The immensely talented Rob Roberge writes like the love child of Denis Johnson and Thomas McGuane. Cheryl Strayed calls his new novel, The Cost of Living, “Drop dead gorgeous and mind-bendingly smart.” It’s something I imagine you, your neighbor, your sponsor, and your lover will want to read. You might not want your kids to read it until they’re well over 18. In fact, Roberge is so wonderfully frank and open that this interview is being posted anonymously so that my kids won’t get wind of this conversation.
This book, your fourth, is about drugs, addiction, music, family, love and forgiveness. There’s also lots of sex in here. Do you think there’s more sex in the world of drugs and rock and roll than in, say, the world of working at Safeway or Vons? Do you think the employees at Vons are doing the same kinds of things in the walk-in freezers as Bud does with Simone?
Well, anecdotally—having worked at supermarkets AND having been in bands, I’d have to say yes, rock and roll gets a person laid more than does working at a supermarket. That said, I’ve worked at ice cream parlors and I’ve been a waiter at the Marriott and a grill cook and I fucked a customer once in the walk-in freezer at the Hagen Daas . . . and I went down on and fucked my boss a couple times in the walk-in when I was a waiter at the Marriott . . . and when I was a lowly smelly grill cook in some tourist hellhole in Florida. And, at the Marriott, my boss could have been fired—so that was nice. That she would risk losing her gig.
Of course, I played music by then. But who knows? Maybe I’m just lucky as far as walk-in coolers go.
Plus, I was a virgin when I worked at supermarkets. So, I’m not really qualified to say anything about Safeway or Vons.
But look at some of the hideous looking men in rock and roll who are with beautiful women. I think it tells us all we need to know. You put Ron Wood or Joe Perry at Walgreens or on one of those horrifying speed dating nights . . . and they’re not getting fucked very often. I’d put a lot of money on that, wouldn’t you? And if you wouldn’t, we need to talk money.
But, then . . . Liz Phair or Jeff Buckley could get laid if they worked at a photo mat (well, Buckley would have to be alive, but you follow). So, it’s relative.
There is a very funny scene in The Cost of Living where Johnny Mo and his father, Al, bicker over what to call the act of a woman defecating on a man’s chest. Al says it’s a Danny Thomas, Johnny Mo says it’s a Cleveland Steamer. I have to admit I’d never heard of either of these things, but that doesn’t surprise me. What surprises me is that anyone would ever really get off on this. Am I naïve here? I know men love shit, but do they love it even more than my imagination will allow?
It’s not my thing, but, hey, if the internet has taught us nothing else, it’s taught us that no matter how seemingly strange what turns us on happens to be, there’s a million consenting adults totally into the same thing. It’s a great and beautiful world that way, no?
I’m not sure I buy the generalization that “men love shit” and I would guess that if I happened to make an equally sweeping and authoritative statement about what women were into, people might jump ugly at me for over-simplifying sexuality by gender. I’ve known a lot of women into anal sex in a wide range of various forms. Which is, of course, anecdotal. But until I see a double blind scientific study that says otherwise . . . well, I’m thinking it’s a human desire and ass play is not gender-specific.
For the record, though, I believe the accepted/dominant term for shit on a chest is a Cleveland Steamer. The Danny Thomas comes from local folklore and a running joke from my band-mates while we were laughing each other silly on the road one tour.
Then we get to another very funny scene with Tammy who is described like this: Tammy had a beer gut with deep, dark stretch marks that looked like earthworms in her skin. Blurry tats blotted her stomach. It turns out Tammy is still lactating because Tim, her lover, gets off on it and has kept the milk flowing (by suckling her himself, I assume). Can you comment on this?
In general, I tend to hate it when people care whether something really happened as a source of a scene in fiction (I’m not sure I much care in so called non-fiction, either as five people can witness the same event and have five radically different versions of “what really happened,” but that’s perhaps another topic). BUT, this scene happened much as it happens in the novel, except that it happened in Florida (naturally) and the lactating woman and the unflappable bartender incapable of being embarrassed were people I knew from a hellish year when I was a grill cook at a tourist dump. A place so classy that drunk women sprayed breast milk on the bar while screaming to the drunken crowd and the lobster red chunky tourists.
There was another part of the real life version I wanted to put in the novel, but it didn’t really fit. There was a cocktail server who worked there, too, and all of us were sitting around snorting blow and drinking at about four in the morning. Long after closing. And this woman had been married to the local TV weatherman a number of years earlier.
And she said, “Can you believe Tim is into that lactation shit? Jesus.”
And another cocktail server said, “Fuck you. You fucked a weatherman.”
So, who knows what we should be embarrassed by sexually, right?
In one scene Bud fixes Simone’s vibrator. He notes that this act, fixing the appliance, feels more intimate than having gone down on her. Do you think that our personal belongings, the things that really represent our needs and desires (vibrators, cell phones, car keys), have in modern times grown to be a more apt representation of us than our actual bodies?
Well, no, I don’t think our belongings say much at all about us, except that we tend to have more belongings than we need (though I’m not sure I’d put vibrators on the “not need” list) . . . or perhaps, unhealthily, they have. But not in that scene, I don’t think.
In that scene, it’s not the fixing of the vibrator that makes it more intimate—it’s the act of when Simone hands it over to him and, well, trusts him with her desires in a more intimate way than a casual fuck would indicate. There’s—like in any scene, sex or otherwise—more going on there than one thing. And that scene, while it has MORE sex than the previous sex scene, isn’t much about the sex for me as it is about them opening up to each other. It’s the same scene where they share their histories with suicide and private desire. And I think that’s a moment where—even though they have had sex, it doesn’t mean the sex has yet been intimate. People have intimate and non-intimate sex and their initial sex scene in the walk-in cooler is within hours of their meeting. So, it’s hard for that to have been very intimate, as they barely know each other at that point. But by the time of this scene, they’re opening up to each other and the sex takes (or intends to) on a more individual, personal tone . . . and what Bud finds more intimate than having previously gone down on her, in that moment, is that she’s sharing something she’s done alone. She’s letting him in on her private behaviors and desires.
There’s a moment in the book where Bud wonders if he’s ever said no to someone who’s asked him if he wanted to fuck. He does note that he’s turned down offers to make love, but never an offer to fuck. Would you say that fucking is more appealing than making love? Or is that just the case for this character at this time in his life? And can you explain the exact difference between the two?
I think fucking can be both casual and hot (or sadly, un-hot), and/or it can be enormously intimate. To fuck can be of the most intimate extensions/expressions of an existing intimacy. A very large issue of trust and letting your guard down.
Whereas “making love” seems, to me, to be trying way too hard. It seems somehow to be the language of euphemism and distance. And it ends up being about as sexy as a feminine hygiene or erectile dysfunction commercial. It seems diffused and insecure . . . and prescriptive. “Do you want to fuck?” That’s honest . . . and the people engaged can or cannot be intimate and it’s up to them, it seems. Whereas “Do you want to make love” is a little dull and cheesy, but it’s also one person telling the other what the act is supposed to mean. And that’s cool. It’s allowed. But I don’t like being told what something means to me. I would never suppose to tell a lover how to feel about an act—whether it’s a dinner date or fucking. That’s their call. It seems both insecure and emotionally evasive to me.
“Make love” is metaphoric and rather vague. “Fuck” is metonomic. It’s solid and honest and cannot be mistaken. And it’s descriptive, rather than prescriptive. No one’s telling the other how they are supposed to feel.
There’s a doctor in this story who at one point says, “Everybody loves something up their ass during sex.” He then adds, “It can sure as hell seem that way when you work the ER.” I don’t think I’ll ever be able to sit in the waiting room of an ER without wondering about every person in there who isn’t visibly bleeding or holding some off-angle limb. You?
Well, this assumes I can sit anywhere wondering about every person in any crowded room-ha!
Though, continuing with the ER stuff (and just to perhaps give you more than you wanted to think about beyond what might be up anyone’s ass), a good friend of mine just finished The Cost of Living—she’s an excellent writer but/and she tells a different kind of story than the kind I tend to tell. And she told me her brother-in-law’s a radiologist and he said this guy came into the ER with about two feet of speaker wire shoved into his urethra and it had ended up curled around his balls.
Apparently by the nature of his job, this wasn’t that strange. What was strange was the same guy came back a few weeks later with the same problem—though he had used a different length cable.
These are the kind of stories I get from other writers. They say, “I wouldn’t use this, but it sounds perfect for one of your books.”
ROB ROBERGE’S fourth book, the novel The Cost of Living, was released in Spring 2013 on Other Voices Books. Previous books include the story collection Working Backwards From the Worst Moment of My Life (2010) and the novels More Than They Could Chew (2005) and Drive (2001). He’s a core faculty member at UCR/Palm Desert’s MFA and has taught at several universities including University of California Riverside’s main campus MFA, Antioch, Los Angeles’ MFA program and the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where he received the Outstanding Instructor Award in Creative Writing in 2003. He’s a frequent question writer and lecturer and has judged, among others, the Red Hen Story Prize and the University of Ohio/Athens PhD writing award. Currently, he is serving as the advisor for the PEN Mark program. His stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals and have been widely anthologized. He plays guitar and sings with the LA bands The Danbury Shakes and The Urinals.