Twenty-five original illustrations.
From a village in Taiwan to a Christmas teahouse in London, from the icy
roads of Minnesota to the hollow streets of L.A.. . .
Q & A WITH
AUTHOR RIP RENSE
CONDUCTED BY CORDELIA WONG-ROGERS
Q: What is the book about?
RENSE : It is a collection of twenty-five short stories about people in
various sorts of trouble.
Q: What sorts of trouble?
RENSE : Slight trouble, major trouble, piffling trouble, sad trouble,
veterinarian trouble. Marital trouble, car trouble, real estate
Q: Car trouble? Oh, right! The VW. "Beauty Knows No Pain."
RENSE: Yes. And Christmas trouble. Religious trouble. Head trouble. Foot
Q: Foot trouble?
RENSE: One story is about an ancient man who sells ice cream on the
streets of Taipei, Taiwan. His feet hurt and his wife hates him.
Q: More summaries, please. . .
RENSE: Sure. Okay, uh, another is
about a woman who runs away in the middle of the night. She is a teacher, but she abandons her house, family,
students, and just drives away. Another is about a man who thinks he has a
sister, but probably doesn’t. Another is about bad carpet cleaners. Another
is about crows.
Q: : Crows? Are the crows in trouble?
RENSE : No, but they cause it.
Q: (laughing) Okay. . .What are "strange places of the heart,"
RENSE: They are all the places where so-called conventional love does not
Q: What is the strangest story in the book?
RENSE : Perhaps one about sharks in the sky. Or perhaps a young woman who
believes she is bathed in holy light. Or perhaps one about a
reclusive bachelor who meets the woman of his dreams. But strange is in the
eye of the stranger.
Q: What does that mean?
RENSE: Everybody's ideas are different.
Q: Was that deliberate, the strangeness?
RENSE: That's sort of like asking if trees are deliberate. I was trying to write what held my attention, and what
I thought might be interesting.
Q: Why did you write the book?
RENSE : I write, therefore I am.
Q: I mean, why did you write short stories?
RENSE : I was too lazy to write
another novel. That's really hard. (Rense is the author of The Last Byline and The
Oaks.) Kind of like having a very long argument with yourself. In the
end, it's a draw, and you're exhausted. This way, the arguments are shorter.
I’ve always been a raconteur, going back to my childhood dining room table
and extending through my years in newspapers. As a kid, I used to drive my
father crazy. “Get to the
point,” he’d bark. All my stories had points. I just thought they
needed a little suspense. I didn't know it, but I was writing as a I spoke.
Q: Writing as you
spoke---that's very interesting. . .
RENSE: I still do it. In conversation, people get tired of waiting for me to
find the right word. I'm better off writing than talking.
Q: There is tremendous
irony, and oh, I don’t know, poignancy in these stories. An almost
physically aching melancholy at times, and then something is just flat-out
crazy-funny. And sometimes I think there is absurdity underneath the
tragedy, and then I think, no, it’s tragedy under the absurdity.
RENSE . Just like life!
Q: Was this by design?
RENSE : Well, first, I'm glad you found some things funny. The last
thing I want to be is overly serious. But no, I didn’t set out to make one ‘poignant’ or another
‘melancholy.’ Or another funny. Or combinations thereof. The story sort of
determines the mood, and I don’t calculate the tone of the writing in
advance. I write fast, and let the story move along. I just start typing
whatever phrase first comes to mind, and usually, it works out. Makes its own
Q: One of the things I love about the book are your titles, and some
of your turns of phrase. I love the titles, “Too Many Rainbows,” and “Sharks
in the Sky.” Here is one paragraph I just really adored: When she died,
it was as if someone peeled back the fabric of the universe and revealed
there was nothing there. No God, no stars, no cats, no music.
RENSE : Thank you very much.
Q: Do these things just come to you, or do you have to work hard on
RENSE : Uh. . .both. Having them “come to you” is a kind of hard work. Tom Waits
said something about how songs find him, and his job is to be open to them.
For me, it’s something like that, although I don’t want to make this into
anything too grand. I’m not the first person to write a story. If I’m in a good
frame of mind, and generally have a little caffeine, the machine sort of
limbers up. If I force myself to write, it never works out so well.
Q: Was the collection always called "Strange Places of the Heart?"
RENSE: No. I was going to call it "Habit Trails." You know, like the
pathways from kitchen to bedroom to bathroom found in houses were people
have lived a long time, piling up stuff. But it sounded like some kind of
Q: (laughing) Why did you have the
stories illustrated? That’s unusual these days. And who is your illustrator?
RENSE : It is unusual these days, I think. I’ve always loved
illustrated short stories, going back to Hugh Lofting’s wonderful drawings
for “Dr. Dolittle” when I was a kid. N.C. Wyeth’s fantastic illustrations
for Stevenson remain vivid in mind. Thurber, of course. I happen to
have a friend who is a lifelong stage designer for opera and musicals, Keith
Snider, and he liked the stories. Said he wanted to try a few sketches, and
I liked them so much that I asked him to do the whole book. I’m so happy he
did. Honored, really. They're fanciful, stylish. I think they suit the stories well. And he also did
Q: The cover is great.
RENSE: I'll tell him. Thank you.
Q: There is such a range of characters in the book. I hate to use the
overused word, "eclectic," but it fits. I adored Francine, the woman who
loved dessert and worried about Buddhism, and I loved the two girls in
"Uncle Ice Cream." They were a scream. Then there is the poor guy with
MS---I forgot the character's name---
A: Chance Marvel.
Q: Yes. Great name. And the old man alone in his house after his wife died,
the bachelor who just wanted to fix juke boxes, oh, and I was moved by the
woman flute player who couldn't lift her arms anymore. The one that really
hit me hard, though, was Mina, the songbird in "Too Many
Rainbows." I guess my question is. . .are these people real? They seem real.
A: They are based in some instances on real people, but I emphasize based
on. The girls in "Uncle Ice Cream" do not exist, but I knew two girls
with their names who were friends. I wanted readers to feel they were
meeting people, not just reading about characters.
Q: Well, for me, you succeeded.
A: That's very nice to hear. Thank you.
Q: And having read your novel about growing up, The Oaks, I
noticed that the Bogle family is back. . .
A: (laughing) Yes, Charlie and Jake and their old man are in one story. And
there are one or two---two---Oaks tales. I've got a million Bogle
stories. I've thought about writing a book with that as theme, and probably
Q: Why did you self-publish?
RENSE : Ah, that question. The manuscript was circulated to a few
publishers and agents, and received form-letter rejections. Some of the
stories were individually circulated to magazines and what is left of
“literary journals,” and were rejected. A very generous friend handled all this, as I need to save my energy for writing. I felt obliged to collect a
fair number of rejection notices before
Q: Pretty fatalistic
RENSE : Thank you.
Q: If they were rejected, well, they must be no good, right?
RENSE : Right. Exactly.
Q: Really, why were they rejected. Did they give reasons?
RENSE: Well, the letters were all standard lingo along the lines of "It's
terrific, but not right for us." You know. It's like Seinfeld---"It's
not you, it's me!" In my view, they were rejected
because they did not fit the subjective standards of certain literary journals,
which amounts to one person thinking, “Eh.” Or maybe two. That's fine. Mostly, they were
rejected---by publishers and agents---because, I assume, they were not deemed
Q: If they are good
stories, why aren’t they marketable?
RENSE : First, everywhere I turned, I was told "no short story collections."
Nobody wanted to even look at them, period. No agents, no publishers. Why? I was
simply told there is no demand. Second, quality of writing is incidental when it comes to getting published.
Ninety percent of the consideration---make that 99 percent---is whether
something can make money. That’s it.
Q: Hasn't it always been this way?
RENSE: I don't think so. There used to be literary agents who were looking for good writing, and
writing was the criterion for marketing viability. Pascal Covici is an
obvious example. Steinbeck, Joseph Campbell, Clifford Odets, Gene Fowler,
Arthur Miller, Shirley Jackson, many more. He shepherded these writers, and
though none of them pandered to so-called niche markets. Not that way today.
It’s all niche markets and money. It’s part of the tyranny of demographics
and marketing that has dumbed down most aspects of culture, reduced
everything to “saleability,” “accessability,” “resonance.” Pandering.
Triumph of the till.
Q: Wow. Pretty cynical, some might say.
RENSE: Some might say Justin Bieber is talented.
Q: (laughing) But there are fine books being written and published---
RENSE : Yes. But you don't necessarily find them on the New York Times
bestseller list. And many are simply not getting published. I would say that most books are not books anymore. They are
book-product. They are conceived, designed, and exploited as product, not
literature. Everything is based on the question, is there a “target
demographic?” And what is the “target demographic?” Almost all publication
has become niche marketing. If you don’t fit an obvious marketing
niche, you don’t get published. You don't get an agent.
Q: Like what niches?
RENSE : Well, I didn’t write about a culturally conflicted woman who is,
let’s say, Asian-American, and entitle the story, “Hot Dogs
and Rice.” I didn’t write about a woman victim of childhood sexual abuse who
returns to her tiny Midwestern home town to find the mysterious reason she
must now run for mayor, and the Nigerian dwarf who helps her.
Q: You’re being facetious?
RENSE : Only somewhat. Books by women about women caught between cultures,
books by women about women dealing with sexual abuse and bizarre backgrounds
are huge, lucrative niche markets, if that isn’t an oxymoron. And by the
way, most readers are women, and most agents are women, and a lot of small
publishers are women. You can check the figures, I don't remember, offhand.
This is just the reality today.
Q: But what's wrong with that? I mean, writing about those subjects?
RENSE : Nothing wrong at all with the subject matter. To the extent that it
squeezes out other subject matter because it is deemed more profitable is
the problem, I think. Would Steinbeck be published today? And then a lot of
fiction just strikes me as goofy. I mean, try reading book flaps of best sellers.
Lily couldn't remember her father and mother, but she remembered
the mysterious man who gave her a pickled herring in 1962. After a fish
dinner in middle age, she suddenly is thrown back into a world long
forgotten, and sets out to rightfully reclaim her title as Duchess of
Lichtenstein. They often
read like parody, like something from The Onion. They're fall-down
Q: But I see that you wrote about a lot of women. . .
RENSE : More than half of the stories in my book are
about women. Including “culturally conflicted” women, and in one case, a
victim of sexual abuse.
Q: Really? That's surprising. Why did you write
RENSE: Why not write about women?
There is so much crass exploitation of women in media, often with the
complete complicity of the women involved, by the way. And this
stereotypical notion in film and TV and literature of the "strong woman"
usually boils down to a character behaving badly, indulging the same ugly
traits that ugly male characters indulge. I wanted to focus,
at least somewhat, on women of integrity, courage, depth, perseverance,
Q: Some of them are tragic figures---
Q: And some are really heroic, in their ways.
RENSE: I think so.
Q: And some aren't so nice.
RENSE: Just like life!
Q: Why did you stop circulating the manuscript and
RENSE : At some point, you get down off the cross. I’m not one of these people who spends ten years collecting
rejections before finding a publisher. I gave it a shot over the course of a
year or so, thanks to my wonderful friend and de facto agent, Janet Dackow, and that
was enough for me. You know, the way I look at it, I only have x-number of
years to write and publish, and to paraphrase the old beer commercial, I
want to reach for all the gusto I can get. Besides, I have total control
over what I write, and what I publish. I like that.
Q: What, do you dislike
RENSE : No more than I dislike eating live lizards. Theoretically.
Q: (laughing) Why?
RENSE : Well, I’ve had some very good editors. I've had many who were
every bit as incisive, bright, delicate, knowledgeable, and devoid of ego
as, say, Dennis Rodman.
Q: O-kayyyy. What is your writing method?
RENSE : I drive to a place in Gardena called The Tea Station. It’s a Taiwan
joint, and reminds me of Taiwan, where I was fortunate enough to live for a
while. I drink ‘Eight Treasures Chyrsanthemum tea,” which has a low dose of
caffeine, and once it fires me up, I write for four or five hours in the
Q: I meant your writing
method, as in how do you come up with subject matter, form ideas, and so on.
RENSE : Ah. Some stories are based on real events, though changed, extrapolated,
and some are made up.
Q: Can you give an example
RENSE : “The Lost Lid” is based on an actual event. Based on. “Uncle Ice Cream” is
entirely made up except for the bare outline of the central character, who
exists, or existed.
Q: I loved "Uncle Ice
Cream"---those two girlfriends, again, are so sweet!---and I loved “The Lost Lid!”
It was funny, and touching---took you to another world. Where is that
teahouse in England?
RENSE : To quote John Lennon, turn left at Greenland. Or right, I guess.
Q: No, really.
RENSE : I made it up.
Q: You made it up? There was so much detail, you must have visited
some place like it.
RENSE : I wish. I’d like to be there right now. Seems like a good place to
Cordelia Wong-Rogers is a Santa Monica
writer. Her books include "The Marquis Chimps: the Real Story," "Notes My
Bulgarian Nanny Left Me," "Women Who Stood Erect," and "Tomorrow is Another
She lives with her partner, a therapist specializing in parrots who have
outlived their owners, and their two children, Zoe and Chloe.
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