Photos by Robb Todd
Robb Todd is taking pictures in your neighborhood. He’s writing in the streets. He’s hand-feeding a bear cub when its mother turns her head. And he took the time to conduct an interview with Squalorly to accompany his piece, “Is Was.” For those who don’t know, Robb Todd is a writer living in New York. His collection Steal Me for Your Stories is out now through Roxane Gay’s Tiny Hardcore Press. The collection kills. Read it, and enjoy.
Let me start by asking, what’s the origin of Robb Todd as a fiction writer? What’s the origin of your aesthetic / voice / subject matter?
On the origin, two things: finding some freedom in my life, journalism and studying with Gordon Lish. Wait, that’s three things. No, four things: add genetics. There’s got to be some double helix going on. No, three things: forget about the freedom. I’m not really free but I have found a little freedom by writing.
I chased a career in journalism for a long time, won a few awards, but it was never what I had hoped it would be. And journalism for me as a writer was like being in shackles. When I was able to escape, I started writing fiction again. It took a while to redesign my brain. Journalism and the kind of fiction I am interested in are nearly opposites. Undoing a lot of what journalism burned into me was crucial. But its shadow is still there.
Gordon Lish accepted me into his masterclass. I studied with him for three years. It was a transformative time in my life for that and several other reasons. Lish’s classes were about more than sentences. They were about what it means to do this and how it must be done. How you conduct your life and how your life has to be consumed with words. You must give yourself over to sentences.
Despite what people may have heard, Lish is a generous man who only ever had my best interests in mind, even when he was ripping me apart over my words. “Robb! You can’t be serious!” Especially then.
Journalism taught me some valuable things, too. Like how to handle an editor who screams at me in front of other people. I also learned a lot about precision and economy. I learned how to write quickly and trust my instincts on the page. I learned how to edit. And edit again. And again. And again. These are all part of me still.
My subject matter comes from some of the same instincts that led me into journalism. Sometimes I think I am still a reporter sending dispatches on the things that matter to me—but in a different form than you’d read in a newspaper.
Life is interesting. Especially the difficult parts, the things we don’t want to look at because it hurts too much. The conflict. The damage. And how you put it back together. But then there is love and laughing and happiness, which is most important, and is the thing to strive for amid all of that. So I look there.
My aesthetic and voice have changed in the past few years because I have been writing and reading more than ever. That is shifting me toward what I hope is an unoccupied space that people are less familiar with, but still recognize and want.
Narrative and character don’t do much for me these days. Not on their own. I need a feeling and I want language and I want not-knowing. I don’t want random words on a page, either. Sometimes people act like what I’m describing gives allowances to writers to be intentionally obtuse. I don’t like gimmicks. I don’t want cheap illusion, either. But I do want voodoo.
You say you’re writing and reading more than ever, and that narrative and character aren’t doing it for you. Which writers out there are giving you the voodoo? And do you ever read something that makes you go straight to the pen, something that directly influences what you write?
Here are some books I’ve read recently that have it:
“How It Is” by Samuel Beckett
“Bonsai” by Alejandro Zambra
“Oversoul” by Mitchell S. Jackson
“Olt” by Kenneth Gangemni
“Blood and Guts in High School” by Kathy Acker
“A Cloth House” by Joseph Riippi
“Nightwork” by Christine Schutt
“The Map of the System of Human Knowledge” by James Tadd Adcox
“Rontel” by Sam Pink
“Normally Special” by xTx
“Ray” by Barry Hannah
“Mother Ghost” by Casey Hannan
“The Preposterous Week” by George Keenen
You’ll find some narrative and character in a few spots but, when you do, it’s not the hook. It’s the acoustics and the form and the unanswerable question of being.
Poetry isn’t necessarily supposed to have narrative and character but these recently made my mind explode:
“Collected Poems” by Jack Gilbert
“Slow Lightning” by Eduardo C. Corral
“The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly: Poems Collected and New” by Denis Johnson (started slowly but got better)
“Jeremy Schmal & The Cult of Comfort” by Jeremy Schmall
And if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Daniel Long, well, please find his work immediately. Here’s one to start you off.
I should also say that “The Coast of Chicago: Stories” by Stuart Dybek was amazing. Plenty of narrative. Plenty of character. But he still made the stories sing themselves into something extraordinary. So it’s not that I don’t want it. I just don’t need it. And I don’t want only that. And I definitively don’t want scenarios. I will probably always be a child because it’s all about what I want, right?
As much as I care for everything I listed, reading never propels me to writing. What usually happens when someone else’s words knock me down is that it inspires me in a more general sense. When I encounter something beautiful on the page, it raises the standard. That’s also why it is increasingly hard to find good books. Every time the standard goes up, it disqualifies so many.
It is always good to be reminded of the power of words—and how much better someone else is at stamping them on the page.
What propels me is when I find objects and affections and anger and beauty and corrosion. It happens when I’m walking around or watching the city move. Or losing my way. Or if I am able to free up my mind enough that it feeds a little oxygen to an idea. Or hurting. Or my mind tangles itself so much that I have to write my way free. And being alive. And knowing I will die.
A homeless man lit one of his socks on fire and tossed it into a pile of trash on the sidewalk and held his hands over the smoke. This will never stop making me stop.
Recently a story of mine, which included a small bit of that incident, was rejected for not being enough of a story. The editor included a personal response and it made me feel good because I agreed with almost everything she said: “There is much I love about this piece, but I’m afraid I will pass. The language is rhythmic and surprising. It feels like skillful stream of consciousness spoken-word, more poetry than prose. Maybe that’s what I’m looking for: more story, some concrete plot points to pin it down. Still, I enjoyed it and wrestled with my reaction to it and thank you for sharing it with me.” She was very kind in sending that to me.
This story (I’m still calling it that) might be more poetry than prose but it’s definitely not a poem. So I don’t know where that leaves me. I don’t mind being wherever this place is, but it’s something I need to think about. And not because I’m going to change it at all. When I read it, there is narrative and characters and all of that. Or shadows of that. It moves from one place to another and through things and there’s transformation at the end. That’s not a story? But I clearly don’t see plot and people the same as normal folk and might never, I hope.
Then again, I need to stop being mad at novels for not being poems. Then again, again, how much do we need to be told for us to care?
And what is the value in endlessly debating the distinction between poetry and prose? We’d like to think people know when they’re reading poetry and when they’re reading prose, when there’s a mix going on. When I read much of your work, and when I read “Is Was,” I get that mixing of the poetic and the prose. What can you tell us about “Is Was”?
The debate isn’t very enjoyable but maybe people really do need boxes to put things in. Clearly labeled boxes. My argument in the debate is, “Why are we having this debate?” But there is probably a good answer for that. I just don’t know what it is. Something about a white horse? I fear the fate of the El Camino but I don’t know a lot of things—such as what to say about “Is Was.”
Fair enough. A good percentage of our readers are amateur writers. Many have published stories and are looking to take that next step, a step that may be reached by putting out a collection of their work. How did your collection Steal Me for Your Stories come to life? What’s the origin story there?
Having a book might not mean you can shake off the label “amateur.” Actually, I think that’s an unfair label, book or no book. What makes a writer a writer is writing. It’s a part of you. It’s who you are. It’s what you do. You don’t have to make your living as a writer to be one. And that’s important to understand because the likelihood of anybody making a living from art is minuscule.
A book is great but what’s even better is great writing, whether that’s online or a blog or wherever. A lot of really bad books get published. Actually, when I first started writing fiction, that’s what I told myself: “So many horrible books are published every year—and I could write one of them!”
What it sounds like your readers are doing is what I did. And I still do that. Just write and write and write. And edit a lot. Send your work to journals you respect. Handle the rejection. There will be a lot more of that than anything else. Keep sending your words out. But don’t send out too much and don’t send your words just anywhere. Think about the company you keep—and I don’t mean that in an ass-kissing, snobby way. There are too many asses to kiss and you can’t kiss them all. I mean feel good about how your work is represented. Send your stories to journals that you read and respect, and to journals that publish work by authors who you read and respect.
A common pitfall for people starting out is over-publishing. Don’t rush into it. It’s not a numbers game. Make sure the work is the best representation of you. It’s better to publish fewer stories and have them all be great than send everything you jot down out into the Internet like buckshot. People really are paying attention. It might take a while, but someone will notice and the higher the quality of the work, the more likely you are to get a book. But that’s not the goal. Writing amazing asdf is the goal.
Steal Me for Your Stories is a sexy little artifact to hold in your hands. Did you have any influence with the book’s design or in the sequencing of the stories? And take us behind the curtain a little bit on the editorial process that was involved in putting your collection together.
The most frequent comments I get about the book are “I love the size!” and “The cover is awesome!” Most people stop there.
All the books from Tiny Hardcore are this size. Pretty smart. I think it’s great to be able to slip a book in your pocket. Handy for those who don’t carry purses.
The cover was designed by a good friend of mine, Scotty Albrecht. He’s an amazing artist (scottyfivealive.com). We’ve known each other for a while—so long that I think he goes by Scott now. We’ve been friends since before the start of the work that went into the book. He was even a part of some of the moments that led to the creation of a few stories. It meant a lot to me that he did the cover and that we could share it in a meaningful way.
The editorial process mostly involved taking a good look at several years’ worth of writing and deciding what belonged and what didn’t and in what order. It was a lot more work than I anticipated but it made me look at my writing in a way I hadn’t before. Reading it all again, editing. Seeing it in total was important. Objects sprang up that I wasn’t aware I paid so much attention to.
It also helped me put some of that behind me. It was a valuable experience.
You once claimed that a bear could whip a gorilla in a fight “easily.” How about a bear vs. five determined badgers?
That’s not a claim. That’s a fact. Only truculent nincompoops would suggest otherwise, and I know a few truculent nincompoops. (I’m trying to bring back the word nincompoop and the word truculent.)
But you raise an interesting question. Badgers are fierce, and not just the honey variety. Certainly one badger could not defeat a bear, and we have evidence of that in this video. Happy to call that a draw, knowing that the bear must not have been very hungry. Otherwise, forget it. But five badgers? And they’re determined? Sorry, it’s still not much of a fight. If this bear can juggle three great white sharks while wearing a top hat and riding a unicycle, five determined badgers won’t be doing much more than fertilizing the soil a few days after the fight.
I’ll concede, for now, the bear winning based on the weak showing of the badger in that bear vs. badger video. But I’ll also hold out belief that the right gang of badgers could take down a bear – easily. Lastly, what’s on the plate for Robb Todd in the future? Another collection? And you’re working on a novel?
Ah, the future. I’ll eat a sandwich. Win the lottery maybe. No, probably. Definitely. Definitely going to win the lottery. Twice. It’s been a dream of mine. I practice a lot. It’s my only hope. And probably two more books and then I will die. Maybe three books. Four would be a stretch. Definitely not five. Well, maybe five but six would be absurd. Seven—no way. Eight? Screw it. I’ll gun for eight. My eighth book will be about a bear minding his own business when he is ambushed by a posse of terrorist badgers.
Book No. 2 is almost done. It’s a novel(la) and it’s quite different than my first. So that’s in the future. And it’s also right now. Well, it’s only right now because, really, there is no future. Especially for badgers. Right? Right.
For more, visit Robb’s Website.