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Interview with author and artist, Keith Rosson

Hello WF! It’s time of month again for our Featured Guest Interview! To our own delight, we had the opportunity to interview author and artist Keith Rosson.

Rosson’s fiction has appeared in Redivider, Cream City Review, PANK, The Nervous Breakdown, and more. He is the author ofThe Best of Intentions: The Avow Anthology, an omnibus collection of his long-running punk fanzine, Avow, as well as an illustrator and graphic designer, with clients that includeGreen Day, Against Me, the Goo Goo Dolls, and others. An advocate of both public libraries and non-ironic adulation of the cassette tape, he can be found at keithrosson.com. His debut novel, The Mercy of the Tide, will be published in February 2017.

Without further ado, please join me in getting to know Keith Rosson!

Tell us a little about yourself.

Hmmm, let’s see. Extensive cassette collection. Owner of a number of questionable tattoos. Waiting to get priced out of Portland, unsure of where I’ll go when it inevitably happens. Work in a wonderful literacy program at an elementary school and also do illustration and design for various folks – bands, breweries, nonprofits. Wrote four novels throughout the years before one was published. Currently tackling a fifth. Uh, novel, I mean.

What is the weirdest or quirkiest factoid about you that you are willing to share?

I was placed in English 65 after taking my college placement test. After taking years of creative writing in high school, it was revealed that I had essentially no understanding of grammar and punctuation at all. (Considering the copyedits I’m looking at for my most recent novel, uh, it appears that not a lot has changed.)

Describe your version of the perfect day.

Well, I’m one of those people that equates a lot of their inherent self-worth with how productive they are creatively on any given day, for better or worse. So I’d say a day in which I manage to make significant, non-painful headway on a project and also manage to drag my decrepit body outside for a gasp and stagger around the park is a pretty good one.

How has your love of punk rock influenced you as an artist, writer, and person?

Oooof. Tough. I think, in all honesty, it’s probably kept me alive at various points, as dramatic as that sounds. Emotionally, it’s often acted as a salve in a way that nothing else has. Provided an opportunity to relate, in the sense that I can recognize that other people have felt the same things that I have. I mean, you listen to something like “Second Skin” by the Gits, and I’m sorry, but how can that not move you? How does a song like that not just chill someone? As an artist, I grew up enmeshed in the art of comics and punk flyers, record covers; I’d say both influenced me equally. Pushead and Bill Sienkiewicz got equal billing, you know? And as far as writing goes, growing up with punk and a staunch belief in the importance of self-published fanzines and DIY, it just reinforced the idea that creatively we can do whatever we want to, if we’re willing to push ourselves. All told, it’s maybe the most integral building block of who I am, who I’ve become, and is certainly still having a profound impact on my life twenty-five years after I was introduced to it.

If you could jam with any musician/band past or present, which would it be and why?

Gaaah! I wouldn’t want to jam with anyone – I’d be way too embarrassed! I’m seriously a terrible musician. No intrinsic ear for it, and I get confused beyond the simplest of riffs or song structures. Though I do think it would’ve been interesting to have come of age when punk was first beginning – being in a band then would’ve been pretty rad, working from a somewhat new (or at least significantly simplified) template like that.

Tell us how your long-running punk fanzine, Avow came to be?

Well, it started in the mid-90s, when I was going to art school in Seattle. Print zines, especially in punk, were massively more prevalent than they are now. Avow actually started out as a merging of punk stuff and poetry, both of which I was just on fire about at the time. Eventually, by the 8th or 9th issue, the poetry had taken a backseat, and by issue 11, Avow was almost entirely made up of my own art and creative nonfiction stuff, save for the occasional contributors issue. It was kinda just one of those things that you did if you wanted to contribute – I couldn’t put on shows and I couldn’t really play an instrument, and I loved writing and art, so I did a fanzine. Plus record labels sent you albums to review and put you on the guest list for shows, which was a good deal for someone as broke as I was. (As a side note, a buddy and I did a few issues of a zine in high school called Chicken Pox Blooze, because we’d both been fifteen or sixteen and gotten chicken pox, which was a pretty gnarly event. It was a pretty standard high school zine, save for the fact that, in an effort to both promote safe sex and be “edgy,” we actually stapled condoms into the zine. Yep, stapled them. Into the zine. Because that’s not dangerous or entirely defeating the purpose, is it? Yikes. Didn’t even cross our minds how dumb that was. I like to think I’ve grown, at least marginally, in the self-editing/thinking-it-through department.)

You were in a band at one point. Can you tell us a little about that?

I was in a punk band called Neckties Make Me Nervous. We released a few 7”s, toured a few times, and eventually self-imploded. Pretty standard story. Being in a band is hard – there are three or four (or in our case, five) disparate personalities all trying to make art and simultaneously not kill each other. I really enjoyed writing lyrics, but I am a horrible guitarist; the other guys in the band were very forgiving in that regard. Sometimes I miss it, but it’s such a tightrope walk between being flexible towards other people’s visions while continually coming up against your own limitations and capabilities.

How did you get started as a graphic artist/illustrator?

I’m actually legally blind, surprisingly enough. My home life as a child was pretty bananas so I didn’t find out the severity of my visual impairment until I was ten or eleven. By that time I was already pretty entrenched in making art. Things might’ve been vastly different had I been raised with this notion, “Oh, my eyesight is terrible, I can’t draw.” But I wasn’t. I was always drawing. Then punk came along, and I got floored on that. I was maybe twenty when I just sent a batch of illustrations to this Canadian punk band called Submission Hold. Just out of the blue, because I loved their records so much. I said, “You can use these for whatever you want.” And I wound up doing illustrations for almost all of their albums. That was a long time ago. It’s just snowballed from there.

You’ve done artwork for a variety of bands. Which was your favorite project? Why?

Tough to pin that one down. I did the cover for a digital EP for The Mighty Fine that was a merging of photography and illustration that I think turned out really interesting. The various LP designs I’ve done for Todos Caerán have always turned out well; they were a terrific band to work with. More recently, I just wrapped up some merchandise designs for Green Day that I’m really happy with. Generally, I’m stoked on whatever project I’ve just finished, which is a pretty good way to work.

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

I’m not sure that there was a definitive anchor point for something like that. I was always into comics, and then fanzines after punk came along, and was always reading fiction alongside all of that. It’s within the past six or seven years that I’ve turned almost all of my focus away from creative nonfiction and into fiction writing. Fiction has consistently lit me up in a way that nothing else has.

What and/or who influenced your decision to write seriously?

I wish I knew, because I’d high five the hell out of them. Even with the difficulties inherent in hitching your emotional horse to a creative act, this is still the best thing going.

Do you have an established process for writing? Tell us about it.

It’s terrible, really. I’m answering this question after a day of pretty unsuccessful writing, actually, so I feel a bit like a chump even answering it, you know? As far as any tried and true process, it’s mostly just a matter of consistently using a multitude of little tools to make a monster. You know, a lot of different things that have proven to work, and using them all as regularly as I can. I start free writing, or I brainstorm a kernel of an idea, and I always allow myself permission to write a bedraggled, shitty first draft. For larger, novel-length works or plot-heavy short stories I generally outline a few chapters/sections ahead. I’m always scribbling down words or phrases that I like, blips of overheard conversations, dream fragments, tumbling ideas. You know, the general effluvia of living while trying to pay attention. I have a very specific way I lay out the title section of every story – font size, layout, etc. This goes a long way towards kinda opening up the creative floodgates, telling my brain, like, “Okay, this is a story we’re starting. Here we go.” Also, and not to sound like a total jerk, I’ve been going through a period lately where I almost exclusively listen to Renaissance-era motets and Gregorian chants when I write – the vocals aren’t distracting, but it’s still atmospheric and moody as hell. I also criticize myself mercilessly, and read voraciously. And even with all of this in place, I still shelve or delete probably 50% of what I write. For every story that gets submitted somewhere, I’ve got two or three cruddy ones languishing.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer?

For me personally: Read, write, repeat. Write like the people you want to write like, get it out of your system (even if it takes years), and then write and read some more. If publishing your work is something you’re interested in, get used to rejection. Don’t be afraid of it, it’s going to happen. Take risks – in writing and submitting. Read and write some more. Take notes. Put prompts in a hat and draw a few out and write a story. Write down words that are interesting. Understand that first drafts are meant to be total shit. That’s, like, a requirement. Read, write, repeat. Edit like a surgeon excising a tumor. Write the things that you love, that you would want to read. Read, write, repeat.

Your debut novel, The Mercy of the Tide, is being published in February 2017 by Meerkat Press. Can you tell us a tiny bit about the novel?

Can I cop out and quote from the press release? “Riptide, Oregon, 1983. A sleepy coastal town, where crime usually consists of underage drinking down at a Wolf Point bonfire. But then strange things start happening—a human skeleton is unearthed in a local park and mutilated animals begin appearing, seemingly sacrificed, on the town’s beaches. The Mercy of the Tide follows four people drawn irrevocably together by a recent tragedy as they do their best to reclaim their lives—leading them all to a discovery that will change them and their town forever. At the heart of the story are Sam Finster, a senior in high school mourning the death of his mother, and his sister Trina, a nine-year-old deaf girl who denies her grief by dreaming of a nuclear apocalypse as Cold War tensions rise. Meanwhile, Sheriff Dave Dobbs and officer Nick Hayslip must try to put their own sorrows aside to figure out who, or what, is wreaking havoc on their once-idyllic town.”

How do you best describe the genre?

I’m a gleeful stitcher and borrower. I believe in the cross-pollination of genre. I seem wholly incapable of writing a longer work without merging genres, borrowing from well-loved or loathed tropes and stuffing them into the ill-fitting suit of literary fiction. It’s super fun for me. Mercy is a Frankenstein of a number of different genres and ideas – there’s a monster, there’s a man in decline, there are children as heroes. It’s an alternate history novel with elements of magical realism. Or it’s literary fiction with cops. Or, maybe the easiest way to say it – it’s a mish-mash of genres.

What inspired The Mercy of the Tide?

The original version of the novel started thirty-five years later than the story that will eventually be published by Meerkat. But as I was writing, and getting to know these characters a bit, and forming the defining characteristics of this world they were in, I kept butting my head up against this idea of “How? Why? Why is this part of the world like this?” Without giving too much away, I started doing some background sketches of the world and the timeline and all the rest, and it turned out I had to first write the story of how these people and their town got to be the way they were. So I had to jump back thirty-five years and tell this story instead. Now that the pieces are locked into place, and the world’s foundation has kinda been laid down with Mercy, I’ll eventually be able to get back to the town of Riptide, Oregon and tell the story of how it is now, which’ll be a blast.

Who is your favorite character in the story, and why?

I really liked writing Trina, the nine year-old deaf girl. She’s such a vulnerable character, and I found myself wanting to protect her. I also liked writing Hayslip, the deputy, because he goes through a significant change throughout the book. If there’s a villain in Mercy, it’s gotta be him, whether it’s reluctant or not. Honestly, it’s fun to write about folks that are being dismantled, emotionally and otherwise.

Who do you think will enjoy this book, and why?

I think the book really messes with genre in an interesting way. Fans of literary fiction, thrillers or horror and the supernatural would probably find something to like. There are also elements of historical fiction – if a book set in the 1980s counts – and a significant nod to the unfolding Cold War of the time. The hope is that it’s both all over the map, and a cohesive, gripping story. I think Mercy takes a lot of risks. Hopefully, it succeeds at them.

Can you share a short excerpt from the novel?

Sure! Let’s lay the groundwork for an action scene, shall we?

Mark Fitzhugh arrived a minute later and pulled up next to him, the driver’s-side windows of their cruisers facing each other. Fitzhugh was a redheaded, slab-armed cop who’d been a decent fullback when they were in high school together. He’d been in Nam as well, a year before Hayslip, and they frequently shared beers together at the Bottom, trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to pick up women. He was the only man on earth that could call Hayslip Nicky with impunity. Hayslip didn’t have a lot of friends, but Fitzhugh was one of them.

“Neighbors called it in,” Fitzhugh said now. “These two have got into it before. We come and tell them to knock it off, they’re quiet for another couple months.”

Hayslip nodded. He sucked his teeth and touched the scar tissue on his neck. “So it’s a regular thing then.”

“Same old, same old, apparently.”

“You been out here before?”

“Not me personally, no.”

“Well, we’ll just drop in,” Hayslip said.

Fitzhugh smiled and drummed his fingers on the door of the cruiser. “Totally. Just say hi. See how things are going.”

“Which house is it?”

Fitzhugh pointed. “Second to the last one. Baby-shit brown one there.”

It was still raining. Fitzhugh pulled in behind him and they walked down the road, the mud squelching and pulling at their boots. Both men walking carefully with their hands on their gun belts. The gate opened with a squeal and it was only a few steps to a pair of rusted handrails that marked each side of the moss-furred cement steps leading up to the door. Fitzhugh stood to one side, his eyes to the road and the thin slash of woods beyond it, while Hayslip rapped on the door with his knuckles. “Riptide Police Department,” he said loudly. “Open the door, please.”

Silence. A beat, two. Shuffling, then another pause. Muffled by the door, a man’s voice: “Ah, well, there’s no problem here, officer.”

“Sir, we’ve got a complaint. I need you to open the door, please.”

“We’re not doing anything in here. We’re fine in here.”

“Sir, I need you to open the door.”

The door opened half a foot. A wedge of dim light. The man standing before him wore a pair of turquoise surf shorts and a yellowed t-shirt mounded tight at the gut. Stocky, maybe mid-fifties, grizzled gray hair curling out of the shirt collar. Pores on his nose big as pencil lead. Behind him, Hayslip saw dirty, threadbare carpet worn to the nub, a scarred hutch against the wall stacked high with junk mail. The bleach-sting of cat piss wafted out, sharp and acrid, and a white cat meowed and twined himself around Hayslip’s feet. The television played loudly in the other room.

“We’re not doing nothing here, officers,” the man said plaintively. His voice was surprisingly high considering his size. His eyes pinballed between the two of them.

“We’ve had a complaint, sir, about the noise.” Hayslip said. “Everything okay here?”

“Everything’s fine,” the man said. “I’m telling you.”

“Is your wife or girlfriend at home right now? Someone called and said they heard quite a bit of yelling coming from your residence. Can we speak to her?”

“She left,” he said, and started to close the door. His smile was a frozen thing. “There’s nothing’s happening here. This is me telling you that.”

“Blood on his t-shirt there, Nick,” Fitzhugh said calmly, like a passenger telling someone to take a left here, and time slowed in that devilishly tricky way it always did when shit started to happen. Hayslip fell into it with relish. Fitzhugh was right: dottings of blood on his undershirt, near his gut, new and fire engine-red. Hayslip got a foot in the door and the guy leaned on it from the other side, and he heard a groan come from deeper inside the house. In his peripheral he saw Fitzhugh unholster his sidearm. Ah, the world and its maddening provision of details: the mossy cement and how the doorbell had no bell, just an empty socket where a button would go. He put his hand on the doorknob and pushed against the door with his shoulder and the man stopped leaning against it at the same moment, instead turning and running further into the house, and the door cracked open, smacked against the interior wall and came back at Hayslip as he stumbled inside. The guy tore down the hallway, elbows pumping, quick the way some big men are quick, the soles of his socks a filthy gray.

And in the entrance of the house, that chemical stink of piss in his nose, his mouth sour with adrenaline, Hayslip froze. Just stood there.

You also did the cover for the book. What inspired the cover?

I came up with a ton of different sketches for the cover, probably a dozen different cover concepts. Tricia – the Editor in Chief over at Meerkat – and I narrowed it down, eventually, to one. I like the cover because it shows the disparate elements of this book that contains a ton of different genre stuff. It offers a kind of contained cohesion to this book that is really all over the map. Plus, you know, it looks kinda like New Wave-y graph paper. Since the book’s set in 1983-1984, that seems pretty fitting.

As a reader, how important is a book cover to your decision to read a book?

If it’s an author unknown to me, the cover is the most important thing, alongside the title and spine text. I will unabashedly judge a book by its cover, and its font, and its composition. My biggest pet peeve as a graphic designer is when you’ve got repeated letters in a title, say in a word like “Killing,” and even though the designer’s used a wacky, distressed font meant to supposedly denote individuality and whatnot, the repeated Ls in “Killing” are exactly the same. It’s sloppy work. But then again, that’s the designer-nerd in me – a lot of people don’t even see that, and probably wouldn’t care if they did.

What else have you written?

I’ve done 25 issues of my fanzine Avow over the years. It’s essentially a creative nonfiction/anecdotal literary journal at this point. Selected issues have been anthologized in book form twice. I’ve been a columnist for various music magazines, and have written record reviews for Razorcake for about ten years now. I’ve published a few dozen short stories and am still trying to find a home for my short story collection. Collections, maybe even more than novels, hold such a special place for me. I adore story collections. Meanwhile, I’ve also written four novels – including Mercy – and am currently at work on the fifth, which is as close to a crime novel as I’m ever going to write, probably.

Where do you get ideas for new stories?

Honestly, I’m not really sure. I usually start out with a kernel of an idea – “the Tooth Fairy,” or “a girl in charge of her brother.” And then it goes from there. For every short story I finish, there are maybe two or three that die the slow death of loss of momentum. Sometimes, well after the fact, they can be resuscitated, shaped into something else, but sometimes they just have to be put away. Chalk it up to the idea of, “Hey, at least I wrote something today.”

What are a couple of your favorite books. Can you tell us why you love them?

The last few books that just smashed my heart into a hundred million pieces and then put it back together again were Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus and Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows. I also think Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is my favorite genre novel ever (a literary zombie book!), and I often wonder about what happened to Michael Doane, who wrote a number of incredible literary thrillers like Bullet Heart and City of Light back in the ‘90s and then just kinda vanished. His stuff is great. Sometimes you read a novel and realize you will never, ever write something as good – and it’s still a gift, getting to read such powerful things, that they exist in the world.

If you could collaborate on a book with one contemporary author, who would it be and why?

I don’t know. The idea of collaborating on a full-length book sounds like a pretty rough process, honestly. I do know a lot of writers who I wish would let me edit their stories! Heyyyy! (Points guns like fingers and winks like a jerk.)

Who is your agent? How did you go about finding an agent?

I’m represented by Christopher Schelling of Selectric Artists. I found an agent the traditional way: I wrote a book, wrote a query letter, and submitted again and again. I had a number of close calls with other agents before Christopher finally picked up the manuscript. Funnily enough, I actually wrote The Mercy of the Tide while Christopher was shopping my first manuscript around. Anyway, a testament to dedication: I think I contacted 90-100 agents before Christopher picked up the book. It took about a year and a half, and countless tweaks of both the query letter and manuscript.

What are the biggest advantages you see in having an agent? What are the disadvantages?

Huge, huge advantages include a) the agent submitting manuscript to publishers an author would most likely never have access to and b) negotiating the terms of a contract on an author’s behalf once an offer’s been made. These are huuuuuge advantages. It’s also nice, frankly, to have someone in your corner when the rejections come rolling in. Agents want to make deals; they wouldn’t take on our books if they didn’t see the potential in them, financially and otherwise. They are fierce advocates for our work, and they’re generally book nerds to boot.

What achievement in your life are you most proud of to date?

I honestly think we should give ourselves credit for just staying alive this long. That’s hard work sometimes, for a variety of reasons.

What has been the biggest surprise to you in your journey to becoming a published writer?

I’ve run into a number of folks – editors, publishers, other writers – who are… I don’t want to say flaky. Inconsistent, how’s that? Follow-through is sometimes rare, so I think we should all really send flowers and/or a mixtape and/or a bottle of booze to those editors, agents and publishers in our lives who do what they say they’re going to. Who send the contract, who send the advance when they say they’re going to, who come through with the copyedits, etc. If you’ve got professional folks in your writing life that are doing stuff for you, let ’em know how much you appreciate it, because it’s not always the norm, right? We’re lucky!

What do you find hardest about writing? Easiest?

Discipline is the hardest element for me. Sitting one’s ass down and getting to work and staying there in spite of a myriad of distractions. And honestly, as strange as it sounds, rejection is probably the easiest thing for me. After trying to get an agent for so long, and then trying to place novels with publishers, and still consistently getting short stories rejected from magazines all the time, I’ve become pretty used to it. And I think it’s a skill, really. An asset. Accepting the refusal and moving on, because fear of rejection just roots us to the ground sometimes.

What are you working on currently?

Always working on short stories, always, always. And am currently trying to wrestle that new crime novel into shape. It’s as close to a straight genre novel as I’ve ever gotten, and right now, honestly, it’s a pretty ugly little thing. It was done, and terrible, so I chopped half of it and started over – something I’ve done with almost every book I’ve ever written. Just part of the process. So there’s still a looong ways to go before this one’s worth showing anyone, but trying to tackle a previously unexplored genre has been an interesting challenge.

Where can we learn more about you and your work?

Puh-leez check out my personal site, keithrosson.com, and my Twitter account, @keith_rosson. And I also urge everyone to check out Meerkat’s website to get updates on giveaways and related stuff for The Mercy of the Tide and the other terrific books that press is putting out. They’re taking risks in their presentation and are very clearly having a blast with it. I’m super lucky to be involved. Check ’em out here: meerkatpress.com.

Is there anything you’d like to add that we didn’t cover?

Honestly, I’d just really like to thank you for the opportunity to be heard here, thank the Meerkat folks for publishing my debut novel, thank my fellow authors that afford me criticism and fellowship, thank the editors who’ve ever published my stories, and especially thank anyone who has ever read my stuff. It’s appreciated.

keithrosson.com | The Mercy of the Tide Book Excerpt | meerkatpress.com

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