The Rumpus Interview With Rob Roberge


The shorter answer might have been that, so far, I’ve been too chickenshit to write stories from the point of view of a woman. Which is wrong of me. I’ve let a fear of what people might say stop me from taking that chance as a writer (i.e., “how dare you write from the POV of a woman”—which I think is a valid Q, in some ways). And that’s over. I’ve stopped censoring myself. Anytime a writer doesn’t write something because they’re afraid of what the audience might say, the writer is chickenshit.

So, that’s probably the real answer, and let’s just make it public: Before Gina Frangello set me straight, I didn’t have the necessary guts to fully explore my work. That’s the short answer, and the truest one, probably. Friends help friends in writing. We push each other. We’re in it together. And it’s yet one more example in my life where I did better listening to a smart woman than I did when listening to myself.

Rumpus: Well, if we’re going on record, I might as well take credit for badgering Tod Goldberg, one of your best friends and colleague at U-C-Riverside’s low residency MFA program, on the same issue back before I published his first collection, Simplify, with Other Voices Books.  At that time, Tod had written a lot less about women than you have—this was maybe 2005—and subsequently, he started writing some female pov stories for his second collection, Other Resort Cities, presumably so he wouldn’t have to listen to me harp on him about it again when I published it—and those stories turned out to be incredible, some of his finest work.  From what I understand, he’s still writing about the female character he put in that book, so be careful, once you start writing from a woman’s point of view, we may have created a monster!

Roberge: Well, I could do worse in my career, in many ways, than by following Tod’s lead. Or Tod’s following of you, however the case might be.

It’s weird…part of me says ‘you don’t know what women think’, but then I don’t know what men think, either, and I write from many different men’s POV. And I never feel I’m speaking for all men—or ever, for that matter, some men. I just do my job as a writer, which is what I’d be doing if I wrote from the POV of a female character. If I were doing it correctly, anyhow, I think. All I know is what I think, so it’s always a leap…based on observation of speech and behavior—which is what defines character, after all. We base our opinions of people on what they say and what they do—we don’t know what they’re thinking.…writers are empathy machines…we imagine what it’s like for other people (even our invented people), and then we go.

Rumpus: When I blurbed this collection, I said that your characters tend to exist “on a perpetual edge.”  That’s true of all your work, really.  You’ve lived in many different worlds, yourself, and have varied experiences on which to draw, but the people in your fiction seem to belong to a certain niche: junkies, drifters, people on the precipice of making a desperate choice that may either ruin or save them.  Do you make a conscious decision in your fiction to give voice predominantly to characters who are disenfranchised or othered by society, or is this less a political choice and simply where your mind goes in terms of what haunts or compels you?

Roberge: Well, I think everything we write is political, whether we want it to be or not.

That said, I don’t consciously think “I’m going to write about someone disenfranchised in this story,” That just happens. I write about who I’m interested in and what I’m interested in. And I write, as I said earlier, from a space of fear and shame. And I try, while making up stories, to tell a truth as best as I can.

And—not to reduce my works of fiction to simplistic biographical criticism—I write about people who don’t fit in because I’ve never felt like I fit in. And, like a lot of people who find no place in the world, I found a place in drugs and alcohol. One of the really good things about being a drug addict (one of the few, actually, in the long run) was that I met a lot of really interesting people who had some really good stories. Or had lived an interesting story.

And, one reason I write a lot about drugs and addicts is that the life of an addict lends itself to short fiction in a really good way. Great fiction—for me—is all about desire. It’s about a writer effectively showing me a character who wants something and who will do interesting, character-revealing things to get what they want.

The life of an addict is simple. Ugly, but simple. They want to get high. They need to get high. And they will usually do some character-revealing things to get what they want. Desperate people do desperate things. And desperate people are good for fiction.

So, in that way, maybe I’m drawn to addicts because the life of an addict is desire and need repeated forever.

Also, sometimes life just presents itself as a story we should write. The same event can be gold to one writer and boring or uninspiring to another. For instance, I had a friend who was cleaning up the apartments of people who died alone and had no one to claim them or their stuff. To some writers, that doesn’t do anything for them. For me, I think that’s the perfect place to set a story. We’re all different. We all pick our fictional worlds that resonate for us. We have our people, as it were. Plus, my friend (who is a great writer, by the way) was cleaning out this guy’s house and he got to the bathroom and the walls were covered with pornography.

“But get this,” he told me. “This bathroom? It had centerfolds and beaver shots from magazines from the sixties to the eighties. And some of the women were Asian, some were Black, some were White…but all of them had the same black and white picture of Jackie Kennedy glued over their heads.”

I told him that was great. “You should use that,” I said.

“Nah,” he said. “It wouldn’t fit in one of my stories. It sounds more like something that would happen to one of your people. You can have it.”

It did sound like something that would happen in one of my stories. I was so glad he said I could have it. Because I was already figuring out how to use it in a story.

So, maybe, all of us, we’re all just tuned to slightly different stations. We’re all taking in our version of the world, and then creating another version of it in prose. And that, together, as a race of writers, we actually produce a series of interesting documents that record what it’s like to be a human being at this point in history.

Plus, I write to understand who I am. And I destroyed myself and my relationships with other people for a lot of years. I did things I’m tremendously ashamed of. I lost a lot of years. When I used, the gap between who I was and who I wanted to be was greater than at any other time in my life. And, for me, that’s where great stories reside—in that gap between who we are and who we know we could be. Or, to add an overdeveloped Superego to that: the gap between who we are and who we should be—which is a different pressure than who we could be.

So, for me, writing about it has been a way for me to make sense of my addiction and my alienation. I think I may have written myself out of that, though, with the new novel I’ve done. It’s time to move on to figuring something else out.

I’ll probably always write about fear and alienation, though. That’s always with me when I write. That’s what I feel deeply.

The hardest thing for me to imagine is a happy person.

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 →