The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2015

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JUNE 2015 Issue
Books In Conversation

JEFFREY ROTTER with Bill Cheng

Jeffrey Rotter
The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering
(Metropolitan Books, 2015)

The more I’ve gotten to know him, the more I’m convinced that Jeffrey Rotter and I were separated at birth.

The signs are all there: Jeff is 46, and I’m 31. He was born in South Carolina, me in New York.

Or more likely it’s the grace and sensibilities he demonstrates in his new novel The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering that make me wish that the comparison were true.

Jeff and I have known each other for some time now. We attended the same graduate school and get together on occasion to talk about writing over a beer, coffee, or a grilled cheese sandwich. The book is like him: witty and irreverent and yet still simultaneously profound and full of yearning.

The novel tells the story of Rowan Van Zandt, the youngest member of an outlaw family living in a world gone backwards. Government has collapsed and powerful commercial interests reign in its stead. The consequence of which is a new dark ages where knowledge and science has been replaced by superstition. When the Van Zandt patriarch, Pop, kills a co-worker at Airplane Food, he and his family are given a choice: spend the rest of their lives separated in the walls of the Cuba Pens, or be launched together through the Night Glass to what they believe is their deaths.

If this last sentence alone isn’t enough to demand your attention, I don’t know what will. The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering is equal parts Carl Sagan and Charles Dickens. There’s a love of language here but also a love of life, of knowledge, of humanity. Jeffrey Rotter shows us that a world on its way to apocalypse is still deserving of redemption.

We met at Couleur Café in Park Slope, Brooklyn to talk about his book.

Bill Cheng (Rail): Tell me about the moment the idea for The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering revealed itself to you.

Jeffrey Rotter: I was playing with a batch of short stories, kind of classic Tales of Horror, in which the monster is always loneliness. One began with the image of a man at a telescope looking for his family. The rest of the stories died in the petri dish, but that image hung on. As part of my research I spoke to a scientist for SETI who had done time at the Very Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert of Chile. This is one of the driest places on Earth. He said the observatory is so isolated and the desert so lifeless that he’d often wake up in the middle of the night just because of the silence. I read a good bit about Copernicus for this book. He’s one of the ghosts that haunts the story. He just might be the loneliest man in science. Copernicus understood how the cosmos works, but he couldn’t share his knowledge with the world until he was on his death bed.

Rail: The book is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland not quite like any I’ve seen before. Talk to me about the process of creating that in a culture that’s saturated with post-apocalyptic worlds.

Rotter: I wouldn’t even consider this post-apocalyptic. I’m less concerned with an explosive, sudden apocalypse than I am with the gradual slide that every civilization, including ours, seems to be in. It’s a kind of wish fulfillment for a comet or plague that turns everyone in Delaware into frost giants to destroy civilization, because we would be absolved of responsibility. That’s why the world of the Van Zandt family isn’t so different from our own, only worse, and it’s our fault. I wanted an America in which individualism was grotesquely magnified by libertarianism, so I could ask what might happen to a particular family in those circumstances. Really it’s a book about that family. The political elements were designed to function like any of the other conflicts Rowan faces, to test him as he searches for community.

Rail: Has having your own family shaped you as a writer?

Rotter: I have an eight-year-old boy who is a source of huge delight. But one of the heart-rending parts of being a parent is watching your little dude try his best to be brave in a world that’s so big and loud. I tried to be just as sensitive to what my protagonist Rowan must face as he separates from his family and goes out into a country looking for companionship. The trouble is that his America isn’t a community; it’s a collection of individuals each trying in some absurd jerry-rigged way to combat loneliness.

Rail: Your book, in a lot of ways, is a meditation on solitude. Do you think Rowan’s solitude is different from the one a writer might face?

Rotter: The writer’s solitude, as you know, can be pretty oppressive, especially when we’re deep into writing a novel. Some people, as I understand, are kept company by disembodied voices. I envy them. I don’t hear anything except my coffin inching nearer to my typewriter and the steady draining of my savings account.

Rail: How do you deal with that anxiety? Is writing just a highly-developed self-soothing behavior?

Rotter: I hope it is for some. When I was a kid, I was plagued with a whole load of magical thinking around writing. I was convinced that a civilization of minuscule creatures lived in pencil lead. A stroke of the pencil—a capital J—was an act of microscopic genocide. The only way to absolve myself was to perform a series of gestures over the page. The nuns kept threatening to send me back to kindergarten because my penmanship was so dreadful. If they only knew! My book reports were mass graves.

OCD became a hindrance and a source of make-believe, and it taught me that imagination is not neutral. It can be a superpower or a poison. I think my desire to be a writer originates somewhere in that whole mess.

Rail: When the Van Zandt family meet with anxiety, the worse parts of their nature seem to get the better of them.

Rotter: These guys are not heroes. They don’t confront adversity, but only get buffeted by it. The Van Zandts are offered a choice: pay for their crimes by being sent separately to a prison camp in Cuba or fly an antique rocket ship together toward certain death. Almost no one on Earth believes anything exists beyond the Night Glass that surrounds the planet. They choose togetherness and death.

Rail: Rowan, the main character, is both of that world and also removed from it.

Rotter: Just as his brother and parents are victims of larger circumstances, Rowan suffers from being born to an ill-fitting family, whom he loves dearly. I’m fascinated with the sidekick, the person who makes none of the rash choices nor gets any of the glory, but must stick around after the anti-hero is snuffed out to endure the loneliness that follows. That’s Rowan’s fate, although he makes certain choices to ensure that his daughter doesn’t suffer the same.

Rail: Part of what I love about this book is its language—the way it’s used to invoke this strange but familiar landscape. Did that take a lot of work or did you come to it naturally?

Rotter: Thanks. Once I had a sense of how this world was distorted, I could apply those distortions to the language. Although, I hope the entropy flows in both directions. Language can be used to shape the world. I believe that, or else I wouldn’t be a writer.

I think any fiction about the future is unconvincing if the author doesn’t acknowledge the inevitable changes in language. Can you imagine a novel set in Chaucer’s England without at least some nods to Middle English? Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is one of my favorite speculative novels, and it takes this prerogative to an extreme. I wasn’t willing to go that far with my evolved English, partly because the Van Zandts’ world is only off from our own by a few degrees. But I seeded the book with new slang, animal names, and a few historical names.

Some changes are accidental or just the result of the usual trend toward abbreviation, Jacksonville becomes Jackville, etc. Others are more deliberate. Gunt, a disparaging contraction of government, is probably the most obvious. Cape Canaveral becomes Cape Cannibal, reflecting the dim view the present regimes take on space travel. In some ways the book sets up an argument between individualism and community. Stripping away our place names is an assault on community.

The only name I was determined to retain was Van Zandt, because I wanted the family in my story to exist outside history, even as they get thoroughly pummeled by it.


Bill Cheng

BILL CHENG is the author of Southern Cross the Dog.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2015

All Issues