Robert Lopez is the author of two novels, Part of the World and Kamby Bolongo Mean River, and a collection of short stories, Asunder. He has taught at The New School, Pratt Institute, Columbia University, and Pine Manor College’s Low-Residency MFA program. In 2010, the New York Foundation for the Arts named him a Fellow in Fiction.
Lopez is one of those authors whose books, through sheer static charge, leave permanent marks on my mind. There are his characters – eerily familiar, disquieting types, with faces that have a tendency to flicker. There’s the compulsive strangeness of his story lines, the spare restraint of his prose, the streaks of black humor that run through his narratives. Yet the true focus of Lopez’s work is words, their rhythms and irregularities, the different ways they can be twisted and what it sounds like when they’re broken. “What is between the words and behind them,” says the caged protagonist of his mesmeric second novel, Kamby Bolongo Mean River. Recently, I had the chance to sit down and talk with Lopez. We discussed language and rhythm, the influence of music on his writing, what it’s like to be both a writer and teacher of writing, and the Tylenol Killer from the 1982.
MT: I want to ask about a comment you made in a previous interview, regarding your indifference toward reading as a child. I think there’s this assumption that what gets read while growing up creates a kind of foundation of the imagination, a ground floor from which all other creative ideas spring out of and can be traced back into. That you seem to lack this ground floor is interesting, and is also probably why interviewers keep bringing it up. Is there a foundation to your imagination? Do you feel it’s composed of any one particular thing?
RL: I always feel like I’m repeating myself, because I am always repeating myself. To my way of thinking I don’t have much of an imagination. When I think of “imagination” I think “ideas” and I never have ideas. I would like to have an idea someday. I think it would be nice. Perhaps it’s a narrow way to look at imagination, but for me everything I’ve ever done has been borne out of language. I never think in terms of character and certainly never story, which is a lie. I do think of story, but only later on, when everything else seems in order. I try to find an interesting voice and I let that voice do what it will. From there comes character and story.
MT: Your first novel, Part of the World, began with one voice and a single sentence, correct?
RL: Yes, this is correct. I almost always tell the truth.
MT: Does that dependence on voice pose risks for you as a writer? Again, using Part of the World as an example, you’ve mentioned that its second sentence didn’t show up until a few years later. Are there days where the volume knob is turned down too low, where your narrator is just not around? What is the process of sustaining a narrative voice like for you?
RL: Once finding the voices of POTW and KBMR and also the “Blindster” stories (from Asunder), those narrators were always home and talking out loud. It’s the in-between times when voices and narrators can do a thoroughly excellent job of leaving me alone. I’ve been tinkering with some stories every so often for a while now and it sometimes takes quite a while to figure them out. I’ve gone long stretches without writing a word and without wanting to. During those times I’ve wanted to want to, but that doesn’t make anything happen for me.
MT: I find that fascinating because so much of your work has this propulsive, unified groove to it; like listening to a single cut drum track. How conscious are you of rhythm while writing? Does the beat of a sentence ever take precedent over, say, the logic of a sentence, its word order?
RL: I’m very conscious of rhythm while writing. It’s as important as word choice, certainly, and probably more important than logic, though the logic of a sentence needs to be perfect, too. The line has to sound right acoustically and rhythmically and logically. Not every sentence has to be a homerun, but it has to be perfect.
MT: Does music play a role in your creative process?
RL: I never listen to music while working, but music has always been a big part of what I’ve done with myself. I’ve been playing music for a long time and songwriters like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett, Jeff Tweedy, Gillian Welch, etc., have instigated work for me any number of times.
MT: So far, you’ve released two novels and a collection of short stories. While each work is obviously set onto itself, I also detect common threads that connect all three. Was each book an independent, hermetically sealed project, or were you tinkering with them simultaneously?
RL: The stories collected in Asunder were put together over the course of many years. There’s one or two from 1997 in there and several from 2010. I can’t quite remember when I started Part of the World, but I think it was around 2001. I worked on that novel for the next six years, off and on. Kamby Bolongo Mean River started as a story and was first drafted in 2006, I think. Then the bulk of the novel happened in the summer of 2007. So, there has certainly been some overlap. I have always thought of each book as its own thing, though.
MT: Of those different forms, do you have a favorite? What draws you to write short fiction? What draws you to write a novel? Where do they overlap and diverge?
RL: I have no favorites. I never set out to write a novel, never had any ambition to do so. For a long time I thought I was incapable of writing a novel and had no personal interest in the form as a form. But then I had a line that seemed to be the start of a novel and I felt compelled to follow it. Then it happened again. I don’t know if it will happen a third time. I’m not on the lookout for such an occurrence, but if it happens I won’t complain. I’ve always been drawn to the short form. I suppose there is more at stake in a story; it’s probably more of a high-wire act. Danger is intoxicating on the page. That said, cultivating danger in a novel is also a good idea. There has to be an urgency for me, regardless of the form.
MT: I certainly sense that urgency when exploring your work. So many of your stories are built upon bits of everyday life – waiting for the phone to ring, buying a used car, a bruise on a banana – that then get twisted into thoroughly strange and unsettling experiences. Where does that unease come from?
RL: Like everyone else I use my life, what happens to me, the people that have happened to me, what I see. I used to think a lot about telephones, never liked them very much. So, naturally that sort of dis-ease has come into play in the work, both in Part of the World and Kamby. The used car in POTW was my used car. When I was a kid someone laced Tylenol with cyanide and killed a bunch of people. It was a big story on the news for weeks. After that I was always on the lookout for anything even remotely suspicious. If the Corn Flakes box had a dent in it I wouldn’t open the box, let alone eat what was inside. I suppose I’ve channeled that paranoia into the work when appropriate. I remember keeping an eye on my parents while they were preparing dinner. Everyone was suspect to my 8 year old eyes or however old I was. Luckily I’m not quite as insane anymore, but it’s good I can remember that insanity. But yeah, the bruised parts of a banana are poison, you mustn’t eat them.
MT: You’ve taught at the New School and Columbia, among many other schools, and, most recently, joined up with Dzanc and their excellent new writing workshop program, Dzanc Sessions. What are your thoughts on teaching creative writing?
RL: I enjoy teaching. You can’t teach talent, of course. But you can tell writers where they are getting in right and where they’re not. You can tell them who they should read. That’s about all you can do.
MT: How does it affect you as a writer?
RL: Sometimes it makes me want to write; when someone is onto something and they’re using language and it’s electric. And sometimes it makes me want to watch a lot of television.
MT: Does it turn you into your own most critical editor?
RL: Right up until the point that I’m finished and the piece comes out. Then I never think about it again.
MT: And what are you thinking about now? What’s new for you in the coming year?
RL: I’ve adapted Kamby Bolongo Mean River into a one man play, so hopefully there will be news on this front before too long. Also, I finished a play last year, All Back Full, and hopefully there will be news on this front before too long. Otherwise, there’s no news.
M Thompson was born in northern Michigan and now lives in Seattle. His fiction, book reviews, and interviews have appeared in Unsaid, Everyday Genius, Used Furniture Review, elimae, The Collagist, Monkeybicycle, and Hobart, among others. He is concerned primarily with fiction writing and running long distances. www.m-thompson.net