Interview by John Wisniewski
Guess and Check is not an ordinary memoir; instead, it is a creative look at the life of a biracial boy—later seen as a young man—who adjusts with difficulty to lessons learned from the behavior of his parents and the people around him. In his rural-America world, he is an observer of dysfunction. He doesn’t identify with either of his parents—his mother is Asian and his father is Caucasian—or most of the children he meets in school. He observes the addictive pattern of his artist father and the ”alien” behavior of his Confucian mother, but he doesn’t understand what he sees. At times he is bullied, at other times ignored, so he seeks a way out.
John Wisniewski: What has been the critical reception so far for Guess and Check?
Thaddeus Rutkowski: The response has been good. I count comments on Amazon and Goodreads, as well as reviews in literary journals, as “critical reception.” I’m glad regular readers have taken the time to post their responses, in addition to literary critics who have written reviews. Kirkus Reviews compared the writing in Guess and Check to Hemingway’s writing. That’s a stretch, but it’s totally gratifying. The book was also reviewed well in A Gathering of the Tribes, Misfit, North of Oxford, Philadelphia Stories and Sensitive Skin. The Philadelphia Stories review might have been related to the fact that I’m from Pennsylvania. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, not the city of Philadelphia. But it’s the same brotherhood.
Critical reception evolves over time. A review of my 2015 book Violent Outbursts came out this year in the ’zine Barbaric Yawp. The reviewer noticed my pun on “standard deviation,” the statistical term, and regular deviation, the act of departing from the norm. That’s on target.
JW: How much do you identify with your main character?
Thaddeus Rutkowski: I am my main character, and vice versa. However, my main character experiences the most dramatic moments in my life, while I experience the undramatic moments as well. There’s a fine line between fiction and nonfiction, and most fiction writers base their stories on real people and events. The only question is to what degree they disguise things.
My main character tells the story, and he speaks in a voice that’s not quite my own. I work to find a narrative voice that is thoughtful, provocative, humorous, unsettling. Often, the voice carries the story. Even if events don’t add up or follow in a continuous way, they are connected by the voice.
JW: Can we look at the creative process, how does a new book begin for you?
Thaddeus Rutkowski: I write in short takes. I can write in a train, in a meeting, or on a park bench. Of course, I also make time to be at my computer at my desk. Sometimes the desk is too comfortable; it takes away the urgency of whatever I have to say. I want to record a strong impression—of a childhood event, an overheard conversation, yesterday’s unexpected encounter, last night’s dream. When I have a number of these pieces, I put them together as scenes in a story. When I have enough stories, they’ll start to look like a book. The book might not look like a conventional book, but it will have a shape. This is the process I used for Guess and Check. It’s a “creative memoir,” according the publisher, Gival Press.
JW: Any authors who may inspire you?
Thaddeus Rutkowski: These days, reading other authors is often combined with work. I’ve been reading stories by George Saunders for a “pedagogical” panel at the upcoming AWP Conference in Tampa. The panelists’ assignment is to come up with a classroom exercise based on the work of Saunders, who will be the keynote speaker at the conference. I think I’ll suggest an exercise that has something to do with voice—writing in a voice not your own.
Over the years, I’ve been inspired by writers of stories: Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie. The book Close Range, by Annie Proulx, meant a lot to me. It has the story “Brokeback Mountain” in it. I’ve been moved by everything I’ve read by Ha Jin, especially his short stories and his novel Waiting. Stories set in China interest me, because that’s where half of me—my mother—is from.
For my literature classes at CUNY, I’ve put stories by Chekhov, Naipaul, Murakami and Joyce on the syllabus. The classes cover the masters.
JW: What are you working at when not writing, Thad?
Thaddeus Rutkowski: I try to help my family—my wife, Randi Hoffman, and our teenage daughter, Shay—if you call that “work.” I help them get through their day, and they help me in the same way. My wife and I are working on our daughter’s college prep these days.
I’m on the volunteer staff of the Alternate New Year’s Day Marathon reading, to be held at the Nuyorican Poets Café this year. My job is to help curate the reading. I bring in new readers, and I ask other curators to do the same.
In terms of employment, I lead creative writing workshops at Sarah Lawrence College and the West Side YMCA in Manhattan. I also teach world literature at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. I’m a regular copy editor for Artforum magazine—I work on reviews of art shows.
JW: Does the city that you live in inspire your writing?
Thaddeus Rutkowski: I have written many pieces about the city and its elements: the subway, the streets, the buildings, even the East River. I ride my bicycle everywhere I can in Manhattan. When you ride, you’re like the driver of a vehicle, and you run the same risks. I’ve broken my hand while riding (and my shoulder while walking). These incidents go into my stories. As I mentioned, chance encounters, observations, and overheard conversations are sources of inspiration. My various past jobs in the city—mostly in trade journalism—feed in, as well.
JW: Is there a personal favorite of your many novels?
Thaddeus Rutkowski: “Many novels” is an exaggeration. My first three books—Roughhouse, Tetched, and Haywire—are called novels, but they are similar to my latest book, Guess and Check, which is called a memoir. My next-to-latest book, Violent Outbursts, is a collection of flash fictions—most of the pieces in it are less than a page long. A friend once told me it doesn’t matter how you categorize your work—call it whatever people want you to call it, or whatever helps people read it.
I don’t have a “personal favorite” book of my own; I can find something, or many things, to like in all of them. I got the most outside recognition for Haywire: good reviews, a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, an award from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. That book landed in the right place at the right time.
A short, 20-minute film was made from a story in my book Tetched, which means “touched in the head.” The film, also called Tetched, was done in Los Angeles and has been shown in several film festivals. I was happy to collaborate on it.
JW: Any future plans?
Thaddeus Rutkowski: I’m always trying to come up with new material. These days, I’ve been working with poems. I’m working on my first book of poetry—it’s called Border Crossings. I hope to continue to travel to present my work. I’m fortunate to have visited many places to read, speak and/or give one-time workshops. And I hope my classes continue to evolve. I started teaching in the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College this fall, and I’m excited to see how that workshop develops.