Queering the Craft: An Interview with Roan Parrish
Last December I opened up The Remaking of Corbin Wale on a whim. Its first sentence, "Alex Barrow liked bringing things to life," is a marvelous beginning. In Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, Calvino discusses the impossibility of ever writing a perfect story. Promising beginnings create a momentum that is difficult to maintain:
"I feel the thrill of a beginning that can be followed by multiple developments, inexhaustibly; I am convinced there is nothing better ... and I realize also that [writers] will never succeed in adding to [those] first words another seven or another twelve without breaking the spell."
Roan Parrish did something amazing: She created a book that never broke its own spell. Every turn of phrase and plot was lovely. At the time I thought it was a creative fluke; it would take me another two months to read my second Roan Parrish book. However, I soon realized it hadn't been an accident. Roan Parrish writes perfect books. (I wrote short thoughts on all of her books here.)
That is why I am so, so excited to interview Roan! Read on for her thoughtful responses, and don't forget to pick up Riven, her newest release.
H: Thank you so much for joining us today! To start off: What was the last great book you read?
R: I just read Dal Maclean’s Object of Desire, and it was amazing. It’s a kind of noir-inflected romantic suspense/mystery. It was moody and smart and hot. I have so much respect for authors who can balance multiple genres within one book. So, so good.
H: Which books/writers most nurtured your own storytelling?
R: I’m a magpie, really—I like to glean little bits and pieces from tons of different places. The most valuable thing I’ve learned as a magpie is that the things I deeply admire in other authors are often things that have no place in my own work; that just admiring them is enough.
The things that nurtured my storytelling most were probably books that I read when I was young that seemed like they were part of a whole world that was larger than what we saw on the page. Books whose lush detail or deep characterization continued to work their magic to keep me thinking about them long after I was done. Reading experiences like that made me want to write books that people might feel that similarly about.
One of the most nurturing things for me is having the realization, “Oh, I can do that!?” when I’m reading. No matter how many books I read, I never lose the delight of having a book do something that proves that we, as writers, really can do whatever we want. Which is a valuable lesson, especially in genre fiction, because although, yes, romance has certain conventions, there is so much room for innovation, surprise, and experimentation with those conventions.
H: I believe you come from an academic background. How did academic writing translate — or not translate — to fiction writing?
R: Yep, I do. This is a topic that’s really interesting to me because in some ways I see it as being about personal continuities. In the most basic sense, when I was doing academic writing, my writing was at times quite narrative, and when I was teaching, I found it very useful to use examples and stories to get points across. More importantly, though, academic work requires you to simultaneously pay close attention to detail and work with large, theoretical concepts, and I think fiction writing is similar. There are moments when I’m writing now and I realize that this tiny detail is actually the key to a much larger piece of the novel, and I can feel that it’s my brain doing the same associative work as it did when I was doing academic writing.
And, of course, the topics that fascinated me in my academic work—genre, politics, experimentation, aesthetics, the gothic/horror, radicality, hope—still fascinate me in my fiction. There is the sense in both academic pursuits and fictional ones that each project you undertake is just a new chance to try and hash out the weirdo shit you’re obsessed with and maybe move one step closer to understanding the world or yourself.
H: Your books interact very directly with what I’m going to call thematic props: the challah bread in The Remaking of Corbin Wale, the broken piano in Invitation to the Blues. Characters are often working on physical projects that are manifestations of internal conflicts. Do you consciously plan those aspects of your story before you begin writing, or do they appear organically?
R: Yeah, that’s true! Both, actually. Some I plan in advance and some appear organically. It’s a thing that I know I do, and I’m now sitting here trying to figure out why those kinds of physical manifestations are so important to me … beyond the ex-academic answer about symbolism of course.
Honestly, I think that the best answer I have is that … nothing much happens in my books, usually. When I’m writing contemporary romance, I’m not terribly concerned with external plot, just like as a reader I don’t enjoy or value plot for its own sake. I’m just far, far more interested in the dynamics that come from what’s going on inside characters’ heads and, as a result, among characters. So I use things like Jude fixing the broken piano in Invitation to the Blues as a built-in mechanism of forward momentum. Like, yeah, of course, the piano is a metaphor for Jude’s journey and how he has to tear things down to the ground before he can build it back up again. But that metaphor could be communicated in one sentence. Seeing the project of deconstruction and rebuilding running through the book gives it a kind of spine—a throughline—and demonstrates concrete progress.
H: Invitation to the Blues captures mental illness in a raw and real way, but it also takes place after Jude’s biggest spiral. Was choosing the starting point for the book difficult?
R: You know, if I’d been writing a book in a different genre, I think I would’ve started Jude’s story in another place. But since I was writing romance, I knew I wanted to begin after Jude had met Faron and was in a place where he could recognize Faron as someone he needed in his life. There’s always the appeal of beginning in the most dramatic place, for narrative reasons. But depression is its own drama (it spikes and ebbs based on its own tricky non-logic), and it can also flatten external drama. So I needed to begin in a place where Jude was feeling settled enough for a connection with Faron to be on the table, and mentally in a place where it wouldn’t simply be Faron’s job to get Jude to that place.
H: Your writing is full of astute observations. There’s a description of an annoying colleague in In the Middle of Somewhere that I have saved for moments when I’m dealing with a coworker of my own. Do you have craft techniques for digging deep into realism?
R: Haha, thank you! Step one of digging into realism is just paying attention in the real world, I think. Watching people, listening to them. I’m a creepy stare-er and eavesdropper. I really pay attention to the different ways people speak, to their gestures, to which traits go together harmoniously, which are in tension. I touch and smell everything because texture and scent fascinate me, so as I move through the world I’m collecting a large toolbox full of knowledge about random shit. It’s wild how deeply our environments inflect our writing. Like, I know what certain leaves feel like because I have touched and smelled those leaves because those trees grow in Philadelphia; when I go to write a sentence that uses leaves as a metaphor, those leaves are in my mind instead of other leaves, etc. Anyway.
Then, when I’m writing, it’s all about taking stuff out of that toolbox and deploying it from deep inside the perspective of whatever character I’m writing. So, one character would have a lot to say about those leaves, because she’s a person who notices trees, and another character would never think to mention leaves because who gives a crap about nature. Character is why I read and why I write, so these details are really important to me, and when a detail is out of step with what I’ve been told about the character, as a reader it rings false and pulls me out of the story. For example, the other day I was reading a book (not a romance) where the main character is a chef and at one point the author has the character think that she needs to look up a recipe for something very basic. And I was instantly like, “nope.” The chef character, as she’d been described so far, would never have the thought that she needed to look up a simple recipe; that just wasn’t written from within the character’s reality. And I know why the author did it—it was part of a kind of half-joke, half-segue paragraph that did other work. But it was really clear in that moment that the author had sacrificed characterological realism for an easy joke/transition.
So, yeah, if you know your character deeply then the details of their world become really clear. And while I usually write first drafts in a flurry, it’s something I’m very strict and unforgiving about in edits. It’s really easy for me to sneak in, so I try to be very rigorous about questioning whether that character would’ve noticed that thing in that way. I also read all my dialogue out loud like it’s a movie script to make sure that it sounds like a real conversation that those specific characters would have, while not being so naturalistic that people want to kill me. And it’s all about what you value more, of course. I’d rather use dialogue tags one million times than have characters say each other’s names in dialogue because for the most part people don’t say each other’s names in one-on-one conversation unless they’re trying to get you to join a cult or talk you out of murdering them.
H: Your characters so often seem to be not merely compatible but to “complete each other.” How much of your character design is deliberate? How much intuitive?
R: It’s mostly intuitive, I think? Probably because it’s my personal preference. I’m antisocial and easily irritated with people and hate dating and want to be alone approximately 97% of the time. So, personally, what it would take to make me choose someone else’s company over my own is SOUL MATE LEVEL MATCH because anything less feels like, “meh, or I could just stay home.” That attitude definitely seeps into my fiction, then, because those are the relationships I’m primarily interested in exploring. Maybe I have a similar “meh” feeling about writing them as I do about living them. It’s also really important to me to show that characters who have those kinds of relationships don’t have to get swallowed by them, either. So, I want my characters to get their soul mate level matches and still be their own people, still have their own lives and interests.
And the “we complete each other” vibe isn’t only in romantic relationships either. Almost all the friendships I write are similarly close and intense. Oh lord, what can I tell you: I like intense people and intense relationships. ☺
H: You wrote an essay in Bitch Media about writing m/f for the first time in Small Change, and I believe you’re coming out with an f/f release next October. Are you interested in writing more women narrators in the future?
R: I’m absolutely interested in writing more women narrators. In that essay I talk about how Ginger was something of a wake-up call for me in terms of understanding certain demands of the romance genre. I feel like I needed to learn those demands firsthand, so that going forward I can plan the ways I’ll resist them for myself. Yep, Avon Gale and I are coming out with Thrall this fall, which is our contemporary retelling of Dracula. It has two couples: Mina + Lucy and Arthur + Van Helsing. I also have another m/f series in the works, which I can’t talk about quite yet, but I will say that one of the books is about a woman who’s the lead singer of a metal band. :D
H: What can we look forward to reading from you?
R: Next up for me is my rock star series, which is really kind of an anti-rock star series. The first book is Riven, and it's out today. It’s the story of Theo Decker, a rock star who hates being famous, and Caleb Blake Whitman, a long-time musician who has cut himself off from the music business after rehab. I really loved writing Theo and Caleb—speaking to your question about realism, one thing I enjoyed about writing Riven was figuring out what each character’s relationship with music would be and then finding ways to write about music that expressed those individualities. Also, they’re just pretty damned adorable together.
The second book in the series, Rend, features Rhys, Caleb’s best friend and co-musician, and it’s an already-married story. Rhys and Matt have a deep connection and, after a whirlwind romance, get married. Things are going great, but Matt’s had a hard life, and when Rhys leaves to go on tour, all the old demons Matt thought he’d outrun come back to haunt him. When Rhys gets home from tour, he has to contend with learning that Matty isn’t exactly who he thought, and figure out how to move forward; how to rebuild their marriage. I’ll have more to say about the third in the series soon!
H: Thanks so much for stopping by, Roan!
Roan Parrish lives in Philadelphia where she is gradually attempting to write love stories in every genre.
When not writing, she can usually be found cutting her friends’ hair, meandering through whatever city she’s in while listening to torch songs and melodic death metal, or cooking overly elaborate meals. She loves bonfires, winter beaches, minor chord harmonies, and self-tattooing. One time she may or may not have baked a six-layer chocolate cake and then thrown it out the window in a fit of pique.
She is represented by Courtney Miller-Callihan of Handspun Literary Agency.
Liked this interview? Join us for the others!
Queering the Craft schedule
May 15: K.J. Charles, in celebration of the release of The Henchmen of Zenda
May 22: Jude Sierra, in celebration of the release of A Tiny Piece of Something Greater
May 29: Roan Parrish, in celebration of the release of Riven
June 5: Lola Keeley, in celebration of her f/f debut The Music and the Mirror
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