If James Brown was the “Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” author Thaddeus Rutkowski (on left), whose latest book Haywire reached No. 1 on Small Press Distribution’s fiction best-seller list, is the living version in literature. A writer’s writer, who has built up a considerable following through his novels, stories and poems, and a dynamic public presenter whose readings are akin to a raucous revival meeting, Thaddeus was recently named the winner of the Asian American Writers Workshop Member’s Choice Award.
Momentum, energy, imagination, dedication and talent are clearly on this writer’s side, and I was pleased to have the chance to ask him recently about his career and the craft.
What makes for a great novel in your opinion?
In a good novel, what’s at stake is clear the whole way through, the incidents have a level of complexity, and the resolution is something of a surprise (yet makes sense). In a great novel, these elements would be present to a heightened degree, I suppose.
I read a couple of very good novels recently. One was The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. As people know, it’s a crime novel—a murder mystery—and the question of whodunit runs throughout. But beneath the scams, smokescreens, baggings and shootings is the cool beat of the writing. I mean the low-temperature rhythm of the sentences. Chandler gives us short statements (maybe that’s the way he thought), often with an emphasized word, like “twitch,” at the end. Nothing is repeated (except in dialogue); everything is amplified through incremental additions of information. The experience of reading is a process of realizing how the author put the pieces together, as well as finding out who the triggerman (in this case, triggerwoman) is at the end.
Not too long ago I read Waiting, by Ha Jin. The appeal of this novel lies in the depth of emotion with which the author tells the story. The theme might seem removed, or antiquated—the book is about an arranged marriage versus a “love relationship” —but we feel for the main characters as if we were in the same situation. The end of the novel delivers a twist on what is expected, and the “inevitable” does not happen, yet the resolution makes a weird sense. Plus, everything takes place in 1960s China, an era interesting to me because my mother is Chinese.
You teach writing to students at different experience levels. How do you bring out the storyteller in those who are not necessarily “naturals.”
I use exercises that can be done quickly, even on the spot (in class). These brief assignments cover elements such as dialogue, plot, character, and beginnings and endings. The prompts also suggest where to find inspiration, how to tap memory, and how to shape experience into something more dramatic than everyday life.
Different experience levels exist in any workshop, but the idea is not to compare participants to each other. In my workshops, people are encouraged to improve on their own writing. How can they make the story stronger? How can they make their point more clearly? Those are questions we try to answer. There’s no grading. A workshop, by definition, is a place where peers come together to share their work and comment on it. I find that over time, after a few meetings, people begin to use the same language (or vocabulary) to talk about writing. A familiarity develops, and people’s comments and intentions become clear. I like to see this happen.
What’s your writing process like?
I usually don’t rely on inspiration to keep me going, but I’m grateful for the moments of inspiration that occur. An experience that’s new or meaningful can prompt me to make some notes. It can be a conversation—often, an overheard conversation. I believe that many writers are good listeners. In my case, I’ve always found it easier to listen than to talk, though I do a lot of talking in class these days. (I’m teaching literature as an adjunct at Medgar Evers College.)
It’s somewhat easier to do my work at home these days, because our child isn’t very young anymore. She’s just young (she’s 12) and can do a lot of things for herself. Still, I go regularly to the Writers’ Room—an urban colony in downtown Manhattan. There is no talking in this space. Even if I see someone I know, I try to avoid going into the kitchen to have a conversation. Once you start talking, it’s hard to stop. So you’ve got to just sit at your desk and not think about who else is around.
How is writing a novel different from writing a short story or a poem?
I have the idea (it’s not my own idea) that the form follows the content. You begin with something to say, and how you say it comes second. It doesn’t matter if your subject takes the form of a novel, short story or poem. The form will be the right one for the message you want to get across. That said, many people have a format in mind from the beginning. Having a format helps you place the work in the literary world. For editors and publishers, you need an appropriate label, and you should follow as well as you can the constraints of that label. However, I have never been good at writing within a format. When compiled, my words (my sentences) take the form of flash fictions or short-shorts. These brief stories don’t fit into a conventional or easily acceptable format. Writing this way is considered experimental, though not as experimental as, say, writing a novel in the form of emails. But I’ve been lucky to find editors and publishers who allow me to call my flash fictions “stories” and to call collections of my fictions “novels.” These designations are a stretch, but I do try to incorporate standard elements, like chronological or thematic continuity, in my longer works.
Tell us a little about your new novel, Haywire. What are you currently working on?
In Haywire, 49 short pieces add up to a longer story. What ties the pieces together is a consistent voice, though the incidents cover a lifetime. The narrator has a persona close to my own. He is a biracial boy (later a young man) who grows up in northern Appalachia, goes away to college and settles in a big city. One of the issues in the book is identity—can one choose it, or is it given? Another subject is obsessive/compulsive behavior. The publisher (a small press called Starcherone) wrote in the promo copy that the reader is led by the “nose ring” through the story. I like that description.
I’m working on a similar manuscript now. My books are all made up of snapshots or vignettes unified by a consistent voice, but the incidents in the various books are different. My first book, Roughhouse, is the rawest and most prose-poetic of my three published books. I’m moving toward more of a continuous narrative line, but I’m nowhere near that yet. I’m still working with sentences, paragraphs and scenes. One of my readers said that I’m always trying to find the mot juste. That’s a good way of putting it.
Thaddeus Rutkowski grew up in central Pennsylvania and is a graduate of Cornell University and The Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of the novels Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. All three books were finalists for an Asian American Literary Award.
He teaches at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and at the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in Manhattan. His writing has appeared in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, Fiction and Fiction International. He was awarded a 2012 fellowship in fiction writing from the New York Foundation for the Arts.