Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the innovative novels Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. He teaches literature as an adjunct at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York and fiction writing at the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in Manhattan. You can read his fiction and poetry in The Fox Chase Review at these links: http://www.foxchasereview.org/12AW/ThaddeusRutkowski.html http://www.foxchasereview.org/09AW/11-TRutkowski.html and http://www.foxchasereview.org/09WS/09-ThaddeusRutkowski.html
and visit him at: http://www.thaddeusrutkowski.com/
Interview with g emil reutter
GER: Tell us about the Unbearables, The Unbearables Manual of Style, your experience and how that experience manifests itself in your current writing?
TR: The Unbearables are a group of writers based in New York City. They might be known for their literary activism; they “sat in” at The New Yorker to protest the editorial policies of then poetry editor Alice Quinn. She came to the sit-in and talked to them, and as a result some poems by the Unbearables were published in The New Yorker. The Unbearables have also staged parades and “happenings,” such as a chain of poets reading in a line across the Brooklyn Bridge.
The name Unbearables comes from a longer version, The Unbearable Beatniks of Life, which is based on Milan Kundera’s title The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The group was formed, I think, in the mid-1980s. They were neo-Beatniks, reading at the Life Café. Beatniks of Life! There are hundreds of Unbearables, with a core of about 50 people.
I had to look up The Unbearables Manual of Style on the Web. It is an objet d’art that looks like it was hit by bullets, based on the Chicago Manual, put together by writers who worked as proofreaders, typesetters, etc. I wasn’t a contributor. I don’t know why. But I am a contributor to several Unbearables anthologies. I’ve often written on an Unbearables theme, e.g., “the worst book I ever read.” Doing the assignment gives me something to write about.
I edited a selection of work by 20 Unbearables in the current online issue of Many Mountains Moving, at http://mmminc.org
GER: You grew up in Central Pennsylvania, an area dominated by rural areas. Tell us about being raised in the area and how you ended up in New York?
TR: I felt like an outsider in central Pennsylvania. There were no kids of color in my high school, except for my brother and sister and me. I didn’t even know what it meant to be “of color” until I was about 12. That’s when I could “see” race.
Of course, the response to me by other kids and adults was subtle. Only a few kids would start speaking in mock Japanese when they saw me. Girls would talk to me, but dating was another thing. What would their parents think? A date with me was an interracial affair, though “affair” is the wrong word. An interracial experience.
My immediate goal was to move away. I had visited New York as a child (World’s Fair) and on high school field trips (Whitney Museum, Broadway musical). Before I got to the city, I went to college in Ithaca, N.Y. (which seemed like a big town compared to Hublersburg, Pa.), then to grad school in Baltimore. At the end of grad school, I could have stayed on at the university press (to continue my work-study job), but instead I moved to New York and found work, like a good Unbearable, as a production editor in the journals section of a scientific publisher.
GER: Your write novels, short stories and poetry. Where do you get your inspiration and when crafting your work what is the difference when you write fiction or a poem?
TR: Fiction is the form that seems most natural to me—which is not to say it’s easy. I form sentences in my mind. I seem to say what I want to say in relatively few words. I call my short prose pieces “stories,” and I call a collection of them (united by voice and arranged in sequence) a “novel.” However, my stories and novels aren’t conventional. I start with an idea or a strong feeling, and the form it takes is secondary. Sometimes (rarely) it takes the form of a poem—a work in free verse.
I took fiction workshops when I was in school, with great writers like John Barth and Alison Lurie. I’ve also studied with great poets—Richard Howard and John Yau. I have respect for them all. At some point, though, you have to find and develop your own voice.
My inspiration comes from my experiences in life. I select and distill—I even make things up—for dramatic effect. I hope the subjects of my writing are more exciting or interesting than my daily life.
GER: Your father was a visual artist and teacher. You also dipped a toe into visual art. How has this contributed to your development of images in your writing?
TR: Right, my father was a visual artist. He taught calligraphy and silk-screening at the craft center at Penn State University, and he had a small business silk-screening Penn State images on T-shirts and other objects. For his own work, he made paintings and drawings of landscapes and antique things. One reason he moved his family to the country, I believe, was to rediscover an older way of life.
I began college as a fine arts major, with a focus on painting. To finish the degree, I took studio courses in drawing, sculpture and printmaking (etching). I also had to take 18 credits of art history. Meanwhile, I was studying English literature. I was a dual-degree major. The two disciplines came together in my mind. I’m conscious of visual detail in my creative writing.
GER: You have traveled the United States and overseas to read your work. How important is it to you to perform your material in front of a live audience and are there differences between audiences in the states and overseas?
TR: I was talking with friends yesterday about visiting a high school in the New Territories of Hong Kong in 2012. In public schools in Hong Kong, all of the students wear uniforms. In the classroom, I tried to encourage the students to express themselves. I gave a prompt, and all of the students wrote at their desks, but few wanted to share their writing aloud. From what I could tell, their English was good, and they were in this class voluntarily. Do uniforms act against self-expression? Or are teenagers by nature shy? Was the exercise (about a personal victory) not interesting? Maybe it was a combination. In any case, I was able to engage with a couple of the more extroverted students, girls and boys, and that made the visit totally worthwhile. The teacher gave me a letter opener as a present, and that weapon-like tool got me into trouble with customs later, but that’s another story.
Anyway, no, I don’t think there are essential differences audiences in the U.S. and elsewhere. In countries like Germany and Hungary, I was lucky to have a translator. I would read in English, and the translator would read the piece in the local language.
Aside from the barrier of language, people have much in common. I always like meeting new audiences—people who haven’t heard my material before. I’m usually able to make a connection. I remember reciting a piece on the top deck of a boat on the way from Hong Kong to Lama Island. Two people were listening, one from Australia and one from England. We were just lying there in the warm air. I was interrupted by our cruise host, but after the host left, the Englishwoman said to me, “Do the rest of it. I want to hear how it ends.”
Thaddues Rutkowski in Hong Kong: http://asiasociety.org/video/thaddeus-rutkowski-white-and-wong-hong-kong
GER: You teach at the City University of New York and lead a workshop at the West Side YMCA. In interacting with students do you see a change in the writing landscape and if so what are the causes?
TR: I teach literature at CUNY and lead a fiction workshop at the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA. The main change that I see is, I’ve become a better teacher over the years. I’m better able to communicate with people and encourage them. Earlier on, I might give an in-class exercise, and someone would sit there with a blank sheet of paper and write nothing. That hasn’t happened for a long time.
I don’t know about the “writing landscape” I don’t know if there are more or better writers out there. I believe the writers who succeed are the ones best able to motivate themselves. These writers (or writers in the making) have something to say and the means to say it, and they’re not going to let anyone stop them. In fact, they are going to win people over with their words.
GER: Haywire is a collection of 49 flash fictions. Why did you use this form for the novel?
TR: As I said, I write short fiction. But I always have the idea of a book in mind. This is common sense—first spelled out to me by my friend Paul Beatty. If you want to be writer, you have to write a book. So while I’m making these short pieces, I’m thinking about how they might go together in a longer, coherent work—a work with a beginning, middle and end. That’s how I put together Haywire and the two books before it. Sometimes, a short piece doesn’t fit anywhere, and it is not in the book. Other times, there are big gaps, and I have to add “chapters.” I’m not too worried about little gaps—I trust the reader to fill those in.
I reread Haywire last summer for the e-book edition, and I thought it held together pretty well.
GER: You used a similar method with Roughhouse and Tetched. Describe these collections and how they differ as well as from Haywire?
TR: All three books share a similar approach: snapshots or vignettes connected by voice and theme. I think there’s an evolution in form, since the books were written over a couple of decades. Roughhouse is the most minimal, but that doesn’t mean it has less value or less to say. I wanted a smoother narrative as I went along, more exposition, more commentary. I can’t say, though, that those elements are clearly developed. I’m still a minimalist.
GER: You have said some of your influences were Barthelme, Brautigan, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and that you had an admiration for Mad Magazine. How have they influenced you and are there others you would like to mention?
TR: I don’t recall my references to Chaucer and Shakespeare, though I don’t doubt I said that somewhere. I have great respect for those authors. They are, along with Milton, the giants of English literature, and their works are what we study here in school. We could just as well study the Chinese classic novel Journey to the West, featuring the Monkey King. Or we could study the Hindu epic The Ramayana. They are all important.
I grew up reading Donald Barthelme and Richard Brautigan. They were experimenting with form, and their experiments worked, as far as I could tell. What they were saying affected me. I’m not saying they should be imitated, but they should be considered, taken seriously. Their stuff, especially the early stuff, is worth rereading.
Yes, I liked Mad Magazine, and Cracked magazine, too. Nothing wrong with a little satire and parody. I can still partially recite a Mad Magazine parody of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, ” which begins “Whose woods these are I think I know.” The Mad Magazine parody read:
“Whose Buick’s this? I think I know.
The keys are here. Hop in; let’s go.
… The road is clear; the hour is late,
so speed right past that turnpike gate.
They may jot down our license plate,
but what care we? It’s not our crate.”
GER: What projects are you currently working on?
TR: I’m working on a number of short fictions and gathering them into a book. I have a manuscript that’s almost complete. It’s about my experiences, my memories of experiences, and my subconscious perceptions of experiences. It covers a lifetime. I hope the writing is clear, and does what it needs to do.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is reading at Ryerss Museum and Library on June 29th. You can find more information on this reading at: https://foxchasereview.wordpress.com/2014/06/01/rutkowski-and-smith-in-fox-chase-june-29th/
You can check out his books at this link: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Thaddeus+Rutkowski
-g emil reutter lives and writes in the Fox Chase neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pa. (USA) http://gereutter.wordpress.com/