A native of Southern California, Lou Rowan began his writing career in New York City, where he earned his living as teacher and as an institutional investor. He lives and writes in Seattle. His current projects include a novel about the losing of the West, a sequel to My Last Days, stories, and his editorial duties at Golden Handcuffs Review. For further reading see Lou Rowan’s website.
David F. Hoenigman: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Lou Rowan: In my late teens I found myself writing long letters to friends about odd events like a party on the Wissahicken in suburban Philly: many of my prep school classmates were there just after graduation, many of us about to head off to Europe, all expecting titillating stints at Ivy League colleges–as well as the young woman who specialized in sleeping with boys, as we were called, from St. Mark’s School. She was related to a prominent Washington, D.C. family, one of whose branches was big in the CIA. She had just broken up with my former roommate (I can remember joking about sharing that status with her in the letter), and wanted to share her sad feelings and grudges with me. Another partygoer had discovered his diabetes and stared with dramatic longing at a cake, until I “bit” and asked him why. –I liked to write what I’d probably now see as catty letters sketching these events, and I remember a recipient calling one of them “publishable.” I’m sure I found the river’s name funny, the kind of broad humor with which I like occasionally to play.
At about the same time I read a biography of Hawthorne, and in it were stories he told his children—in one some being manages to leap from one cannonball to another in midair. I wrote my own version of that and staged a reading of it for my younger brothers and sisters they probably found as pleasurable as a subpoena when I was babysitting them. So somewhere around 16-18 I began to indulge, and it was some relative of storytelling.
DH: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
LR: Although middle-to-upper-middle-class in social status, I’ve been until recently quite rootless, living in 26 places I know of. From the earliest days I’ve wanted to have a “home” and a familiar neighborhood and community and geography, but haven’t. Probably this literal alienation has helped me to experience characters and situations as manipulable. Also, it has afforded me a kind of walking nostalgia like that walking sleep disorder: I am instantly disappointed and hopeful, present and removed. I think this take has helped me flip the (I hope) surprising transitions in my stories. If what you’re given is tentative, what an opportunity to play!
DH: What inspired you to write your first book?
LR: I have two “first books:” a longish poem from the ’60s, Your pages are not numbered, and my recent novel, My Last Days. In both cases: anger. At Vietnam, and at “financialization” of the U.S.
I should explain that my old friend Robert Lamberton introduced me to the experimental side of American poetry just after college, and I lived for the readings at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowerie, and for my visits with Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Paul Blackburn, David Antin, Jerry Rothenberg, Gil Sorrentino and others, and I read the new books from San Francisco by Blaser and Spicer et al as they came out. I’d found a language that carried intelligence, emotion without slop, and openness to all experience. That was it, I knew. But after bursting out all over various kinds of paper and notebooks with pens of all colors and typewriters of various resistances to my fingers, that stream came to resemble a California creek bed, perhaps finally to be paved over by work, etc. I’d like to do a book of the poems sometime, but it keeps getting shorter—especially in the absence of folks like Zukofsky to help dam or daylight them.
Later the storytelling impulse came back, and I started to finish the stories in the notebooks I’d kept over the years. And reading The Review of Contemporary Fictionwas a lifesaver as I worked in the investment world. Then in the ’90s I moved to an island in Puget Sound from which I could see clearly enough the Manhattan political and socio-economic antics for which we’re paying today. It hit me I could use Superman as my Gulliver, and that choice focused the decades of anger I’d felt navigating the adolescent greed into one short novel. Which opened the way to less agitated kinds of stories (or so it seems to me) like those in Sweet Potatoes.
DH: What books are you reading now?
LR: The Spirit of Disobedience, by Curtis White. I was impressed by an excerpt from it in Harper’s. Then the 3rd volume of Poems for the Millennium appeared, reminding me of White’s making “romanticism” something we can live from. So those 2 books are on my desk, along with Daicia Marini’s novel The Silent Duchess, and a startling history of the Los Angeles River by Blake Gumprecht.
DH: Who or what has influenced your writing?
LR: I’ve mentioned that word “experimental.” I have no knowledge of literary theory, perhaps a vestige of being the California barbarian who moved East, a micro-version of the Henry James trans-Atlantic shock. And maybe my reduction of the innate decency you see in Mr. Newman (heh-heh) of the The American is my innate need to simplify. So: I sez to myself, jeez scientists are expected to experiment, are not dismissed nowadays by the secular academic establishment for presuming their job is to discover something new, and then I make an obvious leap, or analogy to/with literature. The simple presumption being that literature is far more than entertainment.
And when I look at the “experimental” writers I see them taking tradition seriously: aren’t the “constraints” we see in, say, Oulipan writing analogous to traditional forms and structures in poetry? Or I look, for example, at the supposedly difficult novelist William Gaddis as a descendant from Ben Jonson’s comedies, or Joseph McElroy’s “composition by field” not only crying our for comparison with modern poetry but also as a descendant from Laurence Sterne. And so I learn by cracking my teeth on writing I need to study, and recent examples of books from which I’ve learned much would be novels by Alain Toussaint, Leslie Kaplan, Lydie Salvayre, Nicholas Mosely, and stories by Joe Ashby Porter. It would be pompous to claim to be influenced by the great figures of the 19th and 20th and earlier centuries against whom one measures contemporaries, but the truth is they are the most important to me so I wish I could read French better, and could read Russian.
DH: Dreams play a significant role in some of the stories in Sweet Potatoes. I can think of three off the top of my head that end in dreams: “V”, “Prince”, “The Accounting.” What do dreams mean to you? What do they say about your characters? Do you often remember your dreams?
LR: I began to write dream-stories when my first son was little, maybe trying to perceive things as I thought he might. I tried to simplify the language, and let seemingly-simple scenes like hard wet sand be mysteries, intrigues for him. I was also charmed by his early version of time: he’d say something like, “I will do it yesterday.”
As I began to finish stories dreams became important as an antidote to moralizing or haranguing, and also as the ultimate improvisation when the “discipline” of the work was that I not know what would happen next. In “V” I attached what I’d dreamed the night before to what I’d written. One can “interpret” the connections, especially through the salesman’s anxiety, but in fact what I did was just that, and added the last sentence. That’s the only time I can remember using a “real” dream—the others I’ve enjoyed inventing: they are fun to write, there’s some mysterious ease. In My Last Days I come close enough to moralizing a dream: after Supe has wreaked his crazy revenge, he has a current-affairs nightmare from which he cannot awake, a nightmare that the tv news in his motel continues. I often wonder why Stephen Daedalus’ wonderful phrase is not used more frequently by historians and journalists. A book like King Leopold’s Ghost is mere nightmare.
Maybe the dream in “Prince” is sad: the situation with the woman works only in the speaker’s head—which would make it similar to “Corn, Cones, Conchs.”
No, I seldom remember my dreams these days, and don’t keep a notebook of them, but admire writers like Theodore Enslin who’ve trained themselves to wake up and record them. So much in our lives and our history is routine. I experience some routines, like entering a shopping-mall, as a nightmare, but find writing dreams a release.
That is why I’m so interested in Curtis White’s book and in contemporary romanticism: it seems a solid basis for spirituality. From my California crackpot viewpoint, there’s no distinction between natural science and spirituality, and that to me is the “lesson” of Objectivist poetry. If you denatured Williams’ lines to “ideas… in things,” you can see what I vaguely mean.
DH: What projects are you currently working on?
LR: I’m finishing up my book of mysteries, which includes “The Accounting,” now at about 130 pages: the Jackhammer is brought down, and I get quite a bit of New Jersey and New York history into it. And Mikie’s dream you alluded to comes true—but for one day. Toby Olson said in an interview that his novels use the mystery-form, and that struck me. I read lots of mysteries as a sleep aid years ago, and I like the hard-bitten good guys with lots of attitude and lots of information. I try to mix the blood and bad stuff with comedy: for example, in “The Mystery of the All-American City” (Tacoma), gangs of geoduck smugglers wearing flippers and wetsuits shoot it out in the street. They are employed by the two mega-churches running the city, cartels in competition. And I can play with current events: well before his trivial fall, I didn’t like the attitude of a character I called Elliot Spitter. And I find our cultural obsession with the mob, a disgusting but self-sentimentalizing crew (“a man of my tradition” says Joseph Bonnano), just another sign of the end of our empire.
When I’m done with the mysteries, I’ll return to the long novel about the “losing of the West.”
DH: Unfortunately, I’ve yet to read My Last Days. What kind of book is it?
LR: As I said, I’d carried anger at economic and political chicanery since settling in New York, especially since watching how Columbia and its sister academies treated their neighbors. And then I worked in the pension business watching the destructive games of the financial world. I’ll never forget the 28-year-old manager of an international equity fund bragging about threatening the Minister of Finance of Mexico: she’d pull her money out if he got any stupid notions of putting his taxpayers’ money to work for the benefit of the poor. The temerity of that snarling well-dressed puppy! Murray Kempton wrote somewhere that MBAs are the equivalent of communist apparatchiks. A premise of My Last Days is that everythinghas been “privatized,” taking Chicago Schoolboys literally, and remembering Bounderby’s “throw it open” to competition. (I think that heroic entrepreneur referred to grade school.)
Anyway, Superman is Gulliver in this world, run by Rudolph Guissilini, Donald and Nirvana von Umph, and others mostly from “real life,” and I have to say he struggles more than usual. The satirical novel is his attempt at autobiography, and he tries with clumsy earnestness to explore his alien being.
DH: What’s the philosophy behind Golden Handcuffs?
LR: Golden Handcuffs Review is a literary journal appearing semi-annually. I put in writers who’ve meant so much to me over the decades, and also younger writers to whom they introduce me. Impossible for me to do something like this without the internet. The title refers to the business practices I’ve touched on, and many of the covers have engaged current affairs, but generally “historic and contemporary particulars” come in no more or no less than they do in the currents of experimental work. I have little knowledge of and less interest in “schools,” and I hope Golden Handcuffs is innocent of their (academic?) pettiness. What maybe sets it apart from similar efforts are its production values, its mixing of new fiction with new poetry, and its lengthy “Response” section in which writers are afforded ample space to comment on each others’ work. Oh and we try, usually with the help of guest editors, to bring in as much work as possible from outside U.S. borders.
DH: Is there a message in your work?
LR: Well, I’ve mentioned the anger at poverty and inequality and exploitation. But I persist in certitude that despair, while understandable, is meaningless and at times self-indulgent, and that anything is possible, even new and old forms of spirituality. I’d like my work to show what Newman (John Henry Cardinal, not Christopher) called the “illative sense:” the freedom and at times joy of being fully lost in play with what we call human and natural. That helps me, and I’m naïve enough to wish my readers the same.
About the author:
David F. Hoenigman is the author of Burn Your Belongings.