Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Author Insides - Ross Barkan

uthorWeeble couldn’t ever tell me the date of Bastille Day. What I mean is the original date, the 14th of July, 1789, the date they stormed the Bastille, those hungry French. There was so much that brilliant doofus could remember but never that date, no matter how many times I told him. You’d think graduating law school at 19 would endow you with the capacity to remember such things. But hey, Weeble was always the sort for involuntary memory, Proustian till the end.

Ross Barkan appears in the current Winter 2010 issue of The Battered Suitcase, with his story "And We Tilled the Light."


Ross is a writer from Brooklyn, New York who has just completed his first novel, Aflame We Laugh. When not belting out his endless thesis about the representation of reality in the works of Henry Miller and Virginia Woolf, he enjoys losing his temper during softball, baseball, handball, and tennis games, writing inflammatory articles for his college newspaper, the Stony Brook Press, and editing Stony Brook’s newest publication, a literary magazine called Spoke the Thunder.

Ross, when did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I think I realized around freshman year of college when I read Jack London’s Martin Eden. The book is fabulously written; the story of a sailor turned struggling writer. It’s one of his forgotten works and the only London I’ve read. Ultimately, the ending is tragic, but it spurred me to write the first significant short story of my life when I read it back in the winter of ’07 and ’08.

Why do you write?
Why do anything? Because I love it, because I have an innate, almost atavistic urge to create, and it’s one of the few things I am capable of doing well, honestly. Even in this age of hyper-consumerism and technological hegemony (I like the internet, don’t get me wrong), I believe the written word still provides the most freedom because it directly channels the infinite capacities of human imagination. If you’re watching a movie, you’re still at the mercy of a director or producer, steeped in that vision which like a train chugs relentlessly onward. With a book, you can move backwards and forwards, imagining the characters or scenarios the way you exactly want. Hell, the author can label a character dumb and you can find a way to make him seem intelligent and endearing.

Is being a writer anything like you imagined it would be?
I figure I’ll have a very different answer when I actually publish a book. For now, I’ll say yes. I enjoy writing immensely. I remember reading an interview with William Styron in which he described writing as some great Sisyphean labor. Writing for me is serious play. I suppose I should thank the muses that I’ve yet to encounter writer’s block. But maybe that’s because I’m an immature twenty-one year-old.

What do you think makes a good story?
Conflict of some degree, but the great “story” is not tied to plot in my mind. If I interpret this question to mean “what makes a great book,” I would say that it needs a core of almost profound significance or needs to communicate some essence what it actually means to be alive as a human being. I don’t think any of us can ever fathom how extraordinary human consciousness actually is. When I read a story, I need a fundamental truth, a reason to keep reading. Henry Miller knew that better than anyone.

What's your favorite genre to read?
I read what can loosely be called “literary fiction.” Rather than give a genre, I would say some of the most sublime works ever written are Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. As a Jew, I guess I should mention that the Roth guy who wrote that dirty book about masturbating into apple cores is pretty good too. Tinkers, Paul Harding’s 2009 masterpiece and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas are my favorite 21st century novels at the moment.

Who is your favorite author or poet?
Ah, a tough question. My favorite dead author is definitely Henry Miller. No individual, alive or dead, can match Miller when he’s on a roll. I’m not sure if anyone has ever commanded a language in such an overwhelming and transcendent way. As for my favorite living author, that would be some tie between Don DeLillo, David Mitchell, Paul Harding, Jonathan Safran Foer, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Wray, Jonathan Lethem, and Gary Shteyngart. And Thomas Pynchon for writing Gravity’s Rainbow. I’m currently in search of the one great living author I can say, without hesitation, is the literary king of the hill, but right now I can’t. There’s nothing wrong with a crowded field, though. People should read more living authors. I’m convinced that the 21st century will produce literature of a higher caliber than anything else we’ve seen before.

What books or stories have most influenced you the most as a writer?
Any concoction of Kesey, DeLillo, and Miller. At times I’ve written in pathetic imitations of each but I’ve tried to channel the pure vigor of Sometimes A Great Notion’s language. That might be our Great American Novel. (I liked One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in high school but the novel feels too distant to me now.) DeLillo’s opening words, even in a subpar novel like Falling Man, lift the English language to a higher plane that I wish more people would try to appreciate. The first chapter of Miller’s Black Spring, in which he reflects upon a Brooklyn childhood very different than my own Brooklyn childhood, is everything great writing should be, the ideal balance of the metaphysical, romantic, and blood-drenched reality. Absolutely soaring language.

What books or stories have most influenced you as a person?
Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Life Without Principle.” I don’t think Thoreau would appreciate the irony of this American “democracy” celebrating his name while ignoring virtually every important idea he tried to communicate to us. I say this as we near Christmastime and it sure as hell doesn’t look like anyone is “simplifying” their lives in anyway. God bless capitalism and the military-industrial complex!

Where/how do you find the most inspiration?
Reading and my daily existence. I read to find out about all those extraordinary things I can’t possibly ever experience. And I keep my eyes and ears open as much as I can. Good writers are outstanding observers. They walk through the world virtually empty, dangling their antennae out there and receiving the tragic currents of mankind.

What does your family think of your writing?
They support me, definitely. Deep down maybe they wish I dreamed of something a little more lucrative (Lawyer! Doctor!) but they certainly aren’t scornful. I love my parents and I owe everything to them. Without the thousand or so books crammed into our small apartment, I’d probably be studying to be one of the more mediocre accountants in New York City.

What is your work schedule like when you're writing?
Since I still attend college, I try to write between assignments or other school work. I do attempt to write every day, regardless of my work load, but I’m never as diligent as I want to be. During a summer or winter break, I will write daily and constantly. My time-waster and enabler is the internet; thankfully, I’ve cut television out of my life so I have more time to write. There’s no set word count I aim for. I simply try to get something down on the page. Like anything else, the more you write, the better you will become.

Do you have any writing quirks or rituals?
No, sadly I do not. If you asked this question about my now finished baseball career, I could tell you that I never washed my jockstrap during a hitting streak, drank the same flavor of Gatorade before a game if I was hitting well, and would never, ever step on the foul line or be the last person to take the ball to the dugout after warm-ups. There were probably a dozen more superstitions I can’t think of right now. But when it comes to writing, I am fortunately not so neurotic.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
I’m not a straight-forward writer. I’m not into pared down language like Mr. Hemingway and his iceberg theory (after reading For Whom the Bell Tolls, I wished he stuck to journalism). At times my writing can be opaque or slightly elusive. I won’t lay everything out there for you; I believe in a challenge. That’s how readers and writers grow.

What are your current projects?
I am writing a novel I have tentatively called Good Night, Retrograde. Recently, I had finished what I now consider an apprentice novel called Aflame We Laugh. I think this current work will be the first completed long work that I do actually like after a period of three days or so and I will earnestly seek publication for Good Night, Retrograde when I’ve finished it sometime next year. It has potential. I’m excited.

What are you planning for future projects?
Good Night, Retrograde is the current and future project. I want to finish it next year, touch it up, and try to find an agent. I’ve set this semi-absurd goal of publishing a novel before I turn twenty-six. I don’t know why, it’s fairly silly, but I want to get myself out there soon. I’m too excited.

Do you have any advice for other writers?
You must always read and you must always write. Fairly simple, not profound, but that’s about the only real route toward becoming a writer or improving your writing. Read the newspaper, read great novels, read great non-fiction, and read everything in between. And realize writing is a serious commitment. You can say I’m a terrible writer but you can’t say I’m a frivolous or lazy writer. College is filled with the dime-a-dozen pseudo-romantics who will sit down to pen two poems about their feelings and go on Facebook for an hour. Writing is wonderful but writing is work. You must keep doing it to succeed in anyway.

Where can we find your work?
I’ve had a story published by Xenith , a story published by Grey Sparrow Press and I have a story that will be published in the spring 2011 issue of Words, the literary magazine of the School of Visual Arts in New York City. You can find my various journalism, humor pieces, essays, and absurdist musings at the Stony Brook Press website.

Please check out the website of Spoke the Thunder, the literary magazine I founded at Stony Brook University this fall. I’ll have something up there eventually but for now check out the great work by our writers.