A Nasty Tale of Redemption: A Conversation With Susan Rukeyser




IDYLLIC ON THE SURFACE, daily life in the midst of storied beauty can often be a little desperate, no less harsh than life in the city. Set in the scenic Hudson River Valley, Susan Rukeysers novel, Not on Fire, Only Dying (Twisted Road Publications), sketches a world where the natural beauty is just an illusion, a passing phase like the changing of the leaves in autumn, at least for the people who live in the town, people who scrape like all people do in places where prosperity is something you talk about but seldom ever see. It’s a world where the best options involve a little hustle and minimum wage is the gold standard. Graceful, indomitable, nasty.

A baby is missing, kidnapped from a stroller left outside a squalid bar. Or is it? Did it even exist? Exquisitely written — “I listen closely for the music in language. It matters, how a sentence curls through the reader’s mind,” Rukeyeser says — the novel is a tale of redemption, where the hero is an ex-con drug dealer doing his daily slow walk on a killing floor. Marko possesses qualities you’d sooner expect in someone from a better life. Fiercely loyal, passionate, and ruthlessly devoted to his friends and his woman, Marko makes you want to smile … makes you want to believe in him in spite of his seemingly hopeless quest. And it is a quest, one worthy of ancient heroes from some legendary epic, but rooted in the marrow of a modern reality.

You will love Marko and his woman, Lola, and you will be fascinated by Marko’s pursuit in a noirish setting, a story intelligently and thoughtfully portrayed by this gifted author. The characterization alone reveals the kind of insight you look for in a novel and seldom get. Susan’s first effort is eminently award-worthy and I can’t wait to see what else she gifts us with.

¤

MARYANNE KOLTON: What spark ignited the writing of this novel?

SUSAN RUKEYSER: In 1997, I was coming off a rough few years. My new husband abruptly left, my literary agent dropped me, and I was fired from a bookstore job. (Everyone should have a few years like that, seriously. There is something liberating about things completely falling apart.) I’d recently returned from England where I got my Creative Writing MA. I’d moved every couple of years since college. Now I was back in Greenwich, Connecticut, where I grew up, a place I was never crazy about. I was in the mood for radical change. I was looking for roots. I moved up to Kingston, New York, in the mid-Hudson Valley.

I was familiar with the paintings of the “Hudson River School,” these grand, romantic landscapes of a wilderness of mountains, cliffs, and waterfalls, that misty river winding through. There are always lots of shadows and deep contrast. Seeing that region with my own eyes, at the height of autumn, especially, was profoundly moving. I was also drawn to the contrast with Kingston’s more neglected corners. I was curious about Kingston’s outsiders. In 1997, Kingston was still struggling to regain its footing after IBM, the region’s largest employer, suddenly left. It felt a bit lost. Perfect for me. I borrowed money from my parents and bought a tiny, shabby building in Kingston’s historic uptown Stockade district. I opened a used bookstore and lived upstairs. The district is rich with history, dotted with stone buildings dating from the 1600s. It was the capital of New York until the British burned it down, moving the capital to Albany. It boasts the only intersection in the United States with 18th-century buildings still standing on all four corners. It is in the foothills of the Catskills, and serves as a stop for tourists on the way.

During the day, there was almost no foot traffic. Uptown Kingston was a sleepy place. There was a bit of a power struggle between the older store and restaurant owners and the new arrivals, out-of-towners like me, who thought maybe Kingston should be different, or better. To them, it was fine as it was. The empty storefronts didn’t bother them. I had plenty of time to gaze out the window and make up stories about the locals who walked by and — occasionally — into my store. I really didn’t know what I was doing. My failure was virtually guaranteed, but my time there was very much the spark that ignited Not On Fire, Only Dying. The main character, Marko, was inspired by a strange, striking man who seemed to intimidate some of the other locals. He had a formality about him that intrigued me and he claimed Romani ancestry. Beyond that, he told me nothing about himself. I wondered what his story might be.

I have always been interested in our misperceptions of each other, based on prejudgment or our own insecurities. We like to categorize people to make them easier to understand, but in truth we are each very complicated creatures, full of contradictions and never entirely good nor bad. I wanted to write a hero whose actions are hard to support. I wanted to write a love story between two characters who might be deemed unlovable. I wanted to write about how we imprison ourselves sometimes, and about the push I’ve always felt to keep moving, as if all the answers lie ahead somewhere. The alienation of not being “from around here.” I wanted to challenge assumptions of what is right or wrong, honorable or dishonorable. I wanted to examine all of this by writing about it, because that’s how I figure out what I think.

But at the time I really wasn’t writing. At all. I’d allowed the disappointments and rejections of the previous few years to take my voice. I still watched and listened like a writer, though. I noticed everything and stored it away. Marko and Lola never left me. They whispered at me until I knew they would never give me peace until I wrote their story. Many years later, I finally did.

In his review of your novel, James Tate Hill said:

These characters are drug dealers and the mentally troubled, living in a New York more familiar to viewers of classic 1970s cinema, and Rukeyser’s dignified depiction of their lives doesn’t so much blend beauty and darkness as insist they are two sides of the same tarnished, priceless coin.

How were you able you to find your way so deeply inside Marko’s head? It is almost as if you are having an internal dialogue:

He needs to get back out on the street. He needs to walk, he needs air.

He makes his way up to Times Square but he doesn’t stay long. It’s like being inside a TV, inside a commercial. He walks east to Grand Central, cranes his neck to admire the ceiling-sky […] He returns to the area around the bus terminal. He likes transportation hubs. He likes the concentration of stories there, or just continuing on, as most do, no meaningful arc. Most lives are run-on sentences.

That was my favorite line from a very thoughtful review! First, I loved that he found it evocative of cinematic ’70s New York. That’s the New York I grew up with. I loved that filthy, fabulous city with its glittery, gum-smeared sidewalks and disco-sophisticates and artists and lost souls. It was always a train ride away (we lived in Rye, New York, and then Greenwich, Connecticut), and I was a child of the suburbs, not the city. But that city was where my heart lived. The state of New York is full of contradictions. I went to college upstate, in Saratoga, which is quite swank with its mineral springs and racetrack, both long summertime draws for high society. It’s quite different from Kingston, in the mid-Hudson Valley, where I had my used bookshop. Kingston is working class with a proud and visible Revolutionary War–era history. It is surrounded by magnificent natural beauty — the Catskills, the Shawangunks, that river — but when I lived there, almost 20 years ago, it felt a bit lost. It was regaining its footing after the loss of thousands of jobs to downsizing by IBM, Kingston felt abandoned and that suited me. At the time that’s how I felt, too, recovering from a bad divorce. It was probably a terrible idea for me to open a used bookshop there, but in other ways it was perfect. And the experience inspired this book.

I was thrilled that James Tate Hill recognized and appreciated the dignity in these messy, broken characters and what I was trying to say about beauty and darkness. They both exist in all of us, I believe that. Every choice can be right or wrong, depending on your perspective. I like thinking about the novel’s very close third-person point of view as almost an “internal dialogue.” I absolutely did feel that I inhabited Marko when I wrote this book. I saw the story through his eyes. He was a real presence who elicited my compassion and respect, even as I was dismayed by his terrible choices. To me, he is a desperately flawed yet noble hero, and I think that’s how he sees himself. He’s kinder and smarter than anyone knows. He is judged by his appearance and his past. He and I are so different — he has a misguided, stylized chivalry and a violent criminal history. But I have a lot of Marko in me (or, I suppose, it’s the reverse.) Marko and I are both highly principled, with an internalized expectation of integrity that may or may not match traditional definitions. We have tempers that flare at injustice and we tend to obsess. We are not strangers to darkness. I lived so comfortably inside Marko because he was familiar. By writing from Marko’s perspective, I gave him — and myself, to an extent — a voice.

My personality is reflexively empathetic. It’s exhausting but it has everything to do with what makes me a writer. I feel a kinship with those who are not quite seen or heard. I think a lot of us know that alienation. I find our commonalities more significant and interesting than our differences. I want to explore what connects us, what makes it worth picking ourselves up and trying again. Right now I’m most interested in characters at midlife because by this point we’ve had time to really screw things up more than once. How we return to life, “strong at the broken places,” as Hemingway said, is fascinating to me. I may be obsessed with grit and darkness but I am also deeply hopeful. This book has a sweet love story at its core. It is full of contradictions, and questions, as we all are.

You mentioned your parents. Would you be willing to talk a bit about your distinguished family? Was reading an escape for you as a child or was your love of books inherited?

My family tree features several writers, including the American poet Muriel Rukeyser and the Manx novelist Hall Caine.

Both of my parents worked as journalists. In 1970, when I was two, my father began hosting “Wall $treet Week with Louis Rukeyser.” As my sisters and I grew up, the show became very popular. Loyal viewers called out to him in airports, came up to shake his hand in restaurants. He was a TV star, to an extent. But he never stopped being a journalist. He published four books. He always wrote newspaper columns. Later he had two newsletters. He told me he considered himself a writer first. I knew exactly what he meant.

Every Friday, en route to the studio for W$W’s live taping at 8:30 p.m.; he composed his opening monologue, a wry, critical analysis of the week just passed. He refused to start writing until the stock market closed at 4:00. I watched him do this many times, but I’m still a bit in awe. I tend to be a slow, uncertain writer. I revise compulsively. Once a piece is ready to share, I still like to sleep on it. I am also a writer first, but a different sort.

My mother was always an avid reader and kept books in our home so beautifully. In Greenwich, where I grew up, an entire wall of our sunken living room was lined with bookshelves: classic literature, popular mysteries. Shel Silverstein, Roald Dahl, Erica Jong. Books about history and eastern religion and how to raise guinea pigs. Just, everything. Among the books were sculptures and brassware they’d collected while living in India. I grew up associating books with interesting, unusual art. Learning and thinking were highly valued in our home, and books were a reflection of that.

Then, as now, I went for realism. As a girl, I was horse-obsessed and spent a lot of time poring over Jill Krementz’s A Very Young Rider. It chronicled the daily life of a girl about my age on the A-rated horse show circuit. Of course I loved Judy Blume. She talked about all the stuff I wanted to know more about but didn’t dare ask. I didn’t get to read Forever when it was passed around our fifth grade class because the girl who owned it insisted we provide written permission from our moms! Mortifying — I could never. Not to worry, I got my hands on it soon enough. I devoured the melodrama in those trashy classics Sunshine and Go Ask Alice. I wanted real, contemporary stuff. I wanted a peek at the darkness. Killing Mr. Griffin, I Am the Cheese, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich, that sort of thing. Oh, and S. E. Hinton. Loved her. I remember lots of people were into Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and, sure, I read them, but I was never too interested in other worlds. I find navigating this one challenging enough. I was an anxious kid. Still am. I’m a watcher and a listener. Not such a great talker. I do my best thinking on the page, as reader and writer.

In high school I began to read poetry. I listen closely for the music in language. It matters, how a sentence curls through the reader’s mind. Poetry and art are still where I turn when in need of inspiration: Marge Piercy, Adrienne Rich, Bukowski, John Donne, Frida Kahlo, Edward Hopper, Toulouse-Lautrec. Van Gogh, my first love.

Everything changed when I read Surfacing and The Handmaid’s Tale and then everything else I could find by Margaret Atwood. Suddenly I knew what kind of writer I aspired to be. I knew what I wished my writing could do. I heard a voice speak in a language I recognized more fully then any I’d heard before. The authors I love are the closest I have to gods.

You called yourself an “anxious kid” and say you still are. How does this manifest itself in your writing? In your daily life?

Anxiety, for me, is like having a weird mole: I catch glimpses of it all the time. I never forget it’s there. But I’ve learned how to manage my reaction to it. Feeling like an anxious kid masquerading as a competent adult can be useful: I’m an obsessive and remorseless editor of my own work. I’m just as rigorous, but kinder, with other people’s writing through my positions at three different journals. Deadlines are met. I try not to “do it wrong.” Try not to make anyone mad because I didn’t work hard enough. And while these tendencies may benefit editorial work, they can be lethal to art.

Anxiety can talk you out of writing for a day or years: Why bother? You know you’re a mediocre talent. No one will publish it. They’ll all be embarrassed for you. And you probably won’t finish it, anyway. Yeah, that’s the inner voice. I think a lot of writers have similar garbage on a mental loop. It’s all about ignoring the weird mole long enough to get the words on the page. Summoning some ego. And remembering to breathe.

As a kid and now, still, I prefer to pass unnoticed. I was distressed when an adolescent growth spurt brought me to my final height of 5’10”. People noticed me, whether I liked it or not. I’d only make it worse for myself if I didn’t smile. But sometimes I don’t want to smile. When I’m figuring stuff out, I don’t smile.

What I want to do is watch and listen. I want to talk about real things with interesting people. Like most writers, I’m always stashing away impressions and sensations for future use: snippets of banter, the way the sun slanted that afternoon, how the apple tasted, what the silence was like after they fought. The very last thing I ever want to do is make small talk. That makes me terribly anxious. It’s a distraction from everything I love. I don’t know how to talk about the weather while I’m trying to understand who you are.

Sharon Olds said, “I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.” My 40s have been liberating — favorite decade so far, truly. I finally accept that there is no “right way” to do things. You’re not a failure if you move through life with less certainty. Questions are good, in fiction and in life. If any part of you placates or self-censors, your writing won’t be what it could. If you allow it, anxiety will steal your voice, the only chance you have. It took me too long to figure that out. But a lot of NOFOD deals with those questions: What is the right way to behave? Who decides? What do we assume about other people, and why? These questions may be born of anxiety but they are everything I want my writing to explore.

I have it on good authority you have actually attended the Isle of Man TT race, known as the scariest race in the world. More than once.

Ha, that’s true! As odd as it may sound to anyone aware that I tend to avoid sports, competition, noise, and scary things. But I have witnessed these very exciting and hugely popular races a few times while visiting over the years. My mother and her family are from the Isle of Man, and in fact my grandparents’ house (which once belonged to my great-great-grandfather, the aforementioned novelist Hall Caine) sits on the TT Mountain Course. We had private front-row seats. These are narrow roads with almost no shoulder, sometimes only a stone wall. The roads are closed on race days but there’s no guarantee a hare won’t dart out from a field. The danger is extremely high. These days the motorbikes roar around at speeds averaging 130 miles per hour, considerably faster than when the race began in 1905.

The Isle of Man is a tiny, ancient island, about 32 miles long by 14 wide. It’s situated in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland. Beyond the TT races, it’s known for its rugged coastline — most dramatic when approached by sea, rather than air, I discovered, when taking the ferry from Lancashire, where I did my Creative Writing MA. Also: Tailless cats; thatched-roof cottages; castles dating to the 11th century; Neolithic ruins; purple heather, yellow gorse, fuchsia hedges; sheep-dotted hillsides — I could go on and on. The details and memories I’ve gathered from my time spent in that beautiful place will stay with me forever. It is quite magical. (By the way, the IOM [Isle of Man], as well as my time in Lancaster, inspired my story “Hiccup,” which appeared in PANK’s 2011 “London Calling” issue.)

Having lived in and visited some very tempting places, what prompts your yearning for the Mojave Desert?

One of the things I tried to explore in NOFOD was this deep, instinctual push some of us feel to keep pressing forward, stay light on our feet, don’t get settled or stuck because we’re not yet home. There’s no home in the past, only the future. I’ve moved something like 14 times, but never to anything like a desert. I grew up with Connecticut woods and wetlands, went to summer camp in the Colorado mountains. It wasn’t until 2010, visiting family in Los Angeles, that I saw Joshua Tree for the first time. Immediately I knew: Home. It looked like nothing I recognized but I knew.

Everything about it is beautiful to me: those fantastic mounds of formerly molten rock, the Seussian Joshua trees shaking their spiny fists at the soaring blue sky. Drenched in sunlight, I am high, euphoric. And the silence. Out there it has a weight. It is a presence. I don’t feel burdened by excessive sensory stimulation, as I usually do. When I’m out there, I can breathe and think. I am comforted and inspired a better person and writer.

I do understand that some people find it stark or even bleak — the moonscape vistas, the crushed rock trails lined with spiny cacti, nothing soft. Some see it as monochromatic or barren. It is, of course, neither. It is vibrantly diverse and alive. You just have to look. Really look, like I was taught in the drawing and painting classes I took when I still thought I’d be an art major: see all the colors of the spectrum, the lines, the shapes of shadows. Notice the subtle differences, spy the camouflaged reptiles already watching you. Feel the silence.

Since my first visit I’ve had a vision of myself living out there, working, writing, tending to my rescued dogs and cats, making art, growing happily sun-wrinkled and old. There are many transplanted artists out there who apparently felt a similar pull. For the last 17 years, since my son was born, I’ve moved a lot less frequently. Each time we stayed in the suburbs. I did that for him. I find them numbing. But they are quiet and safe and the schools are good. Day after day you know what to expect. I do not flippantly dismiss the gift of security, which allows you to focus on other things. But when my son graduates next year he’ll be moving into the next chapter of his life, headed for adventures in a place completely unlike what he’s known. I hope to do the same.

¤

 MaryAnne Kolton writes fiction and regularly interviews writers for LARB.


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