Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: In “Hey Buddy,” the son’s lack of empathy paired with the mother’s postpartum psychosis made for a compelling, dysfunctional relationship. How do you approach writing characters in a way that is both realistic and disturbing? What about these characters specifically?
Robin Kozak: I write from life: in this case, a business trip to Jacksonville, Florida, where I had the chance to rent in the Sawgrass community. It’s an elite enclave, and I found myself wondering what it would be like to actually live there. The characters of Ella and John Randolph evolved naturally from that. In addition, I grew up in a troubled, working-class household; I understood Ella’s position as an outsider very well. But when it came to her postpartum depression and Ross’s psychopathy, I had to do a tremendous amount of research to make their dynamic come alive. For me, creating good characters is a three-fold process: observe, look within, and do research.
RR: We’re intrigued by the implications of the images at the end. Would you consider it to be a happy ending?
RK: I think it’s a hopeful ending. Ella and J.R. are a couple again, united in a common cause, and Ella has a new “mission” in the rearing of her son. Because of her background as a doctor, she’s able to see Ross for what he is. He’s a psychopath, but he’s also her son. And at the end of the story, I don’t reference the Holocaust lightly. Atrocities begin with small steps, like the ones Ross is taking.
RR: This piece prompted us to reflect heavily on mental health. Is there anything you think is important for your readers to understand about that issue?
RK: It’s a complex issue, to say the least. On a personal level, kindness, empathy, and compassion can go a long way toward easing human suffering. Be a friend to someone in need. Listen. Be gentle with the person you don’t understand. You can save a life that way. But most of us aren’t trained to recognize or cope with severe mental illness. Education helps, but it’s not enough.
RR: We understand this piece is part of a collection you’re working on, Berkowitz, where you explore themes of violence and the abuse of power in relationships. Can you tell us more about that project?
RK: In Berkowitz, I take on the big issues: racism, homophobia, sexism, ageism. But I examine these issues from every possible perspective. What’s it really like to be a psychopath? A murderer? The victim of a crime? How does a racist feel when the tables are turned unexpectedly, and how does it feel to love, really love, someone criminal? Because above all, I want you to feel something for my characters. They’re just people—even the bad ones. In the end, I hope you’ll find them good company.
RR: Having published poems, short stories, and a novel, what genre do you find most compelling to write in and why?
RK: In graduate school, I trained as a poet, but these days I have no preference. I let the material dictate form. And I haven’t published a novel yet. That’s next!
Robin Kozak’s work in Issue 7.1: