Two years ago, Rob Roberge and I lost our publishers when the presses set to release our forthcoming books simultaneously collapsed within a couple of months of each other—so it was with particular delight that I later learned that the cool West Coast indie, Red Hen, had taken on Rob’s gorgeously brutal collection, Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life. While the blunt intensity of his work—which explores addiction, sexuality, crime and desperation with immense honesty and compassion—may not be “for everyone,” readers willing to walk a risky path with Roberge are inevitably rewarded by hard won insights that come from this writer’s open heart and constant engagement and struggle with what it means to be an artist and a human being. When Rob says, as he does later in this interview, that despite his commitment to literature, he values relationships above books, this statement resonated deeply with me . . . and probably says more than a little about why his books themselves are so damn good.
The Rumpus: Working Backwards from the Worst Moments of My Life is your debut collection, after two novels, but these stories had all been published in magazines before the book came out–I even published two of them in Other Voices magazine–so short fiction is definitely not a new form for you. Can you discuss the difference between writing short stories and writing a novel, in terms of your writing process and also the process of “making” a book?
Rob Roberge: First off, thanks for publishing those two stories—it meant a lot, especially that first one (which was only my 5th or 6th publication). It came at a time when publications seemed few and far between for me. Those infrequent signs that someone might value what you’re doing mean a lot to a writer, as you know.
But, on to the question: The difference between writing stories and novels may not be that great for me as it is for some other writers. But that’s because I’ve never really felt like a novelist—when I’ve written novels, I’ve sort of felt like a short story writer who happens to be writing a novel at that moment. I’m a short story writer trapped in a novelist’s narrative.
I know that’s not as clear an answer as you might have been looking for, so I’ll try to explain what I mean. My first two novels (my first two publishable novels, at any rate—they may have been the third and fourth that I’d written), I knew, from the first line I wrote, that they were novels. I’m not sure I knew why they were novels, but I knew from the start they were. The openings, somehow, seemed to suggest a larger world to be explored than you can do in a story. And I work, pretty much, from language. I’ll write a line that resonates with me and then figure out what opportunities and obstacles that line presents for me as a writer and go from there, trying to keep the language fresh and sharp and trying to make interesting people do interesting things as it moves forward.
I’m not certain I view novels and stories that differently. There’s a section in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, which is a very good book, I think, where Janet Burroway says that if you write a story, you have to be as succinct as possible—there can be no wasted words. But in a thousand page novel, you have room to not care about that as much. I disagree. If a story is ten pages long, every word should be there for a reason. If a novel is a thousand pages, it better need to be every one of those thousand pages, and every word should be essential. There’s never more room to be sloppy.
But, I digress. There are craft issues that are different. And, reading great novels and great stories, a writer starts to see their differences. The standard, traditional novel tends to reach its ending on a narrowing of the narrative to some sort of conclusion; while the effective short story (post-Chekov and into today) tends to end on an expanding of a small narrative into a bigger world. Stories tend to end on lines and paragraphs that open up—I think of “The Dead” as a great example of this. But there are a lot of them—Hemple’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” Hemingway’s “Indian Camp,” Francois Camoin’s “Marty, Richard Yates’ “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired” (which is like a better, less affected, version of “The Dead” in its final paragraph)—a lot of great stories end on lines that expand the narrative and implicate the reader into a bigger world.
For me, brilliant stories (unlike many great novels) don’t have conclusions—they don’t wrap up. They are this great form that has nothing to do with the way we’re taught to read and write in school. None of what the average student has learned serves them well when they try to write short fiction. They might as well be trying to write with an onion, for all the good their five-paragraph essays taught them. Stories don’t have topic sentences, they are not a form of argument, they don’t try to persuade (rather, they show and illuminate), and they don’t reach conclusions. When I teach the difference between most novel endings and most short story endings in class, I draw a right side up funnel for the novel. There’s a lot of stuff, a big world, that tends to bottleneck at the end, come together and reach some conclusion. Whereas, I tend to think of the short story ending as the funnel upside down: you have a very specific, relatively small bottle-necked world that, at the ending, opens up, suggests that it has implications beyond its smallness. It has narrative torque. Power beyond its seeming size and abilities.
I find the short form really beautiful, and magical. And I write novels, because sometimes the plot is too big to fit into a story. I try to write the book that would thrill me as a reader—the book that I wouldn’t skip a line. The writing process is listening to the line I just wrote, and trying to figure out a line that would follow it—a line that’s crisp with its language and thrilling in its event. But, and I could be wrong here (it’s dangerous to trust the writer when they talk about their own work—sometimes the reader knows better than they do), I tend to think that I’m a short story writer who happens to write novels now and again. But I even think about my novels as long stories. Some of my friends who, like me, consider themselves short story writers say they write novels for the money. That if they could get paid for it, they’d write nothing but short stories. But, since I tend not to get paid for anything I do, I guess I would write what I have written.
The good thing about not making any money is that there’s no economic pressure on my writing. And I’m joking, but I’m not. I think one of the reasons the form of Short Fiction is so incredible, so vast and surprising, is that no one pays for it. So, the people doing it do whatever they want.
Rumpus: You recently wrote a piece for The Nervous Breakdown called “The State of Publishing,” in which you tell the story of your collection having had a lot of “bridesmaid” moments via contests–and even a publishing deal that fell through when the press unexpectedly folded–before finally coming out on Red Hen. But despite all these ups and downs, your conclusion in the piece was that the news of the publishing industry’s death has been greatly exaggerated, and that in fact the indie lit scene is still thriving and providing many new opportunities for writers. Talk about what it entails to be an indie writer today: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the unexpectedly beautiful.
Roberge: Without seeming to be cruel and dismissive to publishers and agents and publicists and all of the people involved in books who aren’t writers, I tend to agree with Doris Lessing, who said that the writer is the only one in the process who doesn’t need anyone else. Writers write. No matter what. Agents can’t agent unless there are writers. Publishers can’t publish without writers. But writers will do what they do, no matter what happens to the “industry.” Let it crumble for all I care. There will still be writers working among the ruins. And there will still be people who need to read stories.
So, I would amend what Lessing said a bit: writers need readers. So: writers and readers—those are the only two essentials in the chain. The rest is, to a point, about selling sprockets and publicizing cogs—which has as much to do with writing as it does with rocket science, which is to say: very little.
Stories are what connect us. They remind us (at their best and our best) of our humanity. Our interconnectedness and our job to, yes, love each other and realize that the world is bigger than our individual thoughts and desires. Stories (even the ugliest ones that render our ugliness with narrative beauty) are a place of the world that isn’t about consumption and fleeting attention. Stories are all about paying attention. Art is all about paying attention, focusing on what matters, in a world that pretty much always asks us not to pay attention or think too much. Our political system would crumble if people paid attention and thought about our true value as human beings. Most TV shows (including the so-called “news” channels) would go away if people paid attention and slowed down and thought. Our mass-consumerism would shrivel into the meaninglessness it deserves if people paid attention to their interconnectedness to other people.
Stories, however, would flourish. Stories are about what matters—people. What they love and desire and what stops them from getting what they love and desire. It matters. More than any vintage amp I buy, or the iPad my neighbor buys.
Stories connect people. And when people connect, a little bit of their soul is healed—I believe that. I believe, deeply, in what Bruno Shultz said: “And don’t we, dear reader, grasp hands under this table we call literature?”
Maybe I ended that Nervous Breakdown piece with more optimism than I’m feeling at the moment. But I think, no matter what, there will be writers and there will be readers. Maybe it’s our human destiny (though I don’t believe in destiny) to come full circle. Once we had language, we started telling stories, back in the caves.
And soon, perhaps, after we greedy savages have wicked every drop of oil out of the earth and blown each other to hell five times over, what’s left of the human race will be back in caves with candles, telling each other stories. That doesn’t sound that optimistic, though.
And I still didn’t answer your question. Okay, the good, the bad and the ugly and the unexpectedly beautiful about being an indie writer today:
The Good: The intimacy with the audience, as a result of the internet. I can connect to a reader, I can talk with them, in a way that seemed if not impossible, much more difficult prior to, say, Facebook.
Also, as a result of major publishing eliminating all their midlist authors, all those midlist authors are now “indie” authors. So people like me end up on presses like Red Hen—which, as you say is a very cool indie. They know how to sell books to the indie audience and they work hard to get their books out there and noticed. But, thirty years ago, there was a ton of accessible literature in the major label’s midlist. And a lot of indie publishers of the day (like, say, The Fiction Collective) were publishing works on the fringes. Work that major presses had, traditionally, neglected. And I’m not saying places like The Fiction Collective didn’t publish some great work. Raymond Federman’s Double or Nothing is, I think, the greatest Holocaust novel I’ve ever read. But Federman’s book is not traditional, by any means. It pushes at the boundaries of language and form, and no major—then or now—would have touched it.
So, as a result of what used to be a major press “midlist” writer becoming and “indie” writer, I think the indie presses have started to carry a lot more work that’s more accessible than the indie list of thirty years ago. This means an expanded readership for indie presses. And, it means that indie presses are more economically healthy, which allows the more experimental presses to have a larger profile. We’re all in the same lifeboat, as writers and publishers.