To Escape to Something Beyond the World: An Interview with Joanna Ruocco

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Joanna Ruocco has been busy. In the last five years, she has written five books, including A Compendium of Domestic Incidents, which won the 2009 Noemi Press Fiction Chapbook Contest, and Another Governess / The Least Blacksmith, which won the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize judged by Ben Marcus. She published stories in Conjunctions, The Black Warrior Review, Caketrain, Quarterly West, and NOON, where her story “If the Man Took” won a Pushcart Prize. She wrote and published three romance novels under pseudonyms. She released six new issues of Birkensnake, a hand-made-and-printed literary journal she founded in 2008 with Brian Conn. She earned a PhD in Fiction from the University of Denver (to go along with her MFA from Brown). And she began work as an Assistant Professor in creative writing at Wake Forest University.

Ruocco’s most recent novel, Dan (Dorothy, 2014), is the story of Melba Zuzzo, a lonely bakery employee struggling to make sense out of a strange and unstable world. It is also the story of the hilarious and frightening town of Dan, a place where children are abducted, women disappear, and coydogs mate near the mountains. Maybe more than anything else, it is the story of sensemaking, the way memory, reality, and identity noodle out from between your fingers. All of this is rendered in Ruocco’s electric prose, which has been compared to Donald Barthelme, Lydia Davis, and Thomas Pynchon. According to HTMLGiant, her words are “a specially curved knife that awakens realities previously unseen,” and Kirkus writes that “Ruocco doesn’t engage in wordplay so much as she performs a gut rehab on vocabulary.” But perhaps her writing can best be summed up by this quote from halfway through Dan: “Having a human body is like eating a fish for dinner, thought Melba. You have to be so slow and careful. You can’t just enjoy yourself. There’s always a worry about the bones.”

Let’s start by talking about your experience forming the lit journal Birkensnake. You’re only on your seventh issue, and already it’s gotten some great press, particularly for how beautiful each handmade issue is. It’s been called “somewhere between a literary adventure and art object.” Flavorwire named it one of the twelve most beautiful literary magazines online. You even got coverage in The New York Times. How did the journal form, and where are things with it now?

Brian Conn, my co-editor, and I were both in the MFA program at Brown and thinking, wow, we’re really lucky to be getting this money and time to hang around and write. We figured it would be fun to take some of that money and time and use it to celebrate other people’s writing. So instead of taking another class, we did an independent study together and started Birkensnake. We both felt that there was this certain kind of story that we liked tracking down, an extended but haywire narrative that we craved. Haywire narrative meaning you felt short-circuited by it when you read it. We wanted Birkensnake to be a superconductor for exactly that feeling.

The current issue is still for the most part in many, many pieces stacked all over my house in North Carolina. But some copies are sewn and glued and ready to go, so we started to roll out the issue. You can get it by going to our website and paying twenty-six dollars or more dollars, or, if you don’t feel like paying anything, you can record yourself reading a story that you like and send us that recording. We’re making an online gallery of people reading stories.

Brilliant idea. That’s wonderful.

Thanks! We really like the idea, Birkensnake spawning more and more stories, and we also like exchanges that don’t involve money. They’re usually more interesting. The problem has always been that we don’t really have any money to make Birkensnake, so we try to spend as little as possible on materials. We collect scraps from recycling centers and use what we find. It ends up being a kind of aleatoric process, like, “Let’s see, we have wallpaper remnants. We have a ton of yellow ink from last year. We have a blowtorch. What can we do with that?”

I like the idea of the exchange also being appreciation. Instead of paying money, you’re donating your appreciation of something else. So in the same way you started by saying, “I don’t want to spend another class focusing on my stuff but appreciating other people’s work and getting it out there,” it’s sort of the same idea: how much can you gather from other people, and who they appreciate and enjoy reading.

We like to think about Birkensnake as a slow-motion party we’re throwing for fiction. Like we’re staple-gunning the bunting to the walls and getting out the mixed nuts and waiting to see who shows up.

And how much did you know, when you first started, about the physical process of putting together an issue or book? Did you just decide that you wanted to do that, and then that gave you a bunch of fun problems you had to solve, or did you have some background or experience in printmaking?

We’ve basically been giving ourselves problems to not entirely solve from the very beginning. But Brian Conn is kind of a mathematical genius in addition to being a literary genius, so that’s a boon. I don’t know if you’ve read his work, but he’s a marvel with the English sentence, and he also speaks many computer languages. We use open software for layout, and he can do the programming we need to set everything the way we want. We have a friend, Chemlawn McDermott, who is a phenomenal artist and bookmaker, and she draws the covers. When we got started, we were all living in Providence, where there are bajillions of creative people doing awesome things, and a lot of different folks helped us out by letting us use their studios and by lending a hand with the binding and printing. We always knew that, what we didn’t know, five to ten to fifteen people around us would know, and that they would help out.

On the one hand, we give ourselves problems to solve, but then on the other hand we don’t have to solve all the problems ourselves. That’s the great thing about Birkensnake, constantly having friends come and join in the process. Brian Conn and I definitely could not do it all by ourselves.

That’s really neat, that community effort. It’s really interesting that you have a community of folks that are doing those kinds of physical projects around you. That’s got to influence your writing as well, or the way you approach writing, if people are making actual physical or visual or tactile things around you. Is there any way that that seeps into your writing or the writing process?

Yeah, I think it does. Donald Barthelme says fiction isn’t about something, it is something. And I am interested in materiality, in putting language on a page and thinking about surface and inscription and what I’m doing in terms of the medium of language itself instead of “I have this idea. What is the quickest way to have this idea come across? I’ll slap some words on it.” I like to make things that are tangible, and particularly edible, and I do think my interest in making things has informed how I think about storytelling.

I’ve worked on a few different projects with Chemlawn, our cover artist and book designer for Birkensnake. Chemlawn and I worked together on this collection I have called A Compendium of Domestic Incidents. I’d give her pieces of writing, and she’d respond with drawings that weren’t usually directly illustrative, but opened up ideas for me in terms of objects and symbols. A chapbook version came out from Noemi Press, and Chemlawn did a book arts version. She’s a super badass, so she would go out and chop down banana trees with a machete and then make paper out of the banana fibers and print text and images, and she created a book structure that fit the project. Collaborating with Chemlawn has definitely changed how I think about writing and about my patterns as a writer. I think more about how a text changes depending on the way it is housed—in a word document or in a paperback or on a scroll or on someone’s banana pages.

I’m seeing sort of a connection between Barthelme, who you brought up, and some of your friends who are making art with objects, and even the way you put together the journal by asking, “What do I have left over here?” It seems like the words in your writing act as sort of found objects that you combine to create the art of the story. As I was reading Dan, I was underlining just individual words that I loved—the word “caboose” comes to mind—and it feels like in the same way a friend might go out and chop a banana down and make paper out of it, it’s like you’re going out and finding these words lying around and putting those together to make a narrative. I was wondering how individual words make it into your work. Do you gather lists of words like an artist would gather objects and things, or is that something that just appears in the drafting process?

I do gather lists of words! I do exactly that. Although it depends on the project. I sometimes set myself a challenge of writing against something that I’ve just written. And because collecting words is a tendency of mineI’m like, “Whoa, that’s a beautiful word; let me create a piece around that word”for that reason, I sometimes work against this tendency by radically restricting vocabulary. I create a consciousness that would not be able to pull words from all registers. That’s something I did with Another Governess/The Least Blacksmith. But my natural inclination is to word-gather.

Actually, the other day, my friend and I were talking about obsessive-compulsive behaviors and having done certain things when we were kids. I used to chip crayons into sandwich bags. I was like a crow. I would steal crayons from all over the elementary school, and then I would sit with my hands in my desk in class frantically chipping the crayons into little bags, and my entire desk was filled with these crayon-chip bags sorted by color. One day, the teacher did a desk inspection. I wasn’t there that day, I was sick, and the teacher opened my desk and was, I guess, shocked and appalled, and she called my parents. We all had to go to school the next day, and I remember the teacher said, “Joanna, tell us about the bags of chipped crayons in your desk.” I was raised to respond to authority figures using the blanket tactic of total denial, so I said, “What bags of chipped crayons in my desk? There are no bags of chipped crayons in my desk.” The teacher took my wrist, and of course my nails were ragged and smeared with sixty-four colors. And then came the question. “Why?” asked the teacher. “Why do you do this?” I knew somehow that having an answer was better than not having an answer. But there was no answer. So I said, slowly and unconvincingly, “Because I’m going to make … candles?” And it sort of made sense. A person could melt many crayon chips in a pot and dip wicks into the melted crayon chips and make candles. But it wasn’t true. There was no reason. I was just chipping the crayons.

This other thing I did is more directly relevant.I started a year or so after I was finished with crayons. I would sit in class with a notebook inside my desk, and I would make lists of words that began with the letter g. I would do it without stopping, g word after g word. I really liked making the cursive letter g. I really loved that motion. I’m sure I repeated words, but it didn’t matter. I wouldn’t go back to look at what I’d written before. I would just sit there with a pencil and a notebook and keep writing, you know: ginger, genie, gerbil, Georgia, ghastly, ghost, Geronimo, and it would just keep going like that. I think that was my first word list. But it was pure compulsion, another “why”-less kind of thing. I had an entire notebook filled with the letter g. Even when I was writing papers or stories, I would feel this urge to get g words in there.

Do you make word lists? Because that was a very particular question.

Yeah, I have note cards. Sometimes it’s just a silly sounding word, but sometimes it’s one of those charged words that can mean multiple things or just has an energy to it that you would want in your writing. And without that list, like a character, I’d be limited to my own boring, narrow vocabulary. So it feels good to have a stack of things to look through before I write or to pull from when I’m in a place that feels like it needs that, or if the writing starts to feel dead. And it’s fun. I feel like having that stack of words that I’m drawn to is sort of like, in the same way that I have a shelf of the books that mean the most to me, having this stack of words that mean something to me somehow feels like a representation of who I am. I’m glad I have those things that make me feel like me.

It’s funny, because those words make you feel the most like you, you said, but then also having those words come from outside the particular moment in which you’re writing gives you access to a consciousness that feels alien to you, and alien to that moment. You’re not just relying on your own vocabulary, you’ve created a prosthetic vocabulary, outside your mind, even though it was you who created it to draw on. There is something about being a writer, or being someone who draws on their own imagination constantly, their own thoughts constantly, that makes you need to get out of your own head sometimes. You don’t want to dredge your consciousness over and over again, so finding ways to give yourself alien material to work with can feel liberating.

Or ways to jolt yourself out of those usual patterns of thinking, or those words you typically use. For Dan in particular, were you working against something, or were there particular constraints you used? Were you trying to escape a previous project that launched you into this one?

Yeah. I had been working on Another Governess/The Least Blacksmith, which is incredibly monotonous and obsessive and claustrophobic. It was a project in which I really tried to empty out my language. I was trying to get away from this impulse I have, this sort of “throw it all in” style. With Dan, I gave myself permission to go back to the free-for-all, to go back to the errant and anarchic.

Another Governess/The Least Blacksmith has very short sentences, very simple sentence forms. With Dan, things could be more serpentine, and the book is very pleated. I set myself a “clock” constraint; the book is all happening in one day, and time is a sort of amorphous thing. Really, the book doesn’t take a whole day; it’s maybe an hour, two hours. The main character, Melba, goes to work, and things are fading in and out, and then she’s upstairs in the men’s club. Trying to escape to something beyond the world everyone tells her there’s no escape from. So there’s not a huge canvas. Somebody gets up and goes to work. I wrote a lot of memories to impede the action, tried to create a counterforce that pleats the narrative. I wanted to take something simple and fold it back on itself, to see what I could do with that.

Writing Dan, I got to stay open to what I was reading and experiencing and let it come into the book. With Another Governess/The Least Blacksmith, I couldn’t go out and let something catch my eye or read something or have an experience and just stick it in the narrative. That wouldn’t work. But with a project like Dan, being open to the kind of weird synergies in everyday life, to something you encounter in a story or overhear in a conversation—that’s part of the process.

I’m also a romance fan, and when I was working on Dan, I had just written a second historical romance novel for Random House India, and I was reading a lot of romance novels also. I like melodrama—I was watching a bunch of Korean dramas, too—so I also wanted to explore that kind of affect. Play around with exaggerated emotional tenor.

Because so much of that drafting process depends on subconscious flows or following sentences or drawing things in from the world that chime with the work in a less deliberate way, is there a way you have to get into the zone to write those sort of things, when drafting? Is that something you can just turn on? Or do you think you have that most of the time? Are there times when you sit down and more forced or conventional writing comes out and you have to trick yourself into that kind of flow? Is there some kind of ritual you do to achieve that?

Yeah. I love tricks. Tricks and snacks. Those are probably the two things I love best in the world. So yes, I do have various tricks. And some of those tricks involve snacks.

Two things that work for me:

One, start multiple projects. If you have a few things going at once, you can shift between them when you’re stuck on one or the other. That can backfire when you get too spread out or too scattered, but generally it’s nice to be able to procrastinate from writing by writing.

Two, wander around. I spent a lot of time wandering around. I haunt the overpasses and the underpasses of the urban environment. Brian Conn and I have that in common. We became friends because we would find each other wandering around and then we’d wander together. Your brain can keep puzzling away even when you’re not paying attention to it, when your body is doing something else.

I try to distinguish between taking what I do seriously, in that I respect language, I’m interested in what I’m exploring, I’m engaged with the world—taking all that stuff seriously—and taking myself seriously. I think taking yourself seriously is deadly. The heaviness and pressure that comes with self-seriousness is slaying. So I think doing anything that makes you feel less ponderous and important is good. For me, this might mean going and eating seven thousand sunflower seeds on the porch with squirrels or wandering around or letting myself write something “terrible,” or letting myself write something I’ll try not to think about at all in terms of “good” or “bad.” For me, those are the good tricks.

Exactly. You have to trick yourself into not understanding what it is you’re doing. As soon as you understand what you’re doing or how it might be raising a certain weighty intellectual idea, it becomes dead on the page. You get much too serious about it. So forgetting about it or turning that part off or not taking yourself too seriously—all those tricks to get out of that heavy space seem really important. I’m going to steal those ideas. Start feeding squirrels.

Stupid outfits help. Dance parties help. For me, what helps the absolute most is eating cereal in the night in my underwear and having a solo rave. That helps. But it’s probably something different for everyone.

Is there a point then when you are past the drafting stage and you do have something that has formed where you turn back? Is it a revision stage that is more conscious? How much do you go back and revise or rewrite or cut or shape? Is there a process for that that’s separate?

Yeah. I do revise quite a bit. It’s my compulsive streak again. I was teaching a novel-writing class at a really awesome nonprofit organization in Denver called The Lighthouse, and I would talk to my students about the dangers of revising unto death, how you can get caught fiddling with the first five pages of something and have a really hard time getting past that point. I get stuck in that kind of cycle too often.Tweaking a second paragraph for a lifetime.

It was awesome to work with Dorothy, a publishing project, because the editors are brilliant and they gave me super interesting suggestions. It was fun to get their edits! Getting edited is also weirdly illuminating, because it triggers unexpected feelings. I had moments in which I realized I did feel possessive about some authored chain of discourse, like “You want me to change the sentence to that but it sounds better to me like this.” So you have to negotiate with your emotional reactions and decide what really matters to you and think about why that might be.

One of the things I also really appreciated about Dan is its antirealist mode. As soon as we get a place or a person or even a name, those things are undercut or questioned by other characters, and we are left to wonder what is real. Melba herself questions whether things exist or who she is or what is real. One of my favorite parts of the novel is this exchange between Melba and her doctor:

“Melba, answer me this: have you ever seen a horse?”

“Yes,” said Melba.

“Think carefully before you answer,” said Dr. Buck. “Because there are certain canids—those are dogs, Melba—that can be shaved and groomed to resemble other animals, raccoons, lions, even horses. Can you be absolutely certain that what you saw was a horse and not one of those canids?”

Melba thought carefully. She could not be absolutely certain.

“Of course, you can’t be certain,” said Dr. Buck. “Without the opinion of an expert there’s no such thing as certainty.”

Is that antirealist stance something that organically rises in the writing process because it interests you, or is that shaped in the revision process? I’m curious to hear you talk about that representational or realist quality and what seems to be an instinct to undermine that.

I like to invoke and undermine it, I guess. Having some sort of frame of reference clearly established enables you to do something a little bit more unsettling than if everything was entirely ungrounded from the very beginning. Questions that have to do with the nature of reality fascinate me. I like fiction and writing fiction because you get to create many models of the universe, or many models, or a mind. You can keep doing that. Proliferate infinite possible realities. Fiction gives us multiple ways of approaching experience, modeling experience, understanding experience.

In Dan, I do want to call representation into question and subjectivity into question. But I felt that I needed to start with some kind of genre container or recognizable literary form to do it. Hence, the super-saturated-in-a-melodramatic-way version of a Rockwell-esque American town. It’s not “realist,” but I needed something familiar to work against. I like fiction in which the distortion creeps up on you. Realism is supposed to be this one thing, and we know what it is, but of course realism and antirealism are connected. You can slide between the two, and the boundaries aren’t fixed. Probably there are more realisms, and more antirealisms, than we can even account for.

Last question: since you started writing, have you seen your writing interests change over time? Are there any larger arcing trends where you think, “This is the sort of thing I used to do, but now I’m moving more in this direction?

I don’t know. I’ve always vacillated between poles. “Writing is the most agonistic thing ever” at the one end, and “Here is me eating cereal, dancing and making stuff up. Writing is so fun. I can’t believe I get to do this as an adult” at the other. I guess I have more of a sense of a practice now. Writing, I still fear that I’m never going to finish what I’m doing, I’m never going to put together all the words in a series, but I’ve felt that often enough that I’m not quite as paralyzed by it. These days, I think of what I’m working on as a “project” or a “book,” whereas that felt too audacious earlier on. I have a more expanded, elastic idea of book maybe than I used to.A book as a thing we’re always all writing. I used to think, “I just wrote a sentence! That’s that!” Now I try to notice gaps and connections and imagine they’re all part of something larger.It’s easier for me to say, “There’s a book I’m working on” than “I’m a novelist” or even “I’m a writer.” Turning the focus onto the book feels freeing.It enables the work.

***

Matt Weinkam’s work has appeared in TINGE Magazine, Monkeybicycle, and The Rumpus and he is an editor for Threadcount, an online journal of hybrid prose. He is currently in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University in Marquette.

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