Keith Rosson is equally at home writing about the trials and tribulations found in everyday life as he is the bizarre and uncanny. His characters range from a once-beloved painter fallen on hard times to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on a team-building retreat; one of the things that makes his work so compelling is that he finds the same empathy for both. I spoke with Rosson on the occasion of the release of his new collection, Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons, about his distinctive approach to fiction.
Ghosts play a significant role in a number of the stories in Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons, as well as your novel, Smoke City. What draws you to write about ghosts, be they real or metaphorical?
I love literary fiction. The exploration of characters and place, the lyricism, the ability to greatly expand upon an idea or theme. And I really want to be a literary author. I really do. I appreciate the seriousness it implies. But I also grew up on Stephen King novels and X-Men and Ouija boards and Red Dawn and all of that. I can no more write a straight literary novel than I can do fifty pushups on my knuckles. Just ain’t happening. Ghosts – and monsters, and vampires, and the apocalypse, and crooked, half-lit fairy tales – they’re in the blood. I can’t not write about them. It’s just the writer I am. You’ve got to hold your own interest, and those things – in collision with human nature – are interesting to me.
Has having written a story where Pestilence is the main character taken on any strange qualities during the pandemic?
You know, not really. Though I do wonder what his take on COVID would have been.
A number of characters in this collection are struggling with addiction in one form or another. Do you find it to be a challenging subject to write about?
I recently read a review – I know! Danger! Shit! – of my most recent novel that said, in essence, “Rosson is such a great writer, but I’m hoping that one of these days he’ll stop relying on the same trope of the misanthropic alcoholic fuckup.” I also remember reading a great interview with George Singleton, who is a fantastic and hilarious and kind short story writer, who said, and I’m paraphrasing, “If you need to write a hundred stories about a fly fisherman with eczema who wants to get his wife back, write them.” As someone who grew up amid addiction and violence and has struggled at times with my own vices, I find the notion of addiction to be an encapsulation of life’s struggles for a lot of us. We’re all kind of strung out on various things, and writing about that battle – either the kicking of the addiction, or being locked in its arms amid the growing wreckage of one’s life – appeals greatly to me. It feels like a microcosm for a lot of things in the world. And I like writing about drunks and dope-sick idiots and dudes who do crimes, and I feel a kinship with them. I like the challenge of humanizing them, because all of the people you know that are like that, they’re people. Right? Very real people, living people, full of shortcomings and strengths and terrors, and that interior battle with the self is an endlessly important one to me. So it’s not really a challenging subject, exactly, it’s just one that I’m not done writing about yet.
Was finding the right balance between realistic and uncanny stories in the collection difficult?
This book’s got ten years worth of stories in it. And the thing is, I’ve wanted to have a story collection out since I was twenty years old. But I am not a prolific short story writer by any means. For every story of mine that’s finished and published, there are probably seven or eight that languish half-finished on a hard drive or a notebook. I love them so much, stories, and they’re such a royal pain in the ass for me to finish. I lose the thread. So we honestly didn’t have a gigantic pool of stories to choose from, certainly not enough to just do a book of crime stories or just a book of weird stories or whatever. But there were definitely stories that were a little too similar to each other in subject or style, and those got cut. Everything got juggled around. There were some that the editor wanted in there, there were some I took out. As it is now, I think it rips. I love all of my books, but this one’s my favorite right now, and it certainly took the longest to finish.
Where did the book’s title come from?
I don’t know, honestly. The idea of a folk song for a trauma surgeon is, like, a kind of barked, frenetic ballad about those that fix the holes in us, right? A song for the people that keep our blood from spilling out, that repair us after we’ve been grievously hurt.
There’s no shortage of apocalyptic imagery in the new collection. Is there an end of the world scenario that alarms you the most?
I’m not trying to be a nihilistic, fatalist smartypants or whatever, but I feel like we’re living the end of the world scenario right now. The people of Texas are literally freezing to death in the streets right now during a historic cold weather event, and six months ago my children couldn’t step outside our house for a week because of toxic levels of carcinogenic forest fire smoke in the air. Racism, sexism, transphobia runs rampant. Fascism’s arrived. We have a lethally inept healthcare system. Endless police violence with zero reform. Rampant climate chaos with little global interest or political incentive in halting it. Sitting members of Congress, arguably among the 435 most people in the country, who are avowed conspiracy theorists and white supremacists. Armed, violent right-wing militias have become normalized and gained a foothold in American politics. The 2nd Amendment’s been twisted into something insane and perverse. Maybe every generation feels like theirs is the End Times, but honestly, the scenario we’re currently in alarms me the most. It’s a slow burn, but we’re right in the middle of it, you know? Hold tight while you can. Meanwhile, uh, sorry to be a bummer please read my book before we all burst into flames or punch each other out in a global royal rumble over resources thanks for the interview let’s be kind to each other okay byyyyyyyyeeee
Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons is out now on Meerkat Press. Rosson is currently in the midst of a blog tour for the book; his publisher is also holding a giveaway connected with the collection’s release.