We would like to thank Thaddeus Rutkowski for taking the time to participate in our Q/A interview. We greatly admire his work here at Blotterature. Please enjoy what he offers below.
Blotterature has a strong connection to our place – industrialized Northwest Indiana – and it is reflective in our writing. Tell us where you are and how your place fits into your art.
Much of my writing is set where I grew up: central Pennsylvania. This area was rich in iron ore, and the “ore holes” and old stone furnaces are still there. Bellefonte, where I went to high school, benefited from this wealth. Now, iron ore isn’t mined there anymore. Bellefonte has only hints of its former character. When I visited recently, I stayed outside the town with my wife and daughter. Next to our hotel was a facility for processing natural gas. Hydrofracking is legal in Pennsylvania.
The area is also rich in farmland. I worked on a dairy farm when I was in high school. I picked stones, chopped weeds and once wrangled a calf. I held the calf on the bed of a pickup truck so it wouldn’t jump off. And, of course, I did some shoveling. I shoveled in small, smelly enclosures. I think I got paid a dollar a day.
It was hard to have friends where I grew up because kids my age lived far away. My family lived in a one-road village called Hublersburg. My nearest friend was three miles away. I sometimes rode my bike to his house, but it was a strenuous ride over a hill called the Ridge. Much of my fiction takes place there, in that childhood home, and concerns feelings of isolation, as well as flights of fancy based on the need to escape.
I’ve been living in New York City for a long time now, and the city also influences my work, gives me ideas, compels me to say something. This is my home, but I still have the feeling of being from somewhere else.
Who/What has impacted your work the most and how does that come through?
My childhood family and my current family (my wife and daughter) are the main influences on my subject matter. I draw on the experiences I’ve had with them when I’m looking for material, something to work with.
My literary influences have been writers of short prose: Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolfe. I’m also thinking of Richard Brautigan. I read Trout Fishing in America when it came out. I thought of myself as a counter-cultural type, and Brautigan looked like a hippie (though he said he wasn’t one). He liked fishing, and I did a lot of fishing. Fishing was a thing I could do on my own.
The book didn’t have an external structure; it didn’t have a predictable framework or narrative arc. It was composed of almost random images and incidents connected by the author’s voice and point of view. And its metaphors were wild. In a chapter called “The Hunchback Trout,” Brautigan compares the banks of a stream to a series of telephone booths. To get to his fishing spot, he counts the booths. He’s not just a fisherman looking for trout; he’s also a telephone repairman. He had to keep the telephones in service while he caught trout. That meant something to me, suggested possibilities.
How do you generate new ideas for your work?
I use my dreams and memories. I write notes in a small notebook that I carry around. My mother still lives in the village where I grew up, and when we visit her, memories come to me. Walking around the town, I might see a path that I took, a house with a back room where I used to get a haircut while the Jackie Gleason show played on television. These memories give me ideas.
I also use writing exercises or prompts—this is the method I used for many of the pieces in this new book, Violent Outbursts. I did many of these exercises with students in my writing workshops. We would all write for a few minutes, then read what we wrote aloud. These pieces could be based on memory (write about a object in your childhood home), or they could be on a topic (your first cigarette) or about the sense/nonsense of language (write a piece using random words suggested by participants).
When have you been most satisfied with your work?
I’m glad when the message comes across in a deep or strong way. When you read a piece and are moved by it, then the piece succeeds. But there is no sure way of achieving this. I try different things. I revise a lot. It’s a matter of trial and error, though I might be on the right track when I am working with vivid or unusual or unexpected images. My first schooling was in visual art—I was a painting major—so the imagined picture is important to me.
I’m also glad when I get some kind of response to my work. I often read my work aloud, and I notice the feedback, whether it is silence or laughter. Readings are one way to connect with an audience, and I’ve heard from at least one writer that giving a reading is almost as good as having a publication. That moment of connection is important, and not to be taken for granted.
How do you know when a piece is finished?
This is related to question 4. I know when a piece is finished when I read it and it affects me in an emotional way. A piece may be too long or too short. All of the pieces in this latest book are very short, but I hope they’re not too short. I hope they add up to something more than the parts. A friend who recently helped me introduce this book in an event, the fiction writer David Lincoln, called it a “novel,” and that was a new idea to me. I had thought of the book as a collection. But it can be read as a nontraditional novel. This is not to say that it is finished—it could have more or fewer pieces. The pieces themselves could be revised, though they seem to do what they were supposed to do. In a way, none of my work is finished. I can always go back to it with a new eye. It’s finished, I guess, when I go back to it and don’t want to make changes.
What has been your biggest failure and what − if any − lessons were learned?
The biggest failures are the ones I have sole responsibility for. I’m thinking of a lack of focus in the first 10 years of my writing life, the first years I lived in New York. I did my own work. I went to readings. I read books. I submitted my stories to editors. But I didn’t have a sense of a mission or project. A friend told me (sometime later), “If you want to be a writer, you have to write a book.” I wasn’t writing a book. I started writing a book in my early 30s. That first book took me about 12 years to write. It took a while of living and hanging around before I brought things together.
Tell us about your commitment to the writing community. Outside of your work, what else do you have going on? Or what do you see starting up in your future?
For the past couple of years, I’ve been on the staff of the Alternate New Year’s Day Marathon reading, which takes place at the Nuyorican Poets Café in Manhattan. My job is to bring in new readers by working with new curators. I reach out to hosts of readings around the city and ask them to recommend people. I bring about 35 readers to an event that has about 150 readers. I would like to bring in more for the next event.
I’ve served as a judge for various contests. I was the final judge for a novel contest last fall, the Gival Press contest. I read through the finalists, and when I got through the first batch of manuscripts I wasn’t happy, so I asked to see more. As it turned out, I had to go past that first selection to find the winner, who I’m quite satisfied with. I look forward to seeing that book in print.
What is your biggest pet peeve with the writing community, trends, etc. today?
I once heard Amy Hempel say at a reading, “Everyone wants to be the star; no one wants to be the audience.” I’m sure many people have said that, and we’ve all thought it. When you present your work, either live or in print, it’s depressing when few people see it or read it. We’re trying to give something. Art is about sharing an emotion or an insight, and when you can’t share it, what is it for? I’m saying, if people support you, you should try to support them.
What are you working on right now?
This new book, Violent Outbursts, was officially released in January 2016, so I’m at the stage of promoting it, reading from it, sending it for possible reviews, etc. It’s hard to remember the days of actually working on it, which were about a year ago. The task was how to collect these short pieces, how to make the whole greater than its parts. I asked my wife and a friend to help me with that job, to act as discerning readers, to help me decide what to include and what to leave out, and how to order the various pieces. I took their notes and just read and reread the book, front to back, a few times.
I am engaged in a somewhat similar process with my next book, due out next year. The pieces in this book are about five pages long, not one page, as in Outbursts. They are arranged in chronological order, that is, the order in which they occur, not the order in which they were written. The idea is to see if the pieces/stories/chapters cohere, if the voice is consistent, if the stories make sense. My method is not to explain what happens, but to present it in a vivid way and let the reader supply the meaning. Instead of telling you how I feel, I’m asking, “How would you feel, if this happened to you?”
The first chapter in this new book is the story “Painted Ladies,” which originally appeared in Blotterature. In this piece, I used my memory to go way back in my life, to the time when my grandmother took care of me while my parents were working. Her mother, my great-grandmother, was also in the house. I tried to give an idea of what these people were like. My immediate family is also in the story. I leave the grandparents and go with my immediate family for the first third of the book, then I talk about later life. The story goes through my present.
What are you reading right now?
It takes me months to read a book on my own, because I have so much to read for my day job and the classes that I teach. I just finished Becoming the Sound of Bees, poems by Marc Vincenz, which I read with an eye to reviewing it.
I’m reading Runaway, stories by Alice Munro. These are long stories, and I’m finding that if I start and stop, I lose the thread of what’s happening. I saw a video clip of Munro on Youtube. I found it when I was looking through clips of Nobel prize winners for my literature class. She says she became a writer because she didn’t like the way “The Little Mermaid” ended when she heard it as a child. The story had a sad ending, and she rewrote it to have a happy ending. I like that idea. Why not do that?