Interview with Nick LaRocca

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

Nick LaRocca‘s stories and essays have recently been featured in Valley Voices, Per Contra’s, The Flagler Review, Outside In Magazine, Steel Toe Review, South85, and the Milo Review, as well as Rush Hour: Bad Boys (Delacorte Press), Mason’s Road, and the Beloit Fiction Journal. His short story “Gestures” (Lowestoft Chronicle) was nominated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize for Fiction. He is the recipient of the Robert Wright Prize for Writing Excellence and an Associate Professor of English at Palm Beach State College. He lives in Boynton Beach, Florida, with his wonderful wife and daughter. His story “The Placenta Test” appeared in issue 1.3 of The 3288 Review in early 2016.

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3288 Review: How did you get your start writing? Was there a particular person or event which served as a catalyst?

Nick LaRocca: I’d always written, I guess, even back in high school, so I had a sense that writing was something I wanted to do. I never wrote anything that was any good, but I wrote and I enjoyed the feeling I got when I wrote, which is still a wonderful, supercharged rollick. When I was in college—a music major—I took a creative writing class. You don’t end up in too many things; some of life is random, we know that, and some of life is intentional, and much is in the middle, and I think that’s where I was when I stepped into this class. We had an exercise in the course: picture someone from your high school yearbook and write a description of that person in that picture—only of the picture, and only a physical description. I don’t know that I have the discipline these days to pull off what I did then, though back then I was more interested in proving myself than I am now, which is a different story entirely, but I wrote what was, it was determined by my instructor, a very good description. After that class—immediately after the class—the instructor, a graduate student whose first name was Bruce, pulled aside a young lady who’d also done good work and me. He asked us what we were interested in, and he told us very seriously that we should consider studying writing. A year later, I was in a class with Harry Crews, and to make a long story short—I’m going to write an essay about that time in my life one day, maybe this summer—he took one of my stories and went and read it to his graduate students as an example of how to write. He did that. He actually read it out loud to them. At least, that was what he told us sophomores the next time we met. Then he told me I could go all the way with this thing if I wanted to. Maybe I can and maybe I can’t—I think I can, but it’s been a long road to get anywhere, which is what that essay will be about—but if I can, and if I ever do, and if I can ever say I have, that’s where it started. We’ll see.

3288 Review: Much of your writing (“The Placenta Test”, “Dada”, “Far Off and Near”, etc) includes, either directly or tangentially, stories about doctors, hospitals and illness. How did this come about?

Nick LaRocca: I married a doctor. I’m vain, but I didn’t marry her for status—nor did I marry her to imbue my writing with neurotic or hypochondriacal subject matter. I married her because she is, aside from being a really wonderful person and, she would want me to state, as a Miami girl, physically beautiful, the smartest person I know. Not all doctors are smart: not all anyone is smart. But she happens to be a smart doctor. So we talk. I ask her about her job; she asks me about mine. Being a college professor isn’t always easy, but it’s not something that ruins you on a daily basis: I often say I get to work with the best young people in our little part of quaint, simple Florida. A doctor doesn’t. People come to you sick, hurt, lost, degraded—and that’s just the insurance companies. Anyway, medicine, she’s taught me, is a story. The patient history as a construct is a story. The patient history is an answer to a question, “Why are you here?” All story is an answer to a question, each story is. So it’s nice marriage—not just my actual marriage but the marriage of medicine and writing.

3288 Review: There is a particular sense of humor which runs through your writing – equal parts self-deprecating and absurdist. Can you speak to this?

Nick LaRocca: I’ll be highfalutin’ and say that I don’t think a fiction writer should take himself entirely seriously, and I definitely don’t think a narrative essayist should when writing about himself—I think art has to have an element of playfulness to it, because playfulness is a natural, rational response to the absurdity of our lives, given especially that we’re mortal and know it and yet bother to mow the lawn and pay our taxes and do all the other things that seem to indicate we think we’re going to keep on living. If not, why do them. Maybe not the lawn thing. A mowed lawn is nice looking, and I don’t like putting off my neighbors, though if we get really existential, “nice” versus “off-putting” probably makes most of its sense in the context of mortality, anyway. I mean, if we’re all going to die, nothing’s particularly nice and really everything is potentially off-putting because it sucks that we’re going to die, and I’m absorbing all things in that context—or, if you’re like Dostoyevsky after the pardon, everything is nice and nothing is off-putting because you’re happy not to be dead. And then you die anyway.

I’m also not that smart. The zanier I get, the harder it is to see that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

3288 Review: Since you brought up Dostoyevsky–who are your literary influences?

Nick LaRocca: Right now, Dostoyevsky is my guy, but to keep modern, I’m reading a lot of Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen, in whom I see a lot of Roth, though Franzen, who I do believe to be a genius, a word that is too often used, has a lighter, more current voice than Roth, which I admire, and is more sexually snarky and less sexually forthright than Roth, which I do not admire, as I think sexuality drives my gender and explaining it can drive great fiction and narrative nonfiction. Of course, Franzen, who is a hell of a novelist, and hugely popular and basically accessible, writes essays that seem to be aimed at .0000000004 percent of the bird-watching sub-population.

Speaking of lunatic sexuality, I’ve always been a big fan of Harry Crews as both a novelist and essayist. I enjoy Ben Fountain’s short stories, as well as Thom Jones, though my favorite writer of short stories is Alice Munro, who is Canadian in her sneaky sexual frankness. Fitzgerald is my favorite writer, broadly speaking, but because I’ll never be able to write like he did at twenty-eight, I find reading him depressing. It’s sort of like obsessing over an unattainable woman who never ages. I’m better off hanging out with lesser voices and pumping up my ego as a kind of retaliation against Fitzgerald. Plus, he didn’t write very much about sex—more or less he wrote about coveting, which to me is like going out to dinner and spending the whole evening reading the menu and never ordering anything.

3288 Review: Do you have to put boundaries between your own writing style and subjects, and the lessons you offer your students?

Nick LaRocca: I approach the teaching of writing in a very technical way: it’s mostly form and technique. Writers do certain things with character, plot, voice—I can go on and on—and those things are actual techniques that when someone is learning to write are beneficial to master.

Let’s say for example we’re looking at “Rock Springs” or “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” I might teach a theory I have called the “Crucial Second Plot Point,” which discusses the second thing that happens in a story and opens a story up, deepens it, and complicates it—in Ford’s case, the trailer park scene, in O’Connor’s case, the scene at Red Sammy’s. Or we may look at John Gardener’s “Redemption” to watch how he masterfully describes sound and the playing of a French horn. Because I write, nowadays, very heavily about sexuality and sexual molestation, among other themes, I teach the writing of these themes—as well as others—because doing anything less would not merely be disingenuous but impossible. I don’t really know how to teach writing except to filter my teaching through my own perception of how a piece is working. So I don’t hold back. But I can be funny in a live, improvised setting, and that helps with complicated subjects.

As for style, there are certain things I don’t teach. Lately, I’ve gotten pretty good at manipulating time in a story, at looking at, say, a thing happening in the dramatic present and bursting into the dramatic future and again into the further dramatic future and back to the dramatic present. But this isn’t something I try to teach. It seems pretty much something you don’t have to do to be a good writer. I don’t know. Of course, I robbed it from people, most notably Roth, whose characters live in their presents and pasts, and Marquez, who opens One Hundred Years of Solitude in the dramatic future. So in a sense, someone taught it to me. In my creative writing classes, things can get pretty heavy and serious, and no matter how casual the student, everyone in there does want to be a writer, whether he or she wants to do the things that make a writer. So what I find more than anything is that as long as I’m honest and as long as what I’m doing is teaching writing—and I’m always doing that—boundaries are less important than seeing what a writer is capable of.

3288 Review: Your remarks on teaching seem to echo Hemingway’s advice “Write the truest sentence that you know.” Is it difficult to teach students how to break through their egos and filters, and write from the heart? Is it even something that can be taught?

Nick LaRocca: It’s virtually impossible to teach writing from the heart, and while it is true that advocacy against political correctness in this silly political season may misalign me, I will say that concern about how they as people will be perceived if they tell the truth is a problem. But the diagnosis is more nuanced.

Look, politicians should be politically correct. The term is “politically” correct for a reason, and our political system must operate on the assumption that everyone is not only equal but equally good and meritorious because each vote is worth exactly one vote: political correctness is a means to a laudable end, a genuine republic. But a story can’t do that; a writer must make judgments about characters, and many students—and I don’t think this ignorance is newly generational—mistake the idea that we must “like” Character Y for the idea that we must understand Character Y. I don’t have to like a damn person in your book. I don’t know that I liked anyone in the The Corrections. Did I like Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater? Not really. I wouldn’t say I liked him. I didn’t dislike him. I liked him sometimes, sure. But who cares? I understood him. Is the narrator of “Sonny’s Blues” a guy I like? Not really. I like that little pain in the ass Sonny more—way more. But I understand the narrator and see his humanity, and that’s all the truth I need.

Students have a hard time with that. Their need to be loved may trump—no pun intended—their need to tell the truth. Their desire to be loved may have in a certain sense annexed their characters, so that now all their characters must be loved.

I don’t think you can teach people to be willing to say something. I think certain people come to writing by necessity, because there really is no other way for them to get what’s deep in their heart or has been on their mind out. But there are many things that are the talent part of writing, and courage is one of them. You have to be a badass to write. You have to be a sonofabitch and a hell of a lover and everything in between. You can’t possibly care one bit about what someone is going to think—at all. Never. Not even remotely. You just watch, report, translate. It’s not even, “If you don’t like it, screw you.” It’s, “I frankly don’t think about you when I write.” Yet you also have to be entertaining. Tell a story. Be weird. Get the world. Understand humanity. I don’t think those things can be taught beyond one sacred lesson: I can point them out in the writing of others and tell the student to go and do likewise, and the talented student will light up and realize, Shit, that’s what I was supposed to be doing all along. This happens all the time.

3288 Review: What are you working on right now? Anything scheduled for publication in the upcoming months?

Nick LaRocca: Believe it or not, I haven’t sent anything out for publication in about six months, though I’ve written quite a bit, including a story called “Power Tower” that at readings has gotten rave reviews and has a real shot at something—it’s a fairly strange story about a boy who comes to understand his father by watching him save a teenager who has climbed a powerline. The reason I haven’t sent anything out is probably harder to say than I’m going to make it out to be. Lately, I find myself reaching into places that I hadn’t before and talking more honestly to the reader than I ever have—talking the most honestly I can. The action itself is becoming so addictive that in the compression of time of a day or week or month, the hours I would devote to submitting work I am devoting instead to the work itself. I can’t keep doing that, but it’s become a little necessary. As my voice has altered over the last year or so, and as the subject matter I’m willing to write about has opened up, and as I’ve gotten more confident, I’ve found myself doing things that are suddenly coming naturally that were never natural or even learned before. I couldn’t do them, and now I can. I don’t know what that means. And because, aside from “Power Tower” and a couple of other pieces, whatever I will send out this autumn will be old enough that it may not be representative of where I am now, I’m a little hesitant to send it at all. I have to get over that.

But the main reason I haven’t sent out work is that I’ve just finished a new novel that I think is extraordinary, a work that changed me in every way as a writer, that taught me how to write, in a sense. The name of the novel is Jersey Boys, and the essential questions at the heart of the piece are basic though in one case a little intellectually thrilling. The book answers two major questions: Why does the family at the center of the novel, the Giaconi family, fall apart? More interestingly, I think, why, after the family falls apart, do the two women of the family, the mother Marie and the daughter Carol, thrive, while the two men of the family, John and Douglas, falter? Douglas disappears, likely a suicide. John loses everything; once an engineer with the D.O.D., he dies relatively broke and broken, a concierge at a Hilton in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Why has this happened?

I think the writing and the level of insight in the book are both spectacular. And it’s the first book I’ve ever written that manages to be very funny, very heartbreaking, and very brutal. It’s, in short, everything I’ve ever wanted to do as a writer. I hope to do it again. But I’ve been working a long time on the book, and I believe I’m a few months from it’s being ready. And I’ve been focused on it too deeply to get my short pieces out there. I’ll change that, though, because having just written all of what I just wrote, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense—except it kind of does, because there comes a time when the work is the thing. And maybe now is that time for me. Which kind of sucks, since if a tree falls in a woods and no one hears it…