Rob Roberge is the author of the memoir Liar (2016), three novels–The Cost of Living (2013), More Than They Could Chew (2005), and Drive (2001)–and the short-story collection Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life (2010). Liar has been excerpted by The Rumpus and praised in The LA Review of Books, Publisher’s Weekly, and Kirkus, and Roberge’s previous work earned him a spot on The Literary Review’s “Ten Writers Worth Knowing” list as well as the admiration of authors including Steve Almond, previous Fiction Points participant Stephen Elliott, Janet Fitch, and Cheryl Strayed. His work has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Penthouse, The Rumpus, and ZYZZYVA, among other venues. Roberge is also a musician, singing and playing guitar in the Los Angeles-based band The Urinals. He teaches in the University of California Riverside/Palm Desert’s MFA program and received his own MFA from Vermont College.
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
Hmm. Well, I probably wouldn’t tell them I’m a writer unless they’d asked what I do, as I try not to force that info on people (and, I would suppose, Penguins). And I’m terrible (as many writers are) at answering the question of what I write about. Sometimes I say black humor, but that’s only an aspect of it—not the whole deal. I probably write the most about the quietly horrifying gap between who we know we are capable of being at our best, and who we actually are in our day to day lives.
But, since my new book (Liar: A Memoir) is my first on a major press, it’s the first time I’ve had a professional marketing person in charge of that aspect of the book. And I want to make her and Crown happy and try to sell as many books as I can to justify their faith in me and the book. So, in this scenario, I suppose I would tell the nuns and the penguin that I write about nuns and penguins who go to bars together. Try to move some units and keep my publicist Liz happy.
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?
For historians specifically? I’m not sure. I did a lot of drugs and alcohol before I got clean and sober. But I don’t know if any of that usage was of historical value, in my life or in my work. Though David Foster Wallace once said that the job of fiction was to show the way we live now…that each writer had their story (stories) to add to the great continuum of how people were living at a specific time and place.
What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?
I’m a very autobiographical writer, and I spent a great number of years as an active addict. So, it’s a huge part of my history (and even my present, even though I can’t do those things anymore…drugs and alcohol still occupy a lot of my mental energy), and it only seemed natural that I would write about something that was such a formative aspect of my life.
How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?
That’s a really interesting question. For one thing, as I mentioned above, a lot of my work is obsessed with that gap between who we know we are capable of being, and who we are actually being. Inside that gap is what makes us human, I think. And, for me, substances increased that gap and fed my self-loathing and my feelings that I wasn’t enough for this world. That I would never measure up, and drugs and alcohol were a way of forgetting about that. Also (again, speaking only for myself), being drunk or loaded was a defense mechanism to feeling like I never fit in. They helped me in that way, to a degree. Though, eventually, they made those feelings of alienation worse. And I use all of that in my fiction, even if I’m writing about a specific character who isn’t an addict. But a lot of my characters are outsiders. People who don’t fit in. Addicts. I don’t think I would be able to write about being outside and looking in nearly as well without having drugs in my writing arsenal.
What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?
Well, the nature of drama…the nature of plot…is often a character who wants something who has to overcome something in their way to get it. Desire met with opposition is a lot of the basis for plot. And anyone who has ever been in a daily cycle of drugs and/or alcohol knows that feeling very well. You have an overwhelming desire (to get loaded or drunk) that’s often met with some obstacle (it can be money, having to work a job, having to break the law to get what you want). And character is revealed when we see what people are willing to do to get what they want. I’m interested in what people do when they are put under pressure. And that’s one of the most interesting things drugs offer for my writing.
BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that one of your novels, short stories, or your memoir Liar gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?
I guess Liar, if for no other reason than it’s the new one and I’m closest to it now. I would love to hear Johnny Depp doing an acapella version of Dylan’s “I’ll Shall Be Released” (which would also mean Depp was in the movie…which would be very nice).