Playing with Cause and Effect: An Interview with Peter Rock

Cari Luna

Over the past 20 years, Peter Rock has been quietly building an impressive body of work. His fiction, rooted in exquisitely crafted character and place, has long impressed me for the strong whiff of the weird running through his realism. It seems you’re in the world of everyday reality, and yet everything is shifted just a fraction of an inch; just enough to keep you on your toes. With his latest novel, Spells, he takes that much farther.

Spells is a fascinating hybrid text, not simply illustrated by a collection of photographs but created in response to them, a collaboration between Rock and five photographers. The result is a novel unlike any I’ve read before, that weaves elements of realism, fable, prose poetry, and essay through the supporting structure of images to create something beautiful and unsettling.

I was eager to talk to Rock about it, to learn more about how the project came about and how it challenged and surprised him as he worked through it.

Cari Luna: You explain in the introduction that this project is connected to a job you had twenty years ago as a security guard in an art museum, that you would write stories in response to the art you saw around you. You go on to say that Spells was sparked by a conversation you had in recent years with a photographer, which led you to reflect on your work to that point. What was behind this impulse to return to an exercise that puts your writing in direct conversation with other people’s art?

Peter Rock: The simple answer is that I wanted to surprise myself.  And I wanted to write.  I recognized that so much of what I’d written came as a reaction to something–a news story (My Abandonment) or an historical situation (The Shelter Cycle), and that where I wrote best I had just allowed myself to follow my curiosity into something that intrigued me.  As I tell my students, if something outside of you is drawing you, it’s because something inside of you is resonating with it. So I just wanted to see what would come out of me.

This photographer, Peter McCollough, is one of the five collaborators in Spells.  I’d contacted him for some other reason–I didn’t know him–and he ended up sending me a print and a letter full of questions.  Artistic questions, personal questions, cosmic questions.  It was great.  I decided, for my own sake, to set aside a little time and try to answer them.  And amid answering them (which was a pleasure, as I really had only twenty minutes a day right then to write) I told him about how I made up stories while a museum guard, and suddenly I thought, “That’s exactly what I should be doing right now, that kind of thing.” And so I proposed it to him and four other people I didn’t know, with various rules, and they all said yes.  This was five or six years ago.

Other impulses:  1) I’d been working on a really big project, and I was teaching full-time and had two little daughters and a wife who worked way more than I did (all of these still true except the kids are a little bigger), and I just couldn’t write because everything was so complicated and big; I was feeling like a fraud, talking about writing all day without doing it; so I wanted to conceive of a project that I could work on in tiny increments; 2) in talking about stories all the time–teaching, critiquing, becoming an expert on them–I’d completely stopped writing them; I’d compartmentalized novel writing as something I did and stories as something I talked about; I wanted to write a new kind of story, one that I wasn’t talking about, one where I wasn’t self-conscious; 3) It’s a small consideration, but when I started this project my book My Abandonment was out, and it was (is/probably will be) the most commercially successful book I’d written, and suddenly people had expectations about the kind of thing I should write.  So I kind of just wanted to write something that wasn’t for anyone but myself, that wouldn’t likely ever emerge from my basement.

CL: Much as I long to be a Peter Rock completist one of these days, I must confess that (so far!) I’ve only read three of your novels prior to Spells: The Bewildered, My Abandonment, and The Shelter Cycle. There are characters and themes that overlap in the three books; for example, a scene from one perspective in The Bewildered appears from another perspective in My Abandonment. It’s a wonderful insider’s pleasure to recognize these connections. When we’ve talked about it in the past, you’ve said you mostly use characters and events from previous books as a touchstone, a way to orient yourself in the world of the new book and move forward in it. But for me, as your reader, it’s created a sense of the three books forming a whole. There’s a sensibility, a way of understanding the world, that I’ve come to expect from you. Spells deftly does away with all of that.

It begins with a sort of realism grounded in character and place, as I’ve come to expect from your work, but soon moves into full-blown magical realism. How did working from the photographs affect your usual process, and was it the use of the images that pushed the story away from realism? Or did the desire to subvert our expectations of your work–as you mentioned above–play into your conception of the project from the start?

PR: You have now read more of my books than even my mother!  Thank you.

It is true that there’s often been some intersection between my books, and that that’s typically for my own sake, not for the literary theorists of the future.  And in a way I kind of conceived of a trilogy that took place here in Portland that would be The Bewildered and My Abandonment and a third novel that I wrote about the character Nameless in My Abandonment and didn’t get published. The protagonist of My Abandonment was initially in The Bewildered, but she got too distracting and just watched stuff happening (you can see this in MA, her watching things that happened in the earlier book), and I became curious about her.  The Shelter Cycle intersected because I was so lost in weird mystical and historical material I think I had to balance it with something of my own, so I had a place to stand?

But whoa, that’s an uninteresting paragraph.  Let’s see: one thing I’ve noticed, teaching for so long, is that sometimes I have students who are working with characters or worlds or material, in college, that they conceived of in junior high.  Which is really excellent, in a way, but then again the emotional and conceptual DNA is stuck in junior high.  The same thing, I reckon, can happen if one’s works are too inter-related.  So with Spells I did make a decision to just have it be its own thing.  And it has plenty going on it, different registers and kinds of things, as you note. Sometimes we have to, as much as we can, throw off the way we’ve been doing things.

I mean, the other books aren’t strictly realistic, but with Spells I think I was also reacting to writing The Shelter Cycle, a book that was so much about the invisible, the mystical, and in some ways I’d realized that to convey that mystical, abstract quality (as with writing about drugs, dreams, etc.) the answer was to keep the language fairly flat and to keep things as concrete as possible. So, with Spells, as much as I wanted to write a new kind of story, I also wanted to find forms where I could really push the voice much harder, torque up the language in ways that would typically embarrass me, that would seem unsubtle or showy.  Just rants and prose poems, of a sort, and fierce little essays, or essays written by fourth graders, and especially folktales.  I was getting so worked up reading folktales and I wanted to write like that, where things could change so quickly, people becoming animals and vice versa, heads flying around, so little explanation.  I wanted to be really excited.

How did the photos play into this?  Every which way.  For instance, I was blown away by some of the coincidences in the collections of images the photographers sent to me (they chose anywhere between 30-100 each, and I chose from that pool, five at a time, one from each photographer)–so many bears!  So I knew I had to figure that out.  And especially so many images where the frame cut off a person’s head.  What was up with that?  Where were the heads?  What would these decapitated bodies do?  And then as I wrote more pieces I realized that–though this was something I kind of didn’t want to happen–things were going to be connected, that a narrative was developing, and characters had to recur but I had so few photographs of the same people.  So one big challenge became “well, this person suddenly looks quite different, and then now they’re going to look yet another way; so how and why did this change take place?”

CL: It surprises me to learn that you initially didn’t want the pieces to be connected. I’d love to hear more about the experience of writing the novel. It sounds like the writing you did in response to art when you were a museum guard was more a matter of play, or a writing exercise, while Spells, as a book written with significant chosen constraints, seems like a more formal experiment. What were your expectations going in, and how did the project surprise you as you worked through it?

PR: Oh, I still felt like it was a matter of play, writing Spells.  I mean, that’s what writing feels like, to me.  But I guess I wanted to write stories that were discrete, that I felt I already had a tendency for continuity, for linking things, and I didn’t want the stories to need each other, to lean too hard on each other to feel complete.  Perhaps the biggest differences between the storytelling game of the museum and that of Spells are a) I am 25 years older, now, and have written and lived a lot more; b) with Spells, I chose the images to which I’d respond (but they had, of course, been chosen to be photographed and then sent to me by the photographers); with the museum, curators were making those calls.  (It’s hard to overstate how happy security guards are when exhibits change.) (Perhaps related:  in the museum, I found much art that was representative and exciting at first didn’t have the staying power, as far as generating a response from me.  Similarly, some of the images that drew me to the photographers in the first place–and once or twice I pointed out how much I loved specific images and they were sent to me–were never used.  I purposely started with ones that were a little more abstract, or less obvious to me.)

I tried really hard not to have expectations except that I was going to have fun and do things I hadn’t done before.  In terms of connectedness, though, one thing I realized kind of early, that would become one of the work’s obsessions, was that I wanted to destabilize or play with some of the cause/effect or before/after connections we rely upon, or that are familiar.  So the relationships between the living and the dead, shadows and bodies, dreams and dreamers, the realistic and the figurative, etc.–all that becomes changed.  Why can’t a dream or shadow exist before or without a body?  Whenever I’ve written something with a fantastic element in it, people want to know what is its relation to something more realistic, they want it grounded.  So making so many things simultaneous, or playing with cause and effect, is something that came into play and surprised me, I suppose.

This is related, I think, to this desire not to have things connected.  Simply choosing five different photographers was one attempt to bring discontinuity–different sensibilities, atmospheres, weathers.

And more explicitly, I thought that if I varied the shape or register of the texts I wrote–some are more conventional narratives, and others are more like folktales or prose poems or other shapes, as I mentioned before–that would keep them separate. But perhaps this was the biggest surprise and most delightful thing I realized as I went:  that these many different attacks and registers and kinds of thing were all the same story, that the energy of the piece could be capacious to allow them all to coexist and resonate without setting up a hierarchy (i.e. what is the “real” story and what are metaphors or what have you).

Often when I’m teaching I say something like, “Limitations are what brings depth.  We all have a limited amount of talent and energy and insight, and to find a limit–in time, or in space, or perspective–is to find a way into depth, rather than spreading out thinly in every direction.” That’s a simplification, like all things writing teachers say.  In this case, the limitations I set up led me beyond certain limits I had assumed or internalized.

CL: How has this experiment informed and influenced what you’re working on now?

PR: I am not sure.  Perhaps it’s made me more comfortable combining different kinds of information–fact, fiction, letters, the quotidian, dreams–in one text, of being more patient when I change directions.  But that’s a guess.  One thing I do think is that the process of learning to write over time, which may make us better writers, does make us more comfortable in chaos, in situations that would have made us abandon things in the past.  Spells was kind of an outlier in taking chances that I expected would remain in my basement.

CL: Can you talk about the experience of seeing your novel My Abandonment adapted for film?

PR: I guess I’m not supposed to talk about it, yet, but I love the films of Debra Granik, and the casting, and I can’t wait to see it.

Peter Rock is the author of the novels SPELLS, Klickitat, The Shelter Cycle, My Abandonment, The Bewildered, The Ambidextrist, Carnival Wolves and This Is the Place, and a story collection, The Unsettling. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, an Alex Award and others, he is a Professor in the English Department of Reed College. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with a doctor, two daughters, two guinea pigs and a deaf dog. He likes to read and write.

Cari Luna is the author of The Revolution of Every Day, which won the Oregon Book Award for Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Jacobin, Electric Literature, Catapult, The Rumpus, PANK, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon.