Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Rob Roberge talks about his knockout novel The Cost of Living, eating foods in the right color order, redemption tales soaked in acid and so much more

When Gina Frangello (editor and co-founder of Other Voices Books, plus the most amazing author of Slut Lullabies and an astonishing new novel coming from Algonquin Books) tells me to read something, I always listen. The Cost of Living by Rob Roberge is unlike anything you've ever read before. Gritty, crackling, alive--it's the story of a guitarist who fights to stay clean and sober, even as he battles his inner demons.  Gina was right--the book's a marvel, and I'm thrilled to have Rob here on my blog. (And I'll be reading with him and host of others at KGB on June 2! Please come!) Anyway, thank you Rob for being here.

What I loved so much is that your book boasts high praise from musicians as well as authors (and you're a musician yourself) for the knockout gritty authenticity of the book. Is there a difference for you in terms of music and writing? Does one feed a greater part of the soul for you, and if so, why?
First, thank you for so many of the kind and generous things you've said about the book/my writing—and your generosity, both here and with other writers. It's enormously appreciated what you do for the community. 
I was pretty thrilled, actually, by the response of the musicians, all of whom I respect a great deal, so it was truly an honor to have them saying such nice things. And while I am, I suppose, a musician (in the literal sense—a musician being one who plays music), the four musicians who praised the book—Steve Wynn, Wayne Kramer, Scott Shriner, and Billy Pitman are real musicians. People in bands and solo artists who've had a lasting social impact. I mean I've played 30 years. I've recorded. I've toured. But, I'm hardly in their league so…yeah…it knocked me out that these people had such things to say—especially saying that the work was authentic. In the music sense/the professional sense. And of course that they were entertained. That meant a lot to me.
As far as music and writing—the differences…does one feed a greater part of the soul? I suppose if I HAD to give up one (a terrible scenario), it would be the music. I LOVE both tremendously. One of the fun things about this book was that some friends and I made a record performing AS the band in the book. It's available for free download at my new website: www.robroberge.com
But being a writer is simply who I am and what I do. Though I suppose I'm a musician, too…I play 1-3 hours a day most days…but it's mindless. It's not practice the way a serious pro would approach his/her instrument. It's relaxing. Writing is NOT relaxing, much as I love it. I do music for fun with friends. I'm too old to be in a van with a bunch of guys who after two weeks on the road have devolved to the point that they may as well be zoo monkeys who fling their shit at one another. Those days are long gone for me. Though I still LOVE touring. I just tour with people who make for a tension-free experience. The Urinals—John Talley Jones and Kevin Barrett—are two of the funniest, smartest people I know and they are a ball to be out on the road with. Music's also where I fill my need for collaborative art—like theater used to do for me. But I'm not trying to be a rock star anymore—that's been gone from my goals for over 20 years. A young person's game. I'm doing it for fun. 
Whereas, I AM trying to advance my writing career and I always am challenging myself to be better with each book and try to do something I've never done before. If a song's not as close to perfect as I can get it, but the energy's good…hey, that's good enough for me. I like the happy accident of collaboration and playing with friends. When I work on my writing, I'm very open to the happy accident in the early drafts, but I'm ruthless with myself on revision. I want to be the best writer I can possibly be. I want to have the most fun I can possibly have playing music. Not that I have any interest in putting shit in the world musically.
Of course…a lot of my early days of playing in bands were days where I was swimming in liquor and nodding out on various opiates and whatever else I could get my hands on. I lost over a decade of my life being fucked up—daily—and I'm lucky to be around. Being the non-stop fuckup doesn't make you the most fun guy to be locked in a van with for weeks at a time.
Though, for the record, I never did fling my shit at anyone. One last very odd difference between the two forms is that I recently played a show where a very attractive younger woman (maybe thirty) was dancing in the front row all night, looking at me. Not the worst thing for your ego. And when the show was over, I was drenched in sweat (the lights on stage are hot) and she took the set list off the stage, asked me to sign it and then asked if she could lick the sweat off my chest. I told her my partner probably wouldn't be too thrilled about that. We ended up with a compromise and she licked the sweat off my arm. It was…odd. 
This almost never happens when I do a reading. And by almost never…I mean never.  Jeez…I hope I've answered your question.
The novel's a redemption tale, but it's one soaked in acid and told in a raw, hilarious and deeply original voice. In fact, you've been accused of writing "dangerous" stuff. I'd love to hear your take on that. I'd also like to ask, do you think there is always a cost on the way to redemption?
Shit…again—thanks for the kind words. They mean a lot coming from a writer of your caliber. And I'm enormously grateful you mention the humor. It's a dark book in many ways, but I try to balance that. If work is relentlessly dark, it can be oddly simple. You need light to see shadow—light actually makes the darkness more harrowing for me. To be only dark is as one dimensional as a hallmark card. The world is both beautiful beyond belief (and surely love and laughter are at the top of that list), AND it's an ass kick and a half and it can rip you to pieces and make you want to eat a gun at times. So, my acid and my humor…they come kind of naturally, I guess. A world view.  
If it's cool, I'll answer the cost of redemption issue first—that it's a redemptive tale. And…it's simultaneously the saddest book I've written, the most autobiographical AND the only redemptive narrative I've probably ever done. So, that's a little new to me-ha!
I suppose from both its religious and the secular definition, redemption is about settling a score—an evening up where you balance the scales with an effort on your part to make up for earlier mistakes. So, in the literal sense, I suppose redemption has a cost. You know…in recovery, one of the things that helps me stay clean is helping other people and trying very hard to be a much more ethical person than the man I was. I owe the world some good years…though, as junky drunks go, I was a pretty sweet one. That doesn't mean I didn't hurt an awful lot of people who loved me. So…well, a LOT of things/behaviors in this life can't be redeemed. And it's taken me some tough years to realize that. So, you go forward and try to be good from now on. There are things you—or I—just simply can never fix. And I'll have to live with that. But maybe if I can be a better person…well…I don't know if that settles my debts. But, what are the other options?
It's part of the price of trying to be a better person. So, yeah…if there IS such a thing as personal redemption, it probably has a cost. 
As far as being "dangerous"…I've been called dangerous? By whom? It must have been someone afraid of the air. And cookies. And tiny woodland creatures. I'm a teddy bear. A vulgar perverted one, maybe, but still…
More seriously—I'm not sure, sadly, a writer can BE dangerous in the United States. I've had friends and colleagues from other countries who've been imprisoned for their poetry…we have journalists who've been killed….writers who've had their eyes gouged out by agents of their government. This, of course, makes me wonder if my work could truly be something dangerous to a reader in contemporary American culture. Not that I'd like to be imprisoned or have my eyes gouged out, clearly. But, no…I don't feel my work is dangerous in that sense. 
But, I do think, on a daily level, that most people are terribly afraid of letting other people (including those close to them) see the truth of what's in their hearts. We've all heard the idea that we only use ten percent of our brain…and I'd say, I think that we may use the same percentage of our metaphoric heart. I think we may use ten percent of our empathy. And a culture that loses its empathy is a dangerous culture indeed. And literature IS the art form that best creates empathy. It's the form where the audience most learns what it might be like to be inside someone else's brain and someone else's damaged and needy heart. We are all, as Hemingway said, broken by this world. And our job, I think, is to help each other survive and try to heal those broken parts.
If we think about it this way—if we lose the ability to feel what others feel, we are in a terrible state as human beings. Most of the ways we form the other is because we haven't taken into account that this unknown person or persons has an interior that we would understand were we open to investigating it. Every war is a result of an absence of empathy. The corporate sociopathic behavior of Enron executives…every greedy fuck who stole from people who worked for a living in the 2008 bailout…even every love relationship that ultimately doesn't work is the result, I think, of people not really SEEING each other.
To be loved is to be seen. To be understood. And without love, we're fucked. So, maybe that's where redemption partially comes from. Mending that fracture. Seeing each other. 
I want to ask about the voice, which was as addictive as any substances that find their way in the story. Was the voice fully formed when you started to write or did you have to write your way into it?
That's a great question (not that your other questions have been some bucket of shit…they've all been great…I always get a little scared saying "that's a great question"…but that's my neurosis, maybe. If someone tells me my hair looks good one day, my first thought is "has my hair looked shitty all the other days?").
But voice is essential to me. I labor over voice a tremendous amount—and making every sentence a good as it can be. I love language—the way words sing and clang and rattle and thrum with and against each other. And/but it does usually take me a while to get INTO the proper voice. It never comes first in my novels. I ALWAYS have to write myself into it. I have no plan. I write a sentence. That sentence offers me opportunity and obstacle and I try to go from there. But it usually takes me months to find the voice of a novel—to write my way into finding it. Stories come much more quickly—sometimes right away.
 I think about the importance of voice before I think about anything else. I've never planned a novel's plot. I have no idea where I'm going. But that's probably not the case with my next novel, which I'm starting after I finish a memoir this summer. The next novel has at least five POV…my first three novels have been first person and, until THE COST OF LIVING (which covers, I think, well over 30 years in the life of the protagonist Bud), all my novels have had a short time period. The next one covers from the Bikini Island atomic tests (Operation Crossroads, which started in 1946) to the late 1990's. From, as I said, several POV…so, I think I may plan that one out a bit. It's a lot to keep in my head at once. But, still, voice with be, in many ways, the primary thing.
I think of voice as character. The main character.
Tell me about your writing life? Do you write every day? Do you have rituals? Do you map things out or figure them out as you go along?
Nope. Sometimes I wish I could write every day. But I'm a binge writer. Part of it is that I take a lot of pride in my teaching and it's VERY hard to write while I teach…and I teach a lot. I wish I could juggle better. But, so long as I write, I figure I'm doing my job. If I haven't written in 3 months, something is wrong and I feel it itching at me. But every day? No. I have some mental health issues with up and down sides…rapid cycling bi-polar…and this can allow me 72 hour writing stretches. I had my best single day on the memoir a while back 13,000 words…of which about 12,000 were keepers. So…no. Not every day. I certainly admire writers who can. I have days where writing is all I can do—I get too obsessed to stop to eat. I also have days where I'm too depressed to bathe or shave or see any reason to get out of bed and I just pray for the day to end from the second it starts. So, there are upsides and downsides.
As for rituals…yes, some. I can't do drugs anymore…but addicts love their rituals. I can only write with one type of pen in my notebook…or one type of mechanical pencil. If I write with another, I try to transfer the notes to the right pen or pencil BEFORE I type them up.  If the writing is sucking, I'll dress up. Put on some nice clothes…maybe a suit and some good shoes. Very rarely a tie. Makes me feel like I'm going to work and not just kicking around the house.
Other rituals? I also have some mild OCD where I can only eat food in the same order of colors every time. But, that's not about writing. That's just me being crazy.
So what's obsessing you now and why?
Wow. I'm not sure. The release of a new book is a bit scary—at least for me. With the fear that no one will give a shit. But I'm trying not to obsess about that. I'm probably obsessing the most about not being able to sleep. I've averaged about two or three hours of sleep for the last ten or eleven days. It's hard not to obsess about being awake when you don't want to be.
And I'm not sure I'm obsessing, but I'm REALLY looking forward to teaching in Mexico at OTHER VOICE QUERÉTARO  this summer  (http://othervoicesmexico.com/). Actually, I guess I am obsessing about that…I've never taught out of the country and I'm doing a fiction and memoir workshop I'm pretty excited about.
I'm pretty obsessed with my new memoir and the form of memoir/non-fiction itself (which is a term I kind of hate…like Nabokov said, "memory is a revision")…I'm more interested in honestly and creation than I am in EVENT (since 5 people can witness the same thing and come away with radically different takes)…the way America has fetishized the "real" with so called reality TV (and this has infected our literature). I guess I'm obsessed with the difference between telling A truth and THE truth. And the music of Ike Reilly and Virginia Dare (both AWESOME) and the new season of Mad Men. There are probably other obsessions, but I'm blanking at the moment.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?
I don't know….Maybe: Do you ever shut up, Rob?Thank you SO much for this. It's been a pleasure. I hope it was of some use/entertainment. But/and, thank you for the opportunity, Caroline.

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