Interview with Robert Lopez
Alexandra Leggat

Robert Lopez is the author of Part of the World (Calamari Press). He has had poetry and fiction in many journals, including The Barcelona Review, BOMB, The Threepenny Review, American Letters & Commentary, New Orleans Review, New England Review, Willow Springs, and online at 5_Trope, and elimae, etc. A new novel, Kamby Bolongo Mean River, will be published by Dzanc Books in 2009. A slightly different version of this interview appeared first in the Canadian journal dig.
Alexandra Leggat: Which came first, poetry or prose?

Robert Lopez: The first writing I did was horrible rhymed poetry, so that probably doesn't count. From there I wrote horrible stories, dirty realist, minimal, a la Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Bobbie Ann Mason, etc. I learned a few things, I suppose, imitating Carver and the rest of that crowd. Took a few years to figure out what I was supposed to do. Then it was all fiction, short fiction, for years until very recently when I started scribbling poems again.

AL: I'm curious because I wrote poetry for years and automatically evolved into prose: was your writing of short stories a natural evolution from poetry?

RL: I think so. I feel like I can almost wrap my head around the short form of poetry and short stories. The singleness of effect is what I appreciate most. I think "evolution" is a great descriptor when it comes to writing. I've found that my sense of language, syntax, diction, has evolved over time.

AL: Was the writing of the novel a natural next step for you? Or are you one of those writers that have always done it all?

RL: God, no. I never intended to write a novel. Never thought I could sustain interest in any one voice for that long. For me, everything comes from language. I always start with a line and go from there. In that one line you'll have voice, character, and a vague sense of what this could be and where it can go. Part of the World came from a single sentence, then a few years later I figured out what the next sentence should be. Then I was on my way. But I never wanted to write a novel and didn't think of it as a step or a goal, either. It was and is entirely different than short stories, but I did try to handle certain elements of the novel the way I would with a story. I learned along the way and I imagine if and when I write another, I'll have to learn how that next novel should work.

AL: Of all the forms that you write, which is most satisfying for you to write?

RL: They're all satisfying, equally so, I think. The satisfaction comes more quickly when writing a poem or story, but there are small battles to win when you're doing a novel, too, that are likewise satisfying. I probably feel most at home writing short stories, but even as I type this I think it's not entirely true. I feel at home doing whatever I'm doing at the time and at the same time not entirely sure where I am or where the work should go.

AL: You teach experimental fiction. Are you still teaching at The New School in New York City?

RL: Yes, I still teach an experimental fiction workshop at The New School. I also teach fiction and poetry at The Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

AL: How do you define experimental fiction?

RL: I try not to actually. Whenever I'm asked this question I look for tap shoes. All writing is an experiment, is about discovery. If we knew how it would turn out it wouldn't be worth the effort. That said, I think experimental fiction has to feel differently to the reader than conventional, linear, realistic narrative fiction. Whether that's through form, language, or content, and ideally, a combination of all these elements. What I tell students who press for a definition of experimental fiction, or what makes a piece, either conventional or not, successful, is similar to the United States' Supreme Court's definition of pornography -- I can't tell you what it is -- but I know it when I see it.

AL: In an interview in SmokeLong Quarterly you were asked about what skills you can teach your students about writing effective experimental fiction. Part of what you said was "Don't explain anything in a story, and always render the objects and actions. Fiction begins and ends with language. The story is trivia. We all know the stories." I agree with you implicitly. Do you agree that in much of today's fiction language has been overlooked, forgotten, disrespected?

RL: I suppose it has. Honestly, I don't rightly know. I tend to read writers who use language in a fresh and interesting way. There are a lot of people doing this sort of thing, which is encouraging. As far as what you'll find in the New York Times Book Review, I'm not so sure. There are any number of celebrated novelists today who possess tin ears. I can't find my way through most of their sentences, let alone an entire work. I think it's a good thing Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, and any number of great dead writers aren't young American writers today.

AL: As co-editor of Sleeping Fish, a journal of experimental fiction, what do you look for in a piece?

RL: Again, it begins and ends with language. If the writer is up to something interesting with language, then I'm interested. Certain writers generate a palpable electricity with their poetry or prose, a distinct energy. I like writing that takes chances, that risks. The goings on don't really concern me. The story has to have its own logic, of course, but I almost never read a piece to find out what happens. Diction and syntax are everything.

AL: I've seen the new issue of Sleeping Fish and it's a beautiful book. It supersedes 'literary journal', the graphics, the visuals, the writing; explain the philosophy behind Sleeping Fish, and how it came to be.

RL: Derek White is solely responsible for Sleeping Fish. He is the publisher, founding editor, designer, etc. I first became aware of Sleeping Fish when Derek solicited work from me for SF's second issue. Along the way Derek started Calamari Press and again asked after my work for a book. Then somewhere in the middle of that he asked me to be co-editor of Sleeping Fish. I was happy to climb aboard, and this issue is my third as co-editor. I've tried to apply my own sensibilities when it comes to writing and what we accept and publish. I think we've opened up the possibilities of what experimental means since I've become co-editor. So, I guess you can say Sleeping Fish is likewise evolving. We look for work that's up to something different.

AL: As an editor and a teacher, do you find those roles help you to hone your craft? How do you balance writing, teaching and being co-editor of Sleeping Fish?

RL: It certainly keeps your head in the game, your head in language. I do find that I'm not interested in reading too much outside of work now, outside of student writing, submissions for the Fish, and friends' work. I used to read for pleasure, but I'd rather find something else to do with my "spare" time now. I spent years reading everything I could find before I became a teacher and editor. Someday, I hope to want to read again for pleasure. I had a conversation with a writer friend recently and I mentioned the -- are you a writer who teaches or a teacher who writes -- question.

AL: I've just finished reading your first novel Part of the World. What amazes me about it is you've managed to achieve the impact and event-driven narrative of a compelling short story in a longer form. Was this a stream of consciousness process or did you structure your novel?

RL: The novel was structured, but I discovered it was supposed to have this particular structure after several drafts. I wound up stealing from many of my older stories, stories that weren't any good but had something compelling in them. I used those events in the book and worked hard on making it seem like one piece, like a stream of consciousness. I have absolutely no sense of plot or story, so I needed something to maintain the reader's interest. This is where the structure came in, particularly, the use of repetition.

AL: How were you able to maintain the flow and swirling motion that you did?

RL: Honestly, I have no idea. If I did have an idea while I was doing it I have since forgotten it. I remember it was difficult. Knowing how to pace things, the events, so that when they resurfaced it would feel both familiar and strange to the reader at the same time.

AL: How does the process of novel writing compare to writing short stories or poetry?

RL: The key word here is process. You have to have a process if you want to write and finish a novel. I found the process satisfying. I gave myself a daily quota when writing the first draft -- at least 600 words a day. Meeting that and exceeding it on occasion was a source of real satisfaction. I felt like I put in a day's work. With stories and poems it's entirely different for me. I work just as hard, but it doesn't quite feel like work. It makes me think of the Wallace Stevens line -- I cannot make a world quite round, though I patch it as I can. Novels are so unwieldy; you have to keep in mind the whole as you work. With stories and poems it's this one word or phrase, and that's everything. You can patch together a story or poem and have it work perfectly.

AL: I loved the kaleidoscopic effect of your novel, especially when I realized, without giving too much away, where the swirling was leading. It had a physical effect on me, a little like vertigo. I love it when the something that's messing with the characters head starts messing with mine. Did you know this was going to happen, the snake eating its tail effect? Or did the narrator and narrative take on a life of their own and dictate direction?

RL: Thank you. You are the second person to tell me the book had a physical effect on them. Another friend said she was hyperventilating at the end. This is the best possible response to my way of thinking. Regarding your question, the latter. I found out what was happening and supposed to happen after working through several drafts. It was a long and slow process and eventually the narrator's voice and character and the events came together.

AL: The narrator is very funny, very observant of course, and I could relate to far too much of what he was saying. Did you begin with the narrator's voice, his image? How did the novel come to be?

RL: Yes, like I said earlier, I always start with a line, a voice. Actually, the line I started with for the novel wound up in the middle of the book somewhere. It was something like -- This is an attempt to distance myself from anything I may have done or said in the past. . . . I knew there was something in that line that felt bigger than what I was used to working with. Then after one or two false starts the second line came to me, a few years later. "I have a car." So, I wrote the first draft from there, in present tense, and was on the path. In subsequent drafts I moved to past tense and changed the opening and what follows, but that's how it started, where it came from. I got the idea that this narrator had a car and this car was instrumental in some traumatic event for him.

AL: Is it a conscious decision to write your characters from the inside out opposed to the outside in?

RL: Yeah, it's the only way I can work. When I teach I liken it to what an actor does, finding the mask or voice of a particular character. How a character speaks, thinks, is everything. Getting inside a character's head seems most important to me, more important, say, than what that character does for a living. I always ask students what they start with -- how do they come up with what they come up with.

AL: Speaking of driving forces, I'm a big fan of cars, car as character, metaphor, setting. In your novel, the car plays a pretty big role in the story. It's like one of those characters you want to slap at times but end up missing when the damn book's finished. I can't help but sympathize with the car as much as the narrator! Is the car in Part of the World more of a character to you than an object?

RL: Yes, indeed. I knew the car was vital and a lot of time was going to be spent on the car. What's funny is I know nothing about cars and am not at all interested in them. When someone asks me, "What kind of car do you drive?" I use colors to describe it. That's a black car, it's small. I turn it on and it goes. It was interesting to me to spend so much time on something I know nothing about and care about even less. I think that ignorance and ambivalence comes through in the writing. Thank God for ignorance.

AL: Your narrator "borrows" lines from any number of writers. I noticed Beckett, Nabokov, Whitman, Stevens, Proust, Bishop, Shakespeare, etc. What's most interesting is all of these instances are incorporated into the flow of the novel and the narrator's voice. How did this work for you?

RL: The narrator has a hard time distinguishing what's his and what isn't throughout the book. This is why he will repeat what others have said and not realize what he's doing. He has no idea he is quoting Shakespeare when he says -- I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I had bad dreams. For him he is talking about his difficulty sleeping

AL: In one review of Part of the World comparisons to Camus' The Stranger came up, though I believe your work is truly its own thing, the voice, the imagery, the way it's told. But it's certainly in that realm. Camus is my favorite writer along with Beckett and I enjoyed reading your work for the same reason's that I enjoy reading Camus, The Fall especially, or Beckett's Murphy, Krapp's Last Tape, More Kicks than Pricks, Beckett in general. To me it's their use of language that inspires and amazes me. Who are some of the writers that have inspired you throughout the years, and why?

RL: Beckett is at the top of the list for me. I love the circular language and humor, of course. Wallace Stevens would be the poet I've most responded to over the years. David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress and Reader's Block are two books that also moved me, made me think of new ways to use language and form. Reading Raymond Carver made me want to be a writer way back when. His stories and poems are at once unforgettable and all end with that kick in the head. There is a long list of contemporary writers who do their own thing -- Barry Hannah, Padgett Powell, Grace Paley, Stephen Dixon, etc. I could list dozens.

AL: Upon its completion, your novel continues to resonate with me, find many of the images popping into view, the baby being tossed, the teardrops, the neighbour, and it leaves me with a weird sense of the narrator's angst. He's hard to shake. Now it's over, the writing of this book, its bound, out there in the world, is the narrator still kicking around in your head, in your part the world?

RL: I think he's had his day now. I don't live with him and thankfully he is not kicking around in my head. I did the large part of the final revision three years ago, maybe four, I've lost track. At any rate, I've had enough time with him.

AL: Speaking of your Part of the World, I often wonder if it's different in America for writers. I get the sense that the more original you are, the better. How has your experience been in the publishing scheme of things?

RL: There's a duality, I think. Originality is encouraged, but it's a particular sort of originality they embrace. When I say "they" I guess I'm talking about publishers/editors/agents, but perhaps it's also readers. There has to be a hook -- helps if it's ethnic, cultural, sexy, current, etc. Since I don't deal with that sort of subject matter I've had a harder time. My correspondence with agents and editors has been. . . disappointing. Honestly, the whole business baffles me. I've corresponded with agents and editors who can't construct a coherent, grammatical sentence. And these are the arbiters of literature. David Markson had a similar experience with Wittgenstein's Mistress, which was rejected by 50-some odd presses. Publishing is a nightmare for a lot of writers.

AL: Every well-crafted line in your novel (and in the poetry and short stories that I've read) keeps the work active, creates a clean, lively story that allows the reader to keep reading without having to chew up any superfluous words, sentences, descriptions, metaphors. Are you a fastidious editor of your work, do you chip away at each line in your editing process, clean out the clutter so the reader is left with a lively, clear picture? Or does it come out that clean?

RL: No, I obsess over every word, every line. A lot of my favorite writers are this way. There's something wrong with us probably. Sometimes it takes years to get it right. Only once in a long while does something come together in one spurt of creativity, and even then you have to go back and fix this word or that phrase. It's maddening, but I love the revision process, so that helps.

AL: Where is your writing taking you next, another novel, a book of short stories?

RL: I have a new novel called Kamby Bolongo Mean River coming out in 2009 with Dzanc books and a story collection with Dzanc in 2010.