Interview with Rob Hartzell

This is one of an ongoing series of interviews with contributors to The 3288 Review.

Rob Hartzell is a graduate of the University of Alabama MFA program. He lives and works in Morrow, OH. His work has appeared most recently in the Upender, Milkfist, Typehouse and Streams of Consciousness. His story “Leaving Babylon” appeared in issue 1.3 of The 3288 Review. You can find him and more of his published work at robhartzell.wordpress.com.

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3288 Review: How did you get your start writing? What started you on this path?

Rob Hartzell: It seems like I’ve been taking stabs at writing since I was at least 12 or so, from the stories I’d try to write after devouring the latest sci-fi anthology I’d picked up at the local library, to the song lyrics I wrote for the prog-inflected thrash-metal band I was never able to join, to the nigh-obligatory high-school dark poetry phase. But one of the first successes I had at writing was when I wrote an essay in my senior year at Dayton Christian High School, disproving a chapter in a text that was used in our first-semester Bible class. I would have gotten an A for it, if I hadn’t turned it in some two weeks or so late, and both my English and Bible teachers made positive mention of it in class. It taught me the power of writing as resistance, and that was at least a decade or more before I found out that they actually stopped using that text because of my essay.

I went on to write for my college’s newspaper — I even edited the school’s student magazine — but that moment at Dayton Christian was defining for me: to be able to stand up to the school authorities and say “No,” and get away with it? That experience was a taste of something like power, but also something like acceptance, something I don’t think I quite experienced again until I started doing readings of parts of “Leaving Babylon” as a fiction student.

3288 Review: What is the story behind “Leaving Babylon”? It has a strong feeling of having been drawn to some degree from real-world experiences.

Rob Hartzell: “Leaving Babylon” was conceived, in part, as a sort of punk-rock update on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited,” one that emphasizes the struggles of the former addict in a way that Fitzgerald’s story doesn’t. I can’t say it’s been drawn much from my own experiences as much as it has from the stories I’ve heard from others around me. If you had asked me in my late teens/early twenties to define myself, I’d have answered to “punk rocker” with no compunctions about it—that’s the culture I immersed myself in, as best as I could, even though I was isolated out in the country with nobody my age living near me—but the truth is that I wasn’t a part of the “scene” the way other people I know have been.

So, yeah—I did a lot of internet research, and lurked for quite a while in an internet Narcotics Anonymous discussion group to get a sense of the headspace my protagonist might inhabit, while drawing from what limited experience I actually had with the punk rock scene. What I share with Shep is that sense of being a sort of outsider, even to the community I/he would have once identified with.

3288 Review: Your writing covers a wide range, from literary fiction to weird to SF to Cyberpunk. Do you consider yourself a primarily a writer of any particular genre?

Rob Hartzell: I never really have, though I notice that much of what I’ve been writing lately does tend to have a SF bent to it.  The project I’ve been working on lately is a collection of stories and fictions (and an invented glossary) titled Pictures of the Floating Point World; the pieces in that collection all have to do with the idea of the technological Singularity, and especially the idea of the uploaded consciousness. At the same time, I do like playing with form the way a more proper experimentalist might, though I don’t think I’m as avant as, let’s say, Ben Marcus.

I like to think of what I’ve been doing lately as experimental science fiction, but even then, I have other projects that don’t quite fit that bill — another project I’ve been working on, The Elder Goths, is a more conventionally realistic/literary graphic novel about a group of middle-aged denizens of a goth club. My influences are pretty eclectic: postmodern fabulists are as likely to feature on my reading list as quirky realists and post/cyberpunks, so I don’t really feel overly comfortable in any one pigeonhole. I wouldn’t be insulted to be called a science-fiction writer, but I think I’d bristle at being confined to any one genre — “Leaving Babylon” is actually one of my older stories, but it’s no less a part of what I do than any of my more recent work.

3288 Review: What are you reading right now? Is your stack of books leaning toward any particular writer or topic?

Rob Hartzell: At the moment, I’m reading the latest book by virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future?, which explores how current technologies are concentrating money and power, and proposes a way out. Fiction-wise, I’ve got the latest Orhan Pamuk and Neal Stephenson up next while I wend my way through Borges’ Collected Fictions — though they may be pre-empted by the newest DeLillo, circumstances depending.  I’m also about two books behind on Haruki Murakami, and I’ve been meaning to get to Catherynne M. Valente’s newest as well. I’m also intrigued by what I’ve heard about David Means’ Hystopia.

Because I work a full-time factory job with semi-regular overtime, I don’t get as much reading time as I’d like — most of my reading is done on breaks at work, and a little just before I go to sleep at night, so it takes me longer to work my way through the queue than I might prefer. The list of books I’d like to get to is a long one, but I suspect I’m not alone on that front.

3288 Review: Does the factory job allow you the mental space to work through your stories while away from your computer?

Rob Hartzell: It does, surprisingly enough. The bulk of my job is watching a die-cut machine as it runs, which, when things are running smoothly, allows me a good bit of mental space in which to work. While I can’t exactly write on the job, as Faulkner did with As I Lay Dying, I can at least jot down notes about story direction or new story ideas, which is usually enough to do the trick until I get home to my keyboard, which is usually after my family has gone to bed, and I have an hour or two to work pretty much without interruption.

3288 Review: Tell us a little more about the Elder Goths project. Are you the artist as well as the writer? And would it resonate with, say fans of Love & Rockets or the works of Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb?

Rob Hartzell: I don’t have an artist yet for Elder Goths, though I haven’t really beaten the bushes too hard, as I’m still working on the first draft. L&R was a definite influence, as is the work of Craig Thompson. It follows a group of middle-aged Goths in varying stages of wrestling with identity and adulthood, and mortality. There’s a club DJ who’s getting tired of the club scene, an academic who hasn’t quite left the scene, along with a pair of unrequited lovers and a former club diva who finds herself battling cancer. It’s liberally seasoned with nostalgia and sex and death, the holy trinity of the (literary) Gothic aesthetic.

3288 Review: In addition to Elder Goths what are you working on currently? And is any of your work going to be published in the upcoming months?

Rob Hartzell: In addition to Elder Goths, I’m starting to send out the manuscript for the story collection Pictures of the Floating-Point World, while beginning the stories that will appear in Pictures’ [as yet untitled] sequel. In the meantime, one of my stories is slated to appear in the Erebus Press anthology After Lines this year. You can find a list of my publications (with links), along with other occasional writing, at my blog: http://robhartzell.wordpress.com.

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