20 Questions with Mourning Goats
INTERVIEW TWENTY FIVE
For interview twenty-five, we have one of the best interviews I've been lucky enough to receive. Mourning Goats interview #7, author Craig Clevenger, recommended Rob to me, saying that his work was, "truly amazing stuff." Well, he did not let down and neither did Rob. I am proud to give you what I believe to be one of the funniest and most thought out interviews yet!
1. What comes to mind when you hear, "mourning goats?"
Well, when I first heard of this (very cool, by the way) series, it made me think of the band The Mountain Goats, maybe because it sounded sort of the same, and I like some of their stuff a lot, and a friend of mine plays with them sometimes.
Then, after reading the interviews, what came to my mind was this page. It had replaced The Mountain Goats, once I knew what it was.
But, it also makes me think of Alonzo Mourning, retired from the NBA and starting a goat-breeding business called “Mourning Goats.” Cause, you know, that would probably be the name of Alonzo Mourning’s Goat-Breeding business, wouldn’t you think? Or “Mourning’s Goats”…he might like the sound of the possessive. I can’t speak for him. We had a falling out years ago. I can’t say much (it’s part of the settlement). But, let’s just say it involved us both being involved with a very famous and beautiful Hip-Hop star (again, I’d like to name her…but, the settlement) and it didn’t end well. It got ugly. This happens surprisingly often when unknown writers and rich NBA stars compete for the affections of beautiful, ridiculously famous women. Much more often than you’d guess. Just last year, my friend Tod Goldberg and LeBron James had quite the dust-up at AWP. I shouldn’t talk about that, though. It’s not really my place. All I can really say is don’t mess with Tod Goldberg, or you might end up so rattled that, even months later, you’ll play surprisingly poorly in the NBA Finals.
Though Tod is hardly as unknown as me…he’s a big-time famous writer. But still. My point was…well, you don’t want NBA stars and fiction writers in the same room unless you’re the kind of person who likes adult-sized trouble.
But, you know, back to Alonzo for a moment. He might call his Goat-Breeding business “Zo’s Goats”, but that doesn’t sound as cool. Maybe if he starts a Goat-Breeding business and uses your name, you can sue his rich ass and make some serious cheddar. But the settlement will include a gag-order, I can assure you.
2. You have fantastic reviews of your books on Amazon.com, how hard is it to not think about them when you write?
Those are probably all me under a variety of fifty fake names.
Seriously? It’s easy not to think about them when I write. F. Scott Fitzgerald said (and he may have been quoting someone, so it may not originate with him, but he was the first I heard say/write it) that if you believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad ones.
I’m very flattered by them. And I do think of them when I think I suck. Though, on days I think I suck, they’re of no comfort because any praise I get on the dark days, I tend to think is wrong.
But, I really don’t think I’ve ever thought of them while writing, or even when I’m working on a project, but not sitting that moment writing. I wrote for a lot of years before anyone read anything of mine, save for the editors rejecting those pieces. So, my training had little, if anything, to do with worrying about an audience I didn’t have.
When I write, I think about the writing.
Actually, that’s not quite true. When I revise and edit, I think about the writing, narrative theory, issues of craft, and so on. When I write, I try to clear my head, listen to the language, and try to think of something that would happen next that would excite me, if I were reading the book. Writing is very “in the moment” for me. It’s some of the only time I’m not worrying about the future or regretting the past. Writing is a lot like sex. Somehow it’s become a sort of Zen-state for me, where I can be totally in the moment. And thinking doesn’t have much to do with it at that point.
3. How did you get involved in restoring old medical devices?
In all honesty (and why not just be honest?), some friends of ours had this really electric cool sex toy they showed us called a Violet Wand.
(And just for the record, if anyone who’s in charge of the ethics clause in my wife’s contract is reading this, I’m talking about another wife. I’ve had eleven. Maybe sixteen, over the years. I’ve lost track. I’m the Liz Taylor of incredibly obscure writers…this parenthetical is less honest than the rest of this answer, but you can’t be too careful these days).
But, back to your Q: A Violet Wand is kind of a variation of a Tesla coil (not exactly, but this isn’t a science class, and I’m not bright enough to teach such a class, anyway), and it can give off a really mild, warm sensation, or it can be turned up (safely) to zap the hell out of a person. Or anywhere in between those two sensations. And they’re really beautiful…they use (mostly) Argon gas in a vacuum blown glass attachment, and they glow a stunning kind of purple/violet (hence the name) when they’re turned on, and the gas is excited. The glass attachment plugs into the hand-held device that is black (plastic now--Bakelite back in the day) about the size of a D-Battery flashlight. They had a bunch of different shapes of glass…one that looks like a comb that was supposed to cure baldness. This wacky shaped one that was for your heart. This was VERY quack science, as far as working medically. Other gasses in the glass give off different colors. Neon is a kind of orange.
Not often, but every once in a while, some of the glass parts were Mercury-coated in the old ones. They’re not clear, but the color of the Mercury in an old thermometer. Obviously, you shouldn’t be running electrically charged, heated Mercury over your skin. Those are the attachments you don’t use, and actually should get rid of safely. Mercury poisoning can make a person as whacked and loony and bat-shit crazy as Michele Bachmann. Or her husband. He’s even loonier, maybe, but that’s a tough race to call.
Anyway, new Violet Wands were really expensive and we were kind of broke, so I did some research and found out the new ones were just a modern version of this electric health/medical device from the 1920’s-1930’s called a Violet Ray. At the time, they were dirt cheap on eBay, so I bought a few, figured out how they worked and restored the best of the three, and re-wired it with a ground plug for safety.
And then, I ended up finding out about some other cool stuff—like Electro Muscle Stimulant Units (sort of a higher powered and more Dr. Frankenstein-y version of a TENS unit they use today for muscle rehab in physical therapy). There are unsafe ways to use those, so anyone out there reading this who is going to run out and buy them, read up on how to use them safely.
After that, I found a few others that were just kind of cool-looking. It’s odd…people were CRAZY for electric medical devices in the 1920’s and into the 30’s…electricity in homes was a little new, as more towns and cities installed AC current, and people seemed to think (or were told by ads and media of the day) that electricity could do everything and anything. So, a bunch of them are just cool looking and have no practical application unless someone wanted to lobotomize themselves, or read their personality by the bumps on their head with a Phrenology cap (very cool, if very stupid). I had a Phrenology cap and sold it. It’s one of my great regrets. One should never sell a Phrenology cap…they don’t grow on trees. They’re not something you trip over at Costco.
But, originally? I got into them for sex. It’s why I do a lot of things.
4. Do you think there's a connection between writing fiction and writing lyrics?
When I write prose, I put a lot of pressure on myself and set the bar pretty high.
With music, the bar’s a little lower…I’m having fun with my friends and making noise and playing to bigger crowds than writers tend to get…getting to tour…I wish writers would tour like bands. It’s a hell of a lot more fun. Actually, Craig Clevenger and I are thinking of doing some version of a group tour, a travelling literary freak show. Wordapalosa or something.
Back to lyrics: Sometimes I come up with a really good line here or there, but often, they’re (the lyrics) the thing that carries the melody and keeps the song from being an instrumental.
It’s hard to say, though. Good question. I do know for certain that I’m far more nervous/uncomfortable playing my songs solo with an acoustic guitar than I am doing a reading. So, maybe it’s just that I have more confidence and faith in my prose.
5. In your interview on The Rumpus, you say that you write to understand who you are, can you expand on that? I completely agree.
Yeah…I’m not sure exactly how to explain it. Maybe an example would do the job: From 1996-2003, I wrote two novels, maybe ten to fifteen stories that I kept (and probably double that in failed ones) a few screenplays, and maybe five plays. It was probably the most sustained productive stretch (by word count, at least) of my life.
And only sometime in 2004, did I realize that, while each writing project was a different narrative with different plots and characters, there was one enormous thread they all shared. In a way, everything I wrote in those seven years was about me trying to deal with the horror of life changing in an instant. And that fear—of loss of everything than matters being gone in a second—ran though all those narratives—some overtly, some not.
They were all ABOUT something else, but they shared this fear in some way. And I didn’t realize it until after I’d written them all. And that fear was triggered by two events in my life where everything, as I understood it, DID fall apart in an instant (once, a very long time ago) and where it seemed about to happened (maybe six months before this stretch of writing) when there was the enormous threat of a life-altering event. An emergency surgery on the person I love the most in the world. Luckily, that one didn’t end badly, but the threat was there. And that can trigger PTSD, if you have it, where the initial fracture (of life/security/meaning) comes back at you, like it’s all happening again, not in memory, but all in the same moment. It’s a freakish brain anxiety overload. So, all those things I wrote were VERY different from each other in plot, character, structure and language. But the one thing they all shared was this enormous fear of loss that I was working my way (unconsciously) through with the writing. I didn’t have any idea I was doing that, and I like it that way.
But, I think (or I fear) that stuff’s only interesting for the writer (so I apologize for going on about it a bit), and maybe his or her friends. Telling people what you discovered from your own writing is a little like people telling you their dreams. No one cares. Nor should they. It’s whether the narrative (in whatever form or genre) works or not.
But, in general, it’s a pretty amazing part of the process for me. I write the best narrative I can…I try to write the book that I would most like to read. I don’t ever think about theme—the word alone makes me cringe. And I don’t, to paraphrase Gordon Lish’s wonderful observation, ever want my narratives be “reduced to meaning.” Stories and novels are bigger than meaning. They’re like living things.
I never think about what a story “means.” I find that a reductive and boring way to look at the gig. I prefer to look at how they exist, what differentiates how they exist from other stories. But, you know, it works for a lot of people…theme and meaning and so on. I’m not interested in being prescriptive. Whatever works for anyone else? Cool. It’s just not a way of looking at narrative that’s very interesting to me.
6. Not only do you have an MFA, but you teach in an MFA program, what do you think about teaching the craft?
I love it—though I’m doing a little too much of it at the moment. If I won the lottery or something, I’d still teach. Of course I’d have to play the lottery. But I’d do it less. However, it’s a great job. I learn a lot from my students. And, hopefully, I pass something along from my experience in the craft (and the business) that helps them tell their stories better than they did before we got to work together.
Also, it keeps you sharp (or, I should say it keeps me sharp), as I’m always breaking stories down, trying to see and share how they work (or where and how they don’t). And when you teach, you give a lot of advice. And then, sometimes, I realize I’m giving good advice and not following it myself. It keeps me relentlessly challenging my aesthetic. It’s very healthy to try and explain how a narrative works, and then try to show how it can be applied to everyone’s work in a different way (because they’re unique, so their stories should be, as well). And I’m always learning, if I pay attention to what I’m asking my students to pay attention to.
7. You said in an interview on The Hipster Book Club that you write very autobiographical, do you think it's possible to not include yourself in your stories?
Yes and no. Part of a long book I’m working on is set in the Bikini Islands in 1946, when the United States moved (temporarily, we told/lied to them) the people who’d lived there for hundreds of years off their home island so that we could test atom bombs. We bombed the shit out of this little atoll for seven or eight years with atom bombs. Then, in 1954, we tested nuclear bombs there, and the island has been poisoned, is still too hot with Cesium 137 for anyone to live there, and the native people live on a shitty, much smaller island that we left them on.
Anyway, in that book, I have the POV of a woman, who clearly wouldn’t be me. And of a soldier in 1946 (again, I have no experience like that), and then 4 more POV’s all the way up to 2006. If I write from the POV of a woman or a 20 year old soldier exposed to radiation in 1946, it isn’t autobiographical in the strict sense that the thing happened to me in my life. But they all are autobiographical in a way they’re all processed through my world view, the people I find interesting enough to write a novel about, the plots that resonate with me and my history with and use of language. Stuff like that.
8. How did you get in to teaching? When you went for your MFA, was that the plan all along?
I’ll answer the second one first. Nope—teaching was not the plan. I went to the MFA program to learn how to be a better writer. Going for any other reason isn’t wise, I think.
Teaching? Well, I’d hated every real/honest job I’d ever had. So, I thought I’d try it. I got into teaching Composition at a crappy, creepy religious school (I have no idea what religion it was…they all kind of blend to me…religions are like watching Australian Rules Football on, like, ESPN III to me. I can watch it forever and still have no idea of how it works, how they keep score and what anything means at the end of it) where the head of the English department was this dusty 60 year old woman who threatened to fire me for wearing red Chuck Taylors. I had to wear a tie. A tie!? Ties are for using in a pinch if you don’t have any fun bondage gear. So, it didn’t start out so well.
But then we moved to Long Beach in 1995, and I had a terrible editing job. I was line-editing 1,200 pages 60 hours a week for 17 grand a year. I was good at it, but it was killing me. My friend Rachel Resnick recommended me (for which I’m enormously grateful) to Linda Venus at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program in 1996. Linda took a chance on me (I only had maybe 3-4 published stories..so, I’m enormously grateful to Linda as well), and it was a fabulous program, and it turned out I was good at the job. It was probably the first job of my life that I didn’t despise. Except for playing guitar, but that wasn’t really a job. I’m just not made for real jobs. I stunk at every job I had before this one. Absolutely dreadful employee.
And I had some awful jobs, too, but they could have been worse. Like, in some ancient kingdoms, they had a food-taster, who would take a bite of the meal. If he dropped dead, the King’s dinner had been poisoned, so the king wouldn’t eat it. If he lived…well, he still had to do that job the next meal. That’s a bad job.
9. What do you think about where publication is going, with e-readers, etc.?
Honestly, I have no idea. I love physical books—they are special, nearly sacred to me, as objects, let alone what’s on their pages. Books saved me, in many ways. Can a text on a Kindle or an iPad save someone’s life? Probably. It doesn’t have to be the object it’s been. But I will miss it. I’ll be the last guy on my block with my Horseless Carriage, while my neighbors zip around in their Model T’s.
I write books. I promote them (which I love)…traveling/getting to do shows/readings. I’ll bust my ass for a publisher who had the faith to partner up with me and my work. But, how they are going to get to the reader/what delivery method? Really no idea. I probably should pay attention to that stuff, but I’m not good at business and money stuff. I’m kind of a stooge, in many ways. Career-wise/trends in publishing and that kind of thing, for sure. Stooge.
10. Do you think that writing has helped you move forward as a person? It sounds like your late teens forward was pretty rough.
Well, everyone has their troubles. My problem was how I choose to deal with my troubles. I self-medicated quite a bit and lost a lot of years. It’s a typical course—at first drugs worked and made me feel good for the first time in my life. And then they stopped working. It would have been nice if I could have stopped doing them when they stopped working, but I decided to give them many more years of trying. I just could not manage life when I wasn’t loaded. But, eventually, you can get to a place where you’re not the talented, young, promising fuck-up who’s the life of the party…you’re the person who’s hurt everyone around you and has hurt yourself, for years. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you realize, deeply, that you don’t know anything. You’re being selfish with other people’s lives, and you have to change and learn how to live, or you’ll probably die or go to jail.
I also believed in that drunk/addict/suffering artist horseshit, and thought it justified my behavior. I’d be kicked out of bands, lost friends…I was kind of a train wreck. I’d been with some wonderful women and let them down in a variety of ways and they would get upset, they would suffer, and I’d kind of float around saying, “hey you knew I was a royal fuck-up when we met. Public record.” It turns out that’s not so charming in the long run. Go figure.
But writing? Once I was able to do it again (I hadn’t written for years, at one point) I think writing helped me lead a more engaged life. It makes me pay attention. Listen. Be in the moment. Empathize—narrative prose (fiction/memoir) is an art of empathy enacted in language, for me. And that’s powerful and essential. Most hideous human behavior is at least partially a result of a thorough lack of empathy for others. To learn and respect without judgment what it is to be in someone else’s skin and head. It’s good for me. I think it’s good for a culture, too, and if we lose too many more readers and continue dumbing down our instant gratification/reality-TV/celebrity-obsessed culture, I truly think we’re fucked.
11. What was it like winning the 2003 Instructor of the Year Award in creative writing?
Just getting to teach has been one of the many unexpected blessings of my life. I had no idea how good it could feel to have a positive impact on someone’s life (I’d been much more proficient at being a negative influence). So, being noticed for being a good teacher? It made me feel appreciated. So much of the writing life is rejection, not much money and a lot of time alone. So, it was really nice. I work hard. I care a lot about teaching and I give a lot, because my best teachers gave me a lot. You owe to people the best you’ve received from other people, if that makes sense.
Saul Bellow said, “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.” And I think a teacher is a student moved to emulation, as well. It’s a different art form than writing and I think a lot of writers don’t see as a different discipline—the writing and the teaching of writing.
12. How do you find time for it all? You write, sing in 3 bands, restore old amps, teach, and are married; I'm tired just writing that out.
You know, until about 5 years ago, I did all those things, and could somehow manage to do them all at the same time. Not now. I need to change my bio-ha! Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s just that I have the biggest teaching load I’ve ever had this term. So, that’s only allowed for squirreling away time for writing and my relationships, and the rest of the stuff has suffered of late. Only one of the bands is totally active. I don’t know how I did all that stuff, but I know I can’t do it now. I haven’t rebuilt an amp for a year, which kind of bums me out.
But, I’ve also focused more on my writing and tried to not let anything get in its way. I have a lot of books I want to do before I die. Writing, along with Gayle and my friends, what I need to find time for. You could live 100 years and still not get to see the people you love enough. I doubt I’ll be on my deathbed someday wishing I’d rebuilt one more amp, you know? Someone else can rebuild amps for a while, I guess. There are plenty of people who are better at it, anyway.
13. You've talked a lot about Gayle, your partner, is she your first reader?
Sometimes. When she isn’t buried in student papers, she’s the first. She’s a great reader. When she’s busy, there are a few writer friends of mine and we read each other’s work. But if she’s not the first, she one of the five people who I send work to. When she can, she always reads a story before it leaves the house. And with a novel, I won’t send it to my agent until she’s had a look. I think it might be pretty rare for your partner to be a real editor. She’s very honest and she doesn’t just say, “oh it’s wonderful, you’re so brilliant.” She’s a real reader—critical in the best ways. Rigorous. Supportive. Incredibly smart.
As far as talking about her a lot…well, Gayle warrants a lot of talking about. She is pretty fabulous.
14. You have a story being published in Penthouse, what's that about? How did you go about getting it in there?
It was a memoir excerpt about my cock piercing. My friend Steve Almond read it and suggested one editor at Playboy and one at Penthouse. Penthouse took it. They paid more for that 4 page piece than I’ve been paid for two of my books combined. Apparently, I should be writing about my cock more often. If I were more of a Capitalist, you might see nothing but cock from me for years.
15. Who are your favorite writers on your bookshelf? Anyone new that we should watch out for?
This is super tough, and I’m going to dance around it a bit. I hope you’ll forgive me. I would love to name a bunch of deserving people and hope that your audience became their audience. But I know SO many great writers and many of them are very close friends of mine. And if I tried to give you a list of the writers who I admire from my generation/my contemporaries, it would be ridiculously long, and I would still, inevitably, accidentally forget someone (or a few people), and feel like absolute shit about it.
I will mention two who are friends, but I’ll mention them because they are not exactly my contemporaries. Also, while they are good friends, they were, at first, mentors to me. Probably, in many ways, my two biggest teachers and influences and just fabulous writers: Francois Camoin and Darrell Spencer.
Francois, I got to study with in my MFA program. In fact, he’s the reason I ended up getting the degree. I pretty much was thinking about dropping out, then I heard him read the story “Marty” from his incredible collection LIKE LOVE, BUT NOT EXACTLY. I’d had some fine teachers, but hearing Francois read was the first time I’d ever heard someone who wrote stories like I wanted, desperately, to write them, but couldn’t for the life of me do at the time. At Vermont College, where I got my MFA, there was a system where the students list the mentor they want to work with the most, and then the second most, and so on, and you had to list five. It was weighted to seniority. I met/heard Francois when I had three terms to go. I picked him first. I didn’t get him. I figured, the next time, I’d have only two terms left, and I had a better chance to get him. And you were allowed to work with the same mentor two terms in a row, so I was hoping to work with him the whole final year. Again, I didn’t get him.
By then, we were friends. Also, by then, I’d read every word he’d ever published and was getting pretty pissed off at whoever assigned mentors. At that point, I had been there too long to drop out (though I had thought about it a lot, but I was damn well sure I was going to get to work with this guy)…I was pot-committed, in poker terms. I also figured they HAD to give me my first choice for my last term. Or else blood would be spilled in the program director’s office and no one there would ever read in poet voice again, if I didn’t get Francois.
And then Darrell Spencer, who I never studied with, but his stories taught me a lot about writing, and then we became friends and he’s amazing. An afternoon hanging and talking casually with Spence can teach you more about writing that a semester long course with many people.
Those are two writers who should be much more widely read.
16. Can you tell us about The Cost of Living? When should we expect it?
It’s a novel that takes place over 30 years (though not chronologically) in the life of the narrator—whose father killed a man when he was 13 and whose mother left the same year and committed suicide when he was 17. So, he’s got some issues. I think it’s my best book. I could be wrong, but this one got closer to what I’m trying to do than any of them so far. I’m doing the final edits now.
It’s coming out on Other Voices (OV) Books, who are associated with Dzanc, and I’m happy to get to work with them. Especially working with OV Books editor Gina Frangello. She’s a great writer, as well, and the best editor I’ve ever had. And I’ve been lucky with editors. But, she’s in another league.
It’s coming out in Fall, 2012. Unless those End Times bastards are right.
17. I see you interviewed yourself on thenervousbreakdown.com, What's it like to be such an incredibly attractive writer--maybe the world's sexiest author?
Ha! It’s going pretty well.
18. I saw you're writing a book on writing, how's that going, why did you feel you wanted to write it?
I think I started it for teaching. So I could have chapters on issues that come up so often in student manuscripts, and I thought I wouldn’t have to keep saying it over and over, with every new group I get to work with. I could just say, “You’re withholding information. That’s an issue. Look at page 42, where it explains why.”
It’s suffering a bit, because I have so many other writing projects I want to do. I’m hoping to find more time for it in the future.
19. What's the best piece of advice you've heard in writing? The worst?
The best? Read. And read like a writer. How you read, the quality of what you read, and the amount that you read goes a VERY long way to determining how far you may go as a writer. And work you ass off and expect two careers. One that pays for the writing, and the writing
The worst? Well, I won’t name names, tempting as it may be, but this guy was the absolute worst guest-writer we have EVER had at UCR/Palm Desert, where I teach. A moronic cow-fucker of an idiot. After reading an astoundingly shitty story, he told the students he never revised (as if that were not frighteningly evident), and neither should they. I don’t mind if I hear bad advice. For better or worse, I’ve been at this a while and I do what I do and I listen to good advice to improve. But after doing this for over 24 years, I can spot a moron.
But when someone says dumb-ass shit to my students? He’s just lucky I’m a civil human being…or a chickenshit coward. Either way, someone should have gone on-stage and stapled the bottom of his tongue to his forehead.
Of course, after his terrible advice, what did he do? Went out on the University’s dime and ordered the most expensive thing on the menu. The first smart thing he’d done all night.
20. What's next for Rob Roberge?
Well, once I see if it poisons my food-taster or not, I might have dinner. Thanks for the interview!