I first met Jordan A. Rothacker at the Astrophil Press/South Dakota Review booth during the AWP conference in Washington DC. He was carrying a copy of his novel, And Wind will Wash Away and I found it in my hands very quickly. At first, I was a little taken aback by his direct and spirited personality. It didn’t take me long, however, to realize that Jordan is a gregarious and kind man who, like so many of us, is just trying to be noticed in the rush and scrape of the independent publishing community. When I got home, I ordered his novel and very much enjoyed it. Like many writers do these days, we began conversing on various social media outlets and I really grew to like the guy. His productivity and dedication to craft is impressive. In our conversations via the web, I discovered that he was working on My Shadow Book, a unique book project that considers the existence of an ancient, interdimensional, supernatural cabal that strives to direct human progress (ala Shelley). He sent me a proof of the book some months before it was released. It took me a while to read it, but when I finally carved out some time, I read it straight through. I’ve had this experience with so very few novels, so I decided to ask him a few questions about the book.
Let’s dig into this right away. This is a highly conceptual piece of writing and I see in it, a kind of kinship with a book like Joseph Perl’s Revealer of Secrets. What was it that inspired this project and how did the shape of the thing change once you began?
I like the comparison to Perl’s book, in that this does have that sense, like in the Talmudic tradition, of initiated people speaking to each other across time. Hypothetically, if I wrote this and not Maawaam…
Interesting because some people think you wrote this and not Maawaam. So, you’re the closest to this so, let me put you on the spot and ask you to take a stab at Maawaam’s process as if it were your own.
I’d describe the process thusly: it was unbelievably organic; I had a notebook in my back pocket for years, a separate notebook just for this, like method acting keeping a journal of that character’s thoughts as they came to me, a character who passed through this world thinking he was a shadow man, in league with Heraclitus and so many others; and there were parts of me and pieces of my writing that I realized belonged to him, so I gave them to him. The crux of the book, what happens when the unnamed narrator/diarist discovers the name Maawaam, developed on its own like the most beautiful magic of art. From the get-go the project was inspired by how it truly feels for me to be an artist. It’s a feeling that I believe others share and I see this book as a chance for connection. Ferret out the shadow women and men maybe.
As for the conceptual nature, I’d had this idea and started working on it in the notebooks but the fragmentary form made me skeptical of it working out and then within a short amount of time I read David Shields’ Reality Hunger and discovered the work of Maggie Nelson. It was 2012 and I also heard them both speak. They were a revelation. I felt an affirmation that I was on the right track with this. Also, from the beginning Jean Toomer’s Cane was one of my big influences and then at the end, during the last year of revisions, the work also found a kinship with Jarett Kobek’s HOE #999: Decennial Appreciation and Celebratory Analysis.
I was really struck by Cane when I first read it and always felt a little cheated that I hadn’t been introduced to it back when I first introduced the other Modernists. What about Cane helped you edit this collection?
In the most blunt way, Cane is a beautiful and successful book that reminds you that anything can be a book, particularly anything can be a novel. Like other Modernists, Cane, gives you the pastiche or assemblage in literary form, a work that comes together from very differently styled pieces to allow theme to win out over plot. That is something I’m really interested in. I mean I love a lot of well-plotted books, plot is fun, but it isn’t the only mechanism to carry a narrative. A work that favors theme over plot can be really fulfilling to read.
Yes, that’s the thing about My Shadow Book; the assemblage really has something very compelling about it. I can see readers picking it up and resisting it at first, but because of its short segments, giving it some leeway and eventually finding it quite addicting. Did this play into the size of the pieces? Was there a balancing and leveling act when you edited it?
It’s good to hear that it was successful for you in your read. That’s was exactly my hope, lure people in with the fragments, building. There is no real plot, and the main action of the book takes place in subtext. The editing process was pretty intricate in order, and yes, it was a balancing act, but ultimately the years of method acting with the notebooks had a direction to the pieces. Luckily for me and the reader it’s a short book but still an open text.
How much editing did you do here? Was it invasive, passive, or did you leave the text exactly as it came?
Editing involved a lot of cutting. Getting rid of that weakest pieces and tightening that text. In some ways this could just roll on forever. There is so much Maawaam, so much for him to say, so many bomb stories, so many shadow women and men to call out. At one point I printed the whole thing and cut each fragment out and attempted to see if there was a better way for them to fit, some scheme that I was missing, but that was too invasive and I through it all out. I realized the text should lead me, not vice versa.
Do you think Maawaam would take issue with this?
Where ever Maawaam is, I hope he forgives me the injustice.
You’re an author too. Where do you see the intersection of style between you and Maawaam’s work that made this such a good fit for you? I mean, your writing seems, on the surface, quite different.
Walking with Maawaam was so different from how I normally travel in the literary craft that it was totally freeing. I usually have the urge to be an encyclopedist, a maximalist, but Maawaam is closer to an aphorist than anything. He likes it slim and precise, no explanations, no concessions. Words, phrases hang there, take then or leave them. My Shadow Book reads like the work of someone disillusioned by narrative or at least naturalism.
Tell us a little about how you came into working with Spaceboy for this project.
Nate Ragolia and Shaunn Grulkowski at Spaceboy Books are the real heroes. They are both old label-mates from Black Hill Press/1888 who did my first book, The Pit, and No Other Stories, but I didn’t know them. Nate reviewed my second book, And Wind Will Wash Away, and really liked it and we became friends after that. He mentioned that he and Shaunn were starting a science fiction press and I was like, “I have this weird thing…” Soon enough Maawaam’s worldview about a league of shadow women and men who have influenced and protected humanity through the arts since the dawn of time was on its way to print. After Nate read the manuscript he said, “it’s like ‘incepting the adjustment bureau of extraordinary men and women’” and I knew he truly got it.
That’s really fantastic that your old press mates are working with you again. When you’re working with people you trust, it really opens up a healthy dialogue. Did they have editorial changes?
It is important to be with people you trust. My wife recently had a baby and so now I’m less literal in calling a book “my baby,” but trusting a publisher with this less real baby, this literary work that you try to contain a piece of yourself in is very important. There were editorial notes, the most important being, “emphasize the science fiction aspects,” which I understood they needed to say and I did what I could.
Getting back to your discussion on how you’ve bounced around a bit between publishers, I’d like to ask you, what do you think are the biggest issues facing writers who operated in the independent literary (non “upmarket”) world?
Oh, you mean the “minors?” I keep thinking about it in baseball terms. I love seeing like Jeff Jackson get a deal with FSG and Jarett Kobek with Viking. I think of the movie Bull Durham and cheering on and envying those who get called up. I’m sure major publishers don’t necessarily make all your literary dreams come true and have their own difficulties, but some money might be nice (laughs). The biggest issue facing us in the minors, that I do think gets solved at the majors, is publicity. The lit world, like many industries is kind of pay for play, and there are a lot of books out there, a lot of great ones, so how do I get people to know about mine? Small presses can only do so much, they’re small. Hiring a publicist is extremely important or somehow devoting the time and money into being your own publicist on top of what the press can do. If you’ve got a book at one of the majors, there is a devoted apparatus in place to get that book out there. Not everyone in the small press world has such a capitalist imperative which is refreshing but can be frustrating when you spend years of your life working on a book, your pseudo-baby, and after it comes out it goes nowhere.
I hear this quite often from authors on small presses. In a perfect world, good work would go into the hands of people who wanted it without all the people in-between. Still we persist because we love the craft. So, What’s next for you?
My big news is that Stalking Horse Press will be publishing my collection of weird tales, GRISTLE, in the Spring of 2019. So, you and I will be label-mates and I am pretty excited about that. James Reich is a brilliant writer, editor, and publisher and it feels great to have a strange collection of stories at one of the most esteemed small presses out there.
Oh, this is wonderful news! James is indeed a fine writer and publisher. I’ve known him for about sixteen years at this point. Beside this forthcoming book, are you working on anything new?
Like many writers and political thinkers, my head is often back in the 00s these days, particularly around the Iraq War (its beginnings since it continues still and is possibly never ending). We see this sickening normalization of George W. Bush these days due to the contrast between his manner and that of Trump. Comparatively, Bush is a polite, jovial, mannered statesman and Trump is pure boorish trash in every way, but by this point, Bush, with his illegal war, is responsible for what, a million deaths? Now with the appointment of Bolton, Trump might have the chance to prove he is worse, and it’s so very scary, but the first decade of this century was a rough time. Studying the Iraq War, our reactions to 9/11, the changes in the intelligence community and the ramping up of the surveillance state provides a greater understanding of our world now as well as providing a groundwork for high drama. Before even the Trump campaign, I started working on a novel called, Yes, Virginia, Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams. It’s my stab at a spy novel, but due to the Bush II war years context it is paranoid, nauseating, surrealistic, and complicated. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t fleshed-out, complicated characters and details ripped from the headlines, but it leans more towards William S. Burroughs than John LeCarré.
Okay, with that title, it seems to indicate that your book will examine the rise in conspiracy theories and anti-government paranoia. I’m imagining a character listening to Alex Jones, chatting on 4Chan, sitting in front of a corkboard of photos with red strings linking them. I imagine there will be a lot of research for this next novel. Could you talk about that a little?
The title alludes to the most extreme responses one could have to 9/11. What I’m trying to do is the opposite of what you suggest. By depicting the craziest bits of reality, I don’t even have to get into actual conspiracy theories. Of course, the craziness of the reality is what can lend itself to wild theories. The title supports the tone and climate of the time, panic, paranoia, lock step support of authority, a “liberal” newspaper like the Times helping sell an illegal war to the public, the government outing one of its own spies to spite her husband. There is an early scene in the book where journalists and spies are playing Marco Polo in a hotel pool in the Green Zone in Baghdad while shelling is happening a few miles away.
It’s a book I’m very excited about. There are three narratives: a new female CIA analyst learning the ropes, an aged veteran of the Cold War adjusting to this new world and enemy, and the voice of America/imperialism/monotheism/the White God (embedded in which is a critique of monotheism and its incompatibility with democracy). It might be unpublishable. And yes, it is requiring a lot of research but I’m loving that part. It’s the kind of book I wish I had an advance on because it’s really sucking me in. It’s hard to come back out of.
I love that about researching a novel though. Sometimes I think I prolong the writing process just because I don’t want to break up with it just yet. But we do need to move on with life, so, despite my desire to continue this conversation, I’ll wrap this up with an easy question: what is the last book you read that made you envious that you hadn’t written it?
That would probably be Float by Anne Carson. I get rapt and giddy by almost everything she writes. Her work is a level of intellect and poeticism that outshines almost anything we see today. If I could write a book like Float, a collection of 22 chapbooks in a slipcase that all connect through a thematic and intellectual thread, a collection of such erudition and beauty that definitions of philosophy or poetry just give way to a purity of thought, I could die content that I might have actually said something.