“To Place Something at Hazard”: An Interview with Nickalus Rupert, by Nic Kanaar

Pushcart Prize-winner Nickalus Rupert encourages us to notice the absurd. Through the quick-witted, lively, and iconoclastic short stories of his debut collection, Bosses of Light and Sound, Rupert defamiliarizes the world around us, and exposes the deranged and the tender. Rupert’s fresh voice has a lingering quality, and this conquest through the ridiculous, the complex, and the exhaustive aspects of being human, lasts long after it has been read.  

The stories of Bosses of Light and Sound navigate uncertainty, distance, and relationships with those still around us and with those who have left. Confrontations galore, from confronting the past in “Spy Car,” to the strange traditions in “Aunt Job,” to our own inner and outer reality in “Hale in the Deep,” and to a pissed off Mother Nature in “Oh, Harmonious.” Rupert’s characters are often in transition and desperate, clinging to the world’s they know, but uncomfortable with the new ways they begin to see them.  

I sat down with Nickalus Rupert to discuss the debut of his short story collection. We talked for a few hours on a Friday morning, and I can say with certainty, that beyond being an explosive and brilliant writer, Nickalus Rupert is a genuinely good and thoughtful person. Here’s a bit of our conversation:

Nic: When I was reading through this collection, I sensed enjoyment layered under each story. Even in the more serious moments, there is a playfulness present. I imagine you truly enjoyed writing these. Is this a fair assessment, or is it purely a result of craft? Do you experience the misery and frustrations so many of us writers experience?

Rupert: I’m acutely aware of the threat of losing connection with the reader, and I’m very much afraid of my work being seen as a tedium. I make an effort to put out some candy, some bait, for the readers. For instance, when I was workshopping “The Temptation of Saint Ravine,” my peers mentioned the dark subject matter, but they also mentioned the weird sense of playfulness throughout. So, often I think I’m trying to use humor as a Trojan horse. I can distract the reader, and myself, to funnel in a more serious message, or to tackle a more serious tone. If I just relied on melancholy, the prose wouldn’t be enjoyable. At the end of the day, I’m hoping all of these stories are enjoyable on some level. And yes, it makes writing more pleasant for me and helps block out all of the critical voices that linger in the back of my head.

Nic: Your male protagonists have similarities, and yet, they seem so different. How much of you bleed into these characters? And how do you mitigate your presence as an author on the page? Did you find this challenging?

Rupert: It’s an ongoing struggle. One of the experiences I had reading through this collection when I was doing copy-edits, I realized the protagonists from “Hale and the Deep” and “Firewalker” were a little more similar than I’d like them to be. Both the general scope and theme of the stories, and the characters. But I think they’re different. I also think similarities are bound to happen. When I sit down to write a story, I’m thinking about how that story has life of its own, but also, how does this story fit into my “canon?” I don’t want to write the same story a bunch of times, but there are certain themes and certain tendencies that we fixate on, as writers. I’m convinced that I could sit down and try to write a collection where every story is distinctive from the others, but you’re probably going to read them and still say, “These feel like Rupert stories.” In a funny way, we just can’t escape ourselves, or our fixations. So, I try the best I can to make each story unique, but I don’t worry about the echoes. At the end of the day, I think the stories of Bosses of Light and Sound each belong. Together they function as this weird, dysfunctional family, similarities and all. 

Nic: I agree. I think the similarities we’re talking about—wit, humor—forms a continuous voice that run from beginning to end, and I think that’s wonderful. The similarities highlight the themes and tendencies you mentioned earlier, and the differences of each story offer a new perspective of them. For instance, you often put multiple characters into a kind of liminal space—a space of transition—and you put them in dialogue. I’m thinking of the two main characters from “Jewels of Mt. Stanley” and the theme of uncertainty. Is the liminality intentional? Is this how you approach most story ideas?

Rupert: I’ll say this first, you spoke of these transitional spaces, and I haven’t thought about it in those terms precisely, but one idea I was conscious of is the theme of doubt. Uncertainty is a fine way of putting it, too, but I was interested in the power of doubt on a character’s convictions. How are they thrusted into uncertainty and forced to confront altered realities? In the story, “Firewalker,” for example, Garv has the bedrock of his philosophy stripped away when he attends a motivational speaker seminar. At first, he thinks it’s all a crock, but then he begins drinking the proverbial Kool-aide, and even then, his new belief is placed on unstable ground. So that interest in doubt is related to the sense of so many characters in transition. If I’m doing my job as a writer, I’ve (hopefully) picked up on something that is true in our culture, and that is our feeling of standing on shaky ground. 

Nic: Now that you’ve articulated “shaky ground,” my mind is racing through each story and seeing instances of this. To keep in a social context, that may be why your stories resonate so well. You’ve grounded these stories in an uncertainty that, in our subjective ways, people feel. And you offer the reader multiple ways to confront that uncertainty.  

Rupert:  Considering another alternative, imagine how beneficial that would be to certain politicians? If you’re in a state of doubt, you’re putting forward a kind of vulnerability, open to another concept, and you would have to place something at hazard. And the problem right now is so few people are willing to do that. Are they willing to put their own position at hazard? If you don’t have that, how do you have any kind of conversation?

Nic: I’ve witnessed this inability to be vulnerable. Some believe it demonstrates weakness, when it actually demonstrates strength. Off the record, we discussed writing the perfect “workshop story,” meaning stories that are well-written but don’t really offer anything deep. We both admitted having written these, but how do you go about pushing past the workshop story?

Rupert: I hark back to some of the Russian Formalists, like Chekhov for instance. They’re masterful at detailing the interiority of characters and being honest about the ideas that come into a character’s head that are unpleasant. Ideas we don’t really have control over. When I read some of those stories, I found the characters more honest. To me, it was a process of coming to terms with a hypothetical: if I were a character in book, and if I’m being honest, I would often say one thing and do something different. How often do we find ourselves as hypocrites?

Nic: Every single day.

Rupert: Right. We’re all a little bit like that. So, if you write a character like that, the reader becomes comfortable with that character. Otherwise, it all feels artificial. I witnessed a lot of this reading submissions for Mississippi Review, where I was an editor. I also learned the importance of stepping on the gas with our fiction.

Nic: What do you mean?

Rupert: Maybe there’s something distinctive going on with the premise of a story, or something on the story level, but there has to be something to bait the reader to keep going, right from the onset. A lot of stories that I’ve read have slow openings, and I think that’s a little off-putting. It really goes to show the importance of reading other work when you’re looking to improve your own writing. 

Nic: Absolutely. So, let’s talk more about this. For the writers who are reading this, how do you approach your beginnings? 

Rupert: Reading slush submissions for Mississippi Review for two years taught me a lot. I came across so many great stories, but I also came across stories that have, what I’m calling, a soft start. Paragraphs of context, pages of “setting the table,” and by the time we actually get to the meat of the story, the temperature has plummeted; there’s not enough heat left to make a fire—that’s probably a weird metaphor, but that’s what I felt like. My job as a writer, is to step on the gas from the first paragraph, cut out the table setting. I’m a paranoid writer, and I’m worried that if my first paragraph, or even my first sentence, doesn’t smack the editor right in the face, I’m worried they’ll stop reading. I don’t think that’s a bad philosophy for some writers to adopt. 

Nic: I’m thinking about your story “Aunt Job,” which you’ve won a Pushcart Prize for. This story had me hooked within the first few lines; the gas pedal was definitely pressed. How did you approach this idea?

Rupert: I was in the Ph.D. program at Southern Mississippi State, and I had one professor who, no matter what I turned in to our workshop, would pull me aside and say, “You’re not scaring me; you’re not making me uncomfortable. You’re playing it safe.” I got that every time. At a certain point, that critical voice got under my skin. I was having a beer with two friends after workshop and I told them this story idea of a perverted bar mitzvah, or a quinceanera, and they said, “yeah, you should write that.” Jokes aside, I thought they were crazy. No way was I going to turn in a story like into workshop. However, I was soon faced with the looming threat of a deadline and had no choice but to write “Aunt Job,” as I had no other ideas. I’m sure it made some people uncomfortable, but people were also receptive to it. It was entertaining, nonetheless. I ended up working on the ending and polishing it up. I submitted the story to some publications almost as a joke. There’s NO way anyone is going to publish this. Well, lo-and-behold, Idaho Review ended up taking it and the editors were extremely supportive. And then I find out that Idaho Review nominated me for a pushcart. And then, to complete the unbelievable joke, it won the Pushcart Prize. Couldn’t believe it. 

Nic: That’s wild. I can only imagine the journey. So, what’s the takeaway?

Rupert: Maybe it’s not a bad idea to take a shot on a reckless story. My only rule with that, though, is maintain sympathy for the narrator. I tried not to write it in a way where we are purely laughing at the narrator. I want us to inhabit his plight. It was never supposed to be purely sensational. There has to be depth there, too, and I think people have picked up on that. 

Nic: Is it safe to say you were vulnerable when you wrote this? Did it make you uncomfortable?

Rupert: Yes, it did, and I was vulnerable. I consider “Aunt Job” a satirical piece, and when satire is doing its most interesting and complex work, it not only presents a warped reality, but begs the question, what is warped in our current reality that we’re blind to because it’s been normalized?

Nic: A lot of your satirical elements are driven by the absurd. What does the absurd allow you to do in your fiction? What avenues does the technique open? 

Rupert: I’m deeply rooted in the tradition of absurdity. I’m a big George Saunders fan. During grad school, I had a mentor who recommended CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by Saunders, and when I read those stories, I felt a lighting of a fuse, as if Saunders was giving me permission to be funny and to locate the absurd aspects of our culture. I often use transformative metaphors that defamiliarizes the world, with the hope that the reader sees the world new again, and possibly recognizes its strangeness. Absurdity at its best will remind us how bizarre the world already is. 

Nic: Characters in your stories are often in discourse with what I call phantom figures: people who aren’t in scene but have a presence throughout. Talk about that.

Rupert: I think we all carry around these ghosts, and the conversations in our head are not limited to the people who are still among us. At least that’s the case with me. I’m constantly in conversation with those who are absent. Maybe that’s a weird character trait of me. I don’t know if it’s true for everyone.

Nic: I think it is. Relatedly, the stories of Bosses of Light and Sound have a relationship with distance, both literally and thematically. For example, Hale from “Hale in the Deep” has a distance between his inner and outer world that he eventually has to confront. The characters in “Where They Live” have distance between them, which results in a literal giant pothole. How do these different manifestations of distance affect our daily lives?

Rupert: That’s a fascinating observation. I think, maybe, it hooks back to a concern we discussed earlier: social media and distantiation. This is a big concern culturally. We can be close physically, and yet so far away, sucked into screens. I think there are these distance-related paradoxes that are popping up more and more right now, and we don’t know how to negotiate them yet. I know I don’t, and that’s an anxiety in my writing. Some of my stories deal with it overtly, and other stories deal with it on an unconscious level. 

Nic: And I think they deal with it extremely well. What’s next? I hear you’re working on a novel.

Rupert: I am. If the writing goes as planned, you could classify it as a crime novel, but with my own spin on it. I like the challenge of taking a well-establish genre category and trying to put a literary spin on. 

Nic: I am looking forward to reading it. And everyone needs to buy Bosses of Light and Sound. Such a wonderful collection. 

Rupert: Thank you, Nic.

Nickalus Rupert is a Pushcart Prize-winning fiction writer who spent most of his life near the Gulf Coast. His short story collection, Bosses of Light and Sound, was selected by Kevin Canty as winner of the 2019 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, and is available from Willow Springs Books. His stories have appeared in or are forthcoming in The Idaho Review, Harpur Palate, Witness, The Literary Review, Pleiades, Tin House Online, and many other journals. Nickalus is represented by Akin Akinwumi at Willenfield Literary Agency, and is currently at work on a novel.

Nicholas Kanaar is a Ph.D. student at Binghamton University studying Creative Writing. He received his B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas, and his M.A. in English Literature from Grand Valley State University. His work has appeared in The 3288 Review. Currently, he resides in upstate New York with his wife, Rita, and one-year-old son, Walter. You can find him on Twitter @nickanaar.