Nick Roth attended UCLA and the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. His stories have appeared or are upcoming in Word Riot, Failbetter, The Forge Literary Magazine, Shooter Literary Magazine, Rivet Journal, Flexible Persona, Duende, Your Impossible Voice, Punchnel’s, Feathertale, and Prick of the Spindle. He lives in Los Angeles.
Hannah Gardner speaks with Nick Roth below.
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of “On the Question of Pluto” was the way it connected astronomy and creative writing. Your character, Professor Adrianna Ayers, makes a compelling connection between the demotion of Pluto to a dwarf planet status and her own life. What made you connect astronomy to her life and why did you see it as the best avenue in which to tell this story?
I’m pretty sure there was no sequence where I first thought of an emotional situation — you know, divorce, loss of custody of a child — and then looked for a setting where I could work out what that meant to the character, the professor, the lecturer in the story. It was more organic, I think. The way I remember it is the idea came into my head while I was watching an old interview with Richard Feynman. (Feynman taught in the physics department at Caltech for years and won the Nobel Prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics in 1965.) There was a YouTube video where he was being interviewed sitting in a big chair in someone’s living room, it looked like — his own, maybe — discussing physics with a guy off camera, answering whatever questions the interviewer was putting to him. At one point Feynman was asked what magnetism was, which sounds like a simple question in a way, and the interviewer asked it innocently, but it seemed to piss Feynman off — maybe because of the naïve way the interviewer had phrased it — and Feynman got pretty obviously irritated and then explained why it was a dumb question, then tried to answer it. But while he was answering what magnetism was, which took about ten minutes, he sounded like your crazy uncle who has no idea what magnetism is but he’s trying to answer this question his six-year old niece just asked him, and there was one point where Feynman struck me as also maybe slightly drunk. (Which he definitely wasn’t.) In any event, Feynman was also famous for his lectures and he’d done an interesting series at Cornell, I think it was, in the early sixties, on “The Character of Physical Law.” You can find it on YouTube. Also a bunch he did at Esalen, which are fun (if you watched Mad Men, Esalen is where Don Draper ends up when the series concludes). But it came into my head, almost first as an image, this picture of a serious scientist losing it in front of an audience at a lecture. What science was another question and what sort of a lecture it should be, exactly, and why is she upset, and what is it in the lecture that really causes her to break down? Those were questions I had to think about. The choice of what science to use as the basis for the lecture was fairly easy because I’ve been doing amateur astronomy for years, which hardly makes me an expert in the character’s field — she’s a professional — but it was enough to start with. Maybe I could have gotten away with some physics, but I didn’t think I could pull the story off in a field I didn’t know anything about. I don’t think I’d have tried the story with the professor lecturing on horticulture or botany, for instance. As for why she’s talking about the demotion of Pluto, it’s just one of those topics that people seem to respond to and that a lecturer doing something for the general public might be likely to do. I probably could have found metaphorical points of connection between lots of astronomical phenomena and her divorce and loss of custody, but that seemed like a fairly promising one.
You wrote “On the Question of Pluto” in the style of a transcript of a lecture. Can you talk a little bit about how you chose to present your story in this way? What sort of restrictions are there in this type of storytelling, and how do you work around them? Or, alternatively, how do those restrictions benefit your writing?
The transcript form is obviously limiting in one way because you have no real description or setting other than a few official notes attached to the transcript. Also, other than a few short interjections that might appear in a transcript — things like, she “Hiccups” (indicating she’s not entirely sober) — you have to make clear what’s going on through the language someone is using. The restrictions simplify the task, in a way, but in this case the task is pretty simple. We know what a public lecture looks like, or can imagine pretty easily what it ought to look like, so no descriptions are really necessary. But in a way the restrictions are irrelevant, because what it amounts to is the lecturer telling you a story, and she’s the one given the responsibility of setting the scene, filling in the details.
By the end of the story, it is clear that Professor Ayers has lost control of the lecture. Can you tell us more about the ending and how you decide to end your stories?
Endings are supposed to arrive organically but I find them hard to get right. I think I usually have some sense of what the ending will be without knowing exactly how to work that out. In this case, I knew the lecturer had to break down and, basically, be pulled offstage by the end, I just wasn’t sure how I was going to get her there. Which sounds manipulative, but I just mean that I knew which way the arrow was pointing but wasn’t sure how to hit the target (glib metaphor, I guess, but there you go). In a way I thought of it as an argument between the lecturer and the audience. The audience shows its disapproval when she starts talking about her personal life and their anger in the face of suffering serves to egg her on toward real emotional exposure.
When did you start writing? How do you stay inspired to write?
I’ve been writing for years but only started publishing last year. As for staying inspired, I don’t expect to feel like writing every day, but I do it nearly every day. Some days are shit. Some days are good. I make notes for stories but only once they’re fairly well formed in my head, and half the time I end up ignoring the notes. None of this matters. People find different ways to work. Inspiration happens but if you have to rely on it you’re probably screwed.
Who influences your work? Have any teachers or writers given you advice that changed the way you approach writing?
Reading fiction influences me even to the extent that I have to be careful not to hear whatever writer’s voice I’m reading at the moment coming out when I write. I guess I could come up with a long list of writers I’ve admired, but you have to be careful because admiration pulls you in a particular direction. I guess that’s obvious. I mean, I may be reading something stripped down to the bone and suddenly find myself unconsciously imitating that or something discursive and imitating that. One example: there’s a book I liked a lot in my twenties, Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch, a Swiss writer. (I pick this one at random because it’s next to my computer at the top of a precariously balanced, two-foot high pile of books.) The writing is minimal, aphoristic, tangential. But if I’d tried to write like that (and I did) it doesn’t work. For some writers it’s Faulkner or Flannery O’Conner or Cheever or Virginia Woolf, for others Pynchon or maybe Gass, and for others Carver or Bukowski. Et cetera. These are all picked at random. Admiration is part of what makes me want to write and I figure it’s what makes a lot of writers want to write. At the beginning it can be the main source of inspiration. Even later on it can. You’re trying to see if you can make something admirable in the same way.
As for teachers having an influence, maybe my track to writing is different from the norm. I went to film school at USC where a certain kind of narrative form was expected and what a philosopher might call “naturalized” (made to seem unproblematic, unarguable, a question of fact). At USC, when I was there, the word “story” usually referred to a particular kind of narrative, as if a story always consisted of exactly these elements. Sometimes the elements and structures were made explicit and there were professors who’d written books on how to structure screenplays, all of which I found deadening. Obviously, Hollywood is different from the literary world and USC had a different approach than, say, NYU would have had toward story, but it did force me to think about what the word “story” meant, even if it was only by way of rejection and opposition (inarticulate and vague as my thinking was at the time). In any event, even if I’d wanted to accept their definition of “story” — and I’m making it sound a little more monolithic than it was; there were plenty of good professors who had a more nuanced approach — at USC I realized I wasn’t very good at thinking about story in this pre-arranged sort of way. And every semester the films that students made and that we would watch in a big theater, tended to confirm that these particular ideas about narrative produced lies. Sellable lies, maybe, but lies. I was lucky in one way though because my first filmmaking class at USC — in which there were maybe twelve students — was filled with a great mix of talented people, many of whom were trying to do original, interesting things with film (many of them are still my friends). They were trying to work out what a story was for them and that approach inspired me.
What advice do you have for young writers? What would you tell a younger version of yourself?
I don’t know what I’d say to young writers. I’ve talked to some at parties, but I never feel compelled to give advice, even when I think I might have some perspective, because I feel like I’m putting myself in a false position. I mean, unless there’s some very specific thing, like maybe a book they’d like that sounds similar to what they’re doing and they might find interesting. Beyond that I’m a tad reticent.
One thing I’ll say here that I’d probably not say to any writer in person (and I’m not sure why I’m willing to say it here): learn a trade (speaking loosely). In my case, I work as a CGI (computer-generated imagery) animator and have been teaching technology classes at the film school at Cal State Northridge, here in LA, on and off since 2006. With the CGI work, I freelance, which can be precarious, but it generally leaves me time to write. There’s undoubtedly work a lot more closely related to writing that you could choose than CGI, but that’s where my interests took me.
As for advice to my younger self, I guess I would tell my younger self that the writing part of life is wonderful, it’s great, because if I listed all the difficulties he’d have given up by the time he was my age.
Do you have any current projects?
I suppose I should be writing a novel, shouldn’t I? When you get into the rhythm of writing short stories, though, the idea of being tied to one story for a couple of years is frightening. Which doesn’t mean I’m not working on a novel, just that, if I am (and I’m not saying I am), I like to be coy about it. For some reason.