Article published on December 14, 2017.
Linda Hepworth: First of all, this is a novel which encompasses so many different literary threads – the paranormal, magical realism and history, to name just three. When I first started reading I wondered how it could possibly be translated into a convincing whole but, in a quite brilliantly inventive way, you managed to do just that. When you first started writing did you have a clear idea of how the story would develop?
Keith Rosson: I recently wrote an essay for LitReactor about the messiness of my writing, and how much sludge and abandoned chapters and rewrites I have to slog through in order to come up with a complete, final, readable story. Novel or short story or essay, that ugly, dashed-off first draft always comes first. It’s a long process full of a lot of missteps; the original draft of Smoke City is wildly different, unrecognisable from the final version. All of my writing seems to go through this process – I’m a pretty fast writer when it comes to a first draft, but things always change in later edits, usually drastically. Subsequent versions always take much longer to finish, and you learn more about the characters and story with each of them. But no, initial drafts of Smoke City didn’t even have one of the main characters in them.
Linda Hepworth: Marvin Deitz, one of your main characters, is a reincarnation of the French executioner who lit the pyre at the execution of Joan of Arc. For the past six hundred years he has lived countless other lives, carrying a burden of guilt and shame about what he did. Now approaching 57, the age he was when he killed Joan and an age beyond which he has never managed to live, he sees a woman on a Los Angeles chat show who is claiming that she is a reincarnation of Joan. In the hope of at last being able to ask forgiveness and gain redemption, he decides to set off to LA to find her. What influenced your decision to create such an interesting character and concept?
Keith Rosson: A number of years ago I read Régine Pernoud and Marie-Véronique Clin’s mesmerising biography of Joan, Joan of Arc: Her Story, and fell in awe of the section in which Geoffroy Thérage, Joan’s executioner, is purported to have been seen drunk and weeping in the city taverns the night after lighting Joan’s pyre. So the story goes, he claims to have seen, through the smoke, her soul leave her body in the shape of a dove, and feared that he had damned himself to hell for murdering a saint. (Of course, while researching the book, we were later able to find notes and receipts penned a decade after Joan’s death of Geoffroy still committing beheadings and executions; after all, a guy’s gotta eat, damned or not.) But I read that section about this man and one thing led to another. The tumblers clicked. I mean, how do you not write about a guy like that?
Linda Hepworth: Mike Vale, a previously successful but now alcoholic, non-productive artist, is another of your main characters and he too is on his way to Los Angeles for his ex-wife’s funeral. Like Marvin, he is struggling with feelings of regret, guilt and shame and is in search of absolution. What makes these interesting themes for you to explore in your storytelling?
Keith Rosson: I guess it’s just a natural part of forging what I view as believable, interesting characters. They have to have some sort of motivation, and these feelings – regret, guilt, shame – are great motivators, aren’t they? And honestly, I find it easier and more fulfilling to write about these marginalised, rough-hewn people than, say, some Cheeveresque guy sipping brandy in a loft somewhere and pondering the shape of the skyline, you know?
Linda Hepworth: Mike picks up the hitch-hiking Marvin and so begins their shared journey towards some sort of resolution of their conflicts. Each is a flawed and, in some ways, dysfunctional character and yet through your exploration of their developing friendship you manage to make even their most deviant behaviour both understandable and worthy of the reader’s empathy. I certainly found it very easy to relate to their struggles and to want them to find peace. Some of your characters in Mercy of the Tide were equally conflicted. Do you enjoy creating anti-heroes and making your readers come to care for them?
Keith Rosson: I really don’t view them as anti-heroes at all. I just see them as people, as characters in a story, and they’re trying their best the only ways they know how. It’s mostly my job to make the reader believe that such characters’ internal lives are possible. Readers don’t need to like these people I write, but I want them to believe they could be possible. That’s what’s important to me. Unlikeable is totally fine; unbelievable means I didn’t do as well as I might have.
Linda Hepworth: Central to the story are the “smokes”, ghostly apparitions which have been appearing throughout the south-western states. No one knows who they are, why they have started to appear or what they might be looking for. Perhaps you could explain why you introduced this paranormal theme to your story?
Keith Rosson: Ha, you know, I have these lofty dreams of being a literary writer, but can’t seem to stop writing about ghosts and monsters. I love literary fiction and genre both, and some of my favourite writers (Kelly Link, Nick Harkaway, Manuel Gonzalez) are people who can not only merge both simultaneously, but turn both literary and genre fiction on their heads. I love to read that stuff, and I love to try my best to write it.
Linda Hepworth: The third character who is part of this journey is Casper (loved the name!), a young man who is also desperate to get to the city because he wants to make a show about the “smokes”. I loved the relationship which developed between him and the older men and wonder why you felt it important to introduce him as a character?
Keith Rosson: I felt kind of like Mike and Marvin were so moored in their own respective emotional and physical morass that they needed someone to smooth things out and provide a bit of breathing room from the frequent desperation and brutality of the novel. He might be considered the comedy relief to some degree, but in his own way Casper serves as a significant if inadvertent catalyst in the story.
Linda Hepworth: Just one of the things I have enjoyed and appreciated about your two novels is that all of your characters are so multi-layered, well-developed and credible. When you start to write do you imagine them fully formed or do they tend to take on autonomous lives as the story develops?
Keith Rosson: No, it’s like I mentioned earlier – they change and grow as the story progresses, as you write it you learn more about them. Then you finish a draft and have a better understanding of them than you did in the beginning, and you kind of go and fill in the holes and add muscles to their skeletons. Each draft teaches you more about them; cadence of language, personal tics, the way a character reacts to a certain situation in the second draft is sometimes entirely different than how you wrote it the first time.
Linda Hepworth: In each of the stories I get the impression that you really care about your characters and I certainly did, to the extent that I felt a very powerful sense of loss when I had to leave them behind although, in fact, they continue to remain very vivid for me. I wonder how you manage to let go of them once you have told their stories – or do they continue to “haunt” you?
Keith Rosson: That’s a neat question. I’d really like, once I finish this new book, to try and pen some more stories featuring some characters I’ve already written. I do miss them, in a way. Certain folks – Nick Hayslip and Trina Finster from Mercy, off the top of my head – have definitely called out to have some additional stories written about them. But there’s something pretty nice about that – these careworn, messed up people, but you’re familiar with them already, you know?
Linda Hepworth: I enjoyed the way in which you introduced aspects of history into the story. How did you approach researching the historical aspects of the novel, and do you enjoy this aspect of your preparation?
Keith Rosson: I love the research aspect of writing fiction. Part of writing the odd stuff that I do means that you usually have to immerse yourself in some weird subject to make it sound convincing to the reader. For Mercy, I studied a lot about the history of Native Americans of Coastal Oregon in the 1850s, nuclear yields of warheads in the 1980s, the Cold War, schooling options and resources for deaf children in rural America in the Reagan years, etc. For Smoke City, it was mostly studying the state of France during Joan’s era – what the country was like politically, spiritually, economically, etc. And learning what I could about Geoffroy himself. I did the bulk of the research myself, but I was able to confer with (and ask a bajillion dumb questions to) a historian, which was vital to the process. But yeah, enveloping myself in some off-kilter minutiae is one of my favourite parts of the writing process.
Linda Hepworth: Would you share with your readers how you approach your writing? Do you have a set routine for your writing day, do you do everything on the computer or do you do any drafting with pen and paper? How many drafts do you do before you are satisfied that your story is complete? Do you have any rituals?
Keith Rosson: Good question. I work almost exclusively on a computer, in Word, but keep ongoing notes in various notebooks – lines of dialogue, plot points, words that I like, research information. I write first drafts pretty quickly and then spend forever reshaping them. Most things – stories or novels – take at least five or six drafts before they’re done. If not more.
Linda Hepworth: I have so many more questions I’d like to ask you about both Smoke City and The Mercy of the Tide but I just hope that the ones I have asked will encourage people to buy both books! However, before I finally let you go, I’d like to add a few more general questions. I know from the biographical information on the jacket of your book that before writing these novels you had previously written short stories. Which format holds most appeal for you?
Keith Rosson: Well, I’ve written four novels in about five years. This includes a terrible crime novel that will probably be resuscitated and shaped into something that is at least vaguely readable, but who knows when that’ll happen. And then there’s the one I’m just now wrapping up. After all that, I’m honestly looking forward to spending a significant amount of time writing short stories again. They’re satisfying to finish, more fun to write, and you don’t have to sustain a particular voice or tone or scope for a hundred thousand words. Once I wrap up edits on this new book and send it to my agent, I go through this period where I say I’m never writing a novel again, but it doesn’t last. But after this book, it’s gonna be short stories for a while.
Linda Hepworth: Apart from discovering that you are also an illustrator and graphic designer (I love your book jacket designs!) I see that you are an advocate of public libraries (a passion I share!) and wonder if you would share your feelings about why you believe that communities need them and should continue to use them?
Keith Rosson: Hey, thanks, Linda. As far as libraries go, there’s free books for one. Right? What a deal! I mean, I adore books – they’ve sustained me and saved me at times when nothing else could, and as an adult they continue to offer me a rich life, internally and otherwise. That alone is a vital community resource. But beyond that, libraries provide so much more to communities and society as a whole. They’re public resources for finding jobs, housing, legal assistance, and more. They’re community hubs, meeting places, storehouses of information. While I personally love the part about free books, they do a hell of a lot more for communities than that.
Linda Hepworth: Are there any particular authors who have influenced your writing?
Keith Rosson: Probably whatever I’m reading at the moment. (That said, I’m reading Gabe Habash’s Stephen Florida, and it’s incredible. Please consider giving it a look! It’s so good!) I think I’ve reached the point where my own voice is reasonably well established, but hopefully has room to morph and grown (and improve!). But I’d say that spending a childhood immersed in comic books, punk rock, and Stephen King novels pretty well set the tone and scope of my interests by the time I was fifteen or so.
Linda Hepworth: Which one book would you take to a desert island, and why?
Keith Rosson: Infinite Jest, just because I’d have a lot of pages to use as fire-starting material. I mean, I like Infinite Jest, but from a practical standpoint, you can’t really go wrong with a book that size, you know? That said, I just found a used copy of Will Self’s The Book of Dave recently, and I can’t wait to get into it because I remember it being one of the strangest books I’d read in a long time. I could read that in between bouts of trying to eat sand, I guess.
Linda Hepworth: If you could invite five people (living or dead, real or fictional) to share a meal with, who would they be?
Keith Rosson: Uhhh. Erm. Well. Let’s see. I would like to dine with Donald Trump and four mimes. We would sit down to dinner, I would politely ask the mimes to leave, and they would, bowing and walking through invisible doors and doing all those mime-like things that mimes do when they’re being mimes, and then Don and I would, uh, we would have a talk.
Linda Hepworth: Can you tell us an interesting fact about yourself we might not have expected?
Keith Rosson: I live in a little house with my girlfriend and our pair of three-legged rescue dogs who weigh, in total, nine pounds.
Linda Hepworth: My final question (I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know!), what are you working on at the moment?
Keith Rosson: Well, I don’t wanna jinx it, but I’m currently in what I desperately hope are the final edits of a novel about an embittered cryptozoologist and his hapless assistant as they travel to a remote Arctic island in search of a possible unicorn. No, for real.
Linda Hepworth: Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to reply to this long list of questions, Keith, I just hope it hasn’t been too much of a chore!
Keith Rosson: Thanks much for the opportunity, Linda, and for championing these books. It means so much to me, thank you.
Our thanks to both Keith and Linda for this excellent Q&A.
Smoke City by Keith Rosson
Meerkat Press 9781946154163 hbk Jan 2018
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