INTERVIEW: Tony Rauch, Author of ‘What If I Got Down On My Knees?’

What if I Got Down On My Knees

Tony Rauch is a writer who is going beyond genre. Recently, we had a chance to read his latest collection What If I Got Down On My Knees? and it was an absolute treat. Luckily for us, and for whomever happens to read this, Tony was kind enough to share with us what it means to be a writer, the way he approaches his art, and much more.

Since this is your fourth collection of short stories published, how would you say you’ve changed over the years as an author since your first published book i’m right here? Any tips or helpful advice you’ve picked up along the way?
My interests in literature have actually expanded. I thought they’d narrow to a focus, in the good way, but they’ve broadened. This is probably a good thing, because now I read from more varied topics and draw in more material for inspiration and thought generation. But at the same time I am also losing that deep focus, that ability to burrow into a type of literature, like experimental fiction or any of the emerging genres. There’s so much interesting material out there, sometimes I fear I’m just skimming the surface of things and potentially missing a deeper knowledge or understanding of any single genre.

A good thing about variety is it brings in more fuel and material, thus adding little details to the stories that may have otherwise been overlooked.

I already did the experimental thing early on, so now want to explore the fairy tale, the science fiction, the fantastical, the absurd. Swirling those items together and combining genres creates something new, and items that are sometimes difficult to categorize, which is interesting to me. What is literature that is beyond genre, that is not bound by any arbitrary restrictions? Creating stories like that is interesting to me and keeps things fresh. I like that challenge of trying to do something unique, but also makes sense, is challenging to the reader, and is not difficult to follow.

This latest book has more to do with emotions rather than fantastical situations. I thought about regret, loss, longing, identity, and escape as being interesting themes to look at, but in everyday situations and settings. So the genres that I’m interested in have changed and evolved over the years. Some have grown into one another and became fused together. A lot of writers endeavor to perfect a template, then stay within that narrow construct. I wanted spontaneity, growth, and to stay away from formula shtick.

Advice would be to just be yourself and keep at it. Practice a lot. Cast a wide net and draw inspiration from many sources including multiple genres and feelings or emotions, but also from other art forms like music and the visual arts, as well as everyday life events, both pleasant and unpleasant. Mix it all in there, don’t follow genres, be free. Create goals, hobbies, and interests to give yourself a sense of purpose. Create your own zeitgeist. And listen to a lot of Thin Lizzy and UFO. It’s that simple. Eventually it’s just you and your enemies. You’ve got to pick up that cattle prod and start poking and zapping. Get a good one, not a cheap one. Send them running back to their insignificant little holes. . . What was the question again? . . I’m not the one on trial here.

A favorite story of mine from the new book was “when Jesus and I played football,” mainly because I played football for years and felt similar feelings as your main character when I quit. Were you a big sports guy yourself growing up? Did you do any research about former NFL players and their struggles after their playing days?
I was a sports fan growing up, but not until 5th grade for some reason. Probably because that’s when I started getting better at them. And the sports I liked changed over time from football to baseball to basketball. Football became too strenuous, baseball you needed too many resources, and basketball seemed more manageable because the need for less resources makes it more accessible. In terms of observing sports, to me the NBA is the most interesting because of the action, there is less turnover, and less to keep track of.

I did zero research for that story. I did not have to because I lived it. It’s basically a true story, about loss, only set in an older Professional Football world, as opposed to the literary or architectural fields, which I had studied. The sports world just seemed like a setting that would appeal to more people than any other. (The big secret is that I wrote that story in 1994, so over twenty years ago).

In real life I did move away to gain certain things that were alluring, and also instructive. Some of the allure ended up being false, or not available to me unless I wanted to work massive amounts of hours, which I did not. I have many interests and don’t care to be steeped in only one endeavor as that is too limiting. But any time you do one thing, or immerse yourself in something, you are also not doing other things, and sometimes good things get overlooked or left behind.

That’s a sad story, and a cautionary tale. (Though with the salary of today’s athletes the protagonist could probably have afforded to keep in contact or bring along the one he left behind. That’s one reason it had to be set in the past, because email and such was not available then. There are probably more options or resources available for people like that today, more ways to stay connected). But any kind of loss is hard to deal with, whether that be a loss of love, vocation, purpose, people, or all of that together at once. The guy loses all of that, and does really get walloped in that piece. With the perspective it is written in, I hope it’s easy to empathize with that character, showing the “now what?” of the situation and having to start all over from point zero with limited resources.

Cover art for What If I Got Down On My Knees?
Cover provided by the author

I noticed some reviewers were a little thrown off by stories like “congratulations” and “big baby.”
I found them to be a nice change of pace from the more serious pieces. What was your reasoning for mixing these weirder stories into the book?
“Congratulations” got a lot of attention, which I don’t understand because to me it’s just an absurdist piece, an example of life handing you something unexpected. It’s also about hidden possibilities and seeing beyond your present limitations. It’s also about me wondering why some things happen to some people and not others. Why do we have to wait for some things? To what extent can we shape our own lives? Unfortunately, I have very few useful answers to these questions. All I know is sometimes life hands you a tiny baby while you’re trying to get to work in the morning. The point is to continue to move forward.

But I also wondered why I couldn’t have a baby, and that was about the only scenario I could picture where I would be able to give birth because I am a male.

Mixing the fantastical with the serious was to highlight both types of stories, and to gain variety, to expand rather than narrow focus and themes. But I also like to place the everyday or banal with the extraordinary, thus bringing them closer together. Strange things happen to me, but that also keeps life interesting and fresh. There is discovery and the unique everywhere, sometimes you just have to look a little. So those pieces added a change of pace and whimsy to the proceedings.

I hope those types of stories get people thinking. Because there is a degree of ambiguity in them, which I think makes interesting literature as the reader may need to think for themselves instead of having everything easily spelled out for them. But that ambiguity also makes some readers uncomfortable. I guess that’s why genre fiction does well, because usually everything is all spelled out, including the reasons things happened. But real life isn’t always that clear.

I mean this as praise for the story, but the character in “lesser gods” has the worst possible first date I’ve ever read. Why did you decide to keep torturing the poor guy? Have you ever had any horrible first dates that could compare?
I’ve had dates that went fine, but later that person turned out to be a horrible person. Eventually people show their true colors. The character in that story just found that out sooner rather than later. My first dates turned out fine, but only because I spoke with the date over the phone or email and got to know them better, so I was able to feel more comfortable around them and vet them a little. I would not have wasted my time if I got a bad vibe right off. People can cover their stink for a while, but eventually it comes out.

As far as what the guy went through, I guess I just wanted to show an example of how hard it is for some people. Why do some people have the difficult dial cranked into the red zone, while other people get lucky? The story “The idiot’s guide to morons” is kind of like that too. It also shows that persistence might pay off, whereas just giving up gets you nowhere. Life is about making memories, and surviving your troubles. Hopefully your troubles will make you more appreciative and better prepared the next time.

One of the repeated themes throughout the book is the dynamic between small towns vs. cities. Characters struggle with the constraints of small town living, and also with loneliness and getting lost in the big city. Would you say it’s good for people to be exposed to both?
I think it’s best for people to be exposed to all kinds of things. Having choices makes for a fuller, richer life, but it also leads to regrets. Regrets are an indication that you lived a full life with a lot of choices. In either setting it seems you give up something, and that’s the tough part. So you have to make a choice and live with it. Some of those topics also include the idea of breaking away or escape, of trying to get away from past arbitrary expectations and limitations, of trying to find something all your own.

I’ve experienced both kinds of towns and found things I’ve liked in each, but you have to choose eventually. It’s easier to meet and get to know people in small towns, but there are fewer resources, variety, and options in small towns. Some of the small town or rural stories have to deal with the notion of discovery, and that there is wonderment and inspiration all around if you only look for it or try to create it on your own. If something is unavailable to you, create your own thing.

How do you go about writing some of the more stream-of-consciousness parts as in “the idiot’s guide to morons?” Did you start off writing them with fewer periods and breaks or go back and edit the pieces to make them sound like continuous thoughts?
I wrote it just as it appears, just to try something different and experiment, to try to add variety to the manuscript with long sentences, or suites that have no clear beginning or ending.

Sometimes experimenting and trying to jazz or mix things up will lead you to places you may not have thought about right off, and I like that idea of chance discovery, of finding something you didn’t expect. That piece was just trying to write and see in a different style, a different typology.

If you were the guy in the record store from “how I hope to die,” how would you react to the dead body? Would you want to go out the same way?
I would have felt bad for the guy, but if it’s your time, then what can you do about it? I would have also called the authorities. In the story, the narrator is surprised by the death because it is so unexpected that it happened at his work, a place that is probably pretty boring to him by that time, so the juxtaposition of the fantastical next to the banal.

Yeah, if it’s your time, that’s not a bad way to go. I wouldn’t be opposed to going out that way: on a comfortable couch with some nice tunes playing. How would you like to go?

I guess like most people I’d like to go out guns blazing in an epic jet plane crash or something. But to be realistic, I’d probably love to lay on a recliner and blast some music while I down a few beers. For my next question, I read in an interview with D A Bale that if given a time machine you would go to the past to re-do things instead of going into the future. Has your mind changed about dealing with the past? Do you live more in the present or future these days?
Unfortunately, my mind has not changed about going into the past to change or relive things again. I think about it more than I should. I guess I have some unresolved things with a girl or two who I miss and wish I could go back and spend time with.

I say unfortunately because I do wish a few things would have gone differently and now that I’m older I see that those things are not going to be resolved, as if I’ve run out of time to change them, even though I know intellectually that I can not go back and change a few things. Eventually you run out of time, so you have to enjoy what is available to you, and keep looking ahead, keep moving forward into new things. Living in the past is not productive. “Don’t look back” is a good motto to practice. I always thought that life was about fulfilling goals, but now I see that it’s also about accepting what is available, being satisfied with what you are able to make of things that are presented to you.

I try to always have something to look forward to. Having a positive outlook is a big asset. I probably get too tied up in the moment and find little time to dwell or reflect on the pleasant things in life. But most people are probably that way too.

Was there a particular story from this collection that was harder to write than others? Maybe from an emotional or stylistic standpoint?
Emotionally, they are easy to write because it’s fiction and I am detached from it. The things I regret or long for in life are pretty average stuff, so nothing of interest to anyone and nothing worth writing about.

Stylistically, “the idiot’s guide to morons” was tough to write and took a long time to edit, but some of that is due to its length, density, and trying out a style I was unaccustomed with. You have to keep the same theme or tone throughout, and that’s a challenge with a longer piece.

“Lesser Gods” was tough to write because how do you end something like that? I wanted the guy to come through the night with a positive attitude, which he did, but I was never fully satisfied with the denouncement of that one, how the specific ending played out. Sometimes endings are elusive. That’s why I try to get the ending first, then work backwards. It’s nice to have that poignant ending that rings out for days and leaves a reader thinking, though not every story in a collection should have that. A priority is to present a variety of beginnings and endings, which hopefully can get people thinking.

How about a favorite story of yours from this collection? Any one in particular that was a pleasure to write?
“In the dust” was fun because it’s stripped down, with short, punchy sentences. And it has several brief interludes, like a Bukowski short. I like that style, but was glad I mixed in other styles too. “Wooden horses” is like a Raymond Carver piece, with people slowly moving apart. “Lesser Gods” was fun in thinking about what I would NOT want to happen to me. “Lets get sad” was fun because it’s funny and absurd to me. Also because it’s an exercise in keeping things brief and focused on a single theme or idea. Other stories were more wide-open in theme and hinted at broader life issues. The challenge is to show and not tell, and that’s always a weird struggle to balance: where do you have to spell it out explicitly and where do you present things more vaguely or hint at to leave the reader to figure out the unstated? But satisfaction comes from figuring out that balance. It’s almost like a math problem in figuring out the technical ratios, and in trying to make a story be about more than what is stated.

Are there any other books we can expect to see in the future? Or a novel in the works?
I have zero interest in writing a novel. They have too much unnecessary backstory, and most attempts at character development end up seeming contrived to me. In my world, people don’t seem to change, so any change someone might exhibit seems like an act to me, a put on, or a change that is forced on someone. (There is change, or attempts at change, in some of the stories in this latest collection, but they are delivered in the short form). A novel takes a lot of time, and you don’t know if it will get published, so it’s not a great investment of what limited time I have. Too many ifs involved.

I have three more collections finished, one absurdist, and two more fantastical adventures for young adults and reluctant readers. But I have no suitable publisher for them at this point. Samples are on my website.

I also have pieces of stories and outlines I could pull together pretty quickly. So there is more material waiting. At present, I am working on promoting the latest book and enjoying some time off from writing. Unfortunately, as a promoter you become an emailer, rather than a writer. The writing gets suspended. Though it is interesting corresponding with other short story enthusiasts.

I wish my attitude could be: “you people will get another book from me when you get down on your knees and beg for it in the dirt. Hey you kids, stay off of my lawn”, but alas, it is not, though some pathetic begging would be nice. It’s more about when a suitable publisher gets excited by your writing. (Yeah, things are pretty discouraging here, it would really help if people would mail me their money. And foodstuffs. And dry goods. That would really lift my spirits. Yeah, I would like that. Just get an envelope and stuff your money into it. It’s not difficult or time consuming at all. And you’ll enjoy helping someone else, it will give you a boost, a sense of purpose and accomplishment. You don’t need to bother with buying the book at all, just send the money. You probably have enough books already, you don’t need the extra clutter).

Thanks for your time and effort. I wish you nothing but the best and hope to read more new books from you in the future!
Thank you so so much for taking an interest in my writing! I’m pleased you found something of value in it! I’m going to lay down now! You need beer! Go drink some beer! And send that money! Send beer money!

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