Joanna Ruocco by Micaela Morrissette

Deviance, social collectives, narrative constraint, and looniness in the groundwater.

Joanna Ruocco

Benjamin Naca. Arbeitsmodus, 2014, collage. Courtesy of the artist.

In Joanna Ruocco’s new novel, Dan (Dorothy, 2014), the beleaguered but stouthearted heroine, Melba Zuzzo, finds herself the object of a conspiracy of criticism by perhaps every member of the titular small town in which she lives. As Melba says, “In Dan, we all live in the shadow of blame.” Yet Melba’s sufferings are smothered, to some extent, by the simplicity of the voice Ruocco employs to convey her extremely peculiar tale. The often disconcerting directness of the syntax muffles the otherwise startling use of vocabulary and the contextual absurdity; it softens but never distorts the unpredictable laws of cause and effect that rule the world of Dan. Accused of murder, of impersonating the dead, of abducting a principal, of being special, of being a succubus, of anarchy, of being hairy, Melba is dismayed, outcast, evicted, and bewildered. She faces repressions both linguistic and societal; she’s a creature in a society where desire is anxious, fervent, but sterile; limbo is metamorphic; unkindness is loving. She is threatened with the same fate as that of her friends and neighbors who have disappeared, reappeared, or are revealed to have never existed, even though, “in small towns [like Dan] … the only way to leave is to go nowhere. But that takes a certain type of resolve.”

Ruocco’s previous books include Another Governess/The Least Blacksmith: A Diptych(FC2, 2012), A Compendium of Domestic Incidents (Noemi, 2011), Man’s Companions(Tarpaulin Sky, 2010), and The Mothering Coven (Ellipsis, 2009). Her interests in these other works range from the subversions of subservience to the empowerment bestowed by mortality. Paramount throughout, however, is her obsession with language, gender politics, and power hierarchies, and her strange, clean, lucid style that somehow darkens and twists without elaboration. In addition to writing romance novels under several pen names, she coedits the journal Birkensnake and teaches at Wake Forest University.

Micaela Morrissette In Dan, the flow of the narrative, or the structure of the book, often seems defined by a refusal to linger. Everything is a series of responses. As soon as Melba begins to develop a train of thought, an object or view or person intervenes and interrupts. But still, the wiggly-wobbly outline of the bubble, the overarching narrative context, persists.

Joanna Ruocco I like that way of thinking about structure: the membrane instead of the central tension, the outside of the soap bubble, the thinning thing that holds everything together. When you’re writing something longer, you often have to linger, and I really love words and like to play with them and pick them out one by one and set them next to each other. So I do try to work really quickly and barrel forward and allow for contingency and interruption and things going awry to offset some of the lingering and the curatorial impulses because I don’t want what I’m making to become too precious; I like things a little more fucked up.

MM When I imagined the narrative bubble of Dan, I thought of a toy I had as a child, the Big Bubble Thing, which, as you may have guessed, made enormous bubbles. The bubbles were less spherical than amoebic, and they were heavy, so they tended to float along just above the earth, slowly shifting their outlines to sprout appendages or develop indentations, a prismatic swirl of rainbows coiling on the surface of each of them. And then—they popped! The universes you create seem similarly self-contained but fluid in shape, gorgeous and glowing, astringent and soapy, transparent but colorful. In my memory, but perhaps not in reality, things could become trapped inside these bubbles: insects, dandelion fluff, other bubbles. What’s a toy that your narrative structures might want to play with or inside?

JR Oh, wow! A Slinky? A Koosh ball? An Aerobie? Double dutch jump ropes? The Jacob’s Ladder is an appealing toy, because it creates the illusion of a kind of motion it’s not actually capable of.

Here’s the best toy: the fake thumb! Not the rubber or plastic ones, the old-school metal ones. My dad had a fake thumb and he used it to make burning cigarettes disappear into his fist. I loved that fake thumb. A fake thumb is supposed to look like a real thumb; that’s how it works. You’re not supposed to notice it on a person’s hand. But you do, or you would if you were looking closely. The whole thumb is painted the same creepy flesh tone, even the nail, and it doesn’t match any human’s skin. It’s about an inch long and hollow. It’s completely unlike a thumb.

Imagining narratives as fake thumbs makes sense to me. A narrative is language and so it’s completely unlike what it’s describing, but at the same time it’s a model of something we recognize and we can allow ourselves to accept it pretty easily. But then, of course, the fake thumb is so awesome as an object that we can just revel in its fakeness instead, this weird little thumbsuit, and we can see the fake thumb on the thumb, and we can start to wonder about the realness of that thumb, the underthumb, wonder if maybe there’s a burning cigarette inside, or another thumb, or a Miniature Schnauzer, or really anything.

One thing I like about the fake-thumb approach to narrative is that it allows for shifts back and forth between realist and irrealist modes, between moments when readers or writers surrender to illusion and moments when they’re drawn to the fact of artifice and examine its surfaces. All of my books are maybe fake-thumb books, but Dan is majorly fake thumb, the most fake thumb. There are some fake body parts in it and some masks that look like the faces they’re masking.

MM It’s so excellent and so typical that you just gave me a whole toy box of metaphors—more evidence of the refusal to linger, the surging forward into rapidity, interruption, and skew that you just mentioned.

However, even though your fictional worlds are constantly interrupting the characters’ thoughts, demanding new responses, you do very often return to a central set of tropes. That repetition of language and images is most obvious in Another Governess, which is almost like a sestina in its cycling of repeating vocabulary or imagery such as lumps, fluids, hairs, cakes, windows, milk, teeth, apples, messes, dogs, offal, pigs, clods, knives, blood, fats, meats, and murdered women. The repetitions are so dense as to be claustrophobic, suffocating, an erotic asphyxiation.

JR I started Another Governess with a line from one of Ophelia’s mad speeches, which is also a proverb, and which gave me just a hint of a tone and a story and a concern: “They say the owl was a baker’s daughter.” It’s such an odd line when you encounter it without knowing the story behind it (which is about a baker’s daughter being ungenerous to Christ). I discovered that “baker’s daughter” meant “prostitute” in sixteenth-century London, and I felt that even though the term itself and the story behind it and the nonsense line from mad Ophelia were all just little things, there was a violence in them, the sing-song violence of the bad things that happen to women and the bad things that women are (or are considered to be). I started working from that sing-song violence and gathered some sentences that seemed to produce the protagonist and her environment. And I knew as I was writing it that I wanted a companion piece that somehow treated masculinity. Hence The Least Blacksmith.

Describing the origins of Another Governess in that way supports the idea that I start off books from a bit of language, and I do think of myself as a writer who begins with a phrase and sees what it opens into. I think a lot of writers start this way, particularly the ones who talk about language and are less likely to be realists or tie their books to personal experiences. But, at the same time, I am a baker’s daughter. Not in the sixteenth-century sense: my father is actually a baker. I was primed to be fascinated by Ophelia’s line because of my own baker’s daughterhood. I want to point to language all the time and claim that language is what I’m following, but maybe every word we choose really is about who we are? But I guess who we are is some big language scramble anyway.

After I had delved into all of the ramifications of Ophelia’s line, I started working stories around it and reading the classics of governess fiction: Jane EyreAgnes GreyThe Turn of the ScrewThe Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I read other things too, things about food adulteration and nineteenth-century diseases and pig farming and manor houses and good conduct and blacksmithing.

The tropes in Another Governess/The Least Blacksmith are certainly more restricted than in my other more associative books. Furthermore, there are very few different sentence forms and very few different words. It’s not a book where anything can happen. The two main characters’ verbal resources are extremely limited and I found that the narrations quickly established draconian rules about what images fit (almost none) and what degree of tonal variation was permitted (not really any). The project became how to narrate a world from the perspective of narrators who weren’t entirely fluent—how to create the consciousnesses or voices of characters who aren’t comfortable with self-reflexivity and who are disenfranchised in all (verbal) exchanges without doing something folksy or condescendingly vernacular. I did have to break the constraint of the voice in Another Governess with the daughter stories because I couldn’t take the sparseness and repetition.

The Another Governess/Least Blacksmith diptych is my exercise in emptying out. Since you can’t really make anything empty, one way of emptying is to repeat and repeat until meaning is vacated. But then other things happen, intensification or maybe Stein says insistence, and more meaning leaks in.

MM You seem to address the emptying-out impulse directly in Dan:

“Because what is Dan without the dirt it is built on?”
            “A void, I suppose,” said Melba. …
            “The abyss,” [Don Pond] said hoarsely. “Everything we do, frantic activities, assignations of meaning to random gestures and grunts, succorings of our organisms and the organisms of those to whom we’ve developed attachments—it’s all designed to distract us from the very abyss in which we formed, the formlessness that fills us. Melba, the infinite emptying of everything … this is the only process!”

JR Yes, but in both Dan and The Mothering Coven, I actually succumb to my opposite strong impulse: I fill things in. The books are short but the sentences are dense. My first draft of The Mothering Coven was so thick with the things I shoved in that it was absolutely unreadable. You could read it, but it was like sitting down to eat dinner and finding out that everything on your plate was made of gelato. The salad was made of gelato, your sparkling water was liquid gelato. It was the reading equivalent of eating that dinner. Enjoyable for six to twenty minutes—depending on your stomach for that kind of thing—and then you got sick.

MM What’s your writing process? This talk of emptying out and filling in—and the fact that your narrative flow is so often composed of a series of semi-non sequiturs—makes me curious as to whether you do anything Oulipian. Any overt use of constraints or text-generating machines?

JR Semi-non sequiturs! Brains are funny. I think I just have a screwed-up narrative flow? Maybe I’m having tiny seizures all the time. I worry about that.

However, I rarely think I’m writing non sequiturs. I do tend to write straight through a project and then insert or remove pieces after there’s a rough shape to the whole thing. For the story collection Man’s Companions, I was writing stories that seemed related. When I had a few of them I gave them all animal titles, and that enabled me to conceive of the stories as one project. Then I kept writing stories starting each from an animal title and responding to the title in some way. That conceit was generative, and that’s how I use something like Oulipian methods to give me a way to start pressing a particular mess I’ve made into a form. I have an unpublished collection called The Week, for which I wrote fifty-two stories, some super short, each of which figures some news item or cultural product in usually incongruous language. Having that macro constraint as an organizing principle and reason to keep going was enormously useful.  

MM Just as I was starting to wonder whether the titling of each story with the name of an animal was really integral to Man’s Companions or merely a glaze or patina creating an illusion of theme, you wound things up with the non-animal-titled story “Bones,” the finale, which speaks directly to the idea of animality (anima!). In the context of that end piece, it’s really interesting to hear how applying those animal titles to the first stories you wrote for that book actually generated the content of the rest of the collection. And, in general, I’m astonished by how unafraid of endings you are. Despite the fracture and restlessness of the narratives in general, you tend to employ a truly summing-up, coming-together, thematically meaningful, even metafictional kind of ending. Both Melba in Dan and the governess in Another Governess finish their narratives by confronting the fact of the text, of their fictionality. Melba actually finds herself lying on top of the printed page, while the governess makes the text more visceral by sucking, licking, eating, and smelling the page.

Melba’s confrontation with the fiction seems to flatten her even more than existence within the somewhat 2-D town of Dan has done. It weakens and imperils her. On the other hand, the governess’s engagement with the metareality seems empowering. Yet the governess’s story has been one of tragedy, of murder, and of general physical revulsion; while Melba, although beset by many confusions and perils throughout her tale, is very much a sturdy little soldier, trudging along. I’m really struck by the fact that Melba’s ending is so devastating.

JR Huh, that’s interesting. I hadn’t considered those two endings together. Thinking about the tones there, the ending of Another Governess is sort of grimy and triumphant. The narrator is consuming the words, incorporating what’s happened to her in an act (though the choices are limited) of her own election. Sturdy little Melba trudges along trying to live a life despite its evident futility. As she trudges, she becomes aware that she’s walking the wrong way on one of her mother’s treadmills, or something equivalent. More often than not, she doesn’t like what’s happening to her, but she can’t find a way to renege on a contract she can’t remember having signed. Hers might be a more devastating take on life in the end than the governess’s: more about passivity, futility, fakery, and disappointment. Probably that’s why Danhad to be lighter in tone than Another Governess. Because who wants to be punished even for the duration of a very short novel?

MM My favorite of all your meta-moments is probably this one from Dan, which comes not at the end but more or less in the middle of the book:

“I can’t even tell what it’s supposed to be,” said Melba. “The assignment was to draw a picture of your family, but that’s not my family. It’s only one figure, but with too many limbs, or maybe it’s a figure holding an animal?”

Would you talk a little about that passage—your intention for it, where it came from, or how it can be read?

JR This is another instance like Ophelia’s line, when language and biography are inextricable. I have a friend named Dan, and he wanted me to write a book for him. I knew the book couldn’t be about a person named Dan, so Dan became the town. I was exploring the limits of the town, what could happen there, what Dan or any place could be. This was a different orientation for me, looking at “objective” reality, rather than investigating consciousness or voice.

So I started writing a book set in Dan, a place connected to Dan only because I called it Dan. But I also told my friend Dan, and myself, that Dan was at its core a work of ekphrasis. Dan’s uncle owns a painting called The Finfer. It’s a technically terrible painting with a dementedly wholesome quality: strident colors meant to be sunny; carefree figures (a boy, a dog) presented as though in motion, running on green grass—that kind of idealized small-town Rockwell-era American scene. But there’s this deep wrongness to it, to the palette, the perspective, the proportions. The painting is actually monstrous, the boy is a monster, the dog is a monster, the planes of the landscape make you queasy. I wanted to write a Finfer for Dan. And in the book, Melba finally gets to see her own Finfer, which is what’s happening in the passage you’re asking about. Melba is seeing the translation of Dan (or of life, or of her family) into art and its wrongness, which is also the wrongness of representation generally, and the failure to reach the end of a chain of references and feel you’ve arrived at the real meaning of life. Melba wants some meaning! 

MM Dan certainly isn’t the only one of your books to play with that sense of queasy wrongness, to occupy an uneasy territory that is liminal with regard to our known universe: that’s both familiar and alien, oddly aslant. The Least Blacksmith, to take just one example, does that in a considerably less wholesome, sunny way. And Blacksmithhas another important surface similarity to Dan. Both are works in which the larger community, the town or society, plays a key role.

The big difference between the two is that, in The Least Blacksmith, the information comes to us corrupted through the first-person narrative of a damaged character. The narrator is physically unable to grow. He’s unhealthy, constantly vomiting. He is sexually victimized by the doctor, though unable to really parse that experience; and, from our perspective, he’s also abused sexually by his brother, though he doesn’t object to that himself. Given these weaknesses, failures, and traumas, we understand that the strangeness of the town he describes may simply be the strangeness of his crippled mind contaminating his transmission of the town to our minds.

On the other hand, while the town of Dan may label Melba as deviant, sick, and criminal, she seems to us to be more or less competent, functional. And of course she’s not telling the story: the narration is in third person. In that case, the flattened affect and other unsettling aspects of your descriptions cannot be attributed to a problem in transmission, to the characterization of the narrator. It’s the world itself that is askew, discomforting, even menacing (though in a strangely friendly, neighborly, cartoonish way that is more alarming than either a violent or subtle hostility would be).

JR In Dan, not telling the story from Melba’s perspective was very important to me, one of the first choices I made. Part of the reason for that was not wanting to do something similar to Another Governess/The Least Blacksmith, where, as you said, the strangeness of what’s happening might be the strangeness of the narrator’s transmission: where the lens is subjective and the questions often have to do with the mind that’s telling the story, with that mind’s trauma or madness. Melba had to think and act in an environment where she wasn’t the locus of the strangeness so that I could follow her through the landscape and see what happened. In other words, if what’s happening is super loony, I don’t want it to be reducible to the super looniness of the unreliable narrator. I want a looniness that’s more entrenched. Loony in the groundwater.

As for the preeminence of the towns in Dan and The Least Blacksmith, I’m interested in collectivities and consensus making: how we come to decide on anything, on what’s real, on what’s important. How groups come together and how the rules they decide on create the conditions through which each person encounters her existence and encounters the possibilities for breaking rules, whether those rules are broken by groups within groups or by individuals who are likely being broken themselves due to the strain of asserting or maintaining a deviant perspective.

I always think of The Mothering Coven as the book in which I deal with collectivity. There’s a group of women try to conjure something, to make a world on their own terms, a world that would maybe protect them against loss and death but doesn’t. The language in that book is runic. I thought of the language as the women’s spell, in a sense: what they’d chant to make what they wanted come about.

The Compendium of Domestic Incidents also has something to do with that kind of attention to language as spell. I think one of the original meanings of spell was “idle talk”: I like the idea that idle talk and gossip, genres usually attributed to women, can ensorcell. And I like the scraps of stories and corner-of-the-eye perceptions that comprise and are gathered from idle talk and gossip. In Compendium, too, I was interested in words that are so old and potent they’re not even smoothed into seamless English yet but poke out Germanically. But that book is darker than Coven. It has a kind of waxworks or doll-museum quality; historical personages appear and reappear in the different pieces, and nameless figures too. They’re posed in scenes that are often violent or erotic. The overarching narrative is constellated—most of the individual pieces are shard-like, fragments; though I tried to create some ribbing with longer pieces that make complete narrative movements.

MM Genres linked to the feminine, historical poses and tropes, violence and eroticism—let’s talk a little bit now about the romance novels of yours that I’ve read: No Secrets in Spandex (written as Toni Jones)and Midnight Flame (written as Alessandra Shahbaz). It’s astonishing how seamlessly you disappear into your pseudonyms and completely inhabit the alternate reality of the romance genre. Though of course once I started marveling at that I also began to realize how unspeakably conventional of me it was to imagine that the literary fiction published under your own name is in your “real” voice. On one enjoyable level, all the books by all your identities are equally exercises in different voices, styles, structures, and concerns.

JR Yes, but I do think in romance novels the variations in voice are slighter, book to book. I don’t mean to suggest that romance novelists don’t have individual styles, because of course they do. Some romance novelists are amazing prose stylists. I love Meredith Duran’s books. They’re dark and terse and occasionally critique empire! The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne is fantastic. Then I like some of the acknowledged masters: Laura Kinsale, Julia Quinn, Loretta Chase. Jennifer Crusie writes good contemporary romance (I prefer historical), and she has super smart things to say about the genre. 

But because the romance genre is so conventionalized, there’s more that’s given to you as a writer to work with. You don’t have the same pressure to come up with an “original” voice because even the valance of “original” is different. The books are more comfortable with citation and influence and all that. Readers read widely in the genre and read in order to repeat a certain experience—and writers need to fulfill expectations. As a kid, I used to read lots of Harlequins because you could buy bags of them at a book tent down the street from my dad’s pizza shop. I’d take change from the till, buy fifty Harlequin Romances, and come back and read them sitting on the sacks of flour eating pepperoni.

Writing romance novels is more fun than writing anything else, in my experience. It’s the time that writing feels most like reading.

MM Speaking of voicing—if you could choose, who would you pick to do your audio book of Dan? In whose voice would you most like to hear your work? Since Dan is third-person, and it’s important to you to divorce it from Melba’s own headspace, would you opt for a male reader over a female, working on the dubious assumption that masculinity is closer to gender neutrality than femininity? Or would a robot or a child be better?

JR Once a poet named Jesse Morse read one of my stories aloud at a party where people were doing that kind of thing. It made me like the story and not want to die, so I wouldn’t mind Jesse Morse reading things. I do think a guy or a robot for Dan. I really love Lee Min-ho, who’s in a lot of Korean dramas—so maybe Lee Min-ho. A child reading things is so disturbing. Why is that?

MM Maybe because in the case of sophisticated literature like your own, the child would be communicating without understanding, like an empty vessel? Another Governess would be amazing read by a small child. A small British child, or a French one.

JR God, maybe it is something like that—the idea that the child has no will, didn’t understand or decide to do it, and so functions as a robot or an animated corpse.

MM What about a parrot? There’s a metal band called Hatebeak with an African Gray frontman. Or a medium, in séance mode? Or one of those people from the anti-smoking PSAs that speak through an electronic voicebox: a human in robot clothing.

JR I’d say Morse code would be fine but Jonathan Redhorse read one of his stories once in Morse code while flipping light switches and I almost had a seizure.

MM There are also those people who you’d think lived too long ago for recordings of their voices to exist, and then it turns out there are such recordings. Either real recordings on phonograph records, or they said something while someone was throwing a pot on a kiln and now their voices are recorded in the clay grooves. I think I saw that on Bones or CSI. I’m sure there’s a computer program that could enable the limited set of tones and frequencies captured in that way to vocalize any given text.

JR There’s a Nigel Kneale movie called The Stone Tape about that! Sort of. It’s a really slow British horror movie about a haunted house that is also a tape recorder. It might be fun to have someone like John Donne read Midnight Flame.

MM A moment ago, you cited some of Toni and Alessandra’s influences. The writing you do using the identity of Joanna Ruocco has been compared to that of Donald Barthelme, Lydia Davis, Muriel Spark, Ronald Firbank, Coleman Dowell, Thomas Pynchon, and Raymond Roussel, not to mention William S. Gray and Zerna Sharp, the creators of Dick and Jane. And I can see similarities between your writing and that of Elizabeth Bowen, Jane Bowles, Barbara Comyns, Barbara Pym, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Ivy Compton-Burnett, James Schuyler, and George MacDonald.

Apart from authors whose specific acts of language you’ve appropriated here and there, like Frank O’Hara and George Washington in Coven, are there writers whose styles, forms, or processes you yourself recognize or have outright appropriated as influences?

JR I just ripped off a Volodine novel for a pseudonymous horror story that will be appearing in a special-issue Halloween game magazine. It felt like a very direct appropriation but I don’t know if it would be recognizable (particularly in the context of this magazine, which is going to have a bikini-babe centerfold, comics, and ads for metal distros).

I have a zillion influences. I feel more excited to write when I read something that excites me than when something exciting happens to me, so I’m always getting “inspired” (infected?) by the writers I read. Richard Brautigan was a big deal for me as a teenager. I like Edith Wharton a lot and Shirley Jackson and Isak Dinesen, but probably Brautigan and Barthelme affected me the most, in terms of reading them at the right time, being thunderstruck by the words and images they yoked together, and realizing you can abandon mundane sense-making and cause and effect and try to make a wholly new pattern intelligible by other means.

MM What about literary influences that come to you not through the page but in actual human form? For example, you coedit the extraordinary handmade fiction journal Birkensnake with the writer Brian Conn, and there are similarities between your work and his—an interest in social collectivities, in mythological and fabulist elements, and even in the phrase “late capitalism.” How much of your writing process engages actively with other authors in your circle? Are you a private writer, or do you tend to steal from, collaborate with, and/or use as readers or editors other living, breathing people with whom you are acquainted?

JR I’m a private writer in the sense that I’m squirrely about what I’m writing as I’m writing it and paralyzingly insecure and susceptible to all suggestions. So I don’t usually show works in progress to friends. I have one writer friend, Carrie Collier, who gives me feedback on drafts; and another, Joanna Howard, with whom I recently wrote a collaborative book called Field Glass, in which we merged our styles in a way that surprised and amazed me. Joanna Howard is one of the great technicians of the sentence. Trying to collage prose with her made me push my sentences in ways I couldn’t have otherwise.

I feel very much that I’m in a community of writers who share certain interests and affinities and also influences and lineages. Even if I’m not actively soliciting their edits as I write, I have their characteristic sentences or soundscapes in my head, and a sense of them as potential readers. A ton of fiction writers and poets are doing things that multiply the possibilities for other people’s language. They charge the field, in the electrical sense, with maximally excited particles.

Micaela Morrissette is the managing editor of Conjunctions. Her fiction has appeared in various periodicals and online in BOMB.

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