Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview with Chad Rohrbacher

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Chad Rohrbacher writes tight hard crime fiction that smacks you in the jaw.

He writes easily within the genre you know him for.

He also writes about alienation.

He writes poetry and is accomplished within the genre.

He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about alienation and politics.

And he slam dunked.

Who are you main literary influences?

Most recently I would have to say Murakami is the biggest influence on my writing. I just can’t get enough. The biggest problem is it takes years for his books to get translated, which is a major pain in the ass. I read all of these reviews and fan sites that tell me how great his latest piece is and we here in America are two books behind.

Another guy I’ll wait in line for is William Gibson. I’m completely hooked.

Of course Stephen King is right up there. Any prolific writer who can draw tight characters and engaging plots like he does I have always been attracted to.

George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Asimov, Joseph Heller, Raymond Chandler, Raymond Carver, Vollman, and poets like Carolyn Forche and Larry Levis, are all amazing.

I’ve recently (last year) been reading more folks like Ray Banks, Hillary Davidson, Victor Gischler, lee child, Lehane, oh, and Max Brooks ’cause I love me some zombies.

Murakami is known for his portraits of alienation and loneliness.
Do you think alienation is a key issue to authors and do you think we alienate ourselves?

That’s an interesting question. My initial response is “of course” to both parts, but it’s not that simple.

I know some writers who can start a story, write 3 lines at breakfast, get a paragraph written between phone calls at work, write another paragraph at their kid’s ballet recital, do some more at home with the TV on in the background, and they never miss a beat. Those jerks amaze me. It’s not fair they can do that and do that well.

I read a quote by Lawrence Kasdan when I first started wiring and it still seems true for me as a writer. He said being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life. For me to do this work I have to physically remove myself. I have to go someplace where I will be uninterrupted. I sign out of gmail, twitters, facebook, and put my phone somewhere where I won’t see it. Sometimes my hiatus from my electronic life is an extended period of time and my friends start emailing me — “hey where you been?” That’s not so bad; it’s when the wife and kids start saying it too that I know I need to come back to “real life”.

Is writing alienating? Yes. Sometimes it does cut me off from family and friends. Sometimes I do stay in instead of going to that bar after work. Sometimes I do find myself overwhelmed with writing new projects, revising others, while sending out completed ones and I wish was a “normal” person with a “normal” life and hobbies that didn’t put me in front of the computer staring at a blank screen seeing made up people come to life in front of me.

Then again, writing is one of the most community driven professions out there. We read each other’s work and talk about authors and help each other improve our crafts and discuss ideas and explore philosophy and argue. And there is a real connection with people in ways that other professions just don’t experience. And luckily it’s not just in the profession, but in the family as well. My wife shares my reading interests so we can discuss and explore and argue about books too.

I do want to mention one thing that draws me to Murakami. I love his sparse, descriptive, surreal moments that his characters experience. For example, in THE WIND UP BIRD CHRONICLES one of the main characters meets a girl and gets a job counting bald guys for a company that makes wigs. Or he finds a well and goes down into it and he thinks of many things. He remembers a story of this Mongol soldier who skins a Japanese soldier alive. He thinks about this zoo where an order was given to kill the animals because the army couldn’t feed them. These images stuck with the character. They stuck with me. It’s like a dream that you just can’t shake. I think about what was meant by this image, that one, etc. He touches on a truth(s) for me (not sure what yet), and I felt / feel less alienated because of it.

Yukio Mishima, whose avant-garde work displayed a blending of modern and traditional aesthetics that broke cultural boundaries, with a focus on sexuality, death, and political change,  became disillusioned with modern Japan. Historically Japan is a military hierarchical system. Japanese society was shocked by his well planned suicide. Do you think alienation may be a product of an individual conflict with cultural conditioning?

To be honest, as far as Japanese culture is concerned, I’d have to do some reading and thinking; however, as far as our culture I’d have to say yes.

When I was in college I was reading a lot of surrealist poets, especially the French surrealists. Rimbaud and the DRUNKEN BOAT, Mallarme, Breton, and at that time I thought the guys were just dandy. That didn’t last long; there was this side alley that grabbed my attention that I think may get at the heart of your question.

We see simple “rebellion” in everyday life where alienation is clearly portrayed. Teenagers sitting in their rooms smoking pot thinking no one understands, kids shifting foot to foot at a middle school dance while watching others have fun, or even an individual questioning his/her life and wondering if they are raising his/her kids “right”. We have these images produced by the culture running through our heads and when we don’t see those images in our own lives, perhaps it does lead to a feeling of alienation.

Artists, I think, are a unique case to this idea. There are at least two ideas being acted out here. First, I think society likes the idea of the crazy artist. Oftentimes we look at artists as hurt, crazy, drug addicted, mentally unstable caricatures who are on society’s periphery, looking in from the hard edges that gives them the ability to “see” truths that others might not be able to grasp. While this may be true for some (it’s not hard to name many from every artistic field — Jim Morrison to Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath to Edvard Munch, that guy from the grunge band from Seattle that I highly dislike to Michael Foster Wallace) — it’s not true for most.

The other ide is that there are a lot of artists who are, in fact, touched by the mentally unstable stick. This was the side alley I mentioned earlier. I was amazed at how many artists were, or were thought to be, depressed or bipolar. Now we understand that there may be chemical/hormonal imbalances that affect these disorders, but I wonder how much was just that the artist has always been looked at as different precisely because she has been on the periphery.

The cynical part of me thinks there are some people who grow up with this romantic notion of the tortured or crazy artist and they purposefully develop that persona to further their careers. Perhaps they are great actors and their careers will take off. Or perhaps they really are screwy. Perhaps I have no idea what I’m talking about, which is most likely.

Ultimately, I suppose, if we dug into anyone’s life we would see signs of “craziness” and we could attribute it to their feelings of alienation.

Do you think that peak moments of inspiration for artists may be brain chemistry that when it reaches a certain peak crosses the line to diagnosable mental disorders?

I’m not sure if inspiration is brain chemistry or emotional intensity or spiritual awakening (though the last sounds the coolest).

I absolutely think there is the “zone” we get in. Is it diagnosable? I wish, because then they might make a med for it and I could get in the zone every time I write.

When I playing basketball I had one particular game that I could nothing wrong. I was hitting everything, handling the ball well, everything. If I could’ve played like that all the time, I would been in the NBA. It was like I was watching from the outside.

The Greeks had their Muses and maybe they had it right. All I know is once I’m in that writing space and I get hit with the zone, I  go with it until I pass out.

Do you think it is possible to write a great story with a political agenda?

The short answer: Absolutely.

I would argue all writing is inherently political. In this I completely agree with George Orwell. He basically said that all writing goes in a particular direction and that direction, whether explicitly “political” or not makes a political argument. Personally, I believe that writing is an extension of what shaped the writer’s experience and values. These values, beliefs, etc. can not be dissected from the author and the author’s writing. It would make the writing  the  completely devoid of any kind of heart.

I understand some say “I’m just telling a story” or “I’m not being political” and they truly might believe what they are saying, but if they create characters and put those characters in certain situations they are saying something politically. Raymond Chandler examines class quite a bit in his novels. Most of our popular books and films are great political stories. Some like BLINDNESS are allegorical while others like 1984 are more explicit.

Jack London, Joseph Conrad, Margaret Atwood,James Baldwin,  Flannery O’Connor, Alexie Sherman (one of the wittiest writers I’ve ever read), all say something about society and thus say something politically. And they are accompanied by every other writer out there.

Now the qualifier “great” is the issue. Many, especially many beginning writers, start off with their message. I’m going to write a story about how awful war is or I’m going to write about women’s rights, and generally I have found those stories usually fall flat. The writer forgets the first rule, the character. Without the character there is no reason for dramatic situation. Without the dramatic situation there is no conflict. Without conflict, there is no story.

Rather the great stories that advance a “political agenda” are those that just let us experience life through their character.

Like many, I have been watching the protests in the Middle East and I have been excited about what I see. Closer to home I have been following the fight for worker’s rights in WI and other states. My own family background is rooted in the blue collar traditions in Ohio. My great grandfather was a carpenter and the other worked on the railroad. My grandfather worked on the docks while the other was a truck driver. My father is a painter by trade. So when I write, there are working class themes that come out. I don’t sit down and say I will write about those themes, but I’m proud of what these men in my family, and so many other people have done and continue to do, that I find these characters popping up all over the place in my writing (poetry, fiction, and even my non-fiction). Is it a political agenda? I don’t think so, but I could see how one might say it is.

At one point in the novel I just completed, KARMA BACKLASH, a middle-aged gangster considers the changing world around him. He recognizes the city growing old, he sees more people wearing “suits” instead of what he thinks as really “working’ for a living, he sees power being abused. While this is not the crux of the novel, it does add depth to him as a character and it does, I suppose, bear some political ideology/agenda.

I guess since I believe all stories are political, the tougher question is what makes them great.

What do you make of WB Yeats’s observation in his poem ‘The Second Coming’ that
‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity?’

I think this is a good example of a “political” poem. I think he is basically saying that the “best” people are not interested or not fully engaged in politics (politics meaning any ideology that one might subscribe), while the “worst” are zealots for their issue(s).

I suppose it depends on you’re values and beliefs to define who you would consider as “best” or “worst”.

What do you think the greatest crime films are?

There may be some spoilers here –

Double Indemnity is at the top of the list. It’s a classic for a reason.

Momento, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Man Bites Dog, and Natural Born Killers all do something with story structure really works without being gimmicky. Also I think each added something new to the crime genre.

I think Momento with its layers of mystery explored through the main character’s psychological issues was strong in its own right. It kept the audience engaged and hoping that he would figure out the who killed his wife. The twist at the end was even more significant.

Tarantino’s use of breaking the movie up like chapters in a novel is now his signature. Pulp Fiction and Res. Dogs both do it very well. Each chapter following a character(s) in their experience and each illuminating the story to a tightly knit climax is fantastic.

China Town is a classic. Nicholson does a wonderful job as Gittes. This working class detective stumbles into a broader crime and there once again, there is no happy ending. At the very beginning when Gittes shares pictures of some guy’s wife having an affair, the guy says he is going to kill her. Gittes responds, and I’m paraphrasing here, you’re not rich enough to get away with murder. To me that one line sets up the entire plot. The cutting of the nose scene is also pretty gruesome. You don’t need a lot of gore to make the audience share the pain.

For my money, the Cohen brothers are contemporary masters of the genre. Raising Arizona was one of the first movies I saw that not only made me laugh, but also made me want to watch every movie they ever made/would make. Millers Crossing, No Country for Old Men Fargo… to a single one they have unique characters, great dialogue and complex plots that are engaging.

Blue Velvet. That movie speaks for itself. From the ear that starts the film to the tormented Loren, it’s a disturbing crime film from top to bottom.

I also enjoyed the Boondock Saints quite a bit. The original, not that awful part 2. The larger than life father (similar to Raising Arizona) that the boys must face is one that worked here. Plus a good vigilante story is hard to come by.

History of Violence, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Suicide Kings are all films that I found extremely well written and very entertaining.

The Usual Suspects is probably my all-time favorite crime film. The unravelling story from Verbal Kint’s point of view was absolutely astounding. The attention to detail and complexity that was interwoven throughout the film was one of the best I have ever seen. It made the movie one of the few that I have watched numerous times and have seen more every time I watch it.

Do you think we are motivated by the fear of death?

I don’t know. Perhaps on some subconscious level, but I’m not sure very many people think about it all that much. It seems most of us live in ambition and focus on a very small circle of people in our lives so much so that death doesn’t enter our consciousness unless we are forced to recognize it. When my grandfather was sick and needed extensive assistance, it was the first time I thought about death in any serious way. This was in 1991 I believe and I was just entering college. Perhaps I am odd in this way, I don’t know, but after I made peace with him dying, I never considered it again. Luckily I have not had to either.

My grandmother, 82 years old, has started talking about her death. She is very open about the funeral, her will, which great-grand daughter should get what. It’s very odd, but at the same time comforting. Even though I don’t even want to imagine her not in our lives, through her discussion of end of life, I believe we as a family are more aware and better able to take advantage of whatever time we have with her. Camus wrote about this idea quite a bit, recognizing the mortality to take advantage of the life, but it never held any “reality’ for me until recently. She’s an amazing woman who has taught me so much without even realizing it.

Carlos Castaneda quotes the Yaqui Indian Don Juan as saying ‘In a world where death is the hunter my friend there is no time for regrets or doubts’. Do you believe that crime fiction is motivated by a desire to control death?

That’s an interesting question. I think it’s much baser than the desire to control death, much more primal. I think we have a fascination with death, of violence, of what people can do to one another, of how people can be complete brutes or intellectual thugs. We want to know how simple people can sometimes be drawn into situations and do the unimaginable. It’s like when we slow down to see an accident, especially if there are emergency vehicles there. We aren’t trying to control death in those seconds we crane our necks, we are trying to catch a glimpse of the macabre. And if it is gruesome, what is the first thing we do? We tell our co-workers “Oh, you should have seen this accident; it was awful.”

A few months ago they found a body dumped in some high weeds in our neighborhood. The body lay there a long time before it was discovered. Now we live in a typical suburb with families and a walking trail and a nice park. It was, as you can imagine, on the lips of everyone here. Who was that guy? Was he a part of the neighborhood? What happened? Come to find out it was a drug deal gone bad and someone killed him someplace else and just dumped him in our neighborhood. We wanted answers. Did we want answers because we were worried about safety? I don’t think so because I saw the same amount of people walking the trails, the same number of kids at the park. It was a sad story, but it ultimately just became another anecdote people told.

Crime fiction seems to be similar. By vicariously living through crime fiction characters — these vigilantes and mobsters, these private eyes and victims turned predators — we can do all the things we ever dreamed and find satisfaction when the bad, or in some cases, the “badder” (think DEXTER or Gischler’s GUN MONKEYS or Bank’s SATURDAY’S CHILD) guy gets his/her due. When we read crime fiction, I feel like we’re in on it, that we have information that no one else has, and then afterward we can say, “Have you heard? Did you see? Wasn’t it gruesome? I can’t believe.”

So many authors like Nancy Bartholomew, Chuck Palahnuik, Raymond Chandler, Scott McFetridge have a wonderful dry wit and dark humor, it is hard not to be drawn into their stories. So, perhaps the bottom line is we like the twists and turns and surprises of the stories. We like to be entertained.

I understand you have written in other genres and writing forms, how has your experience in other areas helped you in writing crime fiction?

I started off studying and writing poetry, and then moved to screenplays because of my love for film. I think both share some specific techniques, but also taught me different skills that I have been able to apply to my crime fiction.

Both forms do share a love for concise language and using striking images. Anyone can write a long piece, using extemporaneous verbiage to take up space – what school-aged child didn’t “fluff up” an essay just to reach the word count? But in poetry, like a screenplay, an author must search for the exact right word or phrase, they must write to get the most punch in the least space. Indeed, screenplays you generally can not go over 120 pages or risk never being read by an agent, producer, or contest judge. So the challenge in both forms becomes getting readers in quick, developing ideas fast, and making the reader not want to stop reading.

After my brief surrealist stint, I moved to narrative poetry. Poets like Larry Levis, James Wright, Dave Smith, Yusef Komunyakaa, Carolyn Forche, Norman Dubie, David Bottoms, Scott Cairns, Edward Hirsch, and so many others, taught me a lot about how to create a character, establish voice, follow images and story to “say something” about the world in a (hopefully) meaningful way.

Richard Hugo has always spoken to me as well. His focus on place also creating meaning had a huge impact on my writing. Because of him I started seeing places as characters, not just backdrops that people wade through. Toledo, Ohio, where I grew up is a significant character in my novel because we see it as a dying city, one that has struggled for years to remain significant in the face of suburban sprawl and loss of key industries. Just like my main character, Derby Ballard, is a middle-aged gangster trying to remain relevant in the changing world and his crime family.

Place also plays a significant role in many of my poems.  “Over A Bowl Of Potato And Corn Soup, Mr. Marvin Tells Me How He Castrated Baby Goats” depicts the farm in Louisiana where I worked to pay for grad school. The place is as harsh as the act of the narrator castrating goats. The place becomes a living thing that has a personality and acts on its own accord.

I have 5 screenplays under my belt, 3 straight crime / noir pieces and 2 science fiction in the vein of Blade Runner (so crime is central to the script). While I’ve had some success with my screenwriting, a couple of awards, placed in some contests, worked with Mike Farrell for awhile, I just couldn’t quite make it over that hump. Even so, I learned a great deal, especially concerning dialogue and plotting. Mike in particular taught me a lot and I owe him a ton of gratitude.

Eszterhas and Tarantino are two of the greats in both areas of dialogue and plotting. For both the dialogue is real, it flows, it’s tight, it drives the plot while developing character; in short, it does everything good dialogue should do.

Plotting the screenplay was also a good lesson. Having an idea of what the end was going to look like was really important. At first I thought the process should be “organic”, just let things go where they may and that’s one reason no one will ever see that first script. Now I look at it like driving across country: you don’t just get in the car and go. The highways, side streets, rural roads, and detours will derail you so bad that you’ll never get somewhere no matter how fun it was. However, if you have a destination in mind, but find a neat little town off your route, then continue on and find a park you want to stay at, and that affects your final destination some, usually it’s not so significant as to completely ruin the entire trip – you were still able to get where you needed to be.

The plot points in a script applied well when I was writing my novel. The way I could look at each chapter, examine the main plot, the subplots, and how the characters grew as the story went on was integral in finishing it.

As far as writing in different genres, I’ve come to the conclusion that Steven King had it right: tell a good story. When I first started writing, I wanted to write “literature’ with a capital “L”. I mistakenly assumed pulp could not do what literature did, even though that’s what I enjoyed reading, and even if written well. I was miserable. When I started writing crime fiction and noir, I fell in love with writing all over again. To me, that’s what it’s all about – loving what you do, hoping readers get something out of it, and entertaining people along the way.

Thank you Chad for giving a great and unforgettable interview.

Chad Rohrbacher has published in places like Needle Magazine, Crime Factory, Powder Burn Flash, Twist of Noir, and others. Currently he is shopping his crime novel KARMA BACKLASH. He lives in Greensboro, NC, with his wife, 3 kids, dog, and crazy kitten. You can find his work at

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