How did this story come about?

Influences.The writers you love, and the writers you hate[1].The thing about influences is that writing or talking about them can easily turn into a list.And a pretentious list, at that.But there is a list of people who made work that mattered, and still matters, to me: Francois Camoin, Raymond Carver, Amy Hemple, Darrell Spencer, John Steppling and Chuck Jones.Then, there’s a the list of work that appeared at the perfect time in a person’s life…the most common would probably be, for the young male, “Catcher in the Rye” or “On the Road”…for me it was James Baldwin and Richard Yates.I haven’t read either of them for a while, but they were essential to me for many years. Hemingway. And, later, Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby is still the longest 169 page novel ever written…not a wasted phrase in there).

In some ways, the writer is the last person you should listen to about their work.The reason is that, whether right or wrong, the writer can never see the work the way the audience can.I look at any piece of mine, and I see the hinges, the fractured and sanded bits that I monkey-assed into something resembling form and shape.

Recently, I installed a Swamp Cooler in the desert.We bought it at this colossal garbage shop.You may have seen places like it: A warehouse filled with objects that once were bright and new, brimming with American Dream promise from the shelves of a Woolworth’s or Sears.But now, years later, these were dusty appliances, big and small, weird contraptions of the Ronco-inside-the-egg-egg-beater style.Something called the “Denterion,” a chrome and drill-laden monstrosity made for dentists of the 50’s.I wanted it, of course, but smarter heads (i.e., my wife Gayle) prevailed.

So, we bought an old swamp cooler there, brought it home and found it didn’t have its face plate. I didn’t even know they had face plates.Jim, the guy installing it laughed when I said I didn’t know they had face plates. We were stuck. So, I built a vent system for it with an old heater return and some aluminum tape and sheet metal screws. While I was building this vent, the cooler was on, blowing blissfully cool air at my face (it was 110 degrees outside). Blowing cool air until a black puff of smoke coughed and gagged at me and the smell of a burnt out motor invaded the house.

“Damn that Ray White,” Jim said.

Ray White owned the big crap store. And, I later found out, he owned half of that town, and half again of all the surrounding towns. He didn’t look like the richest man in a town—he was fat and dressed in high-waisted 70’s pants and spent all of his day on a crummy couch in front of the shop. He dabbed at his sweaty brow with a handkerchief and looked like a Tennessee Williams villain thrown into a Rockford Files episode.

Jim went on to tell me that Ray White sold crap, absolute garbage, and that I should have let him (Jim) see the swamp cooler before I bought it (fair enough, since he knew all the parts it was supposed to come with). He then went on to tell me about Ray Whites riches, the fact that his bloated wife drove around town in a Cadillac with an out-of-date license and no registration and that the local cops were powerless to do anything to her.

He also told me this: Ray White had been robbed by masked bandits, kidnapped and taken out into the high desert and left in his trunk. The police happened upon the car…approached, walked around cautiously. Heard a voice from the trunk. Found out it was Ray White. They asked him for the trunk combination (it was a high end Cadillac with combination locks all around), punched it in, and popped the truck. Ray White got out of the trunk and drove home.

The kicker? This happened twice. Exactly the same way. “I figure it’s the same guys,” Jim said. Which made sense.

The point to this story? None-except that I’ll use it someday. Which is the only point a writer ever needs, I’d argue. To use it or not use it—the art of selection. Of finding what you’re obsessed with, and then enacting those obsessions on the page. Me? I’m obsessed with the weird things that happen to weird people. And the weird things that happen to so-called normal people (of which there are none, ultimately, in my book…you think someone’s normal, it just means you haven’t really gotten to know them).

So, I will use this Ray White story. Whether it’s in a story or a play or a novel, I’ll have the richest man in some rat-ass town being kidnapped and taken out to the desert. I’m not sure how I’ll use it, but I’m sure I will. The image of the richest man in town in a truck in the high desert praying that someone will come by, well, that’s too good to pass up for me.

I’ll use that someday.

Which is how I felt when I met a friend of mine’s old friend at a place called the “Zoo Bar” in Lincoln, Nebraska. I didn’t meet him, actually. He walked by our table. Half his face looked kicked in, deflated and grotesque.John, my friend, explained that he tried to kill himself, used too powerful a gun, and blew out half his head, lobotomized himself and now walked around town in a flat daze.

It struck me how horrific it would be…to want to die that badly and not do it. And to be left, an obligation or an afterthought, to everyone else, depending on their relation to you. It reminded me that even the most definitive, absolute desire (to die, in this case) could and will go wrong. That nothing resolves neatly, and that there’s always a mess to clean up—those who don’t think so are just not cleaning up at that particular time.

I figured I’d use that someday. It reminded me of something else. A friend of mine, who’d served in Viet Nam was once asked what he learned there. He said:

1) The human body and mind could survive almost anything.And,

2) Living through certain things was worse than dying.

Some of that sentiment is in “Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life”, probably.

Then, there was another friend whose dad printed Bibles.I think I made up the Koran bit, and the Holiday Inn thing, but I can’t be sure.

Another lesson: Write fiction, and life and invention tend to blur.

Also, I’m obsessed with and by jobs, especially crappy jobs, of which I’ve had a bunch.So, whenever I see some trinket or piece of crap, such as the plastic Jesus do-hickies in the story, I think, some poor bastard makes these.

The character of Pops? No idea, though my guess is that he comes from a background in athletics. My friend Jeff and I sat one night in a Los Angeles bar a while back laughing each other silly with stories about sadistic, mean-spirited coaches we’d had rule our lives and bodies at various times. And maybe that’s where Pops comes from—from some of those hideous, all-powerful men who could make me run until I collapsed or puked for, it seemed at the time, the sheer joy of watching me suffer.

Throughout my stories and novels there are mean, slippery, ugly old men who rule the lives of younger, nicer men and women. They are usually funny. They are usually rich. Where does this come from?I don’t really know. My dad’s not rich, and he’s not a jerk. I’ve had good bosses and bad bosses…once I had a painting boss drop the entire crews’ pay on the Kentucky Derby. But none of these bosses really adds up to a guy like Pops. I don’t know where he comes from, but some version of Pops bubbles to the surface of most everything I write. Maybe I’ll understand why someday, but possibly not. As long as the stories keep coming, I don’t care so much where they come from.

The structural influence on this story was one purely of craft and theft. I’d always liked the noir structure of opening on the near-ending. Think of the opening of DOA, where the man walks in and says he’d like to report a murder. “Who’s been murdered,” they ask.And he says “me” and the narrative then cycles back to the start of this hideous beginning/near ending. Also, The Big Clock (the novel and the movie). And Sunset Boulevard.

I wanted to open “Working Backwards…” near the ending, and then bring it from the start up to and beyond the moment of the opening.

Also, I stole the math part from a Darrell Spencer story. Where his narrative ruminates on jumping in a falling elevator to avoid being crushed, mine thinks about those insanely difficult math problems we had in school.

The hermaphrodite thing in the story? That came from a friend named Jill Colley who used to ask people this question at parties: If you had a child who had both male and female genitalia, but with neither being dominant, what would you do?Jill said that it happened thousands of times a year—and people, in general, went with the doctor’s decision, and made the child one sex or the other. It stuck with me that a wrong choice could have been made. And then what?

And that… “And then what?” is probably the most important question for the writer. Why write? Because I love stories…being an audience to them, as well as a writer of them. As I look at all the stories that went into this story, I’m struck by the amount of distilling that goes on. The way it takes a thousand trees to make one novel, a gaggle of dead dinosaurs to make enough fuel for a chainsaw to carve away for 10 minutes…it takes a lot of lives and a lot of living and a lot of listening to make a single story. And then, there’s the work involved in the actual putting together of the narrative. And then, even then, you may or may not have produced anything worthwhile. But that, like so many other things, is somebody else’s business.



[1] And never underestimate hatred.Every great literary movement happened as a reaction against something.While it’s true, as Bellow said, that “a writer is a reader moved to emulation,” it’s also true that a writer is an audience bored to tears.You write the story you love to read, or you should.And you write against the story that annoys the hell out of you.

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ROB ROBERGE 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.

10 responses to “On Working Backwards From the Worst Moment of My Life

  1. Hey, Rob. Just finished “Bring Your Legs With You” and happened to see your name in the back. I’m a big Amy Hemple fan, too. As a long-time San Franciscan, also love DOA and Edmund O’Brien. I’ll keep an eye out for Working Backwards….

    • rob roberge says:

      Hey Sean–thanks much. I like BRING YOUR LEGS, but the one I think is a true overlooked classic of the modern short story is Darrell Spencer’s second collection OUR SECRET’S OUT (which is the one before CAUTION:MEN IN TREES, which one the Drew Heinz, I think…because I think it was BRING YOUR LEGS that won the AWP…but it might be vice-versa). But OUR SECRET’S OUT is truly incredible. If you can find it (think it’s out of print), it’s well worth the hunt. Some of the stories, “Song and Dance” Union Business” “Nothing Sad, Once You Look at It” “My Home State of Nevada” and “Let Me Tell You What Ward DiPino Tells Me at Work” are just classics.

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Fascinating, Rob.
    I prefer reading your stories fresh, though, without any explanation.
    But that’s just me.

    • rob roberge says:

      Thanks, Irene–that makes sense…this was an essay more about craft and for people who ask where stories come from and such. The stories are, of course, meant to do their job on their own. But a lot of people ask how they come about, so I did one about the process behind this one.

  3. Irene Zion says:

    Oh, Rob,
    I wasn’t actually complaining, I was pining for another story from you!
    I put it badly, I can see that now.
    Your first TNB story has already been kicked off the first page, so I’ll tell you here instead:
    I’m so happy you weren’t just a “guest.”
    You are going to be a great asset to TNB.
    Glad to meet you.

  4. Greg Olear says:

    This is great, Rob. The postscript, especially, resonates with me.

    Fat Ray White in the trunk of his Caddy! I hopes he knows by now to keep bottled water back there. That’s the sort of tale that, when put it a story, no one but no one would think was real. I found, writing my new book, that I had to tone things down, that to present things as they are would verge on the unbelievable, despite being true.

    • rob roberge says:

      Thanks Greg–yeah, it’s a weird thing about life v. made up stuff…I had a play once where one of the actors said, “how do you make up this shit?” about a few of the events in the play. And about half were made up/half not. But the weirdest ones he picked out were pretty much factual…just re-arranged and played with to make the narrative work. It’s a strange thing.

  5. dwoz says:

    I was thinking about Fat Ray White.

    I don’t think he prays that someone will find him, I think he KNOWS someone will find him. His kind have this preternatural understanding of the universe, even as the universe seems to be playing them. i.e. the “pearls before swine” nature of Fat Old Bastard’s essence. The irony of being rich without the slightest idea what to do with it.

    But in spite of that inherent stupidity and cloyingly narrow and myopic vision, the guy has some bit of the universe by the tail.

    I KNOW that guy. There’s one, here, in my town. You can’t help but admire him for how much it annoys you that he can even exist.

    • rob roberge says:

      I’m thinking there’s a Ray White in every town…at least the CA desert makes it seem that way, as did the minor mob city I grew up in (Bridgeport CT). Those Ray Whites are everywhere!

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