He's got the credentials: Cornell grad, two novels published, nominated for literary awards, reviewed books for the New York Times, teaches writing in the Big Apple, and flaunts a name any middle linebacker would be proud of. Most notably, perhaps, Thaddeus Rutkowski, author of the just-released novel Tetched, is a man of few words. His prose is sparse...each word weighed carefully. Each paragraph like a painting; each chapter possessing the power of a one-act play-Rutkowski crafts literary fractals of individual force that add up to form a singular, powerful narrative. Witty, sad, provocative, and sexy, Tetched is what one might expect from a true original.
I asked Thad a few questions recently...and here's what he had to say....
MZ: I'm a big fan of minimalist writing. For me, such a writer is like a sculptor...chipping away the unnecessary to get to what exists below. Did you come to this style naturally?
TR: One reader described the format of my new book as "flashes of light amid darkness." I like that description--it seems to summarize the effect I was aiming for. I construct stories by taking vivid images or incidents and arranging them so that the narrative coheres to some extent, has a beginning and end. The subtitle of my book is "A Novel in Fractals." I didn't come up with the idea of fractals--a writing colleague suggested it when she read my work. She said that each of my sentence is a story, each paragraph is a story, and so is each chapter. Together, they add up to a novel, whose shape reflects the shape of the building blocks. I didn't set out to write a novel in fractals. I just wanted to present a clear picture (a pointillist picture?) of unusual family life, and of later adult urban life. I do distill, revise, and rearrange. I chip away at the raw material, but I also add where I think more is needed. I'm conscious of shape and form when I work, but these concerns are almost secondary to what the story is about, the subject matter.
MZ: Yeah, it's great to learn how much went into your novel because it reads so smoothly. The space between the fractals almost feels like a movie "fade-out/fade in." Yet, while we readers may not get see the process; we can definitely feel it. Sorry, but I have to ask: Was much of Tetched culled from your own experiences?
TR: Like many writers, I draw on my experiences to create a fictional world. But, as I said, I distill and reshape what I remember for dramatic effect. My characters may be composites of more than one person I've known. The incidents in my stories may have come from my life, from what someone else has told me, or from my imagination. A large part of Tetched is a family story. The father is a frustrated artist, and the mother is an Asian immigrant. The son (the book's narrator) witnesses his parents' struggle to live and work in rural America. In real life, my father was a teacher; he went to Columbia Teachers College after studying art and chemistry. He had a number of odd jobs in addition to teaching gigs -- he worked as a commercial artist and as a bookmobile librarian. Those facts aren't in my book, because I wanted to focus on the emotional reality of trying to succeed as an artist-my father's main priority. There's no formula for such success, and being a bit unhinged doesn't help. My father was, in fact, an Army veteran; he joined at the end of the Second World War. He wasn't in the Service long, but the experience stayed with him. I often refer to that side of his personality in my book.
My mother was born and raised in China, in Yunan Province, and came to the U.S. to go to college. (She met my father at school.) But I've never been to Asia, so the references I make to Asian culture are secondhand (absorbed from my mother) or from books. I read poetry by Li Po and Tu Fu to come up with some of the mother's dialogue. The later sections of my book have to do with college life and later adult relationships. Again, I did draw on my experiences to write these chapters, but I'm afraid I exaggerated things. I believe that a philosopher (Santayana?) said that "art is reality recast in idea." My idea with this book was to focus on the offbeat, because I think that's more interesting than the everyday. Most of my life was, and is, quite routine.
MZ: "Routine" is a relative term. As a writer-as someone challenging the cookie cutter formula-by definition your life is "different." As kids, we're told to follow our dreams but if we do that, we're often ridiculed as adults. The father character in Tetched knows this all too well.
TR: By "routine," I meant that I have a day job, part-time teaching jobs, and a family. To write, I go to an urban colony, The Writers' Room, here in the East Village. My spouse is understanding enough to allow me to go to out-of-town art colonies as well, which is where I do most of my work. I go during vacations from my day job. I also read in public a lot, which involves traveling. Today, I'm going to Albany to read. I'll stay in the house of the host, whom I've never met. It's a little nervous-making, but it'll be fun.
However, there are conflicts: Do I want to spend time with my family, or spend time writing? I want to do both. There's no question about having to be at work in the office and at class. Sometimes, I feel as if I'm leading a double life. I often think about how to lead a more one-track life, but for a writer in New York, that's not easy. Do you write a perennial bestseller, or what? Maybe someday I'll figure it out.
MZ: That's it: you've gotta write a best-seller, Thad. Have you had well-meaning folks, maybe even family members, suggest that you write something mainstream so you establish yourself and make lots of money and after that, you can write about whatever you want?
TR: I was joking about the bestseller, and no one's been bugging me to write one. I know what you mean, though, when you say that you could possibly have a hit -- a hit book, a hit song -- and then have the freedom to experiment. I started out by taking an experimental approach. My early influences were Richard Brautigan and Donald Barthelme. They are established figures, with literary reputations and wide recognition, but you wouldn't call them mainstream. I actually tried to incorporate more traditional elements in my new book. I tried to make the narrative more continuous, the chapters more equally weighted. I think my first novel, "Roughhouse," consisted of two distinct halves, and the "chapters" in the second half tended to bounce from one subject to another. In "Tetched," I wanted a more cohesive package. I also wanted to produce a story that was more profound and poignant.
MZ: Your book feels, to me, like it picks up speed as you read it. Maybe the chapters or fractals aren't literally shorter, but they read faster and more happens. It makes one feel like they are rolling downhill, picking up speed, and very much at the mercy of some unknown force. Was this a conscious decision?
TR: Actually, no, the narrative isn't intended to move faster as the book progresses. The chapters are short throughout the book, yes, but they don't get shorter as the story goes on. (If they did get shorter, they'd disappear.) The text is supposed to read fairly quickly. There is a lot of incident, and not much exposition. The experience of reading may get easier simply because it becomes more predictable -- you get used to the writing style. The tone, the voice and the sentence structure are fairly consistent throughout.
MZ: What are the dangers of creating a very kinky protagonist?
TR: Quirky sexuality is part of the relationships that play out in the second half of the book. Mainly, the odd practices are factors in the breakup of relationships. In writing these bits, I was trying to understand dating, how it sometimes leads to happy experiences, but often leads to a feeling of loss or disconnection. The narrator is obsessive, and this doesn't help his meetings with women. Still, I tried to add a note of humor, or absurdity, by exaggerating the incidents. In real life, things don't happen so fast, or in such a focused way. I do draw on my experiences for my fictional material. I also combine events for dramatic effect. My characters are often composites of people I've known. And some of the stuff is just made up.
MZ: In Tetched, the father character isn't shy about his politics and the overall theme seems like a challenge to many standard American family myths. Is there a political/social message you're trying to share?
TR: The father character does talk about politics. In a way, he sees the political system as a cause of his difficulties. To the extent that regulations affect people's lives, he may have a point. His vision, his dream, is to live independently, self-sufficiently, outside the system. Having to bend to the system frustrates him.
But the father character is complicated, perhaps the most complicated in the book. He married someone not of his race. His children also are "other". He has mixed feelings about having a family in the first place. Will his fatherly duties take away from his creative work? He thinks so. His children change as they grow up, altering whatever balance there once was. He has a drinking problem. He denies that he has a problem.
I think the message is obvious, though it isn't simple. I'm saying, among other things, that behavior patterns don't go away quickly, so you'd best think hard before you go setting patterns. However, I leave it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. I don't comment much about the incidents in the book. I just present them.
To learn more about Thaddeus Rutkowski, his books, and public reading, please visit: www.thaddeusrutkowski.com.
Mickey Z. is the author of several books, most recently 50 American Revolutions You're Not Supposed to Know: Reclaiming American Patriotism (Disinformation Books). He can be found on the Web at: www.mickeyz.net.
Other Recent Articles by Mickey Z.
of War: Arming the World at a Theater Near You