Fiction, the Short Form and The Trouble with Memoir: with Rob Roberge2
December 10, 2009 by The Citron Review
Antonia Crane: I heard you were writing a memoir. What is it about and what are some challenges you face when writing non-fiction?
Rob Roberge: It’s about my messed up life. I suppose that doesn’t make it very different from most memoirs. There seem to be two major camps…the “my screwed up life” memoir and the “some nut job almost killed me and/or I was hiking and almost died” memoir. Mine falls in the former, rather than latter camp. But, in a little more detail, it’s about a life of addiction to various substances, about my struggle, I suppose, to find some beauty, grace, humor and measurable worth in what is often a meaningless and troublesome existence. It’s also, among other things, about the unsolved murder of a friend of mine when I was 11.
Challenges? The first is probably finding what makes a person’s life—mine in this case—worthy of documentation. Let’s face it—most of our lives are pretty boring…we spend more time waiting in traffic and brushing our teeth than facing life-altering moments, most of the time. So, finding what truly matters is a challenge. Not being entirely self-involved, while endeavoring in a self-involved process, is a challenge, too. Also, there’s the ethical issue of staying true to event and fact—which is not something that matters in fiction. In fiction, you can tell the truth by telling lies. In memoir, you have to tell the truth while telling the truth. And that’s a little tough for me. As a fiction writer, I’ve been a trained liar for twenty-three years. So, staying true to event (or at least true to the event in my memory, which is not to be confused, for any of us, with facts) is tough.
Beyond that, memoir is prose. It’s much the same as fiction. The same narrative rules apply.
Crane: Do the same structural issues apply with fiction as with non-fiction like engaging, lively characters, scenes and a dramatic arc?
Roberge: I’d say yes on characters and scenes. I’m not sure I believe in narrative arc, in fiction or non-fiction.
Crane: How do you decide on a timeline for a memoir?
Roberge: Well, it’s pretty much my whole life, so that part was easy. But I’m not very interested in anyone’s childhood—my own included—so, it focuses mostly on actions as an adult, sometimes informed by brief passages of earlier years.
Also, I don’t tend to tell ‘beginning-middle-end’ stories, so it’ll jump around a lot.
Crane: Did you stop working on your memoir and pick up your novel-in-progress? If so, why?
Roberge: I did. And then, once I decided to stop writing it, it started flowing again, so I went back to it, while working simultaneously on finishing my novel in stories.
But the reason I had stopped was that it was jamming me up because I couldn’t find its structure…and since I did know the structure and voice of the novel, I decided to work on that. But now both are flowing again, so I’m working on both.
Also, I was worried (and still am) about hurting people from my life in writing a memoir. But that’s part of the territory…I hope it doesn’t happen, but it’s something I’ll have to deal with.
Crane: What is the POV of your novel and how is it structured?
Roberge: It’s first-person (which I like best). A collection of linked short stories, with the same narrator, spanning a time-line of thirty years from when he’s 13 to 43.
Crane: How do you find your endings in memoir, a short story or novel?
Roberge: Well, I’ve never ended a memoir before, so I’ll have to answer that later—hopefully later this year.
As far as ending novels goes—with my two published novels, I got the ending lines for each when I was about midway through the books…both times driving…once on the 10, once on the 405. I seem to get the endings to novels when I’m about halfway through them…that’s when I know where and how they’ll end. I don’t tend to know where my novels are going, so I just trust in the process. And then when I’m about halfway done, I guess I drive a lot.
With ending short stories, I look for all of the issues the story raises, all the implications it brings up, to be addressed. Not resolved, but addressed in language.
Crane: When working with short stories, how do you know when they are complete?
Roberge: Like I say, I think a story is done when all of the issues of character, voice and desire are addressed. Not resolved or concluded…I tend to hate stories that conclude and/or resolve. A lot of fiction I see tends to sum itself up at the end and I think that’s reductive and boring.
What I look for is a line that opens the story up (while still addressing/implying every line that came before), rather than closes it down…a line that implies what’s come before in some way, without reducing it to meaning. Stories, like life, are bigger and more complex than meaning.
Rob Roberge is the author of the upcoming book of stories, Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life (Fall, 2010, Red Hen) and the neo-noir novels More Than They Could Chew (Perennial Dark Alley/Harper Collins, February 2005) and Drive (re-issue, Hollyridge Press, 2006). His stories have been featured in ZYZZYVA, Chelsea, Other Voices, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Ten Writers Worth Knowing Issue of The Literary Review. His work has also been anthologized in Another City (City Lights, 2001), It’s All Good (Manic D Press, 2004) and SANTI: Lives of the Modern Saints (Black Arrow Press, 2007). New work is scheduled to appear in PENTHOUSE and OC Noir, part of the series that includes San Francisco Noir, LA Noir and Las Vegas Noir. He has written columns for www.myrareguitars.com, Seismic Magazine and Sandm.com.
Rob also teaches (or has taught) writing at a number of programs in the Los Angeles area, including the Antioch University Los Angeles, MFA in Creative Writing and the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where he received the Outstanding Instructor Award in Creative Writing in 2003. In his spare time, he plays guitar and sings with the Los Angeles area garage/punk bands The Violet Rays, The Danbury Shakes and LA’s punk pioneers, the Urinals. He also restores and rebuilds vintage amplifiers and quack medical devices. For news and more info, visit & or email at robroberge.com.
This is a very interesting short interview that addresses important aspects of memoir. I’ve been writing one myself–a memoir that doesn’t fall into either of the two categories cited here–and I readily agree that “structure” is key to the dramatic impact of memoir–as in novel writing. Discovering that structure ain’t easy though, even as it is one of the major tasks of the memoirist.
I enjoyed Roberge’s words on memoir since I’ve been toying with the idea. Perhaps memoir is not the right word for what I’m working on, however, it’s good to hear another’s writers thoughts and hangups on writing about one’s self.