INTERVIEW WITH JOE BAUMANN
Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: Throughout the story, Roddy is confused about having to suppress the clouds, despite it “making him feel so nice.” This seems like it could be interpreted as a metaphor for being gay. When you write, how do you choose to develop metaphorical meaning rather than statement?
Joe Baumann: This may sound like a cop-out answer, but often enough, those parallels emerge on their own over the course of me writing a draft. I usually begin with a premise (here, that a kid could make clouds out of nothing), and simply go from there, directionless, until something direction-providing pops up: a sentence or phrase that I write that makes me think, Huh. So that’s what this story is about. In some capacities, this story is about burgeoning sexuality, especially that which is not heteronormative. Not that every story I write is using the strange as a metaphor for sexuality, but that is usually how the metaphors develop themselves: I know what the metaphoric, strange thing is first, and then figure out what’s a metaphor for later, as I write, develop, and revise.
RR: Why did you choose to switch perspectives in the way you do, going from Peter, to Roddy, to the mysterious “we?” Is “we” referring to the audience, or perhaps just another student?
JB: In the original draft, the entire story was from this “we” perspective, which I imagined as being a subset of the kids at the party. I did this because I’m a fan of non-traditional perspectives, including the you voice, but I also really love playing around with the first person plural, which I don’t see a lot (I must shout out Christopher Merkner’s story “Last Cottage,” the first one where I really saw that POV deployed–it haunts me to this day). I discovered as I went along, though, that important things about the two main characters needed to be revealed, and that they couldn’t be revealed or explored (such as the walk they go on) without changing the point of view. I didn’t want to entirely jettison the first-person plural, though, and that’s how I landed on the multiple perspectives.
RR: This piece draws heavily on magical realism. Is there a particular reason you gravitated towards this genre? How do you approach writing in this genre?
JB: I think the reason I’m drawn to this genre is two-fold: first, I read a ton of magic realism. I’ve long been a huge fan of Ramona Ausubel, Aimee Bender, Matt Bell, Jeanette Winterson, Alyssa Nutting, and of course, the Latin American greats like Laura Esquivel, Julio Cortazar, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As a result, I’ve always written in this genre, mostly because I like the fanciful freedom it creates without requiring the massive worldbuilding of, say, traditional fantasy. I like bending the world we live in but staying there, in large part, and exploring how bizarre and weird the world we actually live in is by showing a world that is familiar but bizarre in a different, overt way.
As I said above, I usually begin with some wacky idea that’s popped into my head, either of its own parthenogenesis or, often enough, that is inspired by something I read (as Picasso is credited with saying, “Bad artists copy; good artists steal,” words that I have definitely lived by for quite some time). I use that premise as a place to begin exploring and playing around; I often write plenty of pages whose trajectory and destination I do not know, hoping and praying that an “aha” moment will happen. They usually do (though I have a graveyard of material where that hasn’t managed to happen yet), and then when I know the direction and it starts taking shape, I can try to come to a finishing point for a story and then go all the way back and get into the heavy lifting of revising, expanding, and rethinking what I’ve already written to point toward that central point.
RR: This story and your up-and-coming novel I Know You’re Out There Somewhere are both coming of age stories with LGBTQIA+ themes. Do either draw inspiration from your own life? If not, what inspired you?
JB: They do, at least in part. In terms of this particular story, there’s no particular experience it draws from (though the farmhouse is definitely based on the home of one of my high school friends). I grew up a closeted queer kid until way later in my life than I’d like to admit, and the problem I struggled with was that, for the longest time, there seemed to be a binary about sexuality: you were either straight or you were gay. Neither of those seemed right for me. The novel is about a young man realizing he’s bisexual, and that story, though only vaguely based on my own life in that it takes place in upstate New York, where I lived until I was eight, traces the confusions and feelings of erasure that someone of that sexual orientation might experience.
RR: We understand you’re a writing professor at St. Charles Community College. How does your vision as a writer impact how you teach? Have your students taught you anything that influenced your writing?
JB: Whether I should or not, I’m always bringing my writing practices into the classroom one way or another. I’m careful to tell my students that my habits are not the right habits necessarily; they’re the right habits for me. That’s what writing is, after all: a process, but a process of discovering what habits work for you. So I try to teach my students a number of strategies and approaches and habits, including ones that definitely do not work for me as a writer, because they work for others. Because I’m a magic realist writer (usually), I tend toward exposing my students to that literature by way of example–I’ve taught most of the writers I mentioned above multiple times over the course of my career.
One of the things I love about working with community college students is the incredible diversity of the student body: I have nineteen-year-olds who came to college straight out of high school sitting next to thirty-year-old Army veterans next to sixty-five-year-old retirees wanting to get into writing. Each of them brings such a different perspective on the role of writing in a person’s life and the value and purpose of art. Many of my students talk about not worrying about trying to get published but simply finding comfort, joy, and accomplishment in finding their way through a draft, something that I often lose sight of. They always manage to bring me back around, semester in and semester out, to the things that drew me to writing in the first place.
Joe Baumann’s work in Issue 9.1: