Books In Conversation
Fires Burning, Windows Breaking
JON ROEMER with David Winner
Jon Roemer's harrowing, hilarious, and strangely heartfelt debut novel, Five Windows upends two essential tropes: the thriller and the dystopic novel. À la James Stewart in Rear Window, Roemer's injured small press editor/protagonist seldom leaves his SF apartment and doesn't witness anything near as thriller-fulfilling as a murder, yet readers will flip as quickly as they can through the pages to find out if he will sign on the ominous Sebastian Junger-like famous writer to his small press, what exactly happened to the drastically injured Darrel who lives upstairs, and what is going on with the household of women, including his ex-wife, living in a building that is visible from his window. Without living dead or creepy disappearances, Roemer conjures a subtly dystopic world, just a little bit weirder and scarier than our own. While plodding through his queue of manuscripts, Roemer's protagonist watches buildings burning down, his own windows getting knocked in, and is visited by a motley group of characters, including his oddly disengaged ex-wife, while the Junger figure wants to enlist him in an ominous project that goes far beyond the simple publication of a book. I talked to Jon about his novel and himself.
David Winner (Rail): The city depicted in Five Windows resembles San Francisco where you live but seems more mysterious and disturbing than any actual city. Are we in San Francisco or some sort of simulacrum? What does this suggest about development, destruction, gentrification?
Jon Roemer: I set out to describe San Francisco today, but I hope it resonates in other places under similar pressures. Here, right now, there's an influx of new money at levels never seen before, and it's creating the kind of economic disparity the whole world is experiencing—but more visibly, more quickly, and in the cramped space of tiny San Francisco. It's just the latest in a series of influxes, too, and it ramps up the clash between the culture of Big Tech and the city's long history of liberation movements. There's just no comparison. It's a losing battle. The tech world, regardless of its money, is profoundly less sexy and less passionate than what this city has known. And a lot of people are pissed about that, either angry about losing our storied past or resentful about the resistance to building new lives here. That's some of what I hope to illustrate in the book, the distrust that comes with economic tensions, along with the threats people feel with new different neighbors, a nostalgia for a time that's not coming back and the role of public anger when it's already baked in everywhere. In the book, a string of house fires dramatizes the tensions, and the narrator, who finds himself more and more isolated, watches the world he's long known go up in flames. This all sounds very programmatic….but hopefully the mysterious part sparks some decent tangents.
Aren't there the same pressures in Brooklyn where you live? Don't you have a sense of helplessness in the face of so many big changes?
Rail: I totally agree about Brooklyn, though our situation may have more to do with race than SF. The white flight of the ’70s has been followed by the black flight of the teens, but Black people obviously aren’t leaving neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights out of their own volition. Unscrupulous real estate moguls and insensitive (mostly) White property purchasers have boosted house values insanely. The value of some houses has nearly doubled in half a decade. As a White Brooklyn property owner, I can’t quite claim to be empathetic enough to feel hopelessness, but I’ve been affected psychically if not literally by the damage going on around me. Let me ask: Both you and your protagonist are small press book editors though I don't believe Outpost19 makes a killing off of puppy books. Your character is constantly going through a strange stream of submissions until he's contacted by an unhinged celebrity writer. Are you telling us something about your experience of the publishing world?
Roemer: Yep. Publishing is an industry that reaches from the center of our shared culture to the far marginal fringes. That's a handy metaphor for this book. But the publishing house in the book is a fantasy; I left out about 80 percent of the real-world work. In the book, it's also handy as a running narrative with a digital experience, one that reaches outside the narrator's immediate world. That's a universal straddle—the bizarre flow of information coming over the wires versus what's going on outside your window, both strange in their own ways. I was careful not to use or describe any of the books I've published or even submissions I've received. That wouldn't be nice. Via Outpost19, especially as the imprint's popularity has grown and the stream of submissions has expanded, it's remarkable what shows up in the queue every day. It can be dizzying, and it's always humbling. But it also felt apt for this story. Books deliver meaning, they assign an order to things, they present ways of describing the world—everything the narrator has a hard time finding, despite being deeply engaged in that process.
You're no stranger to book publishing. Do you think it's a universe unto itself? And what about incorporating digital life into an analog thing like a book? Some authors actively avoid screens in their work…
Rail: I’m pretty naïve about publishing. I shoot my work out there, vaguely aware that particular relationships between agents and editors and political and cultural trends, both real and perceived, will affect what happens to it. Among several protagonists (two are white guys like me about my age) in what I’m working on now is a young South-Asian American female. Do I reject the construct of cultural appropriation that would question my right as a white male to create a female character of color? Not necessarily, but I can’t entirely contain what comes out from my computer. Regarding your work: I envision your protagonist as a basically sympathetic, if hapless, everyman. He is constantly barraged by off-putting characters and situations, which make me think of the struggles of Kafka’s Joseph K. Was that in your mind at all? Which writers most influenced this book?
Roemer: I love that you find him sympathetic. Other readers have told me the narrator isn't so likable. Some have had completely unexpected reactions to very minor characters. I think that's all good, and I hope it's due to the unreliable and conflicted narrator. Once I figured out that much about him, I went back to some Kafka, to remind myself of his subtleties (and how puny my efforts are). I was also aiming for short, so I could set a quick pace and not exhaust the reader. Favorites for work like that are Muriel Spark, Rachel Ingalls, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, and Bohumil Hrabal. I like work that expects the reader to imagine an intent other than what they perceive as literal. That's also essential to the structure of Five Windows, where a man falls victim to his own doubts and suspicions.
In the first chapter, when he witnesses the eviction of his longtime neighbors, he has to me pretty disagreeable thoughts, rationalizing why their leaving could be a good thing. But that's not cool. Not cool at all. And it's intended to illustrate one of the narrator's faults. He goes back to being charming in the next passage, but it should signal to the reader that something's up. And as the book unfolds, you start to see the many, many other things he's gotten wrong, ethically and factually, while at the same time bouncing from one scold to the next.
Your books so far have pushed the envelope with "disagreeable" characters. I've told you before it's kind of trademark. Are there lines you won't cross? Do you worry about reader reactions? Is there an author that you think goes too far?
Rail: I’ve grown more squeamish with age, and while characters of mine have been violent in the past, I don’t see myself going into that place anymore. It’s a little sickening how Ted Bundy and Charles Manson get fetishized, not that I haven’t found them interesting. Many writers may go too far, though the best example of too far for me is Dexter (2006-2013). The good serial killer stalking bad serial killers makes me think of the infamous Trump quote about Charlottesville, “fine people on both sides.” In fact, something like Dexter may have created a sort of relativistic thinking that might have been one of the million factors in the 2016 election. One pleasant, perfectly sensible character insists the world is flat. Are we entering Trumplandia?
Roemer: I'm baffled by that, too. I read about anti-science, conspiracy movements, including flat Earthers, and I wonder how people get caught up. They must be as pleasant and sensible as you and me on our better days, and yet….I don't get it.
Alternative, mystical traditions run deep here, vaguely rooted in the San Francisco of the 1960s. That's not my groove, but I find those encounters genuinely joyful, because their intentions are usually expansive, widening, and loving. I don't get that from the current crop of anti-science folks. In general, their tone is fearful and needlessly scary. Several months ago, when a player from the Warriors joked about being a flat Earther, a lot of hackles up—because it's weird in ways that feel threatening. For example, astrology has been mainstreamed because it's largely seen as harmless. But a wide anti-science stance is something bigger, signaling a lack of common ground that's sort of basic for any of us to get along at all. It's scary because it's such a fundamental refusal, and when the attitude isn't fear-driven, it's just cavalier, which is disturbing on its own level.
Rail: After taking a painful but also sort of comic spill that messes up his knee, your protagonist's apartment is gradually getting filled up with strange delivery boxes, one of many examples of a surreal humor that had me giggling to myself. To what degree were you aiming for humor?
Roemer: In Five Windows, I hope readers find humor on every page. I wrote it everywhere, and I hope most of it lands.
But you're obviously tidier than me. Around my house, we've been through phases of delivery addiction, where boxes have piled up in pretty gross ways. That doesn't feel very surreal to me….but then we learned it's an assault on the bedrock of civilization. The delivery service industry—birthed in San Francisco—is destroying local retail, which is the foundation of many neighborhoods and the physical space where urban communities connect. That's the rationale for EggSprout's deliveries in Five Windows. And this is a good example of killing a decent gag with over-explaining.
Rail: Coupledom doesn't fare very well here. The protagonist's marriage sounds dismal, and the relationship of the gay couple who live upstairs seems dysfunctional to say the least. What is Five Windows suggesting about human relationships, particularly romantic ones.
Roemer: Hm. Maybe I only notice couples when they're arguing. Or maybe that's the best way to create drama in a book. But these characters are facing real-world pressures. The narrator's marriage disintegrates largely because of real estate, the compromise to live in an affordable, safe neighborhood. The gay couple upstairs is dealing with common health issues, complications from lack of insurance. Romance doesn't pay your bills or protect you from stray bullets, and in Five Windows, romance only complicates already complex problems. But it also thrives with the lesbian couple across the street. They're not always so friendly, but they're creating a family, which has its own kind of romance.
What do you think about old-fashioned romance, especially as a narrative tool? It's pretty wonderful when you can make it convincing, right?
Rail: Absolutely, but for whatever reason, not personal experience (at least I hope not) I’m interested in old-fashioned romance blossoming in shadowy places: a lesbian writer passionately in love with her gay male protagonist. I’ve written a book about my great aunt’s love affairs of the ’30s. Most of her lovers had husbands, but it was all pretty romantic. Here’s another question: Zachary Lazar's most recent protagonist (like himself) lives in NOLA and has become connected with African-American prisoners at Angola. There are echoes of Jane Alison in her most recent protagonist, as well, not to mention all the Rachel Cusk characters that recall Rachel Cusk. Fiction and non-fiction seem to be getting more and more intertwined. You and your character share a city and a profession. I'm asking the annoying question here. Can you talk about the relationship between your protagonist and yourself?
Roemer: I connect with the urge to use autobiographical details—or things the reader could reasonably assume are autobiographical—as a way to establish authority and authenticity. Both of these things are in high demand right now, maybe in reaction to cancel-culture. In my case, it's a sham: I'm not straight, never been married, and don't have the resources my narrator has. I also don't live in a gutted apartment, and I don't share his suspicions of my neighbors.
My narrator is not me. He has a lot of ideas I don't agree with, and I've assigned him motives I've never entertained in my life. But everyone and everything else is very close to true: the fires, the evictions, the vandalism, the local patrols, the upmarket renovations, the arguments between couples, the UN condemnation, the aggression against the homeless, and the local fog patterns. My reason for using real-life details in a work of fiction is in service of the drama and the politics. I want this fictional world to be recognizable, and for that recognition to be shocking in both dramatic and political ways. What do you think, David? Is leveraging autobiography an easy out?
Rail: I don’t know if it’s an easy way out, but it can make for a one-book career unless someone leads a really interesting life. But let me ask you this: We met decades ago at the University of Arizona MFA program in which so many members of the faculty seemed to only value some "minimalist" version of psychological realism. Years later, you started your own small press. Can you tell us a little bit about the arc of your career from writer to editor to writer?
Roemer: So many, many decades ago. Good times in the desert! I'm thankful for meeting you and a bunch of other talented, beautiful people there. When I went back to Northwestern, my undergrad alma mater, earlier this year, I was reminded of that writing program's deep commitment to craftsmanship and sincerity. Both are remarkable gifts to be given. They were reinforced at Arizona, too. I think that's the saving grace of academic writing programs, the insistence on being present and understanding each work on its own terms.
As a book editor, I silence my voice and apply the principles taught to me; ensure each text works as the writer intended. That's an incredible privilege, talking to very smart people about the writing decisions they've made. There's nothing like it. I've worked as a writer and editor in a lot of other industries, but the kind of work and writers I've encountered via Outpost19 have been unparalleled. There's no work that's more demanding or intimate.
Working as an editor also re-directed my own writing. I was reminded of things I wanted to try as a writer, and I picked up a few tricks I'd overlooked before.
Because you're also 112 years old, do you still rely on training from writing programs? What's the biggest thing you've clung to and the biggest thing you've discarded?
Rail: I don’t know if I learned it from grad school, but “show” vs. “tell” seems real enough or at least telling is harder to pull off. Most of what we write doesn’t work, at not least at first, and following rules learned in any arts program definitely doesn’t help. Is a new project in the works? If so, can you tell us something about it?
Roemer: I'm halfway done with a novel about a family that doubts itself. It's not a first-person narration, it feels less "surreal," but it holds onto the irreverence. For the first time, I've joined up with a "reluctant writers group," which includes two other novelists who also avoid early readers and workshops. So far the drinks have been good, and we've had a frank conversation about the purpose and outcomes of writing novels. None of this work is easy, we'd make more money elsewhere, but I think we agree it's one of the better things we can do for other people.