Infusing Nonfiction with Truth: American True Stories
Bruce Rutledge talks to Michael Rozek
June 29, 2012
Starting today, we'll be running a regular interview with Chin Music publisher Bruce Rutledge and Michael Rozek, author of the upcoming Lynzsea Sky and other books in the
American True Stories series.
RUTLEDGE: Earlier this year, you sent me two nonfiction manuscripts — Lynzsea Sky
and No People
— that blew me away. They were so immediate and intense that they drew me in and kept me riveted page after page after page. What was it that brought you to this way of telling people's stories?
ROZEK: There's a short answer to your question, "What was it that brought you to...?"
I don't see any writing out there — not in fiction or nonfiction, not in books, not in magazines, not in newspapers, not on the Internet — that's true. It's all distanced, affected, manicured, soulless, formulaic work always designed to sell to various audiences — but not designed to be true. And that bothers me so deeply, just in a civic and spiritual sense, that — well, like a friend of mine once said, "You have a soul hurt about it."
And by the way, when I say I don't see any writing out there that's true, I'm not making any exceptions.
So, I decided to do something about the situation and write true work myself. And, as such, try to start a revolution in thinking about the purpose of the written word and inspire other writers to follow me, or — much, much better — to surpass me.
And I'm aware of the audacity of saying all this. But as the great man and sculptor Richard Serra has said, "To really find a way of making and doing and seeing in a way that other people (haven't) done before, (is) a judgment against everybody, anybody and everybody who has come before."
Now: having answered your question, I need to explain my answer.
When you say my work is "immediate and intense," and "riveting," and "blew you away," it's not because I tried to make work that would be immediate and intense and riveting, or blow you away. I didn't try to do that. I just tried
to make work that was true. And it's that truth that's "blowing you away."
But, at the same time, that truth — though simple and even visceral when you experience it — is only achieved because of the complexity of my execution.
I’m planning to write 54 books over the next 18 years. All subtitled An American True Story
. Meaning, a true story that could only happen in America. The books will be a mirror — reflecting life in America over an 18-year “now.”
How so? Let’s say I come up to you on the street, and we start talking. And, we talk for a while. And then, I say to you, “I’ve been tape recording what we’ve been saying. If I go home and transcribe the tape exactly, and just edit it as little as possible for clarity, do you think I’ll end up with a true record of what just happened here?” You’ll say, “Yes." That’s the basis of how my work works. That’s its predominant form.
So, I choose a person or persons I want to do a book about. Everything in life boils down to a person, telling you something, about something. And I choose people who embody some knowledge or perspective — or have a story to tell — that is unavoidably bigger than they are. And that the rest of us should hear.
And that we don’t ever hear. Ever. Because book publishers and magazine and newspaper editors only like to run variations on what’s been done before.
You know: what we’re all sick of. Book publishers and magazine and newspaper editors, of course, don’t want to take risks. They’re in business, you know. In business, risks are really bad! Even though taking them often leads to new markets and huge profits!
But their aversion to risk keeps the rest of us in the dark. Yep: we’re all there, in the dark, together. But, my work is about light. Which, of course, is also truth.
And so I sit down with the person or persons, and we talk. I tape record us. They know the tape recorder is on. Eventually, I transcribe all the tapes. I edit the transcript as little as possible, only for clarity, and leave it in its original sequence. Them, talking in quotes. Me, talking in quotes. Back and forth. Back and forth. And that — with almost no added third-person narrative by me — is the basis of my work. Essentially, unmediated reality. And so, objective truth. Even in a determinedly relativistic age. “Nonfiction” — but, nonfiction written almost completely in dialogue.
At the same time, I'm in the work. How I pick my subjects is a creative process — intuitive, but creative. And my being there with them, talking with them, is a creative process. I never know what they are going to say next, and it is my responses, and their responses to my responses, and my responses to their responses to my responses, that make all the difference — not unlike when five jazz musicians are playing together in a club, and everything they play is based on their listening to each other.
And my editing the transcript of the conversation is also a creative process: knowing what to leave out and leave in, having been part of the time that yielded all of it — while trying to serve ultimate veracity and clarity.
The result of all this is what you experienced. My work's absence of distancing, cushioning third-person narrative and description leaves you with no place to rest. And so, it grips you. And, confronts you. By saying, “This is what the reality you’ve been kept from reading and seeing and hearing looks like. Time to deal
And after 20 pages or 40 pages or 80 pages or 160 pages of that relentlessness — well, it does blow your mind. Because there isn't anything else like it out there. Because our society is so built on lies, from stem to stern. And we're so comfortable in them.
In contrast, my work embodies two rigorous things I’ve heard the great Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliviera say: that the purpose of art is only to mirror life, and that it's art that is important, not the artist.
And, deeper still, it represents something Susan Sontag wrote back in 1964: “Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, super-added to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. The result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience... what is important now is to recover our senses... Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.”
Sontag wrote that nearly 50 years ago, when life was so much simpler. So, how badly do we need to “cut back content” now — 50 years later? To experience the unmediated, now? How badly do we need to “see the thing” now?
My answer to that would be, "Very badly." So that we can function a lot better than we're functioning now — by starting to look truly in a true mirror.
So, when we've talked about my work, I've resisted some of the ways you've
tried to define it — because I'm trying to get you to understand it the precise way I mean it. I know you love my first two books, Lynzsea Sky
and No People
, because they are so dialogue-driven — their relentless exchange, as you say, can be very immediate and intense and riveting. But, you see, I'm not here just
to be "riveting" — or to be pigeonholed as "the guy who does nonfiction in dialogue." I'm here to get you to Sontag's "the thing," to get to the truth of life. That's my artistic purpose, and my moral one. And if you call my work something it's not, how ever well-intentionedly for marketing purposes, it becomes — just in being mis-explained — less true.
So, sure: Lynzsea Sky
is a pristine expression of nonfiction done in
dialogue. But, No People
is more variegated. It brings in other elements that are "true": actual passages of dialogue from films by Tarkovsky and Capra, and the full text of a long document. My third book, Clark Thomas
, leans heavily on actual e-mail text, along with dialogue. My fourth book, Should Know
, while also almost completely dialogue-driven, will also have a music CD, relevant to the end of the book, inside the book. And my fifth book, The Prowler
, is largely monologue, spoken and recorded and transcribed and edited by me — but, as such, is no less true than any of my dialogue-driven books.
And I think it's The Prowler
, which I don't want to give away too much about now, that has derailed you, because you say, "Well, the first four books are more or less focused on one person you've selected to interview, but in The Prowler
, the only person talking is... you." But as my wife said to me the other day, "Aren't you a person?" And, of course, I am. And is what I'm talking about in the book something that needs to be talked about? Absolutely. So, you see, The Prowler
is right down the line with my other books — just because it's nothing more or less than true. It's true because of the way in which it is done, and it's true because it's truly talking about some things of true importance — as opposed to the false importance books and magazines and newspapers and the Internet now give to all sorts of things.
And that leads me to another point — one I almost crack myself up thinking about. So far, most of the books have been read by a few people, in galley form. And I'm really amazed by some of their responses. Some people are actually irritated that what the people in my books say, or how they say it, isn't lively enough. They're bugged that an email I print that someone's written is, to them, a bit dry to read. Or they are captivated by the simple exchanges between me and Lynszea Sky in Lynzsea Sky
, but complain about the much denser ones between myself and Clark Thomas in Clark Thomas
. And I hear this, and I just think, "Don't these readers understand that what they are reading is true? That that is why they should find it of interest? That Lynszea is a 20-year-old college student, and Clark is a 61-year-old photographer, and the two of them, being different people, speak and think differently, and so will end up being captured truthfully to different effect? That their words didn't happen, when they happened, as something staged for the reader's personal entertainment? I mean, what's next: getting genocide survivors to start pepping up their stories to be more reader-friendly?" Reactions like these ones I mention show me how devalued truth has become in this society — which, of course, I already knew, and is why I'm doing my work the way I am.
That's why when people also rather cynically say, "Aren't you being a bit ambitious to think your uncompromising work, especially coming from a small press like Chin Music, can sell in large numbers?," I answer, "I think a lot of people around the world are really craving — more than anything else — truth."
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