Jeffrey Rotter

Interviewed by Jason Porter

Jeffrey Rotter’s 2009 debut, The Unknown Knowns, is a novel about water, museum displays, government agents, and obsessive hunches on human evolution that are not supported by the greater scientific community. It is about being certain something is true despite, or perhaps because, nobody else can see its truth. In the case of the protagonist, Jim Rath, the truth involves lost aquatic ancestors, and his commitment to better knowing this unknown, as in most good novels, creates a lot of problems. The book is painfully funny and funnily painful, and has recently been released in paperback by Scribner. Because Jeffrey and I are friends, and he is an unreasonably nice person, he humored my pathological discomfort with professionalism (even of the unpaid variety) and participated in the following interview, the conclusion of which was celebrated over obscene (in size and content) sandwiches in the outer reaches of the Brooklyn neighborhood we both share.

INTERVIEWER

Your novel, “The Unknown Knowns” has just come out in paperback. I am told there is an extra graphic section. My question is: What do I do with my big clunky hardcover edition that has no pictures in it?

JEFFREY ROTTER

Yeah, my wife, Margaret McCartney, illustrated this really awesome mini comic for the paperback. It’s great because it pretty much tells the whole story of The Unknown Knowns without words, so you don’t have to bother reading the book. What to do with your hardcover? I chalk it up to a life lesson: Never, ever do anything, because the next thing that comes along will be incrementally better.

INTERVIEWER

One of the lovely things about Jim Rath, the protagonist of The Unknown Knowns is that even if I didn’t believe what he believed–his  aquatic ape theory of evolution–I felt very much protective of his need to believe in it. I didn’t want outside forces to squash his dream, even knowing that it was a self-destructive runaway obsession that would lead to no good. It created a compelling tension. I wonder how this was for you to write. Clearly you are very compassionate toward Jim and his dreams, but you are also responsible for this outside world that is bound to crush him, as outside worlds are prone to do. If you protected him completely, there would be no novel. I guess I am asking you, why do we hurt the things we love?

JEFFREY ROTTER

My son recently asked me a similar question. Felix is three and we’d just finished reading a story about a goose who gives all the other barnyard animals bad advice, usually resulting in bodily harm. He turned to me with tears in his eyes and said: “Dad, why do things have to be dangerous?” I was stymied. He’s just reaching that age when he realizes the world is not a Snuggli. I could have allowed Jim to live happily in his Nautikon brain utopia, but even children’s books don’t allow that. Fiction—at least the first-person kind—is about the idealized inner life of a character in conflict with everything else. But at the end of writing The Unknown Knowns I did experience a feeling similar to the one I had when my son asked me that question. I wanted to protect Jim Rath. But I couldn’t protect a make-believe person any more than I can totally shield Felix from the badness.

From the notebook of Jim Rath

From the notebook of Jim Rath, page 2

INTERVIEWER

On the topic of barnyards, do you eat animals? Would you eat animals in front of animals?

JEFFREY ROTTER

I do. I have. Animals have eaten animals in front of me. An animal has never, to my knowledge, eaten a human in front of me. Though my cat chomped on my arm recently and sent me to the hospital for two days with cellulitis. I am not averse to eating him, should the need arise. I don’t eat much meat anymore, and when I do I try to make it the good stuff, the “humane” kind. And I’ve ruled out octopus. I won’t eat anything that can open a jar, or shape-shift, or yank out my uvula with its tentacles.

INTERVIEWER

How about sandwiches? Would you eat a sandwich, and if so, what’s the best sandwich ever?

Jeffrey Rotter, Guerrero Food Center, Brooklyn

JEFFREY ROTTER

I’m tempted to answer this metaphorically, like: the coldcut of humanity pressed inside the hoagie roll of light and sound. But I’m going to go with ripe tomato and mayo on whole wheat.

INTERVIEWER

I realize that in my earlier question I made it sound like Jim Rath is the only delusional character in an otherwise sane world. But that isn’t true is it? We only need to look at the title–taken from a Donald Rumsfeld press conference in which he responded to questions about invading Iraq in mindbending neoconservative koans–that we are living on lies at every level. I mean if the government is allowed to institute policies that aren’t based in truth, that weapons exist that don’t, that terror links exist that don’t, then why can’t Jim Rath believe in Nautika, and why can’t I believe that there exist pirates who like to sing songs and never steal from people? I guess I’m just asking the same question. Maybe your son should take over from here. Is he interested in an internship?

JEFFREY ROTTER

My son is available for summer work. He can draw the planet Jupiter and substitute the names of other states in the lyrics to “California Uber Alles.” Drawback: you have to sing the “celebrate poop” song every time he makes a successful trip to the bathroom. He’s also, at age three, already an adept dissimulator. It’s kind of amazing that humans learn to lie before they can even take a crap without being congratulated. Of course lying is just a dirty word for imagination, and I think of the unknown knowns as a kind of whimsy to which we’ve attached certainty. As a “creative type” yourself, perhaps you know that being too imaginative can get you beat up in gym class. Or maybe you were better at dodging Gene Sellers than I was.

INTERVIEWER

Wait, are you saying that there will come a day when I won’t want a congratulatory song after I poop, even if I have settled for singing them to myself?

JEFFREY ROTTER

No, I think we never tire of that song. It’s like dancing on the grave at the top of the food chain. We won again! Take that wheat! (Or chicken. Or whatever comes out.) That’s what the celebratory poop song says. But the time comes in a person’s life when it’s safer to hum it quietly to yourself. I mean, what’s the point in showing off?

INTERVIEWER

Do you think Jesus was gay, or at least liked to turn off the lights and see what happened when hanging out with the apostles?

JEFFREY ROTTER

I can only speak from personal experience. In fifth grade I was enlisted as an altar boy at St. Peter’s in Columbia, South Carolina. My first time doing the Eucharist the priest yelled at me because I couldn’t find the little cruets of wine and water. Then I knocked over the big Lent candle and nearly burned down the church. That experience has set the precedent for most of my sexual life to follow.

INTERVIEWER

When I was an undergraduate I took a creative writing class and my teacher, let’s call her Douglas, once told me that I was incorrectly using humor to represent very dark and painful emotions. She made it sound like there wasn’t room for both. Can you please tell Douglas why she is wrong, and, do I sound like I am still bitter after all of this time? Feel free to mention your own work in the answer.

JEFFREY ROTTER

Douglas is a fool. There is nothing sadder than the substitution of humor for pain. To deny your characters the right to gallows humor is to deny them their humanity. We’re all cowardly and ironic animals. Also, the thing that separates us from the rest of the primates is the dick joke. Other species arguably have much funnier penises. I suggest you include a hyperlink here, here, and here to illustrate my point. But other animals never exploit their schlongs for comic effect. The dick is one of our primary instruments of purpose; it insures our survival or demise as a species; it’s an antenna that picks up love and misery; and yet there is nothing on this earth that we find funnier. Except maybe poop.

INTERVIEWER

Would you rather be blind or deaf?

JEFFREY ROTTER

Can I split the difference? Deaf in one ear, blind in one eye?

INTERVIEWER

I couldn’t help but notice that Jim Rath shares your initials, and while I wouldn’t say that you too have a high forehead, I would guess that you have never been mistaken for Rod Blagojevich. And yet I know you two are not the same person. For instance you have not to my knowledge been held as a terror suspect, and I have seen you in public with a woman who supports your claims that she is your wife, whereas Jim was woefully estranged from his. So what I am wondering is, do you find you gain something strategically, or creatively, as you paint your character either closer or farther from the way you see yourself?

JEFFREY ROTTER

I remember somebody asking your teacher and mine, Peter Carey, why he set a book in New York City and rural Australia. He said it was because they were both places he’d lived. The lesson is that you could make up stuff from whole cloth or immerse yourself in years of research, but if it’s all the same, the easy way is to use what you already know. That was a relief to me when I was writing about an undersea metropolis. The trick for me is to deploy embarrassing fragments of my own life but disguise them so that people don’t think I’m the freak who dresses up like a superhero to have sex or pretends frozen burritos are seal pups, the last remaining food of the Shackleton expedition.

Also, I just saw an episode of Celebrity Apprentice in which Rod Blagojevich is mistaken for Donnie Osmond. That dude has got it made.

INTERVIEWER

Who are more superstitious, writers or professional baseball players? What I’m getting at is do you always wear the same kind of underwear when you write?

JEFFREY ROTTER

Underpants constitute a kind of magical thinking. Y-fronts or boxers are merely a mental bulwark against wetting ourselves, when in point of fact they do nothing to prevent the soiling of our trousers. (Try it.) A more practical approach would be rubber underpants. I have never seen an outfielder in rubber pants, but I’m pretty sure I saw them peeking out over the waistband of Martin Amis’s khakis. This was at a New Yorker party a few years back. He was smoking grass. From these observations, I can draw one of two conclusions: a) writers are less superstitious than professional baseball players; or b) Martin Amis is incontinent.

INTERVIEWER

Ok, I promise we are going to move on to other topics, like new things you might be working on, but first, while we are still on The Unknown Knowns, amidst all of these delusional males in the book – Jim, the differently deluded but still deluded government agent Diaz, the echo of the deluded Rumsfeld – there appears to be a longing for something more female. Jim loses his job designing dioramas at the Center for Gender and Power, he loses his wife, and he is spoken to from the depths (of his head) by a lost matriarchal civilization. Is this intended, this longing for a world that isn’t screwed up by men, or do I just miss the lunches my mother used to pack for me as a child?

JEFFREY ROTTER

It’s intentional for sure. My sketches for the undersea city of Nautika are blatantly vaginal. The queen’s spire has a uterine interior. But I’m not trying to make a grand statement about how men have screwed up the world. (Naturally, we have.) Jim Rath’s utopia is feminine, matrilineal; it favors reason and compassion over deceit and brute force. He conflates virtue with femininity, probably because he worships his mother and has been disappointed by the men in his life.

And yes, you miss those lunches. I remember the first time my mother let me pack my own. I was in second grade. I made a cheese sandwich but neglected to remove the plastic wrap from my Kraft single. That day, I had the honor of dining across from my favorite teacher ever, Mrs. Jankowski. I took one bite of my sandwich and pulled the whole laminated slice of cheese away in my teeth. Mrs. Jankowski burst out laughing. This was a formative experience for me.

From the notebook of Jim Rath page 3

INTERVIEWER

Tuna melt or B.L.T.?

JEFFREY ROTTER

An ethically dubious choice, but my answer has to be tuna melt. I don’t believe lettuce belongs on a sandwich.

INTERVIEWER

What is your next book going to be about, and might I suggest the name Flex Cotter for one of your main characters? And before you answer, is this a terrible question (minus the part about the name suggestion, which is obviously good)? I mean is it like asking you what a bridge is going to look like before you build it, or is it like asking you about your child’s personality before she is born, or is it simply a nice question to ask and I should maybe lighten up a bit?

JEFFREY ROTTER

Not a terrible question, especially since I begged you to ask it. The next book is pretty much satire-free. It’s about friendship, alligator capture, and a mysterious island that pops up in the Atlantic Ocean. The closest thing to memoir I’ll ever write.

After that: Flex Cotter is a Navy Seal with a secret—he’s a housecat trapped in the body of a male model. When he infiltrates an undersea Taliban training center, the furballs start to fly. Tagline: “Danger is his catnip.”

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever read things too quickly and come across alternative readings that are better or just as good? I mean as a product of the way we look at the groups of letters rather than reading precisely left to right? You still aren’t following me, and that’s my fault. What I am saying is that on the last sandwich question (Tuna Melt v. B.L.T.) I first read your answer as “that’s an ethnically dubious question,” which I thought was pointing out how white bread (not literally. I would only order a B.L.T. on whole wheat) my hypothetical sandwich board is, and it was a fair point even if you didn’t make it. So, I ask you, Mexican Torta or Vietnamese Banh Mi? (I realize that’s redundant, Vietnamese Banh Mi, but most of our readership is in rural Nebraska.)

JEFFREY ROTTER

Ironically, Nebraska is in the bread basket. They should know more about sandwiches than anyone, especially the East Coast urban low-carb elite. Three months ago (in late 2009) I would have answered Banh Mi. But I’m kind of burned out on those things. Plus every shop that’s shuttered in my neighborhood winds up reopening as a Chase Bank or banh mi place. The torta, on the other hand, is endless. You can get anything on one of those sandwiches, and eat it with a Negra Modelo.

Cemitas

INTERVIEWER

Would you like to take this moment to plug anything? An overlooked book? The perfect beer for in the shower? The best music to listen to while filing your taxes? A good question about writing fiction that nobody ever seems to ask you?

JEFFREY ROTTER

I love a shower beer. It’s the main reason there are drips of water on the toilet seat. You know, from reaching for the beer. Which I keep on the tank of the toilet. If you ever come over to my house and you’re wondering what those drips are, well, now you know. I’m enjoying the Hop Rod Rye from Bear Republic. Hoppy but balanced, good drip-pattern.

Let’s do overlooked books. I always mention The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût, and I’ll mention it again. It’s as if Emily Dickinson wrote a post-colonial ghost novel. I’m a big fan of One Story magazine and Electric Literature.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the best way to cook an egg?

JEFFREY ROTTER

Watching my son crush Easter eggs in his brutish little fist was one of the highlights of the Lenten season for me. My dad employs a method that takes like 45 minutes to complete. He alternates ice baths and boiling water. It’s like taking an egg to the Russian baths. I just poke a hole in one end and simmer them gently for about seven minutes.

INTERVIEWER

For the new book, you say it is satire-free, and that makes me wonder how we think of satire in general. Your last book was satirical in a lot of respects, but I would hesitate to call it a satire, not because that label feels inaccurate, but because it seems like that narrows people’s expectations – that the development of plot, character and emotion will only be at the service of lampooning a particular topic. And that’s not the case. Your characters are not merely props for a larger joke. So, when you say satire-free does that mean you hope people will take it seriously, or that I hope people will take it seriously, or that it’s not as funny, that it reads like an essay on genocide? Or what?

JEFFREY ROTTER

I guess I answered too hastily. The Unknown Knowns isn’t strictly a satire (thanks). And this new book—I need a title, by the way—is loaded with satirical bits. But it doesn’t critique anything as directly or narrowly as the last book. I’m definitely not pulling the Steve Martin, “please forget I ever had a fish in the pocket of my white suit and read my New Yorker pieces instead” thing. I hope readers will laugh at, or near, this book. Actually, if they laugh at a much funnier book that’s stacked on top of mine, I’ll be satisfied.

INTERVIEWER

And when you say it is the closest to memoir of anything you have written, do you mean that like any good memoir you are less concerned with fact than storytelling? Or do you mean that it is based more on events remembered than events imagined? Is there a difference between the two? Or maybe, just maybe, you were joking, because I don’t believe you have ever captured an alligator.

JEFFREY ROTTER

I used to feed marshmallows to alligators when I was a boy. But, like anyone who grew up in South Carolina and does not play golf, I won’t go near those fucking things. It’s a memoir in the sense that the story is an alternate-universe version of something that happened in my life, but that can be said of about 99 percent of all novels. There is a nakedly historical element to this book, though. And by “nakedly,” I don’t mean I’m naked in the book.

INTERVIEWER

Do you like the taste of your own blood?

JEFFREY ROTTER

Of course. Who doesn’t? Everybody practices self-vampirism. I like the mix of metallic and steaky notes—like aluminum sirloin. Just writing this makes me want to skin my knee. Sweat is good, too. It tastes like pretzels that you have to work for. I went to a bachelor party a few years ago at an Argentine steakhouse and got blood sausage. I liked it, but have to say it was kind of disturbing, like licking some other kid’s scab.

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