Trippingly On the Tongue: An Interview with Robert Lopez
By Peter MarkusJanuary 12, 2016
ROBERT LOPEZ’S FICTION is like language spoken from the mouth of a man who stands so close to you that you can feel the furnace of his heated breath and the beat of his humbug heart humming beneath the words. What I’m trying to say is that Lopez gets right up in your pulled-back face and his writing leaves its taste, its cadence, on and under your skin. His words and the stories they tell wake us up to the languaged-up language of a new kind of speech.
I first came to Lopez’s work as a fan, through the now defunct online journal taint, where, after reading a story published there, I immediately emailed him through the link provided in the contributor’s bios to thank him for the story — a story that would later inform the writing of my novel Bob, or Man on Boat; and in the years since, he and I have become not just literary pals but blood-and-word-kin brothers: yes brothers in the largest sense of that word.
Lopez’s new book of peopled-up fictions Good People — a collection of 20 stories — is his fourth; other books include the novels Part of the World (Calamari Press) and Kamby Bolongo Mean River, along with the collection of shorter fictions called Asunder, the latter two from Dzanc Books.
PETER MARKUS: Let me begin by asking you this: Why the pen? Why language and not another instrument?
ROBERT LOPEZ: I suppose the only real answer to this question is that it’s what I do, what I’m capable of doing. Somehow or another, writing and language gets inside of me and moves through me in a way that feels natural. Up until now, I have had one idea for a novel, and I had it years ago, and it hasn’t come together yet. Perhaps it never will, which is fine. Thus, it doesn’t count. Urgency is everything for me, and if the language is urgent, then I’ll follow wherever it may lead. Everything, for me, is born from language, and inside of those sounds and definitions, I have been able to fashion something that resembles a story or a novel, from time to time.
Your ear is tuned to the speech of others, I know, but your gift is in what your own tongue makes of what is said. Would it be true to say that you know how to make use of the spoken language that is around you, that you generate from that ready-made material?
The answer to this question is the same as the preceding one, I think. I will hear someone say something, or language will occur to me, and that is how I start. I suppose a little specificity wouldn’t be out of order: for instance, “The Problem With Green Bananas” starts with, “She said she couldn’t because her week was bananas.” I was trying to make plans with a friend via email, and she wrote something like this line, perhaps not verbatim, but in the neighborhood. I love the word “bananas” when employed in this context. The rest of the story follows from that line. Most of the stories start this way for me.
The ways in which you shape your fiction, how it moves and speaks, is unmistakably and distinctly Robert Lopez — not Beckett, not Lish. Although I know that we all write under the influence, or pediment, one might say, of others, how did Robert Lopez come to write the fiction that has become Robert Lopez’s?
Thank you. I started by imitating Raymond Carver, like a lot of writers from a certain generation or two. Then, I found other writers that blew my head open and made me see and hear things differently. Through this close reading and writing my own stuff and experimenting with language and form, I eventually came into what it is I do. You and I have been friends for a long time now, and I remember you saying this line, “listening to your own page.” You either said it out loud or in an email. Either way, any writer worth a damn, and there aren’t many, has to listen to his/her own page. For me, it was a process. I had to read Paley, Hannah, Michaels, Lutz, Beckett, Gass, Markus, Markson, Stevens, Dixon, and many others. I had to steal what I could and forget what I needed to forget or ignore what I needed to ignore. I had to evolve and become myself. To me, being distinctive is the only real achievement.
I am thinking here of Barry Hannah, the king of urgency, who once said, “I approach my work with humility and supplication, begging for that without which nothing budges, nothing moves: voice.” Hannah goes on to caution that “you will have only junk if you don’t find the voice — inevitable, urgent, necessary” and that “voice is the most unteachable and the closest to magic, and it may be akin to a sort of natural music in the head that is God-given.” When I teach, I find myself doing a lot of pointing and grunting and looking at students when I talk about your work or Hannah’s in the classroom. Is urgency unteachable?
I do think urgency is unteachable. Perhaps urgency, in this context, is synonymous with talent. I had a poet friend many years ago who said that the more she likes a work, the less she is able to talk about it: it is like stomach speaking to stomach. I remember talking to another friend, a fiction writer, and we agreed that the best we can do for students is to say, “Read this.” Discussion about the work is fine and can be helpful, but ultimately, it is the work students do on their own that brings them anywhere in this endeavor. Of course, talent is one thing, and it is not as rare as one might think. Every semester, I encounter a host of very talented students. Sticking with it in the face of a world that either couldn’t care less or rewards raging mediocrity is the hard part. So, I don’t think you can teach urgency, but you can show students how great writers go about their business on the page. In some ways, then, urgency can be demystified. When I teach your work, I tell the students, here is a writer who has fashioned an entire world out of a river, the moon, fish, girl, boy, brothers, mud. These are simple elements, but they are told with an unmistakable music and lyricism that transcends the mundane nature of simple elements. I tell them that they too have to get into the muck and marrow of the world and use what they find there. We talk about risk, risking both language and emotion. The good ones take it from there.
The first story in Good People begins, “Let me understand something to you,” and from that first comma, the sentence presses on, spooling outward, spinning forward, circling and looping onward, upward, and it does not stop, this single-sentence story, until it reaches that single and final period some six and a half pages later. “You can hold it to me,” this voice tells us, “trust me, you know you can trust me, look at my face.” Here, again, that unteachable voice that Hannah argues is “akin to a sort of natural music in the head,” yet what most draws me into the voices in your fiction, most notably perhaps into the narrator of Kamby Bolongo Mean River, is the brokenness that informs the language, a kind of stutter that makes me stop at times to see if I have misread what is being said. It makes me think of another fiction writer we both admire, Yannick Murphy, especially Stories in Another Language. Even though the language of both Murphy and Lopez is American English, it has that distanced feeling of an English in translation.
I love language that sounds slightly off, whether it is in the syntax or diction, and I think your comment about reading an English in translation is apt. I love the way people who speak English as a second language can make English sound more poetic. “Broken” English to me can be high art. One of my favorite phrases in idiomatic English is, “We was robbed.” Anything that monkeys around with grammar is interesting to me. Of course, it also has to be musical. The acoustics have to be just right, so, it isn’t enough simply to break the language, it has to work in the way Hamlet instructed the players, “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I have pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.” This is what I am always after on the page, and it doesn’t matter if the language is broken or not.
At what point do writers begin imitating their own devices, and what can be done to break one’s own traditions and rituals? Is this something you have had to push back against? I know I have found myself bumping up against such an impasse. I sense that at times, when I am reading the work of writers in whose devices I love and find comfort, though I often wonder if these writers ever felt penned in by their own methods which might come to be governed by comfort or success. How might one reinvigorate or make spin anew the well-greased engine or wheel?
Everyone has to listen to his or her own page, and however this manifests itself is fine. For my part, I have found it necessary to do different things with each book, whatever that might mean. There have been times when I have felt that I might be covering the same ground in the same way, which is when I’ll try to fashion some kind of reinvention. There are many paths to the waterfall in this regard, but it is indeed a challenge, and one of which I try to be cognizant at all times. Part of this challenge is a delicate balance, the desire to mix things up, keep it as fresh as possible, while remaining who you are on the page. There are writers who have made careers out of doing the same thing over and over again. I am not as well-versed in Alice Munro, say, as many others, I am sure, but the stories in her first book are very similar to the stories in her most recent — in form, language, subject matter. I might be talking out of my hat here but still, I’d bet money on it. You could say the same thing about hundreds of writers. This consistency is entirely acceptable, of course, but I can’t imagine doing it myself. I appreciate writers who try to do something different, who stretch, who risk. The other way seems like playing it safe, and I’m not interested in that.
Let’s say an invisible bird were to nest at the top of your head to watch over how you sit yourself down in a chair to write the fiction that you write. What would this bird see and be able to say about such seeing?
This would be one bored bird. The bird might see a baseball game playing silently on the television. The bird might see the person in the chair getting up every so often to play some guitar, check the internet and email for no good reason. There might be a lot of time spent on a single sentence or one paragraph. Other times, the words might come flying out and the person in the chair remains there for hours on end, off and on, until the day’s work is done. I’m glad there is no such bird, or if there is, I’m glad it’s invisible.
Your stories tend to move not west to east or left to right, but vertically, a movement that gives your fiction its ascendant musicality. Can you talk about the recursive nature of how you tell a story, or how your stories tell themselves, how you reach back in order to take it back forward?
More than anything else, this movement is due to my lack of imagination, in all likelihood, although I can probably come up with some justifications at the same time. Perhaps music plays a part in this, as well. The refrain of any piece of music is its most important element and has the greatest impact on the listener. I have studied music and songwriting, singing and playing as diligently as writing. The only manner in which I can find my way through and out of a story is to reach back and use what has already been established. This technique is an organic method of composition to me — it is how the world works, or how I experience the world and the people in it. I have felt as if I have had the same conversations and have repeated the same patterns countless times over the course of my life. Yogi Berra had it right, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
What do you want a reader to take away from your stories? When you, as a reader, reach for a piece of fiction, what do you yourself hope to find there? In what way are you, if this is at all possibly true for me to say it, writing to reach and please yourself?
I’m afraid I don’t think about the reader at all when I work. Indeed, the only reader I’m concerned with is myself. I suppose if I can entertain myself, then there might be a few others out there in the world who might be likewise entertained. I would like to find more of those readers, certainly. Some readers find these stories dark and depressing, but that is not how I find them at all. Almost all of the stories make me laugh. As a reader, I want to be entertained, and I want to be compelled. I want to get the wind knocked out of me. This impact can only happen through language. I don’t care about the story, the goings-on: only how they are told. Still, I have no interest in plenty of subject matter, so what I just said is partially untrue. One of my best friends, another brother of ours, on and off the page, Andrew Richmond, has said to me more than once, “people doing people things,” which is what I hope to find, what I’m trying to do.
Your characters seem to be driven by fear, compulsion, an obsession with what our shared language allows us to experience as truth. How do obsession, compulsion, and fear relate to your work and to your practice as a writer?
All of my narrators are driven by these elements, in equal measure. I am always fascinated by obsessions and compulsions, both on and off the page. I always ask students what they have had for breakfast. Sometimes, I tell them they are wrong, what they are doing, what they are eating. Certainly eating is one of my obsessions. I respond best to work that features obsessions and compulsions, and the characters I like best have this in common. Fear, of course, is the reason for almost all human behavior. It is behind everything.
Most of the stories in Good People are told in the first person. In “A Regular Day for Real People,” the narrator says, “I thought maybe I could learn something about myself.” What have you learned about yourself through writing these stories? How close to Robert Lopez are the speakers in this book?
I usually deflect these kinds of questions. The artful dodge is a valuable skill that one can hone and practice. So, I’ll say it goes back to the Civil War. I’ll say that I was born about 10,000 years ago, and there ain’t nothing in this world that I don’t know. At the same time, I know nothing, I see nothing, I hear nothing, and if I happen to say something, it is only by mistake and as a stand-in for nothing. That said, like an actor, I use the various parts of myself and take them to extremes. Some of the people in this book like tennis and baseball and poker, and I do, too. I don’t censor myself on the page, and I’m not concerned what people might think about me as a person, if they make assumptions, mistaking the singer for the song. It’s a performance: I get to do things on the page that I wouldn’t do in the real world. That is one of the great things about writing.
A lot of people are doing people things in Good People. In one story, one of the briefest in the book, “Essentials,” there are, by my count, 20 people referenced by name: Arthur Wheeler, Gil Figgitz, June Harrison, Judy Jakker, William Shedd, Sal Gonzalez who “saved my ass once.” Would it be fair to ask how many of these so-named characters are actual names of real people that have in some way passed through Robert Lopez’s life?
“Essentials” has this many names and many of the other stories have no names at all. At any rate, I did know a guy named Sal once, and he did save my ass on a train platform. I wasn’t paying attention, and I nearly stepped into the gap, and he grabbed me by the arm and held me up. Another name in that story, Diego Goldstein, is something of an alias that I use from time to time. I only use the alias when providing names to hostesses at restaurants and back when there used to be online poker websites, but the rest of the people in this story I don’t know, have never known, and wouldn’t have anything to do with under any circumstances.
At least seven or eight of the 20 stories in Good People are single-paragraph stories. One of these single-paragraph stories, “Family of Man on Isle of Wright,” is a single-sentence, too. What is the role of the paragraph in your writing? How does the absence of white space in a single-paragraph shape these stories?
Some of the voices in some of the narratives call for a breathless delivery, as if these narrators feel they have a very limited time to speak, and so they have to get it all out without interruption, or they have to get it all out while they still can, while they can still remember what it is that is moving them to speak. When I hear this kind of voice, it warrants a wall of text, without any space or air in it. It lends itself to a kind of claustrophobia that I think is effective for certain voices and certain stories, as if I’ve been moving between two distinct forms, this wall of text and the stories that have a lot of air in them. The fragmented and fractured narratives of short, single sentence paragraphs with space breaks are appealing for a number of reasons, depending on how a writer wants to handle time. The white space allows room for the reader to breathe and fill in blanks.
I remember your saying to me, “Up until now, I have never tried to write a piece of fiction — I have never had an idea for a story or novel (which is only a minor lie).” How much of even this back-and-forth between brothers is “a minor lie?” In other words, when language takes its place, as we listen to our own pages, is anything but fiction even possible?
This is a great point, brother. It is all a fiction, perhaps a supreme fiction, if we believe Wallace Stevens, as we always should. He wrote, “It is an illusion that we were ever alive.” I think we become the sum of all that we have made up. It bleeds out of us every time we sit down to assemble and reassemble language. I always make it up as I go, in everything I do. It is all a fiction and all of it is true, except when it isn’t.
Peter Markus is the author of a novel, Bob, or Man on Boat, and other books of fiction, the latest The Fish and the Not Fish. He lives in Michigan where he teaches as the senior writer with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project of Detroit.
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