Guest editor Sean Prentiss interviewed featured nonfiction author Jonathan Rovner for this issue. Here’s what Rovner had to say about his experimental approach to his subject matter, his counterbalancing use of humor, and his writing process.
Sean Prentiss: Your essay is deeply sad and painful. But it also makes the reader laugh out loud. It seems really easy for a writer to only linger in sadness (something I do too often) or overdo the humor and destroy the power of the piece. But you balance them so well. How do you balance the two?
Jonathan Rovner: I have no idea how to balance those ingredients except by gut instinct. But luckily there are no deadlines. You can tinker with a piece for months or years until you’re satisfied. I probably wrote twenty drafts of this essay.
It’s always a risk to bring humor into an essay like this, and it’s not my intention to make light of the subject matter because the subject matter is deathly serious. I hope that comes through.
SP: Why have humor in this essay?
JR: I tend to include humor because that’s how I experience the world. Terrible things happen, but people still use laughter to get through their days. It doesn’t have to be gallows humor. When my wife Caitlin hears of the latest atrocity (and atrocities are disturbingly common where we live), she’ll read all about it and have a good cry, then immediately start watching old Simpsons reruns.
SP: Your piece is extremely experimental. What made you decide to go with a narrative that intentionally works against itself? Why not write this as a simple and straightforward narrative where the reader is given all the info about how childhood abuse can affect both those abused and those in a relationship with someone abused? What made you decide to go the experimental route?
JR: The piece is experimental because that’s how it came out. Maybe that’s a dodge, but on most days it felt like “Dolores” and I were living in some demented stage-play where our roles—and our freedom within those roles—had been actuated by events long past, that we were what Kurt Vonnegut, in another context, called “the listless playthings of enormous forces.”
Plus, I try to write stories and essays that I would want to read. If someone handed me an essay and said, “Read this—it’s a horrific story of abuse,” I don’t think I’d read it, for the same reason I don’t sit around watching old footage of Shoah. I know what it is. No one needs to be convinced that child abuse is terrible, or that it destroys lives. Literally everyone knows that. But if you can find a different way into the material, a slanted way of approaching it…then hopefully the reader can, even if only by safe and distant proxy, get nearer to the lives of people who are affected by such abuse.
SP: Nearer how? I find that idea of getting nearer to something very important since the nearer we get, the more empathic we should get about a subject.
JR: Nearer in the sense that experimental pieces can, if they succeed, allow the reader a vantage point from which to view the characters that might not be available otherwise. Nearer to the messiness and confusion of our lives. I find that too many essays are, in effect, too well constructed. They are bloodless and too neat. When I write an essay I try to fight against neat narrative structure, because honestly I think viewing events from our lives as narratively-structured is delusional.
SP: You normally write fiction. What draws you to write an essay?
JR: I don’t write a lot of essays, but I’ll write about things that I truly have to wrestle with. I don’t have a lot of patience for an essay that, even subtly, celebrates or mythologizes its author. I’m more likely to want to write about those periods of my life that are regretful and confusing.
SP: You mention the idea that you “wrestle with” an idea. And that seems like exactly how writing essays should work. Did wrestling with this essay and the ideas in this essay help you on a personal level? Maybe that’s too personal of a question, but I’m interested because often when I write my toughest essays, I learn new things about myself and I learn how to deal with the issues in the essay in better ways. Wrestling my way through an essay helps me grow.
JR: I do think writing can be therapeutic in some strange confounding way, but I can’t explain how that process works for me. Ideally you would achieve some small escape from your own mind and hopefully some insight into how the realities of those you care about differ from your own.
SP: You are living in Iraqi Kurdistan right now. Does that affect your writing at all?
JR: Well, it affects my writing in the sense that I almost never have time to write. My job takes up about 70 hours a week, and the rest of the time is spent in a haze of mental exhaustion that doesn’t lend itself to creative work.
SP: Can you talk a bit about your writing process?
JR: I’ve always envied writers who can, regardless of circumstance, write X hours every day, but I’ve always been a sprint-writer. I let ideas sit in my brain for months at a time, and once I’ve got something right in my head I’ll sit down and pound out a draft.
SP: I’m the exact opposite. Except for the fact that I also sit on ideas for days or weeks or months. But then I chip away for a half hour or hour or two hours a day all summer. Then by the end of the summer, I’ve got all the figurative granite around me. What is it that draws you (or forces you) to be a sprinter? What are the pros and cons to that style?
JR: It’s entirely possibly that I’m just a lazy writer. But honestly I don’t have that much to say. I work on a couple pieces a year. That’s my limit right now. If I wrote more than that, I think the quality would suffer. Every time I try to force something, it always comes out fake.
SP: Why do you write?
JR: I have no idea.
SP: Why don’t you stop writing?
JR: Heh, I have no idea. I do stop writing for months at a time, but then some idea will lodge itself in my head that challenges me somehow, and I’ll play with the idea until I’ve got it figured out. Sometimes it takes a year or two, but I always know when I’ve cracked it.
SP: I’d love to share a musical soundtrack with the readers of this essay. Could you give me a song or two that you listened to while writing this essay? And could you give us a song or two that might complement this essay?
JR: I can’t quite remember what I listened to while I wrote this, but probably it was the first album by a band called We Are Augustines (now just called Augustines), which is called Rise Ye Sunken Ships.
Listen to “Chapel Song”
Listen to “Book of James”
 Editor’s note: Jonathan Rovner lives and teaches in Kurdistan at the American University of Iraq.