I spoke with Jordan A. Rothacker, 43, in October 2020, distanced, on his porch at his home in Athens, where he lives with his wife and two young children. First, he gave me a quick look of his library, which is a significant collection of fiction and non-fiction from seemingly every corner of the history of thought. Being both a scholar and a “writer’s writer,” I was curious about the literature section, especially European literature (close to my own leanings) and noticed books by Anna Kavan, Clarice Lispector, E. M. Cioran, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, on and on. Heavyweights of avant-garde, experimental, high-caliber work, mostly obscure to even someone considered “well-read.” This, along with hundreds of books on philosophy, religion, mythology and god know what else. I knew he had a fondness for Beckett’s work, having read a piece he published on Beckett’s short fiction collection, Fizzles (his favorite short story collection, Rothacker says) published in Cagibi, which he reads from later in the interview, so a little extra for your ears and mind. He has a degree in Philosophy, a Masters in Religion, and a PhD in Comparative Literature, with a triple minor in English, Theatre and Religion. His new, fourth novel, The Death of the Cyborg Oracle, is a fascinating dystopian/utopian skillful exercise in world-building and future-thinking which takes place in a domed Atlanta in 2220. It’s been declared a “future noir” by his publisher, but it’s a bit undefinable, which adds to its originality and allure for the reader. The book takes place after a “Katastrophe” which has devastated the world. You’ll discover a unique array of characters and situations, including cyborg-enhanced Sacred Detective Rabbi Jakob “Thinkowitz” Rabbinowitz, a legendary figure in crime-solving (who wears a black fedora, long black overcoat with a long black beard), and his new, rookie partner in the Sacred Homicide Division, Edwina Casuabon. The book is narrated from her point of view. It’s a vision of a longed-for new, more ideal, humanity. The Death of The Cyborg Oracle is a vision of a future world that holds you in its grip. The outside world is destroyed, but within the dome you’re immersed within a completely re-imagined society where humanity has evolved enough to actually respect (or at the least tolerate) each other’s beliefs (mythos). Imagine that.
The second part of the interview, FROM VAI TOJOYCE, traces Rothacker’s life and writing trajectory through his three other novels and a story collection. A book of non-fiction, Dead Letters (Reprobate Books), including the Beckett piece, is forthcoming in spring of 2021. If you dare continue past the links, there are a couple of out-takes on Beckett and Bernhard. – Mark Katzman
THE DEATH OF THE CYBORG ORACLE
AthensUncharted: How did the idea of creating an Atlanta in 2220 come about?
Jordan A. Rothacker: In May of 2019, the semester ends, and I was last teaching a World Literature 1 class with some Dante and Sophocles and a Creative Writing class. That’s when it all coalesced in my head in bed one night. I had this kind of fever dream of the whole thing. It’s going to be a short detective story with a science fiction setting. It’s going to have all my favorite stuff, but I still would have to do some research. It’s only going to be 30,000 words or so. I started it in May but it was done, conceptually, in my head. I just had to fill it in. I had messaged one of the two editors at Spaceboy Books, since they’d published My Shadow Book by Maawaam and only do science fiction and said, “Hey, at the end of the summer, I’d like to email you a manuscript called The Death of the Cyborg Oracle, about a detective Rabbi that takes place in a domed Atlanta in the post-catastrophe world of 2220. And in this domed world you’ve got all crime divided into Sacred and Profane, and you’ve got two detectives trying to solve the murder of the Oracle at Delphi.” They said, bring it on and I signed a contract just based on the idea of the book.
AU: You dedicate it to the future, and also say you’re “sorry for the past.”
JR: That’s kind of a rip-off from William Vollmann. I was his research assistant on his two-volume opus Carbon Ideologies and it is written to an audience a hundred years from now. Vollmann’s writing to the future and saying, “Hey, we’re really sorry. Here’s all the research. We know all this and we’re doing nothing to stop it.” It was the same kind of sentiment for me. It’s dedicated to the future, but I’m sorry for the past.
AU: Had you ever had a woman narrator before?
JR: In a short story, yes. A first person narrator for a whole novel, no. In The Pit, and No Other Stories (2015, Black Hill Press) you have this writer character at the end, as if that person is writing the whole thing, and that character is set outside of time, The Writer. For that book there was that kind of moment where if the gender doesn’t matter, why not make it a woman? Part of the idea of patriarchy is that the man is always the default. So why have the woman as the default? And also women are creators, they can bring life with their bodies, but not all women have to, of course. And trans women are women too, but they don’t make life out of their wombs. And so the idea was to do a Sherlock Holmes type thing. And in Sherlock Holmes the writer was Watson. The narrator of the new book is a young woman, Assistant Sacred Detective Edwina Casaubon, who’s been chosen to assist “Thinkowitz.” I wanted to have this Sherlock Holmes-type character and what would be the best religious way to do that would be to have a Rabbi. The whole tradition of the Israelite faith, and Judaism really, is that you have Midrash, you have this whole history of commentary. You have a tradition of writing in the margins of commentary. You have the whole history of reinterpretation and discussion and debate. And who is the pinnacle of that? It’s RaMBaM: Moses Maimonides (author of The Guide for the Perplexed).
AU: Tell me more about Maimonides and what his work stands for.
JR: He wrote in Arabic and Hebrew. He’s Spanish, like me. And Spain, under Muslim rule, was mostly pretty tolerant, as were many medieval Muslim dynasties. You have religions appreciating each other and living amongst each other really well. He’s buried in Israel. You have this kind of globalism and a sense of inter-faith dialogue that’s happening with his work. He’s reading Averroës, and other Muslim scholars who are taking stuff from Aristotle like he’s taking stuff from Aristotle. They’re all reading the Greeks or pagans. He was writing about Judaism. He was a legal mind and he was a philosophical mind. He’s someone who rationalizes faith. And so that’s what I needed for a detective character. Someone who takes mystery and works to understand it. Even though there’s a limit where you can’t, he tries to make it understandable. So what would be the perfect character if you have a world with such religious fervor and total Henotheism and tolerance of all this religious fervor and all these gods being resurrected? Who would be the perfect kind of detective-authority in that world? Well, an extremely respected Rabbi who’s this mixture of Sherlock Holmes — who used deduction — and Maimonides, who used negative theology. We can describe God based on what he’s not. To work with evidence of what’s there and what’s not there. So, he’s using negative deduction. The same way you’d use negative deduction in a theological way. And so, to me, this became this kind of perfect character. But writing from his point of view would be very difficult.
AU: I can easily imagine the book as a movie. This fantastical world and there’s Rabbinowitz in his black fedora and long, black overcoat and serious musings of the crime.
JR: A movie or show, because I see this really becoming a series. To not give any spoilers away of the actual mystery, I’ve taken an ancient plot and I’ve played it back out in this kind of post-modern scenerio. Each sequel I write could be from any mythos in the world since you have this total globalism of thought happening there. I could take any mythos and use that as my plot. The rookie protagonist serves to tell about Thinkowitz as well as about the world, since she’s new to Sacred Homocide after being in Profane. She’s studied the Rabbi’s cases. She’s learning from him. She’s an apprentice. She’s telling us of her experience as she’s learning. It becomes a perfect device for a science fiction novel because this person can tell you about their world. And then there’s a fun thing I came up with. I don’t read enough sci-fi to know how often this is done, but she is conscious, as you read, that she’s writing to a future after the book. What’s nice is, in describing her present to a future after her, she describes her present to our readers today in 2020. The book is set in January 2220. And also the beauty of the Internet is that I now know all of the moon phases for every day of January 2220. The moon phases come in one chapter.
AU: Speaking of the moon, there’s quite a scene of a moon celebration set at the Fox Theatre, mostly female. A bit Burning Man, ancient rituals, very wild. A performance-art-based happening.
JR: I wasn’t trying to be different. I was just trying to fall back on the things I like the most. It’s a passion project.
AU: Everyone worships who they choose to worship, and that’s accepted.
JR: Everybody worships one god, but they’re henotheists. I explain that through dialogue at some point. Detective “Thinkowitz” uses that term and he tells Casuabon about it. The basic definition is that you’re devoted to one god, but you don’t rule out the existence of others. He says that’s how we often look at someone like Abraham. The early Israelite stuff, things you see in the Torah, and even the Book of Judges, those kind of books. They’re not saying that other gods don’t exist. They’re not monthoeists, like Akhenaten, and what monotheism becomes. They’re not just saying their god is better, but that this is our god. We follow this god because we think it’s the best. It’s just not the only god. They’re in a world of choice. So, it’s about gods of preference. And that’s something also mentioned in the book, too. I was reading this wonderful essay by the Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran in his book, The New Gods, where he’s talking about the beginning of Christanity, and he’s citing a lot of Romans. I stole a lot of stuff out of that (laughs), like how they treated the Christians. He mentions that the greatest freedom of the ancient world — and this is also Thinkowitz saying this in the book — is the ability to switch gods. Philosophy was something to be debated and talked about, but religion was something a little more passive. It’s your rituals, your daily activity. Maybe you’re a Polytheist, but you’re devoted to one god. But true freedom is the ability to switch gods. So, I’ve been working on different things that kind of question monotheism, and how devoted we are to monotheism. Even an atheist will talk about god. I’ve gotten in the habit now of asking people “which god are you talking about?” So, this is a book where everyone answers for themselves.
AU: Was Blade Runner an inspiration?
JR: Oh, yeah. Also The Fifth Element. Visual things. But as I said, I don’t read that much sci-fi.
AU: Would you call it a sci-fi book? I think of it as basically undefinable. Categories like speculative fiction or simply literature or a new one to me, slipstream literature. Where does the book store shelve it?
JR: I hate the pretension of genre. The ghettoizing that happens with genres. Call it sci-fi, it’s set in the future. People have been calling it a future noir, which I’m fine with. My publisher calls it that. Also, in my head, while I’m writing, I’m thinking of Blade Runner, because it’s been called a future noir. But it’s kind of a utopia. The question I’m waiting for is about whether it should be looked at as a dystopian book.
AU: It certainly has dystopian elements. It takes place after a world-wide “Katastrophe.” But I see it, ultimately, as well, as a utopian book, something we could use right now in our current, divisive environment. It brings hope that society can, eventually, work together.
JR: The world outside is dystopic, but the world of the dome is utopian. I’m waiting for when someone calls it dystopian, so I can say: there’s no guns, there’s no racism, there’s no capitalism. There’s a full-on henotheism, full-on tolerance. Everyone’s vegan. There aren’t any cars. There’s no want. It’s socialist. How is that dystopian?
AU: You mention a few times about the phenomena of “touch up.” I’m only aware of one other instance of that concept (touch teach) in the film, Zardoz, starring Sean Connery (god rest his soul). You mention a “touch wall,” “touch table,” “touch clothing.”
JR: It’s me taking current technology as far as possible. And so, if we have touch screens, they can have touch screen walls and very small versions of that, like a screen that you can wear on your clothes. You’d have little strips of that hanging, and they’re all connected by computer chips. They can light up to look like peacock feathers or swirling patterns, whatever. That’s the kind of sci-fi tech that I’ve added in there. Everything has a touch element, a touch wall, touch clothing. That’s why the book took me the full year to write, because I like this world and need to know this world better and flush it out. I did a lot of writing in notebooks and stewing on ideas. So by the time I would sit down at the computer I wouldn’t waste any time. What came out was hard-mined gold, because there’s so much in notebooks. I had to know the world. I had to answer a lot of questions. There are still vague things in there, and those things might be answered in later books. But I realized that I can’t just tell the reader, I have to trickle it out. And I also had to show the reader by these constant experiences with touch.
AU: Would you talk about the meaning of the word RESURGA in the book.
JR: Atlanta’s motto is “Resurgens,” with a logo of a phoenix rising from fire. And so, this is a later adaptation and it’s also just one of my loves and personal jokes. RESURGA is a word we see at the beginning of the Purgatorio, when Dante is leaving Hell in the second volume of the Divine Comedy, which is the more poetic of the three and my favorite. The very beginning says, “Ma qui la morta poesi resurge/ o sante Muse, poi che vostro sono,” or “here let poetry rise again from the dead/ oh holy Muse, since I am yours.” Poetry rises again, and you have this kind of new beginning and rise again. The domes rise, humanity rises. It’s implied in the book that maybe there are domes all over the world. I feel like in another volume, one in this series, they could take a light rail to Athens. And one of my favorite bits — and this is one of the earliest I wrote, even though it is the penultimate chapter since a lot of it was written out of order — happened when I was on the patio having a drink and a smoke, waiting for my to-go food at Hi-Lo, and writing down the beginning of the the whole section where Casuabon travels to Griffin, Georgia, which is the edge of the dome, where she reflects on the case. And so, the joke for Atlanta readers is that there’s the Sweet Vidalia Sea coming in to the beach and finally the reader gets to see what the earth is like beyond the dome. She he touches the dome, looking out at lightening going up and down between sky and sea in this awful world beyond the dome. And there are people there worshiping the dome, one of whom is a pregnant tattooed woman, a priestess the Egyptian goddess, Nut, who was also seen as pregnant. In that mythology the dome of the sky is her pregnant belly and we’re all in it.
AU: There’s a lot of music in the book.
JR: Yes. The twins, Jack and Max Panic, the Panic Brothers. I made them up when I was a teenager and always wondered what I was going to do with such characters. They’re Burroughsy-sounding and worship the god Pan. And of course all the Bowie references.
AU: Sacred Detective Thinkowitz was brain-damaged in the initial dome leak, and was the first one admitted into the SunSpot Cyborg Program.
JR: In the beginning years of the dome it’s not quite right. So the City Sovereign is instrumental in fixing the dome leak.
AU: Can you elaborate on the SunSpot Cyborg program?
JR: It’s a program that’s not far from where we are, using technology to enhance parts of a person and their deficiencies. It heightens Rabbinowitz’s retainment and makes his mind encyclopedic. Everything he reads is filed there. His brain is kind of a computer. He was dubbed “Thinkowitz” as a joke when he was younger since he was mentally impaired. But he had great fortitude. So the Cyborg Program helped. In a way it’s kind of a Flowers for Algernon plot that’s been all over TV shows in recent years where the protagonist has to take these pills, otherwise he’s at a very low mental capacity. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The League, and Portlandia, they’ve all done Flowers for Algernon plots. I use the cyborg thing to make him more legendary. He’s not just a smart guy, he’s been enhanced. But it took his determination to get in the program. He’s grateful; he understands it. The Sovereign calls him his “poster boy.” It’s the same with Tiresias Pythia, the Cyborg Oracle. Born blind and inter-sexed, as if destined to be a seer, they had all of their other senses enhanced at a young age in the program. I’ve thought of doing a collection of short stories called The Youth of the Cyborg Oracle and other short sideline stories about different parts of his world.
AU: The characters have very distinctive names: Ped Malus, Septina Luna, Astrope, Bea Sentinel, Zoe Aurora, on and on.
JR: Some of the names are extremely referential. And if you’re a classicist or trained as a classicist, you would have figured out the mystery. For some of the characters there are very important references. Like Edwina Casaubon. In Middlemarch by George Eliot, there’s this awful character, named Casaubon, a kind of failed academic, who’s always working on a book called, The Key to All Mythologies. I’ve redeemed the name by giving her the name Edwina Casaubon. The name Jakob Rabbinowtiz was just a very obvious choice. A lot of them are color names because when you look at the emancipation of the Jews in Europe during the Enlightenment you have that trend. There are color and season names, like Primavera. And flower names. There’s a character named Aster Phlox. There are two kinds of flowers, aster and phlox. Past the dome there is no color. A lot of this comes out of me thinking about that world. What would people name their kids? What would people name themselves? What would be the mythos they are interested in? There would be color names, since we’re striking out on our own, like Judaism did, which is well-regarded in this future world. Or it would be nature names, which are beloved.
AU: There’s the light and the dark, which leads me to ask about the Abyssoids, the nihilists.
JR: You know like the Voidoids and Richard Hell? (laughs) The Abyssoids get around the rule against shared belief since they “believe in nothing.” (laughs) It’s a group belief, they believe in nothing. It’s still a belief. That part I kind of wrote for my dad, who would find it very funny if was alive to read that section. Thinkowitz even says to Casaubon, “How can I argue with them if their theology is based on puns?” They worship nothing, because nothing lasts forever, and nothing is better than sex. Their nihilism is pun-based.
AU: What’s a Meta-Modern world, as you call it?
JR: Like meta-physics is after physics. Meta in that case is what’s beyond the physical world. This is a meta-modern world instead of post-modern world. It’s after modern. But if you notice, since you brought up Blade Runner, a lot of the visual influences are tied up with Bowie, too. I’m writing up a playlist for Largehearted Boy, a website I really love. It’s the third one I’ve done for them. I had Sons of the Silent Age in my head. I had Metropolis in my head. I had the novel, We, in my head by the Russian Yevgeny Zamyatin, which inspired 1984 and Brave New World. It’s one of the first dystopian novels. Zamyatin’s world — which is also domed — is all about mathematics, classical music, ballet, and everything is very precise and orderly. It’s a dystopia, but it’s a dystopia of rationality and science, with skyscrapers. So my book is a modernism that’s not tainted by capitalism, and all the bad that comes with that: racism and inequality. In my book everyone living in a pure modernism, where progress is good. The dome is good. Technology is good. The domed world is a utopia, as we have said. Crime is very minimal. The punishment for that one guy who stole the cactus, for the pulque, a Profane Crime, is to just re-contribute to the community garden. (laughs) In their world it is utopia progress, you know. Technology, striped of greed and profit- motive, has saved them.
AU: Casuabon feels an “inseparable closeness” to the “mystical or constant shamanic oneness” of the avatars.
JR: It’s not as much a closeness. The avatars are the most extreme. Everyone’s worshiping their god, but the avatars are embodying their god. They’re living as their god. She’s from this little Christian family who lives in the suburbs. And Christianity is much more down-played and covert. There’s that very small scene where she’s having Sunday morning with her parents, what I think of as a nice nod towards a purity of Christianity. They have one bible and this family meeting and then she leaves. It’s a very pure, catacombs kind of feel. It’s not commercialized, it’s not capitalist or anything like that. It’s a little ashamed, because of what Christianity did in its combination with capitalism and the destruction of the world. The book isn’t anti-Christianity, in a sense. It’s anti what Christianity has or can become. It’s anti-capitalism. So, coming from Profane Homicide to Sacred Homicide, being around so much religious fervor, she’s totally captivated by the avatars. And as you see, it has kind of a psycho-biological, psycho-sexual component to it. People who are embodying their gods, this religious fervor, is tingling all these different kinds of nerves in her.
AU: Casuabon even has a little fling.
JR: And even that was meant to, hopefully, seem so normal. My whole point in that — and I think it does work — is that she was over at a friend’s house. Are they a relationship? Does that matter? In that world it can or not. It’s up to you. And the friend says. “You seem stressed. Do you want to have sex?” And they do, and that’s it. Is she a lesbian? I’m not answering those questions. Unless it becomes important to her as a character to define it for herself, it doesn’t really matter in that world. One of the nicest things from any of my blurbs was from my undergraduate religion professor. He says that he applauds the humane treatment of gender and gods in the book. That really got me since it was part of my motivation for the book.
AU: There’s some unusual use of grammar in the book. Can you go into that?
JR: What I’m kind of bothered by is that in some of the style guides now when they are trying to adapt to “they” in the singular they still want you to use a plural verb. But if you use a plural verb then it’s confusing. The verb should show you the amount. So, you should be saying, “they” was my friend, if they is singular. Hopefully people get the reasoning behind that and then it’s less confusing. The Oracle, Tiresias Pythia, uses “they,” and everyone knows it. It’s normal. Everyone talks about “them” and uses “they,” as in “they was my friend,” or “they is dead.” Because the verb should show the amount. And if the pronoun is singular the verb should reflect that. The publisher didn’t care.
AU: Some might say, “No way.”
JR: But I still feel like we’re very much on the threshold of that argument, that debate, especially if certain dictionaries would incorporate it. I once reviewed a book by Eileen Myles and Myles goes by “they.” So every time I’m referring in a pronoun way, you don’t say “it,” that’s rude, so you have to say “they.” I often deferred to saying “Myles” as often as I could because it does get confusing since there might be multiple “theys” in a sentence especially if the verb isn’t corresponding to the amount of beings in the pronoun.
AU: What’s your process for writing a book?
JR: I think of writing a book like a recipe. That’s in my process essay I’m working on for invert/extant. There’s a base, and the base is a detective plot, in this one. And then there’s one kind of extra component, or main seasoning. The next would be science fiction, that’s the theme on top of the base. You know, back when Johnny Depp was good, he would talk about creating a character the same way. When he did Ichabod Crane and he took Angela Landsbury from Murder She Wrote and Basil Rathbone as Sherlock and Roddy McDowall and he put them all together in one new character. I first learned that on just writing characters. You can base a character off a friend, or combine them with two friends, and it’s a totally new human being. It works for a book as a whole too.
AU: What do you call the book?
JR: (laughs) This sounds so crazy, in some ways. It’s a post-climate catastrophe, fall of capitalism, sci-fi, in a domed world, but it’s also a religious story with a Jewish detective, and that sounds so nuts to say out loud. What took me a while in the writing was just balancing all that out. How much of each facet do you reveal at a time? You trickle some of them out, you balance it out.
AU: Thinkowitz, with his enhancements, references such a wide array of people, civilizations, and especially Maimonides.
Thinkowitz is into Maimonides, so that’s gonna come up there, as we spoke of earlier. I didn’t want to just allude to Maimonides, so I had him quote from him. He also makes references to Yahweh, Isaiah, the Qur’an, Profane Prophet Walter Benjamin, Profane Prophet Walt Whitman, Trent Reznor, William of Ockham, and many others. There are references to numerous, diverse gods, such as Aztec, Egyptian, or Hawaiian. I wanted to show that he has this encyclopedic knowledge. One of my blurbers really loved that Little Five Points sequence, when the Rabbi detective is there debating. They’re worshiping made-up gods from Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, others. Some are totally made up mythos. He’s there to debate with them. To be wise you go into everyone’s home and debate with them about everything.
AU: An open society.
JR: I’m thinking of Teju Cole’s, Open City, his book on New York. In a way it’s kind of a fantasy society. As I said, the whole idea and writing of this started in May of 2019. What it proved, when COVID came around and a global pandemic came, sadly, is that part of the theme and motivation of the book is correct in that humans are incapable of doing anything for their own betterment, or to be even gracious to those around them until they’re utterly backed against the wall. So the fact that people are anti-mask and all the ridiculous stuff we’re going through right now because people just won’t accept that this is the reality and we have to buckle down. In the book it takes, literally, genetically-coded guilt that everyone has inherited, the guilt of what we all did, capitalism. It’s 2220, so there’s hundreds of years of the earth getting hotter and getting worse and billions of people dying. It takes billions of people to die before humans go, “we have to give up capitalism,” but there’s no real choice for them. Like literally Casaubon has the dream, like everyone has “the dream.” That dream sequence is me writing my nightmare of capitalism, and I’m ripping off Modern Times by Chaplin. I’m ripping off some Buster Keaton. I’m ripping off some Harold Lloyd. I’m putting Kafka in that dream sequence. The Trial and The Castle are in there. For these people, this is what it takes, you know, billions of people dead and humans have to inherit the guilt of greed. In the book, even the idea or thought of being greedy would make you nauseated. We’re crippled by it in some way. Everyone’s kind of guilty, which makes it really fun for red herrings in the book, as far as who is guilty of this crime. Because everyone is walking around kind of inherently guilty. Walter Miller‘s sci-fi novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, was also an influence. In his book, Catholicism holds society together in a post-apocalyptic world. In mine, it’s Judaism, with the tradition of commentary, openness and respect for other people. And that’s why you still have the Yeshiva in Sandy Springs, where you still have a Jewish community living. We’re selfish individualists and what will it take us to have any kind of collective thinking? At least in this country, it would take the fall of capitalism. Sadly, it seems, to have a utopia, you would need a dystopia first. It’s a domed utopia on a dystopic planet. We’ve destroyed the earth, but we live in our own little domes. Casuabon is always talking about “the dome.” But, as we see, there will be other domes. Maybe Paris is still there and the Eiffel Tower touches the top. A little domed Athens over a university and bars with music that you can go visit. Part of this is why it’s good that it’s a detective story, it gives the reader a tour of the world. How do I tell the reader about this world I’ve created — have them go talk to lots of characters. Have them go to a range of places. You see what the Fox Theatre is now used for, they go to a range of neighborhoods, Little Five Points, the Variety Playhouse, talk to a range of characters, and that helps describe the world, and describes how people act in this world. “Oh, this is my friend, whatever, who worships, whatever.” And they go, “Oh, that god is also a Sun god, I worship a sun god, too. Oh, cool.” So you bond over it. It’s an aspect of life, but not necessarily all of people’s lives. Also, humans need an abstraction, without the abstraction of money. In a way, money took over as God, as a reference to Nine Inch Nails,“God money I’ll do anything for you/God money just tell me what you want me to.” And so, without money as our God we fill in those gaps with different gods. And we’re so scared of monotheism, I dredge up every god I can. Like the Archivist in the book, who worships the god of dead names. In her work she does what her god facilitates.
FROM VAI TO JOYCE
AU: Can you describe your early years?
JR: I was born in Long Island, Nassau County, but in two years my family relocated to East Setauket, Long Island, near Stony Brook. My father was Catholic, but very interested in Judaism. My mother volunteered at a Jewish Center in New York. She’s from Queen’s; my father’s from Brooklyn. She always wished she was Jewish. She was really into the state of Israel. I’m Jordan, my sister’s Arianne, or Ari. It wasn’t the real source of our names, but my mother joked that we’re named after Paul Newman, the blonde, blue-eyed Jew, and Eva Marie Saint in Exodus. He is Ari and she is Jordan. She reversed the genders. I loved the Jewish community where I grew up. My father was teaching at SUNY Stony Brook. He was a linguist. He never finished his PhD though. Also he didn’t read literature. That’s where we had these wonderful opposites. He passed last year, and I got all of his stuff, which I haven’t delt with enough (Rothacker looks away briefly, its impact still affecting him). So when I did finish my PhD, he was very excited about that. We moved again when I was 7. So Long Island until I was 7. From the outside, you know, two parents, two kids, cat in the yard, living on a street called Bunny Lane (smiles). It was a picturesque situation.
But when I look back on it now and think, you know, we were extremely poor, my father was an adjunct, and my grandmother helped more than I knew at the time. So when I was 7, my father had been saying for years that he’d do better in Europe. He was a natural linguist. A perfect ear for dialog, for idioms, the kind of Henry Higgins stuff. He was trained as a linguist with a wide range of languages. He could speak a little of everything. My mother married young to get out of the house, he was nine years older, so there was a lot of her thinking that this older, very brilliant man could do things in a measure of success with money. She finally held him to it, saying, “Well, if you think that you can do better in Europe, then here in New York, let’s do it.”
So they sold the house, packed up four people into seven suitcases and moved to Spain, where my mother’s parents were born and her family lived. There followed four months of living across Spain and even Paris for a few weeks. My dad would go to job interviews. We were living out of hotels or with friends on couches. I learned impermanence pretty fast as a seven-year-old, uprooted. I remember very clearly once sitting outside the Saudi Embassy while my father was inside interviewing for a Saudi Construction company — which I think was most likely the Binladin Group. I don’t know if he was offered the job, but if he did, he didn’t take it. Apparently, he didn’t get or take anything. So, after four months, at the end of 1984, we moved back to the U.S.; and since they said, “so long, suckers, in New York,” we returned instead to Atlanta, where my parents had one friend. That’s how I ended back here. She kind of promptly divorced my father after that. Then there was a very different kind of life, like riding my bike to Kroger at eight years old with a backpack to get groceries. My older sister got out of the house pretty fast. My mother was always into education, pushing cultural and intellectual pursuits, because you could do that for free. I spent from eight years old to nineteen in Atlanta and mostly alone, taking MARTA everywhere before I could drive.
AU: Were you a reader as a young person growing up?
JR: Oh, yeah. Books were always there. My father had trouble relating to children, so he would read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as a bedtime story because there were animals in it. I’d have these dreams of one animal changing into another, dinosaurs shedding their wings and such. Always reading. Always had notebooks. I’d come up with Super-Hero characters. I was reading something in an almanac on birthstones, and I designed a pantheon of Super-Heroes based on each one on the European graph paper I got in Spain. The only one I remember was Gary Garnett. So always writing, always with books and also a Latchkey kid, alone a lot, TV, books, media. I was a music major from early teens. I thought I’d be a music major. I started on guitar. When I was 16 I went to Berklee for their Summer Program. I was like a super-shreddy geek. I still have the Guitar Magazine with Steve Vai’s 10 hour workout. As far as like technical proficiency, there’s no one who’s ever been better than him.
AU: Now the loss of Van Halen.
JR: He was really great at the beginning. It was the intensity. I don’t know if you saw my post on Facebook, but I think to honor him is not tapping. To honor him is that low E, pic-slide, glissando…ZZZZZZZ!!! All that racing…racer stripes. All those first albums with David Lee Roth had that drive. And what I think that comes out of it is that he was a trained pianist — which he went back to — and he translated that into two-handed guitar stuff. I read an interview with him later in life where he was down on theory. He had some classical training. He knew Beethoven. There was an interview with Steve Luthacker where he said, “Who’s to say that bunch of notes together are a key or key or scale.” And I thought, why are you even saying this? It’s one of the reasons I was in love with the movie Crossroads as a kid, because I’d studied. When I do anything, I hit it hard. When I put together my first band I was playing the guitar and I was the singer, but I just couldn’t sing. (laughs) At first they didn’t know each other, but eventually they threw me out. I was writing all these bad songs, like Poison and Arrowsmith blues rock and hair metal. And then I realized that maybe I couldn’t sing, but I could do something else. I could buckle down and sit with this metronome four hours a day, dicadadicadadicada. I could study all the theory and all the modes. I was really into jazz and classical. My goal for music was film-scoring and composing, using guitar and piano for a composition tools. But I was always writing short stories as a teenager. I didn’t have the confidence, and that’s always something that’s been very hard, and especially now that I’m forty-three, to like really feel confident. I wished I’d nurtured it better. I also lacked a lot of discipline. And I didn’t have any kind of parental, any kind of guidance. One of the cruxes of my life was my mother saying, “You’re smart, you have a good head on your shoulders, you’ll be fine,” before she was gone to her boyfriend’s house. My house was the flop house. She was always gone, so I had lots of parties. I was the mother. I made food for everybody. I made sure no one drove. Made sure friends were okay doing trips, if they were doing acid, and we played music and that kind of stuff.
AU: What has been the course of your writing trajectory?
I pretty much taught myself how to write by studying the people I liked. I was a member of the International James Joyce Foundation at seventeen. I went from Vai to Joyce. They were the best. I needed guidance. I needed a mentor. I had a book from the library of a list of all the books on Joyce’s shelf. I’d ask of him and other writers, how did you become this? I get their letters, go to the index, and see who they were reading. Because of Joyce I always knew Beckett. He was also one of the existential writers who’s hot when you’re a teenager. And I feel like there was a real rebirth in the early 90s and new editions came out. So, as a teenager, you’re reading a lot of Dostoevsky, Kafka, Beckett, because you feel life is absurd. Beckett’s Dante…Bruno. Vico…Joyce essay is so wonderful. But I latched onto Beckett’s Fizzles pretty young. It’s not a play, it’s prose. It’s short. It’s totally weird. And Burroughs liked Beckett, also. Burroughs once said that Beckett contributed more to the linguistic aspect of literature than Joyce.
So, I go off to college, going to be a music major, and then, within my first week, I decided to switch to philosophy, which I’ve always read also. It was at Manhattanville College in Westchester County, New York. I got a BA in Philosophy with a triple minor in English, Theatre and Religion. I did philosophy because Joyce was a philosophy student. I did philosophy because Joyce was a philosophy student. And it was kind of an umbrella. I took a lot of classes in philosophy and lit. I even wrote short stories as philosophy papers. I was also writing a lot of poetry. Short works like poetry and short stories were easy to focus on. It was a mixture of laziness and insecurity and fear. Also, I could be very precise and sweat over those words. But the idea of sweating over 170,00 words blew my mind. (laughs) I took one journalism class at college and the most important thing I learned was that it doesn’t matter if you went to J-School to become a journalist. All that mattered is that you can write in the style. And so I found an internship over the summer before my senior year at Vegetarian Times and they kept me on for the school-year after that and hired me full-time after I graduated. Eventually they were bought by a different publisher and the editorial offices were moved. After college, still in New York, I said to myself that I need to write a novel. I’ve got a steady job and getting paid a lot, traveling the world on someone else’s dollar, business class, first class. And it’s great. So next I found a job at International Wristwatch Magazine where I was an Associate Editor. I didn’t care about watches specifically, but I was a journalist and found it interesting. The money is good and it’s going to my head. So I started writing my first novel. My girlfriend at the time worked in Manhattanville, and we lived on campus housing, so I did a reverse commute from New York to Connecticut. You’re doing journalism, philosophy, before I graduated. You pick up stuff for short stories, and all of these different sources come from the same point. I’m getting this idea before I graduated, that your life, everything, is writing. In New York. I’m writing, doing research, history pieces, the money is good and it’s going to my head. So, I started writing my first novel. Throughout the day at work I’m taking notes on what I’m going to write, and I’d come home to write my 1,000 words — I gave it one hour every night when I first came home. That’s 2003. And so what led me to Athens was actually writing a novel. I wanted to write my big love letter to Atlanta novel. I was also a religion and mythology minor in college, folklore, religion, big parts of who I am and what I’m interested in. I was really enamored with William T. Vollmann at the time (and I still am, of course). I always thought that all writing involved fieldwork and research, talking to people, and making characters as real as possible. I’ve always been a career writer in some way.
When I was a freshman, I took my first writing class — it was a narrative writing class, a two-semester-long thing that resulted in writing a novella, which I burned years later. There’s a fictional account of that in my book, Gristle. Early in the first semester of the class, I was having a meeting with my professor outside of the class and she’d been loving my short stories and turned me on to both Borges and Calvino. She said, “I think you’ll really love their work. These guys are like you. They are extremely creative and also very lazy,” (laughs) Borges never wrote a full novel. Calvino wrote novels and they were made up of little small things running together.
My first novel, which I call a micro-epic, is The Pit, And No Other Stories (2015, Black Hill Press) (now called 1888 Center). They said they’d like to do this book, and that one of the three novellas from their next run had dropped out (this is when I was working on my dissertation) and if you can get the book to us by May, it’ll be published in June. They only do novellas and they would produce three novellas at once and get the same artist to do all of the covers. Every single chapter looks like a short story. They all have different titles and a different location in time and setting. It’s kind of a David Mitchelly meets Twin Peaks kind of thing. There are all kinds of different tropes of American literature. There’s science fiction, business in Chicago, an academic retelling a slave narrative of the Georgia coast, detective noir, spy literature, a Shirley Jackson-style first chapter of small town gothic with a Mark Twainy kind of feel. Some of them repeat, some are total red herrings, but by the end, it all comes together. It’s still my wife’s favorite book of mine. Andrei Cordrescu liked the excerpt from The Pit that I sent him and published it at The Exquisite Corpse. How it happened was interesting. I cited him in a paper at a conference and emailed it to him. He wrote back and said he loved the paper. I told him that I was a fiction writer and he welcomed my excerpt. The way it became a book is that one day, a few years later, I was at Hendershot’s and bummed a smoke from the bartender, a fellow named William Brandon III, who was helping out as a managing editor at Black Hill Press. Bumming that smoke led me to show him and others at Black Hill Press the excerpt that Andrei Cordrescu published in Exquisite Corpse. They accepted the book on just those first four chapters and then I wrote 80% of it in a month, taking a little break from my dissertation. I didn’t push enough in marketing to really get it out there, but it felt good to have a book to my name. And that got me the Deeds book deal. The beauty of that experience with my second novel published was that I had a year to edit a book I had finished ten years ago (the novel I started in New York and then finished during my Master’s degree in Religion in Athens), which is nice, because thirty-eight-year-old Jordan was able to edit twenty-eight-year-old Jordan. I was brutal, and lost 20 pages out of it. For my first novel I had said, I’m going to write a straight-forward, naturalistic novel, which I’m not a big fan of generally. And it led to my second published book. I started on the book in 2002, and it became, And Wind Will Wash Away (2016, Deeds Press). It’s also a detective story, like the new one, but set in Atlanta in 2003. I was so in love with Faulknerian sentences but some of them were just too much. My wife’s my Vera, and brought that up. There was also a lot of Fizzle-like, Beckettian over-descriptions that wound up on the chopping block.
I wanted to write my big, love letter novel to Atlanta. I couldn’t start it though until I was in New York and writing about my second home from a distance. The reason I moved here was to do a Master’s in Religion as research and be close to Atlanta to get into field work, you know, sights, streets, and also interviewing people, especially sex workers, because there was a lot of sex workers and Goddess worshipers. My mother was into the New Age community of Atlanta in the late 80s and 90s so I knew that world already. It is part of how I’ve always seen Atlanta. There are a lot of references and character names and everything that is going on and every chapter has a title and epigraph, and each chapter has a slightly different writing style. The last chapter, the eighteenth, is called “Revelation,” you know like the Book of Revelation, and three sixes added together equals eighteen. I finished the book in 2005 and my Master’s Thesis at UGA was actually two chapters from the book and then annotations and an exegesis on those chapters.
My book, Gristle: weird tales, a collection of short stories, is going to be translated into French next year. I’ve got a buddy, Chris Kelso, a Scottish writer who I met through Facebook and got close through messenger during COVID. He’s a sci-fi/horror writer, and a real go-getter and has produced like twenty-five books in ten years. His first short story was published when he was twenty-two in Evergreen Review, which is super impressive. He’s introduced me to great translators, so My Shadow Book by Maawaam will come out in a French edition. He inspires me like Sylvia Plath who I have a framed postcard of on my desk. She had seventy rejections from Mademoiselle before they published a work by her. I’ve always written a lot of short stories but never really tried to get them out there until later. Gristle is a kind of a greatest hits of my youth. Some of the stories in there are exactly how they were written when I was nineteen or early twenties.
AU: Lastly, can you speak about the novel that came out before the new one?
JR: My Shadow Book by Maawaam was published in 2017 (Spaceboy Books). A selection was published at Heavy Feather Review in June 2017. It’s an anti-novel. It’s a book that you could say is the perfect book about the disappointment of a book not doing well. The feeling of writing into a void. It’s staged as a “found document.” You’ve got me as the editor at the beginning. We set it up really well at Amazon with MAAWAAM as the author and me listed as an editor. I did readings where I spoke about finding the text. There are even scans of notebooks in the book showing where the text came from. Like Rimbaud’s, Je est un autre, “I is Another.” This is a separate-self kind of book, which Paul Theroux kinda did as well. It got great blurbs and attention from literary people and for me that really felt like building a community. Writers really liked it. That felt nice. Chris Kelso in Scotland is actually teaching it as an “alternative text.” It’s loosely sci-fi, but it’s a very high-brow text. I wrote to please myself. The publishers knew what it would look like. I wrote it for the kid out there who’s like me, who’s going to read this and look up all the references and learn as they go. It’s a night table book and a book for any kind of creative artist who feels disappointment and maybe imposter syndrome. There are a lot of quotes. There’s even some full-on plagiarism. (laughs) David Shield’s Reality Hunger was an influence as well as Maggie Nelson who can do beautiful fragmentary things. It’s very anti-text. It also has black stars running down through it though it was written before Bowie’s final album and death.
Amazon/Goodreads: The Death of the Cyborg Oracle – The Pit, and No Other Stories – And Wind Will Wash Away – Gristle: weird tales – My Shadow Book by Maawaam
William Vollmann: A Critical Companion
On Samuel Beckett:
JR: The Fizzles piece really seems really connected with the book. What he packs in there: past reflection, present, bending with each sentence. Comma splicing all over the place, which I do love doing. A semi-colon is kind of abrupt.
AU: Beckett, for me, is the gold standard for writers. He was dedicated to the task of exploring himself to the core and refining language to its essence. The conciseness of the language in the later books, Company, Ill Seen, Ill Said, Worstward Ho or Stirrings Still, are beautiful things to read. The war changed him and his writing. He never left his writing room when the war ended and they returned to Paris. His companion, who later became his wife, Suzanne, took in sewing work to keep them afloat, though he did get some help from his family in Ireland. He worked at a furious pace right after the war: Waiting for Godot, the Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable, all came very quickly. He kept them in a drawer. It was Suzanne who went around peddling them to publishers and directors in Paris. Beckett didn’t seem to care. Godot changed theatre. He never stopped experimenting in both drama and prose, continuing to explore and refine language right up until the end. Fizzles and Story and Texts for Nothing are remarkable. You know all of this.
JR: Did you know that he was a spy during the war?
AU: A very bad one, from what I recall.
JR: So bad that he used his actual name to sign in at a hotel. (laughing)
On Thomas Bernhard:
JR: Have you read Thomas Bernhard? I think of him as as being very punk.
AU: Just one, Concrete. It’s like a single paragraph that runs on without breaks forever.
JR: 150 pages straight through with no paragraph breaks. There’ll be sentence breaks and dialogue, but it’s one straight-through text. He doesn’t give a crap for his reader. But it’s worth it.
AU: It’s a hard road to travel and takes extreme attention but it’s brilliant.
JR: I take breaks along the way. But if you can read that all in one blow, AAHHH!, yeah.
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