Q:  Bill, thanks for sitting to talk.

A: Thank you, Q.


Q:  You’ve got a new book, Life Among Giants, coming from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.  Tell us about some of the suffering the publisher has put you through.

A:  Well, they haven’t.  Really, they’re a very impressive and generous and lovely outfit, the best experience I’ve had in publishing!


Q:  That’s terrible, terrible, sorry to hear it.  Misery, awful.  Tell us about the book.  At least you’ve got the book.

A: Well, Q, it’s about a….


Q: About a young football star, David “Lizard” Hochmeyer, who lives across the way from a world-class ballerina named Sylphide.  After her husband’s death, he decides he’s going to rescue her, gives up his All-American life to do so, rows across the pond and into the arms of fate.

A:  Or anyway he mows her mega-lawn.


Q:  While meanwhile his sister, the gorgeous, dazzling, crazy and brilliant Kate, has been working over there, in this enormous mansion the size of an embassy.  And seems to have some secrets, big secrets.

A: It’s not that she’s crazy, really, but that she’s….


Q: Secrets that link the destinies of these two families—the rich and talented ones in the mansion getting richer and more and more successful, and David and his family, modest house, modest means—well, everything on this side of the pond falling apart.  I better not give away that the parents are murdered right in front of Lizard in the first chapter.

A: You just gave it away…


Q: Dave’s Dad, oh my god, a loser of epic proportions…

A: Not a loser, exactly, just inept, and in over his head with the financial sharks he works for.


Q:  Meanwhile, there’s this girl at school, and Lizard’s just trying to live his life.

A: But life has exploded. Will Emily help with that or only cause more trouble?


Q:  And will he finally get laid?

A:  Q, you’re so coarse.  Much more to the point is the violent loss of one’s parents!  That’s not something you’re going to recover from easily.


Q: Revenge might help.

A:  But revenge is not Lizard’s style.


Q: But his sister eggs him on.

A: She’s obsessed, and it’s not hard to get the fire going in Lizard’s breast.


Q: Ask me some questions about me for a change.

A:  I thought you were interviewing me.


Q:  Where did these characters come from?  Ask me that!

A:  Yes, where?


Q:  I, and you, we worked at restaurants, on a ranch, and playing music.  We know sports people, we love to cook, we once lived in a huge, broken mansion, we dated ballet dancers, developed big crushes, learned all about Bournonville’s ballet La Sylphide, which is about this boy, James, who falls in love with a sylph, this fairy creature from another word.

A: And when he…


Q:  When he tries to cross over into her world, disaster.

A:  And what about our huge cast of characters?  And settings?  From the mansion to football fields to the ballet stage to the kitchens of world-class restaurants!


Q:  Well, one world-class restaurant.  You and I, we worked at more prosaic places, mostly bartending.  But the kitchens in these places, the humanity!  A cast of characters you couldn’t make up.

A:  Speak for yourself.  I did make them up.

Q:  Etienne, the beautiful, empathic chef.  RuAngela, his dazzling, cross-dressing boyfriend.


A:  When do we write?

Q:  I don’t know.  That’s not my department.


A:  We write late at night, early in the morning.

Q:  We like to spend my days performing useless tasks and satisfying bureaucratic whims.  Also gardening.


A:  So that’s you, all those hours, all those vegetables.

Q:  And you, you’re the napper!


A:  The napper, yes.  Twenty minutes every afternoon, no matter what.  But isn’t that when we get our best ideas, in the fog of waking?

Q:  More in the digging, I would say.


A:   Okay, here’s one: Who are the giants of our title?

Q:  Well, not Lizard, though he’s almost seven feet tall.


A:  The dancer?

Q:  Definitely a giant.  The greatest dancer of her generation, maybe ever, widely agreed.


A: And of course her husband, the British rocker Dabney Stryker-Stewart.

Q:  As big as John Lennon, as big as Mick Jagger, maybe more so.  A Titan.


A:  Dad’s evil boss, Perdhomme?

Q:  Yep, a giant.  A really bad one, but a giant.  Like that Goya painting, “Saturn Devouring his Son.”


A:  Exactly!  He’s biting the poor guy’s head off!

Q: But being giant doesn’t save you.


A:  It doesn’t save you from your fate.

Q:  Kate.


A:  Kate’s a sister, not a giant.  But she’s a giant presence in Lizard’s life, that’s for sure.

Q:  Jack?


Q:  Kate’s professor at Yale.  Pop-philosopher and serious genius, capable of nurture, capable of growth.  Capable of containing Kate’s madness.  Later to become her husband.  Keeps her at his house while she’s at Yale.  He’d get fired for that behavior today!

A:  Well, but this was the 1970s.


Q:  We follow them to the present.

A:  Or they precede us, ships borne ceaselessly into the future.


Q:  Publisher’s Weekly called Life Among Giants “Gatsbyesque.”

A:  They also called it “a soapy and thrilling indulgence, a tale of opulence, love triangles, and madness, set against a sumptuous landscape of lust and feasts, a sensory abundance that fails to mitigate the sorrows of David’s youth.”


Q:  Nice.  But what about the Gatsby thing?

A:  Conscious on our part.  Lizard is a kind of contemporary Nick Carraway, the narrator of Gatsby, just this normal guy who finds his life tangled with the lives of more mythic figures.


Q: What’s with the mushroom on the cover?

A:  You’ll have to read the book.

Q:  But I wrote the book!

A: No, I wrote it!

Q:  You!  You did nothing.  Facebook and phone calls all day.  And your ridiculous power naps.


A:  And yet you don’t know what the mushroom is all about?

Q: Oh, I know.  I know all right.  But you’re not going to trick me into saying it, you manipulative left-brained creep.


Bill Roorbach is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction, including the Flannery O’Connor Prize and O. Henry Prize winner Big Bend (University of Georgia Press, 2001), Into Woods (University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), and Temple Stream (Random House, 2005). Life Among Giants, a novel, is due from Algonquin in 2012. The 10th anniversary edition of his craft book, Writing Life Stories (Story Press, 2008), is used in writing programs around the world. Recently, Bill was a judge on Food Network All Star Challenge, evaluating incredible Life Stories cakes made under the gun, so to speak. Bill knows nothing about cake, but he knows a lot about life stories! His work has been published in Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, The New York Times Magazine, Granta, New York, and dozens of other magazines and journals. His story “Big Bend” was featured on NPR’s “Selected Shorts,” read by actor James Cromwell at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Bill has taught at the University of Maine at Farmington, Colby College, and Ohio State. His last academic position was the Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross, Massachusetts. He has now retired from academia in order to write full time. A comic video memoir about his tragic music career, “I Used to Play in Bands,” and all kinds of other work, including a current blog on writers and writing and just about everything else (with author David Gessner) is online at www.billanddavescocktailhour.com.

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One response to “Bill Roorbach: The TNB 

  1. […] The Nervous Breakdown, a terrific cultural website on writing, books, music, and more, asked me to interview myself, which I dutifully did.  The result is predictably ambivalent.  You can read it there, or read it here and go there for much more. […]

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