Haunted: A Conversation with Rob Roberge

IN THE TROUBLE WITH BEING BORN, aphorist E.M. Cioran declared: “Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.” If any recent book embodies the spirit of the famously tormented and oversharing Rumanian, it would have to be Liar, by California novelist, musician, and now memoirist, Rob Roberge.

In writing that manages to be both beautiful and desperate, devastating and (occasionally) hysterical, the author engages the reader in his own ticking-clock struggle to get down the most unconfide-able memories of his life before his overly concussed and drug-addled brain deteriorates to the point where he can’t remember anything — a possibility, we learn, indicated by doctors who have scanned the author’s brain.

Rob Roberge — a name so cool it sounds like a French aftershave — would be the first to tell you he was a fuckup for much of his life. A description, for better or worse, with which I can heartily relate — and one reason I was more than gratified when LARB asked me to interview him. I’m a fan of fuckups, and a sucker for survivors. Think Fred Exley, think Malcolm Lowry, think — well, you’ll probably have half a dozen stellar creators-of-their-own-nightmares of your own.

It’s a harsh fact that some of these authors don’t survive much longer than the time it takes to write their books. But the good news, in the case of the eternally suicide-ideating subject of this interview, is that he’s still here, and his scorching honesty, much to his and this reader’s surprise, seems to have revivified rather than doomed him.

And yes, what I’m trying to say is, Liar just may be the feel-good memoir of our generation.

That out of the way, here is my conversation with Rob Roberge.


JERRY STAHL: Did you keep journals when you were going through what you were going through and lift from them as you put together the book? Or did you sit down and dredge up memories?

ROB ROBERGE: I’ve never kept journals in my life. It might be a good idea. But I’ve never recorded the events of my days as they are happening. I have a writing notebook, where I will jot down ideas and things like that. And I ended up using it a lot for Liar. One memory sort of flowed into another while I was working on the book … so I would kind of have a shorthand to myself in my notebook, like “weird brothers in Humboldt,” and I would know what scene I meant to write from that.

For me, a lot of drug use was about obliterating awareness. I couldn’t stand remembering the things I’d done, and it wasn’t enough to block out the memory; I had to destroy my mind. Creating this book feels like it must have been the exact opposite process. Was there ever a point (and I may be projecting here) where you just stopped and said, “I can’t do this …”?

Yeah, there were a few times that happened. Where I just felt like, “I don’t want to go there/remember/share that,” you know? Some of those gaps my editor caught. I thought I could sneak by him, but he would ask, “Why isn’t there more of this or that?” and I knew I would have to go back and do it. He didn’t know the specifics of what I was trying to avoid, but I guess he kind of felt the absence of certain threads I hadn’t had the nerve to get to. But what made me keep going in the writing of the book (before it sold) was one person who reads all my work first (the writer/editor Gina Frangello) — she kept insisting I had a book here (when I often didn’t think I did) and that I should push through and trust I could/would do it. I wouldn’t have had the guts to finish it without her help.

But I also think those moments where I stopped and said “I can’t do this” were the scenes, maybe, that needed to be written most of all. When I was really embarrassed or scared of putting something in the book, I’d realize that I had to write those scenes, if that makes any sense. But yeah, I really didn’t want to go back to certain memories. Things I would rather never think of again.

Because you seem to say absolutely everything there is to say about yourself, are there things you held back? Stories you still won’t — or can’t — tell? How much of writing for you is about writing — and how much is about transcending any shame you might feel about the things you’re saying?

There were things I held back, yes. Sometimes for my own reasons of privacy (though there is a lot in there that can no longer be private) — sometimes out of respect for other people’s privacy. And then, beyond privacy, there was one scene I couldn’t write no matter how hard I tried. It was too much. I failed there, but I just couldn’t do it with one scene I thought should maybe be in the book.

I think when I’m first working on a project, it’s about the writing for me. The shame probably enters in more when I’m revising and I think, “Fuck, I can’t put this in here.” But I’m not sure I have transcended shame. I’m still ashamed by a lot of what I put in the book. Not healthy, but true.

There’s one line of yours I wish I’d written — and one I definitely felt deep down writing my own memoir: “Shame is an endless white noise of pain in your head.” How do you reconcile the drive to get your life down, honestly, with the kind of shame that seems to haunt you?

It wasn’t so much of a narrative choice — getting things down truthfully. It was more of a litmus test for me in some ways. It seemed like it would make the book dishonest if I didn’t include all the things that still haunt me. Paul Auster once said that, on some level, every story is a ghost story. If your character isn’t haunted by something, they probably are not a good subject for a story. So it seemed only natural, from a craft standpoint, that I had to include all that shame. But it doesn’t make it easier now that the book’s coming out. I’m kind of horrified of people reading the stuff that haunts me. I guess I chose the book over my own feelings.

You talked at one point about learning to write again without opiates. Having done a little research in that arena myself, I was wondering if you can describe what that process is like for any civilians in the audience. The difference between writing high and writing on the natch.

I have addict friends in recovery who used to write a lot while high or drunk or loaded. But with me and opiates, the opiates would pretty much dominate the whole day. Getting them or using them took most of my effort. I didn’t end up writing very much. I used to be able to write drunk — probably not that well. But on opiates I was not very productive at all. So the biggest difference is that I actually get some work done when I’m writing clean.

Well, there’s that … On another front, you talk a bit about your predilection for being a sub, for having pain inflicted on you, and for using pain as a way of tolerating your existence. Your book might reasonably have been subtitled: A History of Unendurable Moments. On some level, it might be said that you arranged for the world to hurt you. Is there a correlation between wanting to be hurt and living a life that hurts? In other words, how (if at all) does being a pain sub impact your writing?

That’s a really interesting way of putting it: wanting to be hurt and living a life that hurts. Maybe wanting to be hurt is a way to at least temporarily control the pain life sends our way? I’m not sure.

I don’t know that it impacts my writing directly, but I fall into a similar state of mind when experiencing pain or writing. They’re both a place for me of not thinking, of being totally in the moment. I’m not very good for myself or anyone else if I’m stuck in my head thinking for too long. I did three triathlons about 10 years ago — before my relapse. And that was another place where pushing the body to some extreme became a way to not think. And, of course, to release endorphins (which pain does) as well. But … if I don’t find those places where I’m in the moment and not thinking, I will just sit around regretting the past and dreading the future and not be able to be present in the moment at all. I’m not sure I actually answered the question.

I think you more than answered it. In fact, your response made me think of a sentence I circled in your book: “You realize you miss drugs a lot more than you miss who and what you used to be when you were on them.” This may be one of the most profound and articulate insights into addiction that I’ve ever seen. You hate what it feels like to be who you are so you take drugs, but you hate who you turn into when you take the drugs. This would seem to leave you no place on earth where you can be — so, my question: to what extent can writing be that place?

I guess it connects to the last answer: writing is a space for me where I’m kind of too deep in the moment to torment myself with self-loathing and guilt and things like that. I feel better when I’m writing than I do most other times (when it’s going well, anyway). And I feel better for having written on any particular day.

But, yes. You put it really well. The vicious cycle of drugs you mention above does seem to leave no place on earth where you can be. Writing is a place that works for me. There honestly aren’t that many places that do, but writing is one. I should do it more than I do.

I’ve always felt that, if done right, writing a memoir is like performing an autopsy while the patient is still alive — and then I came across your conversation with the doctor who tells you you may have a post-concussion syndrome, or CTE: “A condition they cannot diagnose until they perform an autopsy.” How did the fact that you are staring down the barrel of possible early dementia and complete memory loss impact the book? Is that the reason you wrote it, or is that an oversimplification? And how does that sword-of-Damocles diagnosis affect your life these days?

In a way, I still don’t know why I wrote it. There were times (many, many of them) when I would just think “Who the fuck wants to read about me for 240 pages,” you know? But the memory loss is a deep fear of mine. The diagnosis scares me when I think about it. But then I try to remind myself that it’s not anything close to a certainty I will have early dementia. I just have higher odds of it than someone who hasn’t banged up their head so much. So I try not to get too carried away with fear.

“[Y]ou finally grasp that it is not at all cool or romantic to be the drowning man who makes others, repeatedly, decide to go down with him […]” This is such a soul-crushing and hard-earned truth (one of a dozen in the book that literally made me stop, put the thing down, and avoid mirrors the rest of the day). Telling the story you tell, you do ask the reader to come drown with you — more than that, you’re making them want to … It’s a task most writers never have to set themselves. Was there, as you were writing, a sense of confession as catharsis — as baring your soul so you could stop hanging on to the lies that made you go through life with secrets?

Yes. That wasn’t one of my goals. Nor was it something I anticipated. But it happened.

I was really clueless in some ways when it came to memoir-writing. I really didn’t think writing a memoir would be that much different from writing a novel — they’re both just long forms of narrative, right? I thought they would be the same, more or less. But I was very, very wrong. And I think a place where I was really wrong was in this area — unloading a bunch of things I’ve kept secret for a lot of years. It felt very much like I was confessing. And — I don’t know if this was true for you — it’s a pretty uncomfortable feeling. But I think once you set out to do a memoir, part of it is all about letting go of some deep, troubling secrets, or you probably haven’t done your job.

The late Hubert Selby Jr. once suggested that an addict’s true addiction was to lying — ostensibly for survival, but, in a deeper way, because they just don’t feel they are enough for the world. (Or, as Dylan Thomas’s wife once remarked, famously, about her husband: the man would lie about what he had for breakfast …) Somewhere you say you’ve changed stories so much that you can’t remember what really happened. My line was always, when confronted, “Well, yeah, but it’s emotionally true …” Can you talk about the relationship between lying and memoir — or lying and your memoir?

Yeah, I go with the line that “it’s emotionally true” a lot, too. It’s an important distinction that I’m not sure is ever really clear to non-writers. I could be wrong.

There a great section in Tim O’Brien’s How to Tell a True War Story where he makes the distinction between how you can render something that actually happened and have it be false in the telling, and how you can make something up that is a true story (again, emotionally true). I tried not to lie in the book — and tried to call myself out on lies I’ve told before. But, yeah — it’s not lying to me exactly, but some stories we tell change over the course of years. You refine them. You revise them so they work better. And sometimes the original “true” story may have morphed over time to become both emotionally true and, hopefully, a better story.

It’s also just part of storytelling, maybe. Pam Houston writes really autobiographical fiction, and she says her fiction is 80 percent true and 20 percent made-up. And then she said that in her memoirs the numbers were the same.

I love that. It reminds me of one of the more cringingly honest beats in the book, where you get to meet some sideshow acts in Sarasota — “Alligator Man” and “the World’s Smallest Woman.” Is there a way in which, writing a book like this, you become a sideshow act yourself? Or have you always kind of felt that way? Speaking as someone who marched out his own upbeat and freakazoidal life for public consumption, is there a certain relief in spilling your own beans?

I know the feeling of always feeling like a fuckup. Or never feeling like I fit in. But in writing this book, I guess I may feel like more of a sideshow act than before. There’s not fitting in and then there’s being a freak … and I think I will come off as a freak to some readers. There is both a certain relief in spilling my own beans, and a great deal of fear. I don’t know if that makes any sense. I feel good to have gotten the stuff out. But I don’t know if I’m totally emotionally prepared for people to actually read it and know some of this stuff about me.

So was there any moment in the writing where you surprised yourself? Some truth that blindsided you?

Oh yeah. This ties into what you asked earlier about hitting moments in the book where I felt like “I can’t write this/go there.” Usually those moments that scared me the most to write, the most uncomfortable ones, were the moments where I would be surprised.

Right. I once interviewed Bruce Jay Friedman, one of my favorite novelists, and asked him if he had any advice about writing, and he didn’t hesitate: “If you write a sentence that makes you squirm, keep going …”

Ha! That’s it. If I don’t get surprised by what I’m writing, I figure I’m doing something wrong. It’s an exploration for me — so I tend to discover a lot as I go. I never write with an outline or much of a plan. So I get blindsided a lot.

Why should writing be any different than life? That said, are there books you’ve read that spoke to you, or kept you going, in your life? Books that may have inspired you as you were writing this one?

A ton. I think we read (or I do, anyway) to feel less alone in the world. To have someone express some feeling I’ve had that I’ve never been able to articulate. There are some foundational books that I return to and reread: Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son; Gatsby; early Amy Hempel stories. Lorrie Moore. Those are some writers I return to when I can’t find anything new that’s speaking to me.

As far as books that inspired me as I was writing this one … Well, it’s hard not to sound like an ass-kiss or an idiot, but it’s true: Permanent Midnight was a book that showed me what a memoir could do — it spoke to me in a huge way. And its ruthless honesty — and sense of humor — were models for what I was trying to do. James Brown’s The Los Angeles Diaries and This River both really moved me and, like yours, set the bar pretty high.

I’m a huge fan of James Brown as well.

And there were less obvious influences, but still huge ones. I got the idea for the structure of the book (whether it works or not) from David Markson’s later novels. Maybe This Is Not a Novel was the most influential of his. And I read more memoir when I worked on this than I normally do when I’m working on fiction, and I discovered Sarah Manguso, who I think is pretty great. The Guardians inspired me a lot. Not because her book is anything like mine. But it was so good and made me want to read everything she’s written. That was a book that really moved and inspired me. It was one of those books I talked about before — the kind that make me feel less alone in the world. Those are the books that I come back to. Those are the ones that inspire me.

You write in the book about how for much of your life you romanticized being a fuckup. Where do you think the idea that being a fuckup is cool comes from?

For me, it was just how many cool people were fuckups in some way. People who didn’t fit into mainstream culture. Like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Keith Richards, and Johnny Thunders, just to name a few. I think I looked at it backwards. That being a fuckup was some prerequisite for being cool. I didn’t take into account how many bankers and Wall Street traders — not to mention homeless people and the like — were addicts. There was this notion that the Straight World was one that was so alien to me, I could never understand it. And the people I looked up to were all, in my eyes, romantic and cool. Of course, the lifestyle killed people like Parker and Thunders (and Hank Williams … The list could go on forever).

Exactly. All my heroes were junkies. But what I didn’t realize, until I got there, was that Keith Richards wasn’t going to be there, tamping my brow with a hot towel, while I was kicking.

Right. And as I got older, I realized addiction wasn’t good for their art — in fact, it was bad. No one — none of the people above, and not, say, James Baldwin or Truman Capote — did their best work when they were deep in drugs and alcohol.

Then, there’s probably something at the root of addiction that it was a way, paradoxically, for me to fit in when I was younger. It gave me a role, as it were. It lowered people’s expectations and allowed for me to take less responsibility for my actions. It was, on a personal level, both a coping mechanism and an excuse. But I couldn’t see that for a lot of years.

Well, you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t go there. Speaking of which, randomly — or seemingly randomly — throughout the book, you make brief mention of famous people who committed suicide. When I interviewed Bowie years ago, I asked him about “Always Crashing In the Same Car,” and he told me about being coked out and super depressed, and driving as fast as he could around this underground parking lot in Berlin, hoping he would run into a pillar. (“I was going round and round the hotel garage / Must have been touching close to 94 […]”) It’s heartening to know that even your heroes struggle. Depressing to think how many — from Woolf to Wallace — follow through. (Though, to be honest, some days I’m just as surprised that more people don’t.) That in mind, talk about your relationship to suicide, and what you were thinking when you decided to include these mini-obituaries.

What I was thinking when I included the mini-obituaries (and some of the other “outside” texts) was that I wanted the book to read as a sort of structural mimesis of the way my brain works — digressing, jumping from topic to topic, allowing space in the narrative for things that I think about a lot. Whether it’s successful or not, I don’t know. It’s kind of an impossible task to accurately render the way a brain works. It would be a 2,000-page mess. But I guess I wanted to give some sense of that — and I hope that a little went a long way to showing.

But suicide. That’s kind of a tough one. Where I am now, in this moment, I think of it as something I wouldn’t do. Because it would only leave bigger problems for everyone who loves me. When it starts to feel attractive, I have to think of it as selfish.

The blood always sprays on the living.

Right. That’s not a judgment on anyone else’s decision. But it’s what has held me back thus far when I’m close to that edge. I’ve known a lot of suicides and I have seen the damage they leave behind. So far, my sense of empathy has trumped whatever pain I might be experiencing. And I hope it stays that way.


Jerry Stahl’s nine books include the novels I, Fatty and Pain Killers, and the memoir Permanent Midnight. His journalism & criticism have appeared in The Believer, BookForum, and The New York Times, among other places. Recent credits include the HBO film Hemingway & Gellhorn, and he is consulting producer and writer on the IFC series Maron. Stahl co-wrote (with director Jeff Feuerzeig) the upcoming Liev Schreiber/Naomi Watts movie, The Bleeder.