An Interview with Bill Roorbach, by Celia Johnson
January 6, 2014
Bill Roorbach has written several award-winning fiction and nonfiction titles. His latest novel, Life Among Giants, does not disappoint, and the critics wholeheartedly agree. “Its wild characters feel genuine, their aches and flaws and desires wholly organic; and the plot they’re tangled in moves forward at a breakneck pace,” observed Haley Tanner, in a rave review for the New York Times. This novel combines unlikely characters (world-famous celebrities with a quirky middleclass family) and unlikely worlds (dance, football, tennis, food, business). They coalesce under the narrative lens of a towering football star named David, who also goes by Lizard. The result is an epic tale filled with intrigue, hope, and heartbreak.
I met Roorbach at a Honda repair shop on the day of his interview with Slice. He was having seats installed in his van, so that he could drive his twelve-year-old daughter and all of her friends to the beach. It quickly became clear to me that if Roorbach isn’t orchestrating an adventure, then he’s discovering one. We drove a short distance to a restaurant called Slate’s, just across the way from the Kennebunk River, in the tiny town of Hallowell, Maine. Inside, the conversation leapt from topic to topic: the delicious food, the music, the publishing industry, the wilderness of Maine. Roorbach has a knack for pinpointing humor and mystery in just about anything, and that expansive interest shines in his prose.
When dessert (bourbon chocolate mousse) arrived, we turned the conversation to Life Among Giants. At one point, to prove how delicious it was, the ever-friendly Roorbach offered a forkful of mousse to our waitress. Between bites, among other things, we discussed Lizard and his inimitable voice, how inspiration can strike anywhere and anytime, and whittling down a story one character at a time.
I heard you speak at the Portland Public Library and you mentioned that David or “Lizard,” the protagonist of Life Among Giants, arrived unexpectedly. How did that encounter unfold?
It’s all this late-at-night stuff. Instead of lying there worrying about something, I consciously start plugging away at a writing problem. And so it was with Life Among Giants. I’d been kicking around the idea of a Nick Carraway-type narrator for years—you know, the unassuming guy who lives across the way from Jay Gatsby. Also, I’d wanted to write something about a dancer—I’d known a lot of dancers in New York when I lived there back in the late seventies. Narrator, dancer, these were totally separate ideas. The dancer turned up first. This elegant ballerina. I could see her perfectly. I even had a name, Sylphide, from the Bournonville ballet La Sylphide, a name she would have given herself. And why shouldn’t she be the world’s greatest dancer? Anyway, she did fouettés and grand jetés in my head for a long time.
Then one night, me lying there awake once again, this kid came to mind, a character who was a real athlete, not a pretty-good athlete like me, but someone with all the goods, everything, even a nickname: Lizard. Tall. He was very tall.
And once he appeared, he wouldn’t leave. I walked around daydreaming his life for months, got to know his family, his football friends, his favorite girl. Till one day, walking down a street somewhere, bumping into stuff, completely distracted, I thought, wait, Lizard, he’s my Nick Carraway. Which means he needs to live across the way from some more mythic figure, which means his life needs to get more and more entwined with his or hers—whoever lives over there. One more late night, and suddenly it comes to me; the mythic figure across the pond, this place I’ve been seeing for months. It’s her. Sylphide.
Some time after that, I was propped up in my office at the College of the Holy Cross before a class, all prepped and ready to go, twenty minutes to kill, and I thought, I’ve got to start. And it was like Lizard just knocked on the door, bumped his head on the doorframe, walked into my office, took a seat by my desk, and started talking. Then boom, the twenty minutes were up. Off to class. That little bit was the first paragraph of the manuscript for a long time. It’s buried a little further into the book now, page six or so. But in its completeness it set everything up, posited a cast of characters, including Sylphide’s husband, a rock star who had just died in a car crash, apparently. And it gave Lizard a sister. And a modest house. In Connecticut, where I happened to grow up, but nothing like my folks’ place. No, this was a little stone house on a pond. His parents were upstairs fighting. He was seventeen, and that carried all kinds of implications. All these plot details from I don’t know where, and all these questions to answer. In subsequent weeks I daydreamed and wrote, and the bigger story started to develop. Who is this dancer? Why and exactly how did her husband die? How exactly does Lizard get tangled with this woman? He has a sister, so maybe it was her. Maybe his sister worked over there. Yes, she was an au pair. For their kid. But not just any kid, a developmentally delayed kid. And on and on. I had to solve all of these problems, think my way through all these lives, one after the next, and just write my way into it, finding Lizard’s voice, yes, but also his story—Lizard telling me what the story is. And stupidly I’d argue with him.
Did you veer in any unexpected directions and then have to retrace your steps, or did you find yourself plunging forward to the end?
Writing is the slowest form of reading. In a book like Life Among Giants, I’m just writing to find out what happens. Not all of which can make it into a book. I definitely wandered off on tangents, and even if they were interesting, later they’d get cut. (Didn’t Hemingway say something like: “We can tell the quality of our writing by the quality of the stuff we have to cut”?) But everything I cut, everything my editor cuts, it leaves me knowing more about my characters, leaves a lingering flavor, a kind of ghostly presence. It’s like meeting someone for the first time—you don’t know every little story of her vast life, but you feel the presence of all that experience. And the early drafts of Life Among Giants were long, and then longer. I had whole chapters on Lizard’s middle years that are now cut out. One hundred pages from the 1980s that aren’t in the book anymore, fifty pages from the 1970s here, fifty pages from the 2000s there, storylines that didn’t serve the greater project, or scenes, good as they were, that merely reiterated character traits and plot points I’d already developed. Chop-chop!
It must have been difficult to let so many pages go.
Of course, yes. Some easier than others. But listen to this: There’s life after editing. We’re now in the early stages of developing a premium cable version of Life Among Giants. Of course, till this point I would have said I preferred a feature film. But in the days after the idea was floated, I watched a season of The Sopranos, which I’d never seen (or any other cable drama, for that matter), and realized that it was not only a soap, but a big, luxurious on-screen novel. With a cable series that goes on for years, you can do a serious story, and you can follow all sorts of storylines, develop dozens of characters, reinsert whole decades, investigate the past. And I had this glimmer of joy: I’d be able to resurrect a lot of stuff I hadn’t wanted to cut. And make up new stuff, go deeper into favorite characters. We can follow Lizard’s mad sister, Kate, possibly even do a whole season about her. We can conceivably go back in time, back before the rock star is dead, say, and dramatize his relationship with the dancer. We can find and show the moment that brings those two households together. Really fun.
Is there a character who you struggled to know?
The dancer was the hardest, and not only because she’s mysterious even to herself. She’s a celebrity: there’s a public mythos in place, hard for anyone to circumnavigate. Lizard is seventeen when he first meets Sylphide, but he’s almost sixty when the book ends. So his knowledge of her develops and gets much more complex as it goes along. As the writer, I can know more than he does, but I do have to stick to what it’s possible for him to know. Initially for him it’s just adoration, a big crush (though many readers won’t like the dancer at first). He takes in the myth whole. Then the dancer keeps revealing herself as a person, subtly, slowly, and he’s smart enough to catch those moments. That is when she is the most vulnerable and the most interesting. But who is she? That was the hard part for me—not so much for Lizard, who can just accept her. What does she care about? What would her childhood have been like? Why is she so interested in Lizard? And yet why does she keep him at arm’s length? He’ll never know all the answers, but as the writer I need to know so that the reader can look over Lizard’s shoulder and see things that he, as the narrator of his own life, might be missing.
How did the development of Sylphide’s childhood resonate throughout the story?
I didn’t think about this part until later in the drafting, then one day I just sat down, sorted through a bunch of odd notes I’d jotted on this and that scrap of paper, and wrote thirty or forty pages about Sylphide as a kid. I wrote and wrote, found out that she grew up in a severe little island community in Norway—a place I happened to have visited—and because of her talent and her mother’s history was taken out of her home to travel to Russia with this kind of sick impresario and live with him there as she trains. Bolshoi, why not? She has no childhood, no life. What survives of all that in the final book is maybe three pages. But the exercise helped me carry the dancer forward into Lizard’s universe, all that thinking about her strict upbringing, all the training through adolescence, all the focus she would’ve had to have had. How does that warp a person? How does it explain some of her behavior later, which is at times perverse, at times very narcissistic, at times very vulnerable, often magnanimous, occasionally clumsy? And I did the same thing—wrote dozens of pages—to learn what it’s like for her as an adult, all that world-class fame, no one to protect her, no one to understand her. Everyone is after her because she’s so wealthy and so talented and so odd and so beautiful. Though she’s not that beautiful close up, Lizard discovers. His simple ideas about beauty at that age are quickly contravened by her. The real beauty—her intelligence—is always pouring out of her, and he’s got the heart to know it.
Who are the “giants” of the title?
The title came very late. The working title was The High Side, which is the name of Sylphide’s mansion. Lizard is tall, nearly seven feet, but he’s not one of the giants of the title—though I don’t mind people thinking so. The giants of the title are, again, the more mythic figures: the dancer; her three husbands—including the rock star; Sylphide’s friends in the dance world, some of whom are historically real, like Nureyev, some made up, like Vlad Markusak; the evil banker; the sister Kate’s boyfriend (and later husband) Jack, who was her professor at Yale; surely some of Lizard’s teammates on the Miami Dolphins, not to mention Coach Shula, who makes a cameo. Even Ginger Baker, the legendary drummer for the 1960s power band Cream is in there. The trick for the novelist is to make them come alive as characters, people and not only legends. And then let Lizard walk among them.
Lizard’s voice is, I found, one of the most compelling aspects of the book. There’s a tone, a rhythm. Was that there from the beginning?
Part of that voice is me, I guess: my syntax, which is quirky anyway. But I do think a big part of it is him. He brings a certain personality to the page that was there from the start, that first paragraph, and different from my other narrators. It’s kind of mystical. This kid springs forth with a personality, with a style, with a history, then grows through the decades. Along the way I had to get to know him, inhabit him, channel him, however we want to think of it. But it wasn’t all just instinct; there are corners of research even in developing a first-person character.
For example, trying to understand the effects of Lizard’s height on his psyche, I asked a basketball player I know, this six-foot-eleven college kid, “What’s it like to be so tall?” He said, “Mostly it’s like nothing. Except everyone always asks you what it’s like to be so tall. And how tall you are. And I hit my head a lot. I have really big feet. But to me it’s just me in here. What am I supposed to tell you?”
But just that much was really helpful, simply to realize that his towering height isn’t special to him; to him it’s just the facts of his life. He didn’t find his own powers remarkable, and neither does Lizard.
This is an excerpt from an interview that appears in issue 13 of Slice. To purchase a copy of the issue and read the full interview, click here.
Bill Roorbach‘s newest book is Life Among Giants, a novel. His short fiction has appeared in Harper’s, the Atlantic, Playboy, and lots of other places, such as on NPR’s Selected Shorts. He has won the Flannery O’Connor Award, an O. Henry Prize, and a number of other awards and fellowships. Bill has taught at Columbia University, Ohio State, Holy Cross, and Colby College, but has now left academia. He blogs at billanddavescocktailhour.com and writes full time. He lives in Western Maine with his wife and daughter and quite a few animals.
Celia Johnson is a writer and the creative director of Slice Literary. Her most recent book is Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors.