Every few weeks we will be showcasing original fiction from an emerging writer, as part of our New Voices feature. The next in our series is ‘Conspiracy of Males’. Its author, Evan James Roskos, speaks to Roy Robins.
RR: Where are you from?
ER: I was born and raised in New Jersey, a state that is the butt of many jokes: our politics are slimy; our air, land and water are polluted – but the produce is delicious. I grew up in the very suburban county of Somerset, about thirty minutes from New York.
When did you start writing? And why?
In second grade I wrote a story about my trip to the moon. The story won a prize, perhaps because I included multiple characters and drew a fantastic picture of my friend Greg and I standing on the cratered surface. By middle school I began writing poetry in a notebook I labelled ‘Things I Write for No Reason’. I didn’t start writing fiction seriously until college, but even then I felt no pressure to complete stories or work on the craft. I took two creative writing courses and thought I was too good to need to learn how to write. I was a fool. After graduation I began working on a collection of stories about people living in an apartment complex in New Jersey. Later, I self-published the collection at the dot-com publisher where I worked.
I was always a quiet kid who observed things. When I played with my G.I. Joe action figures, I created elaborate storylines. My cousin would simply line up tanks and guns and soldiers and commence fighting. I always gave my soldiers a goal. I’ve been obsessed with cause and effect and, more importantly, fairness. The basic beats of a plot found their way into almost everything I did as a kid. Because of this, I often played by myself. But I had a great time.
How did you come to write ‘Conspiracy of Males’?
‘Conspiracy of Males’ is, in some ways, a conversation with Rick Moody’s memoir The Black Veil, which is a chronicle of his struggle with severe depression and paranoia. At one point in the book he writes, ‘All the men in the Port Authority Bus Terminal were going to assault me, a conspiracy of males, all secretly indicating their conspiratorial relationship to one another, was circling around me, preparing to strip me in public, to offend my person, to leave me for dead. Not actually dead, because that would have been too easy, just this side of dead, where I could appreciate and linger over the details of my misfortune for years and years’. This passage gutted me. But it wasn’t enough for me to simply write a piece that matched Moody’s own experience. I began writing in first person plural, trying to capture the menace. Moody writes about the conspiracy as a manifestation of his depression. I put the conspirators in the position of the cause rather than the effect. That way the reader believes the conspiracy is real.
You’re currently at work on a collection of stories that explore American masculinity. Why the interest in this theme? What does it mean to be an American male?
Don DeLillo, whose novels I love, once said in an interview, ‘In the American soul there is a lonely individual standing in a vast landscape. He is either on a horse or driving a car, depending, and either way he’s carrying a gun. This is one of the essential images in American mythology.’ The collection I’m working on seeks to get beyond the simple declaration that creative and sensitive men (like young writers from New Jersey) are society’s hapless victims while uptight, testosterone-driven men are its villains. Anyone can be cruel or kind. I want to understand why men are labelled either lovers or fighters, romantic poets or airforce pilots. I want to know what these labels do to men and to women and to families.
A definition of the American male is difficult because of the geographic size and cultural complexity of the United States. Men of different classes, religions, races and regions are asked to meet different standards. Some overlap, others do not. I don’t believe in universals. Instead, I identify and explore struggles that specific men face. There is a view of American men presented by the media – of men as boorish, insensitive, emotionally immature – that manages to underscore various stereotypes that I feel fiction and poetry have a duty to dismantle.