Interview with Joseph Rathgeber, Author of “Not Black: An Education”

Joseph Rathgeber is an author, poet, and high school English teacher from New Jersey. His story, “Not Black: An Education,” appeared in Volume 77.1 Diversity and Its Discontents of North Dakota Quarterly. His debut story collection The Abridged Autobiography of Yousef R. and Other Stories was published in 2014 by ELJ Publications.

In what genre would you place your writing? What draws you to this?

Jeez, I hate to self-identify my writing. That’s like telling a publisher to put “Literary Fiction” above the barcode on the back of your book. It’s too wrapped up in ego and pretension. That said, I’ll do it anyway. My writing is realism; sometimes it’s gritty; sometimes minimalist; largely contemporary; striving to be subtly political but occasionally failing to do so. I wish my writing were Southern Gothic, but I’m firmly entrenched in the North. On some days I’m fabulist; on others I’m metafictional. I think of an author like T.C. Boyle who dabbles in just about everything—that’s a good model.

You seamlessly mix academic and colloquial language in “Not Black: An Education,” how would you describe your writing style?

Juxtaposing high and low, I think, is near impossible to avoid in our present literary climate. It speaks to our times, and to deny that is to be anachronistic. As far as balancing academic and colloquial language, I think that’s an attempt on my part to undermine my own speakers whenever things seem to be getting too lofty. There’s no denying the aggrandizement of building an ivory tower, and so I routinely try to chisel away at the foundation. Combining high and low language allows for destabilization, and that’s something that’s always on my agenda. I want to topple as many institutions as possible.

What can you tell us about your new book, The Abridged Autobiography of Yousef R. and Other Stories?

This collection is comprised of stories I’ve written over the past five or six years. All but two of them have appeared previously in journals and magazines, but they all have some common threads. Each story takes place in New Jersey, and several characters (or at least several characters of similar station, interests, or activities) reappear here and there, usually only in passing reference. The stories, though disparate, inhabit the same ecosystem. So, yes, there is a revolutionary graffiti crew, a disability cheat, a slew of petty thieves, a wayward youth, a pregnant cynic, an inquisitive and faithless adolescent female, a Palestinian activist, and a monkish high school basketball player, but many of them are struggling with similar problems.

Do you have a particular favorite story from the book? Why is it your favorite?

Today my favorite is “Cirrhosis of the River.” I’m proud of it because it stands as one of the few instances where I feel I achieved what I set out to do. I wanted the story to be driven by voice. The narrator (or, rather, me writing the narrator), Darlene, is channeling Lorrie Moore, for sure, and Thom Jones, too. Quirkiness, cornball jokes, and cynicism with a bite. I admit plot takes a backseat to voice in the story, and that’s okay by me. Not much happens in the dramatic present; rather, it’s a framework for the narrator to reflect and recollect about how she got to where she presently is (on a lake with her deadbeat father).

What was the hardest part about writing The Abridged Autobiography?

One story in particular, “An Oral History of IRAQ,” gave me plenty of trouble. Balancing plot and structure was difficult. I knew I wanted to have many narrators, each a distinct voice, and I knew because it was being framed as an “oral history” I would be unraveling a plot through multiple perspectives looking to the past. I struggled with making the plot compelling while still connecting the disparate views of each narrator into an overarching narrative. I was also writing from the perspective of narrators who were years removed from the events they’re discussing, so I had to account for misremembrances and individual historical rewrites and fuzzy memories. The story required no less than three global overhauls. It was a headache at times, but I’m happy with where it settled.

From where do you draw inspiration?

Instead of listing a who’s who of the humanities, I’ll just say I’m a terrible date. I have a damn hard time keeping eye contact with anyone who accompanies me to a diner. I eavesdrop and write on my hand a lot (my cellphone is too antiquated). These tidbits often provide the extra padding a story needs, seeing as how my own life is rather dull.

How do you structure your work?

I’m eager to experiment with structure more so than probably any other aspect of composition. Of course, structure can’t be severed from language, but I often try to challenge both the reader and myself to format a structure that doesn’t conform to linearity. I often look to film for inspiration in terms of structure. I’m more than willing to sacrifice an ending with closure in favor of an innovative approach from start to finish.

Can you describe your writing process?

My writing process is much more tedious than I’d like it to be. To be able to still subscribe to the “first thought, best thought” philosophy (as I had as a young man) would free up so much time. But I do appreciate the laboring aspect of the process; at times, it almost feels more manual than mental. I typically begin with a small detail or an overheard anecdote that I feel could be shaped and developed into an entire plot. I pad out this foundational idea with bits of dialogue, considerations of where the story should go, description of character and scene. Everything, at this point, is a mess in a Microsoft Word file. It’ll usually sit there for months, even years. When I get down to it and start writing, I edit as I go. I long ago abandoned any plans for meeting a daily quota; I often struggle over a sentence or paragraph until it’s where it needs to be. Once that’s over and done with, I let the first draft sit. I won’t read it again for weeks. Put fresh eyes to it, first revisions. Repeat. Fresher eyes, second revisions. Repeat until the story is where it needs to be.

What other projects are you working on?

I’m in the nascent stages of a novel—pages of notes and some field research in the mountains of the North Jersey border. A project that’s much closer to completion is a hybrid book (poetry, assemblage, epistles, and more) entitled MJ. The book explores/critiques capitalism and consumerism through a reevaluation of the industry and brand that is Michael Jordan (my former hero and god). And I’m increasingly eager to get back to writing more short stories, but being a stay-at-home dad for the time being, most of my story creations are orally transmitted over breakfast to my two daughters.

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