Sunday Jul 14

RutkowskiThaddeus 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, and Haywire won the Members’ Choice Award. He received a fiction fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and the Writer's Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. His writing has appeared in CutBank, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Faultline, Fiction, Fiction International, The International Herald Tribune, Iron Horse Review, The New York Times, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, Pleaides, Potomac Review, Sou’wester and other publications. He is a one-time winner of the Nuyorican Poets Café Friday slam, the Poetry Versus Comedy slam at the Bowery Poetry Club and the Syracuse Poetry Slam. He was selected to read at the former home of East German President Erich Honecker in Berlin. He has been a featured reader in Budapest, Hong Kong, London and Paris, as well as in many U.S. cities. He has been a resident at Yaddo, MacDowell and other colonies.
Thaddeus Rutkowski interview with Meg Tuite

Here are some quotes from these three exceptional stories, “Animal Sightings,” “Road Trip,” and “Moving Day.” What were your inspirations for these stories? Anything from your life or observations?
     “After class, a girl said to me, “You know, more kids would like you if you weren’t so smart.”
     I started paying attention to the stupid guys in school. Actually, they were smart; they just acted stupid. When they were questioned in class, they would say, “Doh!” If surprised, they would say, “Dah-ee!” If pressed, they would say, “Whoa!” They were popular with both boys and girls.
     I stopped raising my hand in class. When called on, I responded by saying, “Huh?”

     I waited for my classmates to come to me as friends.”

     “It reminds me of Seattle,” he continued. “Moss grows on everything there.”
     I pictured houses with soft, green exterior walls, cars with tendrils floating off their roofs.
     “That’s not right,” my father added. “Moss grows only on the north side of everything.”
     My mental picture changed to houses with only one green side, cars only partially covered by green clumps of vegetation.”

“The street is made of dirt. The people who are standing and talking might start walking soon. They might have decided what to do about the problems they are discussing. Nothing is holding them back now.”

“The dangling phrase modifies a noun far away, in the preceding paragraph—it refers to an organization. That’s too far for sense to survive from one paragraph to the next.”

Most of my fiction is autobiographical. The first quote comes from “Animal Stories,” which takes place during childhood. I have a memory of teenaged boys dumbing themselves down in high school to fit in with their peers—maybe get dates. Their strategy was to “act stupid.” My problem was, I didn’t try to act stupid. The lesson is that it might have been less painful to act less smart.

The second quote comes from the same story. When my father was in the Army, he was stationed in Seattle. He didn’t make the statement about moss in the city; I heard it from someone else. I conflated the two, gave the father the lines in the story, to show that he says outlandish things when drinking. The character is a construction. Some readers who knew my father have told me they don’t recognize the man in my stories.

The third quote is from “Road Trip.” The image of people on a dusty street came from an exercise I did in a workshop with Nick Flynn. He and I were both guest teachers at a literary festival last fall—I sat in on his class when I had a free hour. Flynn showed a couple of photographs to inspire stories. My completed story was also inspired by an actual trip to the Southwest about six months ago. The people on the street are behaving as they were in the photo—some sort of personal business is being conducted. The story goes into detail, but the effect is dreamlike.

The fourth quote is from “Moving Day,” a workplace story. My day job is copyediting, so the grammar-speak describes the typical(?) thought process of a copy editor.

Any distinct memories of growing up in central Pennsylvania that really separate it from the rest of the country? What was your connection to the Amish community, if any?

I remember feeling isolated, yet also exposed, in central Pennsylvania. As a biracial kid, I stood out—not always in a good way. I’m not saying I had no friends. I had a couple, who are still my friends today. But my overall feeling was one of unease, or desperation. Would I have had the same experience in any rural area of the country? Probably.

Amish people moved into central Pennsylvania as traditional farms were sold. My family was friends with an Amish family who lived about two miles away. A young man in the Amish family wanted to break away. He wanted to have a truck, not just a horse, and maybe a telephone. He wanted to smoke tobacco. This young man was our friend. He did work around our house, and we spent time on his family’s farm. We would hike through the fields to a pond, where we would fish for bluegills and bass. As it turned out, the young man didn’t break away. He is still living as an Amish man on the same farm.

I LOVE slam poetry! It’s very different than doing a regular reading. How do you prepare for a performance? Do you have a link to any of your readings?

I haven’t done poetry slams for quite a while. Back in the 90s, I hung out at the Nuyorican Poets Café and saw some great performers: Reg E. Gaines, Sarah Jones, Saul Williams, Beau Sia.

I was less accomplished. I won one weekly slam and got squashed in two semifinals. I prepared by memorizing my pieces and by reading aloud as often as I could. The week I won, I’d just returned from a solo trip to London, where I’d read in an open mic in a cafeteria. Reading in an English cafeteria was good preparation for the Nuyorican Café—I knew I could read anywhere.

My most recent slam-type event was the Literary Death Match, where I didn’t get out of the first round. It brought me to a space I’d always wanted to read in: The Kitchen, on Manhattan’s West Side. The LDM is more a showcase for the judges than the readers, and you have to get lucky to win. Still, it was fun.

There are about a dozen video clips of my readings on Youtube, but I don’t think any are of slams. I have VCR tapes and DVDs of a slam, but I don’t know how to convert them to Youtube.

What were your experiences at Yaddo, MacDowell and the other colonies? Someone told me once that Yaddo was haunted with ghosts of past writers. Did you feel any deep connection to any of these places?

The second time I was at Yaddo, a composer was living in my house—West House. He had a large room on the second floor, and he thought his room was haunted. In the room was the couch that Truman Capote used for his photo on the cover of Other Voices, Other Rooms. Maybe the room was haunted by Capote’s ghost. I remember sitting in the room, talking to the composer, and thinking, Capote was in here, lying on that couch. But I didn’t see his ghost.

At MacDowell, each studio/cottage has wooden “tombstones”—wooden plaques where residents sign their names and write the dates of their stay. I had a studio where Galway Kinnell, Gish Jen and many others had signed a tombstone. Being in their aura gave me a push to do good work.

I’ve been to several colonies. The one I’ve been to most often is the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I’ve done a lot of writing—and growing—there. I’m grateful to that place for giving me the time to do my work, or do nothing (until I’m ready to do my work).

What would you say to a writer just starting to send work out? What have been your best choices as a writer?

You should send your work to editors as often as you can. When a piece comes back, don’t let it sit; send it out again right away. Look for publications that are actively calling for submissions—you’ll find listings on CRWROPPS (creative writing opportunities), a Yahoo group, and on Look for calls for submissions in the print magazines Poets & Writers and The Writer’s Chronicle—I subscribe to both. Go to readings, take writing workshops. All of these activities are connected, and related to publishing. If I weren’t teaching, I would be taking workshops.

My most fateful choice was moving to New York City. Just living in the city is a challenge, especially when you have a family, as I do. Our teenaged daughter is No. 1 in our lives. However, I lived in New York as a single person for more than 20 years.

I’ve met more like-minded people here than I would have met anywhere else. Sometimes I wonder why I spend money to travel to read or to see people read, when I can see them here. Sooner or later, they’ll come through town.

Are you reading any great books at this time? Who are some of your favorite writers?

The two books I’ve read recently are The Orange Eats Creeps, by Grace Krilanovich, and The Book of Sand, by Jorge Luis Borges. The novel by Krilanovich got a lot of buzz, so I decided to go through it. I had to keep reminding myself that it was about teenage hobo vampires, not plain teenagers or plain teenage hobos. These were vampires, out for blood (and punk shows). The prose was incredible, but I had some reservations about missing elements.

The Book of Sand was sitting on my shelf, and I was going to recycle it. Then I read a couple of the stories/fables in it and got hooked. I think I read this book when I was younger, but I don’t remember it. Now, I appreciate the art of these “thought-problem” stories.

Any projects in the works?

I write short fiction, and I have a number of new, finished pieces. Many of them have appeared in magazines. I’ve arranged them into a book, with a structure based on the development of the main character, who is also the narrator. No surprise that the narrator is a lot like me—a biracial kid who grows up in the country and moves to a city.

I’ve used this approach in my previous three books, but I feel that the material I’m working on now is in some ways better than the older material. This book is about my memories of experiences and my subconscious processing of experiences. I’m trying to see things in new ways.

Is there any quote that really speaks to you as a writer and a person?

The first quote that came to mind was this speech by Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Act 4, scene 1):

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

This is end of the engagement party in the play. Duke/magician Prospero has summoned goddesses and spirits to celebrate his daughter’s coming wedding, then remembers people are out to kill him, and lost nobles are wandering around the island, so he has to get back to business.

When I first read this passage in college, I memorized it and later scrawled it on a bar wall. Recently, I’ve taught the play in my literature class, and the speech still touches me. I see the finality in it. Earlier, I was taken by the language and the dream visions.

Beautiful! Thank you so much, Thaddeus, for sending Connotation Press some of your outstanding work.


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