Bloom: Your official bio reveals an incredibly varied life journey, including many years working as a journalist. Looking back, do you feel you have “transitioned” from journalism to fiction, or have the two been complementary/symbiotic in some way?
JR: That’s a great question. I’d initially entered journalism as a path to write. Ultimately, the farther I went in my career—with jobs at Congressional Quarterly in Washington, D.C., and then the AP in Trenton—the farther I moved from my creative writing roots. There was definitely a point 15 years ago, when I left the AP, when I decided to transition out of journalism into fiction. I quit my job in Trenton, moved to DC, and enrolled in the Johns Hopkins part-time fiction writing program. I was emboldened in part, embarrassingly enough, by a self-help book: I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was by Barbara Sher. Her contention is essentially that we all know in our hearts what we want to do in life, but, often, something—society, family, ourselves—pressures us to do something else deemed more acceptable.
I never quite left my journalistic self in the past, though. There was no bright line between me, the journalist, and me, the fiction writer. For many years, while I was learning how to write short stories, I worked full-time as an editor. It was only when I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2006 that I left journalism entirely. (And even then, I was an assistant editor at the Iowa Review.) Fiction writing is now my main occupation. When I’m writing, I spend my first three hours every day at my desk. In the afternoons, I’m a part-time publisher of Sh’ma, a journal of Jewish ideas, and a fiction editor at Unstuck, a new literary annual based in Austin, Texas. So I guess I still have one foot firmly planted in both worlds.
There are times when the two are symbiotic, for sure. Being an editor lets me interact with other people in a way that I don’t during the solitary hours of writing—and that’s important to me. Thinking about budgets and marketing and layouts constantly exposes me to new ideas and challenges, keeping me sharp. Working as an editor (and publisher) also lets me engage the written word with a very different part of my brain, leaving plenty of space for those creative neurons to fire at my writing desk. I should say there are times when everything I do outside of fiction writing feels like an imposition and a burden. Sometimes I resent it. But even then I know it’s good for me.
Bloom: You grew up in NJ and spent summers in upstate NY, so I’m wondering what it is now that anchors you in each of your dual residences—Akron, OH and Brooklyn, NY?
JR: My wife’s family is in Akron. Our kids go to an incredible community day school in Brooklyn. We have wonderful friends in both places. Still, I’m not sure “anchored” is quite the right metaphor. When I was a kid, my dad and I would head out in our bow rider to go fishing in the bay off Long Beach Island, NJ. We’d pick a spot—the edge of the channel, say, or the Feeding Grounds—and we’d drift. Technically, we were in one “place,” but we were moving over the surface, letting the wind and tide determine our path. That’s more what it feels like now, to an extent. Not passing through, but not quite “of” the places yet, either. Maybe that will change.
I do think that living someplace not where I grew up helps me imagine home more fully. Robert Olen Butler, who has been a great mentor to me, talks about the importance of “forgetting” for fiction writers. “The great British novelist Graham Greene said that all good novelists have bad memories,” Butler wrote in his book From Where You Dream. “What you remember comes out as journalism. What you forget goes into the compost of the imagination.” Fiction, Butler argues, arises out of that vast, churning compost. I haven’t lived in New Jersey or spent significant time in Upstate New York in over 20 years. In a way, it’s because I’ve “forgotten” those places—the exact details; the precise way the streets intersect—that they have seeped so fully into my imagination.
Bloom: It’s been said (by Nicki Leone here at Bloom for one) that you’re stories have a consistent sense of affirmation, a whiff of redemption. I wonder: do you think that if you wrote these stories in your 20s that they would have that same drive toward hope and renewal?
JR: First of all, thank you. I’m not sure there’s a higher compliment for my collection. It’s my definite hope that, particularly given the terrain of these stories—grief, loss, heartbreak—that sense of affirmation comes through. I want people to feel uplifted, despite it all.
I guess what I think is this: If I’d written these stories in my 20s, they would have been ALL about hope and renewal. There would have been none of the subtlety. That “whiff” you describe would have been a stench—and it would have been suffocating.
When I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (in my 30’s), I knew I wanted to write about the big, sentimental things—as Anne Lamott puts it: the way we take care of one another. So much so that my classmates at one pointed started referring to me as: “The writer who ends all of his stories with a hug.” And it was true to an extent. I had this penchant for wanting to bring my characters together at the end; to tie everything up in a nice big bow.
The biggest thing I had to learn as a writer is that characters can change—adversaries can come together—but it has to be subtle. It almost has to be sensed by the reader as a possibility. You can write about hope, but not by writing about someone hopeful. The best way to get at renewal is obliquely. Unless you’re Bruce Springsteen, you can’t spoon-feed redemption.
Bloom: You’re currently working on a novel. You wrote once at The Millions: “Only, I knew myself. I couldn’t sequester myself away for the years it would take to write a novel.” How has the transition been from writing stories to writing a novel?
JR: Oh, it’s tough. Stories have their own distinct rhythm. I hit this point 20 pages in, and I start to think—okay, I’m moving toward the conclusion now. At that point in a novel, things are just opening up.
Also, I’ve always been a very intuitive writer. I don’t write from an outline. I hear a voice or start with an image and go from there, following my characters where they seem to want to go. As a result, I throw out pages and pages of false starts and wrong turns. With the short form, that always felt manageable. With a novel, it can feel overwhelming at times.
On the flip side, you’re not always reining yourself in. That digression you wouldn’t necessarily follow in a story—that path you wouldn’t let yourself go down—can suddenly send the work in wonderful new directions.
Bloom: At a reading in Amsterdam, you told an anecdote about Günter Grass. Dubious that his work would translate well in America, Grass referred to his novel as provincial; to which the publisher Kurt Wolff replied, “All great literature is provincial.” Given how well-traveled, and mobile, you have been in your own life, tell us about your interest in “the provincial”—in a strong sense of place—in the stories in Pulp and Paper.
JR: I love that Günter Grass anecdote. In part because it upends conventional wisdom. In many ways of course the opposite is true: great writing takes us to places we couldn’t go ourselves. We read to be transported. But even then—whether you are on a small boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger or a back alley foraging for food in Muddy River, China—the story at some point always narrows. It becomes about this person and this place. The perspective is limited. That idea is very liberating to me as a writer.
Place is everything for me in fiction. It’s what I go back to when I’m struggling with character and plot. It’s something I can usually see in my mind’s eye even when I can’t quite tell where a story is headed. What does the bay beach in Holgate, N.J. look like after a storm? How does the mist look rising from Panther Pond in the Adirondacks at dawn? And more mundane places, too. What are the particular things that define a scrappy Central Jersey newsroom, or the Raritan River floodplain in Middlesex County, N.J.? If I’m drawing creative energy from a place, I often find a story will follow. As a writer, you move from the particular to the universal—not the other way around.
Bloom: The characters in the collection are wonderfully particular. Do you have a favorite? Or perhaps a character that was especially fun to write?
JR: I’m going to cop out and give two answers on this one.
My first inclination was to say my favorite character is Nick, the teenage boy at the Jersey Shore who wants nothing more in the universe than to get a date with a girl from the mainland he has a crush on. Part of my attraction to Nick is that it took me 13 years to get his story right, and so it’s a lesson for me in perseverance. I appreciate Nick’s bumbling adolescent approach (which is, I admit, somewhat autobiographical), and also the way his entire universe quickly becomes about this incredible girl. His feelings are so raw. Sometimes as we get older we forget just how volatile and all-encompassing those feelings were. It was a great challenge to get Nick right.
In some ways, though, my favorite character in the book is one I get at only obliquely. It’s Missy, the cheerleader in “Funnyboy.” The backstory is that Missy, while driving, strikes and kills a teenage biker. The police quickly say the accident is not her fault—the boy was crossing in the middle of the street and not wearing a helmet. “Funnyboy” takes place about a ten months later. Missy wants desperately to reach out to the boy’s father to say how sorry she is about what happened. Only, he refuses to meet her. Anger and grief ooze from his every poor. The story is told from the father’s perspective. But in a way, Missy’s the true heroine of the story, and perhaps even the whole book. It’s her single-minded courage in pursuit of the father—and the way she ultimately helps him, however tentatively, out of his box by telling him a simple story—that is I hope affirms something truly transcendent about the power of storytelling and also the human spirit. It gets to that whiff of affirmation you asked about earlier.
Bloom: You’ve written/spoken about your story “Mainlanders,” which took 13 years to write. You’ve talked about “failed drafts.” Tell us about what it’s like to work on a story for 13 years: what, for instance, made you keep going back to it, as opposed to saying, “You know, it’s time to let this one go”?
JR: Well, the first thing that’s hard to imagine is the sheer number of times over those many years that I almost gave up on this story. Times I threw my hands up and said: I’m never going to get this right. There are stories of course that you can’t get right—and that you in fact do put in the proverbial drawer for good.
“Mainlanders” was different, I think, because it’s the story that was closest to my heart. I spent my summers going to the Jersey shore. I wasn’t a local, but my best friend was (the “Tubby” character in the story). We lost touch over the years, but when I was in my twenties I learned from my parents that my friend had drowned on a routine ocean swim one day, and I certainly had him in mind as I wrote—I had to get the story right almost to honor his memory. Then, there’s the setting I spoke about earlier—the sand, the salt, the sun—that I knew I had right. I got great feedback on that from the beginning—one of my earliest readers in workshop said: I can smell the ocean when I read this. That stuck with me through all those years of revision. Also, I just had the sense throughout that I was close. That while the story was eluding me, it was within my grasp.
Over the years, I felt it moving in the right direction. (If I showed you the first draft of the story, you probably wouldn’t even recognize it as the same piece.) So I had this emotional connection, coupled with this critical sense that I was getting there. And yet, even when my collection finally won the Iowa Award, I wasn’t satisfied with where the piece was. Fortunately, the fantastic editors at the University of Iowa Press let me have one final run at the piece as we were preparing the book for publication. I really feel—thank the universe—this last revision brought the piece to the finish line. I figured out (with the help of a great reader) what was wrong—it had to do with the motivation of the girls at the heart of the story—and was able to finally fix it.
Not every story has all these elements going for it. Sometimes, a dud’s a dud.
Bloom: Do you think some stories just “need” to take many years, or do you think we actually, as writers, get “better” at diagnosing our failures?
JR: I hope and believe it’s the latter. Most of the stories in my book took closer to two or three years to write. I think it does take a certain amount of time for a good story to mellow. You have to live with the work awhile. But you absolutely get better at diagnosing what’s wrong.
This is a double-edged sword, by the way. On the one hand, you write more quickly. On the other, that intrusive critic is closer to the front of your mind telling you all the things wrong with your work. I started a number of novel drafts that I quit less than 50 pages in, for exactly this reason. My hope is that I spared myself from writing bad novels, but you never know; perhaps I’ve already let a gem get away.
Bloom: You’ve written about rejection—about “embracing” it, not letting it defeat you. Are you hopeful about the future of publishing in terms of editors’ and publishers’ ability to identify and support truly good work? What would you say to someone just starting to write and send out work today?
JR: I would tell someone just starting out what Richard Bach said: a professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit. I’d say one of the most important things is to figure out your writerly routine—what do you need to get work done (A private space? A break between semesters? A fountain pen? A peanut butter and jelly sandwich?). I would urge them to work on developing the writing discipline, because that’s what’s gets writers through the lean times. I’d say if you can’t write for two or three hours a day, write for 30 minutes—the equivalent of one sitcom—and if you can’t do that, write for one minute a day, because the very act of sitting down in a chair will lead to more and more, and before you know it, you’ll have started something you care about. I would tell them the best thing you can do is get to a place where the process of writing—the solitary work you do at your desk—is an end unto itself, regardless of where that writing ever goes, and whether or not it leads to publication.
Then I would say: You’re absolutely right, this feels impossible, but there are real rewards to doing the work each day that have nothing to do with publication: giving yourself the space in this crazy, heartbreaking, fast-paced world, to listen to the quiet inside you; exploring the subtle interplay of words on a page; spending a life trying to make meaning through language and in this way discovering the things that matter to you most. The work is valuable, I’d say, even if you never get paid a dime for doing it—it’s the only way anything lasting and beautiful ever gets made. I would tell them what Ethan Canin told us on the final day at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop: figure out what inspires you (Reading? Theater? Long walks along the beach? Trips to the library?)—put yourself in position to live a creatively inspired life. Now, sit down and get to work.
Bloom: Is there a question that no one has ever asked you (in an interview or at a reading) that you’d like to answer?
JR: What are the most important items you keep on your writing desk?
1) A stainless steel paperweight that says: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”
2) A small rubbing stone inscribed with the Chinese character for patience.
Click here to read Nicki Leone’s feature piece on Josh Rolnick.