Peter Heller (author of The Dog Stars and The Painter) recently shared a drink or two with Bill Roorbach at City Park Grille in Petoskey, Michigan--a Hemingway hangout--after which he asked Roorbach about his new novel, The Remedy for Love.
Heller previously had this to say about Roorbach's latest: “I’m not sure there’s another American writing today who can lay down a love story, or any story, with the depth and freshness of Bill Roorbach ... leave it to him to tease out the subtle nuances in the progress of love while stoking a tale that is as gripping as any Everest expedition.”
I'll step aside and let them have at it...
Peter Heller: I took to The Remedy for Love right away, maybe because it’s a shipwreck, desert-island kind of story, albeit inland in Maine, and those are my favorites. Are you a fan of Defoe, Conrad, Coetzee? Or any of the epic non-fiction survival narratives like Shackleton’s?
Bill Roorbach: I love those kinds of stories, and all the ones you mention. Robinson Crusoe was a mainstay of my youth, and the Coetzee version, whoa. Speaking of youth, “Youth,” by Joseph Conrad. I think you’d call it a novella now, a long story based on the author’s own experience.You know it, right? This kid goes to sea on a coal boat and somewhere in the far southern ocean the boat catches fire. But that’s just half the adventure--the rest is getting back to England, which the protagonist manages, much as Conrad did. You can’t rest for a second reading that thing. And that’s just what I was going for, but boiled down to a simple situation--nothing unusual for Maine--that spirals out of control. Add a woman. At first, it’s just about one person trying to help another as snow starts falling, and then it's a disaster. Yet it’s a disaster with certain comforts.
BR: It was fun and painful in equal measure. I liked how Eric’s sweet nature and sense of duty is what gets him involved, and then how her mistrust makes him question his own motives. There he is being helpful, but he needs help, too, and doesn’t even know what he needs.
PH: I was constantly surprised as I read The Remedy for Love. And I’m not easy to sneak up on. Did the characters surprise you as well?
BR: I was surprised writing these two people, for sure. They found ways to reveal depths I hadn’t known about when I started in. I kept having to revise to catch up with them. Several times I had to stop and do several days of research, just to know what Danielle knew, or to understand her experience. Eric, same, though his revelations are quieter. I was also surprised by the way the storm in my story kept growing. Ten years ago, I don’t think anyone would have believed in this storm, least of all myself. But after Katrina and Sandy and all the typhoons that have wreaked havoc in Asia recently, and after recent winters in Maine, well, we’re all just waiting for it to happen.
PH: Well, I loved reading the book, as I said--had to get up and put on wool socks.
BR: I had the same experience, writing in the summer. I’d look up from my keyboard and be surprised there was no snow outside, that it was warm and safe. Like waking from a dream and realizing you haven’t really been thrown off a cliff.
PH: The Remedy for Love, which is so compact and intimate, seems like a departure from Life Among Giants, which is so multi-layered and covers so much time. Is this a purposeful shift?
BR: Life Among Giants took a long time to write for many reasons, but one reason was the huge cast and the grand sweep of time. When it was time to start a new book, I resolved to write one with just two main characters, one main setting, and make the central action happen in just a few days. The manuscript of Life Among Giants was huge, too, and it would take a while to come back from the various stages of editing. I used those months to start The Remedy for Love, one section at a time, and then used the even longer months of waiting for Life Among Giants publication day to keep drafting and stay sane. By the time the Giants paperback tour was done, The Remedy for Love was in production!
PH: You live in a not-large town in rural Maine. The setting of the book is beautifully rendered and you have a way, with this attention to very particular detail, of immersing the reader. The peripheral characters feel very real as well. And what happens when you walk into the local café after a book like this is published?
BR: Luckily, there are no cafés here! But seriously, Woodchurch, the town in the book, only somewhat resembles my town. The people in Remedy are thoroughly fictional. And most all of the action takes place deep in the woods, anyway, so I avoid trouble. Still, I’m sure people will be guessing.
PH: Do you spend a lot of time in the woods? Have you ever feared for your life there?
BR: I spend a lot of time in the woods, yes. Always have, since I was a little boy and didn’t have to home till dark. Now it’s a long walk or ski every day pretty much all year, and a lot of hiking and swimming, that kind of thing. My scares are usually more comic than life-threatening. Once I got lost in the fog and got off trail as it was getting dark. I didn’t mind the prospect of sleeping in the woods, but I didn’t want to miss dinner. So I did the Boy Scout thing of making straight lines by sighting on trees (you know, you pick three trees that form a straight line, walk forward one tree, and find another tree ahead in a straight line, and so on—this keeps you from going in circles, which is how people stay lost) and finally crossed a road, but miles from my car. Once, though, well, I should have feared for my life, but was too dazed to think that way: I’d taken an epic fall skiing far back in the woods here on a very cold morning, like ten below, all by myself, no phone in my pocket, no service out there anyway. I hit my face, snapped my neck back, and I knew I was hurt, even though there was no pain, but I couldn’t get up, couldn’t make myself move—things just weren’t working properly. After a long time in that weather (my sweat freezing), I started to go to sleep. I finally told myself I had to move, and then I did, got back on my feet and skied home a couple of miles. The pain didn’t start for a few days, happily, and the end of the story is a spinal fusion, three vertebrae in my neck. Titanium in there now…
PH: Why the title? This is a great love story that subverts itself from the start. You must have loved Frank Zappa.
BR: I love Zappa. Suzie Creamcheese and Sheik Yerbouti. Hours in Jimmy Naphen’s attic analyzing every nuance of note and word, and appreciating the strange combination of comic lyrics with very serious music. But this title comes from Thoreau. His remedy for love is to love more. Who knew old Henry had ever had a broken heart?
PH: What’s next?
BR: I’m working on the pilot script for Life Among Giants, which is in development at HBO. Still a lot of hoops and hurdles before we’ll get it on TV, but at least I’m getting paid. And also, main project, working on a new novel, which I’ve been calling Lucky Turtle. Takes place mostly in Montana, so I’m getting back out to your territory, also the territory of my youth. And a book of stories, which Algonquin will publish in 2016, The Girl of the Lake.
PH: Danielle reminded me so much of a woman I dated in the late 90s, whose wounded mercury and magic almost killed me. Who was your Danielle?
BR: What’s that? You’re breaking up. And I’ve got to cook dinner anyway. Thanks Peter, great talking!
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