Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: We loved the Moby-Dick connections in “Jackshit Bastards.” For Sam, who is an Ishmael in his own right, what do you consider to be the white whale that sinks his ship?
Jim Roberts: I named the bookstore Ishmael’s to call it out as a place of particular importance, a place of truth and reckoning. Other than that, I wasn’t consciously drawing parallels between Sam’s and Sara’s story and Moby-Dick, although I wouldn’t be the first writer surprised by what crept in when I wasn’t looking. As for white whales, that is, forces of nature or God or the general randomness of the universe that shapes us all for better or worse, then Sam’s white whale is abandonment.
RR: The image of “jackshit” was one of the more visceral moments in the story. Can you talk about why you chose this specific part of their childhood to focus on?
JR: As a writer looking for metaphors, I chose it to be the central image of the story, an indelible image that encapsulates the plight of Sara and Sam. To me, this image “makes” the characters. It’s the baggage no amount of therapy or bourbon can ever shake. For some time while working on drafts of this story, I thought I’d made up the idea of children smearing themselves with feces as a sad, feeble shield against predators, a weapon of last resort. Then a couple of early readers experienced in missionary and social work told me this behavior is well-documented among abused children. I had unwittingly given a name to an obscenity I didn’t know was real.
RR: The bond between twins is a motif that appears throughout. What made you decide to make them twins rather than just siblings, and do you think the story would have changed based on that decision?
JR: From the first spark for this story, they were always twins, so there wasn’t a point where I decided between twins or regular siblings. Looking back, I think the emotional underpinnings of the story would be much weaker if they were just brother and sister. Making them twins allowed me to view them as two sides of the same person: a stronger, higher functioning side (Sara), and a weaker, fragile, barely functional side (Sam). Their “twinhood” makes some of the core actions in the story more believable. If Sara had been Sam’s younger sister, would she have sacrificed, time and again, her chances at adoption and a “normal” life in order to stay with Sam? Maybe, but probably not. And Sam probably wouldn’t have encouraged her to do that either. So, I think them being twins best allows readers to buy into the dynamic between the two characters.
RR: As you were writing this piece, how did Sam’s voice develop?
JR: After a draft or two, it was apparent that Sam’s voice did not fit as well as I wanted with a man who’d basically dropped out of school at age fifteen, and then spent five years in prison during his most formative adult years. His vocabulary was a little too highbrow. In an early draft, for example, Sam muses that Sarah’s mission to talk to their father is a “fool’s errand.” One of my critique partners wisely pointed out that that sounded “too writerly” for Sam. But I also didn’t want to dumb him down. He’s intelligent, and while not formally educated, is self-educated. Maybe he got his GED and an associate’s degree of some kind in prison? In later drafts, I tried to revamp his voice to use more common words, and amped up the profanity, although as we all know, blue collar ex-cons certainly have no monopoly on profanity.
RR: You mentioned that this will be your first publication, and we’re excited to introduce you to the literary world! What do you want to explore in future work?
JR: Thank you! I’m honored to have Rappahannock Review publish my first piece. Themes that fascinate me are the inextinguishable human drive to love and be loved, and how family (or lack thereof) defines us, from our worst fears to our greatest hopes. Along these lines, I’m in the revision stage on my first novel, Dreams of Poe, whose amputee protagonist struggles with a compulsion to commit patricide. The “Jackshit Bastards” story in the current issue of Rappahannock Review is one of ten planned stories for a collection of short fiction about relationships between fathers and their children, titled Of Fathers & Gods. And in my spare time, I’m researching and sketching a novel titled Ezekiel’s Airship, about an elderly, dying Black man, who in 1973 rural East Texas creates a firestorm by claiming it was his ex-slave father who built and flew the first airplane years before the Wright Brothers. Read more about my writing projects at JimRobertsFiction.com.
Jim Roberts’s work in Issue 8.1: