In the mid-’90s, a rare-film librarian at a state university in Pennsylvania mysteriously burns his entire stockpile of film canisters and disappears. So begins the novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing by Nicholas Rombes. In his novel, Rombes explores the intertwining of life and cinema through a interview with a highly acclaimed but eccentric film librarian, Roberto Acestes Laing. We had a chance to talk with Rombes about film and fiction, as well as other topics like music and his nonfiction writings. Be sure to also check out our excerpt from The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing.
Weird Fiction Review: What writers or stories have influenced you and your fiction writing?
Nicholas Rombes: Growing up I loved Ray Bradbury and have a wonderful memory of the first time I found his shelf at our local bookstore. This would have been in the mid-‘70s and the covers of the paperbacks meant so much, too. The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine, The October Country. There was one short story in particular, “The Veldt,” which I think I read in The Illustrated Man, that held — and holds — such sway over my imagination. In college there were several books that shook me to the core, especially McTeague, by Frank Norris. The novel is so realistic and brutal that it feels almost supernatural, as if to suggest that if you look close enough at our own world without blinking it will reveal itself in all its alien qualities. There are monsters among us. You don’t need to off this planet to find aliens. They are us. The other book was Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings, which just beautifully takes you into another person’s life and world and I think was the first time I felt how the power of words could make you cross out of your own life bounded by your own experiences and enter imaginatively into the world of another person whose life is so much different from yours.
Other books that shaped my writing — especially the Laing novel — include Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, Barry Gifford’s Wild at Heart, Deborah Levy’s Beautiful Mutants, Brian Evenson’s Last Days, Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Prone Gunman, and Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror. And there are three books of poetry that just gutted me and cleared space to move forward: Dana Levin’s In the Surgical Theatre, Olena Kalytiak Davis’s And Her Soul Out of Nothing, and most recently Cynthia Cruz’s In the Glimmering Room.
WFR: How would you define or describe your personal aesthetic as a writer, in your own words?
NR: I write what I would love to read. I’m very fortunate that I have the time to write, and I don’t take that gift — time — lightly. When it’s all clicking and coming together on the page there is nothing like it. It’s an adventure to fall into the narrative world as you are creating it and it’s in those moments that the typing can’t come fast enough to contain that feeling of falling. I revise a lot at the line level, beginning each day looking back over the previous day’s pages and circling back to words or passages that sound off. That’s especially important for a novel like Laing, which was written over the period of 20+ years. Just trying to keep, as a writer, in the moment of the book itself requires entering into the writing process each day so you don’t loose the atmosphere of the book.
WFR: How did the The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing come about? When did you write it? Where did you get the idea for it?
NR: The Laing novel is something I began in the early ‘90s, at Penn State. I had gotten into a knife fight and stupidly treated my own wounds rather than going to the hospital. It was a month of transformation and on the other side of that I began to write what would become Laing. The section “The Story of A. (Laing’s Digression” dates from that time. The idea came from wondering what it would be like if some of the directors I admired had made films from outside the genres they typically worked in. What if, for instance, David Lynch directed a war film set in the 1940s? That was the initial idea. I also was interested in the idea of misremembering and how we seem to be losing the ability to do that in the digital age with all its archives. For most of my life the films I saw as a child and young man weren’t easily available for repeat viewing and in my memory they became different — sometimes just slightly different — from what they were. I probably saw the original 1968 Planet of the Apes when I was eight or nine, sometime around 1973 or ’74. It would have been on WTOL-TV in Toledo, which ran a program in the afternoons called “The Big Show” that featured movies (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Hombre, etc.) edited for television. I didn’t see it again until recently — clips are available, like everything, just a click away online — and of course it was much different than what I had remembered. I preferred the way I remembered that film as opposed to the way it really was, and I was interested in exploring this gap in the book.
WFR: I noticed that most of your previous work is nonfiction. When and why did you decide to transition to fiction instead?
NR: I’ve written fiction that I’ve never sent out for a long time, and published some poetry and short stories off and on, but the transition to fiction began in earnest with the Laing novel and, later, with A Cultural Dictionary of Punk (Bloomsbury, 2009), a non-fiction book that nevertheless has an alter ego author — Ephraim P. Noble — who rails against punk and writers “like me” and who took on a life of his own. I found his voice liberating, and that’s when I began serious revisions on Laing, which had expanded to over 200,000 words before I took some major surgical tools to it and winnowed it down to its white hot core of around 60,000 words.
WFR: Film plays a central role in The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing so I was wondering if you could point us to some films that you’d recommend for those of us who enjoyed the book or perhaps some films that influenced your work.
NR: I love genre films because the best of them offer sheer entertainment that often disguises bigger, deeper ideas. I don’t mean self-consciously generic films like Interstellar, but smaller ones like John Carpenter’s They Live, Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, or Gus Van Sant’s Gerry. Through the ready-made scaffolding of genre (science fiction, horror, the road movie) films like find a way to use that scaffolding to explore provocative ideas. And there is nothing better than getting lost in a film from a country that you’ve never visited or know little about. For me, four films by the Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa—Cure (1997), Charisma (1999), Pulse (2001), and Doppelganger (2003) — embody the uncanny like no other films I can think of. The familiar made unfamiliar. And the taken-for-granted customs and tics and rituals of Japanese society add another level of unfamiliarity that’s disorienting the best sort of way. I return to these Kurosawa films again and again because I feel like I’m missing something in the smallest of things, the gestures between characters, the setting of a table for dinner, small talk on a roof overlooking a city. All these small moments are both routine and utterly alien.
WFR: Pulse (aka Kairo) is one of my favorite movies but I haven’t seen Kurosawa’s other films.
NR: Cure is definitely the one to see. The other two–Doppelganger and Charisma–are both excellent but the mood is not as singular as in the other two.
WFR: I know your interest in films has influenced your fiction but what about your interest in punk rock, Nirvana, the Ramones, and music in general? Any albums you’d recommend?
NR: Writing about punk was a remarkable experience as I came to appreciate the material conditions of music as I hadn’t before. Craig Leon, who produced the Ramones’s first album, talked about the technical side of trying to capture the energy and feeling of the band’s live performances without having the album “sound” live. The mic placement, track order, sound image — all these considerations and more created the sparky feeling of a live performance while still retaining the big studio sound. Details like that somehow make the music richer without demystifying it. The DIY spirit of punk has been such an inspiration for thousands of people, including me, for whom writing a novel is very much a DIY enterprise. There is something very open and democratic about the punk ethos and learning about it in detail for the 33 1⁄3 Ramones and Cultural Dictionary of Punk books was an inspiration.
WFR: What’s next for you?
NR: I’m blessed to be a professor and that keeps me plenty busy. I love teaching and the remarkable exchanges between what I know and what my students know. The classroom is not a static space but an open, dynamic one and when everything’s working just right it feels like the luckiest place on the planet to be. Non-teaching wise I’m working with the film production wing of Two Dollar Radio to bring my screenplay, The Removals, to life as a movie. There’s a wonderful set of collaborators working on it, including author Grace Krilanovich (The Orange Eats Creeps) and musician Mike Shiflet. I’m also at work on novel number two, The Insurgent, about a woman tasked with destroying an object that, let’s say, doesn’t react kindly in the face of its destruction.