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:

Twitter: @EvanJamesRoskos


About moniacal @ X Rated

On a lifelong journey to be a person in a place...
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