Name: David Rothenberg
Occupation: Author, musician, philosopher
Current publication: The Possibility of Reddish Green: Wittgenstein Outside Philosophy is available now on Terra Nova Press.
Recommendations: David Opdyke, This Land, a wonderful collage of manipulated postcards from the history of North America, can be viewed here.
Salvatore Scibona, The Volunteer, an deep and rich novel about the connection between fathers and sons, through memory and war.
If you enjoyed this interview with David Rothenberg, visit his website for more information about him and his work. He also runs his own publishing house Terra Nova.
When did you start writing- and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about literature and writing that drew you to it?
I remember when I was in high school one entire issue of The New Yorker magazine was given over to the novel Man in the Holocene by the Swiss writer Max Frisch, a collection of texts and illustrations taped to the wall of a mountain hut by an aging man who is losing his memory. Reading this book changed my life, as I realized that a kind of writing is possible that cannot be categorized, that is in between many genres.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
In college at Harvard University in the 1980s, I was so lucky to take a poetry writing class with the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney, a few years before he won the Nobel Prize. He told me, “I sense you are working in the shadow of Gary Snyder” and I said “Who?” I didn’t know anything about anyone. That’s when I realized it was important to read all the time, to soak in as much as possible to know what is out there and what to resonate with.
I have published one poetry book but know I am not really a poet. I don’t know what kind of writing I am doing but around the same time I read John Cage’s Silence, one of the best books ever about what music can be and how one can become an artist following your own path that no one else really understands. Since then I have always been doing what someone told me was impossible to do.
What were your main writing challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
To forget myself. I write too much about myself, my own experiences, which are, like all of ours, severely limited. Over time I have become far more interested in what other people have to say, what they believe, how they see the world. I struggle to recount their voices.
What does writing mean to you personally? What is expressed through literature and poetry that can not be expressed trough other forms of art?
I am a trained philosopher, and indeed work as a professor of philosophy. Yet I get more philosophy from literature than from academic works. At the end of a good novel, I feel a resonance with the author’s way of expressing a picture of the world, something I wish philosophy as written could do. But it can’t. Argument doesn’t convince me as much as beautiful language and the arc of a story do.
How do you see the relationship between style, form, plot and storytelling – and how would you rate their importance for you, respectively?
I mostly read fiction, but I only write nonfiction. I used to say this is because I can’t make anything up. At least I try to write nonfiction books that have enough of an arc of story to make people want to read them, from beginning on through to the end.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Machines are good at repetitive tasks, and making our imperfect thoughts look perfectly layed out on the screen or page. I can constantly look things up and insert ideas and facts into what I am writing, and my handwriting is so illegible so it’s a good thing I can type my words. But I don’t trust the machine to do too much thinking for me. We hardly know what intelligence is so I have little hope for ‘artificial’ intelligence.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do writing and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I am basically undisciplined. But if I am writing, I try to discipline myself and hope to write 500 words towards whatever I am writing on a working day. When and how I get those words may vary … Usually I’ll get up and go for a walk or a bike ride first, then sit down in my studio, spend an hour or so answering emails, then try to do something serious, either work on music or writing, by then it’s midmorning.
I might succeed with this plan, or I might get distracted by any number of possible alternative tasks. If that happens that my midafternoon I will have wasted as much time as I can get away with, and I’ll have to get those words on the page. I won’t worry if they are good or bad until much later, when I come back to read them over.
In this way after a year or so there are enough words to make a book. Then I’ll read it and decide whether or not it makes any sense.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how did you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
Well, this book I am publishing in June, The Possibility of Reddish Green, has taken nearly twenty-five years to write, even though it’s a rather short book. So much for 500 words a day. This project tries to investigate the ways the philosophy Ludwig Wittgenstein has been understood by people who are not philosophers: novelists, filmmakers, poets, artists. And it tries to retain a certain poetic, enigmatic quality.
The reason it has taken so long to appear is that it has almost been published several times by various presses, but at some point an expert on Wittgenstein was sent the text, and they invariably would say, “Rothenberg has no idea what he is talking about,” and that would be the end of that. I had to start my own publishing company, and then send the manuscript around to several of my most skeptical friends, writers who hate just about anything, before I begrudgingly decided I could release this through my own press. Then I still had a lot of rewriting to do.
Observation and research are often quoted as important elements of the writing process. Can you tell us a bit about your perspective on them?
I always try to write books that I don’t think anyone else could write. What perspective do I have on the world that is unique enough that I need to tell others about what I have seen and heard?
How do you see the relationship between conscious planning and tapping into the subconscious; between improvisation and composition? When dealing with the end of a story, for example, do you tend to minutely map it out or follow the logic of the narrative as it unfolds itself?
What, did you write this question just for me. I’ve written books on improvisation vs. composition like Sudden Music, and as an improvising musician I have always made work that I believe “could be made no other way.” Sometimes I start writing the same book from different sides, see how the stories converge, and then cut and paste everything together into a brand new whole. That is how Nightingales in Berlin was written, my last book.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Keep looking and listening for a unique perspective, and a special narrative arc to ground a story, whether it is a few paragraphs, or a few hundred pages.
What are the most important conclusions you've drawn from the changes in the publishing landscape? How do they affect your writing? What role do social media play for your approach?
I was driven to start Terra Nova Press because so many people I knew were writing great books that no one would publish. Then I also saw the physical quality of books from the big publishers rapidly decaying—cheaper paper, cheaper bindings, higher prices—and I thought, “wait a minute, I ought to be able to do better than this.”
Then I asked my friends at MIT Press if they would distribute my books, and immediately they said “no way” but for some reason they changed their mind. The same story as how I got to record for ECM Records—sometimes no actually means yes.
Literature works with sense impressions in a different way than the other arts. How do you use them in your writing? From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Like many of us I read so many things on screens, from the news media to electronic books. But I so prefer physical books, their touch and feel, their magic, their physical quality. I want to write and to publish beautiful but accessible books, because the book is still one of the most advanced technologies we have, far more perfect than smartphones and computers, perfected as they have been over hundreds of years of refinement.
We should never forget that they are the best medium to present a sustained, concentrated story or argument in words and images, without constant distraction from our endlessly connected world.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I want to figure out how I can be most useful to making the world a better place, and to offer up my work so that it can touch and inspire people. For myself, I don’t need to write, I don’t need to play music. I’ll only do these things if they bring some value to other people.
Despite the radical experiments of the 20th century, the basic concept of writing and storytelling is still intact. Do you have a vision of literature, an idea of what it could be beyond its current form?
Media evolve, our attention spans may shrink, but the need for wonder, inspiration, and story do not go away. The same principles of storytelling still apply however our tools may shift.