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The Distance Between Narrative and Real Life

The Distance Between Narrative and Real Life

It’s been lovely following Peter Rock’s work, from his atmospheric and suspenseful debut novel This Is The Place  (based in Utah, where he was born), to his more recent My Abandonment, a novel about survivalists and a unique father-daughter relationship that was made into the award-winning movie Leave No Trace (2018). Now his new novel, The Night Swimmers, is out and is about the relationship between a young college graduate and his swimming partner, Mrs. Abel. It traces their relationship through time, and explores the mystery of her disappearance as well as the more abiding mystery of how our older selves connect back to who we were decades before. 

Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Your earlier work was eerier and spoke to human disconnection as well as to a machine-like quality of human life. How did your work evolve into the richly nuanced, relationship-focused writing that we see in your most recent novel?

Peter Rock

I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer regarding how my writing has progressed, as it’s a pretty unconscious process. But there are at least two thoughts that come immediately to mind:

First, I realized after publishing a couple of books that my characters seemed unable to deal with interpersonal conflict or complication.  Tension and drama built up to a certain point, and then there were a lot of slamming doors, people leaping into pickup trucks and driving to other states; once they settled in a new situation, new drama would ensue, and a similar flight would result. It was pretty unsatisfying and, unsurprisingly, my personal life was eerily similar; I had a talent for beginning things, and a talent for bailing at the earliest sign of trouble.  I just didn’t know, in my fiction or in my life, what people said to each other, past a certain point.  I also had no handle on subtlety, no perspective whatsoever.  Probably the biggest thing that allowed this change in my writing was being married.

Second, I’ve never been a very autobiographical writer, or I’ve always failed when trying to write a character or narrator who is close to me in terms of identity and life experience. The work of building up a character and convincing myself of that person works to convince the reader, but that also comes with built-in limitations. I know more than what I’m showing about these people, but compared to the incredible amount of detritus I know about my own life, it’s relatively easy to manage.  When writing closer to my life, I have a harder time deciding what is important, and I also don’t have to do that work to convince myself, so the writing can fail to communicate. With The Night Swimmers I was happier with writing closer to my life, and I think this was because I’ve gotten so old that the person I’m describing and trying to inhabit is a mysterious other to me, and also, I’ve, through mistakes and practice, become a much more dexterous and intuitive editor. (Which sounds less than humble, but we need to take into account the shambles where I started!) Last thought: of course, all of my books come out of me, and in retrospect I can see what I was working through, personally, but the material of the narratives is further from my actual life. It’s probable, I suspect, that these unconscious revelations are more revelatory.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar

How do you construe writing about intimate relationships in relation to writing about darkness and uncanny themes? There is something very original about the juxtaposition.

Peter Rock

It is difficult for me to convey how I feel about living in this world by writing in a purely realistic way, and this is perhaps especially so with regard to intimate relationships. I do believe there are invisible forces around us, and the private languages and unspoken understandings we possess in intimacy bring this out, make a secret shared, make everything vibrate more specifically. 

Perhaps a larger backdrop for this question is simply the relationship between the visible and the invisible, or what we understand as realistic fiction and that storytelling that bends or questions this familiar, agreed-upon world.

My interest in storytelling, I believe, rose out of my father reading to me before I fell asleep. And that reading was The Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien, and most central was Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy. So that’s where and how I started, and what set my sensibility and momentum. I continue to love those books, and devour folktales, and fairy tales; one of my favorite writers is Angela Carter, whose prose itself ripples and bends our world. Writers like Aimee Bender and Karen Russell work a great vein that exists between these worlds and a more quotidian one, and that interests me. If there’s a kind of spectrum, perhaps I come in somewhere on this other side, where in my work I’m often trying to start with a more familiar, realistic world and then reveal it as otherwise, slowly, without departing entirely from that realistic world.  

Again, I may not be the best one to ask. Yet this digression does make me recall first encountering what we termed “magical realism” back in college, and being completely undone. I still really love Garcia-Marquez and especially [Julio] Cortázar ; for me, there are stretches of Garcia-Marquez, though, where I lose track of a concrete world, where the tension flags into “can he outdo that last fantastic occurrence?” rather than “what’s at stake for these people?”  Again, I may not be the best one to ask. Yet this digression does make me recall first encountering what we termed “magical realism” back in college, and being completely undone. I still really love Garcia-Marquez and especially Cortázar; for me, there are stretches of Garcia-Marquez, though, where I lose track of a concrete world, where the tension flags into “can he outdo that last fantastic occurrence?” rather than “what’s at stake for these people?”  

Cortázar, on the other hand, fits closer to my sensibility—here the maintenance of that original world was always a priority.  This is also part of [Haruki] Murakami’s appeal for me, in that however much underground voyaging is happening and how many tiny people are appearing, there’s still all that spaghetti cooking and beer drinking, ironing and lawn mowing.  One dimension doesn’t supplant the other.

I’m drifting away from your question, I fear. But I want to also say that I have rarely been drawn to work where the fantastic can be understood purely psychologically, or as the delusion of one character, or as some kind of metaphor or thematic amplification. Stubbornly, I don’t really get metaphors or themes, and find such thinking when writing would only take me out of the story; I just want these seemingly fantastic events to actually happen, to be as real as the real and get all mixed up. Again, this is not so much a literary question, or one of technique, it’s one of personal sensibility, an attempt to capture how I feel as myself living in this world.

Another attempt to answer: when I teach the undergraduates, I have many students who are primarily interested in genre—science-fiction or horror or different kinds of speculation—and are quite anxious that this won’t “count,” or that it is not sufficiently “literary” and that I’ll punish them.  What I tell them (simplifying and generalizing, as teachers do) is that literary fiction is celebrated for its characterization, the dimensions of the human it can conjure, but (to me) the plots and storytelling can be pretty boring and predictable; much genre fiction is noted for the ingenuity and unpredictability of its plots and storytelling, but the characters are often two-dimensional and clearly at the service of these plots or, ultimately, the author. So why, I ask them and myself, can’t we have richly complicated characters in narratives we haven’t yet seen, that startle and delight us?

Chaya Bhuvaneswar

How do you see your teaching fitting into your life as a novelist and story writer?

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Peter Rock

Teaching is how I make a living, and how I share my mistakes. Now that I’ve been doing it for over twenty years, I spend a lot of time wondering whether I am helping anyone at all, or what exactly can be taught, and for what purpose. I also know it’s hard on my own writing practice in many ways, but the benefits of teaching really should be thought of in terms of the benefit to the student. And about that I can surmise, but it would be a little ridiculous to make declarations.  

You’re catching me at an interesting moment in terms of teaching, as I’m taking two years away from it and reconsidering what I’ve been doing, and why I do it. I’ve also been thinking of my former teachers; I never liked the idea of “mentors,” as that seemed a little Svengali-like, and I always considered myself as too much of a desperado to have a mentor. And I’ve never really wanted students who desired a mentor, either. A few years back the poet Carl Phillips came to give a reading at Reed, where I teach, and he said, “I never want to put my fingerprints on a student, I never want anyone to say, about someone who’s been in my class, ‘oh, of course, well, she studied with Carl Phillips.’” I feel that way.  I think the best I can do is give my undivided attention and respect to what someone is doing, to sit with it, to give them new things to read, and to challenge them to take responsibility for what their work will become.  

I find great pleasure in encouraging people.

But your question is more about how teaching fits into my life as someone who’s trying to write. It’s kind of crippling, I think. On the one hand, and it’s a gigantic thing, having a tenured teaching job allows me the latitude to write what I want to write, regardless of commercial outcome or outright failure. But it’s also made me self-conscious and pretty much taken away the pleasure in writing short stories from me; I talk about them too much, I even read them wondering what I’ll say about them, whether I’ll teach them. For me to write well, I have to have that critical, authoritative, reflective intelligence as absent as possible. I need to be confused. To believe that I know what I’m doing, that I’m in control, that I’m some kind of authority—that is poison. And yet to teach, one is continually in the position of providing answers and generalizations, of being that authority  It’s dangerous. When I started out teaching I think I was clearer and had more answers; now I’ve tried hard to be honest about how bewildering I find it.  That vulnerability is probably just confounding to the students, but it’s honest.

Back when I was a ranch hand or security guard or medical trials subject or temp, my relationship to writing was clearer, but I also hurt my body, often, had no health insurance, etc.  A part of teaching, I think, is also to be honest about how writing is not a wise professional choice; this is one reason I feel more comfortable teaching undergraduates, to be honest. I admire people like yourself who’ve been able to write while having a job that is far from the snake oil of talking about writing. Perhaps it’s simply the idea of being a “writer” that feels problematic to me. It’s not a destiny or identity or occupation. And the work we’re asked to do here on the web is often about presuming that.  

I’m a person who sometimes likes to write; I wish my writing could and would speak for itself!  Maybe “author” is better?  It feels more past tense, like, “this person once wrote something.” But this pretentious idea of being a writer, I wish I never possessed it, wish I could totally shake it.

To reflect on one’s practice probably only reifies this problem.  That said, a few thoughts: I write by hand, and I try to write all morning (but I have children, and a dog, and often a job), and then there’s often a lot of typing to do, later in the day.  I don’t let machines into my workspace. With The Night Swimmers I took it a little further and spent a few years gathering notes (this is typical) and typing them in and rearranging them, but once I started writing I decided not to type it until I got to the end. This made me kind of paranoid about house fires. I started photographing the pages, at the end of the day, just in case; and then once I did get to the end I did nothing but float in the isolation tank and type for several weeks, hoping this would cause the whole thing to settle and transmute in me somehow.  

Peter Rock is the author of the novels The Night Swimmers, SPELLS, Klickitat, The Shelter Cycle, My Abandonment, The Bewildered, The Ambidextrist, Carnival Wolves and This Is the Place, as well as a story collection, The Unsettling.  The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, an Alex Award and others, he is a Professor in the English Department of Reed College.

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