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Remain Alive: An Interview With Rex Rose

This interview was done in Summer 2005, before Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans flood. Watch for part 2, an update, coming soon. Rex Rose is a New Orleans native and is author of the novel Toast.

3:AM: Toast seems to me somewhat autobiographical. If this is correct, was it difficult to actually write the book, edit it, and go through all the practical steps involved in getting it submitted, published and promoted, while being caught up in the wild life?

RR: It’s not really autobiographical, but readers are not used to seeing a 19th Century framing device these days, so it throws people off. I frequently get asked if it was hard to kick heroin, since the narrator was an ex-junkie, or an incredulous reader might conspiratorially tell me he thinks some of Toast must be fictional. These are huge compliments. But I guess I will admit that I knew some facets of French Quarter life pretty well. Most of my immersion in it was from about 1981 to say 1992, though we lived upstairs from Preservation Hall when I was a baby, and I was a Quarter rat as far back as 1976. My father, Al Rose, was a fairly well-known New Orleans author, and we lived as a family in the quarter off and on throughout my life, but during some family troubles, my father rented an apartment for me at I think it was 1140 Royal Street. I was 13, and they just left me there for months unsupervised with an open tab at the Verti Mart. I was ostensibly “home schooled” but there wasn’t any of that. It sounds like it would be fun for a 13 year-old kid, but it was more of an isolation and a time to turn inward and get weird. I read every Michael Moorcock book I could get my hands on from Le Librarie and The Olive Tree in the Daw editions. Later, we moved to the Faubourg Saint John, and I used to walk out of our rather large and impressive family mansion barefoot, ride the bus downtown, and sit and listen to street musicians. They would take me in, give me guitar lessons, and feed me, thinking I was an urchin or something. (Thanks, Ellis.) I was an incredible embarrassment to my father and stepmother. Eventually, my stepmother convinced me that I would get worms if I walked around the Quarter barefoot, and I finally took to wearing shoes.

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Mardi Gras, 1963

Later, I read Vonnegut and got a job working for Carey Beckham at the Old Mint bookstore, Le Librarie, and later Beckham’s Bookshop when it opened, which supplied me with enough pay to keep my friends and me in marijuana and tickets to the midnight Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings. I painted some of those beige bookshelves at Beckhams, and actually restored Le Librairie’s sign in the late ‘70s, so, if all else fails, I have left my mark on New Orleans. When I heard the Sex Pistols, I started playing electric guitar in earnest. I learned to play by playing along with Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols over and over again. That was the only record I listened to for something like a year. When I turned eighteen, my father kicked me out, basically for being a punk rocker, so I went to live with my mother in San Francisco for six months, but it was too cliquish for a New Orleans kid. The most interesting thing that happened to me out there was when Jello Biafra and I got into a brawl at the Mab with Athletico Spizz 80, this one-hit new wave band known for the song “Soldier Soldier.” I remember trying to pull this cockney roadie off Jello and realizing that Jello had his teeth clamped on the guy’s ear. (Jello, if you are out there, email me and tell me if you remember.) The roadie had gotten pissed off at Jello for banging into the stage monitor one too many times. Then Spizz jumped off the stage and pushed me. I looked way way down at the singer and just started laughing. The guy only came up to my navel or so. It was the funniest scene I have ever witnessed. I had no friends out there at all except for this guest house full of foreign travelers. Coincidentally, one of them was also a writer, Ed Fenton, and we got to be great friends. Maybe he demystified writing for me. He was writing for Damage magazine out there, and I would go to gigs with him, where he would get to interview the acts, and I was pretty jealous when he got to interview Siouxsie Sioux. I guess I figured I could do that. He went on to write a novel called Scorched Earth that won a major book prize in England during the Thatcher years. I only found out about that two years ago, when he tracked me down over the Internet. I had lost all of their addresses when my apartment on Saint Thomas Street was burglarized by somebody who kicked straight through the barge wood wall.

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We eventually all got tired of San Francisco, piled into a VW van, and headed to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I started working at a sex toy shop, a friend and I got an apartment at 740 Royal, and we played a lot of video games at Pennyland on acid. There were lots of terrible jam sessions. As the ‘80s drew on, I used to hang out at this bar Déjà Vu, which sort of morphed into the Blue Crystal on the other side of the Quarter. During the time I was married and afterward, I was hanging out in the quarter a lot with a group of living masterpieces, and the obsessions and pathos of the milieu had a great deal of influence on Toast. I got used to admiring people with major flaws, who you wouldn’t want to really trust, but if she could dance as if with the great cosmic whatever or he could talk brilliantly at three times the normal speed of the human tongue, they were my friends, and truthfully I had my own flaws and you wouldn’t want to have trusted me back then, either. Some of these people had huge amounts of energy and creativity in an impressive unbroken flow when they released it, yet with such a lack of reflectivity or direction that it felt like you were dealing more with tornadoes than people. I was always caught up in thought, but was surprised to find myself attracted to people who really thought very little in the sense I was used to. The whole thing was going to burn up in its own energy with no ash while trying to reach some indefinable, and anyone could see it coming. Here is what I learned about art. The artist never really goes over the cliff. The artist goes to the edge of the cliff and has a good long look into the abyss. When the abyss looks back into him, he scampers back from the edge. I don’t care if it is Bukowski we’re talking about; the artist never goes all the way. The writer doesn’t really live the experiences he or she writes about. She cannot send a message back from over the cliff or have enough distance from the subject matter to write clearly during freefall. If you want to write, you just can’t do it when you are dead, so aspiring writers in the French Quarter should make sure to remain alive. This sounds very simple, but sometimes it is overlooked or hard to accomplish for one reason or another.

I have not been “caught up in the wild life” for many years. I hate to admit this, but Toast was my master’s thesis at LSU, and I wrote it all in Baton Rouge in a comfortable air-conditioned apartment with a wall of glass looking out at nicely landscaped gardens and a sunny pool with tan-oiled co-eds in bikinis constantly lying around it. I was kind of isolated like Proust when he wrote, but with a better view. I did write for a pop-culture magazine in New Orleans called Tribe in the mid ‘90s, though, and that probably informed the creation of Toast’s narrator, but I was not shooting junk or anything like that. Andrei Codrescu is the one who really gave me the push to finish Toast. He was on my committee, and I went to him and said, “You know, I’ve got this well-crafted, sedate short story cycle about coping with my parents’ divorce, and it is perfect MFA fiction, and it might be publishable, but it bores the fuck out of me… and then I’ve got this novel with a tattooed chick and fast cars and drugs and explosions, and I really love it, but I’m afraid of what they’ll think of me. Which one do you think I should work on for my thesis, Andrei?” And Andrei says, “What? Are you fucking crazy?”

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Nate Hardy, Rex Rose, and Andrei Codrescu

3:AM: Any thoughts on the New Orleans lifestyle? How it can damage? How it can inspire?

RR: There are many New Orleans lifestyles. The specific one I wrote about in Toast really existed in the ‘80s among transplanted barflies in the lower Quarter and Faubourg, and I only hoped that it would translate into the mid ‘90s, which is the timeframe within which I set the novel. Nobody has called me on it, so I guess it must have still been the same general experience then. That time and place spawned a bunch of really brilliant mostly transplanted people, who flared and literally died out. I’m thinking like at least 70% of them are dead, usually of AIDS. So, New Orleans can damage by killing you, for sure. New Orleans inspires because it is tolerant and the architecture imports numenosity. But I heard somebody say something about Van Gogh’s paintings that seems to apply, and here I am probably paraphrasing so liberally that I have departed from the meaning, but the gist I think was that his paintings were meant as a kind of slap in the face to reality. When confronted with the drab, the stupid, the inane, the willfully ignorant, the porcine, the brutal, and the rote, artists create in a sense to defiantly spite all of that. They make something startlingly alive out of dead-eyed mediocrity. So, according to this schema, Van Gogh’s creative credo could be stated as: “Oh yeah? Well, here’s my bloody severed ear and deathless beauty, you whore!” There’s a song that calls New Orleans the City of a Million Dreams. For a person in regular circumstances, who has to work a menial job, stand behind a counter, wait tables or piece it together dealing drugs or bartering sex or something, the million dreams come as an escape from the boredom and pain New Orleans nurtures, and, in a final act of mercy, New Orleans tolerates the dreams. That which in another city would be misery is in New Orleans transformed into inspiration by an alchemical process involving a mix of tolerance and good architecture.

3:AM: You’ve moved away from NOLA, yes? What were your reasons for leaving?

RR: I live in Austin now. I left because I figured I would not last long if I stayed. I had several close calls, and lots of people were getting shot back then, and the cops’ rap sheets were no shorter than the criminals’. Anne Rice’s vampire stories are an allegory of the social structure there. It’s a petty, pigheaded, corrupt, deluded, and just butt ignorant dangerous place, beauty and romance aside. I was robbed at gunpoint on a couple of occasions, and had to run for my life on a few more. I had to fight off a gang of teenagers that attacked me. They were just beating people up in the middle of Decatur Street. There were tussles with skinheads. I took to carrying a .38 at the small of my back, and it seemed like everybody else was, too, even Harry Connick Jr., and he’s the D.A.’s son; he got busted for a gun in his luggage in New York. That’s how bad it was; carrying a gun was so normal that you might bring one on an airplane with you, forgetting it was illegal. Kind of like when Mayor Barthelemy announced with pride in public that he would be giving his son a Tulane scholarship. He had no idea it was unethical. I didn’t carry a gun for self-protection, though. I did it because I just wanted a clear shot at them before I died. That’s what New Orleans turned me into. Racism was rampant on both sides of the color line. It also seemed like many of the women I knew there had been brutally raped at least once, and then there is the fallout from that. Nice place. The cops couldn’t catch a cold. Then, of course, for someone in my position back then, there was no opportunity to do anything but service industry jobs. It does look like New Orleans is doing well, though. Kudos to Nagin. But back then, you couldn’t get a new streetcar line because the politicians and bureaucrats would just steal the money. It is kind of hard to realize how deep those parasites have their hands in your pockets in New Orleans until you are away for a while. I am not convinced New Orleans is really turning around. Nagin seems to be doing great, but look at the history, and it just seems unlikely. It tries to go straight for a while, and then it’s out at the bar every night drunk, stoned, and depending on the kindness of strangers.

3:AM: Where are you now, and is it a much different experience?

RR: I am living the expatriate experience in Austin for a little over a year, a New Orleanian in exile without question. I spent a few years at LSU, a couple of years at Anne Ewen’s art colony in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, and two years in Portland, Oregon. Austin and Portland are great cities, but as an Orleanian, it is funny to drive around them and see what people call the “bad areas.” They have the most Mickey Mouse hoods I have ever seen. I just got back from a visit to Portland. We were in Portland one minute, drove for about 20 minutes, and all of a sudden we were standing in a stream out in the rain forest fishing for salmon. Every city should try municipal planning. Even with all the great features of those cities, though, I still don’t really feel at home anywhere but New Orleans, but being from New Orleans is like having junkie parents; you spend a lot of time thinking about them, but you don’t necessarily want to go back home.

3:AM: Are Tania and your other Toast characters based on individuals you know? Composites? How do you feel about being asked this?

RR: I really enjoy being asked, and, yes, they are all real people, and their names have not been changed. I can give you their email addresses, if you want. Even Tania has gotten a computer, but she’s still running Windows 95, so the thing is down most of the time. You would do better to call her, but that could be difficult until October because she is working for a commercial archaeology firm making sure one of the proposed pipelines in Alaska doesn’t run through any sacred Native American sites. I know it’s hard to think of her working in anything to do with oil exploration, but she tells me she does this little ceremony secretly to put the spirits of the ancient Native Americans to rest should the plan of the proposed pipe wander into one of their burial grounds. She’s kind of blossoming, working in the field. Being around all the wildlife seems to really enthrall her. The job is also convenient because it allows her to bring Munchy along with her instead of trying to get Bill and the girls to take care of him. She takes the job very seriously, and seems very happy; the female to male-with-ripped-torso ratio is also pretty good for women in Alaska. She will be in town in the fall when they can’t keep working up there, and I will hook you guys up.

Tomasso actually races Formula One cars. I left that part out of the book because it was such a huge part of his life that it would have gotten in the way of the plot, but he has won a few races and is doing well.

Big Marcus actually suffered a religious conversion. Nothing tacky and fundamentalist, but it was enough to freak his friends out seriously. I tend to think it was more of a rebellion against the milieu that he has such an ambivalent relationship with. At any rate, the conversion is over now, and he is an atheist again. He is still doing German translation over the Net, he’s moved over to Saint Phillip Street, and his new project is learning Arabic. But he still isn’t talking to me.

Doctor Indiri got through his residency. He now also owns a Norton Commando 850 and an Indian Chief with the big skirted fenders, both in cherry condition, and he is married to this hyperbolically Nordic yoga teacher named Sif Hrolfsen. She is like five inches taller than he is. They frequent sushi bars. You can’t miss them.

Sarge has been on this kick about the Yakuza being after him. He like tries to shake every time you run into him so he can examine your hands for missing fingers, and if you happen to be wearing long sleeves in the winter, he’ll run a hand up your arm to check for tattoos under there. So, when the Yak is not chasing him, he is burglarizing cars for junk money. He thinks car stereos are advanced cryptographic equipment.

Buster unfortunately has died of prostate cancer, but Aunt Mazzie weathered his death fine. Too well, really. She started going out with this kid before he was even dead, and didn’t hide it from him, but I guess she took care of him until the end, so what the hell. Her new boyfriend is this skinny nineteen-year-old motor jockey with a foot-long goat beard and a Mohawk, and she has gained thirty pounds at least.

Manny and Paulo are no longer together. Paulo and Jesus had to leave the country because of Toast. I had to go to Mexico until they left, though, because they were trying to hunt me down to kill me, but, as it worked out, they apparently don’t have enough reach to cause me any problems anymore. I’m very glad that mess is over, and Manny and Paulo really weren’t good for one another, anyway. Manny is out of the business, and has started running a very upscale gay escort and massage service specializing in the more dominant masseurs.

3:AM: Did you get any strong reactions from people who either recognized themselves in the book or thought they did?

RR: Nothing. Tania is still kind of pissed at me for revealing certain sexual things about her, but she has mostly gotten over it. We get along, and I really don’t feel any obsessive weirdness for her anymore. Those stalking accusations of hers were totally crazy. What happened was I was trying to clear up some things she said in an interview. I really needed to talk to her, but it was just about the book. I know I was kind of obsessed with her, but I seriously just needed to talk to her about the book at that point. I was just trying to interview her, but, you know, she totally overreacted.

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3:AM: We are doing this some time after the book’s release. Are you pleased with its reception so far? Any interesting experiences that have come to you from the book’s existance? Reviews you have especially enjoyed? New acquaintances?

RR: Having published a novel gives you a good excuse to be on the planet. If you are at a party, and a professional type asks you in some veiled way what your excuse for living is, there is always the fact that you published a novel. Rich lawyers claim they envy me, my freedom, and my creativity, but then they drive off in Jaguars with beautiful women. I was very pleased with the reviews from American Book Review and Booklist. They got it. Emails trickle in. I was especially pleased at finding out a professor at LSU Alexandria loved Toast and wanted to teach it one semester. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to get copies of it in large enough quantities at that point. There seem to be plenty now, though. I emailed the guy, and he said the kids next door to him told him he had to read Toast and gave him their copy. That was especially nice to have kids interested in it. The book is kind of about the sweet mental retardation of youth, or the borderlands thereof, so it is actually kind of rare to find kids who like it. It’s a little too close to home. I tend to get the most praise from people in their 70s or older.

3:AM: What are you working on now, with your writing?

RR: I am blogging politically under a pseudonym, and having a great time. I wrote a speculative fiction epic that nobody published. Now, I am working on a genuinely semi-autobiographical piece about love, growing up working in a sex toy shop in the Quarter, and taking LSD. There is also an unfinished one about a kid who comes unstuck from politics and drifts through many different groups of extremists. It’s funny stuff. I am also thinking about what to do with this novel I’ve been working on for years that is kind of an adaptation of the white buffalo woman myth of the plains Indians set in the electronica milieu. I am actually quite interested in sustainable building right now, and have put up a Web site called Cob Projects, so you can check out what I have been doing there. I am sure that will work its way into my fiction.

3:AM: Anything else you’d like to share with 3:AM readers?

RR: Anything? Okay, I will get on my soap box. I think everyone’s primary news source should now be the blogs. I recommend Media Matters, and I’m surprised to be recommending The Huffington Post. Arianna Huffington is a reformed Republican (which is not to say she is a Democrat) whom I have not disagreed with since her conversion, and she hosts a multitude of fine bloggers on her site. I think the mainstream of the Democratic Party could learn a few lessons from her. Pay attention to the rightwing blogs, too, since they have a lot to teach us about our weaknesses. We don’t have to accept weak leftwing orthodoxies any more than we have to tolerate rightwing ones. However, the networks and even the blogs can run around exposing the latest crimes of the Bushies all they like, but nothing will ever stop them until we outlaw insecure unauditable voting machines. They will steal every election from now until doomsday until we demand a voter-verifiable paper ballot. We have a right to legitimate elections, but we will have to fight for it now. Find out more at BlackBoxVoting.org. We are really in deep right now, and we all need to pitch in intelligently and with focus. Going to a protest does not necessarily do any good. Getting informed, however, and knowing the issues and the sources of one’s information can help one find the best application for one’s efforts. This bunch in Washington is much more brazen than Nixon’s gang, but if there’s anything this administration can’t stand, it’s a demand for an audit. Indictments would be good, too. That was my effort at ending on a positive note.

3:AM: Thank you very much, Rex. Cheers with something unlikely to lead to the Abbey bathroom. I’m very glad neither of us is toast.

RR: I might be a little toasty around the edges, but cheers to you, too, and say hi to Decatur Street for me.

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Photo by Michelle Roland

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Utahna Faith is flash fiction editor and North America editor for 3:AM. Her writing appears in The New Orleans Review, Exquisite Corpse, Thieves Jargon, the anthologies Flash Fiction Forward and The Edgier Waters, and elsewhere.

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Photo by Andrew Gallix

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 7th, 2007.