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An Interview with
Bruce Holland Rogers

by Carl O Roach

Bruce Holland Rogers: Short Stories, Volume 1When offered an opportunity to interview Bruce Holland Rogers, the distinguished author, theoretician and visionary, I jumped at the chance. After all, he was a neighbor; we both live in Eugene, Oregon, near a linear park that borders the Willamette River for miles. It's a wonderful place; often in springtime, it is frequented by intriguing mists, a haven for bicycling or walking. Eugene is a town where the popular mantra is, People Powered Transportation.

What I didn't adequately appreciate about the undertaking was the rich complexity of the man. The modifier used is emphatically not pejorative. There is absolutely nothing untidy about the man or his work. There is an aura about BHR, a style charmingly reminiscent of the best of a bygone era. His mode of dress projects a casual elegance in sharp contrast to the grunge so prevalent among writers in this region. In retrospect, the tiny earring he wears should have alerted me that there were more aspects to this man than there are sides to a Rubik's cube. What follows is an attempt to clue you in.

Flaming Arrows by Bruce Holland RogersCarl O Roach: Your speech is unaccented; I've often wondered about your hometown and origins.

Bruce Holland Rogers: I was born in Tucson, Arizona, and grew up mostly in Colorado. In college, I couldn't decide on a major, and in a sense, I still can't. I'm interested in everything, and one of the best things about being a writer is that I can research something -- whether the research is in the library or sitting across the table talking to someone who has an interesting job -- and it's "professional activity."

COR: Have you used pen names that you wish to identify? Is the need for pseudonyms a commercial strategy, an adaptation to the territorial biases of editors, or are they truly artifacts of the author's current psyche or persona?

BHR: I have been (and likely will again be) Hanovi Braddock, Brenda Holland, and Bryan Speare. Hanovi has written tie-in fiction mostly. That is, most of what I published as Hanovi was under work-for-hire contracts, and I chose to use a pseudonym in that case because I wanted to protect my own name. Work-for-hire writing is done at the pleasure of the people signing the checks, and I couldn't be sure what changes they might demand of my writing, changes that I might not agree with but would be contractually bound to make. As it turned out, Hanovi has had as positive a working relationship with his editors as Bruce Holland Rogers has, but I couldn't count on that going in. I also wanted to protect my reputation as an artistically ambitious writer. There are some in the publishing world who mentally classify writers as hacks and artists, and they act as if a writer has to be one or the other. So Hanovi has been willing to do work that might get him labeled as a hack. Bruce Holland Rogers has not. I'm probably out of the work-for-hire business for good, but if I ever write novels of genre fantasy, Hanovi will probably get the byline. In novels, I'll reserve Bruce Holland Rogers for books that I hope aren't shelved in the genre section of bookstores.

Brenda Holland emerged because I've sold some romance short stories. Romance, even in short fiction, never seems to carry a male byline.

Bryan Speare, on the other hand, has written erotica. He exists for much the same reason that Hanovi does, to protect Bruce Holland Rogers from being tarred not just as a hack, but as a smut hack. That said, Bryan's erotica is, I hope, hot without being degrading to anyone.

In each case, I took on the pseudonym because of marketing or career considerations. I can imagine situations where I might want to take on a pseudonym in order to play with the idea of "being" a different writer. There are some writers who write fast, wild, indulgent work and have great success with it. One thing that's consistent for me as a writer is that I try to take pains for the sake of the reader. I write tight prose. It might be fun to try a pseudonym that would let me escape from that rigor.

COR: What is the role of Holly Arrow? You seem to be blessed with a life partner who shares your multifarious interests in literature and creativity. Would you care to comment on how this circumstance has affected your individual careers?

Is she a force that helps to shape the direction of your body of work? Are there any anecdotes that reveal character traits or professional interests that have preserved and built your partnership?

BHR: Before she became a professor of psychology, Holly was an acquisitions editor at Westview Press, a writing teacher, and a freelance editor. She is a demanding reader, and she is my quality control officer. Stories, chapters, and articles don't go to editors until Holly has given her seal of approval, and her seal of approval isn't easy to get. I'm getting better, year by year, at evaluating my stories in anticipation of what Holly will say. I'm internalizing some of her demands as a reader. But the writer can't ever fully test his own work unless he sets it aside for so long that he really forgets what his intention was. Since the writer knows what he meant to say, he can't always tell when he hasn't quite said it.

We worked together, along with two other collaborators, to develop a model of creativity that we think is useful across disciplines, from education to business to art to engineering. At one time, we hoped to spend more time collaboratively teaching creativity skills. Unfortunately, she's too busy as a researcher and I'm too busy as a writer for us to get this off the ground.

Holly is my angel, but an angel with a fiery sword. I'm blessed to have a partner who believes so much in my work, who believes that part of her mission in the world is to help us build a life together that has as much room as possible for my writing. The fiery sword comes in if I'm pursuing, say, too much public speaking or teaching and not enough writing. She'd really rather that we did without the speaking fees and I finished another book. So she wields that fiery sword against invitations for me to make public appearances. I like speaking, but she makes sure I don't overdo it. If I'm invited to give a talk or a reading, she wants me to make a case to her that the event is worth the time away from my writing. That fiery sword is her editing tool, too. Don't get me wrong. She's tender and nurturing. But intellectually, Holly is ferocious. She can stare at lame ideas and weak endings from across the room, and they die. That can be a little uncomfortable if it's your lame idea or you wrote the weak ending. As a thinker, I enjoy collaborating with her, but I also know that I'm no match for her. We may be equals as imaginative thinkers, but in abstract reasoning, she's miles ahead of me.

COR: What philosophical grounds shape the role of poetry in your work? I infer that most people regard rhyme and meter as charming and useful mnemonic devices. When it comes to sonnets, haiku, sestinas, the symmetrina, and the like, however, one wonders if the art of fiction is edging into elitist country? Is the principal justification, beauty for its own sake, the author's proficiency, or the reader's enhanced enjoyment of the tale? What steps are needed to ensure that the reader benefits fully from the extra effort of the author?

BHR: Actually, I'd argue that formal poetry isn't elitist. Formal schemes of rhyme and meter make for poetry that appeals to readers (or listeners) in the way that music appeals to us. Poetry has become increasingly elitist as it has moved away from its folk-art roots as language that combined meaning with something very close to music. I enjoy free verse, but very good poetry written in free verse is an acquired taste. Poetry as practiced by, say, Robert Service, was literature for everyone. Free verse could in theory be for everyone, but in practice, it is an art form for a very small audience of aficionados.

I like writing stories that incorporate verse that is controlled with regular rhyme and meter. It's fun to read such works aloud, and to hear them read. I'm sorry that formal verse is no longer valued much by poets of great reputation.

But with the symmetrina in your list of fixed forms, I suspect that your question has more to do with writing to the "rules" of fixed forms. I see a form such as the symmetrina as a tool for the writer. A symmetrina lets me look at a topic from multiple angles, using stories of different lengths and points of view. The rules require that I deepen my perspective on the chosen topic. But for a casual reader, the complex rules of a symmetrina should be transparent. I hope that the reader simply notices that he seems to be reading a bunch of really short stories that are all related to one broad subject. Perhaps the symmetries of the symmetrina will give the reader some pleasure even if he or she doesn't consciously notice them, sort of like the way that rhythms in poetry can appeal to us even if we don't know anapestic trimeter from iambic pentameter.

Knowing various "rules" for formal poetry or fixed story forms such as the symmetrina can be useful to the writer. But the real test of a work is that the reader enjoys and understands the content, whether he or she recognizes the form or not.

COR: The challenges inherent in the symmetrina seem to hold promises of intriguing beauty. Does the symmetrina's mathematical elegance hold justification enough, or are there more profound rewards awaiting both its authors and readers?

BHR: At a recent international gathering of writers, I heard Marilyn Krysl talk about sestinas, a poetic form that revisits six words over the course of 39 lines. Before she started writing sestinas, all of her poems were short. When she wrote a book of sestinas, the form forced her to go deeper into her subjects than she had ever gone before.

The symmetrina is like that for me. Instead of writing one story about pregnancy, I have to write several, and I have to write them at various lengths. The subject of a 238-word pregnancy story has to be simpler than the idea for the 1180-word pregnancy story in the same symmetrina. Writing symmetrinas makes me go deeper into a subject than I would if I had to come up with just one idea.

COR: Awards and recognitions are avidly sought after, for personal validation and for their commercial value. There must be a considerable emotional impact in receiving a national or international award. You have had many such achievements:

  • Nebula Awards
  • Pushcart Prize
  • Bram Stoker Award
  • 2004 World Fantasy Short Story Award

What was it like, the emotional, social, and economic impact of those awards? Was the first one the sweetest?

Wind Over Heaven: and other dark tales by Bruce Holland RogersBHR: I'm hungry for recognition. I work hard. I do the very best that I can, so I want that pat on the back. I am thrilled every time I win an award. In some ways, it would be nice if I could hold the awards at a distance and not really care if I ever won another one. But I do care.

That said, I don't think the awards have made much of an impact on my career. They have helped bring some speaking and teaching opportunities, perhaps, but I don't think they have brought me a lot of new readers or made it any easier to publish. Editors buy a story they can use, one that fits into the anthology or magazine issue that they are currently putting together, and that the author has won awards in the past may have nothing to do with whether or not this story is something that the editor wants to buy.

Winning awards does help me to sit down every day and write. There's no such thing as "the best" in art. I don't believe the word "best" when I see it on a trophy for literature. But I do value the validation of awards, the indication that my work is pretty good.

The awards that mean the most to me are the Pushcart Prize and the World Fantasy Award. I think the process for determining the winners for those honors is about as pure as any such process can be. Other awards are more subject to politics, popularity, or outright manipulation, some to such an extent that their perceived value has been degraded. I think that juried awards deserve to be called the most prestigious. A nomination for an Edgar Allan Poe Award or a World Fantasy Award is a more impressive signal of accomplishment than actually winning some other awards that are voted on by a large body of writers or fans.

Not that I don't love winning awards that are voted on by large groups. I want all the awards. I love giving acceptance speeches. I want to win the award for "Best Acceptance Speech at an Awards Ceremony."

COR: You have had significant publishing success in several forms: short stories, novels, short-shorts and non-fiction. Did each form give you adequate fulfillment, or did each leave you with a void that needed filling with a different media?

Would you also comment on the literary outlook for short-shorts? They seem to be enjoying a

growing popularity.

BHR: First let me say that I'm not crazy about writing non-fiction. I enjoy it well enough, but I think of non-fiction as stealing time from my real work. I wrote Word Work because it was the book that I wished I had had early in my career, the book that would give me realistic encouragement and show me how to keep going.

So non-fiction is something I write if I feel I have to, usually because I have something to teach. The delight is in writing fiction. And when it comes to fiction, I get as much pleasure out of writing a short-short, a story, a novelette, or a novel. They are different kinds of pleasures. The short-short is brief enough to be almost perfectable. Very short narratives require very polished writing, with no word out of place. I like the demanding nature of trying to get a story across with great efficiency.

The novel, on the other hand, is much less demanding in terms of rigor and getting things just so. With a novel, I enjoy being able to come back to the same project day after day. Short stories and short-shorts require that I start from scratch again and again.

I've written much more short fiction than novels. That's because the only novels I have sold have been the work-for-hire ones. It's hard to keep writing novels that don't sell when all the shorter work does sell. In spite of that, I'm at work on an ambitious novel now that has some elements of fantasy, but which I intend to sell to a mainstream publisher.

Regarding the popularity of short-short stories, I think this has something to do with shrinking leisure time and shrinking patience. The few general magazines that still feature fiction tend to offer shorter stories with every passing year. Short-shorts are also a perfect form for the Internet. A story that fits on one screen of text is a good fit for the way that most of us read online.

COR: Creativity consultantcy is this a kind of meta-profession for you? Do you regard authoring as a sub-set of your creativity?

What is your definition of the creativity consultantcy? Your published work includes: The Eight Flavored Journey For Writers, and your concept of "Creative Circumplex" is intended to serve other disciplines. Please comment on your goals and achievements in this innovative enterprise.

BHR: Holly and I thought we'd do a lot more collaborative teaching and consulting than we have actually ended up doing. I'm still enthusiastic about teaching creativity and helping people in other disciplines -- from management to engineering, from the arts to government -- amplify their problem-solving skills. I'm enthusiastic about it, but I don't have the time to go out and find those people to offer my skills. My plate is full with writing and teaching, and I'm fine with that.

Right now, it looks like my schedule for the coming year will include two weeks of teaching a writing seminar in Crete, two weeks of the same in Italy, and four weeks of teaching an MFA residency on Washington's Whidbey Island. So I expect that Holly and I will keep writing about creativity, but I don't think we'll travel anywhere to teach the Eight-Flavored Journey.

COR: Some of the institutions that have benefited from your teaching include: University of Colorado, Carroll College, University of Wisconsin, and the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA. Among several writers' organizations, is the Flatiron Fiction Workshop. It would seem that interspersing tours of duty in academia with full time writing has been beneficial to both disciplines. Is this a practice you intend to continue?

BHR: I love teaching. It gets me out into the world, so it's a good compliment to the solitary life at my writing desk. Right now, with the seminars in Europe and the low-residency MFA, I feel like I have the perfect balance of solitude and society. This is pretty much the life I always wanted.

COR: Of interest to a great many is your body of work in fiction:

"Wind Over Heaven", "Flaming Arrows","Thirteen Ways to Water", "Don Ysidro", "Tiny Bells", and your growing portfolio of short-shorts are some examples of interest.

The short-short, "Perfect Happiness" has the aspect of a window. One might wonder if this sly diatribe about happy endings is a parable confirming certain astringencies in your world view. Is our plane of existence a potential Shangri La or a vale of tears?

BHR: Well, all happy endings are temporary. Speaking in terms of physical existence, the only existence I can be sure of, I can see that everything and everyone dies. That awareness of mortality and the desire to find joy in that context, that's at the core of much of my writing and thinking.

Some readers think that I am a pretty dark writer. Even my humorous stories have a dark edge to them. I guess I can't write without that constant awareness of mortality. However, I think that knowing ourselves to be mortal allows us to delight all the more in our existence, and to be grateful for it. I hope that delight is salient in my writing, along with the unease. They are two sides of the same coin.

COR: "Tiny Bells" is a story of eleven hundred words with a haunting after taste. "Tiny Bells" is hardly a polemic, but it etches in memory the agonizing illogic of war.

Do you accept as an authentic and irrefutable validation of this work of imagination, the request for reprints currently sought in Afghanistan by survivors who have experienced, first hand ... the real thing?

BHR: "Tiny Bells" has been translated a number of times, but the translations that have meant the most for me have been in places where ethnic tension and intolerance are ongoing threats to peace. The story has seen print in Macedonian and, as you noted, will shortly be published in the Pashto language in Afghanistan.

As wonderful as it is to have the story embraced around the world, I must say that a story can only be validated one reader at a time. Fiction is never irrefutably validated. For the single reader who says, "That story didn't speak to me," the story fails.

COR: "Don Ysidro", your World Fantasy Award winning short story, relates the feelings of a potter on his death bed. In what at first glance seems like a kind of desecration, visitors take away his personal possessions, and even parts of his body; but in almost biblical terms, the end result is a greater well being in the community. Don Ysidro, the deceased, heartily approves of the outcome.

Shall your readers understand it as a plea for a more sharing society?

BHR: I don't like the idea of paraphrasing stories. Don Ysidro is a story about a village that I think has healthy attitudes about life, death, and appreciating every member of the community. But the meaning of the story is rooted in the story. I don't want to consider it as a plea for anything. I want it to speak for itself.

As Ursula LeGuin said, if I could say it without the metaphor, then why would I have bothered with the metaphor?

Thirteen Ways to Water, and other stories by Bruce Holland RogersCOR: "Thirteen Ways to Water", the lead off story of Thirteen Ways to Water, and other stories (Wheatland Press), the recent collection of stories by Bruce Holland Rogers, won the 1998 Nebula Award for Short Story. It is a tale of how an unlikely exercise of compassion frees three disparate characters from the soul sapping stresses resulting from past traumas that relate to the war in Vietnam. Deft touches of writing by Bruce bring the sounds, smells, and horrors of that conflict to his readers, vicariously but with a startlingly succinct accuracy.

"Okra, Sorghum, Yam" is one of the less facile stories in Thirteen Ways To Water. Bruce Holland Rogers recruits the reader to grasp the meaning of the tale. It is multifarious, invoking improbably, my memories of wrestling with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and the mysteries of Schroedinger's cat.

In summary, one emerges from a session with Bruce Holland Rogers and his writings with a sense that you have been in a kind of time warp. He is at once, the quintessential professional, an amalgam of artist, ideologue, and pragmatist. An undercurrent of poetic brevity pervades his work.

In many ways, he is visionary. It is as though Bruce gives you a fleeting glance into one or more of those eleven, arcane, dimensions that modern cosmology revels in.

His work may change your perspective on life irrevocably.

© Carl O Roach 2005.

Thirteen Ways to Water and other stories by Bruce Holland Rogers Bruce Holland Rogers: Short Stories, Volume 1Wind Over Heaven: and other dark tales by Bruce Holland Rogers
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