#ScottPrize – The Shortlist in Profile: Rob Roensch
I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts, the sort of place with a few white steepled churches in the center of town, hilly woods, and lots of narrow, winding roads. I live now, with my wife and two daughters, in the middle of Baltimore, a city that’s both sprawling and human-scaled, decaying and weirdly blooming at the same time. It’s common enough for a small-town kid to move to a new city, but I think it’s important to who I am as a writer. The feeling of exploring an unfamiliar ordinary mysterious world.
I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer and a teacher. I teach now at Towson University just outside Baltimore.
So where did the book begin for you, how did the book come to be written?
I’ve written short stories since maybe middle school (although my stories then were mainly about Star Trek) but I’ve always thought of each story as its own individual entity. It was only recently, looking back over the stories I’ve written in the past decade or so, that certain connections among some of them became clear to me, like suddenly seeing the shape of a constellation in the mess of the night sky.
What was going on in your life while you were writing it?
The oldest story in the book was written in 2001 and the most recent was written last year, so really the book is a companion to the last ten years of my life. During that time, I left my hometown and my home state, went off to grad school, got married, moved to the alien city of Baltimore, lost a year trying to make myself believe I could get a degree in library science, taught at a suburban Catholic girls’ high school and then at Towson University, bought a wrecked rowhouse in the city and bit-by-bit put it back together, and became a father, twice. All the while I was writing in whatever hours I could steal.
What do you think were the real driving elements within the book — the things that moved it all forward for you?
It’s interesting for me to look back over these stories and try to see in their commonalities a record of what my imagination worried over, consciously and unconsciously, over the last ten years.
First, and most obviously, the stories are about young men, from adolescence to fatherhood, I think working out how to be men in the world, how to live with love and responsibility and uncertainty, birth and death, all that. I didn’t write the stories in any sort of chronological order, but I think it makes sense to place them in the (roughly) chronological order they are in here.
Second, I think the central characters of these stories are searchers. There is something missing that must be found. Sometimes the searches are physical, like for a missing person. And sometimes the searches are more abstract, for understanding, for peace. Sometimes the characters find what they are looking for; sometimes they find something else.
How long did it take to bring it all together?
The writing process took ten years, but the structure of the book came together in an afternoon.
Who was important to you in developing your writing life?
I was lucky to have great teachers in high school and college and all the way through grad school—especially Stephanie Vaughn, Michael Koch and Maureen McCoy at Cornell University. Since grad school, I’ve depended on a small circle of fellow writers for feedback and challenge.
Where do you think you’ll go to next in your writing — what are you working on now?
All the stories in this book are about boys and men; the two novels I’m working on are centered around young women. Both of the novels’ central characters are, in their own ways, also searchers.
I know I’ll keep working on stories as well, but I don’t know about what—for me the impulse to write a story has always come out of the blue, as opposed to the way a novel requires more deliberate thinking to get off the ground
“The Dogs of Baltimore”(extract)
I have walked dogs who knew the way and dogs who were afraid to go back into their own house. I have walked four cocker spaniels at once. I have been bitten on the lips by a golden retriever. I have asked dogs serious questions. I have accidentally wiped shit on my neck. I have dried a wet dog with a newspaper.
I have walked Maltese quiet and Maltese yippering-insane. Dogs I did not know have met me at the door with yelps of pleasure; dogs I did not know have huddled in corners and peed on the floor at my gentle approach. I have walked billions of labs—labs old and incontinent, labs young and tennis-ball obsessed, labs brown and white and black and mixed, every one full of random stupid ecstasy. I have walked a dog the size and shape of an otter that insisted on following me at a ten pace distance.
I have walked a well-trained Rottweiller who always peed on the same one lamppost and never seemed to be having any fun; I have walked an Irish setter who insisted on sniffing at every doorstep, weird old cigarette-smoking old lady leaning out of the screen-door or not. I have walked a giant sad drooling Great Dane and a young cockapoo who raced around like a scribble.
I have seen two poofy-haired ladies coming out of a hair salon and getting into a great green car, laughing loudly, each carrying a Shi-tzu with a red flower in its collar. I have seen an old man in a holey white-t-shirt watching with a general’s pride his two Dobermans streaking circles around the park. I have seen paint splattered men carrying ladders laughing and talking in Spanish.
An old man in a beach chair once offered that he had a dog like that once who had face cancer. A drunk offered that he had helped build this house, this one right here. A woman behind a screen door told me I needed to drink more water.
I have seen giant cranes in motion. I have watched children play handball in the parking lot of a Baptist church. I have smelled the alley. I have seen a giant woman hollering from the passenger window of a tiny car. I have allowed shirtless children with their warped-O accents pet the sullen husky. I have been lost on a staircase. I have seen a flock of young black boys on bicycles and the handlebars of each other’s bicycles in the dusk swerving in an out of shocked traffic, their long white shirts flapping. I have seen grandmas sitting on benches together not talking. I have watched dozens of teenage boys playing football in the park at dusk, really playing, intricate and sudden bursts of action. I have seen men in jeans playing soccer on an overgrown field with no lines, their discarded shirts marking the goals. I have heard the sound of an ice cream truck (distorted by distance and speakers and motion and memory) that I did not see. I have seen great ships moving through the harbor like time passing. I have seen an old stooped man in plaid shorts carrying plastic bags full of something white. I have seen faded porcelain statues of Mary in windows facing the street. I have seen a license plate: “PLEASE.”
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