my literary models, but every writer starts out as a reader, and the writers I most enjoy reading are Chekhov, Alan Bennett, Jim Harrison, Peter Taylor, Harry Mulisch.

Rumpus: Can you describe what it is about their work that you respond to?

Fishburne: The main thing that attracts me is a story that covers real territory. I’m less drawn to writers who are using a very tight aperture to describe the world.

Rumpus: How did you become a writer?

Fishburne: I’ve been writing since I was 8 or 9 years old. I found some of my early notebooks the other day and the only difference between them and my current notebooks is that the spelling is (a little) better now. But other than that they contain ideas for stories, overheard dialogue, names that interest me (Irv Ungerman is my latest name entry), etc.

Rumpus: Where were you born and how did you come to San Francisco? Fishburne: I’m from Virginia originally and came to San Francisco on the trail of a woman.

Rumpus: How did you first encounter Slater Brown?

Fishburne: I was walking down Polk Street in San Francisco in 2003, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a young man in a coffee shop hunched over a table furiously writing away. He had 14 empty espresso cups around him, and everything he wrote he either crossed out, or crumpled up. I stopped to watch and found myself captivated by him. Eventually I started taking notes of him writing. And a little bell went off in my head: People come to San Francisco to write, or paint, or to find their creative voice. There’s a long history of this, from Mark Twain to Bret Harte, Beat Poets–hell, the television was invented in San Francisco, so it’s definitely a place that draws a certain kind of person. Once I’d seen this young man, I started seeing other examples, young men and women writing in coffee shops, or on the bus. I realized I wanted to follow this character, who comes to San Francisco to write, around in my imagination. Shortly after the name Slater Brown came zinging through the ether, and my character had a name.

Rumpus: How did you first encounter Milo Magnet?

Fishburne: Milo is the amalgamation of every brilliant but egotistically unbalanced Silicon Valley inventor I’ve ever met, cross-pollinated with every Scientific American profile I’ve ever read in the doctor’s office that talks about the scientist who is on the verge of turning our brains into giant computers, or our computers into giant brains, or whatever hyperbolic statement will sell magazines.

Rumpus: How do you manage to sometimes lightly mock yet avoid condescending to them?

Fishburne: I guess because I liked these characters, even the foolish ones. If somebody did something wrong I had the feeling of: Well that’s just the way he’s chosen to move through the world. It’s a sort of empathetic detachment. I think that grandmothers are quite good at this sort of thing. You can set the local funeral parlor on fire and when your grandmother hears about it, she’ll cluck and say, “Well, he had such a tough week, poor thing.” I think novel writers have a lot to learn from grandmothers.

Rumpus: The setting of Going to See the Elephant is more or less the present, but your telling of the tale, even the title itself, has a sly quality of deliberate nostalgia. Talk about the intentions of that choice and about your efforts to realize it–in what ways did you find it, perhaps, limiting or liberating?

Fishburne: It comes down to the fact that San Francisco is a timeless city for me. There’s something new and vibrant about her, but also something very classic. So when I was writing the book I didn’t want to have a line that said, “And then Obama won the presidency!” or something that would immediately peg the time because I wanted the city and the story to exist in another, imaginative space. That was what was interesting to me. Not trying to make the novel seem as realistic as the real world.

Rumpus: Has your disposition toward the book or its characters changed in any way since publication has officially put them out there in the world?

Fishburne: Not really, before the book was published all the characters and I went for a big lunch at Swann’s Oyster Bar and had great fun talking. [Fictional four-term San Francisco mayor] Tucker Oswell gave a nice toast and we kind of acknowledged that our time together was coming to a close. Last time I spoke to Slater Brown I told him to call collect anytime.

Rumpus: What has writing fiction about journalism taught you about either or both forms?

Fishburne: The thrills they give are both different. If I could afford my own MRI scanning machine…I suspect that the areas of the brain where fiction and journalism are generated are not the same place. I think of a writer as someone who reorganizes reality into a pattern that has meaning for the writer. I think this definition works for both fiction and non-fiction because in non-fiction you’re making so many choices about what to leave out that you’re making a mural more than capturing reality.

Rumpus: How do you feel about the idea of Going to See the Elephant becoming a film? If that were to happen, who and what would be required?

Fishburne: I will only allow this to happen if Eddie Murphy plays all the roles.

Rumpus: If I ride a Muni bus all day for a week with an unusually selective radio receiver, what will happen?

Fishburne: If you do this you will hear the most amazing stories about the city you’ve ever heard in your life. Of course if you ride Muni all day for a week without headphones on, you will also hear the most amazing stories about the city. Really, the radio is optional.

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Rodes Fishburne’s website.

Purchase Going To See The Elephant from Booksmith.


Jonathan Kiefer lives in San Francisco. His movie reviews are collected at jonathankiefer.wordpress.com. More from this author →