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An Interview With Thaddeus Rutkowski
by David F. Hoenigman

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 innovative novels Tetched and Roughhouse. Both books were finalists for an Asian American Literary Award. His third novel, Haywire, is forthcoming from Starcherone Books. His stories and poems have been nominated five times for a Pushcart Prize. He has been the fiction and nonfiction editor of the literary journal Many Mountains Moving since 2007. He teaches fiction writing at the West Side YMCA in New York and lives in Manhattan with his wife and daughter.

David Hoenigman: What projects are you currently working on?

Thaddeus Rutkowski: I'm working on a fiction manuscript, tentatively titled Haywire, under contract with Starcherone Books in Buffalo. I'm revising the manuscript with input from the publisher, Ted Pelton—he's given some general comments on the entire book. I've also gotten comments on the manuscript from a couple of other readers.

It's natural for me to revise a lot-that's the way I work; I'm interested in details—but I think the larger question is, does the big picture hold together? Is there some sort of development—if not a narrative arc, some kind of emotional progression? I see there is an arc in this book, but I'm trying to fill in some emotional gaps.

DH: When and why did you begin writing?

TR: I began writing when I was in high school. The psychological reason was that I was unable to communicate in the normal way, by talking. I was shy, probably withdrawn. Writing was a way to express myself, even if mainly to myself.

The more literary reason I began to write was that I admired the work of certain writers--Donald Barthelme and Richard Brautigan. OK, I also admired Mad magazine. I "got" what they were doing, and I wanted to do it, too.

I also had an interest in visual art when I was in high school, because my father was a visual artist and a teacher. I took a silk-screening workshop or two with him. One of my prints combined a poem of mine with a sort of Clyfford Still background.

DH: Do you still combine visual art with your writing?

TR: My background in visual art might allow me to make the images in my writing more vivid. I want the reader to be able to picture the setting in his/her mind, or picture what is going on.

Earlier on, I tried using my paintings or drawings as illustrations for my work. I once read aloud while showing slides of my artwork on a screen. One listener said that the paintings were good, but she didn't say anything about the writing.

DH: When did you first consider yourself a writer?

TR: This is a hard question, because I'm not sure what a "writer" is. I've enjoyed writing creatively since I was a teenager, but if being a "writer" means you are acknowledged by others as such, well, I'm still working on that.

DH: What inspired you to write your first book?

TR: Most, if not all, of my writing is based on my experience. When I found a way to order images and incidents from my life, when I found a workable voice and structure, I thought I could carry it through to a book.

Shaping a manuscript actually took a long time, about 12 years from when I first had "workable" pieces. And I didn't have those first pieces until I was 10 years out of graduate school.

DH: Who or what has influenced your writing?

TR: Other experimental writers, like the ones mentioned above, as well as the classics. I had a traditional education in English literature. I elected to take extra courses in Shakespeare and Milton-I don't know why. Later, in a return to course work, I read Chaucer's writing aside from The Canterbury Tales.

Popular music has perhaps been an influence. I've sometimes thought that a piece of my fiction is like a punk-rock song: It reaches a crescendo quickly and stays on that level of intensity until the end, when it stops abruptly.

DH: What punk bands do you like?

TR: I was most moved by the Ramones, who I saw at Max's Kansas City in New York in 1976. The room was small, so the band was close. Joey Ramone was saying things like "Here's one for all you kumquat suckers out there" to introduce the song "Havana Affair." The audience was packed together at long tables. You met the people sitting across from you; you had to talk to them. It was a memorable night.

I was also moved by a Slayer concert around 1997. A couple of the band members still had hair, which they swung around while they screamed. I went with my girlfriend, who is now my wife. I wasn't a typical fan—I wasn't a suburban boy—but I've never been a typical part of any group.

DH: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?

TR: Much of my writing has to do with growing up biracial in a white community in middle America. In my case, central Pennsylvania. My upbringing—the role my parents played--is a main issue in my work. The difficulty of that childhood translates to adult distress in other sections of my books.

DH: Tetched has some pretty touchy subject matter that appears to be autobiographical, about your family, about your sexuality...How have your family members dealt with it? Do you worry about your daughter reading Tetched one day?

TR: I've tried to be honest in my work, and I've tried to write down what I'm afraid to say. I think there's a danger, though, in going away from the work to talk about the author (as an embodiment of the work). Of course, I am my own toughest critic, but you have to let the critic go in order to do the work. Otherwise, you'd be blocked, wouldn't you?

I was glad that my mother was able to attend a book party for Tetched in a bookstore near where I grew up. (My father isn't alive.) At that same event, a former high school teacher and a couple of former high school classmates of mine spoke or read.

Our 8-year-old daughter has come to some of my readings, but so far she hasn't responded much to the work, unless it is about her (in which case, she won't allow it). I don't worry about her reading Tetched—she knows more about me than the book can tell her. Actually, I worry that she won't read it, out of disinterest. I hope she'll be interested enough to look at it.

DH: Do you have a specific writing style?

TR: My fiction writing has been called minimalistic, or a hybrid of poetry and prose. I guess that's fair. I liked one writer's comment that my style is like "flashes of light in darkness." I don't consciously set the style. I try to say what I want to say, and sometimes I think I have a lot to say. But inevitably, the pieces come out short.

DH: What genre are you most comfortable writing?

TR: I begin with a thought or feeling or image, and try to put it into a scene. I want to have people doing things and saying things. I guess that's fiction. I'm also interested in language, in sound and the way the meaning of words can shift, or exist simultaneously in more than one sense. I guess that's poetry.

DH: Is it necessary to put it into a scene? Couldn't the thought or feeling or image be presented on its own?

TR: I'm not sure why the scene format works, but when you present a setting, bring in characters, and have them do and say things, readers can relate to that. They can come into your made-up world. If it works, why not use it?

There are many ways to organize a piece of writing. A book can be pure voice (Maldoror, by Laureamont), or almost all voice (Notes From Underground, by Dostoyevsky). You might be going that route yourself in your book, Burn Your Belongings.

DH: Is there a message in your work that you want readers to grasp?

TR: Yes. It's a feeling or sense that the world in my work is the real world, the world we know, yet it is also a different world. It is unworldly, alien.

DH: What book are you reading now?

TR: For the past couple of months, I've been reading books for a literary award. The books are published novels or collections of short stories, and they are all written by authors with somewhat similar backgrounds. They are all good books; picking a winner (with other jurors) will be hard.

The last book I tried to read on my own was Prague, by Arthur Phillips. Much of the book takes place in Budapest, and I'd visited there last fall. The characters think about going to Prague, but so far they haven't made it there.

DH: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

TR: I was excited about Miranda July. When I was at the Yaddo colony several years ago, a resident, Rick Moody, played a video made by July. I didn't understand what she was doing until later, when I realized that her material is deceptively simple, or deceptively innocent.

I like the work of Annie Proulx, Alice Munro, Matthew Klam, Rattawut Lapcharoensap (author of Sightseeing). Are they new? Lars Eighner's nonfiction has impressed me. Is he new?

DH: What is the most misunderstood aspect of your work?

TR: The fact that while it is humorous, it is not stand-up comedy. Or the fact that while it may pass as spoken word, it is not primarily performance-based. Sometimes, I wish it were, so I could give better public readings.

DH: How often do you give readings? Why do you give readings?

TR: I've liked to read/perform since college, where I once put on a raccoon-skin hat to read in a coffeehouse. The hat had nothing to do with the text, of course.

I began giving readings regularly in the mid-1980s, when I lived near a gallery called ABC No Rio in New York's Lower East Side. I went there every week for years. Reading aloud is good practice, because you have to think about what you're going to read before you do it.

I began doing poetry slams in 1989, but I didn't get too far. I won one time at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, but couldn't get past the semifinals. Recently, I've been asked to slam on occasion, so I've done it. I've actually won a couple of times. That's not a result I count on.

DH: Any memories of particular works: the writing of, feedback, the thought behind...etc.

TR: Works of my own? Lately, I've written some creative pieces on assignment: a piece on character for the journal Center (University of Missouri), an essay on housekeeping for the anthology Dirt (Seal Press), and an anti-book review for the anthology The Worst Book I Ever Read (Autonomedia). I was nervous about sticking to the predetermined themes, but I found that my voice came through, the pieces were personal, and they didn't come out badly.

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