Into Unbound Space: Talking with Seth Rogoff
I met Seth Rogoff on freshman move-in day at Washington University in St. Louis on the hottest day of 1995. Within weeks, we were consuming vast amounts of locally roasted coffee while co-writing my Introduction to Philosophy final paper on our own theory of the existence of God, dubbed the “Football Theory” after a ridiculous graphic we drew to encapsulate all of the known universe. It was a very 90s bromance.
Seth went on to major in “history and literature,” a major fairly unique to the College of Arts & Sciences at Washington University, and I in comparative literature with a minor in creative writing. I fancied myself a poet, and still do. I wasn’t quite sure then how Seth fancied himself creatively, though he certainly knew a thing or two about European intellectual history. But Seth had something as a writer that I did not: stamina.
Over the twenty years since graduating college, Seth has become one of my favorite writers too few people know about, occasionally sending a few short stories or a novel manuscript to me for feedback. The last two years have seen the publication of his first two novels, both published by Sagging Meniscus Press: First, the Raven: A Preface in 2017 and Thin Rising Vapors in 2018.
It’s absolutely not a fair comparison to make, but I draw a parallel all the time between Seth Rogoff and Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee. Both are expats and men of no country simultaneously. Both seem to be obedient to a book’s creation in an almost supernatural sense that speaks to their postmodern sensibilities. And both have a deep and tender care for their characters that draws the reader in intimately.
Rogoff lives in Prague with his family. We spoke recently over email about situating stories within a historical context, the process of revision, and the relationship between structure and content in novels.
The Rumpus: So much of your fiction feels situated in a broader historical context that impacts the narrative directly. Thin Rising Vapors, however, spends so much of its focus in the intimate emotional historical context of the characters’ relationships. Does that feel like a shift for you?
Seth Rogoff: This is an interesting question, because to me Thin Rising Vapors is very deeply connected to a specific historical context, that of the US war in Iraq and the culture of the George W. Bush presidency. In the current moment, in which we are witnessing the erosion and perhaps total breakdown of democratic society in the United States and elsewhere, the catastrophic and traumatic years of the Bush presidency are all but forgotten, or they are marginalized to the periphery of political and social (and cultural) consciousness.
The seeming absence or marginal presence of historical context in Thin Rising Vapors is deliberate. The novel traces a character who is trying to escape the social and political catastrophe of Bush’s America. Depending on one’s perspective, this could be described as a retreat into isolation. On the other hand, it could be a move toward self-empowerment in an anarchistic sense, the building of a new life on a more solid moral and ethical foundation. There are many methods and modes of escape, some radical, others pointless and reactionary. It is part of the reader’s quest to determine what kind of mode is at work in the novel.
Needless to say, it is impossible to keep history, context, politics, society, and culture at bay. Moral and ethical foundations must weather constant encroachments of all kinds—from violent storms to slow, sustained erosion. In this way, one could talk about Thin Rising Vapors as an Iraq War novel in the way that, for example, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in a World War One novel. History both rises out of consciousness as fiction and intrudes into consciousness from outside, shaking its core stability.
Rumpus: About fifteen years ago, I had the privilege of reading an earlier version of what eventually became Thin Rising Vapors. Can you speak to that longterm, iterative process when revising your fiction? What resemblance does the book’s current form bear to its earlier versions?
Rogoff: The last question first: the published and “final” version of Thin Rising Vapors has nothing in common with any earlier drafts in terms of the characters, story, form, structure, and language. The only element that remains in the current book from the first (and many subsequent) drafts of the novel is a core, animating idea. This idea is the kind of motor for the book, its energy source, and so one could say that if the beating heart of this book has been transplanted from a previous book, they are in some way related, in some sense part of the same project. In that case, I worked on this “project” for close to twenty years. A wrote a draft of it and realized (painfully) that it was wrong. Many years later, a different vision for the book came to me quite unexpectedly one day as I was walking aimlessly through the streets of Berlin. I can remember that moment precisely.
It was spring. I was on Kastanienallee in Prenzlauerberg, walking up the hill. I just froze for a moment and let the concept consume me. I had it. I started over, wrote the new novel out by hand. Over the following years, the book slowly found its form and taught me to find my voice. It still amazes me how hard it is to find that alchemy of voice, form, and content in a novel. There is something magical about it. Since this time, I write everything by hand—pencil and paper.
Rumpus: Can you describe that magical moment a bit more? That sounds very romantic, but what did it mean on a practical, quotidian level for how the novel would change?
Rogoff: I realized that my story was a Cain and Abel story, with the central question being Cain’s, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” That’s when I had it, or the beginning of it—the way forward with the novel.
Rumpus: You and I have found literary kinship before in our admiration of novelist J.M. Coetzee, a writer who, like you, occasionally deals in narratives that nest within, around, and through other narratives. What criteria, whether conscious or not, are you using when sculpting a form to suit your content?
Rogoff: I’ll first say that I went back last summer and read Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians again after a long time. It had been maybe twenty years since I last read it. The experience reading this novel again was shocking. It is an astounding work, as relevant and important now as when it first was published. It is a novel about borderlines and frontier zones—about the ebb and flow of power, the social and individual psychology of empire. It is an antidote to the poisonous stupidity and abhorrent violence of Trump’s “wall” and to the cultural, political, and economic structures that contribute to these delusions and hate.
In any case, as I was saying in response to the previous question, the relationship between the form and structure of a novel, the qualities of the novel’s voice, and the content of the novel is very difficult to manage. In my first published novel, First, the Raven: A Preface, for example, I was interested in a certain confrontation between old friends that played out in a kind of dramatic or theatrical way—one night, one unbroken scene, or broken only, in a sense, by the very long monologue that comes in the middle of the book. The terms already hint at the issue (scene, monologue). The novel’s structure was in dialogue with the structure of a one-act play, reflecting the two parties involved. Sy Kirschbaum, the narrator, is a translator of novels. His friend, Gabe, is a playwright, and so the structures of the novel and those of the play confront each other as Sy and Gabe do, twisting around each other, vying for control, competing. At the same time, Sy is translating an epic novel of Cold War Eastern European dissent. I wanted to capture the epic quality, at least the epic quality as understood by an outsider, the Western expat who mythologizes and romanticizes “The East,” largely for purposes of his own identity.
In that case, content and form were tightly bound, and other formal decisions related to voice, to the style of the narration, to the tightness or distance of the narrative focus. While I appreciate a very wide range of formal and structural experiments, my work is oriented around the relationship between form and narrative voice. It is the narrator who sets the agenda and I, as author, have to obey and do what I am told.
Rumpus: Describe your prototypical reader.
Rogoff: I can’t imagine being able to write for anyone but myself. I write what I feel I need, want, and love to write.
That being said, I’m surprised by how the books are received by different people and couldn’t have predicted that the books would resonate in the ways that they do. I want to write work that engages deeply with complex ideas and issues, but I don’t think this needs to be done in a way that is inaccessible. The problem with conventional narratives is not that they are accessible but that they tend to be too easy. The plot is easy, a character’s emotional dilemmas and reactions are easy—even if painful; pain can also be easy. Conventional narratives emphasize cohesion and coherence. Characters develop or grow in a controlled and predictable and narratively satisfying way.
Without a doubt, this type of writing can produce good stories, but I’m not interested in doing this kind of writing, and I don’t find much searching for the truth in it. By truth, I mean trying to figure out what it means to not know, to lack coherence, to have narrative collapse or disintegrate, to be suspended at the frayed end of a tangle of narrative threads, to have to sift through options, to have to assemble a story or stories on one’s own, knowing that the result will be incomplete, that these stories will be as fictional as they are real, that they will be authored. I love books that allow or permit or encourage readers to have authorial power, that invite readers to actively create. Don’t we all get enough of easy stories from television, movies, from our own mouths in bars and therapist chairs, from dinner table conversations? Aren’t we all tired of pretending that we know the full story—that we even know much about the central protagonist of our lives, ourselves?
Rumpus: You’re currently working on a series of fictionalized lectures, some of which have already been published. What was the genesis for this project, and how do you see it in the context of the rest of your work?
Rogoff: The lectures book, The Kirschbaum Lectures, pushes the formal and structural experiments of both Raven and Thin Rising Vapors to the extreme, and I am very excited to present this work to readers when the time is right. In some sense, the book feels like a culmination of twenty years of working, testing, experimenting with novel writing. The concept started to form when I was writing lectures for a college course I was teaching called Introduction to Literature. Instead of the typical lectures, I started to write creative pieces, delivering them to a bewildered group of students. I loved this—and loved the idea of pushing this form completely into the fictional space while also building on First, the Raven: A Preface. The two books share a narrator, Sy Kirschbaum, and a world.
I love the direct address element of the lecture, the “live” performance quality of the writing, the time limitations of the length of a single lecture, the rhythm of weekly meetings—in short, the orderly presentation in relation to the increasingly anarchic content of the lectures themselves. I don’t want to give too much away about the project. I think the surprises in the book are nice to encounter without prior warning!
Rumpus: I first experienced several of these lectures as SoundCloud recordings you’d made of them, and I, too, love the performative quality of the pieces. There’s something imminent about the story that closes the distance between narrator and reader/listener. I find this very hopeful, in essence, this relationship-building. Would you see it that way?
Rogoff: I like the idea of hope here, because it’s always inspiring to see someone (especially in an immediate, physical sense) pushing at the boundaries, and that is what Sy Kirschbaum is doing in these lectures, transgressing limits, violating rules, in order to say something real, though he is not aware that “saying something real” is his goal. How could he be? Sy fills the lectures with everything he has, trying to find his way through a past that seems hopelessly fragmented. But shape emerges from Sy’s collection of disparate pieces, even if it’s not a recognizable shape, even if it’s only a shadow of a shape. These deeply personal utterances—these lectures—are like sacred offerings, literature as sacred text.
“It was late evening when K. arrived” is my “let there be light.”
Rumpus: I know you read widely in terms of genre, but in what kinds of reading do you find the most ideas for your own work?
Rogoff: Writing novels is the hardest work I’ve ever done. It is an incredibly complex and difficult undertaking. I think it’s an act of bravery to write a novel and I try my best to support people around me who are working on novels, even if these novels are distant from my own work. When I was writing Raven, I was reading as many novels from Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War (and post-Cold War) as I could. For Thin Rising Vapors, I spent years reading the works of Henry David Thoreau. I wore through two copies of Walden. I guess the best way I can answer this is that I get into a project, it pushes toward certain paths of research, and I follow where the internal dynamic of the project leads.
At the same time, there are works that I constantly go back to and that provide inspiration for ideas and formal strategies, even if indirectly. Perhaps the richest example of such a text is the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament, especially, of course, Genesis, in which every line can bear that weight of endless interpretation. Just one example: Why did Jacob send his son Joseph into the field to check on his brothers, knowing that the brothers were angry with or even hostile to Joseph? There are so many questions like this in the text, each unraveling into a multitude of stories. Think about Cain’s question that I mentioned before: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I love this question. How many novels have been written trying to respond to it?
Another pillar for me is Franz Kafka’s The Castle. I had the life-changing experience of translating this novel with my friend Jon Calame for Prague’s Vitalis Verlag. There are many things I love about The Castle—but perhaps the book’s core resistance to any unified or integrated interpretive scheme is the element I love the most. But it is not just resistance: the novel’s ability to escape capture means that it opens itself to a diverse range of quests, that it unfolds newly with each subsequent reading, that it provokes new questions, at times quite radical questions, and presents the opportunity for creative insights. Simply put, it makes one think; it encourages creative thought. What more can we ask for than a serious invitation to think for ourselves?
Rumpus: As an American writer living and working in Europe, how is your writing impacted by your home continent and chosen continent? What different stories have you ended up telling because they’ve been drafted in Berlin or Prague?
Rogoff: It’s inevitable to be called an American writer when one doesn’t live in the US, I guess, though I really don’t think of myself as an “American” writer. In general, I am becoming more and more opposed to labeling anyone by which nation they were born in or currently live within. It is just another mode of division and definition that means only what we individually and collectively project onto it. Nothing much good or interesting can come of it.
In this sense, then, I hope to be an in-between writer, taking seriously literary traditions and contemporary literary work from around the world. Imagination—no borders can contain it. When we dream, what do we call the space that opens up and houses this life, our dreamlife? Does one need a visa to linger beyond sixty or ninety days in one’s daydreams? I wrote Thin Rising Vapors in Berlin, though the book itself spans one week and takes place in a cabin in Casco, Maine. This ability to transgress, to cross borders, to trespass zones, to indicate precisely the artificiality of political space, space organized to benefit those in power—literature is a transgression and real writing seeks to challenge power, however subtly. I write to push my own limits, in some sense to transform bounded or even claustrophobic territories into unbound space, to explore without goal, without destination, but with the hope that the process of exploration will yield some treasure. It often does.
Photograph of Seth Rogoff by Tomáš Železný. Book cover designs by Royce Becker.