In Memoriam

There’s nothing new in saying that we are completely self-centered when it comes to death. It makes perfect sense, really, since we can no longer do anything for the person who has died: we’re all that’s left. Yes, we frame our thoughts in relation to the deceased, but, ultimately, we only think of ourselves: could I have done something more for them? Could I have acted differently toward them? What will I do now that they’re gone? And, the biggie: what should I have said that I never said to them? For some reason, the words are what we want most. The words are what we remember, what bring us closure. At the end of the day, they are just words, yet they are what keep us spinning in sadness. That we never got to say goodbye, I love you, thank you is the stone that sits heavy on our chests when we’ve lost someone, particularly when that loss is sudden. This is why we have eulogies: to say all that we never got to say in real time.

In dealing with the recent loss of my step-mother, my biggest regret right now is not having many words to say at all. Though Patti has been a part of my life for close to fifteen years, we did not have a deep relationship. We had different temperaments, different interests and lifestyles. We disagreed about how much time to spend in the sun and how much salt to put on our food. The first Christmas present I ever bought her was a Bill O’Reilly book my father told me she wanted. I thought I was going to throw up in the line at Borders. We kept each other at arm’s length, stayed resolutely on our respective ends of the line that connected us. I’m pretty sure we liked each other, but I don’t think we ever really knew each other.

But, here’s what I do know: Patti was beautiful. Genuinely and classically beautiful. She was tall, graceful, and, though dressed conservatively in her J. Jill attire, she was sexy. She had an amazingly thick head of hair, big eyes, and a smile that could rival Julia Roberts. She did not seem to get my kind of humor particularly, but when she laughed, she laughed with her whole face – a big laugh, open mouth, full of teeth.

Patti loved my dad. She hung on his every word and always recounted to me his silly puns and jokes, cracking up all the while. I was glad he had someone who found him as funny and smart as he found himself. She took care of him and made him start eating healthy. I remember meeting them at a hotel in Asbury Park, NJ to see the band Marah, and my dad told me that we couldn’t go out to eat before the show because he and Patti were on some kind of diet cleanse and could only eat green foods that week. This coming from a man whose idea of a good dinner was a Chocolate Junior and a YooHoo. I had never seen my dad eat a green food, or any food with color really, in my entire life. So, I can say with full assuredness that he, too, was in love.

Patti loved her children, and I was happy to take them on as the siblings I never had growing up. Our age differences may have precluded a closer bond, but I think we were always happy to have each other around. After I asked Lindsey, my step-sister, to be a bridesmaid in my wedding, Patti pulled me aside to tell me how much it meant to her that I wanted Lindsey to be in the wedding party, as though she had not expected me to include Lindsey at all. I looked at her in confusion and said, “Why wouldn’t I have asked her? She’s my sister.” Patti smiled her big smile, nodded, and walked away. I’m not sure how enthused she was to know that we snuck Lindsey (underage at the time) into a number of Philly bars and clubs on the night of my bachelorette party, but I know she was happy that the two of us shared that moment together.

Patti actually liked my mom. Many people are shocked by my divorced parents’ (and their partners’) amicability. I haven’t always understood it, but I’m not complaining because it made my life a hell of a lot easier. I liked seeing Patti and my mom together, mainly because they spent most of their time talking about their children and making fun of my dad. They both acknowledged the goodness and kindness of the other, and if they ever felt threatened or uncomfortable in some kind of way, they never showed it publicly. They have polar opposite personalities, which often made for a good show in and of itself, but they both were and are models of dignity and strength.

Unfortunately, Patti and I only have a few moments that we shared alone, my favorite being when we went to see The Pretenders at the Tower Theater. When I mentioned to my dad that I wanted to see The Pretenders, he told me that he thought I should go with Patti since she was also a big fan. As a bratty 20-something, there was nothing I wanted less than to be stuck alone with my dad’s lady at a rock concert. What would we do without my dad as a buffer? What would we talk about? Would she dance and sing, or just sit there? As it turned out, we did talk. And once Chrissie Hynde came out and started lighting it up, Patti did not just sit there – she got up and danced with me. To both of our surprise I think, we had a fantastic time.

It took fifteen years and Patti getting sick for me to tell her that I loved her. And, even then, when I finally did, I wrote it in a text message. I never got the chance to say it out loud to her face. Scratch that: I had plenty of chances; I just didn’t take them. Then again, neither did she. Though I regret it a bit now, our relationship just didn’t lend itself to I love you’s. But, we both loved the same man who loved both of us immensely and, therefore, by extension, we loved each other. And that’s just how it was.

It’s easy to get caught up in the should haves and could haves. I did that for a few days after Patti died (I should have been around more, I should have helped out more, I should have said this or that). But it wasn’t helpful, and my should haves and could haves were blanket woe-is-me laments that didn’t really jive with the relationship we actually had. We were there for each other as much as we wanted, we cared about each other as much as we wanted, and I don’t think either of us wanted any more or any less. It may not have seemed ideal to some, but it might be one of the most honest relationships I’ve ever had.

 

“Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged. Missing me one place, search another. I stop somewhere waiting for you.” – Walt Whitman

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A Snow Day Story

I am one of those rare individuals who does not like snow days. I hate when school is canceled, and I hate not being able to drive. I do not relax or snuggle up with a good book and a cup of tea. I do not gaze admiringly out the window. Instead, I fret…I pace…and, mostly, I get angry. So, it makes sense that one snow day, back in 1999, I took out my frustrations on a bunch of 10 year old kids.

My best friend Lisa and I, both 19 years old at the time, were stranded at my mom’s house during a particularly heavy snow storm that had canceled our college classes that day. By early afternoon, we had exhausted all possible snow day resources: we had baked cookies with my mother, we had played cards, we had watched TV and movies, and we had smoked a lot of cigarettes. This last point is important because the depletion of our cigarette reserve was the impetus for the 2-mile trek to the Magic 7 (a neighborhood 7-Eleven type joint).

Lisa and I bundled ourselves up, strapped on our boots, and headed out into the tundra. No cars were on the road, so we had free reign of the streets in our neighborhood. We gossiped, we jumped into snow drifts, and ranked each other’s landings Olympics-style (“A perfect 10 for Lisa from the Unified Team!”). We were actually having a great time despite the inclement weather. Along the way, we came across a group of six kids who were also enjoying their snow day off from school, chasing each other around and launching snow balls into the air. When Lisa and I walked by them, they stopped and stared at us and then gave each other furtive glances. Lisa and I noted the suspicious look of this group but continued on our way.

We arrived at the Magic 7, bought 10 packs of cigarettes (we genuinely thought we were snowbound indefinitely), and headed for home. Eventually, we hit the street where the kids had been playing. As we walked down the middle of the street, the eerie silence foreshadowed impending doom. Even Lisa and I went quiet, both of us knowing that some shit was about to go down.

A snowball, from seemingly nowhere, hit my shoulder. Then another one hit Lisa in the back. Snowballs rained down like drone strikes, our attackers remaining safely out of sight. We tried to yell, to shield each other, to run – but the snowballs kept coming. We were under fire, sitting ducks trapped in the wide open center of this banal suburban block.

Like most aggressors – or, like most 10 year olds – they got cocky…and greedy. Their successful sneak attack was not good enough. They needed more: they wanted to see our stunned faces up close and taunt us. They appeared from out behind the cars where they were hiding – laughing, and yawping, and slapping each other high-five as they circled around us in the street. Haha! They had brought down the big kids! They had asserted their prepubescent selves against the adults and won! Part of me actually understood their joy and triumph.

Unfortunately, my empathy only went so far. One of the girls tried to run by, hurling some silly insults at us, and I lost it. I dropped the bag of cigarettes to the ground, threw my arm out – Go-Go-Gadget style – and grabbed her fluffy pink hood, pulling her down hard into the street. (In the NFL, that would be called a “horse collar.”) I held her on the ground with one hand, grabbed a handful of snow with the other, and completely smothered her whole face in hard, cold wetness. (In my youth, that would be called a “white wash”). She screamed mercilessly, and her friends took off running. I left her there and went after the other kids, trying to tackle as many of them as I could. Lisa picked up the bag of cigarettes and protected them, standing on the sidelines as her friend went all Lord of the Flies on these young ruffians.

The kids got away and probably went home to tell their moms of my abuse. Lisa and I were heated the whole way home, even going as far as to plot our revenge (which involved Super Soakers…don’t ask). When we got home, we angrily recounted the entire story for my mother. She listened quietly and intently as we raged on and on about these little punk kids. She looked at us, put down a plate of chocolate chip cookies, and with complete seriousness and, what I imagine to be slight disappointment or even disgust, said, “You’re both fucking idiots.”

That was the best snow day I ever had.

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Us and Her

Yesterday afternoon, I went to the movies by myself and saw Spike Jonze’s Her. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly (a great name that is fittingly formal and childish), Her is the story of a man who enters into a serious relationship with an intuitive and intelligent operating system (OS) named Samantha, the voice of which is performed by Scarlett Johansson, who strikes a perfect balance of both sexy and innocent, sometimes both simultaneously, throughout the entire film. However, this piece will not necessarily be a review as much as a discussion of some of the film’s major themes and real world implications thereof. By way of a quick review, though, I’ll say the movie is fantastic and everyone should go see it immediately.

Many critics have read this movie as Jonze’s critique of our technology-driven society, the end of all human relationships and interaction as we know it. As a person who is specious of technology in general, it would make sense for me to jump on that bandwagon. But, I can’t. At best, this movie is ambivalent toward technology. It seems to me that what Jonze really wants is for us to take a closer look at relationships in general. Whether they are “artificial” or “real” matters not. In fact, one of the central questions of the movie is: what is a real relationship?

Because Theo is involved with an OS, he constantly questions whether or not his relationship is real. His debate with himself and others stems from the fact that his partner has no body, no physical form. However, the two engage in all other aspects of what humans would consider a “real” relationship: dates, late night philosophical conversations about life, death, knowledge and love, laughing, reading, arguing, and playing video games with each other. They even have sex. Though not a physical act of love making (it’s more like the equivalent of phone sex), they engage in a fully intimate moment, which Jonze treats beautifully by blacking out the screen so we cannot see what they’re doing but can only hear the wonder and excitement in their voices. We are experiencing sex as they are experiencing it – in the dark with no physical involvement – and, take it from me, it feels very very real. This scene, maybe most powerfully, changes the dynamic of what it means for something to be real.

I know many people who have almost purely virtual relationships with other people, and, according to said people, their inability to be physically “present” with that person does not in any way diminish the quality of that relationship. Thus, it seems that, for many, real is defined more through an intellectual or emotional connection than it is through a physical one. Or, I should say, an intellectual or emotional connection seems to trump what we perceive as the need for or importance of a physical connection (though I think most of us would argue that having all three is a big win).

The flip side to this is the “real” relationship, the physical one in which you can see and touch the other person. In Her, Theo is in the process of getting divorced from his very real wife Catherine, played by Rooney Mara. Catherine is, indeed, a physically present woman with a body and hair, yet Theo’s relationship with her fails. Does this mean that their relationship was any less real because it did not last forever? Quite the opposite. The couple acknowledges that what they had was very real but just didn’t work out. Their impending divorce doesn’t erase what once was a very real, very meaningful relationship in the same way that Samantha’s lack of a physical body doesn’t or can’t erase the feelings she and Theo have for each other. Just because someone’s not “there,” doesn’t mean a connection is not, or was not, present or possible.

Which brings me to one of the larger, and maybe more morose, themes of the film: the only thing that is really real is that your “someone(s),” inevitably, will no longer be “there.” This is not a mundane “love is fleeting” argument; it’s a basic fundamental truth. Whether it’s distance, divorce, death, or deactivation (if you’re dating your technology), eventually we will lose those that we love. This theme also arose in Season 3, Episode 2 of Girls when Hannah and Ray are discussing Ray’s recent break up with Shoshanna:

Ray: We live in a huge, sprawling metropolis where it’s very very easy to avoid the person you don’t want to see.

Hannah: Yeah, but that’s so sad.

Ray: Why? Because we once shared true and stunning intimacies and now we’re nothing more than strangers?

Hannah: Exactly.

Ray: That’s not sad, Hannah. That’s called life.

While Ray is content to leave the discussion there, Her reminds us that life goes on and not always in such a melancholy way.  We are, for all intents and purposes, human beings. We are resilient. Above all, we are social. Therefore, until we are dead in the ground, it is in our nature to always have at the ready someone or something with which to connect. It’s up to us to determine how to make it real.

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Death Becomes Her

Here are your options:

1. You die. However, every time that you die, you are reborn and get to live your life over again with the ability to correct the mistakes of your past but condemned, as all humans are, to make new ones with each new life you are given.

2. You die. However, you return to your loved ones years later, completely interrupting and, in some cases, devastating the lives that they have created since your death.

3. You die. End of story.

What would you choose?

Options 1 and 2, respectively, represent the plots of two stories I’m into right now: Kate Atkinson’s novel Life After Life and Sundance’s importation of the French TV show Les Revenants (The Returned). In the wake of a year in which an unprecedented number of deaths occurred in my life or in the lives of people close to me, these meditations on life, death, and, for lack of a better term, the hereafter, are particularly timely, if not also slightly unnerving.

A thematic oversimplification of both the novel and the show is “be careful what you wish for.” Though Ursula Todd, the main character of Life After Life, does not ask or wish to be reborn each time that she dies, this is her fate nevertheless. Conceptually, this may seem like a darker version of Groundhog Day, but it’s much more complex than that. While Phil’s life improves with each repeat of his day, Ursula’s life remains complicated. With her foresight, she is able to avoid some of the errors that befell her the first time around; however, she is powerless to escape the new problems that unfold within the new versions of her life. Ursula’s story can be likened to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” which is often misread as an anthem of rebellion or unconventionality, when, in actuality, it’s really articulating a very simple truism: whatever path you take, there you are. Through Ursula, we come to understand that simply getting a do-over doesn’t guarantee a better life.

Similarly, none of the walking dead on The Returned specifically asks or wishes to be resurrected and reunited with their families. Like Ursula, for reasons unknown – and for better or worse – this is their fate. The “returned” are technically zombies, but not in the common sense of the word. In almost every way, they appear human: they can talk, emote, eat real food, and, (spoiler) up until the most recent episodes, their skin is intact. The true “horror” of this show is not the living dead themselves but the drama of what life becomes once you’ve gotten accustomed to the gaping hole of a lost loved one, only to have them suddenly reappear on your doorstep one day, sometimes thirty or more years later. Those who have suffered a loss know about the stages of grief, but The Returned imaginatively flips the script by focusing on the stages of acceptance (or attempted acceptance): disbelief/terror, elation, confusion, anger, and regrouping. Basically, The Returned is the cooler and classier version of Ghost…without the pottery.

At the beginning of this essay, I claimed that both Life After Life and The Returned center on the theme of being careful what you wish for. By YOU, though, I mean US – the living, the people on the outside. The characters themselves never explicitly ask to return or to be returned. That’s OUR wishful thinking. None of us can say that we haven’t at some point longed for a revision or for the chance to reunite with those we’ve lost.  However, the implications of these wishes are greater and potentially more catastrophic than we can possibly imagine, hence why we don’t actually get these opportunities in real life.

So, the next time you find yourself wishing that you could just have another shot or just spend five more minutes with the dead, pick up a book or watch TV instead. Because the greatest gift of fiction is that it is one giant do-over. It gives us the chance to live experiences vicariously, to gain the insights or warnings that we would otherwise be incapable of seeing in reality.

Posted in Life, Pop Culture, The Printed Word, TV | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

X Rated with Evan James Roskos

There was this guy in my graduate English classes who I used to admiringly and sardonically refer to (behind his back, of course) as the “smartest kid in the room.” He simultaneously pissed me off to no end and inspired me to be a better reader and thinker – mainly so I could go toe-to-toe with him in class discussion. After grad school, we went our separate ways; but thanks to Facebook, we’ve virtually reconnected and picked up right where we left off. However, instead of lit theory and post-colonialism, we now chirp about movies and Pearl Jam, which, personally, I like much better.

Besides being an academic smarty-pants, Evan Roskos is also an extremely talented writer. He has an MFA in Creative Writing and has been published in a number of journals, including Narrative, StoryQuarterly, Hummingbird Review, and by Granta’s New Voices feature. I recently read (and LOVED) his debut novel Dr. Bird’s Sad Advice for Young Poets. So, as part of my effort to expand the scope of my blog, while also pimping and promoting my friends who are doing cool things, I asked Evan to get X Rated with me. Here’s what ensued:

MD: The other day I found a bunch of old papers from Dr. Habib’s Lit Theory class that we took together, and it reminded me of how differently we read and wrote about literature when we were in graduate school as opposed to now. Most times I’m grateful that I can turn off the “critic,” but other times I miss being in the habit of having something important and intelligent to say about what I read. Do you ever miss academic writing?

ER: I’d say I don’t miss academic writing at all, though every once in a while I get the urge to write about Joseph Conrad or Don DeLillo.

Were you ever considering a PhD in English?

I actually went to a PhD program for 3 months. It was interesting but I really didn’t enjoy the scholarship and, in the long run, I didn’t think I’d be good at scholarly writing. I didn’t have the energy to write about literature or the necessary vocabulary. Talking about it, studying it — that I could handle. But the prospect of writing articles and eventually a book — all my good ideas became stale halfway through the research and writing process.

Why did you ultimately make the decision to get a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree?

One reason I went to get an MFA has to do with my wife. I wasn’t happy in the PhD program and worse, it was November, a particularly difficult time of year for my depression. I didn’t totally recognize this at the time, but right after Thanksgiving I gave up and told my wife I couldn’t do the PhD for six or seven more years. Laura asked me what I planned to do instead and when I told her I’d find a job, she balked and suggested I go for an MFA to get back to my writing.

This, of course, is proof that we were meant to be together.

Do you think that the MFA vs. the PhD (or MA) changes the way that you think about reading and writing in general?

The MFA was a completely different experience from the MA and PhD programs I attended. MFAs are different everywhere, but the one thing MFAs teach well is how to read as a writer. As an ironic result, I learned more about teaching literature from my MFA than from my MA. I’d say an MFA helped me break stories apart, see how they work, and see the way characters express ideas. Whereas in the MA, I learned the various foundations that supported ideas authors were expressing. I’m not a more knowledgeable teacher because of this, but I think I can teach texts more efficiently. To put it another way, I can read a text and teach it the same day whereas when I only had the MA I would labor over approaches and research.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I started writing when I was in elementary school. I only had one gap in my life where writing didn’t occur on a regular basis. (When I bought a house and went to graduate school, fiction and poetry writing ceased.) In high school I decided to major in creative writing because I didn’t get much joy from anything else, aside from reading and listening to music. When I didn’t enjoy the creative writing courses at Rowan, I switched to English and it was a good idea. I learned how to read and that helped me become a better writer down the line.

Dr. Bird is your first published novel. How did you decide on YA fiction as your genre?

Well, it’s hard to say. I wrote a short story collection for my MFA thesis and in the MFA world — a more literary world — a short story collection is seen as the logical first publication. After a year of trying to get an agent I learned that in the publishing world, short story collections only sell to certain markets. So, my collection contained a bunch of stories that studied American masculinity. This is not the kind of collection that would sell, according to the various feedback from agents I got. It was a serious collection, very literary, and I was a fresh MFA graduate with no real track record, though a handful of good publications sort of helped. I got good rejections, many asking for me to send a novel.

So, I wrote a novel. It was a satire of the Mayan calendar. It was fun to write but didn’t quite work for the people who loved the short story collection, and after 120 agent rejections, I put that one in the metaphorical drawer.

While I was writing this satire, I began to meet with Matthew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook, at the local coffee shop in our town. He and I struck up a friendship and after about a year, he suggested we work on a YA novel together. He’d just published his first YA, Sorta Like a Rock Star, and thought it might be a way for me to shake off my literary hangups and get back to writing for me, not some particular audience.

What started as a joint project ended up a solo project as Quick had to work on the edits for his next book. I just wrote the book, not thinking about what I could or couldn’t do. I didn’t read a ton of YA before I wrote Dr. Bird. I just wrote about a kid and tried to make it funny enough to keep the depression and anxiety and other serious issues from weighing the whole thing down.

Dr. Bird’s narrator, James, is an interesting – you might even say different – young man. He’s sensitive. He reads nineteenth century American poetry. He’s artistic. He has anxiety issues. Were you using James to make any particular commentary on modern masculinity?

On the surface I’d say my goal wasn’t to make a comment. I just wanted to follow this kid who spoke like Walt Whitman. It was funny and the juxtaposition of Whitman and depression just seemed so perfect for dramatic and character purposes.

But I also had spent two years of my MFA experience writing stories for a story collection called We’d Make Terrible Soldiers, which explored masculinity in a variety of ways. I think for me it’s a crucial issue. I never fit into the masculine ideal — I didn’t play sports in high school aside from volleyball, and even then my friends were much more competitive. I didn’t have the kind of outgoing personality necessary to navigate high school social functions. I read, I wrote, I watched tons of movies. I hated most of the movies my friends liked and vice versa. I knew I would never be like my more masculine, one-on-one basketball-playing friends, but I also never figured out how to be the best version of myself. So, I was particularly unhappy even though I had a couple of friends and we did get along, strange as that might sound.

I think James seems different but, really, he’s just the kind of guy that doesn’t get the most attention in the outside world. In the worlds of fiction, though, James-types often get plenty of attention. Look at Steinbeck or Baldwin’s or Fitzgerald’s characters; Hamlet; Peter Parker, any of the X-men, Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer — there are tons of sensitive, outsider male characters who don’t necessarily fit the hyper-masculine narrative or who obsess over writers/music/art from different time periods (Bukowski loved Beethoven. Baudelaire always has a following; even James Hetfield of Metallica talks about his love of classical music). (NOTE: superheroes often start as sensitive geeks and then become muscular and powerful men ready to make sacrifices in an effort to be “grown up” and “responsible”; that’s a different story, perhaps for Joseph Campbell to sort out.)

In reality, I think boys who like reading, who like music, poetry, photography, who don’t talk about sex with ease, who don’t play sports or at least don’t enjoy intense competition – they are real and not anomalies. I’m not sure books fail sensitive boys; I think films often do, TV shows that show insensitive, oafish husbands/fathers do (that includes Homer & Bart Simpson, sadly).

Art and sensitivity are not celebrated in most capitalist endeavors, so our highest profile men — athletes — often get praised for easily-to-see aggressive, physical behavior while our other highest profile men — actors — are not praised for their ability to show emotion or to simulate emotion. Obvious, self-promoting, aggressive paths to success tend to get people’s attention. Think about how often we see stories about actors, musicians, etc. acting aggressively — it’s a chance to demean the sensitive male while also underscoring the idea that all men want to be destructive/aggressive instead of creative/sensitive.

In YA, there are a number of authors (male and female) who write about teenage boys that are sensitive and artistic and feel like outsiders. A.S. King, Matt de la Peña, Jesse Andrews, Erin de Lange, and, most mainstream right now, John Green. Each of these authors address masculinity in different ways, be it looking at bullying, poverty, concepts of romance, etc.

Did you find it difficult to write in the voice of an adolescent now that you’re an older and much wiser adult?

Yes it was difficult, but not necessarily because I worried about making him sound like a real teenager. At heart, I’m pretty much a nerdy teenager. But as a writer, I’m not concerned about making my characters sound like real teenagers or real adults. Think about that — true accuracy. Not for me. I want to write and read characters with some poetry to them, either in the way they speak, or think, or act. Fiction, for me, can comment on the world, but if it’s simply photorealism, I get a little bored. (Give me a plot and impressionism, post-impressionism and I’ll be golden).

James also has a complicated “relationship” with Walt Whitman’s poetry. Why did you have Whitman play such important role in this teen’s life? Were you ever nervous that this might alienate a YA audience that might not read much poetry?

I get asked “Do I need to like Whitman to understand this book?” all the time. I made sure that the book provides the necessary information. James, like many teenagers, takes on the weight of the obsession. If he had a Tumblr, it would be all Whitman, all the time. So, the reader gets perfectly digestible lines from Whitman, and not very much in the way of biography except for a couple of fun facts that help put James’s struggles and thoughts into perspective. I was very careful to strike a balance and thought of it this way: when I was sixteen my friends and I quoted The Simpsons and Billy Madison (one of only 2 Adam Sandler movies that ever really needed to be made). We did it constantly. We were obsessed. Some kids memorize sports statistics. Others obsess about comics. James obsesses about Whitman, but the reader doesn’t have to.

Now that you’ve done YA, do you think you’ve confined yourself to that genre or will you look to branch out?

I used to think I’d write just adult fiction. Then I wrote Dr. Bird and now I have ideas for other YA books. Ultimately there are only a few things that make something more suitable for the YA market. It’s not about the age of the narrator, but of what the story explores. The key though is that YA has seeped into the mainstream adult reading audience, so even if I write YA I’m not necessarily limiting my audience any more so than if I only wrote fiction for adults.

Put simply, I’ll write whatever story I want to write and deal with the business part later!

You have also published Stuck, a book of short stories. What’s the difference between writing and publishing a book of short stories and a novel?

Stuck is a bit of an anomaly. I worked for a self-publishing company back in the early 00s and while I was there, I gave myself a project: to complete a collection of linked short stories. I spent about two years working on it and then I was able to self-publish it for free since I had access to everything at work. No one really bought it. Actually, someone bought it and had to return the book because the binding was messed up when they got it. Ha!

The traditional method of publishing is slower and filled with more editing. Much more. I had total control over Stuck but it needed an editor. With Dr. Bird I had a copyeditor as well as an editor and I also don’t have to worry about cruddy binding. With Dr. Bird I got an agent relatively easily because I’d spent 2-3 years querying agents for the prior two projects. By the time I decided to look for an agent who represented YA and adult fiction (thus leaving my prospects open), I had basically mastered the research and query letter. In fact, writing a query letter requires the perfect story pitch and it ends up getting reused, with slight alterations, throughout the process. (My agent used it when she pitched to editors, it was used in the Publisher’s Weekly announcement when we sold the book, it was on the jacket, the website, etc.) So, when unpublished writers first try to write that 1-2 sentence “this is what my book is about and why it’s awesome” pitch, it really is an important use of the 2-15 hours it can take.

Who are you reading right now? Who are some of your favorite authors in general?

I’ve read a few other 2013 debuts recently like Dear Life, You Suck by Scott Blagden and The Symptoms of My Insanity by Mindy Raf. Matthew Quick’s new YA novel, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is particularly exciting because it’s also about masculinity and abuse, which he handles with some powerful storytelling that’s unlike anything he’s done before.

In high school I loved John Steinbeck. I still do. Something about his simple sentences but emotionally vibrant characters mixed with social criticism. It’s wonderful.

Are you working on anything new right now that you care to share with us?

Yes but no.😉

I always like to end an interview with some imaginary fan mail. Here’s a tweet I received from @tom_joad: “Hey, EJR. Big fan of Dr. Bird. YAWP! So, now that you’ve reconnected with Monica via social media, what’s the best part about being her Facebook friend?”

If anyone will figure out a way to work Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, the Phillies, and a critique of patriarchy into one beautiful Facebook post, it’ll be her.

Evan Roskos has a BA in English, an MA in English Language and Literature, and an MFA in Creative Writing. He’s an adjunct professor at Rowan and Rutgers Universities in NJ. His novel Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets (Houghton Mifflin) was released March 5, 2013 and can be found on Amazon.

For more Evan-related goodness, check out:

evanroskos.com
www.facebook.com/evanroskoswriter
Twitter: @EvanJamesRoskos

Posted in Life, Pop Culture, The Printed Word | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

I’m Not Wearing Any Pants

I’ve always been a pants girl. To me, pants represent a sense of power, dignity, and safety. Women burned bras to wear pants! Pants have buttons, latches, and zippers that make entrance into said pants troublesome, if not a complete deterrent. If you fall down while teaching your 8am English class, your pants will not fly over your head. No one can really see up your pants.  You don’t have to cross your legs when you sit down in pants.

Ok, so pants might split. Pants might fall down. Pants might create camel toe, moose knuckle, or some other ghastly sign that you need a bigger boat. Look, nothing’s perfect.

Dresses, on the other hand, have been a constant source of anxiety for me. You can’t play touch football in a dress. You cannot climb ladders in a dress. Dresses make you a walking target for wandering hands and eyes. Dresses are girly. Dresses are weak. Dresses are for people who want to twirl. Dresses are not for people who manage to work the F-word into every sentence they utter.

Then, why am I wearing a dress right now?

Like the President’s position on gay marriage, my view on dresses is “evolving.” As my aforementioned points indicate, I have saddled myself with some heavy gender stereotypes about pants and dresses that have kept me from broadening my fashion horizons. Pants are only considered powerful because men wear them, and men are considered to be the more powerful sex. Dresses are weak because men – for the most part – don’t wear them. So, by continuing to wear pants as source of power, I’m really just maintaining the very patriarchal stereotypes that I try to resist by wearing pants in the first place. Dresses – 1, Pants – 0.

While I may be more “exposed” in dresses, I am also freer. In general, I tend to stay away from things that restrict me, like belts, necklaces, and bracelets. But, what’s more restricting than pants??? In a dress, I don’t have to suffer the embarrassment of undoing my buttons or zipper after a gluttonous meal. Dresses will by their very nature stretch to meet the needs of my engorged belly. Dresses – 2, Pants – 0.

Ever hear of the little black dress? I have about 5 of them. You know what’s cool about them? They’re BLACK, which means that they’re not all pink and ruffled and foo-foo. I have discovered that it is possible to find dresses that are sort of tom-boyish, or, if not exactly tom-boyish, at least meet the low-key stylistic needs of tom-boys.  Dresses – 3, Pants – 0.

For me, clothes need to be easy. Shopping for pants = not easy. As much as I love pants, they are seriously the hardest thing in the world to buy. They’re too long, they’re too short, they’re too tight, they’re too big, they don’t make my butt look like a perfectly rounded loaf of freshly baked bread. Also, you can’t buy pants in a vacuum. You need shirts to go with those pants. And, the shirts need to look right with the pants. You may even need to buy special underwear for your pants, depending on where you come down on the visible panty-line issue. Whatever the reason, pants are figuratively and literally a pain in the ass. If you find a dress that fits, you’re done shopping for the day, and that makes anti-shoppers like me very happy. Dresses – 4, Pants – 0.

Plenty of tough, powerful women wear dresses.

hilary dressmichelleserena

buffy stake

Dresses – 5, Pants – 0.

Does wearing a dress now make me a part of the girly culture I’ve spent my whole life trying to resist? Should I feel like a traitor because I’ve turned in my pants in favor of a flowing maxi?

Fuck no. It’s 90 degrees outside, and pants give me swamp ass.

Dresses – 6, Pants – 0.

Posted in Life | 4 Comments

Girl Crush Part III – Orange is the New Black

If someone were to ask me to think about shows that have an all – or almost all – female cast, I would probably first think of some horrible reality TV show like Dance Moms, followed by some lame series like Desperate Housewives, Cougartown, or The Mistresses. Either way, a vag-tastic cast seems to be a recipe for disaster, not only for our IQ’s but for the image of women in general. It’s a shame that American TV viewing audiences still turn away when there are too many breasts on a screen, but, really, they haven’t been given much to work with. Until now. I try really hard not to gush about things because inevitably that thing will let me down, but I Love Love Love Orange is the New Black, which does, indeed, have an almost-all-female cast.  I don’t even know where to begin with reviewing this show because there’s just so much I enjoy about it. Quick summary: based on a true story, a white, yuppie girl goes to federal prison in upstate NY for a drug trafficking crime that she committed years ago with her former lesbian lover. Hijinks ensue. It’s not Oz, but it ain’t Wisteria Lane either. The cast is a Technicolor rainbow of diversity, not just in skin color, but in age, class, education, sexual preference, and, surprisingly, gender (there is a transgender character on this show who is absolutely amazing!).

I shied away from this show at first because I thought that it was going to be another “let’s put a white girl in a situation with the brown folks and watch how she saves them,” like the prison version of Dangerous Minds. But, it’s not that. It’s not that at all. While Piper, the white girl, is a fish out of water, she cannot use her whiteness – and all that typically comes with it (i.e. education, privilege, knowledge of Mad Men) to save herself nor to save others. In the first episode, one of the inmates asks Piper why she’s in jail. Piper says that she read in a book that they aren’t supposed to ask each other that question. The inmate laughs and says, “You studied for prison?” Piper is often made the fool because her assumptions about people, developed through her myopic lens of cushy, hipster urban life (if prison is a fishbowl, so too is Brooklyn), are so totally and completely wrong. Not only does her doe-eyed innocence not win her any favors in prison (After Piper tries to apologize for an earlier incident, Red, a central figure in the prison, says, “You seem like a nice girl. You really do. But, I can’t do shit with ‘I’m Sorry’ in here.”), but it’s actually a danger to her because, as Red tells her, “Once you are perceived as weak, you already are.”

Overall, this is Piper’s story, but the creator, Jenji Kohan, makes it everyone’s show through the use of flashbacks. Each episode contains flashbacks that illuminate our main characters’ pre-prison lives. The flashbacks work on a number of levels: first, to get us out of the fishbowl that is prison; second, to give some humanity to those who have been stripped of all their humanity; third, as the great equalizer. Through the flashbacks we see that the inmates have all been both victims and perpetrators. They have all made choices – in most cases, bad choices (though sometimes a bad choice is just being in the wrong place at the wrong time) – that have landed them in jail. They were all something before they were nothing. Regardless of the extent of the crime, no one there is more or less innocent or guilty than anyone else. They are all equal in their criminality but in their humanity as well.

The show tackles some heavy topics – the penal system, sexuality (of all kinds), power abuse, poverty, race, class, and violence – without beating the viewer over the head with any particular political agenda or point of view. There are no long soliloquies, no voiceovers, no extended periods of exposition – nothing that assaults the viewers’ sensibilities, or abilities in general, to understand the complexities of the issues at play (except for maybe the use of sad piano music during some of the more dramatic moments). Instead, the viewers are left with Piper to act as their surrogate, sharing in the devastation of having all of our creature comforts and our established belief systems upended and destroyed. Through Piper, we get to see how surreal that would be, how scary, and how easy it would be to spiral into madness. I give this show 5 out 5 shivs.

Posted in Gender, Pop Culture, TV | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment