Not About Cattle: Mike Roberts and Will Chancellor in Conversation

Mike Roberts is the author of Cannibals in Love, a novel published by FSG Originals in September. Mike spoke with Will Chancellor, the author of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, at BookCourt in Brooklyn about the sense of paranoia and youth that drives the post-9/11 novel. Conversation then ranged from the import of physical movement in fiction to the underappreciated pitfalls of allegorical novels about cattle.

Will: The section you read from is set in Washington, DC, which is, in many ways, the second city we talk about when we talk about September 11th. How do you conceive of D.C. as a 9/11 city?

Mike: One of the reasons I wanted to write a post-9/11 novel that deals with Washington, DC is that it’s a story that is rarely told. And, of course, there is no real comparison. The attacks on the Pentagon were not on the scale of the attacks on the World Trade Center, but DC went into its own physical and psychic lockdown. I remember being afraid to pick up the mail because of anthrax. I remember being afraid to go down into the subway because I expected suicide bombers. All of this was real. That anxiety changed the way that we behaved, day-to-day, but it also shaped my worldview, creatively, I think.

Will: And later in the chapter Mike describes seeing a woman walking in zigzag across the street because of the Beltway Sniper. You write “It made sense to behave erratically now...” I’m wondering if that’s what you’re talking about specifically—zigzag as a technology, of how it shaped you creatively…

Mike: I think most of these big things—9/11 is one example, the D.C. sniper is another—don’t happen to you; they sort of create a climate, and you live inside that climate for as long as it’s happening. So it wasn’t like anyone we knew got shot by the D.C. sniper—he killed a dozen, fifteen people over the course of a month—but you do alter your behavior. And it feels more true to life, so as a philosophy for a post-9/11 novel, I would say, yeah, absolutely. That’s a good example because the D.C. sniper was not driving a white van, and yet that was the popular narrative. He was actually driving a blue Caprice…

Will: But another character in your book was driving a white van through New York.

Mike: That’s true. And it freaks Mike out when he’s told, “We’re getting into a white van,” and he’s like, “Is that a joke?”

Will: So let’s string some nets as far as the peripatetic or zigzag nature of book. The narrator is moving through D.C. to New York to Portland to Lockport and Austin. He’s really treading most of…

Mike: Hipster America, yeah. (Laughs.)

Will: I’m wondering, do you think this book would’ve been possible without movement? It’s constantly on the move; we don’t have a sense of stasis. Was that something you were conscious of? Do you think that movement is important in reading the book?

Mike: Movement was true to my own life, and so I accepted it as a kind of truth. I can’t remember how much it was part of the initial conception of the novel. There’s this condensed period in Washington D.C. in the book, a very violent period that begins with 9/11, has the Anthrax attacks, the sniper, the two wars, and ends distantly with this natural disaster which is Hurricane Katrina. And then the book sort of releases some of that political tension, because you can’t run the engine at that speed for that long.

One of the things that my editor and I talked about is the idea that it’s an episodic novel, a mixtape in a way. Not to get too cute. But the idea was to create discord between those transitions. I was not interested in clear resolutions and transitions because I knew the next chapter would still be in that first person voice. If you accept the fidelity of the narrator’s voice, you can recover not knowing where you’re going to start the next chapter.

Will: It’s interesting because this is in juxtaposition to the narrator’s own novel, A Cattle, a Crack-up, which could not be more static: it takes place on a farm, it’s a story of an elm tree . . . how would you describe A Cattle, a Crack-up?

Mike: The narrator has this brilliant idea in the run-up to the war in Iraq that he’s going to write an allegory about the invasion of Iraq that’s set on a dairy farm in the Midwestern United States. By itself it’s just tragic that he even has this idea, but he actually finds a way—by force of will and I think a little bit of talent, even though it’s middling—to keep it going, and he will not stop writing this book. It’s sort of played for sport, the suffering. But I think—and this isn’t something I should say in a bookstore—there’s a reason there’s not a lot of great novelists who are twenty-four-years-old. There are some outliers, but you have not digested . . . yeah, who wants to fight? (Laughter.)

I think there’s a reason that now, if I can include myself in the first group of millennials—I don’t know if I can but I don’t care—I feel like young-ish people are starting to digest these years. And that’s exciting to me.

Will: I’m curious, first of all, if you are willing to admit that you are the author of Cow Country, the book that was mistaken for a Thomas Pynchon novel last year? Did you write anything like A Cattle, a Crack-up?

Mike: Let’s say I did a little bit of research about cows and didn’t write anything. But, I learned a lot about cows—I find them kind of tragic animals, not in a vegetarian way, just in a mountain-of-meat way. (Laughter.) They can’t get away. But, I had this idea that we’d mock up a fake book cover, and we would make a Good Reads page . . . it would exist in the world; I wanted to mess with people.

Will: Well it’s not too late. If you’d permit me I’d love to read from A Cattle, a Crack-up:

The living cows circled and stared in reproof as August sank down among the humiliating dead. He felt a weight that crushed involuntarily. He tried to rise to his feet again and couldn’t. He felt the ground disappearing and suddenly rushing up to meet him. August’s rope had just been cut from the top branch of the gallows elm. He looked at the curdling udders with frenzy, and he felt himself sinking into the soft earth. His head spun. Death of the cattle is death of the farmer is death of the farm.

I think it’s important in this book for the tone and the mode with which Cannibals in Love is written that it’s decidedly not that pastoral American novel in the tradition of McCarthy or some American gothic kind of tradition. Did you have to grow out of that at all? Was there any writing that you did at any point that was in that mode?

Mike: I don’t think so. I think I always felt impatient about that kind of writing. Especially from young people because it felt so false. And that’s why I wanted to write something a little more cluttered. Mike has a very clear idea of this point he’s trying to prove in his book. That sense of mission is great for him, but I don’t really care about that.

Will: So what was the genesis for this, what was the seed?

Mike: Well we already talked about it a little, but it was a few things: it was being in Washington D.C., and thinking to myself, ‘Why has nobody written this kind of 9/11 book?’ It goes to New York and all that stuff, but I wanted a book that asked what did it mean to live in DC? Those were formative years for me. If I was in New York I wonder what kind of book I would’ve written. But this was sort of my perspective on being launched out of the middle-class boredom of the Clinton years into something that felt very melodramatic, life-and-death. But also real life-and-death. Real paranoia.

But it also triggers a kind of fearlessness in young people, I think. When they feel like, it probably won’t happen to me.

Will: I thought you were going to go somewhere different with that. I had a really weird experience reading this. I was reading it, and I had written my blurb and was all happy with myself, and I was like 250 pages in, and then in the last chapter of the book, Mike’s meeting with his agent in New York, and she’s like, ‘Well, I sent out A Cattle, a Crack-up and nobody cares. What now?’ And he’s like, ‘I want to write something in my idiom and how I speak, and make something about episodic memory. How all memory is ultimately episodic.’ And I was like, ‘Damn, took the words right out of my fucking mouth.’ Because that was exactly how I felt reading it!

There’s this really interesting thing that happens with your memory as a reader in this book. It’s really, really close to imitating how I think, and how memory surfaces for me. How these things that I had read earlier are encapsulated in bubble-up and not in a predictable way, perhaps, but it seems like a very compelling argument. That memory is episodic. I’m wondering when that came into your head, as far as structuring this novel. Was that something that was later, an ‘a-ha’ moment?

Mike: No, that is a formative thing. The idea of how you tell a story in time. One mode is to hold the reader’s hand so that we all finish in the same place, and then make sure we’re very clear where we start next. And I’m not interested in that. I like the tension of leaving characters. Mike in the book’s story is always moving forward, so it’s upsetting, it’s disappointing, when we leave some of those people behind. But, as in life, they sort of never leave. There’s also this idea of the lifecycle of a friendship, where, in young people, the intensity with which they’re attracted to each other, the intensity with which they experience art, music, the city they live in, all that: you never reach that pitch again. So it’s like the idea that that sort of burns out. I wanted to represent that in the fiction too.

Will: There’s a reading of Romeo and Juliet that says that either love dies or lovers die, and there’s two ways of writing a book—so Chaucer is on the “love eventually dies” side, and it seems like you are actually on the former of those. That the love eventually starts to . . . you eventually grow out of it?

Mike: Yes, but there’s also a way in which this girl, Lauren in the book, is killed off by Mike. In his mind, he stops trying to connect all the pieces. But all these other people keep filling it in. And so yeah, I guess I’m more of the former.

Will: Let’s catch people up on who Lauren is. Because I feel like she’s the second-most important character in the book. She’s a well-rendered character that has pretty much equal footing . . . She emerges as one of the tomboys—Lauren and Cokie. Where does Mike meet them?

Mike: He becomes enthralled with their confidence and he’s completely intimidated by the way they walk through the world, and he wants to be one of them. And at first it’s not about sex, but of course they’re young and it has to become about that. It’s always headed that way. And then that damns him. Because neither one of them really wants him in the way that he wants so desperately to be part of their little tribe.

Will: Do you think that Mike meeting Lauren that way set the trajectory for their entire relationship?

Mike: I think they get back to level because she rejects him, and then when she comes back he makes the sort of feint at rejecting her. But he crumbles, because that’s what he wants all along.

Will: It didn’t feel so much that they were star-crossed or anything.

Mike: No. But one review said how mean they are. I really like that. They’re really hard on each other.

Will: I want to talk about that. I was really disappointed when there were no actual cannibals in the book. (Laughter.) But there’s a chapter—out of the eighteen chapters in the book, there’s one called “Cannibals in Love.” And it’s just a protracted fight between the two.

Mike: Yeah, it’s a stage play in their apartment. They fight for like fifteen pages.

Will: Can you unpack that, how cannibalism and fighting interact?

Mike: I’m going to own the title, Cannibals in Love. It’s like I started a band called something dumb like “Smashing Pumpkins” or something. (Laughter.) “Should we call it Smashing Pumpkins?” I don’t know. I’m happy with it.

Will: By the way, you were killing it with the chapter titles. I’m just going to read a few of them: “Self-Portraits in Disguise,” “Mentor/Tormentor,” “A Cattle, a Crack-Up,” “Texas Landlady Blues,” “Christians in a Rainstorm” . . . These are all very viable titles. But why “cannibals?” What was it about that that resonated with you?

Will: It’s so desperate . . . there’s also this metaphor that Mike says, that they were going to go the way of many coupling insects: that she would eventually kill him. So he’s always aware of this; it plays out in their interactions. From the outside looking in, they look like they’re insane people. But somehow they get the rules of the engagement that they can hurt each other up to a point, and then they have to comfort each other. And that’s sort of where that chapter revolves—he says, the difference between fighting and sex was this fine line, and they’re always sort of walking it. Do you have a thought about the word “cannibal?”

Will: To me, it sets the stakes really high. And I think the insect/mantis metaphor that’s there is good. There’s a little bit in Mike that is wary of ever really going all in . . .

Mike: It’s basically a way to channel the intensity of these people: sometimes relationships between young people are combative, of their nature. It’s like, pay attention to me. If you’re not paying attention to me, maybe I’ll get you to pay attention by behaving badly.

Will: That was an interesting admission in the text, when Mike says—I guess it’s the cliché in a relationship that the man doesn’t pay enough attention—he says, straight out, ‘I’m an incredibly needy guy, I need attention.’

Mike: Especially from her. When he’s being ignored by her, it kills him. And she knows it so she ignores him.

Will: But the dialogue within the fight scene—I’m assuming this is from screenwriting as a background that you really tightened the screws on the dialogue scenes. What was that like for you? Do you read it aloud to other people, do you have other people read it to you?

Mike: I read it aloud in the room by myself, and then Molly walks through and is like, ‘What are you doing?’ (Laughter.) I’ve read the whole book aloud to myself, sitting in front of the computer. I don’t know why, but that is important for me, to be able to hear it. I do that with screenplays, too. I think having some facility with dialogue is maybe one of the most important things to me. I’m not saying I’m some sort of master, but instead of doing an MFA I wrote like twenty-five screenplays.

Will: And no books about cows. Officially.

Mike: Officially.


Mike Roberts is a novelist and screenwriter from Buffalo, New York who lives and works in Los Angeles. Cannibals in Love is his first novel.