Is it true that you’re so neurotic, so worried about your general lack of appeal, that you read every single one of The Nervous Breakdown self-interviews to try and get the tone right? That you read them over and over, looking to see who went cute, who went smart, who went all meta-postmodern, and that you ended up frozen with all the potential to look foolish. And that you were concerned, among many other things, in coming off as:
1) A pretentious idiot if you talked too seriously.
2) A loser trying too hard to be funny.
3) Some combination of an idiot and loser?
4) A writer who was so unknown and so obscure that none of these issues could possibly matter to anyone but you.
Is it true that you’re this neurotic as a human being?
Yes, that’s true.
And you were hoping the interview would come off as some combination of your favorite interviews some friends of yours have done: the wit and sincerity of Steve Almond, the stripped honesty of Stephen Elliott and the expansive intelligence of Gina Frangello, among others, correct?
I was hoping for that effect. Or something close to that, yup.
You don’t find all this kind of pathetic?
Of course I do.
Since this is a self-interview, it seems like a rare opportunity to ask (and answer) a question you’ve never been asked. Is there a question you’ve always wanted to be asked, but no one’s asked it?
Maybe, What’s it like to be such an incredibly attractive writer—maybe the world’s sexiest author? Is it hard for people to take you seriously when you’re as striking as you are?
Do you think you’re the world’s most attractive and sexiest writer?
No, but I kind of wish someone else did and they’d ask me that question.
Maybe we should talk about the book.
Maybe we should.
It’s pretty short.
It is a pretty short collection, that’s true.
Why so scrawny? Are these all the stories you have?
Well, I’m not sure I like the term “scrawny.” I’d like to think the length of the individual stories and the book as a whole are reflections of my lapidary precision.
So these are all the stories you have.
Actually, I cut the two longest stories out of the manuscript, and a third that was of medium length. They’d been published and they didn’t suck. And I was worried about having too thin-looking a book. But, in the end, I decided they didn’t really fit the overall tone of the book and I would rather go with a collection that felt like it was all of a piece, rather than a simple collection, in the literal sense, of all the publishable short fiction I’d written over the years.
Do you feel bad about charging people twenty dollars for a skinny book, when some fat books cost the same or less?
Well, I’m not sure we should value literature by its weight or page count. Plus, the writer doesn’t really control things like the price of the book. I wish it cost a little less, but, still, let’s look at it in some perspective. The book costs less than a night at the movies with a big tub of popcorn and a garbage-can sized coke. And it costs a fair amount less than, say, a gram of heroin. And it’s better for you than either a movie or heroin—I feel safe saying that. And, if it doesn’t have the life-changing euphoria of heroin, at least it won’t make you broke and single and a terrible mess who sells an extra kidney in India to pay for more of my book. Looked at in that light, it’s a bargain. My book will probably not make you broke and single and a terrible mess who sells body parts in other countries. And what better thing could you say about a twenty dollar purchase?
Are you happy with the state of your career?
Well, I’m never really happy. But if you’d told me eighteen years ago, when I was pretty much a suicidal, drug-addicted, self-destructive mess, that eighteen years later I’d have three books out to pretty great reviews, if not huge sales, I think I would have thought you were crazy. And, on top of that, to have the love and respect of a lot of other writers I love and respect—that’s a great feeling. I’m honored to be a part of a community of writers, many of whom are among the best friends I’ve ever had. I have an amazing partner, Gayle, who I’ve been with for over fifteen years. Plus, I get to teach a lot of great students and see their work develop, and I’ve had a bunch of students go on to have their stories and books come out. There’s a lot to be happy about that I didn’t see coming, passed out in a smear of my own urine and puke in some drunk tank eighteen years back. There were a lot of years I wouldn’t have picked me as even “Millionth Most Likely to Succeed.” So, yeah. I should be pretty happy. I’m not a bestseller, but I’m not sure I would expect my writing to be the stuff of bestsellers. I mean, I find my work entertaining, and a passionate crew of freaks seem to enjoy my stuff, but it’s not exactly CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL kind of stuff.
More like BOTULISM FOR THE SOUL.
I like that. Can I use that?
Be my guest. But that little “meta” moment—that’s what we were talking about earlier, right? That’s a little too cute and now you’ll probably come off as an idiot.
It’s a risk.
So, overall you’re happy. You’re alive. You’ve gotten more than you expected from writing. What’s your biggest career regret?
Well, I live in Regret City. In Regret County. On Regretville Avenue. So, I’ve got a ton of regrets, probably. And a lot of shame. Those are probably the twins that fuel my writing: Shame and Regret. So, I’d have a lot of regrets to choose from. But my biggest is probably that I haven’t ever, as far as I know, been banned. I think of being banned as one of the highest honors a writer can get. I went so far as to beg Gayle’s mother (who’s religious) to bring my last book to the church and tell them what filth it was and how they shouldn’t stand for such filth in the world.
And she said (she’s an incredibly nice person) “We’re not really a ‘banning’ kind of church.”
I told her they could be. I told her that if she loved me, she’d get her church to ban my book. But, sadly, no dice.
What’s the biggest myth about writers that you’d like to debunk?
There are a bunch of them. One is that we make money. When I meet people and they find I have a few books out, they think I’m rolling in piles of money like Scrooge McDuck or something. I don’t mind not making money at writing. It’s not why I got into it. Anyone who gets into writing to become rich or famous is, at best, deluded. The myth of the suffering artist is another that I think needs a good solid debunking. Writers don’t suffer any more than anyone else. Human beings suffer. Period. Take 100 writers and 100 plumbers and I’d guess the amount of suffering would be pretty even. And plumbers are probably more important in the long run. We need our toilets to flush more than we need another collection of short stories. If all the writers and all the plumbers went on strike tomorrow, I know who people’d be missing more quickly. So, I try not to deceive myself into thinking what I do is any more noble or important than what anyone else does.
If anything, artists may suffer a bit less when you think about it. It’s a very rare and special thing in this world to get to do what you love to do. Not many people can claim they do that—yet all of the real writers I know do it because they have to, and because they love it. Writing’s a great gig. It’s one of the few things you can be better at when you’re 70 than when you were 65. So, it’s got a lot going for it.
But the myth of the suffering, genius artist and the myth that we make money are two I’d like to see debunked more often. It doesn’t make you special if you write. It’s what you do, or it’s not. For me, it’s a way to live an engaged life and I wouldn’t trade it for something that paid more and offered me less freedom and joy, no matter how hard it can be at times.
So plumbers are more important than writers in this world of yours?
I don’t know. I know that books don’t save lives on the grand scale. They don’t end wars and such. They don’t cure cancer. But at the same time, books saved my life. And I know they’ve done that for friends of mine. Writing and reading bond me to other people—at its best, literature makes me feel less alone in the world. Great people, great books, great music—these are things that remind me of what beauty people are capable of creating and spreading through the world. So, maybe books do save lives—just not in a dramatic way.
Shifting gears a bit, you mentioned that your work has been well-reviewed. What’s your favorite review you’ve ever gotten?
Well, I’ve gotten a lot of nice reviews. And some that were really flattering because it seemed like the person reviewing it really got what I was trying to do and found the result successful. And that’s very gratifying. To have a review in the Sunday NY Times book review was astounding and wonderful. But, like a lot of people, I can have ninety-nine things go right in a day and one thing go wrong, and that’s what I end up remembering. So, I tend to really remember the bad reviews. Especially the people who react really strongly and violently to the work.
I had one rejection for MORE THAN THEY COULD CHEW that was full of praise and some very kind words about my writing ability, but ended up rejecting the book because, “the mind that thought up that enema scene is not a mind we want to meet.” I kind of loved that.
And there was a review from some big place in the UK—maybe the Guardian—and the whole review was a letter from the writer to his editor asking her why she sent him books like this? Then, near the end of the review, he wrote, “And at some point, one desires to grasp Mr. Roberge by the lapels and shake him and say, ‘Why the enema scene, Mr. Roberge? Why the Kiddie Pool? Why the fetal pigs? Why, Mr. Roberge, why?’”
I kind of loved how British it sounded. It almost made me want to wear things with lapels so some British reviewer could grasp me by them and shake me.
Well, it seems like a valid question in some ways. Why the fetal pig scene?
It’s never struck you that there aren’t enough fetal pigs in literature?
Well, that’s where we’re different.
Where would you like to be in, say, thirty years?
I’d like to be alive and sharing that life with close friends and my partner Gayle, who’s just one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. I’d like to be a better person. And a better writer. And I think those two things are related. I could be wrong, but I really don’t think I am.