Q&A

Timothy Boudreau

SETTING IS CRUCIAL to many of Paul Rosier’s stories, so setting may be the best place to begin: the town of Prescott, New Hampshire, some miles north of Franconia Notch, not far from the last U.S. Interstate exit before the Canadian border. Here in the streets leading to his current apartment are various scenes of decay similar to those found in his fiction: a rusted-out Chevy van with a tree limb growing out of its passenger side window, parked in front of a crumbling apartment building; ragged children riding bicycles in the parking lot of an empty laundromat with shattered windows.

When conjuring a mental picture of Rosier, other images from his broken little stories—the several which have appeared in online journals, the two or three printed in tiny literary quarterlies—may arise as well. There’s the epileptic clerk quietly drinking himself to death in “A Little More”; the bony janitor trainee sweeping floors and planning world conquest in “The Cleaner”; any number of inhibited, fumbling, drastically overweight virgins who populate the pages of his other work. Rosier himself is quite thin, a slightly stooped, dark-eyed, sallow man, perhaps forty-five, wearing on this occasion an unironed dress shirt, corduroys and white tube socks, offering an occasional haunted half-smile when discussing his life as a clerk, a custodian, a cashier.

The interview was conducted in a single three- or four-hour session, from late afternoon into early evening. Rosier drank steadily throughout, refilling a plastic cup with cheap red wine until he finished the bottle. Between his second and third cups he pulled a package of Winston cigarettes from his shirt pocket and sheepishly lit one, taking care to blow the smoke toward the window across the room. “I just started actually,” he explained. “My mother has smoked for as long as I can remember—I’ve always hated her for it. But I just started a few months ago. Can you believe it?”
As the interview progressed, Rosier’s shoulders slumped, his speech slurred slightly, his fingers fumbled with the buttons of his shirt. But toward the end of the session he suddenly sat up quite straight, his eyes bright and charged with emotion. As he answered the final questions he rose to pace the room, back and forth between his jumbled desk and an old filing cabinet near the window, leaving a final impression of someone who, when left alone at last, would return to his computer and notebooks and continue the work to which he had devoted his life.



INTERVIEWER

So you’re back in New Hampshire, after having moved away twice. How does it feel?


ROSIER

They didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet.


INTERVIEWER

How so?


ROSIER

My mother… Well, she wasn’t all that happy to see me, let’s just say she wasn’t overjoyed. She chewed her gum, put her fist on her hip and sort of narrowed her eyes… Her first words were, “Well, maybe now you can help around the house. Your step-dad has been my only support around here for years, and now with his condition he needs someone for him.” I’m not sure I’ll be able to draw a picture for you. She’s tall, broad-shouldered, with short thick bristling gray hair and this shrewd fierce expression… Her face has the texture of an old softened apple now, and she usually wears a flowered house dress. And my step-dad…


INTERVIEWER

He’s ill?


ROSIER

He’s dying basically of cancer. He’s this wiry sinewy little man dwindling down to a dried yellow husk. He still lives in the late-fifties and early-sixties—the muscle car world. White t-shirt, cigarette pack rolled in your sleeve; tinker with the engine, wipe the grease on your jeans. Marilyn Monroe, doo-wop, Gene Vincent. He shuffles himself around now with a cane, tries to lecture about duty, duty to your wife, duty to your family. One leg is pretty much useless. Anyway my mom thinks I should be grateful to him for something or other. Taking care of her—taking my dad’s place, I suppose.


INTERVIEWER

Do you have other family members living in the area?


ROSIER

Sure. Aunts, uncles, cousins… We’re not close.


INTERVIEWER

Why not?


ROSIER

I’m not comfortable around them, and they don’t have much interest in seeing me either. I always acted like I knew better than they did. Now they can see that I don’t.


INTERVIEWER

So—describe a typical writing day.


ROSIER

Up early if I can manage it, go to the computer with my coffee, or sometimes just grab a notebook—let’s say in the fall, sitting at the picnic table out there behind my landlord’s garage. The sun has cleared the horizon; steam rises from the coffee cup. I wear a Red Sox cap and sunglasses—a disguise, I suppose, in case anyone sees me there scribbling and wonders what I’m up to. Then eventually it’s time to head back inside, get ready for the day job.


INTERVIEWER

And what about your day jobs? Is there some inspiration, something positive you’ve been able to take from those?


ROSIER

No—no. You’re talking about the overalls and the mop bucket. You’re talking about the smell of bleach on your fingers, or tallying up the cash drawer, ringing up the old lady’s purchase of cooking sherry, canned spinach and Soap Opera Digest…


INTERVIEWER

Still, they seem to have had an impact on your work. In “The Cleaner”, Doug, the custodian, obsessively paints the wild rose bush he sees while eating his lunch beside the dumpster in back of the school…


ROSIER

At the Summerfest Art Show many years ago there were these paintings—piles of junk in a field, mainly. But I found something appealing in them, a sort of metaphor I thought I had to understand: the garbage becoming part of Nature somehow, Nature accepting and adapting to it, growing around it. In her paintings the artist treated everything with the same reverence—apple limbs arching toward the sun, a pile of glistening bottle-green glass shards, a maple leaf floating on a pond, a wringer washer blossoming with rust, with a jay perched on top… So I gave the paintings to Doug, along with the rose bush, and my lunches beside the dumpster.


INTERVIEWER

In “A Little More”, the central emotion in your character’s life seems to be fear. He’s afraid to talk to the pretty girl; he’s afraid to play games with his classmates because he might fall down and hurt himself…


ROSIER

He’s never had any fun. I was the same at that age. I was never comfortable with the word actually. “Fun.” I was never any good at it. It always scared me a little—people dancing, laughing, letting themselves go. Picture the scrawny kid with the knobby wrists, the giant Adam’s apple, the cowlick, the thick glasses—you know who I mean. The anarchy of it was what got me. I couldn’t shake the idea that there was no one overseeing things, that at any moment the party could wheel around and set its sights on me— “Hey, look at the skinny kid in the funny pants!” It’s like a group of sharks—I know this from experience—all it takes is the slightest scent of blood.


INTERVIEWER

Caleb Bailey, in your story “Had a Heart”, dreams of the many incomplete operas he wishes he had the strength to finish. Are there any abandoned works you wish now you had completed?


ROSIER

Sure.


INTERVIEWER

Describe one for us.


ROSIER

There was one called “The Freshman”. The character is a high school boy wonder, but then he goes off to college and everyone there is smarter and funnier than he is, and his roommates terrorize him… Well, he’s terrorized by everything; he’s terrorized by having to find a seat in the caf. He’s terrorized by the chapel bell ringing. Anyway, he drops out after that first semester and comes back to his little home town—it’s an old factory town next to a dirty little river—and it goes from there. He moves back in with his parents, he gets various jobs, he writes and reads late into the night, trying somehow to educate himself, to fill the gaps that he imagines someone would have filled for him if he’d stayed in school. But he remains—he thinks of himself as a freshman, always. A thirty, a forty year-old freshman. A fifty year-old freshman, still waiting for the experiences that will transform him…


INTERVIEWER

And so—


ROSIER

An aging, crumbling man with thinning hair and a baby face. He knows there’s another life he’s meant to live, but for him it’s like looking up at the stars.


INTERVIEWER

Have you ever felt this?


ROSIER

I remember watching television as a kid, seeing city streets, fruit and newspaper stands, people, traffic, buildings—and I felt somehow I’d be there someday, I’d make my way. So you feel that there’s a world that will be revealed to you. It aches when you don’t find it.


INTERVIEWER

What keeps you—or your characters—from finding it? Is it a lack of imagination? Courage?


ROSIER

Sure, sure, those, probably more. Lack of—lack of everything… There’s a great Smiths lyric—“So when you want to live, where do you go? How do you start? Who do you need to know?” So I found years like that—all you have is your job, which is actually horrible… Everything for you is sad, is powerful. You’re walking alone on a country road on a summer Saturday afternoon, and your former classmates drive by in a Jeep with the top down, music playing, on their way to the swimming hole—and you almost want to cry. You wish you could join them.


INTERVIEWER

That seems to be a theme in your work.


ROSIER

It’s a theme in my life. I want to be let out to play.


***


INTERVIEWER

We’ve covered some unfinished projects—now let’s talk about some of your successes. Tell us a little more about “The Cleaner”, published in an online journal three years ago.


ROSIER

My fiancé—my ex-fiancé gave me a few ideas on that piece. The ending. She suggested that I have the mother come back to ask the son—to say she was sorry. I thought that was totally out of character for her—I didn’t believe she’d do it. But when I put it in there in a slightly modified form, it came out pretty well. It worked.


INTERVIEWER

Would your mother have apologized? In a similar situation?


ROSIER

I can’t imagine she would have. She wouldn’t have thought it was necessary.


INTERVIEWER

What gave your ex-fiancé the insight to suggest that ending? Could you tell us a little about your relationship?


ROSIER

We met at school. We connected in the sorts of ways I suppose are the most meaningful. Music, books, movies. She was from a small town too, in Maine, but seemed to have found different strategies for dealing with it. Her family was different as well—several eccentric siblings and cousins, each with their own quirks and semi-talents. Clarissa was funny, snarky, sarcastic, but at the same time somehow well-adjusted in an off-kilter way. When she saw an outfit I had on once she said, “Well I guess that’s one way to do it.” She didn’t think it was crazy that I thought of myself as a writer then—really I was a pretentious little prick. Or even later, when she probably should’ve told me to forget all about it.


INTERVIEWER

Help us picture her.


ROSIER

She was—I suppose she still is—short, slim, pale, dark straight hair, blue eyes… Sharp, very bright, too bright for me probably. And she had these arched eyebrows—she was quite proud of them, and since we split I’ve found that I often notice a woman’s eyebrows first, when I never would have before.


INTERVIEWER

So what did you learn from that relationship?


ROSIER

What not to do. That I’m basically a jerk. That in order to be happy you have to make that decision. And learn to recognize it.


INTERVIEWER

Were you?


ROSIER

Sure. Moments—but how was I supposed to tell? Sunday mornings, pancakes in bed, watching an old Hitchcock movie under an afghan… I wasn’t able to put a finger on it at the time. I suppose I always had one eye on the clock, thinking of something else that I thought I needed to do.


INTERVIEWER

Some of the scenes in “For the Trees” are quite different from your other work.


ROSIER

That’s—yes. I guess we were at our happiest when I was working on that. And I tried to… I would say that’s Clarissa’s influence there.


INTERVIEWER

The scene that starts with the mashed cauliflower…


ROSIER

That really happened more or less. We had an apartment in Bangor at the time and we had this fight—I remember driving off, music blaring. I contemplated driving all night. But when I got back she had dinner started—and anyway this cauliflower dish was terrific in the end, buttery, garlicky, thick and rich. We ate, and we ended up having a great night. One of those long evenings—taking our time with a bottle of wine. I always wanted to write something like that one day. “Afterglow”. That captures that somehow. You’re both quite drunk and lying there together, sweet soft very old love songs playing in the background…


INTERVIEWER

So what happened to that relationship in the end?


ROSIER

There’s too much to talk about now. I can’t sum it up. At some point the hand that touches you, that caresses you to say, “It’s all right”—you feel like it’s holding you back, you can’t stand to let it touch you so softly, so tenderly, again. So I made things shitty for her, and one day she told me she was leaving.


INTERVIEWER

And what did you say?


ROSIER

I said, Fine. Go ahead. What’s stopping you.


INTERVIEWER

You didn’t try to change her mind.


ROSIER

I told her to get the fuck out of there.


INTERVIEWER

You loved her.


ROSIER

Yes.


INTERVIEWER

It still seems to be there, in your voice.


ROSIER

Of course it is.


INTERVIEWER

Some of your stories end with a character who is unable to choke back his emotions, who eventually expresses them in some awkward or inappropriate way. Do you feel that in the end it’s usually impossible to hide what you’re feeling?


ROSIER

Sure, most of the time.


INTERVIEWER

Is that a good or a bad thing?


ROSIER

It’s a thing. How do I know. It’s a fact. It comes out, often. We can’t stop the true stuff in the end.


***


INTERVIEWER

There’s a certain black sense of humor running through much of your work, and frequent returns to particular themes that one might call obsessive. For example, in your web-published fiction there are three separate treatments of a scene in which a high school freshman is hounded out of the lunch room by a group of what used to be his friends. In retelling these stories again and again, are you attempting in some way to “make it right”?


ROSIER

You write about what you know. You write about what interests you—what you feel.


INTERVIEWER

Is it similar to touching a bad tooth with your tongue? To see if it still hurts?



ROSIER

Sure, that could be part of it. Maybe you feel you have a chance to right some of the wrongs. Plus it’s nice to go back to what you do well. With me it’s a pretty narrow vein. For me—loser types, the hapless and unlucky, slapstick romantic failures—I’m sort of a genius at that, so I guess that’s why I keep doing them.


INTERVIEWER

So there may be a lunch scene number four?


ROSIER

Why not—that may be the perfect version.


INTERVIEWER

So let’s end by looking forward. What’s next for Paul Rosier?


ROSIER

That reminds me of a performance review question at work. “Where do you see yourself in five years?”


INTERVIEWER

And?


ROSIER

I guess I picture myself living at home with my mother—maybe that’s it. My step-father has died and I’ve moved back into my old room. At night I’m there with the door locked, staring at a chunk of prose on a computer screen, drinking—drinking red wine, in fact. Outside my mother is pacing in the kitchen in her night gown, wondering why I’m in there at all, wondering why I won’t come out and talk to her…
Or no, let’s not go out like that. Let’s end it on a sweet note for once. This is an old dream of mine. My wife and I have a little cottage on the lake—she’s small, dark, quite beautiful, a painter or a sculptor, maybe a musician. She practices cello while I write in my sunny workshop overlooking the lake. This is after an early morning walk to the water, to listen to the loons in the mist. Lunch under a giant oak. An afternoon swim. A little more work, then a dinner party in the evening for some friends. Music, food, wine, couples dancing in the moonlight. That’s one of my visions, what I try to hang on to now at the end of the day. My wife and I—yes, it’ll have to be that. We’re in love, we’re very happy, and everyone loves to be around us.

previous reviews & comments:

'An enjoyable read.'
'I loved this! Such a deep well of sadness just below the surface.'

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