Robert Lopez is the author of PART OF THE WORLD, a novel released earlier this year by Calamari Press. He teaches an experimental fiction workshop at the New School and co-edits the avant literary magazine Sleepingfish with Derek White. When reading Lopez’s writing, it is clear that you are in the hands of someone who cares about every word, every syllable. His prose flows with such natural ease and liquid pronunciation that he makes the difficult seem very easy. Mixing in the wordplay of Samuel Beckett and the flat humor of writers like Stephen Dixon and Salinger, his work is a delight and a provocation.
Blake Butler: How did you get involved in writing? What made you want to become a writer to begin with? For me, I’d always been a big reader, but I remember one specific book that really got me thinking that my thoughts could operate on the page. Are there any works/authors that had this same effect on you?
Robert Lopez: I remember reading an interview with a well known writer who answered this question with something along the lines of “Like every other writer you’ve talked to I was a voracious reader growing up.” So it’s possible I might be the only one who didn’t read at all as a child or teenager, etc. (I suspect there are others, though.) In fact, I’d read only one book by the time I was 22, not counting biographies of Wayne Gretzky, Elvis, folks like that. I didn’t become a reader until I decided I was a writer, which was shortly after college. The summer after I graduated I planned to write a screenplay and wound up with about one hundred horrible poems and two horrible short stories. I was finally reading my Lit anthology and that was that. Every day that summer I read and wrote and did little else. So from there reading Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” made me want to write a story and reading Raymond Carver made me want to be a writer. Then later on when I came across Samuel Beckett in graduate school that was that again.
BB: The narrator of PART OF THE WORLD is such a strange bird, a sort who keeps a journal of which side of the bed he wakes up on and whether with an erection, as well as one who seems landlocked from any normal social world. You pilot his voice so effortlessly. How did you come into this character?
RL: For me everything comes from language. So the voice and character came from language, specifically, the first line I came up with which wound up somewhere in the middle of the book. From that one sentence I knew how he thought, spoke, and moved around and through his part of the world. I guess I look at a narrator the same way an actor looks at a character or part. I use myself and take this trait or that predilection to the extreme or not depending on how I think it should work. So every narrator I’ve used is me or some part of me.
BB: Interesting that the line you started off with ended up in the middle. What was the original first line of the book? How did you realize it wasn’t the true beginning and then go about restructuring the text?
RL: The very first line I had was “This is an attempt to distance myself from anything I may have done or said in the past, etc., etc.,” I had that line in a notebook for years before I could figure out the second line. After one or two false starts the second line did eventually come – “I have a car.” I wrote the first draft from there in present tense and was on the path. Afterward, something about the present tense didn’t feel right so I moved it to past tense and changed the opening again to “I’m not sure how I had the money to buy the car.” Luckily, I didn’t have to restructure too much at that point. For me these sorts of decisions are always intuitive, so if something feels right or doesn’t feel right you have to trust that feeling.
BB: The narrator is also unnamed, as far as we know from reading. I read an interview with Yannick Murphy where she said she left the narrator of HERE THEY COME out because so much of it was based on her life and she didn’t want to include that pressure. What are the benefits of this sort of anonymity?
RL: Names don’t interest me in fiction. What’s the difference between Henry, David, Joseph, Benjamin, etc.? If John Updike traded Rabbit Angstrom to Richard Ford for Frank Bascombe would it make a difference? If Stanley Kowalski was Jeffrey Lebowski would Streetcar be any different? Other than establishing sex and perhaps ethnicity names seem totally arbitrary and superfluous to me. So I wasn’t thinking in terms of anonymity or an everyman or anything like that for this particular narrator. I think of this narrator as a cipher or shell and this is why he is the way he is and why he is unnamed.
BB: My first thought of the tone of PART OF THE WORLD was Beckett by way of Salinger. For the most part nothing happens in this novel, but yet it is impossible to put down. What was your writing process on the novel? How much did you know when you started and how much was discovered?
RL: The first draft was as dry as can be and devoid of anything that might constitute a compelling novel. I had to put meat on the bones and blood in its veins and did this in subsequent drafts. All I knew when I started was that this narrator had a car and an apartment and I had to figure out why that was important. I discovered as I worked on it how this car was involved in a serious accident and how it affected the narrator. Then came the idea this trauma should recur throughout and it should be slightly different every time. The trauma of this accident informs everything in the novel and the narrator can’t get anything straight because of it. It took a long while to figure all of this out.
BB: There seems almost as much that we don’t know about the narrator as we do. I was particularly struck by the presence of two distinct sections where the narrator seems to slip into some sort of fugue state. He moves from a 1st person perspective to an objective one, referring to himself as B and another character as A. In both sections there are oblique references to violence committed by B (the narrator) against A. He then switches back into his normal narration without much referring to the situation. Did these come out during the writing or were they something you’d intended? How does violence in literature affect you both as a writer and a reader?
RL: I’d written an unsuccessful short using those A and B characters and thought it would work for the novel. The distance and anonymity and violence worked in this case. The narrator has a hard time distinguishing what’s his and what isn’t. So someone will say something in one section and he’ll parrot it back in some convoluted way in another section. It’s the same way with the violence. For him the violence and trauma of the car accident replays and morphs into the violence depicted in those scenes. For me violence is always most effective when it’s subtle and not explicit or graphic. I think Raymond Carver’s “Tell The Women We’re Going” is an example of this. It started and ended with a rock. Also, there’s a Ron Carlson short, I’m forgetting the title, where the violence doesn’t draw attention to itself and it’s more disturbing this way.
BB: There’s also a strange sexuality in PART OF THE WORLD, a tendency that also shows up in some of your shorter writing. The narrator seems unable to have a normal relationship with his neighbor, who seems the only person in his world who shows affection or interest in him. In fact there seems to be a total lack of ability to commingle anywhere. Sex writing is hard, and thus these iffy, perverse manners seem even more charged. How do you approach the erotic in fiction? What books and/or scenes have ever turned you on, or do you think it’s too hard to show a straightforward, intimate sexuality?
RL: I guess I approach the erotic the same as I do everything else. It’s the unusual that most interests me on the page. And you’re right, it is very difficult to write a realistic and compelling sex scene and the only way I can handle sex or anything else is to cultivate the unusual. Since the characters aren’t straightforward and seem entirely dysfunctional it would be wrong for them to have routine or normal sex, whatever that is. Realism or the depiction of realism doesn’t interest me as a writer, which is why I find names banal and uninteresting. I say this about my own interests as a writer. It certainly isn’t a commentary on realistic writers in general. About great sex writing – Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi has some great sex scenes. I like the way Gary Lutz handles sex and sexuality, gender, etc. Barry Hannah has some great perverted sex in Ray; there’s some good perversion in Robert Coover’s Spanking the Maid and Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s.
BB: How does your relationship with a text you’ve spent so much time with, molding and remolding, change after it is out of your hands into the world? I wonder this in particular with a book like PART OF THE WORLD, that seems so full of a hybrid energy, with so much left open to interpretation.
RL: This has been a new experience for me and it’s a little strange. I had never written a novel before and never planned to either. The process was both arduous and rewarding and took years. Of course, you also have the ridiculous task of finding a publisher. Part of the World was almost accepted by three other publishers before Calamari Press published it. So, finding a home for the work means you don’t have to worry about that side of it anymore. Then you are left with getting it ready for publication. You are inside the work for so long and it’s entirely yours for that time and then it finally comes out and it has nothing to do with you anymore. The distance you feel from the work is striking. It feels like someone else wrote it and in a way someone else did, a former self.
BB: I know that you teach an experimental fiction workshop at the New School. I’m intrigued by the term ‘experimental fiction’ being applied to ‘workshop,’ a practice that often falls into holes. Could you tell me a little bit about how you run your classes? What methods you use to teach experimenting in fiction… ie: specific texts, procedures, exercises.
RL: I have a suggested reading list and I tell the students that if you are serious about being a writer you have to read these people. I’ll bring in a section of Beckett, Stephen Dixon, David Markson, Gary Lutz, Lydia Davis, William Gass, Leonard Michaels, Grace Paley, etc., and we’ll read it together and discuss what makes the work unique. My focus is always on language. I encourage students to cultivate their fears, perversions, preoccupations, and find a voice that will accommodate this and work from there. Past that it’s a standard workshop. I never force students into some idea of what experimental is or what it isn’t. Form is up to the writer – I think imposing some kind of experimental form on a writer wouldn’t work. All writing is an experiment and there’s room to fail, particularly in a workshop. If anything I tell students to steal from the aforementioned writers through your own bent view of yourself and the world. I have a few exercises I assign for students that need them but otherwise I don’t like exercises.
BB: You are also a co-editor for the fantastic Sleepingfish magazine, along with Derek White of Calamari Press. How is it different editing other people’s work as opposed to your own? How does your experience with Sleepingfish affect you as a writer?
RL: This is a great question. When you edit you have to keep your own sensibilities at arm’s length. You can’t look at a sentence or phrase and say “I would never write this” because how you write is irrelevant. It’s all about the work and helping the writer achieve the most on the page. There are so many talented writers doing their own thing and knowing this is both comforting and inspiring.
BB: What’s next for Robert Lopez?
RL: I’ll have a novel coming out called Kamby Bolongo Mean River with Dzanc Books in early 2009 probably and a short story collection with Dzanc sometime thereafter.
About the author:
Blake Butler lives in Atlanta. His fiction and other writing (found or forthcoming in Sleepingfish, 3:AM, Caketrain, The Rambler, etc.) can be found at his website www.deadwinter.com and at blakebutler.blogspot.com.