James Rahn taught fiction at the University of Pennsylvania for fifteen years and has an MFA from Columbia University. His stories and articles have appeared in several magazines. In 1988 he started the Rittenhouse Writers’ Group in Philadelphia. His collection of linked stories Bloodnight is an earnest and gritty rendering of the broken Jersey resort towns in the ‘70s.
You grew up in Atlantic City?
Yeah, a strange place and a strange upbringing. When I was growing up, Atlantic City was becoming a ghost town. Tourists were traveling farther, to newer trendier places. The summer season in AC got shorter and shorter. And there wasn’t much to do after the summer. Guys played ball, hung out, got high, got into trouble, looked for girls, and if they couldn’t find them they started fighting each other.
What got you started on Bloodnight?
I was a member of an illustrious high school fraternity. You pledged for weeks and got beaten mercilessly. But if you made it into this frat you achieved star status. You could never do today what the brothers did back then. Waterboarding may be shocking today, but at every meeting of this group, I assure you, there was an equivalent torture for pledges.
Also I’m attracted to the whole idea of a rite of passage, a bloodnight–the various trials a boy goes through in order to become a man. Of course it’s a metaphor as well for all the punishments we take in life or that we choose to take, believing we could become somebody different. Mostly I wanted to write a fictional account of my experiences growing up in AC, some of the wild people I knew, and this crazy-ass, notorious high school fraternity.
Do you have any idea what made you a writer?
The usual things: loneliness, sadness, trauma, curiosity, leading to imagining something better or something different; introspection, dislike of authority, the pressure to speak and become visible, and a love of, and an ability with, words.
Bloodnight is nostalgic, yet unsentimental. Was this a conscious choice or did the material dictate the tone?
Most of the time I write without sentimentality, and this seemed to be the right choice for Bloodnight. Though sentimentality at times is necessary to make a story work. The key is almost always what the story wants. Some writers too often avoid sentimentality, even when it’s what the story or the characters need to develop fully.
What is happening to these kids that makes them gravitate towards gangs and social groups away from their families and homes?
The homes are busted up because of economic conditions. Parents are unemployed, absent or divorced, drinking/drugging and pissed at themselves and their children. Parents punish their children for their own insufficiencies. So kids seek surrogate families, surrogate mentors, people who care or seem to care. It can happen that a kid gets attached to a person who cares for him/her, but who’s also dangerous for him/her. But a bad attachment is better than no attachment. My book is set circa 1970, but the conditions that push kids into gangs are no different today.
There is a great struggle for the boys in these stories to become men or be manly and, more than not, violence seems to play a part in that transition. Why is taking punishment or dealing with pain so important to these characters?
It may be genetic, evolutionary. Or boys may unconsciously sense that taking responsibility for themselves and others requires a lot of guts and that they’d better prepare themselves, toughen themselves somehow. Every man, whether he’s a doctor, dancer, or hard-rock miner knows what it means, at some level, to kick somebody’s ass or get his ass kicked. Then it’s forever scored in the ganglia.
You founded a long running workshop in Philadelphia. What effect has that had on your writing?
The Rittenhouse Writers’ Group, which I started in 1988, may be the longest-running independent fiction workshop in America. We’ll reach our 25th anniversary this October. Members who continued their schooling after leaving the group have told me that RWG may be better–perhaps more enriching–than many MFA writing programs, and in number of publications we compare well. The group has kept my writing sharp because there are so many smart, articulate people there. But being the facilitator has cut into my output over the years. Teaching and editing can drain your productivity. It’s important to be conscious of this as a teacher, and to make sure that every day you socket your spine in the chair and spin the little words.