Interview with Tracy Koretsky
Novelist and poet Tracy Koretsky was interview by Wordgathering in February 2007 about her book Ropeless an unflinching look at various aspects of disability.
WG: What prompted you to write Ropeless?
TK: When I was fifteen, my life changed. I became a volunteer teacher's assistant at a school for people with intellectual disabilities. As a result, two things happened: I developed a passion for volunteering and a lifelong interest in the lives of people like the students I'd met. So when there was an item in the paper about a middle-aged man in Brooklyn who had never been outside of the immediate circle of his family, it caught my eye. Actually, the point of the article was to illuminate the difficulties New Yorkers were facing when trying to find housing for their family members with special needs, but that's not the part that stoked the furnace of my imagination. Rather, it was the mother who shaped in my mind. And she did not leave either. She continued to pace; it seemed she had a lot to say. For more than fifty years her son had been with her day in and day out. What was that like? Terrible and wonderful, I suspected. She must have given up so much, and in turn, was probably deeply and ineffably rewarded. Yet apparently, according to the article, all that would soon end. The implications of that -- the hope and new freedom, the loss and regret -- simply fascinated me. The result was a short story, well, sort of a long short story, in her voice. I called it Ida's Cookies and for a long time, that's where it stood.
WG: It is easy to see how you transitioned from Ida's Cookies to the opening section of Ropeless, since you begin the book in Ida's voice, but how did you decide upon structuring the book as you did in four interweaving voices and why did you choose the characters (i.e. points of view) that you chose?
TK: I would love to be able to answer that I considered all the ways I might structure Ropeless and, only after careful deliberation, arrived at my four first-person voice format, but that just wouldn't be true. The simple fact is that, like most first novelists, I was just feeling my way through. I had been writing stories for a long time, and immediately prior to Ropeless, stage plays. So the structure of Ropelesswas a natural evolution from those forms.
It's pretty easy to see why I picked Jody, Ida's daughter, as a one of my quartet. After all, she's really the one who makes everything happen in the book. I felt it was necessary to have someone else within the immediate family on-stage (and I do tend to think of them as "on-stage") to provide a sort of reality check of Ida's versions of events.
Next, I wanted a speaker like Deborah Steiner, the young social worker, for the very practical purpose of providing the reader with a variety of information that complicates and enriches the story, but that the main characters would never have known. Steiner enlarges the frame through which the reader can view the "problem" which allows them to participate in imagining a solution, which is, well, fun.
Enlarging is a key concept here, and explains my choice to create Danny, a passionate man with an excellent mind who relies upon his wheelchair. I give Danny a whole life, both a history and a rich current existence, paralleling his experiences to those of the Kochansky family. One of the most effective ways to enlarge, in my opinion, is to contrast. With Danny I am able to offer for the reader's consideration physical, as opposed to intellectual disabilities, assimilation, as opposed to isolation, as well as an entirely different spin on the necessity of legal rights for people with special needs.
WG: I would like to ask you a bit more about Jody, who, on my reading at least, really comes across as the central character in the story. I know you have said in the past that the book is not autobiographical, but is there an aspect of you as the author who identifies with her?
TK: Oh yes, Jody is most definitely the protagonist of the novel. Though I began my investigation of the family with a story about the mother, and tried to give all the major characters a complete narrative arc, it is the daughter who instigates all the action, including the resolution. I see Jody's trajectory as a traditional hero's journey.
That said, besides a certain tenacity of spirit, there isn't much Jody and I have in common. She was quite a bit older than I when I first wrote her. Her skill set, life experiences, physical appearance, and ways of communicating do not resemble mine. Particularly, her constellation of interpersonal relationships -- mother, brother, people at work -- is entirely different. What I do identify with -- and there is something I identify with in every character I write -- is that both Jody and I both grew up in families that had prolonged intractable difficulties; difficulties that were not caused by us and yet affected every facet of our lives. Like Jody, I learned not to need. For me, this translated as a kind of fierce self-reliance, whereas for Jody it developed into a lack of personal expectations. Jody denied herself the right to dream. As for me, I became my own boss, secretary, and marketing department, in other words, a novelist!
WG: What made you decide not to give an actual voice to Paul, the man with Down's Syndrome, in your book. I am thinking, of course, of how Faulkner did this with Benjy in The Sound and the Fury.
TK: Well, mostly because Ropeless is not about Paul. It is about Paul's family. The central conflict is between Jody and her mother on one level, and on another, between Jody and herself. Ropelessis not a book about the difficulties of finding continual assisted care; it is a book about hopes and expectations and how they are affected by disability, our own and especially those of family members.
Now one might argue that The Sound and the Fury was not about Benjy, but rather about the decline of the Compton family. Well perhaps, but when asked what one remembers of the book -- indeed, for many readers, when asked what they remember of the entire oeuvre of William Faulkner -- the response would most likely be Benjy. Reading Benjy is an unforgettable, wholly unique, literary experience. His narration is so complex that Faulkner devotes the rest of novel to sorting it out. This paralleling strategy (which I've often heard called the Rashomon structure,) is a fascinating way to color and nuance the truth, but not an ideal choice for propelling a narrative forward, and forward was the direction I intended my characters to go.
But I digress. I chose not to give Paul Kochansky a voice because I felt that, like Benjy, he might well "steal the show." Paul had been stealing the show from his sister Jody her whole life. Now it was her turn.
Besides, we have Benjy. Faulkner has already given us this gift. What we did not have was Danny. What we did not have was a man asking to be regarded as a man, despite the fact that his eye level might come to under four feet. To my knowledge the sexual quest of an adult of either sex with a physical disability had never been written. I chose this uncharted terrain instead.
WG: Tracy, I'd like to shift gears a bit and move from the discussion of craft to something a bit more political. Did living in Berkeley, the hub of the Independent Living Movement, have any impact on the writing of Ropeless? What is your sense of how your book been received generally by advocates of independent living?
TK: Ropeless was mostly written prior to my moving to Berkeley and soon enough after, that the culture of this vibrant community had not yet become evident to me.
Almost all -- no let me correct that -- all of the feedback I have received from professionals and families has concerned people with intellectual disabilities. That said, the response has truly astonished me! Social workers and academics have instigated mass mailings to their colleagues recommending the book, run items in their newsletters, and purchased multiple copies for the lending libraries of their organizations. As for the families, they have engaged me in deeply moving email correspondences. These mean the world to me; they are telling me that I got it at least a little bit right, that I imagined and conveyed the emotional truths in all their complexity. When I think about all this, about readers who have taken the time to write to an author they've never met, I am ... well, I get quite emotional. Bringing out Ropeless was an experiment. I can't tell you how glad I am to have done it.
WG: I'd also like to explore a related question. Simi Linton's phrase, "nothing about us without us" has become something of a mantra for the Disabilities Studies movement. The point, of course, is that people with disabilities should be telling their own stories and not having them told by others. You've already made the point that Ropeless is about Paul's family and not, Paul, per se, but I would still like to get your reaction as a writer to the implication of Linton's statement for yourself and other writers.
TK: Ropeless, and for that matter, my other novels and stories, are works of fiction (though I do write autobiographical poetry sometimes). Sure, there are fiction writers, many of them superb, who produce thinly-veiled versions of their own lives, but that's not the kind of writer I am. I work from my imagination which I stoke with research. I'm also sure that to some writers, the accuracy of the research is paramount. They develop characters and plots to suit their scrupulously rendered worlds. I'm not that kind of a writer either. I'm mostly interested in the interiors of my characters, in inhabiting them, exploring all the edges and depths, and conveying them credibly to readers. I think there's room for all of these kinds of writing, all of these and more. I cannot accept that there should be limits to where my imagination may roam, to whom my empathy -- because my fictive process is empathy -- should extend.
WG: One of the major contentions of writers with disabilities who see themselves as representing a political minority (Anne Finger, in fiction, for example) is that their own experiences gives them a kind of authority about the subject that a non-disabled person cannot have. I guess the analogy would be to other to the kind of authority that an African American or lesbian writer would have in their writings.
TK: Well, let me begin by saying that in my second novel, The Body of Helen, there is a major character who is lesbian and the lead of one of my full-length plays is an African-American man. Ditto for characters featured in several of my short stories.
I would agree that "authority" is an important quality in realistic fiction; readers quickly grow impatient when their credulity is stretched. So creating the semblance of authority when one does not come by it natively is part of the artistry, and not at all an easy part either. A necessary one though, if we are ever going write effectively about any person, locale, or vocation that we have not ourselves experienced. I think one of the keys is to remember that no one is just "lesbian," or "African-American," or "a southerner," or "a lawyer." Not every thought or motivation that a character with a disability has stems from that disability. To portray someone in that way would, indeed, be to objectify him or her. But to forge ahead and portray someone who is different from oneself is to discover the essential humanity you have in common. To express that commonality, to convey it credibly, is to revel in the experiences we all share: love, hope, fear, mortality.
WG: I'd like to return for a minute to the way in which you developed the voices of the characters in Ropeless. One of the really great features of the book is that a reader can turn to almost any page in the book and know just exactly who the speaker is by the style and language you use. I think it could almost serve as a clinic on how to develop voice in characters. Can you talk for a moment about the actual process of developing the character's distinctive speaking style…what advice would you have for beginning writers whose characters all sound the same?
First, let me thank you, Mike. That's a lovely compliment about something that I worked very hard to achieve. It's true that how a character speaks conveys volumes about them. Fancy ten dollar words or hip slang, elegant parallel structures or uneasy staccato rhythms, even how voluble or terse a person is, provides the reader with a wealth of insights that are "shown" and not "told" by the author. So when a writer chooses to present a full novel in first-person voices, you had better believe, a lot of ground work goes into developing those voices.
With my character Ida, I chose a heavily Yiddish-inflected diction. This reminds the reader every time she opens her mouth that she never left the narrow ethnic enclave in which she was raised. Especially by contrasting Ida's voice with Sarah's, a neighborhood woman of a similar age who uses no distinctly ethnic phrasing, I underscore Ida's central thematic concept: that her life experience was radically limited by the choices she made in raising her son, Paul.
Fortunately, Yiddish-inflected English is a joy to write! It is closely associated within our culture with the very sound of humor. For much of the 20th century, including early television, "Borscht-Belt" comedians shaped the nation's expectations for how a joke ought to be delivered. As a result, a person who speaks this way is expected to be joking! Even at their most serious or banal, they will be met by many Americans with a smile. It's quite an interesting phenomena, actually, and one I put to hard work in Ropeless. Ida is a difficult, intransigent, and frankly, seething person. She'd be pretty hard for a reader to take if not served with a light tossing of confectioner's sugar. More than that, Ida would not have been able to take herself! Her own humor kept her going, kept her company, and kept her sane.
To create Ida, I relied on a wonderful book: Leo Rosten's, The Joy of Yiddish. To create Jody, I reached for its companion, The Joys of Yinglish, in which he explores how the language has assimilated. My point was to convey Jody as a somewhat stunted evolution of Ida. For example, unlike her mother, a professional artisan baker, Jody carefully follows recipes when she's not just microwaving something out of a box. Linguistically, this plays out as Jody rehearsing and refining her "stand-up" routines, even her one-liners, contrasted with Ida's long dramatic epics and off-the-cuff zingers. Also, thanks to Hollywood, the sound of Brooklyn, like the sound of Borscht-belt comedy, is simply imprinted in our collective culture. It was easy to add it to Jody's mix.
With Danny's very first words in the book: "Dear reader," I vary the overall mix by bringing in an entirely new kind of voice: a written one (as opposed to oral.) This underscores Danny's function in the book. He is there to guide, to take everyone, readers and characters alike, to someplace they have never been and help them comprehend.
The particular literary style I've constructed for Danny emanates directly from his character. He tells us that, after his childhood spinal injury, he was no longer able to attend public school because it was not wheelchair accessible. So, Danny's parents found a Yeshiva (a Jewish parochial school) that he could navigate. Each day he studied Torah, but unlike his peers, he viewed it from the perspective of a secular Jew. It was a piece of literature to him. A piece of literature, moreover, that has a particular rhythm. Yeshiva students exploit that rhythm as an aid to memory. They are taught to sway forward and back in their chairs as they read, emphasizing the predominately dactylic metre of the text. With practice, I was able to sway in this manner as I composed, thus giving Danny a distinct, frequently metered, sound.
Finally, with Deborah Steiner, the other written voice in the book, I sought to foil Danny, to contrast his emotion with her reason. Like Danny, Deborah has a great deal of information to convey, some of it a bit dry. I wanted to find a way elegant enough that the reader would not be tempted to gloss. I reached for a style reminiscent of the essayist, specifically the Enlightenment essayist of the 19th century. These were writers whose great curiosity about nature and science led them to catalog and analyze, but in doing so, to miss the greater issues of ecosystem interaction, not to mention simple appreciation of diversity and acceptance of nature as it is. In fact, I would be hard pressed to state Deborah Steiner's overall thematic concept more aptly than that.Throughout this response I have used words like "choice" and "create", even, "add to the mix." I mean absolutely to imply that voice is a constructed thing. It's not just about imagining who the characters are then getting out of the way and allowing them to be themselves, though it's partly about that. At some point I did actually brainstorm a list of attributes for each voice, from their large thematic functions right down to filigree. For example, I probably wrote the suffix "schmancy" (as in fancy-schmancy) on both Ida's and Jody's lists. After working with them a while -- and by this I mean both out loud and on the page -- a character inevitably makes a statement or even a small speech that just sort of nails it -- gives you precisely the sound you'd intended. I recopied these speeches, even memorized them. They became the character's "anchor" and whether I was ready to compose more in that voice or act it on a stage, I could "find" the music of it again by repeating this anchor in my head. That said, writing is, of course, revision. If the process weren't interactive and malleable, it wouldn't be surprising. If it weren't surprising, it wouldn't be fun. And, oh my, it is.
WG: Inasmuch as many of the readers of Wordgathering have physical disabilities of one kind or another, I'd be remiss in not asking you about Danny, who is a main character in your book and a wheelchair user. Two things in particular stand out about Danny - the first, which you've already talked about, is his creative use of language. Danny is a poet in fact, if not in profession. The other is his very obvious sexuality. I'd like to quote from one passage near the end of the book that is written in Danny's voice. This is from page 284.
And then she sighs. And what a sigh. Her whole body seems to give…She leans against the counter, starring down. "I'm beat," she says.
This is a passage that can't help but resonate very strongly with many of wheelchair users. Will you elaborate a bit on what went into the development of this passage and similar ones in the book that deal with Danny's sexuality.
TK: Danny's plot -- which may be said to be a "quest" for a mature and abiding love, including its sexual expression -- is a response to what I saw as a tendency in novels and movies to define people who use wheelchairs by those wheelchairs. In general, when a person with any sort of physical disability is portrayed, their "quest" is to overcome that disability. That, or to achieve some rousing athletic accomplishment, which, in my opinion, is just another way of defining the character by his or her disability. More disturbingly, I also found numerous examples of victims or objects of pathos. Where were the depictions of whole, fully-developed characters with rich, vital lives, who happen to use wheelchairs?
I wanted to challenge readers to think about people who use wheelchairs in new ways. I wanted to startle them into questioning their prejudices, even their subconscious ones. I knew that to do this I would have to go where angels fear to tread.
Before writing Danny, I had never written explicitly sexual scenes. It was important to me that they not be gratuitous. In other words, they needed to deepen the character and expand the theme. For guidance, I looked to John Updike, whom I consider to be the master of tasteful, psychologically revealing, yet explicitly sexual fiction. I also needed some straight forward education. I can't remember where I first came across a citation for Sexual Options for Paraplegics and Quadriplegics by Mooney, Cole and Chilgren -- the Internet, no doubt -- but my search for it lasted more than a year. Every library in several cities, including those with collections specializing in sexuality, told the same story. Multiple copies had been purchased; multiple copies had been stolen. Finally a librarian from the New York Public Library was able to borrow the book on interlibrary loan from a hospital collection with the condition that I use it in the reading room. The book I was handed was a well-worn paperback full of large black and white photos accompanied by dry, academic text which could be easily read in less than an hour. It discussed obstacles and alternatives in a plainspoken yet dignified style. It moved me deeply. Simply by its rarity, and also by the demonstrated need of its readers to own it, I understood that this was something that deserved to be talked about, and not just plainly and with dignity, but with drama, with "sexiness" if you will, with humanity -- with passion.
So my job, beyond that research, was to open myself, and to make available my humanity and passion. I don't know how else to put it. I don't know how to explain why I wrote the scene you quoted above the way I did, except to tell you that Danny wrote it. I set up the situation: Danny can steal only a few moments with Jody, whom he has just met that evening. He has a pretty good idea why she has come home and knows she will soon have a lot on her mind other than him. He needs to work fast. That's all I did. The rest was up to Danny. After all, he was the one with the lifetime of experience behind him, not me. And if that sounds strange, than all I can say is, it's not stranger than fiction!
WG: Tracy, I've enjoyed our interview and I think is a perfect place to stop because you raise a lot of points that provide grist for other writers to explore - and it is rather fun to leave things up in the air. Before ending, though, I'd like to give you a chance to add anything else you'd like to say that we may have passed over.
TK: Mostly I'd like to thank you and Wordgathering for such engaging and substantive questions. It's truly been a pleasure to answer them. After all, that's what writing's really about, isn't it? Inviting a conversation. Reaching out with your mind, hoping to meet other minds, and if you're really lucky, hearing some response. And in that spirit, I would like to invite more questions or comments on this interview or on Ropeless. Just go the website and click on "contact author." I always respond to these. In fact, nothing pleases me more than corresponding with readers. I've tried to make the website a fun place to go by putting up some audio files of me reading chapters. What? You think I can't make myself sound like Ida? Feh!
Ropelessis only available from through the website. Readers who wish to contact Tracy Koretsky can do so at www.readropeless.com. You can also read her poem "A Gift of Balloons" in the poetry section of this issue of Wordgathering.