Books In Conversation
Jordan A. Rothacker with Tobias Carroll
“I want to be haunted by a setting”
The Pit, and No Other Stories
(Spaceboy Books, 2022)
The title of Jordan A. Rothacker’s The Pit, and No Other Stories might make you do a double-take the first time you see it. After its initial publication in 2015, Spaceboy Books—home to several of Rothacker’s other works—is reissuing this novella-in-stories with a new introduction and afterword. The result is a dizzying read, one which begins in a small town characterized by a mysterious pit and gradually expands to include a host of other narratives set in other times and places, from Hollywood satire to hard-boiled detective fiction. Part of the joy of reading The Pit, and No Other Stories is seeing how these seemingly disparate threads come together—which often happens in unexpected ways. (The secret history of a corporation that factors into several of The Pit’s plotlines makes for especially fascinating reading.) I spoke with Rothacker about getting this book back into print, its connection to his subsequent works, and what it all has to do with television.
Tobias Carroll (Rail): To begin, I’m curious about what you think of the role physical spaces play in The Pit, and No Other Stories. The space that gives the book its title, for me, resonates both an absurdist riff on folk horror and what the writer Gary Budden has termed “landscape punk,” but it also contrasts with the more stylized and more realistic locations that come further into the book.
Jordan A. Rothacker: I get the “landscape punk” reference as it might appear here. I often associate it with the work of Jeff Jackson or The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich, writing that I really love. But mostly the role of a physical space, especially one that is made up just for this book, comes from the influence on this book of the television shows Twin Peaks and Lost. Both involve mythic places that are pursued like El Dorado by some parties involved in the narratives. It was wonderful to watch Twin Peaks season three, which came out after the original release of this book, and feel like I was on the same wavelength as David Lynch and Mark Frost, since in that season it is really like there are all these different parties all trying to find and converge on this magical and secret place.
Rail: What was the process of revisiting this book for this new edition like?
Rothacker: The process was pretty simple. I just did a proofread where I tried to make awkward sentences better and make sure the text was typo-free. Mostly, it was me basking in the shock of early and forgotten writing sounding so good and outside myself.
Rail: Did you end up noticing anything about this book that stood out to you in a way that it hadn’t done so before, on its initial publication?
Rothacker: There were sentences—whole scenes even—that I didn’t remember writing, and I was pretty entertained by them. Mostly, this reissue is about a re-appreciation of this work and giving it a rebirth. I was not very well-published in literary circles at that time and didn’t know a lot of people. This book helped me get other works published, but other than the very nice local reception, it didn’t do much or find a wide audience.
Rail: Has revisiting The Pit had any influence on the writing you’ve done recently—taking you in directions you might not have gone otherwise?
Rothacker: It is making me want to—gasp—write something big and maximalist and—gasp again—maybe even realist. Family saga? Multigenerational global web of connection? Like Peter Nadas’s Parallel Stories? An anti-micro-epic, so, like a real epic. It’s a fun challenge. The first book I finished, second to get published, was an American realist novel. It took me three years to write and I felt good about those one hundred seventy thousand words. The industry seems to measure greatness in size and scope like that. The Pit is intentionally the opposite and that’s part of why it’s perfect, but I’d like to get back to doing something big and universal-feeling.
Rail: Both the town where the Pit is located, and your futuristic take on Atlanta in The Death of the Cyborg Oracle, blend the recognizable and the phantasmagorical, at least to my mind. What, for you, makes for a memorable fictional setting?
Rothacker: I want to be haunted by a setting. I want it to linger in the front and back of your mind. I want it to emerge in dreams. My mother kinda forced me to read Wuthering Heights when I was ten. I think at first I pouted, but I’ve never regretted the experience. When I shut my eyes now, thirty-five years later, I can still see, or more like feel the moors like I did than during my first read. People have asked about a sequel to The Death of the Cyborg Oracle and those that really want one give the reason that “they want to return to that world.” To me that is the best compliment. World-building isn’t easy, especially in regard to creating a unique tone and feeling. It is tougher with The Pit, and No Other Stories though since there are tonal changes and different styles of writing for each of the chapters.
Rail: What would you say is the most haunted you’ve ever been by a setting in literature?
Rothacker: “Most haunted by” is a tough call. Right off the bat my mind goes to Life of Pi and the island with the tooth. Yann Martel created an impacting visual. Many writers who I love have left lingering settings. The house in Beloved is easily one. Also, the apocalyptic world of Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet.
Rail: There’s been a lot written in recent years about the appeal of novellas, and the surprising nature of why they aren’t more popular as a standalone category. Do you have strong feelings on one side of this debate or another?
Rothacker: Not too strong. I love books and I love narrative. I love short stories, and I love big, long epic novels, and everything in between
Rail: What appealed to you about the novella-in-stories form that you used here?
Rothacker: What I got really into doing, playing within this size format, since this book was first published by a press that only did novellas, was my idea of the “micro-epic.” It reads quickly, but scales big. Firstly, it is easier than a traditional long epic (on the writer and reader) and plays a lot with teasing the audience. Each story thread or timeline that makes up the book has its own style and theme around a trope or genre of American literature. Each one is like its own little world for the reader to get into and enjoy before it ends and is taken away. In a smaller or “micro” situation this makes each respective concept really pop for the reader and contrast against the others. It helps with the feeling of scaling big, that there is a whole world here packed into thirty thousand words. I don’t mean to throw any shade here, and I know there are people that really love the book, but Cloud Atlas felt like a slog to me where I liked some timelines more than others, and couldn’t wait to be done with some.
Rail: Are there other works that have made use of a similar structure that got your attention—either before this was published or in the years since?
Rothacker: There are the more obvious examples, like David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. Then the obvious-to-me examples like Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler and William S. Burroughs’s Cities of the Red Night. I used to say this book was a dumbed-down version of Burroughs or Calvino. Even less obvious would be Danilo Ki’s A Tomb For Boris Davidovich. That book influenced William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central, a much more maximalist approach to what Ki was doing and what I am doing. And this is why a shorter form is more perfect for what I am doing here. You can read the book in a couple of hours and in that time the assemblage, the pastiche, of all these stories in all these different styles all across time and geography come together and you see that it really is a novel, or novella, and not a story collection. There really is only one story here and it is all about the pit. So, for all of the books I thought about along the way, the biggest influences on this work are the television shows Twin Peaks and Lost. Especially how both use suspense and red herrings along the way, but still create worlds of backstory, connection, and meta-narrative.
Another influence on the plotting is Steve Erickson’s The Sea Came In At Midnight. That book is a master class in narrative structure and really blew me away. As I was charting on a marker board all of the connections and timelines between the chapters in The Pit and making sure it all made sense, I kept thinking of that Erickson novel. After all of my plotting I felt like this book was almost an audition for me to be a television writer.
Rail: Has there been any other television that you’ve found influential to your prose? Any other creative works in any discipline, period?
Rothacker: My life and head have always been a messy mix of media. I’ve always been a big reader, but as a Gen X latchkey kid the TV really was the babysitter. I’ve learned a lot from television and films. I watched William Benson play the Grim Reaper in Trivial Pursuit before I saw Max Von Sydow play the Grim Reaper at chess. I also used to be a very dedicated musician in my teens and that is still with me, so that mode of composition is an influence. Visual arts, too. I grew up pretty lower-middle class (at best) on Long Island, but there was such great free access to culture all around that my parents cared about. I’m an ambidextrous, agnostic synesthesiac so my head is always swimming in layered connections of disciplines and color, of course. Decision-making is difficult for me. Inspiration is where you find it and hone it. I love reading Stravinsky and Paul Klee on composition. Sometimes when writing, like this book especially, I think in leitmotifs. The wider the net you cast of sources to steal from, the less the odds are that someone might notice. But actually I always hope they do. Right now I’m obsessing over the Basquiat reader that came out last year by Jordana Moore Saggese.
Rail: One thing that stood out to me about The Pit was the legacy of World War II in many of the component stories that make up the book. Was that something you’d had in mind from the outset, or something that developed over the course of writing and revisiting the book?
Rothacker: It really came naturally out of the course of the writing. Historically, for the US like a lot of places, it is an unavoidable part of the twentieth century that so much in the latter half grew out of, especially when it comes to industry. Any narrative involving jet fuel and capitalism in the second half of the twentieth century will certainly have to connect to WWII.
Rail: Was this your first book in which you explored the use of found documents as a way to tell a story?
Rothacker: Using found documents is a technique that is often fun and employed by so many writers I’ve always loved across history and geography. This book was actually the first time I used it in something that got published, but The Pit, and No Other Stories is all about using all of my favorite tricks and specifically tropes of American literature. There is only one footnote in the whole book and it is in a chapter shorter than the footnote itself.
Rail: The narrative of The Pit takes some bold leaps, including one into the twenty-second century. Was it a challenge to determine what the boundaries of the narrative were?
Rothacker: The only boundaries for me were the very potentially expansive narrative itself and the list of favorite tropes of American literature that I wanted to include. I always loved that Jane Smiley once said in an interview that early in her career that she planned out the different kinds of novels she one day wanted to write. The Pit, and No Other Stories was a chance for me to dabble into different areas of American literature that I love and see if I could connect them into a tapestry of this land. So, there is the small-town gothic, the detective noir, science fiction, African American slave narrative, academic, Indigenous folklore, horror, business, road trip, Hollywood, punk, nautical, spy/espionage. Some narrative threads combine more than one of these “tropes.”
Rail: Another thread that stood out to me in The Pit was the sense of corporate intrigue and malfeasance. You’ve since grappled more overtly with questions of capitalism and corporatism in your work; do you see this as the place where that strand of your fiction got its start?
Rothacker: Yes, I’d agree with that. I mean, how could you write about America without addressing capitalism. It’s our unofficial national religion, regardless of political or religious affiliation. For me here it was the trope of “business,” and those chapters are set in Chicago for a few reasons, but mostly as a nod to Frank Norris’s book, The Pit.
Rail: Was there anything that you’d hoped to deal with thematically in The Pit that you weren’t able to?
Rothacker: At first I wanted it to be twenty-three chapters in a Burroughsian twenty-three–skidoo, jokey kinda way, but with the time constraints I had and the way the full narrative revealed itself to me eighteen was just fine and that’s three sixes so it’s a metal joke. It’s my second book with eighteen chapters for the same joke. I thought maybe one day I’d revisit the book and do a second huge version, a maximalist version—The Pit Redux—but ultimately I find the patchwork of the current state perfect. The worst thing anyone who’s liked the book has said was they wished to spend more time in each narrative. I love that, and love that this book is about teasing out narrative desire.
Rail: And one final question: is there anything that surprised you about the way readers reacted to this book on its initial publication?
Rothacker: I was surprised that some people really thought it was a short story collection. Some of the pieces really can’t stand on their own. If a reader starts at the beginning and goes straight through it should be clear by the end. Jumping around—which I often do when reading story collections—would do this narrative a disservice. The thing I was most pleasantly surprised about was the amount of people who told me they read the book once and immediately started over and read it again. That is nice to hear. As with movies like Memento or The Usual Suspects, it is a narrative best served with a second visit, one where hopefully the connections across the narrative really shine through.