Grab the Lapels: What would you like readers to know about your new book, The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh?
Jenn Stroud Rossmann: It’s a comic literary novel in the style of Celeste Ng and Tom Perrotta — with empathy for a wide range of characters whose lives are entangled. It revolves around 14-year-old Chad Loudermilk, who is more or less the only black freshman at Palo Alto High School. As sometimes happens in California, the ground is shifting quickly and Chad, like his family and neighbors, is trying to (re)define himself after and during “disruption.”
GTL: Are there aspects of your writing that readers might find challenging to them?
JSR: Well, if they’ve recently had abdominal surgery, it’s going to hurt to laugh. A cautionary word is probably in order in that case. More seriously, every reader is different. This book is about a family, a crazy-quilt California family with some bonds made by nature and some by choice. People who love each other hurt each other. It’s only intentional some of the time. Some of the scars have healed by the end of the book, but some won’t. So I guess, it hurts, and you’ll laugh. Unless you have fresh abdominal sutures. Then both at once.
GTL: Did you learn anything from writing your book?
JSR: I can’t imagine a novel worth reading whose author didn’t learn something while writing it! Because we write to explore our obsessions, and to figure out how some specific someone might react if we pull the rug out from under them. Sometimes we write to understand people or places. In my own case, I can say that writing this book helped me learn how to write this book. I won’t say “a” book, and certainly not any book — but this one. I got a lot of things wrong along the way; for several drafts I had centered two characters who ended up with much less stage time. (One of these was published as a standalone story, in The Indianola Review. That kind of helped me let go of it.) A major lesson was about editing, resecting subplots and scenes that weren’t pulling their weight. My friend Kate Racculia (whose Bellweather Rhapsody is just dreamy) said, gently, “You don’t have to put all of it into this one book.” Like she was a football coach telling me to cool it with the endzone celebration: act like you expect to be back here again.
GTL: If you could change places for a day with any one of your characters, who would it be, and why?
JSR: What a great and impossible question! I would say Marcus, because at 14 he’s confident and easy, comfortable in his own skin in a way that I was certainly not at 14, and am still a little in awe of now. His life is not easy — he’s the furthest of these characters from the golden dotcom gleam — but he’s charismatic and quick-witted, and he always has a comeback ready. In my own life the comeback only occurs to me hours later.
GTL: Why do you think your book would be a good choice for a book club pick?
JSR: I hope the crazy quilt-ness will be appealing; this family is chock-full of flawed people who love each other. And they live in the heart of Silicon Valley, where the dot-com boom, and crash, have made everyone feel unstable and at risk. In addition to my 14-year-old protagonist, Chad, there’s a working mom whose ambivalence and ambition are fighting it out every day; and a mom who counsels vulnerable teens but overlooks her own son’s turmoil; and a couple of unstable marriages. There’s a dot-com mogul who kind of can’t believe his luck and the guy next door who resents him for it. I think readers will be able to understand where each character is coming from while also lamenting the ways the characters can profoundly misunderstand each other. I think that would make a pretty good discussion with a book club or even with the person next to you on the bus.
GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?
JSR: I spent most of elementary and middle school pretty sure I would be a private detective. This was partly about solving puzzles and mysteries, and partly due to the great number of prime-time TV examples of the fantastic cars and moustaches that were an essential part of the detective lifestyle. I loved reading mysteries and trying to figure things out, and then re-reading them to figure out how the author had done it. Such a magic trick, to make a reader feel surprise and inevitability at the same time. I have worn out multiple copies of The Westing Game.
In my writing process there are often opportunities to work on puzzles, to figure out how I may be able to combine disparate plot strands or preoccupations of mine. I can feel a little like my favorite fictional sleuths, working out characters’ motivations and piecing things together. At some point I stopped wanting a firm “Case Closed” final answer, with a novel’s characters all in a metaphorical drawing room so the novelist can say, “I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve gathered you all here” and pull back the curtain, and I became more interested in unresolved questions and ambiguity. (Live in the questions, as Rilke advises.) I don’t write “mysteries” in the traditional sense, but what’s more mysterious than the human heart?
Grab the Lapels: I want to thank Jenn Stroud Rossmann for answering my questions! You can find her on Twitter or at her website. JSR’s new book, The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh, is forthcoming November 14, 2018 from the publisher 7.13 Books.