I’m just going to say this: I love Bill Roorbach. Like, I want to hug the man. He’s not just a terrific writer, he’s also a fabulous human being.
But today, I’m interested in him as a writer: my first Bill Roorbach was his story collection, Big Bend, but I quickly moved on to his essays and his memoirs. So when I heard that he was putting out a new novel this year, I was an early pesterer for release dates!
This month, Bill Roorbach’s new book, Life Among Giants, comes out in bookstores and online. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an early copy, and I reviewed it here on the blog. But after I finished the book, I kept wanting more, so I tracked down Bill and asked him to let me interview him here. And Bill, who is seriously one of the coolest people ever, said, “I’d be honored to do an interview when the time comes.”
This was our conversation.
It’s been about a decade since you last published a novel. I love the short fiction and the essays and the memoirs and the writing guides you’ve published in the meantime, but that decade between novels is interesting to me. What took you so long to return to that form?
I love nothing more than being inside a novel, working away. But other ideas had got hold of me and took precedence, that’s all. Temple Stream was a complicated book and took some years to complete. And then I wrote stories, lots of stories. And essays. And started Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour with David Gessner. Plus my mom died, which stopped me cold for a year or so. But all along I was playing with ideas for a novel, and had written a chapter or two. It’s a long novel! And some of the drafts were even longer, each one taking a year.
And what made this the story that brought you back to the novel?
I don’t feel like I was ever away, in a way. These things grow organically and among other projects in such a way that there’s no beginning and no end.
I know from Algonquin’s publicity materials, including “The Algonquin Reader,” that the bones of this story come from your youth: the mansion across the water, the rock stars, the intrigue over what was going on over there. But the characters are so complex and so interesting, and I’m not sure where some of the ideas for them come from. The main character in particular: I get why he’s smart and well-read, I get why he’s a foodie (though I want to ask more about that), but why also make him this paragon of masculine athleticism? Where did that idea come from?
David “Lizard” Hochmeyer is a great athlete, it’s true, but conflicted. He’s gotten disenchanted with the American Dream, including the sports dream. He’s unimpressed with his own considerable powers, cares little for the game. He’s more drawn to other worlds, such as ballet, as exemplified by the famous ballerina, Sylphide, who lives in the mansion across the way. For her part, she regards athletes as artists, and dancers as athletes. I’ve always been interested in sports, though I was only pretty good at most, maybe a little better than that at baseball. And I always looked up to the best athletes, one of whom was my older brother, wondered what made them tick.
Okay, back to the food: I know you love to garden and to cook. Your photos of you and your daughter with vegetables from the garden or fresh-baked cakes, on your blog and on Facebook, are just delightful, and you obviously take a lot of pleasure from it. But those restaurant scenes! Man, those are vivid. I’ve cooked professionally — never on the scale that this guy does, but enough to know my way around a restaurant kitchen — and the bits of the novel that involve restaurants are just spot on. What’s your background in restaurants?
I was a bartender in a number of good restaurants and always fascinated by the kitchen. Plus, as you say, I love to cook. Fun to imagine someone much better than it than I will ever be!
And some of the recipes! I haven’t tried it yet, but I want to take a crack at the mushroom sausage you describe early in the novel. Did you come up with that, or did you consult with someone? And all those other dishes… did you actually get into the kitchen with a chef and work on some of those?
There’s no crack in that recipe! Oh, read that wrong. I invented the sausage and experimented cooking them until I got it right, just on my own, with mushrooms from our woods and from various friends. The sausages are really good because mushrooms are really good, a nice replacement if you don’t eat much meat but love sausage.
Can we get the recipe for that sausage you invented?
The recipe is in the book!
One of the things I love about the book is the locations. New England and Miami in particular feel so real — you can sense the warmth and humidity down south, the chill and the changing seasons up north. You based the houses on your youth, and you live in Maine today, but what’s your history with Miami? Did you do research trips down there? Hang out with any of the Dolphins?
I’ve known a number of football players, but never considered it research. Miami I love. I have friends down there and have spent time at different phases of life. Great food. Great energy. A way to light a fire under the book. I’m more like Everglades. And most of the Dolphins I hung out with were at Sea World.
For you, the first mystery, the one that led to this book, was the rock stars across the water and what they got up to in that big house. And you play that wonderfully in the fictional world of the novel. But the characters’ story starts with a murder, and the echoes of that event begin to take the shape of a murder mystery. What made you add that?
My question was: how does trauma play out through the whole life? Lizard’s dad is a hapless character who gets himself in over his head, and pays big. His kids pay even more. My neighbors back in the day, down there in Connecticut, were nothing like the neighbors in the book — that was just a kind of suggestion planted in my head that found expression here. Much more important was my curiosity about dancer friends, my admiration. Nothing in the book comes directly from life. When you write a novel, you make stuff up, and you try to bring it to life. Lizard is trying to solve a mystery, it’s true, but the real mystery for all of us is: what does this life thing mean?
This is a little book-clubbish, and maybe you want to leave it to the readers, but tell me about the title. The most obvious giants are the rock star and the dancer and the towering football player. But I get the sense that there’s something less tangible about that title, like the “giants” actually refer to an idea more than to human beings. The parents don’t quite fit the bill, but their deaths loom large in the book. Are they wrapped up in the title, and what makes them “giant”? Or is there something else that title might refer to?
Lizard is almost seven feet tall, it’s true, but he’s not one of the giants of the title. The giants are the famous dancers, rock stars, philosphers, evil bankers, and chefs that populate this book, the people Lizard lives among.
Some of the promo materials from the publisher, when they sent my advanced copy, compare this book to Gatsby. What do you make of comparisons like that? I mean, on the one hand, what an honor! But I can see why it would feel daunting, too, like you have to live up to that. Were you thinking about Gatsby when you wrote this? What do you do when someone compares you to Fitzgerald?
I was thinking of Gatsby from the start. I wanted to make a narrator who, like Nick Carraway, starts as an observer of people in mansions, and ends up getting tangled in more mythic lives. And I was gratified when Publisher’s Weekly called Life Among Giants “Gatsybyesque.”
Bill Roorbach is the author of Life Among Giants as well as the story collection Big Bend, the memoir Temple Stream, the writing text Writing Life Stories, and many other books, stories, and essays. You can find out more about Bill at his website; you can find out more about the novel at the book’s website; and you can follow Bill’s blog at Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.
Portlanders: Bill is scheduled to to read at Powell’s Books on January 10. Everyone else, check out Bill’s book tour to see when he’ll be in your area!
Watch the book trailer Bill made here: