Web Exclusive Interview: Rose Gowen

Rose Gowen author photoJuly’s web exclusive story, “The Sun and the Pacific, Flowers,” is both a beautiful meditation on the passage of time and a careful, close look at a young person’s anxiety that she’s not doing or being quite enough. Writer Rose Gowen’s images and sensory details are stunning; the story is brimming over with oleander and hibiscus, rosemary, agave, palms, and citrus trees. The smells and sounds of the Santa Barbara coast abound here, as does the sense that, for all of that beauty and bounty, danger remains. From the bank-robbing neighbors next door to the slick tiles of the rain-soaked downtown, Gowen provides a tempering undercurrent that makes this little story so much more than a pretty still life. 

 

Nate Brown: There’s such stillness in the story. While the world swirls around this protagonist, she’s planning a novel about her amaryllis and her boyfriend is studying music. How do you go about writing a story that so precisely captures that stillness while still keeping it interesting?

Rose Gowen: I wanted to write a story about the quarter-life crisis, which, in my real life,  I experienced as frustration at my lack of skills and experience, restlessness—a desire to make things happen, impatience, fear that I would never live up to my potential, and fear that I did not, in fact, have the potential I had previously imagined I had.

So, I wanted to capture that youthful sense of not going anywhere, plus a retrospective sense that sometimes that’s okay. Sometimes you don’t need to go anywhere. I’m trying to remember—somewhere I read someone saying something like, “I was afraid I would one day look back on that time as an idyll. I now look back on that time a an idyll.” Lorrie Moore? Annie Dillard? No, I think it was someone else. It will come to me randomly in six months.

As for how to do that, how to create a feeling of stillness without being boring (if I’ve succeeded)—I think it’s not so much stillness, as ongoingness (to use Sarah Manguso’s word). Everything keeps happening. In spite of whatever we are, or are not, doing in our lives, everything keeps happening. Repetition creates that sense of ongoingness, I think—looking at the landscape, and then the people, and then back at the landscape and it’s still there. Then, if it’s interesting, even though nothing really happens, I think that’s the language—I tried to write various aspects of this story many times over the years, and when I finally got to this version, I was just playing. As well as repetition, I used tone and texture, alliteration. I like a little parataxis. It was really fun to write! Also, shifting out of time. Years ago, a friend of mine gave me a copy of Joe Brainard’s I Rememberand, truthfully, for me it was too many “I remembers” in one place, but I love to put some “I remembers” in a story when I can, and I always think of Joe Brainard when I do it. I love the way it takes you out of the story for a moment—reminding you that the time of the story is not now—and puts you back in with authority: this is a real memory! (Maybe.)

NB: In that sense, then, the story’s also about time passing. The avocados dropping are almost metronymic, and the ocean eroding the cliffs underneath the apartment buildings remind us that the whole, big, messy world is in motion. Is that a fair assessment? 

RG: Yes. Thankfully/unfortunately, we won’t always be 25!

NB: The palms, the smell of the grapefruit tree, the huaraches, the slick Saltillo tiles: these details are so evocative and lovely. I’m actually a bit surprised that a story this short can hold all of that vivid detail. Is other work of yours as invested in such rich sensory detail? How’d you manage to get so much into so short a space?

RG: Yes, I think so. I’m very bad at plot. I guess I tend not to care too much about what happens, but I care a lot about how it, where it is a time or place or situation, feels, and that comes through the senses. I think about the quality of light—how well a character can see—and whether they are hemmed in or free with their body. There is usually food, and often, weather.

I don’t know how to answer the other part of your question. I never have a hard time writing short! For me the difficulty is writing long! I always envy those writers who have such an abundance that they have to cut when they revise. I usually have to add.

NB: There’s action in the story, too, of course, but much of it is not there in the narrative present. There’s rumor and hearsay and there’s police tape, but all we see is an indeterminate number of FBI agents stepping over that tape. How do you go about writing a story that implies so much without actually depicting everything?

RG: Well, so, I mentioned that I tried to write this story a number of times before I arrived at this version. I tried, many times, to write about living in Santa Barbara when I was 25, and feeling frustrated. The bits about lying around reading while a sprinkler waters grass seeds come from a poem I wrote at the time. But I lacked a focal point.

Then, years later in Boston, I really did have bank-robbing neighbors, and tried at various times to write a more scene-y story about them, but I was never able to make it work. A failure of imagination, maybe. Actually, that failure of imagination is in this version of the story, which I wrote probably five years ago. The character is comparing herself to the neighbors, saying, How could they? . . . I could never! which I took from the Frank O’Hara poem about Lana Turner, where he says:  “I have been to lots of parties/ and acted perfectly disgraceful/ but I never actually collapsed.”

Another model for this story, that allowed me to depict this seemingly major element glancingly, is the Auden poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts” and also the Breughel painting he describes, where Icarus is falling out of the sky into the ocean, but all we see is a splash and a little foot, while a ship keeps on sailing, and a farmer keeps plowing his field. I think about this a lot: on the best or worst day of my life, how can it be that everyone else is still doing their thing? My daughter was born on the Fourth of July, and in the evening, a nurse at the hospital suggested I watch the fireworks from the window down the hall, and I remember thinking, I just had a baby! You’re still going to do that Fourth of July thing?! But then, when it’s the neighbor’s turn, I am going to walk around the police tape to go switch my clothes from the washer to the dryer. It’s hard to reconcile, from either side.

NB: What’re you working on now? Where can we read more of your work?

RG: I don’t have anything else coming out imminently, but readers of this story might like a piece I compiled when I worked at the Hall of Records in Santa Barbara, or a story I wrote about people a little bit older than the ones here in “The Sun and the Pacific, Flowers,” worried about settling down and having children. For the past year, I have been working on stories and short things maybe too plotless to qualify as stories— maybe I will call them fragments or vignettes—about being wife/mother/daughter/friend. And, for several years, I have been working on a novel . . . really, the same, about the same thing! And about the need for connection and the need for separateness, how these needs can be in conflict. At the moment it’s called Love Yr Neighbor, and my goal for the summer is to finish a new draft of it. (Oh, no! Now I have to!)

 

 

 

Rose Gowen is an American writer living in Montreal. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including the American Poetry Review, Night Train, Kitchen Sink, BridgePindeldyboz, and Opium, as well as online at McSweeney’s, the Rumpus, and LitroNY, among others, and in several anthologies. She once had a very short play produced in Brooklyn.

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