We first met Uzodinma Okehi a few years ago when we launched the world’s first issue of Post-Experimental literature. One of our favorite stories from that special issue was Okehi’s “Cumulo-Nimbus Tonight!” When we found out Okehi’s debut novel was being published–and that it contained this phenomenal story–we immediately wanted to read it. If the joy of reading this novel weren’t enough, we had the pleasure of chatting with Okehi about his work. Here’s what he had to say.
Your narrator in Over for Rockwell talks about how it takes 10 years to master anything. How long did it take you to write the book? Do you feel like a master?
Yeah, the 10 year thing. I think that was the pop-science theory du jour at the time when I started those stories. I know Malcom Gladwell delves into it in one of his books . . . But I feel like I was reading that particular tidbit everywhere, in different magazines, books, all over the place. You know, it’s a seductive idea. And I think it’s fairly true, you spend enough time and all, just that there’s a lot of other factors. As far as Rockwell is concerned though, it took maybe 7 or 8 years to write. Way too long basically, but I guess I’m prone to distraction. What I would say about it, is that if you spend enough every-day time, even as an average joe, you can develop a skill set, a kind of confidence, with writing, in a certain style, about certain subjects. And once you have that momentum, you’d hope you wouldn’t really need to compare yourself to everyone to demonstrate mastery. More like, with those ten years, you’ve mapped a territory for yourself, it’s hard work, but now you can enjoy it. Little by little, you try and push the envelope of what you think you can do . . .
Blue Okoye draws comics, but we never really get to see any of his comics. Did you ever consider making the book more visual?
I talked about that with my editor, (Elizabeth Ellen). The main issue was that my art-game is still pretty underdeveloped. I mean, I can draw a little, I did the cover, for instance, but it must have taken me 4 or 5 months of drawing, redrawing every day to finish that thing. Seriously. Also, at this point my comics stuff doesn’t really flow that well. The backstory is I started drawing comics mainly because that’s what I was writing about. But I didn’t want to bog the writing down with a whole bunch of bad drawing and nonsense. Hopefully in the next couple of years, I can hit my stride and be able to nicely integrate more art with the prose stuff. We’ll see. That would be gratifying.
Can you draw a comic for us?
Ok, here’s an example of how deep I’d get into something without really figuring out how to have it make sense. The “Strandzig” pic is a cover pitch I did for a zine that was going around the bookstore where I work. The other thing is a page from a five or six-page strip I did. Same character. Or I think I got five or six pages done before abandoning it. And what’s that giant concrete ball thing he’s got attached to his waist? I have no fucking idea. How is it just floating like that? Why is he chasing a giant, (badly drawn) peacock?
A better question is why wouldn’t he be chasing a giant peacock? It’s often difficult to separate a first-person narrator from the author. How did you draw from your own experiences to create this character?
Right. That’s always the big question, so let me dig in a little. And, actually, talking like this really helps me clear up my position on it in my own head . . . I just think the whole first person, coming-of-age, art-actualization thing—when people have these strong opinions against it—I always think, well, it’s just a type of genre writing. Like a detective story, or Sci-fi, or whatever. You may not read espionage thrillers per say, but why make a point to actually despise them? As with any genre, there’s the well-executed stuff and there’s stuff that’s not as good. Like literary writing in and of itself. My particular axe to grind, is that I was surprised to get to grad school, to New York, and discover there is, or was, some kind of movement or something against writing with first-person narrators. Or that people consider literary writing somehow “more real” than genre stuff. I think you should never lose sight of the fact that all of this is just entertainment, crafted with an audience in mind, whether that’s somebody’s rehab memoir or a Disney comic book . . . To bring it back to your question though, I think you’re always drawing from or on your own experiences, no matter whose point of view you’re writing from. On the other hand, I also think the kind of voyeuristic hook of a first-person narrator does always makes it feel like everything actually happened. I will say, most of the stuff in the book happened in some shape or form. It is fiction though, to be clear. I’m not on that James Frey tip. That’s me pulling stories from everywhere and pouring it into a single character. Stuff that happened to me, to my friends, me overhearing other people’s conversations at work, on the train, their wild stories. Bits from movies, TV shows, rap songs. Other books, definitely. I suppose that’s the textbook way you’re supposed to do it as a writer. Creative fiction 101, right? Write what you know, keep your eyes and ears open . . .
For the record, the one story in the book that did go down, scene for scene, exactly the way I wrote it, was Streets of Rage. All of that really happened. That huge, crazy streetfight in the East Village in Manhattan. The Chinese restaurant, those cops grilling me. First time I’d ever been in the middle of anything like that. That whole summer, in particular, 2005, month-to-month, was crazy . . .
The book ends with Cumulo-Nimbus Tonight!, which appeared in the Bartleby Snopes Post-Experimentalism issue. Would you characterize this book as post-experimental?
Well, I’m flattered you picked that story. But I’ll be honest. I feel I always only have like a loose-handshake sort of grasp on these concepts. When I was in school, I took a course called The Postmodern Novel. Something like that. I thought it sounded cool. I thought it would be cool to be part of some new movement. And I guess I can tell you, based on that class, that Paul Auster and Don Dellilo are, I guess, acclaimed masters of that shit. I’ve just looked it up on Wikipedia now, and the only simple answer seems to be that Postmodernism is all about being skeptical of Modernism. Which was a movement skeptical of Enlightenment thinking. And on back. So, if the implication is to ask if my book is somehow critiquing so-called “experimental” writing, or “concept” stories, then I’d say I wasn’t specifically trying to chop anything down. When I read other writers’ stories I am always thinking about what I’d do differently. But I don’t critique other people’s writing. I try my best to stay away from that. I never end up feeling qualified enough to join any sort of movement. Nor am I a teacher or an editor. Or a critic. That’s not really my bag.
The book comes in a very compact form. Do you think that contributes to the overall effect of the story?
Format is everything. Absolutely. What I initially submitted to Hobart was a 65-page zine I’d put together using InDesign. Complete with the clip art stuff and front cover. That original thing was about the same size as the finished book. Because after years of doing zines, I’d finally landed on that size as a good metric for my stories, with larger print. I wanted it to be dense. But I also wanted a quick read, something people might really rip through. Not to over-explain, but it’s not just supposed to be a guy talking about drawing, I was actually trying to delve into the sort of structural mechanics of comic books and how the format is almost an engine, generating momentum, excitement. I could go on about it, but I don’t think a detailed explanation is really going to help my case. It either works or it doesn’t.
I first became familiar with your work through your submission to Bartleby Snopes. How would you describe the role of lit mags in your writing and the literary world as a whole today?
I get the sense that the scene isn’t considered as important as it may have once been . . . I’m a little out of loop with that big picture stuff though. But yeah, I’m a lit-mag guy, for sure. I think it’s similar to mixtapes in hip-hop. Just like there’s gotta be a mainstream, there’s always also got to be that semi-underground space where unknown writers can flex their muscles and build on new ideas. Especially now, especially online, with flash stuff. I had a good run of about a year or two where I had stories up at least once a month, out somewhere in some lit-mag, website or journal, and Rockwell is basically a collection of that stuff. I don’t think the need for outlets like that will ever completely fade away.
What’s next for Uzodinma Okehi?
All this is new to me. First book, first time on tour. Meanwhile, I’m still grinding, trying to keep writing and drawing every day, even if it’s just an hour or two. I’ve got a family, so it’s less about any big plan, and more just balancing things out. And the goal isn’t necessarily to quit my day-job either. Then again, if I can find a way to make a little dough from comics, and keep writing books, well, who knows? Overall, I’m pushing forty, I work at a bookstore, and I’ve got my first book coming on an indie press. There’s no cocaine or Lamborghinis involved, but I’m pretty thrilled about it.
Congratulations on the book. If you’re reading this, go buy a copy so he can buy a Lamborghini. We won’t endorse the cocaine.
Bio: Uzodinma Okehi spent 2 years handing out zines on the subway. Wasn’t as fun as he thought. His work has appeared in Pank, Hobart, Bartleby Snopes, and many, many other places, no doubt, you’ve never heard of. He has an MFA in writing from New York University. He lives in Brooklyn. His son is 8 yrs old, smiles a lot, (too much?), and will absolutely, cross you over and drain a jumper in your face.