Hilarious, possibly impervious, Joanna Ruocco is, of all the writers I know, the one who writes most purely in order to write—or so I’ve always imagined. I’ve long wanted to ask her about the impetus behind her wonderfully weird assortment of prose, so when I learned she has five books coming out this year—two last month alone—each utterly different from the others, it seemed the perfect opportunity.
The Week is a collection of stories that could be the offspring of Padgett Powell’s and Thomas Bernhard’s comic shorter works. From “Paparazzi”: “It is best to be a mediocre person, a person that can be easily replaced. In the succession of generations, there will be many people who think and do what you think and do, and who inspire the same kinds of feelings in other people that you yourself inspire in other people, and you know that it works the other way too, that before you were born there were people who thought and did what you think and do, with adjustments made for available technologies and prevailing opinions.”
The Whitmire Case, a novella-length chapbook, is a comic/surrealist detective story about a young woman who “resembles, in form, in spirit, nothing so much as a sourdough starter,” whom one day everyone suddenly fails to recognize. Another chapbook, The Lune no. 12, extracts “The Boghole & the Beldame,” a lyrical account of a witch (I think?) that reads more like an immersive poem.
The novel Field Glass, written in collaboration with Joanna Howard, is a grim fragmentary series of what seem to be radio transmissions concerning the inhabitants of a postapocalyptic hostelry. It is fiction in close conversation with theory, starting with an epigraph from Paul Virilio and ending, in the acknowledgements, with the opening of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (“The two of us wrote Field Glass together. Since each of us were several, there was already quite a crowd.”)
Last—not least!—Dark Season, written under the pseudonym Joanna Lowell, is a 327-page historical romance novel about an epileptic young woman and a brooding nobleman; it is the fourth romance novel Ruocco has written, under three different names.
Can we start with the romance novel? Dark Season is the first I’ve read, but in dipping into some others for comparison, I was delighted by how good you are at it, how seriously you take it. Why do you write romance novels?
I’m glad you think I’m good at it. One of the rejections I got from an agent who read Dark Season said it was “fourteen times too literary,” which was very funny and specific. It did make me think about literariness—what constitutes literariness as an appealing or off-putting quality in a text—and I realized that I tend to create metaphorical linkages when I write. A metaphor can provide narrative continuity, but it didn’t work in the romance novel. It needed to feel more literal, or maybe more literal, less literary. Anyway, I write romance novels for the money! Or at least, theoretically—I haven’t actually made any money. But I told myself I was writing them for the money. And I like to write them. I like how formally constrained they are. I spend so much time tending to language when I write that it’s fun to be forced by a form to focus on macro-level plot arcs instead—the overcoming of the central antagonism, the libidinal slide from antipathy into desire, all the preposterous barriers to delay the inevitable.
In nonromance writing projects, I never want to repeat myself stylistically. I always want to find some new way into sentence making/arranging—that’s part of the project—but this is also why I find romance so pleasing. I get to repeat with variations the same form again and again.
You’ve written other romance novels under other pseudonyms—Toni Jones’s No Secrets in Spandex is my favorite of your titles—and I wonder why you don’t stick to a single pseudonym. Don’t romance writers build up an audience, book to book?
I think they do, and I am always in the process of utterly failing to market myself through those kinds of choices. But the pseudonym is part of the feel of each book for me. Toni Jones couldn’t have written Ghazal in the Moonlight. She’s way too sporty. Joanna Lowell is a good pseudonym for Victorian romance, so I’m going to stick with her.
In some ways, I think every one of your books should have a pseudonym, or heteronyms, like Pessoa—where part of the point of fake names is to allow you to be an entirely different writer each time.
I want that! A new name for every book. I published this steampunk kind of story in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet last year, and I really wanted to publish it as Jo Ruocco instead of Joanna Ruocco because it was much more of a Jo Ruocco story, but then I couldn’t figure out how to ask for a name emendation without feeling crazy. Maybe I’ll publish something as Hildebrand von Schlange.
You mentioned “the project,” which I take to mean your aesthetic project in general. What else is part of the project?
Trying to be more awake, generally, to the world. Keeping open the question of what a world might be at all.
And the newness of each book is a kind of awakeness?
Yeah, when you’re still off-balance in a project and wandering in it and need to pay attention to where you’re stepping and can’t take the ground for granted. I hate that feeling because you feel you’ll never find any kind of way, but it’s also exciting to look for ways instead of relying on a route you’ve already charted out. On the charted route, you usually miss all the cool funguses. In my daily life, I’m a creature of habit. I walk the same paths around the neighborhood and sit in the same chair in my house eating seeds and grapes. So there’s a tension between stability and disruption. The writing is, I guess, where the pushing happens.
On the other hand, there’s the Joanna Ruocco-ness of each book, the qualities that recur. The Week, for example, seems to me in a lineage with your second book, Man’s Companions—both high comedy, playing in similar ways with language and logic, though these new pieces are on the whole less slapstick and not quite as clearly stories.
I do think The Week is in a lineage with Man’s Companions. The compositional mode is similar, in the way I thought of each little piece as part of something larger, a book, because of the constraints I established. With Man’s Companions, I was writing “animal” stories, each story treated some idea of the animal, at least that’s how I went about writing them. When I wrote The Week, I was living in Denver and my mother got me a subscription to that magazine The Week. It’s a weekly news digest in which all the reporting from the past week is made even more summary and bite-size, and the abridged articles juxtapose wars and innovations in lingerie. I started to write stories that take bits of language from those abridged news articles and to use some of that language of abridgment. The Week was originally fifty-two stories, a year of weeks, but then I cut and combined pieces. The number of stories wasn’t so important in the end.
Each of your books has its own lexicon, often with playful attention to particular words. I imagine it involves a sort of linguistic research, into archaic diction and syntax for “The Boghole & the Beldame,” for instance—“Racemes of flowers, white flowers, are visible across the tarn.”
I love linguistic research, combing through old botany books, for example, for words that feel both occult and resonant—you know what they mean because of how they sound. I was reading Norse sagas when I was writing “The Boghole & The Beldame” and playing lots of first-edition Dungeons and Dragons, in which there’s a delirious focus on itemization, your gear, your spells, your characteristics. I was the only woman adventurer, and I was writing “The Boghole & The Beldame” in part as a response to the triumphalist boyishness of the adventures. I wanted to write something in the high register of saga but without getting anywhere or gaining experience points, something more like fragments of the dreams the women are always having in the sagas. My items were all the words I’d gathered, but they kept sinking in the bog.
Not necessarily. No gnolls, but in the same vein. You can do outside research for D&D, and our magic user was always claiming he’d found certain kinds of herbs and funguses. I made my own herbarium.
A different comic work is The Whitmire Case, a detective story in the Beckett style, where the material circumstances of the “case” are shrouded in doubt and an odd digressive logic abounds. What is it about misplaced logic and pseudo theories that make them such fruitful subject matter?
I don’t know, I love misplaced logic so much. Maybe the mind spinning on a point, trying to reduce and contain, has the paradoxical effect of exposing an impasse and the dizzying outside of the problem? You think you understand the parameters, that you can set the parameters and police them, and then suddenly you realize there’s a massive disconnect, that not only what you know but the knowledge system we rely on is completely inadequate. It’s funny and giddy making and sort of liberating.
It is giddy and funny, but in your writing it often opens onto a space of chaos, darker and less containable than the space we thought we were in.
It’s frightful, trying to think and move within larger systems undergirded by murderous logics and illogic and having even your imaginative lines of flight short-circuited. There’s never only mental chaos or order. There’s the world, the mind is in the world. In The Whitmire Case, the narrator wants to control his reality, but this notion of control is premised on his understanding of the totalizing social and economic structures that control him. So, he has a series of fantasies about either escape or domination, meaning dominating others. Those seem to be the two options. But escape and domination are both fake ways out of the impasse and expose another set of problems.
Field Glass brings up an aspect of your work we haven’t talked about yet, at the far end of the spectrum from romance novels—actual, non-pseudo theory. What place does theory have, in Field Glass and in your work overall?
Joanna Howard and I wrote that book together, mostly long distance, and it’s a record of our correspondence with each other and also our interactions with certain works of poetry and theory, by René Char and Virilio, for example. We used the texts to invent a story-world, a boarding house between hedges within the unlivable space of perpetual war. We imagined we were sending out “dispatches,” and our series of dispatches became the emotional core of the book. I always write with or alongside other books. Some theory I find really difficult, so reading it feels like active study, in a good way, and some theory I find I connect with more intuitively and it feels more like reading poetry. I’m always looking for models that help me see the world from different angles, and theory can lend fresh descriptive and constructive powers.
Earlier I half seriously suggested that heteronyms might offer the freedom to be multiple. Now I’m wondering what sort of freedom you find collaboration offers.
I’ve had some spectacular failed collaborations—could insert lengthy anecdotes that involve copious amounts of blood and chutney—and spectacularly awesome collaborations—everything with editing and making Birkensnake. This new collaboration, with Joanna, has transformed my relationship to writing because we really are multiple, two Joannas, producing language and responding to language simultaneously. We didn’t cowrite particular pieces, we each wrote discrete passages. But we sometimes wrote toward each other in ways that meant I was writing as her and she was writing as me, and when we edited the book, we couldn’t tell from the syntax or the content who’d written what part. Sometimes a particular word would give it away, but even then, we couldn’t be sure if I’d used French to respond to her French or she’d described a weed to respond to one of my pastoral images. It was such an exciting process. You have to be more accountable when you’re collaborating. You’re responsible not only for the writing but for the person you’re writing with, but you also feel a stronger sense of possibility and play because you’ve found a friend who’s real and imaginary, a friend in writing. It helps if you share a name. I met a woman the other day who said she used to write letters as a child to an imaginary friend named Joanna. Dear Joanna began each letter. Collaborating with Joanna Howard has been like having the day start, Dear Joanna … We’re going to write more books together—maybe under a pseudonym!
Your enthusiasm, the spirit with which you proceed, is, maybe more than anything else, what draws all of these projects together. Your books aren’t always particularly joyful, but whether comic or dystopic or rated “Sensuality Level: Sensual,” it seems to me they are written with joy.
I don’t know about joy, but I often feel like a merry maniac writing. I eat fruit constantly, so it may be the mania produced by simple sugars. I am fueled by simple sugars, from fruits into fructification. Maybe it’s not joy I feel exactly, but a sense of play? Play is a kind of open-focus, magical absorption. It’s what made all our childhood games of make-believe and invention so vital and important. If I’m lucky, I’m playful in that way when I write. It doesn’t mean all the projects have to be silly—some of them are silly, silliness is good. They can be dystopic or nightmarish or “Sensuality Level: Sensual.” The products of play produce any number of effects. Maybe because play takes you out of yourself and there’s that element of openness, you’re more likely to produce different kinds of writing or painting or casserole or whatever you make? It’s funny, I love play because it’s so open, and I love constraint because it’s so closed. I love to change my relationship to language by finding new ways into book projects, and I love to repeat the romance-novel form again and again with slight variations. The through line is love? It’s all pretty fun? It’s the new moon tonight! I think we get to make a wish.
Martin Riker’s fiction and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, London Review of Books, Conjunctions, and The Baffler. His novel Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return will be published next year.
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