Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of two previous novels, Roughhouse (Kaya Press, 1999) and Tetched (Behler Publications, 2005). He teaches literature at Medgar Evers College and fiction writing at the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York and has taught at Pace University, the Hudson Valley Writers Center and the Asian American Writers Workshop. He has been the fiction editor of Many Mountains Moving since 2007.
All three of your novels have been written using the vignette (sometimes referred to as flash fiction)–a series of these short forms add up to tell a longer story. Why did you privilege this style over any other? And even though each novel can be read independently of the others, do you see the three books adding up to a single journey?
The flash story or vignette came naturally to me when I began writing (around the age of 16). I wanted to tell a story quickly, but I wanted to include all of the elements: character, incident, beginning and end. I had been reading “experimental” writers like Richard Brautigan and Donald Barthelme, who used short-short forms.
I found much later that I could string together a number of flash pieces to create a longer work. A consistent voice in disparate elements allows me to make a “novel” that covers a long span of time.
I do see the three books as building on each other. I take the same approach in all three–I use the same narrator, who is close to myself–but I examine different incidents in the various texts. The material comes from my experience as a biracial kid in Appalachia and a conflicted adult in the city.
Can you speak about why you choose to keep most of your characters unnamed? Is this part of the strategy to blur the demarcation between fiction and non-fiction? Although the book jacket identifies Haywire as fiction, it’s difficult not to see the parallel lives between the author (named Thaddeus) and the main protagonist (also named Thaddeus), especially when the reader comes across passages like: “I decided to write a terms paper about the divided self. I wanted to discuss the self versus the not-self, or the other. In my case, the self wasn’t Asian or Caucasian, but sometimes felt like one or the other.”
Originally, I kept the characters unnamed so as not to slow the stories down. It’s easy for readers to form impressions from key words like “mother,” “father,” “brother,” “sister,” “girlfriend” and “boss.” The editor of my first book, Roughhouse, went to some trouble to keep the name Thaddeus out of the book, so as to make it more “fictional.”
However, as the narratives grew, the risk of confusion among characters became greater. My latest editors encouraged me to name the characters in Haywire, and so I did that toward the end of the book.
Yes, fiction and nonfiction overlap in my work. The passage you mentioned came from my experience in a college course on Doris Lessing. One of the readings in that course was a book called The Divided Self, by R.D. Laing. However, I saw fit not to mention Lessing or Laing in my book, because the important thing is what the character sees as a divided (that is, biracial) self. This idea leads him to consider the issue of interracial dating (any date he has will necessarily be interracial) and ultimately the question of sanity. Laing, after all, was writing about what it means to be sane in the world.
You explore Thaddeus’ adult life more in this third book, and you are also more revelatory in terms of the adult troubled lives of Thaddeus’ brother and sister. You also choose to name more explicitly the father’s physical and mental abuse of his children. Though Thaddeus moves through a path of sadistic tendencies, in Haywire he eventually marries and has a child. It’s refreshing to see him become the sensitive and protective father he did not have. Are you satisfied with how Thaddeus turns out after so many self-destructive years of life? And what does this newfound bliss mean in terms of the next project, should Thaddeus’s life continue to be explored?
In Haywire, I wanted to write about things I had not written about before, to add content concerning people I had introduced but hadn’t developed. I did this in response to readers’ questions, as well as out of a desire for more complete understanding. I also wanted to come full-circle, to provide a resolution for some of the conflicts with family and relationships that the main character experiences.
It’s important to remember, though, that the character Thaddeus is a fictional creation. It is almost surprising to me to read the words “self-destructive” and “bliss” with regard to his life. I realize I have heightened things to get across a point or complete an arc. In future work, I will probably use the same voice, but I hope there will be different conflicts, different arcs.
Am I personally satisfied with the way things turn out for the character Thaddeus in this book? Yes. Is the character satisfied? I don’t know.
Though the Polish father exits early in the book, his ghost continues to haunt Thaddeus into adulthood. Since he is mostly unemployed and prefers to alienate himself (and his children) from everyday society, the reader gets to know his many quirks. The Chinese mother, on the other hand, is a little more elusively characterized. She’s usually working and doesn’t communicate with her children even when she has them to herself. What Thaddeus takes with him when he leaves home are the Asian features he inherited from her but little else. How did you come to terms with the fact that the father would be such a dominant presence in the narrative, even after his death? Why does the mother remain invisible and not a resource for Thaddeus as he’s struggling with addictions and traumas?
Well, I spent more time with my father when I was a child. He was at home not because he was unemployed, but because he made his own visual art in his studio. He also did freelance work, like silkscreening T-shirts for the nearby university. Along with these tasks, he did some child-rearing.
My mother shared in the child-rearing, but her time at home was limited because she had a full-time job in the lab of a local hospital. In addition, her culture was not the local culture, because she grew up in China.
I try to bring both of these influences into the story of a boy growing up in a bi-cultural family in middle America. The boy may take after the more present role model, his father. He also, I think, takes a sort of stoicism from his mother, as well as her penchant for non sequiturs.
As they say, one’s “formative years” have a lot to do with later life. That is why the father’s ghost sticks around to haunt the adult children. Problems that begin early on don’t go away quickly.
As for the mother’s influence later on, this may be a topic that I still need to explore.