NER fiction reader Alicia Romero talks with author Alan Rossi about his story “Did You Really Just Say That to Me?” and all that unfolds behind the opening line that made us all lean forward.
ALICIA: The narrator in “Did You Really Just Say That to Me?” tells the story from a first person, subjective, point of view. How did you come to use that narrative voice and tone in this piece?
ALAN: It was both a conscious decision and a complete accident. I vaguely remember writing the first line, “Let me begin by saying I’m racist,” and then thinking, If I write about race and really want to get into it, I have to use the “I,” there’s no other way. So, the “I” in the piece was the hinge of the entire story: exploring racism through a white privileged self. More specifically, through a white privileged liberal self, who doesn’t (or hasn’t most of their life) view(ed) their self as racist. Later in the piece, it’s revealed that the main character is named “Alan.” This also was conscious and intuitive at the same time. I intuitively gave the character the name “Alan” and then thought, Yes, that’s necessary because I have to fully implicate myself here. So, using the “I” was a way to draw myself into the piece, to implicate myself, but at the same time, I was, as the “author,” hiding behind fiction, and so I thought, What if I mess with that, and name the character “Alan.” This forced me, and hopefully the reader, to an uncomfortable place. It also allowed me to play with fiction and nonfiction in what I hope are engaging ways. It also seemed funny.
How I came to the narrative voice and the tone: I’m always looking for ways into stories, the elusive gateless gate. There’s rarely a thought about plot or structure or even about “why” I’m doing anything. I begin by searching or exploring or examining some situation I’m interested in, or some person/character I’m interested in, or some thought or way of perceiving. Once I wrote the first line and realized I wanted to implicate myself in certain ways, I intuitively understood the only way to write the piece was to attempt a kind of highly self-analyzing prose style, that reveals, hopefully, a character who is at once earnest and deeply flawed, possibly due to his insistence on “self,” and so the prose style became both deeply self-analytical and seriously earnest.
ALICIA: Can you say something about how you write about the complexity of “human interactions”?
ALAN: I’ve read this question probably ten to fifteen times, and each time I think, “No, I probably can’t say anything.” That’s my most honest reaction. I don’t know how I write about human interactions, though I’m sure there is an approach. But since this is an interview, I’ll give my best guess: what I attempt is to be as generous and as unwaveringly honest as I can possibly be when approaching the characters I write about. I try not to judge. I try to be completely open. I try to allow characters to be more than linguistic structures on the page and more than puppets I’m playing with, and in this way, allow myself to be surprised by them. I try not to control—I don’t want to control anything when writing. Some writers, from what I understand, write to feel in control of a little world; I write in order to experience what I don’t know and have no control over. When characters interact, my attempt, most likely, is to allow them to live through their feelings, thoughts, repression of thoughts, repression of feelings, their attempt to un-repress these feelings, their attempts to be open, their guardedness, defensiveness, their anxiety, their attempt to not be anxious. Most people are fairly complex, and most people, while possibly appearing open, are not actually open, or even close to open at all. Real openness and completely unfiltered interaction is extremely rare (whether positive or negative). I feel we all disguise ourselves so constantly and thoroughly, that even when we believe we’re being “unfiltered” or open, we’re probably not, and so my attempt is to write characters who are pushed to the verge of being open with one another, and then there is the moment when that openness occurs or doesn’t occur. The story dictates this, the characters dictate this—I try to know nothing. When characters close up and retreat into their self-created fictions, self and other are defined again, and the world is the terrible, lonely place it is. When openness happens in life and in a story and is authentic, then I think there is a feeling of the self and other, of the characters, and of the audience, and of myself, dropping away, and everything is shining just as it is.
ALICIA: Who are the writers you admire and how do they influence your own work?
ALAN: Thomas Bernhard, Lydia Davis (her novel The End of the Story in particular), David Foster Wallace, ZZ Packer, Dogen, Mary Gaitskill, Zadie Smith, Frederick Barthelme, Don Delillo. Lots more. It’s difficult to say how exactly any of these writers influence my work—it’s all intuition at this point. Frederick Barthelme, Lydia Davis, and Thomas Bernhard, all in their own unique ways, made me understand that one doesn’t need to write about huge dramatic events. That one can investigate and explore the drama of everyday reality, and in this way, supposedly mundane, usual things take on a sort of cosmic importance. In other words, the extraordinary in the ordinary. I’m drawn to the way these writers compose sentences and paragraphs. The rhythms of Thomas Bernhard, for example, are something I find extremely compelling. Dogen’s writing about Zen is some of the most dense, beautiful writing I’ve experienced—he challenges perception. These writers first interest me by making me encounter a consciousness on the page, wherein I can feel how a person thinks and experiences, and wherein that thinking feels honestly (if not fully) represented. Books by these authors are often interesting to me because at some point the consciousness is challenged to be something other than it is, other than it knows itself to be. Sometimes this is called “change” in stories, but I think of it as transformation: when a consciousness becomes more than what it perceives itself to be, when its self-limiting processes and conditioning evaporate somehow and evolve. Stories, to me, are about a person’s (a character’s/the author’s) longing for self-evolution, and are either about getting a glimpse of what that might be, actually evolving, or failing to evolve, and that evolution is always an evolution beyond the little egotistical self. This, to me, is spirituality. ZZ Packer, through the lens of Christianity, deals with this notion very directly in her stories.
I also like writers who go about this in a funny way; in other words, with the recognition that we’re all basically foolish.
I read a lot of Zen writing as well, though as Zen practitioners, we call it “study.”
ALICIA: Can you talk more about why you decided to write “Did You Really Just Say That to Me?”
ALAN: I’m not entirely certain I can answer accurately because creating the story took place a while ago. A guess: there was an impulse, or had been an impulse, to write about self through race, though I didn’t know how to do this. There is no political stance in this story, and I have no interest in making a political statement—I’m interested in exploring reality (whatever that loaded term might mean) and consciousness and spiritual seeking, the asking of fundamental, existential questions. Of course, one uses one’s culture to make this exploration. I’m certainly not trying to say anything definitive about whiteness or blackness. While I say I have no interest in making a political statement, I vaguely remember pontificating about race relations to some poor friend (sorry whoever that was) and performing some awoken “liberalness,” and I remember being disgusted by it. By myself. I did have some weird nachos that night, so possibly I was only in disgust due to the nachos I’d ingested. But more likely I was just disgusted with myself. As though I’d figured anything out. So, possibly, out of self-disgust, I wrote that first sentence, then began to wonder what it would be like to write about a person, not unlike me, who at some point in their life claimed they were not racist or didn’t see race, thus defined themselves as being an accepting liberal, but who actually, inwardly, had these seemingly trivial racist thoughts as well as a basic ignorance of privilege that they could not reconcile with their definition of their self. Such thoughts and ignorance, of course, are not trivial, and so I thought: explore that.
I feel this is the way we all operate: I constantly define my self, create a narrative for my self, and believe I live by it, but if I really examine my thoughts and feelings, I begin to see that there are many occasions in which my internal world and my external actions do not line up with this “fiction” of my self. This fiction of the self can be positive or negative or neutral, but it’s still a fiction, and I’m endlessly writing toward the place beyond it (a place that is impossible to get to with words). So, I wanted to explore that, and to try to be unwaveringly honest about things I’ve experienced, even if many of them are fictionalized.
ALICIA: What happens in the aftermath of this story?
ALAN: That’s for the reader to decide. I hope they enjoy making the decision.
ALICIA: What have you read lately that you wish everyone would read and why?
ALAN: I’ll do three books by two writers, both of whom I’m hoping your readers aren’t very familiar with.
David R. Loy’s The World Is Made of Stories is a book (of nonfiction/philosophy??) that has helped me see more clearly my own aims in writing fiction.
Jarrett Kobek’s Atta and I Hate the Internet were both completely refreshing for me and felt new. I like that the latter was willing to risk being a “bad” book; it’s a good reminder to readers and writers that there are other ways of looking.
Alan Rossi’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Atlantic, Granta, Missouri Review, Florida Review, New Ohio Review, Ninth Letter, and other journals. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize in fiction, and is the 2017 recipient of the third annual New England Review Award for Emerging Writers. He lives in South Carolina with his wife and various woodland creatures.