Rob Roberge is an indie raconteur, best known for his portrayals of down and out characters on the quest for a better life. It’s a motley crew, one that he has built and dissected over four books. His work has also appeared in dozens of publications, mining themes of desire, anxiety, identity, and despair.
There is a thin line between the themes and characters of Rob Roberge’s most recent work of fiction, The Cost of Living, and those we find in the pages of his recently released memoir, Liar. With the startling revelation that he may have a progressive, memory-deteriorating disease caused by a series of concussions and a long history of substance abuse, Roberge takes to the memoir form to recount his memories of addiction, catharsis, success, and defeat in honest and raw detail—before it all disappears.
It’s a striking portrait of a conflicted former addict, as well as a story of the importance of memory. Our conversation took place over email, with Rob kindly finding the time in between appearances on his jam-packed book tour to answer my questions.
The Rumpus: As well as being a novelist and short story writer, you’re also a musician. You once opened for Yo La Tengo (which, I have to admit, makes me incredibly jealous). The musician lifestyle often plays a large role in your fictional work, as well as here in Liar. I’m interested in whether or not you feel music influences your writing on a global level, or whether your writing style infiltrates your music?
Rob Roberge: I don’t think there’s that much crossover. I’d say the music influences the writing—the music and rhythm of the prose—much more than the writing influences the music.
Rumpus: Well, you do write in Liar about your time as a musician and the subsequent nuclear fallout of involving yourself in its hard-partying lifestyle. You also write about attempting to write while under the influence. Were you writing and submitting when you were abusing drugs and alcohol? Or did your career only take off once you found sobriety?
Roberge: What career I have took off (rather slowly at first) after I got sober. I wasn’t doing much work when I was using and drinking. I have friends who did it (work), but I wasn’t one of those people. The rest of my career? It has a pretty slow arc, as I said. It took me seven years of writing before I published my first story. And then, the publications trickled in over the next five years. Then my first novel came out on an indie, and most of my books have been on indies, until Liar, but I still kind of consider myself an indie writer. Just one who got very lucky that Crown took to the memoir and it went from there.
Rumpus: When did you first get sober?
Roberge: 1993 was the first time.
Rumpus: Did you study writing formally?
Roberge: I did. I have an MFA in writing. It is debatable if they are right for everyone, but I had a mentor who really changed my life, so it worked for me.
Rumpus: I’m currently studying for my MFA and I personally find it useful, but I can see why some might find the experience less than informative. It’s all about finding the right mentor, as you say. You are also a teacher. Do you enjoy it? How did your teaching career begin? You used to teach narrative theory, correct?
Roberge: I teach at UCR/Palm Desert’s MFA in Writing Program (and, at times, a few other places). I love it—it’s the first job I’ve ever had (teaching writing) that I haven’t hated. So, it’s a pretty special gig. My teaching career started with me teaching comp at a very small school in Buffalo. And I was terrible at that point. They never should have hired me. But I learned on the job, and eventually, at least by the time I started teaching creative writing, I had some idea of what I was doing. I hope, at any rate. I don’t teach narrative theory by itself anymore, but I kind of use it when critiquing student manuscripts. So, it works its way in there, whether I like it or not.
Rumpus: Any notable students?
Roberge: A lot of my students have been quite notable. Notable in both the personal sense—people who have changed my life—and notable in that many have gone on to enormous success in their writing careers. Whether or not I had a lot to do with those success stories, I’m very proud and happy for my former students getting on the map.
Rumpus: It’s rather amazing what you’ve been able to accomplish, especially considering the story we are given in Liar. Your addiction narrative is full of a lot of hard turns. I got the idea, reading your book, that you’re trying to remember your history before it all fades away. Is that why you started this memoir?
Roberge: Not exactly. Though that did come up after I had started the book. The desire to get things down while they still had some degree of freshness in my mind was what started the process.
Rumpus: The memoir form seems like such a tricky genre to tame. Specifically, getting the tension between cutting honesty, which can get quite purple, and writerly craft, which can sometimes obscure raw emotion under ostentation. It all seems like an incredible tight wire act. How did you approach writing memoir versus writing fiction? What were the challenges you faced?
Roberge: When I started, I really didn’t think there would be that much of a difference. Both are long-form narratives that pose some of the same difficulties (sustaining narrative tension, having an interesting protagonist who deals with trouble in the text, keeping a balance between scenes and exposition, and so on). I really thought they wouldn’t be that different from one another. But—early on—I realized I’d been, at best, naïve and, at worst, clueless. They proved to be enormously different. The most obvious difference is that you can’t hide behind the guise of fiction. No matter how autobiographical a fictional scene is, you can always tell the reader—in protecting yourself—that you made it up. That option’s really not there for a memoirist. You aren’t, knowingly, lying. It’s in the tacit contract with the reader when they see the word “memoir” on the book. That what happens within the pages actually happened.
So there’s that. But some of the biggest challenges were, page after page, standing naked in front of the reader. Even though there is always a narrative persona, whether it’s fiction or memoir (a memoir is a shaped piece of art, after all—not a diary), in memoir, you are revealing (if you’re doing your job) some of the rawest, and most intimate, details of your life. And that was difficult. To have to stand by many of these scenes, no matter how embarrassing or humiliating or difficult they were to tell. That’s a big difference (for me) between memoir and fiction.
Rumpus: Do you think that lying and the act of writing a memoir can be separated?
Roberge: Yes, I think the act of lying can be separated from the genre of memoir. Though often times, people are unaware of their own subjectivity.
Rumpus: I think also that some readers forget that there’s a difference between willfully lying and not getting the facts straight, or remembering something in a different way than the reality of the situation. You talk about fallibility a lot in the book, specifically the unreliable nature of your memory—
Roberge: There’s something known as “memory conformity,” also known as “social contagion of memory,” which refers to a situation where one person’s telling of a memory influences another person’s account of that same experience. So, while we know perspective is highly subjective, and we know memory is highly subjective, our memories are even being worked on by other people’s memories.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that there’s this notion among some readers that a writer’s memory is somehow purer, that a writer should have perfect recall, making mistakes impossible. That’s a broad statement, but I think its true of many memoir readers. They want the facts to be facts. Since you’re open about your possible inadequacies as a narrator for your own story, do you see yourself as an unreliable narrator? Or have these stories, in fact, become a new kind of truth?
Roberge: I think every narrator is an unreliable narrator. In its classic definition—an unreliable narrator is one who reveals something they don’t know themselves to be revealing. We all do that. And then, there’s memory. I use the quotation in the book where Nabokov said that memory itself is a revision. So, even if we are trying our best, we are at least slightly unreliable narrators of the facts.
But that’s not the same as lying. That’s a story being changed through the innocent nature of subjectivity. The least trusted testimony in a court of law is eyewitness testimony. We are simply not good reporters of facts that happen to us, or in front of us. But that’s not the same as knowingly lying.
Rumpus: Do you feel any pressure to let your audience in on the lies?
Roberge: In Liar, I had the text call out every lie. If there was a lie, I said it was a lie later in the book.
Rumpus: Did you feel any pressure to let your audience in on those secrets? And, does that pressure stem from the way certain memoir authors have been attacked for misrepresenting their story as hard truth?
Roberge: I’m not sure I felt it as pressure. I just thought to write an honest book, I had to cop to my lies. I didn’t feel a lot of the pressure from some of the memoir writers who have lied because, for one thing, my book is, in a way, an interrogation of memory itself. And at the same time, I told the story to the best of my ability. I was as true to my memory as I could be.
Rumpus: I’m very interested in your use of the second person. It’s a pretty bold choice and one I would have been a little frightened to try. What led you to choose that perspective? Was there a necessity for you to step back from yourself to tell this story?
Roberge: At first, I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought. I’ve always liked second person, and I thought it would be an interesting way to tell a memoir. Actually, when I started, I didn’t know I had a memoir. I was just doing some short autobiographical sketches in second person. But as I started to see it as a book, I did notice that second person was allowing me to get even more intimate and personal with my own life’s details than first person had (I had once tried to write a memoir in first person).
Rumpus: It’s like you’re having a conversation with yourself.
Roberge: Yes. I also like the fact that second person puts the reader in the story. It makes them, whether they like it or not, complicit in the action. Lastly, one of the things I love most about second person is that it reminds the reader that they are reading a text. It doesn’t allow them to drift into the story and not notice that they are reading a book—a book that has an author. Second person shows its architecture more than first person and third person do. I like a text that reminds the reader its a text sometimes.
But, yes—the biggest thing was that second person allowed me to trick myself into revealing more about myself. It gave me an authorial distance to get closer to the action and emotions, if that makes sense.
Rumpus: There were quite a few times while reading Liar that I felt uncomfortable. Not because of the subject matter so much, but because of the empathy I felt for those around you. I imagined myself as a friend of yours, reading this book. As a writer, I don’t know how I would be able to be so honest. Did the second person distance make it easier to write about those close to you? Specifically, your wife and family?
Roberge: No. Not at all. It may have helped me write about me, but it certainly didn’t help in any other way. Writing about my wife and my family was enormously difficult, and I don’t think first or second person could have helped in that case.
Rumpus: Addiction can sometimes involve a bit of world-building—telling oneself that everything is okay, that there is no problem, etc. You didn’t seem to have that problem as much as you were highly aware of your reality.
Roberge: For me, addiction never really included telling myself that everything was okay. By the time I was deep in my addictions, I knew things were pretty bad and I had no control over them. This was years before I was able to quit. But, long before I quit, I knew I was in trouble and out of control. But it was okay, because I didn’t plan on living to be thirty, anyway. But that, of course, changed when I cleaned up and decided I wanted to live. Then things got harder to deal with.
Rumpus: Do you see this memoir as a way to engage with those demons? Or as a way to exorcise them?
Roberge: I guess the memoir was more about engaging with demons than exorcising them. I had a lot of trouble writing a lot of the scenes about the days of my using and drinking. A lot of them were very hard to write. But, as far as exorcising them? No. They stayed as vivid and sharp as always. If anything, they were more alive and present in the writing of the book—because I had to write about those days. And writing about them didn’t make them any easier to deal with, no. If anything, they came closer to the surface.
Author photograph © Dirk Vandenberg.