I had retired the literary Would You Rather interview series, but didn't want to stop interviews on the site all together. Instead, I've pulled together 40ish questions - some bookish, some silly - and have asked authors to limit themselves to answering only 10 of them. That way, it keeps the interviews fresh and connectable for all of us!
Today we are joined by Roger Vaillancourt. Robert is a professional explicator and maker of soothing sounds. His work has been published in Passengers Journal, The Mississippi Review, The Blue Moon Review, Paragraph Magazine, and CrossConnect. He lives in the Boston area.
What made you start writing?
I’ve executed an interesting looping path to this place.
I have always enjoyed writing, it was the thing in school that came most easily to me, so the positive feedback loop started early, in middle school. As I got older, I got more entranced with film. I actually studied film in college and then went to a trade school for broadcasting, and ended up working in television for almost half a decade. During that time, my creative thought swam mainly in the context of film and my outlines and drafts were, to one extent or another, focused on being the basis for films I was imagining. As I got further along working in the industry, I realized that actually making films was much more about the business side - about securing financing and managing the budget of the production and navigating the gap between the pure vision and what a film needs to be to meet the needs of the financiers and the market. None of that really interested me.
At some point it dawned upon me that I could exercise all the creativity and independence I wanted if I just focused on writing to produce…the written word. Once it’s written, it fully exists, versus with a film, where once it’s written, you are only in the earliest stages of bringing it into existence. The freedom I felt when I first recognized that was revelatory. “Fuck all that noise, just write it. The distance between here and a completed book is all inside me, I can traverse it alone.” I still revel in that freedom when I sit down to work on a draft.
What’s the most useless skill you possess?
The ability to very, very efficiently edit local TV station promos using a Sony BE-800 A/B roll editor and ¾” U-matic tape. I did it professionally for about four years a very long time ago, but the muscle memory is burned in. I have since seen a video of me from back then doing the work, and past me impresses current me. It’s a sight, and while there are a lot of things I’m good at today, there is nothing with quite the same quality of hard-wired dance that my editing job engendered.
What’s your kryptonite as a writer?
Outlining. I’m a hardcore pantser. I understand the practice and the value outlining has for many writers, but for me it has never worked. When I have tried it, I end up feeling like I’m filling out an invoice for the section that was requested by the dull grocery clerk I was when I wrote it. And I can’t stick to the outline anyway, if I’m true to the flow it always moves in a direction that seems more correct for the story than I had access to when I was outlining it. I suppose it might be like that Eisenhower quote, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything,” which I always took to mean that thinking through the whole thing ahead of time was the important part. That I get, but when I start writing it as an outline, when I actually commit it to the page as a set of multi-level bullets, it somehow immediately gets insipid. My statement of method has always been that I find my plot in the pockets of my pantsing.
What is your favorite way to waste time?
Oh lord, Twitter. Though I do feel like that particular site is over the peak and is going to die the slow death of all the prior social media websites before it, as everyone is predicting. It has been a great place to find people who are funny and thoughtful, but only if you can carefully avoid the trolls and the shitposters and the painfully earnest. It’s just like Reddit in that way. But if the algorithms shift too much, it’ll wreck that careful curation and make it unpleasant to visit and then I just won’t use it anymore. I’m now on Mastodon, which is kind of fun once you get a critical mass of about 300 people to follow. I’m also rediscovering tumblr which is apparently where all the apolitical art kids and goofballs have been the whole time.
What are some of your favorite books and/or authors?
My current favorite author is Olga Tokarczuk, whose “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” was a revelation to me, and I just finished “Flights” which performs much the same magic as some other favorite works: Adler’s “Speedboat” and Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn” and Hardwick’s “Sleepless Nights;” that magic of dancing on the line between fiction and observational essay in a way that makes the label unimportant, inconsequential, pedantic. I love that place in fiction.
Another favorite author is Don Delillo, who I go through phases of reading and not reading, but every time I tuck into something of his, I’m glad I did.
To me, one of the most skilled masters was Beckett. It took me some time to understand. When I first read him I didn’t think there was anything there, it was like a great joke. Then I began to see how the stuff that wasn’t there was the point, and that the great parsimony was key. And the humor is always present and of the deepest kind, the humor of a thin buoy that holds us just above the depthless horror of it all, allows us to, just barely, not drown in it. True and hard and absurd stuff. I greatly enjoyed “The Banshees of Inisherin” recently, and that film’s two characters and their absurd, existential palaver owes greatly to Beckett. My most succinct review of that film is “Beckett, but make it gorgeous.”
What is your favorite book from childhood?
Okay, so I have two I’m going to go with here. One from early childhood and one from when I was a teenager.
The childhood favorite from my earliest reading was always the Frog and Toad books, probably the compilation “Frog and Toad are Friends.” I still love those books, and for so many reasons. I love their simplicity of storytelling which still manages to allude to so much humanity between the words that is actually there in the book - the urgent implicitness of the psychological worlds each of them inhabits. They are rich characters, yet the book is simple to read, I mean it’s a staple for early readers. As an adult, I love that the relationship between frog and toad is unlabeled and that this is ultimately another way depth is present. Some readers feel its obvious that they are a gay couple and others feel they are just friends, and it absolutely works either way, and that is what makes it great, it gives the reader room to invest in the work. Not least of all, I love the realism of their interactions. They care for one another, but they also get frustrated and are sometimes short with one another, and all of those things are shown to be passing weather over the landscape of their abiding bond. It’s sweet. They’re always there for each other.
The teenage one is a weird one, but one of my favorite book memories from when I was probably 14 or 15 was buying a copy of Burroughs’ “Cities of the Red Night” from a bookstore in Provincetown, and just being flabbergasted by it. It was so outrageous and insane and obscene and grotty and yet, dear god, books could be this as well? My parents were of the philosophy “a child should be allowed to read anything they want, and if they can’t get their head around it they won’t be hurt by it, and if they can get their head around it, then they’re old enough for it.” I’m not sure I totally agree that such is the case, but it’s vastly preferable to the current climate of “we must police everything our children consume to ensure they are not exposed to things we wish did not exist in the world and are emotionally unprepared to talk to them about.”
If you could go back and rewrite one of your books or stories, which would it be and why?
My first novel, the one in the drawer (actually not in a drawer, I did an amazon print-on-demand draft, which actually sits on a shelf behind my desk) which I wrote mainly to complete the exercise of writing a novel, is something I often think of going back to and rewriting. It has some great ideas in it, and a thread of plot that I’d really like to do justice to, it just requires me to slog through the parts of it that are hot garbage. The hot garbage is there because e I sacrificed quality for momentum, which was a key part of getting something of that length actually finished. There are sections that are just awful. If I just take those out, or rewrite them to give them a bit of music, maybe...
But given the other things out in front of me and already started, I’m not sure if I will go back. It’s a little comforting to think that I can or might, the option gives me pleasure to consider.
You have to choose an animal or cartoon character that best represents you. Which is it and why?
I’ve always been fond of Edward Gorey books and illustrations, and I feel a kinship with the Doubtful Guest in his high-top Cons, peering up flues, getting alone time in tureens and dropping objects of which I am fond into the pond for their protection. That story is a realistic representation of my behavior at parties where I don’t know anybody.
Do you think you’d live long in a zombie apocalypse?
I’m a firm believer in Cory Doctorow’s “covered dish v shotgun” theory of crisis response. Basically, when the shit goes down, do you go over to your neighbor’s house with a covered dish or with a shotgun? Everybody is naturally inclined to either one or the other, and if you get enough covered dish people together, you’ve got a decent collective chance. If everybody chooses shotgun, you end up with one person alone with their shotgun.
I think the whole premise of a zombie apocalypse is the dream of shotgun people. I think beneath it lay a desire to be able to destroy people without concern for them being people. I don’t think that’s how the apocalypse will arrive. I think it will arrive as flooding or overwhelming storms or food scarcity, and in any of those, I’d rather have a neighbor with a covered dish than a shotgun of my own.
But back to your question, how would I fare? I don’t know, okay I guess. I have some carpentry and metalworking skills, I can build fire without a match, I’m not a picky eater. I’m a good team player, and I’d be inclined to work with like-minded people to share tasks that can’t be done alone, but I’d probably still die very young like the rest of the group not because of armed marauders but from a virus or fungal infection that tears through us like tissue paper.
What is under your bed?
Boxes of out-of-season clothes, and lots of dust bunnies, which our smallest cat, little Elise, loves to roll in. One of her morning rituals is to stride confidently into the bedroom while we are still in bed, disappear under the bed, and then make an unmistakable “CLONK” as she throws her little hips down on the floor and rolls about in the dust. I do not know what obscure need this fulfills for her, but god bless her at extracting such regular joy from a dark, dusty nowhere. Would that we could all accomplish such things.
Neil died too soon-too soon for his son Calvert to even develop memories of him. To spare her son, not the pain of losing his father but the pain of never knowing him at all, Marissa hires an actor to play the role of husband and father. He's not a replacement, just a placeholder, a way to let Calvert make his memories.
Her plan works great until it doesn't.
Buy the book here: