He got up and sat on the edge of the bedstead with his back to the window. “It’s better not to sleep at all,” he decided. There was a cold damp draught from the window, however; without getting up he drew the blanket over him and wrapped himself in it. He was not thinking of anything and did not want to think. But one image rose after another, incoherent scraps of thought without beginning or end passed through his mind. He sank into drowsiness. Perhaps the cold, or the dampness, or the dark, or the wind that howled under the window and tossed the trees roused a sort of persistent craving for the fantastic. He kept dwelling on images of flowers, he fancied a charming flower garden, a bright, warm, almost hot day, a holiday—Trinity day. A fine, sumptuous country cottage in the English taste overgrown with fragrant flowers, with flower beds going round the house; the porch, wreathed in climbers, was surrounded with beds of roses. A light, cool staircase, carpeted with rich rugs, was decorated with rare plants in china pots. He noticed particularly in the windows nosegays of tender, white, heavily fragrant narcissus bending over their bright, green, thick long stalks. He was reluctant to move away from them, but he went up the stairs and came into a large, high drawing-room and again everywhere—at the windows, the doors on to the balcony, and on the balcony itself—were flowers. The floors were strewn with freshly-cut fragrant hay, the windows were open, a fresh, cool, light air came into the room. The birds were chirruping under the window, and in the middle of the room, on a table covered with a white satin shroud, stood a coffin. The coffin was covered with white silk and edged with a thick white frill; wreaths of flowers surrounded it on all sides. Among the flowers lay a girl in a white muslin dress, with her arms crossed and pressed on her bosom, as though carved out of marble. But her loose fair hair was wet; there was a wreath of roses on her head. The stern and already rigid profile of her face looked as though chiselled of marble too, and the smile on her pale lips was full of an immense unchildish misery and sorrowful appeal. Svidrigaïlov knew that girl; there was no holy image, no burning candle beside the coffin; no sound of prayers: the girl had drowned herself. She was only fourteen, but her heart was broken. And she had destroyed herself, crushed by an insult that had appalled and amazed that childish soul, had smirched that angel purity with unmerited disgrace and torn from her a last scream of despair, unheeded and brutally disregarded, on a dark night in the cold and wet while the wind howled

Jim Roberts Wrestles with Difficult Fathers (Interview)

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I’ve been working as an editor with Jim Roberts for many years now, and it’s so wonderful for him to get the validation and honor of having his debut short story collection published by Belle Point Press. He’s truly a wonderful writer, full of wisdom and stories that surprise you, and I knew from reading his very first story that he was going to be successful.

His book “Of Fathers & Gods” comes out today, and you should definitely pick up a copy.

Here’s what I said about the book for a blurb:

“These are stories haunted by father figures, both present and passed, and by the many ways they’ve failed their children. Through stories about kidnapping, prosthesis creation, family secrets and mass shootings, Roberts never loses sight of the thumping, bleeding hearts of his characters, yearning for better lives. If you’re looking for the firm, no-nonsense truths of Flannery O’Connor and the raw, hardscrabble edge of Denis Johnson, this is your book. You would be wise to pick up a copy.”

Jim and I spoke over email for this interview:

I absolutely love the title for this collection. Can you tell us how you came up with it?

Since my book deals with fathers and how they relate (or don’t) to their children, the “Fathers” part of the title was self-evident.

As for the “Gods” part, that was inspired by the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, a story that deeply disturbed me the first time I heard it as young child. The story is always told from the POV of Abraham, but I can never stop thinking about it from poor Isaac’s POV, marched up a mountain by those he trusted as protectors and then finding himself under a knife wielded by not one but two fathers, his earthly father and God.

Also, a reference to Abraham and Issac plays a key role in the finale story of the collection titled “Late Fiction.”

Speaking of knives, they seem to pop up in my writing from time to time (see how many you can spot across the nine stories in the collection).

Look at the cover of Of Fathers & Gods for example. I had no hand in that design. Never said anything to anybody involved in the cover creation about knives. Knives just seem to materialize here and there as I write. Coincidence or deep subconscious? Or is there a difference?

What was the process like for writing these stories? 

About thirty-five years ago—yes, you heard that right, I’m old—against all reason and common sense, I started writing a novel. I’m still working on that same mofo. I use the phrase “working on” loosely.

Back then, I was absorbed into a career in the marketing research industry, working insane weekly hours and flying all over the U.S. and Europe, and I had two young sons at home. So, I’d often go months and sometimes years in between writing sessions. The first draft progressed at a sloth’s pace.

But here’s the good news. I never stopped thinking about it even if I wasn’t actively typing words into a PC. Thinking about the story arc. Strategizing. Envisioning scenes. And all that thinking about the novel threw off some valuable byproducts: lots and lots of ideas for short stories. Characters and situations I liked but didn’t belong in the novel.

As for physical process, I work best early in the morning. I roll out of bed and grab a drink and don’t let anything get between me and my keyboard and write until I burn out, usually about three hours.

Eat lunch, exercise, run errands in town, distract myself until about six p.m. Then read what I wrote that morning (I always edit on paper) and mark it up. Sometimes type revisions before bed, but otherwise make revisions the next morning. Rinse and repeat.

Oh, and I only work on one story at a time, although I might jot down a sidenote if something worthy pops into my head related to different story I have on my to-be-written list.

What stories didn’t fit into the collection, and why?

Okay, it’s true confession time. I did what writers are told not to do. I had nine stories and put every damn one of them in the collection.

My entire inventory at the time. Now, in my defense, they were all written with the same theme hovering over my head: the relationships between fathers and their children—the good, the bad, and the awful.

My age drives a lot of writing decisions. I had what I thought were nine good stories in hand. Might I have written some even better ones on this same theme in the future, and displaced one or two of the original nine? Sure, but when you’re within spitting distance of age seventy, you must take that word “future” very, very seriously.

As any writer in the trenches of seeking publication knows, the lead times in publishing are loooooong. Years to write, re-write, edit, re-write again, research publishers, submit, submit, submit, rejection, rejection, rejection. And if finally accepted, up to two more years before the publisher births the book out into the world. If you’re thirty, no biggie perhaps. If you’re seventy, you might miss the birth of that baby.

What was the process like in finding a publisher?

Long, time-sucking, tedious, frustrating grunt work. And that’s just the good parts.

I had several things working against me that had to be factored into a “how to get published” strategy. Forget the Big 5, or Big 4, or Big Whatever-they’re-called today. You need an agent for them, and paradoxically it’s more difficult to get an agent than a publisher. And no sane agent would want what I was offering: (agent thoughts are italicized):

  • A literary (low demand)
  • short story collection (seriously, nobody buys short stories)
  • from a completely unknown, unproven author (how many TikTok peeps you got?),
  • who is old (wait, is this guy gonna live long enough to create an ongoing revenue stream?).

So, I went after small, independent presses who don’t require an agent as intermediary. Untold hours surfing the web and reading “market book” listings of such presses, flagging the ones who accept short story collections but don’t have specific identity requirements such as “author must be a left-handed dentist born in the state of Iowa.”

I eventually built a spreadsheet with fifty potential small presses, then started submitting (a long, slow process customizing cover letters to each one and rejiggering the manuscript to meet various, unstandardized submission requirements).

As expected, the rejections started rolling in, but I kept submitting and eventually connected with a press whose mission fits perfectly with my fiction.

What advice do you have for authors seeking to publish their first collection of short stories?

Learn as much about the craft of writing fiction as you can. Got an MFA? Great. If not—and I don’t—then read some carefully selected craft books (I especially recommend ones that illustrate key lessons with real world examples) and attend some writing conferences that include craft lectures and workshops.

Try to get into a good writers’ group of no more than 4-5 writers. This is hard to do, because some writers’ groups and workshops can do more harm than good. If you don’t get good vibes after the “settling in” period, abandon ship and try another group. I was in 2 or 3 before I finally hit a great one.

The hallmarks of a great one are what I call “civil honesty” and camaraderie. You need people who will tactfully tell you your baby is ugly, or you’ve got spinach in your teeth. False praise or jealous nitpicking do no one any good. Try to develop a Jedi sense for determining which advice to take and which to ignore. It’s difficult to know and you’ll never get it 100% correct.

After arming yourself with great skills, write some killer stories and hire a good developmental editor, ideally someone with a lot of short story experience, to assess and critique your stores. Rework and then submit, submit, submit to lit mags and ignore all the rejections.

After a few are published, research “how to organize a short story collection,” (again, a developmental editor can be helpful with this part.) Now, at long last, you are ready to begin submitting your collection (or seeking an agent, if you decide to go that route). I sound like a broken record, but you must be psychologically prepared for a long, long, winding road and settle in for that odyssey.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what advice would you give?

Liquidate all savings and assets and buy Bitcoin the first day it becomes available.

Oh, you said writing self. Easy—read more and procrastinate less. Time is precious. Maybe you don’t hear the clock ticking when you’re thirty. But it ticks nonetheless.

When do you know a story is finished?

They’re never finished. Every time I revisit one that’s been published, I want to tweak or polish or change something somewhere. They’re like children, you can’t hold on to them forever.

There reaches a point where they must be released into the world. My wife and daughter-in-law are painters, and they tell me they feel the same about their paintings.

We worked on these stories together for several years — can you describe the experience from your end?

Excruciating hell. No, just kidding!

If I had to put it into one word, then the experience was educational. Highly educational. This is going to sound like hyperbole, but I’m serious when I say I learned more from your critique summaries and marginal notes on my stories than I learned from hours of reading craft books or attending craft lectures at writers’ conferences.

Why? Because I learned specific skills at the exact moment I could apply them to a work-in-progress. When that happens, it sinks in deeply.

What are your favorite literary journals?

Honestly, I’m not a consistent reader of literary journals. I read from them, but it’s infrequent and helter-skelter.

Because of time and money constraints, I prefer to read short stories from classic collections (such as Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, etc.) or from annual, curated collections such as Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize Winners, Best of the Net, Wigleaf 50, etc.

Can you recommend three short story collections that authors need to read? 

Only three?

  • Cathedral (Raymond Carver)
  • Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (Alice Munro)
  • and The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien).

If you had said “name five,” I’d add Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock and Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson.

I love every one of those collections! Great choices. What’s a craft book that every writer should read?

Although I’ve never read much of his fiction, Stephen King’s On Writing is fascinating and eye-opening regarding the “writing life” and many other issues.

And this may sound like pandering—but I swear on all that is holy it is not; it is my true opinion—The Linchpin Writer by John Matthew Fox.

Aw shucks, thank you.

Based on the subtitle, one might think it applies more to novels than short stories, but I found the advice, and especially the examples in Linchpin to be highly applicable to the craft of writing any type of fiction.

What are the main themes that keep coming up in your book?

The relationships between fathers and their children: the good, the bad and the awful. Parental actions have lifetime consequences.

It’s no secret fathers can be notorious missing pieces—whether missing physically or emotionally—and it is often the missing piece that weighs heaviest around the neck, a lost part of the puzzle that spells “love.” Drop the “e” from love and you can still sort of spell it. But it’s not the same.

What story was the most difficult to write, and why?

I’ll cite two stories that were difficult for me, for different reasons. The first is “The Jackshit Bastards,” the first “real” short story I ever wrote (and the only story I’ve ever written that was never rejected, having been accepted by the first literary journal where it was submitted).

It was also the first time I had worked with a developmental editor (John Matthew Fox). Although I had conceptualized a good story, I made a lot of executional mistakes, and a lot of rewriting was required. I rewrote some sections of it over a dozen times, and at times almost abandoned it because I didn’t think I’d ever get it right. I’m very proud of that one, because I persevered and pulled it off eventually, and because it is my wife’s favorite story from the collection.

The other difficult story was “Tender, Like My Heart,” because the father in that story shares many similarities with my own father (the only father in the entire collection to do so). In the story, Digger Shay—the father of the protagonist Tedi—dies from lung cancer, just like my dad. Tedi’s grief and anguish are drawn from my own personal experience, so yeah, that was hard to write. I will never read some of the scenes from that story at a public reading, because I can’t get through them without tears.

What’s your writing journey been like? 

Schitzephrenic, circuitous, and disjointed. I read Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man when I was eighteen or nineteen. Invisible Man didn’t just tell a story; it challenged conventions, shattered stereotypes, and dared to confront uncomfortable truths. By the time I reached that last page, I said, “I want to do this. I want to learn how to write fiction like this.”

In high school and even junior high the thought, the fantasy, of being a writer passed casually through my mind from time to time. But so did a lot of other half-baked ideas and daydreams about the future.

None of them really stuck until I read that book. When I finished the last paragraph, I was both exhilarated and terrified because I was convinced I could do it. I could write a good book of fiction. Nothing as great as what Ellison had accomplished. But something respectable. If Ellison was The Beatles, maybe I could do something akin to Badfinger. 

So, Invisible Man fell into my lap and turned me into an English Major. I was a star student of literature and writing. But it only lasted about three semesters before FSD set in. (Fear of Starving to Death). My wife and I came from humble backgrounds and had to beg, borrow, and steal our way through college. The prospect of walking away with a questionably valuable English degree into a future that was no different from my past, a future of scratching and pecking for dollars, scared me. “The FSD is strong in this one,” said Darth Vader.

Okay, if we’re going to continue the Star Wars analogy, I crossed over to the dark side and suppressed my desire to write for decades until I awoke recently to discover I’d grown old. When did that happen? I thought there would be plenty of time. Wrong.

I gave up an early passion for writing and instead spent my life successfully defeating FSD. And I’m glad I did because none of us, late in life, are the same as our nineteen-year-old selves. I certainly had the passion at age nineteen to be a good writer, but I didn’t have fifty plus years of my own experiences, and the experiences of others close around, to draw upon to craft interesting and compelling stories.

Which one of these stories — you can only pick one — would be the best one to be turned into a film, and who would play the main characters?

“The Jackshit Bastards” because I think it contains sufficient characterization, conflict, and other content to fill up two hours of screen time. Interestingly, this story was a finalist—along with “Tender, Like My Heart”—for the Screencraft Cinematic Short Story Award. So, there’s some evidence that others see at least a modicum of “film” potential in it. Actors?

The twins would be Jason Bateman and Laura Linney.

Oh, those are fantastic choices. I can totally see them in those roles.

Laura Linney’s character’s love interest would be Margot Robbie. And the father would have to be either Brian Cox (from Succession) or Pierce Brosnan.

Have you ever taken a literary pilgrimage?

Yes, but not intentionally. Our family was on vacation visiting Gettysburg and D.C. and we made a day trip to Baltimore. While there, pretty much on a whim, I decided to walk maybe a mile to pay homage at Edgar Allen Poe’s grave. We were at the Inner Harbor and no one else really wanted to do a long roundtrip walk to go to a cemetery.

I asked a street vendor about directions, showing him my map, and he advised me to maybe take a cab instead of walking through a dicey neighborhood. A rickshaw driver (bicycle rickshaw) overheard our conversation and offered a ride.

While I can’t prove it, I like to tell people I may be the only person, or at least one of the very few, who’s taken a rickshaw to Poe’s grave.

Turns out the rickshaw driver was an aspiring writer. Of course he was.

What are you working on next?

Two novels. One novel is finished and awaiting one last look by the developmental editor (that would be you, Mr. Fox).

For the other novel, I’m a half dozen chapters into the first draft, gathering feedback from my writers’ group now and then when I come up in the rotation. I have lots of notes for yet another piece, but I don’t yet know if it’s a novel, novella, or short story.

Finally, I’ve become enamored with flash fiction lately, and have three or four pieces ready to send out to lit mags, so down the road I might try to publish a collection of flash. But as I stated earlier, time is not on my side.

Want to hear God laugh? Tell Him your plans.

Jim Roberts is the author of the short story collection Of Fathers & Gods (Belle Point Press). His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and twice named to the finalist list for the Screencraft Cinematic Short Story Award. Short stories by Roberts have been published in Prime Number Magazine, Rappahannock Review, Snake Nation Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and ArLiJo-The Arlington Literary Journal.

His essay “Fiction is Trouble”—a hybrid personal and craft essay about the writing of Of Fathers & Gods—is forthcoming in Reckon Review, May 29, 2024.

Roberts was born in Amarillo, Texas but grew up in rural East Texas. After college, he lived and worked briefly in Houston before moving to Cincinnati, Ohio to pursue a business career. Now a full-time writer, he splits his time between Ohio and Texas, depending on whim, changes in the weather, or the beckoning of distant haints.

Find him on Facebook and Instagram and learn more about his writing and works-in-progress at www.jimrobertsfiction.com.

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