Doing an Interview with Joseph Riippi

I couldn’t stop reading Joseph Riippi’s oddly-named novel, Do Something! Do Something! Do Something! (Ampersand Books 2009).The story concerns three people: an institutionalized guy named Eddie who is an extremely literate critic with a torn up life and questionable sanity; his sister, or step-sister, S., who was raped and subsequently spent some time in an institution herself; and an up-and-coming playwright named Martin, who is in the process of separating with his wife after the death of their 17-day-old baby. Damn.

It sounds oppressive, but somehow, it’s not. The features that carry the book are the vignettes Riippi embeds into their stories, and even though even these are not funny, they are wowing. S. (who is my favorite character) goes to a rock show and gets harassed by a dreadlocked motherfucker and later ties him by his hair to a park bench, then lights his dreads on fire. Eddie gets arrested for attacking a stripper with a broken glass, but he’s really just blacked out blitzed because his ex-girlfriend had security toss him from her art opening. Martin, wasted, nearly shits on a bum. Riippi draws their marrow with a syringe, and the pain he authors is so bad that none of the characters seem as despicable as I just described.

It’s a good book.

The following interview is kind of long, so let’s get to it.

How do you pronounce your last name?
The Ellis Island spelling is Rippy. Most people pronounce it that way. In the real Finnish, the double-i produces a long “e” sound, with a bit of a rolled “r”: REE-py. (See here.)

How long did it take you to write this novel?
Two years? Hard to determine a start date. Martin existed in a short story before there was an idea for the novel. And Eddie was a side character in a different, drawer-bound novel. Once I had the idea that the three characters were part of one book, it was a year getting them together.

With all the references you make, like to Sartre and Sontag and Nietzsche, did you find them fitting themselves into the story naturally, or did you have to go looking for these nuggets? For the most part, the epigrams are “deep cuts,” as in, not the quotable bits that get taught in Intro to Philosophy.
It was natural for Eddie. He’s a sort of caricature of life lived too close to theory, more concerned with the comment than the object, the sky than the ground. To take Heidegger or Kant as literal truth is as absurd as it would be with any text, be it The Tipping Point, The Bible, On The Road—it’s just a different kind of crazy. As far as finding “deep cuts,” well, maybe I am more like Eddie than I’d like to be.

What was behind your decision to not give a full name to S., Eddie’s step-sister?
I didn’t want her to have a name at all. She was going to be “the girl with the starfish tattoo,” but then Stieg Larsson came along and screwed that up. She doesn’t have a full name because what happens to her in the beginning of the novel gives her a blank slate. Eddie is the only one who ever addresses her—using “S”—and his circumstance lets him understand that to name her is to invoke that past person. The book is as much about not repeating the past as it is about “doing something” in the future.

Cool. In the early part of the book, every character takes on that “Do Something!” mantra. At what point did you know this would be the title of the book, and did you have to go back later and write this in for any of the characters?
Well, the writing of this wasn’t very linear. Martin is the last character we’re introduced to, but the first character I wrote. And that early portion, the first staccato-y 10k words or so, was actually the last part I wrote, and the last part I stopped revising. So I did go back, but it was all part of the same forward motion of revision. “Do Something” came from Susan Sontag’s marginalia, which I came across while finding those epigrams for Eddie. There’s a journal page with itthat made it onto the back cover of her At The Same Time book, actually. There were many working titles for the book—DSDSDS was just the last one.

Something about the writing seems so effortlessly accomplished that I kept thinking you wrote the book as easily as I read it, writing straight through from beginning to end. (I cruised through it in 4 hours one night, and when I finished a woman was shot dead outside my apartment.) It’s of course reassuring to know that you worked on it over a couple years, and had to tie all the pieces together. You managed a lot of fluidity, even though Martin never gets tied in to the lives of S and Eddie. Did you ever see that working out differently, making them intersect?
That’s incredibly nice of you to say. It’s been a huge relief to hear that the book turned out to be a “quick read.” Jason Cook at Ampersand and I worked hard on the revisions to get it to be a book that could be read in 4 hours, and to your question I think both of us brought up the idea of having Martin and S in the same room—in Seattle, or on the plane in the opening section—but doing that would close the loop too tightly. It would bring about a kind of resolution, which undermines the whole idea of the book, really. Appealing or not, the only true resolution in life is death (as it is in the book, as it is outside your window); the closest thing otherwise is just to keep going, to move past, to push through.

That’s pretty great — how you left things unresolved. When you put it like this, I want to go back to the last 25 pages of the book and read again how you close things off. But for now can you say something about the trail to publication? Had you sent it out a lot before Ampersand took it on?
I’d sent queries out, but mostly I was trying to get portions that worked as stories picked up in journals, thinking that was the cost of entry to agents, publishers, etc. I found Ampersand via a call for submissions on NYC’s Craiglist. Jason Cook (and others, now extinct) were putting together the inaugural issue of Ampersand Review, and their posting noted they would accept previously-published work, so long as it was only published online and hadn’t seen print (and there was some time barrier, I think). Some months before I’d had an excerpt of DSDSDS on flatmanCROOKED’s site, (which was also very young at the time), and so I sent them that. Then Cook and I started emailing each other, set up some NYC launch parties for the debut of the Review, and at some point over the next year he said he wanted to publish my book. Originally I only wanted to do a chapbook of the opening section, since I was still waiting for Lorin Stein to call from FSG with a big advance and an invitation to lunch with Denis Johnson and Carlos Fuentes. Then I realized Cook would work harder for the book than any of the big publishers, and that if I wanted to do my book, it would have to be with someone who loved the book for the book it was—not for what they thought they could turn it into.

And you mentioned that Jason worked with you on revisions. What was that like?
I think we both respected each other enough that there wasn’t much conflict. If there was conflict, it never got emotional. I had this idea that an editor would tear the novel apart and force a more traditional structure on it (I’d had that experience with some of the lit mags) and I was terrified that anyone who accepted the book would want to make it a story collection. But like I said, Cook loved DSDSDS for the book it was, and in retrospect that’s really the most a writer can hope for. There were a few edits of his I wish now I’d taken, sentimental descriptions that should have gone (but that at the time I probably fought for) so the next pressing of DSDSDS will probably be a couple hundred words slimmer for it. We’re working the final revisions of the next book now, and I keep waiting for him to call me out on that.

Part of what pushed the reading for me was the way everything intertwined, so yeah, this book is a novel and not short stories. For instance, Martin’s experience had nothing to do with Eddie’s, but it augmented my reading of Eddie’s experiences. There are so many mini-stories that you write into the telling. S’s freaky 9-11 fear/flight, Martin’s explosive bowels, Eddie on the beach in the VW: these are perfect vignettes. Craft question: How much of these did you know you were going to write at the onset, and how many occurred to you along the way, piecing the sections together and such?
At the onset I had a story/monologue for each of the characters I felt was strong, and then I built up around those, sort of filling in the gaps and figuring out how a bigger novel-story could emerge in those in-between spaces. I think my favorite writers (or at least those I’ve learned from the most) draw most of their power from the in-between spaces. Take Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter or Cortazar’s Hop-scotch, Coetzee’s In The Heart of the Country—there’s a lot of unsaying and silence, a lot of white space on the page. And that was really the fun part (if there was a fun part) with DSDSDS, figuring out the way these three disparate characters (disparate at least to me at the time) would almost come together, leaving enough space for the reader to have to bridge the gaps between. It’s fitting, I suppose, that none of those original stories survived the writing—by the final drafts—they were so obvious and hammer-on-nail (as they needed to be, I suppose) that they didn’t fit anymore. So, short answer to your question: all of them occurred along the way.

Why do you say “if there was a fun part”? How does writing affect you?
Writing has always been catharsis for me, however I’ve never thought of writing as a very linear act. Gordon Lish forgive me, but at least in the writing of DSDSDS, it wasn’t a “one sentence follows the other” situation. It was more of a sculpting act, shaping raw material. To borrow a Seamus Heaney metaphor, the initial writing was a sort of digging, gathering the clay and dirt into a pile of raw material to sculpt from all sides. That digging part with this book was hell; I’d come out of a lot of personal mental shit when I started writing this, all that made up the raw materials. The sculpting part, putting together the different characters’ stories, filling in gaps, polishing, etc, all that stuff we’ve  talked about—that was turning my shit into someone else’s shit, and therefore “the fun part.” But it wasn’t fun like sailing or drinking around a firepit. Fun as in it felt less like failing, more like doing something. How does writing affect me? Writing is failure after failure after failure; eventually something strong enough to stand without your hands in it emerges. And then you’ve done something.

Well that is great thinking on perseverance, and you put it across in an almost affirmative way. That kind of happens in the book, too. You’ve made these incredibly fraught experiences like rape and 9-11 and dead babies and mothers — I don’t want to say hopeful because that’s not it — I mean who knows what’s going to happen to Eddie — in some ways this is a “psychological thriller” — but somehow through the realism that you sculpted, you’ve come out at least as encouraging. Final question: is it crazy to think of DSDSDS as encouraging, just as the title is a battle cry?
I don’t think it’s crazy at all to think of it as encouraging. Everyone goes through some serious hardships—maybe not to the extent of a rape or a near-stillbirth, but to the extent of Martin’s relationship with his grandfather or Eddie’s struggle to see past the only-theoretical. Hardship and trauma are subjective. And you’re right, who knows what will happen to Eddie, but my feeling is that all of them keep going, that even if they don’t “do something,” that at least they keep repeating that to themselves: “Do something, do something, do something.” It’s not only encouraging, I think, but realistic, to believe that by thinking like that, something will get done.