Jacob Singer: Gristle opens with a quote in French from Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Procession.” Can you provide a translation and its significance to this collection?
Jordan Rothacker: I have a deep love of Apollinaire’s work, in all its forms (and for the fact that it has so many forms). In English the quote reads:
Times past Those who passed away The
Gods that formed me
I live only in passing by just as you pass by
And turning away from the empty house
I see in myself the past growing larger
(Trans. Ron Padgett)
The reason it’s employed in an epigraphic function is that Gristle could best be described as a greatest hits of my youth. Most of the stories were written in my 20s, the earliest story was actually written when I was nineteen. To reread them all for this collection and do a final edit was like visiting previous selves—old thought patterns and various ways of looking at the world. It was a reclamation and reminded me of “Procession.” I’m proud of these stories and the weird kid I once was. I’m made of everything I’ve ever read and written.
Jacob Singer: Tell me about you as a weird kid. What made you pick up a pen and start writing? What books were you in love with? What art shaped your aesthetic temperament?
Jordan Rothacker: I spent a lot of time alone as a child which is certainly key in developing as a non-conformist. It takes a wide and wild imagination to keep being alone from being lonely. Accordingly I thrive off narrative. I started reading at three and my mother thought I was slow since my older sister was reading at two. As early as I remember I was making up stories and putting myself in them, but I think all kids do that. Eventually I realized that I also really liked making beautiful sentences.
My father read me Darwin’s Origins of Species when I was really little because he didn’t know how to relate to kids and it had animals in it. I would fall asleep dreaming of dinosaurs turning into birds. I realize now it gave me a very Ovidian inclination. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology was my Bible from about the age seven. The next loves in line were the Chronicles of Narnia and Edgar Allan Poe (which began with my mother reading him to me). When I was ten I read Hesse’s Siddhartha and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye for the first time (of many) and those led me further into classics of novels and poetry. I like how Lewis Carroll brought both together. Books were a way to bond with my academic linguist father and we spent a lot of time in bookstores. I was reading a lot of Marvel comics around this time and continued reading them into middle school.
Aesthetically for visual arts like literary I liked the mythic, the iconic. My middle school years were rough socially and the popular kids were brutal. That’s around when I added tarot cards and occult readings and more myths from everywhere around the world. I started suspecting words had power.
Jacob Singer: Explain the choice of the title Gristle for your collage of “weird stories.” I usually associate it with the culinary world but it has a strange connotation. Unpack how you’re using it and how you think readers will respond to it.
Jordan Rothacker: There is a story in the collection called “Gristle.” The title of the story is from a joke in that story. I like the word and the direct thought process for making it the title of the collection is that in some ways these stories are fat, fleshy cuts of life. They aren’t “raw” in style, but they feel more real to me than the American naturalism you might commonly find in the New Yorker. They seem to me the types of literature that might get cut or sanitized out of traditional literary spaces. The few that I showed to a graduate writing workshop were roundly hated. All of those got published at some point after.
Jacob Singer: “Gristle” is a story that follows a college-aged bohemian who discovers Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs. He mimics their lifestyle and prose style, causing him problems with his girlfriend and writing professor. Ultimately, so much of this story seems to be about misunderstanding, which gives it a satirical feel. Are you poking fun at post-adolescent bohemian lifestyle, the mainstream culture that doesn’t understand bohemians, or the now cliched relationship between the two domains?
Jordan Rothacker: I think you’re on to something with the poking fun. I think it’s all about romanticizing things whether or not we entirely understand them. And that youthful zeal is part of it. For all the “weird” characteristics that make up these fatty, fleshy stories one important one is humor. I think a lot of these stories would come off as pretty pretentious if you don’t find them funny.
Jacob Singer: The first and last story in your collection deal with erotic elements and aspects of pornography. But the style of each story is completely different. Please share how “Taking the Bone” and “Lessons from the Good Book” create a sense of unity while offering stylistic progress as an author.
Jordan Rothacker: While they are stylistically very different, as you note, they were both written around the same time in my mid-20s. They both involve female liberation through sexuality, a space that patriarchy often fears and tries to control. I was raised by a single mom and an older sister (briefly until she moved out young). My mother was very social and had lots of friends over often and I was also brought along to various seminars and courses on her path to self-discovery (mostly pretty New Age-y). An openness about female sexuality was a part of all that.
Using the stories as book ends was for two separate practical reasons. I put “Lessons From the Good Book” at the end because it’s the longest story (and I don’t think anyone ever reads it or maybe they are just shy to talk about it) and I put “Taking the Bone” at the beginning because I think its first line is a great opener for a book. There are other sexual and sensual stories (or elements) between these two. These are aspect of the stories that fit my understanding of the title Gristle.
Jacob Singer: “Ouroboros” blends erotic and philosophical writing. Which writers have inspired you to blend subjects like this? Why do it? Also, early in the story the narrator breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader. How does this stylistic choice add to the substance of the story?
Jordan Rothacker: This, like the last story, also comes from a Henry Miller influence. And youthful zeal. My mother raised me pretty sex positive and sexually responsible—she was a volunteer at AIDS Atlanta. One of her big lines was “the brain is the biggest erogenous zone in the body.” So question of why do it is easily answered in that this is part of life. Life is sexy and thoughtful. Philosophy is sexy. Sex is philosophical. Aspects of life all blend together and it’s difficult to think of this esoteric and occult symbol, Ouroboros, without the literal meaning and depiction, “tail-eater.” It’s a symbol both phallic and yonic.
I think the stylistic choice of breaking that fourth wall makes it all more intimate. The reader isn’t a voyeur but a participant in the character’s thought process. Other writers who have influenced me in this territory are Anne Sexton, Jean Genet, Milan Kundera, Annie Sprinkle, Ovid.
Jacob Singer: In “Three Sisters from Ohio” the protagonist, while on vacation in Spain, mysteriously ends up having an orgy with these sisters, but the description is macabre. It reminds me of Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. But it also clearly has Miller’s vulgar language and Burroughs’s sense of repulsion to all things sexual. I also know you are a reader of William T. Vollmann and have worked as his personal assistant on his Carbon Ideologies’ project. Has his influence shaped your erotic writing? Can you add a bit about the writing process of this piece, how it came about, and your revision process?
Jordan Rothacker: Well the orgy aspect—as if the journalist protagonist is the sacrifice in a coven’s sexual ritual—is a dream sequence, a fever dream that gets deeper and more surreal as the character’s fever/sickness crests and breaks. Part of it is that he’s literally sick, a flu maybe while traveling on assignment, and another part is the expression of his anxiety from encountering ugly Americans when abroad. They disgust him and then make him feel guilty because he wonders and worries how much he might be like them. I like Potocki’s book and I see the similarities in the layers of text happening here. I also get your Burroughs reference in the connection between physical sickness and a repulsion to sex, his often involved heroin but there was a lot of colonial guilt there too. As for the Vollmann and composition parts of your question, they interrelate. This story, like “Gristle,” “Augustus and Anastasia,” and maybe a couple others, is based in reality and then fictionalized. My favorite book by Vollmann is The Atlas and it’s classified as fiction and some of its stories are very obviously fiction, some are even historical fiction. But some of the stories might be straight reportage or anecdote. It doesn’t matter. Call it all fiction and just tell a story beautifully—that’s my goal.
Jordan Rothacker has a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Georgia, has taught literature and religion throughout the Athens, Georgia region. He is the author Gristle: Weird Tales (Stalking Horse Press). In this article we discuss his development as a reader and a writer. Rothacker shares how Henry Miller, William Burroughs, and his parents shaped the voices of this text—which oscillate between sexual and philosophical exploration.
You can find him online at http://jordanrothacker.com/ and on Twitter @j_rothacker