I found Joanna Ruocco’s work indirectly—or rather, because contributor and friend Matt Weinkam had interviewed her for the site. And, being a rabid reader of the Dorothy publishing project (my library boasts the full catalog), I grabbed a copy of Dan, published alongside the surprise 2014 hit Wallcreeper, without a second thought. Still, these modest events resonated with me—many obviously don’t—and after suggesting the feature interview project to Matt, it occurred to me to involve Ruocco, who blazingly answered the interview proposal, in a future phase for the journal, which happens to be this year, when we are promoting our first Story Prize competition on the heels of declaring a brand-spanking annual publishing schedule. We are delirious to have her on board to read submissions. Read the interview below, conducted over email, to learn more about what inspires her to read and write, and enter our first Story Prize here.
—Jason Teal, Founding Editor
Ruocco holds an MFA from Brown and a PhD from the University of Denver. She is the author of The Mothering Coven (Ellipses Press, 2009), Man’s Companions (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2010), A Compendium of Domestic Incidents (which won the 2009 Noemi Press Fiction Chapbook Contest; judged by Rikki Ducornet), Another Governess / The Least Blacksmith: A Diptych (which won the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize; judged by Ben Marcus), and Dan (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2014). She also works pseudonymously as Alessandra Shahbaz (Ghazal in the Moonlight, Midnight Flame) and Toni Jones (No Secrets in Spandex). With Brian Conn, Ruocco co-edits the fiction journal Birkensnake.
Do you have a favorite short story? Tell us about it.
Some of my favorite stories are ones Brian Conn and I published in Birkensnake. Maybe in part that’s because I read them so many times and thought about them so much and some of them came to me in the mail. I still remember running up the stairs with an oddly long envelope from Japan and opening it and reading “The Dig” by Matthew Pendleton in my kitchen. It was getting dark outside but I didn’t want to stop reading to turn the light on and I finished “The Dig” in the dark. I thought it wasn’t really like anything I’d ever read and it still isn’t. You can read “The Dig” and all the other stories in Birkensnake for free at birkensnake.com.
I have many more favorite stories, too many to list. I love Beckett’s Stories and Texts for Nothing, all the expelling, the emptying out, but I also love “Enough” because it’s so full of flowers. I love Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, particularly “The Slow Sound of His Feet.” I love Isak Dinesen’s stories within stories within stories and the small, story essays of Robert Walser. Recently, I’ve read and loved stories by Amina Cain, Susan McCarty, Marie NDiaye, Caren Beilin, and Yoko Ogawa.
What keeps you writing fiction? What are you working on now?
I’m always trying to get to this particular feeling, maybe it’s a fleeting apprehension of expanded possibility, and writing fiction seems to get me, not always but sometimes, into the vicinity of that feeling. So I keep doing it! It’s a mode of hoping.
Lately I’ve been working on these very long, sprawling stories in which I try to make whatever I first thought of as each story’s center disappear. I usually write very, very short stories, and so I thought it would feel fun and weird to change the shape and scope of what “story” usually is for me.
What does a prized short story accomplish?
Short stories I prize don’t take anything for granted: language, consciousness, the world. Instead, they go about a project of inquiry on their own terms. I like it best if these invented terms break down and the story comes up against something unthinkable. Everything has to rearrange itself to make the new thinking possible.
What are you reading right now?
I always read a bunch of books at once. Right now it’s the middle of the semester and I’m reading selections from Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble and selections from Renee Gladman’s Newcomer Can’t Swim and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets for my classes. I’m reading Bernard Stiegler’s For a New Critique of Political Economy and Will Alexander’s Singing in Magnetic Hoofbeat and Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents and Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First.
As a romance writer, you’ve used different pseudonyms to publish your work. Can you tell us the story behind these novels?
I grew up reading romance novels by the backpack load. I bought them at the summer-long library book sale down the street from my dad’s pizza shop with change from the till and read them in the shop while also watching Cheers on the black-and-white mini television and eating meatball heroes. Each romance novel has to do the same thing—tell the story of a courtship that ends in a happily ever after—so I think it’s natural for romance readers to recognize (and probably even get bored with) the form and come up with variations on a theme. A lot of people who read romance novels at some point try out writing romance novels. I like that the reader-writer divide is particularly permeable with romance, and I like seeing how individual romance novels fulfill genre conventions differently. The story of how I came to write my first romance, Ghazal in the Moonlight, as Alessandra Shahbaz (originally less of a pseudonym than a portmanteau persona) is too strange and complicated to get into here. But generally speaking, I came to write romance as a reader excited by the genre’s combination of affective intensity and Oulipo-worthy constraints. If you haven’t read any romances, I recommend anything by Meredith Duran, my absolute favorite romance novelist.