January 2011

Catherine Lacey


An Interview with Robert Lopez

“Perversion is one of those eye-of-the beholder things,” says a character in Robert Lopez’s new short story collection, Asunder. His characters are in constant pain, stuck in unsatisfying relationships or headlocked by confusion. One character promises he will “save their lives ever day forever if only they let me,” but you know he’s no good for it; like so many of the others, he is mired by his own obsessions, unable to see past his self-limited world. But it is within these constraints that Lopez’s stories reach their truths and revelations, which expand and satisfy. A story of hopelessness leaves you feeling hopeful; something indescribable twists itself into a description.

Robert Lopez is the also the author of Kamby Bolongo Mean River from Dzanc Books, and Part of the World from Calamari Press. He lives in Brooklyn. He discussed his work with Bookslut via email in November, 2010.

Do you have any clue why everyone thinks that it's hard to publish a short story collection? I feel like all the best books I've been reading lately have been stories, and I just can't seem to figure out where this myth started or who we should be blaming for it.

The big publishing houses are probably to blame. However many years ago, they decided they weren't going to publish story collections anymore. They didn't sell. Readers want(ed) novels, not collections. Now with so many great independent presses publishing what they want to publish regardless of what "sells," the work is getting out there. Still, it is hard to publish a story collection. It's hard to publish a novel or a work of nonfiction. All of it's hard and it should be. But somehow books are getting published every day.

True. I also feel it should be at least a little difficult to publish any book. But I wonder why, in our increasingly fractured collective consciousness (do we all have ten tabs open right now and our cell phones nearby?) short stories aren't front and fucking center. I mean, have you read Rachel B. Glaser's Pee on Water? Jesus H. Christ. Even the big houses are slowly starting to come around. Ether, by Evgenia Citkowitz, was a debut story collection and novella that came out from FSG earlier this year, and was really, seriously beautiful. And Wells Tower, another FSG darling, was named one of the New Yorker's “20 under 40” with nothing but a debut collection of short stories under his belt. And then there's Asunder, your collection of short stories that I've already been re-reading. Like any book reviewer, I get a lot of galleys, but this one stood out. It could be in part because I'm becoming increasingly ADD, but also because the stories dealt with everyday life, but in an inverted way. I was wondering as I read if any of the stories surprised you as they materialized. (And if so, which ones.) Also, do you have any favorites in the collection? The ones that make you ask your brain for more of that…?

Thanks. All of the stories surprise me, to one degree or another. I always start with a single line so I have no idea what will happen after that. It's probably best this way as I lack imagination. Looking over the collection now I can say that "Geographic Tongue," "In a Boat About to Drown," and "In Alabama The Tuscaloosa" are three of the more unexpected ones. They all seem to go to certain places I don't often visit. Though I'm not sure if that's entirely true. If I have favorites and I probably do, they would be some of the newer pieces, like "One of My Daughters is Called Resnick." Along with some of the older ones, too. Probably most of them, in truth, all of them. At least parts. Every story, when it finally comes together, feels like a little miracle. And I wouldn't mind if that sort of thing happened more often.

In an interview you did with Blake Butler a few years back, you said that you weren't really much of a reader as a kid and that you decided you wanted to be a writer before you'd ever done much reading. How do you feel this has affected the way you write now? It's impossible to really say, of course, but how do you think you would write if you had been all nerdy and boring like the rest of us?

This is something I've never thought about, Catherine. I suppose all of us ponder the what ifs from time to time, but I've never done so in respect to this question, which is a provocative one. You are right, it's impossible to answer. I would like to try, I would, but I'm afraid I might hurt myself.

Fair enough. Do you see any patterns within your writing or characters?

I do. Somehow the same concerns keep coming up. Most of the characters seem to be confused, unsure of how it is they are supposed to live. This reminds me of the wonderful epigraph to Grace Paley's Collected Stories, which itself is one of my favorite pieces of writing. Ms. Paley relays a story about her friend and colleague in the "writing and mother trade." She asks Grace a few days before she dies, "The real question is, how are we to live our lives?" The narrators and characters always seem to be entirely baffled by their circumstances. They find themselves put upon and disconnected. They usually cannot account for what has happened to them, let alone how to address the problem(s). Another concern is language and how inadequate it can be. I never consciously set out to write about these issues, but these issues keep coming up.

Oh, God, how I love Grace Paley. I don't understand why she's not more widely read. (Or maybe I do understand, but it's one of those things I don't like to remember.) Her characters are similar to yours too, in that they always seem to be admitting, either directly or indirectly, that they are confused by life, but then something magic happens and I finish the story feeling like I know how to live life a little better than I did before I read the story. Do you read while you're in the middle of writing? What have you been reading lately?

I used to read fiction all of the time, both while actively working and otherwise. Now I mainly read my friends, of which there are many, and my students, of which there are too many. I teach five classes a semester so that workload tends to keep me busy. Even still I'm not the reader I used to be. Time was I had a hungry mind. That said, I've been dipping in and out of Matt Bell's How They Were Found and Evan Lavender-Smith's From Old Notebooks.

There is this idea of the “writer” as a person who reads constantly. Do you read less because you have less time or do you think you're just the kind of writer who doesn't read as much? Also, I was wondering if you could talk a little about the No News Today blog. What got you started with that and what has the response been like?

I think it's best to read constantly. I did this for a long time. I read everything. All kinds of fiction, poetry, criticism, nonfiction of all stripes. I was no different. I know of many older writers who stop reading fiction at a certain point. Perhaps I have aged a little prematurely in this respect. Call it literary progeria. It's not as bad as I'm making it sound because I actually do still read quite a bit of fiction. But maybe I don't finish as many books. That's probably more like it. I get a sense of what the writer is up to and I am content with that and move on to the next thing.

I started the blog to have a single place where information was available about the work. Then a friend told me I had to have blog posts. That idea didn't seem very appealing so I started to post -- No News Today -- every day. That was fun for a while but it was limiting. Then I started thinking about the idea of news and what is newsworthy, what is worth sharing. So rather than go on and on about that myself I thought I'd call on friends and colleagues to contribute their thoughts. The response has been great. Most of the pieces have been truly exceptional, yours included. I think at some point I will collect the best of them and see if someone is interested in a No News Today anthology.

Is it a bother to ask what you're working on now? How do you carve out writing time during the school year?

I'm not actively working on anything right now. I have a few stories in progress, which is not unusual. At some point I will figure out how they are supposed to work or how I can use these beginnings for something else. I recently finished a play and might have inadvertently started another. These things take time for me. I've been teaching for a long time so I'm able to find time when it feels necessary to do so. I don't have a specific routine or anything like that. I try to make sure I teach the live classes only two or three days a week, this way there is time for the work.

Were any of the stories in Asunder particularly difficult to complete? Which voices did you find the most difficult to realize?

Since I always start with a single sentence, a voice, the voices themselves are never what give me trouble. I always follow the voice and am happy to do so, though sometimes, figuring out what should happen can be tricky. This voice, it's all well and good, but something has to happen sort of thing. "To Death I'm Starving" presented an interesting problem with the first line, the only explicit act of violence in the collection, I think, and it is the only piece where the narrator is definitely a woman. Some of the stories have interesting formal arrangements or conceits, "Disappearing Railroad Blues", "Priapism" "Your Epidermis is Showing". The latter two of which are in third person, which I rarely employ. I remember the last line of "In a Boat About to Drown" eluded me for a little while, same goes with "Asunder". The Blindster stories individually all came pretty easily, for the most part. But shaping them into a novella was work. Most of the shorts were put together as if there weren't any others and so I had to go back into each one and take a lot of stuff out. Making sure to keep a certain amount of repetition because that's how this narrator thinks, but taking a lot out because it would be very difficult to read otherwise. And I had to write a number of the shorts specifically for shaping the novella, bringing it closer and closer to an ending, with that sort of pitch and momentum.

Where did the impulse to shape the Blindster series into a novella come from? Did you ever think of removing the chapter divisions and making it one continuous narrative piece of prose?

I think there was a certain practicality to it. There are a lot of stories in the collection, some very short, and I didn't want to have that many or too many short-shorts in the book. Also, I thought shaping the Blindster stories into a novella would make for a more satisfying reading experience. I wanted each succeeding piece to stand alone as a short, be informed by the previous ones and push the novella along to its end point. Just like everything else I've done, it seemed like the thing to do at the time, intuitively. I never gave any thought to taking out the titles of the individual stories. Each one was conceived with the title as part of it and I wanted to keep the titles when it was published as a novella.