Forrest Roth is the author of a novella, Line and Pause (BlazeVOX Books), and a prose poem chapbook, The Sullen Pages (Little Red Leaves); and his novel Gary Oldman Is a Building You Must Walk Through will be available in October from What Books Press of Los Angeles, which was also a semi-finalist for the 2015 Noemi Press Book Contest in Fiction. His work has appeared in NOON, Denver Quarterly, Juked, Caketrain, The Collagist and many other journals. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Marshall University in West Virginia.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
First book was the predictable laborious, pained affair of doing something for the first time, and was made worse by doubts about the material I had, most of which stemmed from concerns of perspective and appropriation: a different kind of drawn-out weight I hadn't experienced with short stories. Haven't lost that yet, either. I like to think my Gary Oldman novel came easier by whatever the shortcomings the prior attempt taught me. If nothing else, the process for this book was by far more enjoyable and mysterious than the previous. I had to let go a bit more than I have before. Court irreverence. Poke certain minor tyrannies in the eye.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
The fiction itch ingrained itself very early. I grew up in interior Alaska with exposure to and some sense of Native folklore around me. Abridged versions of Jack London, Melville, A Thousand and One Nights and others from my parents. Stories were great play for me, and any complemented with artwork held my fascination. They remain closest, too, to my academic development during those years. Earliest schoolwork I can recall involves writing micro-fiction on those large sheets of lined paper with blank space to draw pictures, a tale involving a medicine man who turned into a bear but started feeling better once he took an aspirin. Need self-distractions as a kid to survive long winters in Fairbanks. Fiction was best grist for the mill.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Preliminary writing for me comes quickly enough with or without notes, but it's the editing part that drags everything out. I'll spend forever on a single paragraph if I have to. Often I have little confidence that anything in front of me moves. Then I'll have some rare item that shoots out of the gate, but only if the final shape suggests itself in advance.
4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Almost always does my prose begin working towards an idea instead of from it. Short pieces to start, though Gary Oldman has had me re-evaluate my former approaches. These days I could launch into material thinking of a book in mind, whereas before I would've done anything to avoid trying a premise for a novel.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I confess I don't entirely understand yet how public readings affect that process for me beyond some curating I once did after my MFA. I seldom write anything while conscious of how well they work when spoken despite that I'm a big proponent of pleasing or engaging cadence in prose as a primary craft issue. Reading the page and reading aloud in public remain mutually exclusive things to me, however. I'd like to eventually reconcile that.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
One ongoing general concern I have relates to an old problem that contemporary fiction is still catching up to, what James Joyce, according to Richard Ellman's biography, openly worried about to a friend in Switzerland before his death in regards to Ulysses being too systematized. Yet I'm drawn to such novels in the vein of Ulysses published these days, even if I'm left unconvinced or worn down some of the time by their efforts afterwards. Does unconventional or experimental prose's intrinsic drift from an accessible humanitarianism have a point of no return for a reader's attention, then, and how have shorter hybrid forms today helped solve this without sacrificing the fulfillment of a writer's vision for the work?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I warn my novice creative writing students that we may be compelled by market influence to write while subjected to popular notions of accomplished writers as only rock star entities with six-figure advances from major publishing houses. I see many talented writers getting it done at the local level, using creative writing to directly affect positive change in individuals or whole communities, spark cultural scenes where there's little culture to be had. I also see some of the best writing today published by small presses and paving the way for our next literary forms. Whatever the roles are, writers can define those in spite of the more glamorous trappings and they'll likely be writers who have a readership if that's what they want.
That said, I frequently worry that writers operate to only converse with other writers, myself included. And many writers are natural introverts as well; if their roles are solitary ones, so be it.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Don't know about "essential," but they always have some place in my process towards the end, depending on how keen and motivated they are.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
No matter where you go, there you are.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Since I teach during the weekdays, I'm usually writing early in the morning or late at night. No complicated routine. Kitchen table with coffee, pen and paper (I never get to my desk until I'm ready for serious editing). Have to have some sound around me while writing, too. Keep going until I get tired. That's all.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
The need to disengage myself from narrative, character, etc., gets strong occasionally, and over the years I've taken refuge in reading poetry and hybrid forms. Plus art museums, movies, nightlife, commiserating with my astute colleagues, some fresh takes from my students.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
White birch with passing whiff of moss, moose scat and dog.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Music and art are heavy influences, almost necessary, and not always high-brow, to be sure. Gary Oldman was born out of a single, intense moment in what is apparently Oldman's least favorite film, Sid and Nancy. Some cultural detritus has much potential to revise.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Any of the major and lesser-known flash fiction / prose poetry practitioners stay in my constant esteem.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Disappear somewhere for awhile and try writing a poetry collection.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
On low days I consider tossing all grandiloquent literary concerns aside to imagine swapping my life out for Anthony Bourdain's CNN-comped travelogue hedonism.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
A synthesis of feeling productive, satisfied and at ease with myself (if not the world) when I write, and having other people respond favorably to that writing in different ways. I know this may be inherently selfish given the current sociopolitical situation here in the States, but it's also been one of the very few constants in my life thus far.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Cortazar's Hopscotch is a pick-up I wish happened much sooner. Last great film is tricky, but since I've been taking in the return of Twin Peaks, I'll say that recently watching the Criterion edition of Lynch's Mulholland Dr. was also long overdue.
19 - What are you currently working on?
Other than the usual short pieces that come along, trying to sort out material done for a long manuscript involving to some degree Abstract Expressionist artist Clyfford Still, the 1985 film To Live and Die in L.A., the synth-pop genius of Wang Chung, coin-op pay phones, apartment buildings in dying cities, and notions of the (post-) apocalyptic.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;