I recently interviewed Rob Roberge before the release of his fourth book, The Cost of Living (Other Voices Books). Together we tackled writing, Rock and Roll, drugs, and other resounding nebulas… His earlier books include the story collection Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life (Red Hen, 2010) and the novels More Than They Could Chew (Dark Alley/Harper Collins, 2005) and Drive (re-print, Hollyridge Press, 2006/2010). He’s a core faculty member at UCR/Palm Desert’s MFA and has taught at several colleges & universities. When he is not writing and teaching he plays guitar and sings in the LA band The Urinals.
JR: You manage some music storytelling in The Cost of Living. I keep reading, Rock and Roll books don’t work…something with the different senses between reading and hearing that set the writer up for failure…I think it’s cop-out, but what’s your take?
RR: You know what’s odd? I didn’t really KNOW people said that Rock and Roll books didn’t work prior to your question. I haven’t even read any novels that I can recall that have musicians as protagonists…there is the alt-country guy in Franzen’s Freedom who’s done ok…realistically enough. But, honestly, I wasn’t even aware that there was a genre of Rock and Roll books, let alone whether they worked or not.
But the full-time pro musicians I know who have read the book have really have responded well and said, among other kind things, that it rang true to the music business. I’ve played guitar for over 30 years…so, hopefully, I’ve picked up something along the way. I know band politics and the road pretty well.
As for the other books in the genre, I’m not sure why they might not work. Maybe some are inauthentic? I know that when I read a novel and it’s clear the writer doesn’t KNOW the world they’re referencing, I lose trust in the book and usually won’t finish it. Maybe some of these books rely on the music TOO much and don’t use it just as a workplace that’s a background for character? I’m not really sure. My naiveté–the fact that I had no idea that people thought R& R novels were even a genre, let alone a problematic one–probably helped me. I had no idea most sucked. But then a lot of books, regardless of the world they inhabit, suck. I was just writing the book I wanted to write, So, my cluelessness helped me a lot in this case, I guess.
As far as ANY stories (that is, types of stories/where they’re set/what job the protagonist may have/who the book concerns and so on) working or not working, I take each book on a case by case basis. I’m not big on metafiction, but I absolutely love Raymond Federman’s Double or Nothing (the best Holocaust novel I know of). So, as far as what you’re saying about any genre (in this case Rock and Roll books) not being conducive to good narrative, I agree with you…I think it’s bullshit. A story or novel is either well done or it isn’t. Setting is not a factor. Neither is the character’s profession–so long as it’s entertaining and done with knowledge of the world and doesn’t come across as faked.
JR: Favorite band 60′ 70′ 80′ 90′ current?
RR: Really tough. I can’t be held to one (sorry…I’m violating your question here…not playing along!).
60’s: Velvet Underground, Rolling Stones and 1964-1966 Bob Dylan.
70’s: At LEAST Television and the Clash…and Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers.
80’s: probably The Dream Syndicate (and, really, everything Steve Wynn he’s done since the Dream Syndicate split up), the Replacements and Tom Waits.
90’s: Wilco, Virginia Dare and Centromatic. A kind of overlap from the 90’s to the 2000’s would be The Brian Jonestown Massacre.
Current? The Ike Reilly Assassination…and, until he died in 2009, the great Jay Bennett.
And, bonus answer: my favorite artist FROM the 60’s to now–the one with the longest lasting relevance and genius–is Neil Young
JR: Favorite Album cover?
RR: Gotta be LONDON CALLING, no? Though when I was 12 I jerked off a lot to Carly Simon covers. So, at 12, my favorite would be Carly Simon’s PLAYING POSSUM. Once I grew up, it would be London Calling (which, for the record, I have never jerked off to).
JR: In The Cost of Living, drug use is a major theme. Whether that be good or bad, do you think it is necessary for artist to experiment with drugs? Can you name a good sober artist…and I mean a sober from day one artist?
RR: I don’t think it’s necessary for an artist to experiment with drugs any more than I think it’s necessary they experiment with triathlons or playing bingo.
I think I can name plenty of GREAT artists who’ve never abused drugs nor used them for their art. To me the term sober, along with clean means an addict who has cleaned up. People who use drugs casually and never have a problem? They don’t really fall on any drug continuum for me.
JR: Why do you think most artist use?
RR: I’m not certain most do. Surely there IS a long history of artists who are addicts. And I guess when I hear the word “use” I think of addictive use. But if we take “use” to mean EVER using a substance to alter one’s mind…if we’re going by recreational use–the way some people can, say, have a glass of wine or two with dinner (which is most of the world) or smoke pot once a year or do blow only at new years–then most people I’ve ever met “use.”
I’ve been a house painter…a grill cook…a garbage worker…I worked in a hideous candy factory that would shock Dante into thinking his circles of hell were not bad enough. The same percentage of people used drugs in those gigs. It’s hardly unique to artists–nor, I’d guess, more prevalent.
But, if I’m wrong and it IS more prevalent, it could just be the nature of self-medication. Because, while I think it’s anecdotal to say more artists use than anyone other group, there have been a number of recent scientific studies that show that there is a higher percentage of writers who are bi-polar than there are people the general population. I happen to be, and it does fuel creativity while taking an enormous toll in other ways. So, if it IS true that more writers have mental health issues, it MAY also be true that usage is high because people with chemical brain issues tend to self-medicate to deal with the chaos of their heads.
A last reason I can think of: A lot of younger artists over-indulge because it’s got a romantic myth around it–I know I did. When, in fact, much as I would never tell someone what they should or shouldn’t do, long-term heavy use of any hard drug (including liquor) tends to hurt the work. Look at our addict/alcoholic writers who never stopped or slowed down–Hemingway, Kerouac, Faulkner, Baldwin, Capote, Thompson, Burroughs…almost all of their best work was in their first decade/fifteen years of publishing. And drugs tend to make you feel great until they make you feel trapped and lousy (if you’re an addict…again, not casual use…or even moderate sustained use). Most addict writers wrote their shittiest work late in their careers. Not true of a lot of clean writers. I know drugs gave me the first peace my brain had ever had. I also know they nearly killed me a number of times later in the game.
As far as helping the writing though, they didn’t help me at the time. I was too busy trying to score drugs to worry about a short story. So, in that regard, they weren’t very conducive to the art. But, they gave me experiences and insights I would not otherwise have had. And, I suppose, research for my later subject matter in my career-ha!
All that said, I did what I did and came out the other side a very different person than I would have been otherwise, so I try to neither regret nor romanticize my chemical years. But they dominated a large part of my life, so it’s going to show up in the work.
JR: Do you think individuals do drugs first and then become artists or become artists and then uses drugs? I know plenty of lawyers that hit a line before talking to the judge. Bud Barrett was inevitably a user before he picked up a guitar. Always found this paradox enigmatic.
RR: I’d guess there are rare exceptions…but I was doing drugs/drinking to feel better when I was 8…long before I even knew what an artist was.
JR: Worst hangover you ever had?
RR: That would be 1984 to 1993.
JR: I see you teach at an MFA program. What is some industry advice you give your students?
RR: Get out. I have enough competition.
Seriously…I’m not very interested in the “industry” with my students. I want to help make them great writers–the best writers they can be. I teach the craft of writing–and that is an honor. So, my advice tends to focus on the ability to learn to read as a writer. The ability to recognize what makes their work original. Every writer at their best is as subtly different from someone else as each of their fingerprints. We share some ENORMOUS amount of DNA with each other. Over 99.9%. But it’s in that incredibly small difference that OUR (mine, my students, anyone) uniqueness lies. Talent may be the MOST common thing I see. The ability to work their asses off and face a LIFETIME of rejection…that, I see much less of. But learning to trust in their difference…learning the craft…learning how to honor the history of great writing and figure out what previous work their work is in dialog with….these are things I care about a great deal more than the industry. I teach writing as an art form–one that better entertain–but an art form and craft. One I care more about than most things in my life–other than people I love. I don’t have much respect for any industry. I have reverence for writing.
JR: Some writing advice?
RR: Too often, people try to rush themselves into publication when they are not at all ready–I know I did. They don’t honor their apprenticeship and they don’t learn to take narrative apart and put it back together as readers. Reading as a writer is essential. Frankly, the biggest writing advice is work as hard as you think you can and read as many quality books as you think you can, then double both.
JR: I see you play in a band called The Urinals…which is an awesome fucking name by the way. How long have you played music?
RR: Jeez…over 30 years now. I’m old.
JR: Best music experience?
RR: Playing the Fillmore.
JR: Are you working on anything new?
RR: I have a memoir–though I’m not sure I even agree with the form the way most people see and define it. But I do have a memoir. Excerpts of it are up on my website (www.robroberge.com) and at The Rumpus–who have been very good to me and my work. The new book should be done at the end of the summer.