The Rumpus Interview With Rob Roberge


And, this leads to a lot of good books being available to a lot of good readers. And it’s very cool that those same readers can shoot the writer an email. I know I, as a reader, recently did this. I’d read Tom Hansen’s American Junkie on Emergency Press and really thought it was a great book. So, I sent him a message on Facebook and told him. I think that’s a great technology. That a reader can connect with a writer. That the community of indie publishing is more connected than it was, say, ten years ago. I think that’s great. I think places like The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown are creating communities where it would have been very hard, if not impossible, to do, say, twenty years ago.

The Bad: I think most publishers need to re-think their relationship to the writer. I don’t think the publishing model of the indie Press of the present can—or should–survive into the future.

Once the workers (the writers) own the means of production, there is less of a need for management (publishers), in some ways. There is still, I can’t emphasize enough, a need for editors. Writers need editors. Put them in the “must have” column along with readers.

I’d like to think the days of the 90/10% or 85/15% royalty deal are over. I know of a couple of friends whose next book is a 50-50 deal with their indie publisher. The writer shares the expense of production, and the writer and publisher then share the profits. This is a publishing world I look forward to—where writers and publishers are partners. Sharing the risk and the reward together.

I know most writers would be more satisfied with this arrangement. I would happily bet on myself as a writer. And I would rather, as I say, have a partner in my publisher. We share the risk—we share the reward.

This is not a new model, by the way. It’s been done—to great success—in the DIY/indie music community for years. The model I talk about above was used by, among many others, the label Drag City, and the artist and the label become more dependent on each other—their needs become more intertwined.

They are in it together. This is a much better model than a publisher who acts like they’re doing the write a favor by publishing her. That attitude is prevalent in publishing (perhaps even more in indie publishing, oddly—as the majors in New York at least pay the writer, which can give one a sense of being valued). And writers have accepted it blindly for so long, they feel as if the publisher is doing them a favor. I know I have felt that way. And I was wrong.

The present business model is the same as the record industry in the 1950’s…when the person (let’s say Chuck Berry) who wrote and performed the song received 10% of the sales of the record and the company got 90%.

I would say that’s a bad part of publishing. And it’s time writers didn’t stand for it. A contract is an offer. It’s the start of a negotiation. And I would argue that writers need to start negotiating, and that the royalty model has to change.

OK, off my soapbox.

The Ugly: Hmmmm. Not sure. Maybe just press “repeat” on the above for the Ugly. Well, maybe the Ugly is in the potential for Ugly. As the majors die (and they are dying—the book industry will look like the major Label Record industry in a few years), I hope the indies don’t succumb to the mindset that rules major publishing now. The need to look for “branding” and the pandering to the worst in us—the hollow celebrity and consumer culture and the soul-deadening influence of late model capitalism.

So, I guess the ugly is my fear that the indies will become the monster they used to fight.

Not that all of major press publishing is “the monster” I mention above. My experience with a major press was great—the place was populated with people who loved writing and loved books that mattered—not the newest Paris/Brittney/Lindsay “biography”. Likewise, my agent Gary Morris is a brilliant guy, and a great editor of my work who cares, deeply, about literature. He has to make a living, though. Has to feed his kids. So, he’s going to represent the next Paris/Brittney/Lindsay book because he has to.

That’s probably kind of ugly. That there are so many brilliant people in publishing who are doing shit they don’t want to do. Shit that has nothing to do with why they fell in love with what they do.

And if we’re all not careful, publishing will become like Hollywood—a place that wastes more talent than probably any industry in the history of humankind. There are so many brilliant screenwriters and so few brilliant scripts—because the market dictates that they write about some shit that they can “brand” and sell actions figures and Burger King Giveaways with. That’s pretty ugly.

If I had someone or something to pray to, I would pray that the publishing industry doesn’t do to its writers what Hollywood has done to theirs.

The Unexpectedly Beautiful: The writing community kind of amazes me. How people help each other and work hard for each other. The generosity of other writers. I guess it’s not totally “unexpected.” Because, since I started, I’ve helped other writers when I could and they helped me, or someone else. But, it is certainly beautiful—the community I find with other writers and with readers. That’s truly something special. And it’s nice to be reminded you’re not in it alone, since most of us spend so much time alone working on these silly books that sell 27 copies. Ultimately, (and I know this goes against the “Great Artist” vision), the friends I’ve made in this “industry” are probably more important than the books I’ve written. In a hundred years, I’ll be dust. My books may well be dust, too. Who knows? But I will have lived and written those books and cared about them and loved my friends and cared about them, deeply. And it’s those connections that matter the most, probably. So, that’s the beautiful part of this business—the many incredible friendships that I’ve found in it, from writers and readers.

Rumpus: You and I were just talking about this, actually—the separation and overlap of Art and Life—in another context.  I had commented that you have a lot of women friends, and that you’ve been with the same woman—your wife, Gayle—for nearly 20 years, but that you seem to be a writer who—while sometimes deeply autobiographical—shields his private life with women from the page to some extent, keeping it in a separate space.  This isn’t to say that you never write about women, because your novels have featured some prominent female characters . . . and you draw them extremely well when you choose to do so—in unconventional, risky, highly sympathetic ways.  But this new collection, which reflects short fiction you worked on, on and off, for a decade, focuses more on a world of “men without women,” and you and I recently started a conversation about this that we didn’t get to finish.  Let’s continue it here–tell me more about how you make these choices about who populates a particular piece of fiction.

Roberge: You know, I’ve looked at this question for a few days and I still don’t have a good answer. I’m revising my new novel-in-stories right now to have a much bigger role for two of the women in the book—because the book needs them.

Part of it may be when things were written. I wrote a lot of the stories in Working Backwards a while ago—prior to the second novel. However, a lot of my new stories fall into that “men without women” category you mention. So, that’s not really an answer.

I guess the short answer is that I’m a very autobiographical writer and I tend to write from what I fear most deeply. From the space of shame and fear and regret—that’s the source of most of my good work. And, due to a series of events that happened when I was a kid, I fear men. And that comes out whenever I start to write.

All of my novels have a central, dominant, male authority figure who could do tremendous damage to the narrator. Many of my stories have this. All of my plays. It’s there because it’s there in my life.

So, I think one (perhaps reductive) reason that men dominate my short fiction is that I write from fear and shame and that men have shaped my greatest fears. Women have protected me.

And, in the novels, maybe, I have space to show a relationship that isn’t dangerous—that isn’t fearful. This is where Sean (in Drive) and Tara (in More Than They Could Chew) sort of function. They are characters in their own right—I never want to present women as simply functioning as the love interest of the man. But they are a space of protection. Of love, or at least the chance for love. And the fear governing those scenes with those characters is that the narrator will lose them. Will lose the space where love and hope operate in the narrative.

In the space of a short story, there’s less space for this relief from the central figure of fear (usually a man in my stories). Stories get right to their central conflict (or at least, the ones I like do), and they are more narrow in their focus. There are fewer pages to show that your character does have some relief from this monstrous center of their lives. Stories are like snapshots. Stories are like, I think it was VS Pritchet said, “Something glimpsed from the corner of the eye in passing.”

Gina Frangello is the author of four books of fiction and a forthcoming memoir, Blow Your House Down. Her novel A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014) is currently under development by Netflix as a series produced by Charlize Theron’s production company, Denver & Delilah. Her most recent novel, Every Kind of Wanting (Counterpoint 2016) was included on several “best of” lists for 2016, including Chicago Magazine’s and The Chicago Review of Books’. She has nearly 20 years of experience as an editor, having founded both the independent press Other Voices Books, and the fiction section of the popular online literary community The Nervous Breakdown. She has also served as the Sunday editor for The Rumpus, and as the faculty editor for both TriQuarterly Online and The Coachella Review. Her short fiction, essays, book reviews, and journalism have been published in such venues as Salon, the LA Times, Ploughshares, the Boston Globe, BuzzFeed, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and in many other magazines and anthologies. After two decades of teaching at many universities, including UIC, Northwestern’s School of Continuing Studies, UCLA Extension, the University of California Riverside Palm Desert, Roosevelt University, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia College Chicago, Gina is excited to be a student again at the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Program for Writers, where she has returned to complete the PhD she left unfinished twenty years ago. More from this author →