Ideas and Investigations: An Interview with Jordan Rothacker

Any novel with a Pez dispenser on the cover is worth checking out—even more so when the dispenser sports a skull as its top. Jordan Rothacker’s debut novel, And Wind Will Wash Away, is an ambitious blend of religion, history, and the classic detective novel. Rothacker shared his thoughts about the novel, and more, in a recent interview with Cease, Cows.

Q: Tell us about your main character, Jonathan Wind. How would you describe him?

Sergeant Detective Jonathan Wind is in some ways how I see the ideal contemporary version of the intellectual detective. He’s maybe more Agent Dale Cooper than he is Sherlock Holmes, but above all else he is rationality, rationality with all of its flaws and limitations too, and the book is his trial. It comes up a bit in the book, but I made him to be my entry in this line of the western male “damned seeker” going back to Job and Oedipus and then Hamlet, Faust, and Kafka’s K. (from The Castle). I might also be a little haunted by Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

As the hero is an existential detective there are similarities to the first season of True Detective in my book, a book I finished in 2005, but I guess both Nic Pizzolatto and I owe something to Twin Peaks.

Q: What made you choose Atlanta as the setting of the novel? Does the setting play a specific role in the narrative?

Well, I grew up in Atlanta for the ten formative years before I went to college back in New York (where I was born). Before I could drive I walked and bused all over Atlanta and when I got a car I covered more ground. As a latchkey kid I was pretty precocious about exploring my city alone at a young age. My mom was at work, my sister was older, and I was a restless wandering loner, just walking, taking bus or train, and exploring. Always with a book in tow. The books were always set somewhere else—like Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg or Kerouac’s New York and San Francisco—but this was my city and I was fascinated by it, its secret corners and weirdly organic development over time. I couldn’t write about Atlanta until I left, though. After college in New York, I had a day job at a magazine and finally committed to writing a novel. The setting of Atlanta and the idea for the book all came together at once. The mystery of the book is around the woman’s death by fire and Atlanta is a major metropolis with a feminine name whose most significant historical moment involved a fire. There was only ever one way to tell a story about, and set it in, Atlanta for me.

Q: The novel is a unique blend of the traditional detective novel with an exploration of religious and philosophical themes. When you first conceived it, was it the detective story or the “novel of ideas” that first inspired you?

As I was getting to in my answer to the last question, all the weird and maybe outwardly incongruous elements of my book, all fit perfectly together in my head and conception for the work. Hopefully this comes off on the page. It could only be Atlanta, it had to be a detective story, and the mystery investigated had to be mystery itself, the intersection between philosophy and religion. I’ve enjoyed reading some crime fiction, but what I gravitate to mostly in detective fiction is a character like Philip Marlowe. The Long Goodbye is mostly about friendship and duty. I don’t even remember the actual crime involved. I really love the last one Chandler did, Playback, in which Marlowe continues investigating because he just really needs to know what happened, no one is even paying him after a certain point. So I’d say that my favorite detective stories are about ideas, and my favorite novels of ideas are investigations. Dostoevsky comes to mind in this regard. And George Eliot with Middlemarch (a book that was generally inspirational in my construction of And Wind Will Wash Away).

Q: And Wind Will Wash Away is steeped in historical references. How pivotal was research to the writing of the novel?

A lot of the historical research was already in me, having grown up in Atlanta. The rest was sheer joy of just pulling the threads of our narrative of the present and seeing where they lead back. Something I’ve spent a great amount of time with academically (especially with my MA in Religion) was how culture moves, merges, and layers; concepts of transculturation and syncretism. In 2001 I was in the Bardo National Museum in Tunis with all the amazing mosaics and there was a chart on the wall of the literal layers of conquest and control for the area going from the Phoenicians all the way up to the current modern Tunisian state. This chart could be done for almost any populated place on our planet and my book is an effort of doing that for Atlanta in some small way. I get the urge to do this in fiction from Joyce most likely, and maybe also from George Eliot, who is dear to me. Faulkner was also important to me when writing this book. Recently, I find this urge in W.G. Sebald, Iain Sinclair, and Rebecca Solnit. Faulkner was also important to me when I was working on And Wind Will Wash Away.

There are two joys for me in writing a book—or writing anything really—the investigation involved in research and the construction of the sentences on the page. The second joy can only be achieved as a result and product of the first joy. I guess I take this into life too, preparation and then action.

Q: Detective Wind encounters a group of Goddesses during his investigations. Tell us about them.

This group of goddess-worshippers who are all invoking their own individual goddesses is based upon groups I’ve read about and even encountered, some in Atlanta. After my parents’ divorce my mother engaged the wide range of Eastern and New Age practices Atlanta had to offer, and often I tagged along. There was a Druidic coven, a Wiccan coven, Tibetan Buddhism, weekends at an Ashram, sweat lodges, crystals, Reiki, rolfing, psychic readings, and there I was getting my Transcendental Meditation mantra at thirteen, reading in the lobby at the Dianetics Center while was mom was inside getting audited at fourteen, firewalking at sixteen, taking the Landmark Forum (former Est) at eighteen, you know, just tagging along. My rebellion was to major in western philosophy in college. But sometimes more political counterculture stuff was present back then and I met people from the Church of the SubGenius and some Discordians, really fun crazies who I liked. Some of this stuff made it into the book, but as I spent a lot of time with women through all of this I saw a real social and political context for their involvement in these practices, particularly goddess-worship. Some might have been there for just the fun of it, and some for nothing more than a sense of community, but many seemed to be there as a form of liberation theology. So many women trying to fight their way out from under the patriarchy, trying to establish and assert their selfhood and a deep connection to something ancient, sacred, and meaningful.

Q: The novel is set in 2003. Is the year significant?

Part of that was practical. I began in 2002 and wrote towards the date it was set and then wrote after the date it was set. The dates at first might have been arbitrary but once I started investigating the astrological data and especially the Aztec calendar/s and saw all these synchronicities it was all too perfect. It really was a pure moment of artistic epiphany and I wanted to run around like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in “State and Main” shouting “it’s about purity, she doesn’t show her tits.” I felt like I found some cosmic connection in my text. After that wore off it was really just part of the naturalism of the work: here is a set date, time, and location. Looking back on that time now, as I wrote in the Author’s Preface, it was a particularly windy time at the beginning of the dark days of the Bush II years, the invasion of Iraq based on windy war-aims and the great amount of suffering that resulted.

Q: Each chapter begins with an epigraph. Why? What do you hope the reader takes from them?

Well, to have a title and epigraph for each chapter was to establish a guiding principle and theme for each chapter. I’ve always loved that in 19th century novels and since I was deeply enamored by James Joyce as a teenager, the idea of governing themes for each chapter in a large complex novel is something that always resonated with me. The variations of tone per chapter are slight but the creation of a pantheon or intellectual change of scenery certainly comes through. A lot of it is just texturing and symbolism, “larding” the text as Joyce would call it, and it might only be there to amuse me. If other people pick up on it then great, if not, I don’t think it stands in the way of enjoying the story.

Q: The novel has a striking cover image. Tell us about it.

That is all the wonderful work of Deeds’ creative director, Mark Babcock. It’s really brilliant. So much goes on in the work—it is maximalist to say the least—that a minimalist cover with one familiar, and yet darkly twisted image really grabbed the eye and in a way contributed something to the text within. Until people buy the book though they don’t get to see the second image under the book jacket on the hardcover. He really outdid himself.

Q: This is your debut novel. What did you find most challenging about a writing a novel?

I guess the most difficult and daunting thing was grappling with the size, the world that can potentially be contained in a long narrative. Before this novel, I’d only written short stories, usually very short ones, but I wanted the challenge because I really love novels. I wanted to wrestle Proteus like Menelaus and my victory would be shaping him to my will. My method became what I’ve found to be the key to most things in life: preparation. I did textual research, interviewed models for characters, conducted fieldwork by foot and by map, wrote dossiers on characters, outlined chapters, drew floor plans, anything to make me feel comfortable and secure in the world of the text. I had no editor or agent waiting for it so I took my time. I thought of the words of my friend and mentor, William T. Vollmann, who likes to quote Gandhi “one should always avoid expectations of results.” In the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada I found the same sentiment, so I heeded those words and just enjoyed the ride, watching the sentences form. Narrative cohesion is difficult, making “real” characters is difficult, consistency of tone is difficult, so you just work it, reread, revise, edit. You have to love it and the frustration inherent in it or otherwise it’s just a ridiculous thing to bother with.

Q: The novel is published by Deeds Publishing. How did you come to publish with them?

Deeds happens to be based in my little town of Athens, Georgia and when they first moved to town from Atlanta I wrote about them for a now defunct local magazine. After the article I kept connected with Mark and he read an interview with me about my first book, the novella, The Pit, and No Other Stories (Black Hill Press, 2015), and became interested in checking out my wind book.

Q: Finally, why write fiction? What inspires you to keep writing when there are so many distractions trying to pull a writer away?

I don’t want to sound like a victim of a compulsion, or to romanticize mental illness in any way (I don’t actually have hypergraphia), but for as long as I can remember I really can’t help myself. I was an anxious child and narrated in my head most things happening around me. Creating on paper was an easy and healthy way to direct these impulses. Maybe I could’ve just as easily been an actor, I don’t find much difference with what I do on the page to what an actor does on stage or screen.

In the less personal sense, we need fiction, we need narrative. We need to dream out loud and we need to experience each other’s dreams. I like to pick on that C.S. Lewis line, “we read to know we are not alone,” as the sad statement of a man scared of living life. My retort is always, “no, we engage in interpersonal relationships to know we are not alone,” but there is some validity to his point. Reading and writing contribute to empathy, but that is just the beginning. Once we have empathy we actually have to apply it in our lives. As a child I’d act out alone in the woods the stories I made up in my head or on the page. I’m haunted by Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, that poor guy, totally limited in ability to engage in life and all he can do is recreate in his head narratives of his past instead of creating any pleasant new narratives. Hopefully fiction (the writing and reading of it) can help us get out of our own heads and engage life. For those who can’t avoid the suffering of life, maybe fiction can provide a respite.

For more, check out www.jordanrothacker.com. And Wind Will Wash Away is available at the following link: www.bn.com

Chuck Augello is Head Editor of Cease, Cows. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, two cats, and several cows that refuse to cease. His work has appeared in One Story, Juked, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, and other fine places. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut and contributes interviews to The Review Review. He’s currently at work on a novel.