Thursday, September 18, 2014

Bill Roorbach talks about The Remedy for Love, being "the poet of hopeless tangles," writing, being a judge on the Food Network, and so much more

 I first met Bill Roorbach at an Algonquin Books Party,  amidst party chaos. When I really met him was at the Tucson Book Festival, where we got to hang out and talk, and I realized what a smart, hilarious, and truly wonderful guy he is.  Of course I stalk him on FaceBook, and of course, I've a huge fan of his work, which is brilliant, blazingly alive, and full of surprises.  His newest, THE REMEDY FOR LOVE is about two lost souls, struggling to survive a blizzard--and each other.

Bill's self-written bio is so funny, I'm going to just post it here: Bill is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction, including the Flannery O'Connor Prize and O. Henry Prize winner Big Bend , Into Woods Temple Stream, and Life Among Giants. The 10th anniversary edition of his craft book, Writing Life Stories, is used in writing programs around the world. 

Recently, Bill was a judge on Food Network All Star Challenge, evaluating incredible Life Stories cakes made under the gun, so to speak. Bill knows nothing about cake, but he knows a lot about life stories! 

His work has been published in Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, The New York Times Magazine, Granta, New York, and dozens of other magazines and journals. His story "Big Bend" was featured on NPR's "Selected Shorts," read by actor James Cromwell at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Bill has taught at the University of Maine at Farmington, Colby College, and Ohio State. His last academic position was the Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross, Massachusetts. He has now retired from academia in order to write full time. A comic video memoir about his tragic music career, "I Used to Play in Bands," and all kinds of other work, including a current blog on writers and writing and just about everything else (with author David Gessner) is online at

Thanks Bill for being here! Next time you're in NYC,  I am so buying you pie.

I have to ask you about your being called by Kirkus, in a starred review,  “the poet of hopeless tangles.”  Explain yourself, please!

I think Kirkus needs to explain that!  I do love it, not even sure what it means.  They loved Life Among Giants, too, which is a mess of love and other knots.  And Remedy, a very different book, really is a tangle, a ball of string, all these loose ends to pull on, everything connected, or maybe not.  Knot.  I think is what they’re saying.

 I seem to remember seeing different titles for The Remedy of Love. Is that true or am I hallucinating? And if so, how did you come to call it The Remedy of Love?

The working title was Storm of the Century, but Kathy Pories, my editor at Algonquin, reported that people there thought it sounded too non-fiction-y.  Plus, I’d given it a Google and someone named Stephen King (also a Maine author), had already used it.  We kept thinking and trying titles and falling half in love with one or another idea before rejecting it, even as time was running short. Then, middle of the last possible night, I remembered that my friend Liesel Litzenburger, who is a novelist herself (Now You Love Me, The Widower) and an all-around genius, is also a kind of title savant.  You can tell her in a few words about your characters and story, and without skipping a beat or taking a breath she’ll calmly tell you your title.  So, even though we hadn’t been in touch for a few years, I sent her a very brief description of the book via email, plus a title idea we’d gotten from Thoreau.
Not four minutes later she shot back a reply, mostly tongue in cheek, but not entirely: “Well... yes to Thoreau, but you have to get the word “love” in there to double your sales as you are male, so the HDT quote from his journals, after being shot down in  a marriage proposal: ‘The only remedy for love is to love more.’  So then you have A Remedy for Love…”  I knew that was it, and tried it on Kathy, and with a quick adjustment to the article, we were done.  Thanks, Liesel!

I always want to know what sparked a particular book, so what generated this one?

A few winters ago I went grocery shopping before a snowstorm.  As I was driving out of the parking lot, I spotted a young woman carrying, like, ten bags of groceries along the verge of the no-sidewalk commercial strip in our rural town here in Maine.  I recognized her slightly from her job at one of the thrift stores and stopped to offer her a ride. That’s all. She was grateful and explained that she was newlywed and that their truck had broken and they didn’t have the money yet to fix it—transmission.  Those stories about the pressures of being newlywed, of just starting out in the world!  I found it touching, this new couple with their private struggles, doing their best, living on cuddles and Pop Tarts and minimum wage.  I dropped her at her incredibly tiny house (several miles from the store, what was she thinking?).  But when I got home, snow starting to fall, I realized her groceries were still in the back of my car!  I’d driven off with them!  I roared back in the snow fifteen minutes to her house and popped the hatchback and gathered all ten bags by their plastic handles as she had done and knocked on her door with my forehead.  So, not like what happens in the book, but it got me thinking.  What if she really didn’t have a home to go to?  We have a problem here called rural homelessness, much less visible than city homelessness, and winter turns it into crisis.  Pretty soon I was inventing my characters…

 Both Eric and Danielle are so distinct and fascinating. They never act as anticipated, and they have so many layers to them. How do you go about building a character? 

Really, truly, I just write.  I start with a thin premise, get the people moving and talking, talking, and pretty soon they begin having deep reality, real presence, and whole complex lives, nothing to do with me, certainly to do with all I know about the world, but characters have their own lives, and often I’ll have to do research, both formal and conversational.  Making a character is like meeting someone new and gradually getting to know them as you draft.  By the end of a rough first go, you know enough to go back and get all the early stuff right. 

After all the accolades Life Among Giants won, was it more difficult to write your next book? Or did that make it easier? Did you find that the whole process of writing the book was different somehow, and if so, how?

It was harder and easier both.  Harder just because the new book was so different from the old, easier because I had the sense that there were readers out there…  And of course these are my 8th and 9th books, respectively…  The process for each book has been different, and each book very different from the last, I can’t explain it…  I’m always trying to do the thing I can’t do, and just making it harder for myself.  Life Among Giants was a big, sweeping narrative.  The Remedy for Love is more intimate.  Life Among Giants had dozens of characters operating over several decades, The Remedy for Love is two people, one location, a few days, though back story fills it out considerably… 

You’re in the astonishing position of being involved in the making of an HBO TV series of Life Among Giants. How amazing is that? What surprises you about all of it? And what did you expect? 

It’s so fascinating and really fun, bringing my characters into a new medium and a new reality with the help and full collaboration of some really brilliant people.  I hadn’t watched much TV at all in life, and never any of these great premium cable dramas.  So I did my homework, which was watching complete sets of all the great shows.  I was really impressed with some of them, stuff everyone I know had already seen years before, like The Sopranos.  It’s not uniformly great, but much of it is great indeed.  I found myself saying, This is where narrative has gone to live! And it’s where people go—the masses, I mean—for their daily human requirement of stories.  Who knew?  My hope is to make a great show.  We just finished the pilot script.  Of course there are many more hurdles to leap, such as, will HBO actually order the pilot.  We shall see.  I’m feeling awfully good about it, and hopeful.  But I haven’t quit my day job, which is writing novels.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Home maintenance.  This is a creaky old place, and I’ve been working on it twenty years, long enough that stuff I built—I was in construction for some years when I was young—now needs upkeep!  Plus, we have embarked on yet another a major renovation, this time with professional help: tearing the old deteriorated porch down and building a new one that will be useable year-round, effectively making our house bigger, but in fact not changing the shape or look much at all.  And the whole house will be warmer and dryer and prettier.

Will you be touring?  Where can people see you?

Here’s my tour schedule, with warm thanks to Algonquin, the best publisher in the world, for putting it together.  And if your readers come see me and mention your name (and give the secret handshake, like this), they will get a valuable free prize.  Or at least a drink at the nearest watering hole:

Tuesday, October 14th, 7 p.m: Longfellow Books, Portland, Maine

Thursday, October 16th, 7 p.m: Jesup Library, Bar Harbor, Maine

Friday, October 17th, 7 p.m:  Emery Center, UMF, Farmington, Maine

Wednesday, October 22, Noon:  Portland Public Library

Thursday, October 23, 7 p.m: Lithgow Public Library, Augusta, Maine

Friday, October 24th, 7 p.m: Magers and Quinn Books,  Minneapolis, MN [A Whiskey Tour event!]

Saturday, October 25th and 26th, Texas Book Festival, Austin, TX [A Whiskey Tour event!]

Monday, October 27th, 8 p.m: Books and Books, Coral Gables, FL [A Whiskey Tour event!]

Thursday, October 30th, 6 p.m: Watermark Books, Wichita Kansas

Saturday, November 1st, 2 p.m: Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop, Denver, CO

Monday, November 3rd, noon, Boulder Book Store, Boulder, CO

Tuesday, November 4th, 7:30 p.m: Book Bar, Denver, CO

Wednesday, November 5th, 7:30 p.m: Booksmith, San Francisco, CA

Thursday, November 6th, 7 p.m: Rakestraw Books, Danville, CA

Monday, November 10th, 7:30 PM: Powell’s Books (Hawthorne), Portland, OR 97214

Tuesday, November 11th, 6 p.m: University Books, Bellevue, WA

Monday, November 17th, 7:00 p.m:            Talking Leaves Books, Buffalo, NY

Tuesday, November 18th, 7:00 p.m:            RiverRun Books, Portsmouth, NH 03801

Monday, November 24th, 7:15 p.m: Georgia Center for the Book at DeKalb County Public Library

Tuesday, November 25th, 7:00 p.m: Politics and Prose Washington, DC

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