BY SHEREEN LEE
THADDEUS RUTKOWSKI is the author of six books. His novel, Haywire, won the Members’ Choice Award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, Medgar Evers College and the Writer's Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Read his TRACK//FOUR piece, "Seeing the Light," in VOLUME TWO // ISSUE TWO here.
Can you explain the making of "Seeing the Light"? (Events or people it was based on, your writing process, etc.)
"Seeing the Light," is based on my experience—it’s an “autobiographical” story. I grew up a biracial child in rural Pennsylvania. My mother is Chinese, and my father was Polish-American. In high school, I worked on a farm for pocket money. I often went fishing.
This was an earlier time, and Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan was a big thing. I liked the idea of achieving higher consciousness through exotic substances. In my story, the boy uses tea made from a burdock plant to get high. I doubt burdock has any mind-altering properties, but I had to make things up to fit the story.
I rely on memory for source material, but one’s memory is imperfect. Scenes appear as I reimagine them, not necessarily as they happened.
I collect images, pieces of dialogue, actions—I make notes—and then look back at them to see how they might form a story. When I see some kind of a story, I add to it or cut from it until it has a working shape.
I tend to put things in chronological order—I rarely use flashbacks. This approach is to compensate for the fact that there are gaps—missing explanations or exposition—in my stories. My idea is to create a kind of cinematic effect: “flashes of light in darkness,” as someone once said.
How do different parts of your identity impact your writing?
I try to bring both parts of my identity—the Chinese part and the Eastern European part—into my writing. When I write about my childhood, I draw on what my father and mother said or did. My mother still speaks with a slight accent (her native language is Mandarin), while my father was proud of his Polish roots (his parents spoke Polish).
I haven’t spent much time in either Poland or China. I visited Poland once, for lunch. A host of a Berlin poetry festival gave me a ride to Frankfurt on the Oder River, then across the bridge to Słubice, Poland. I remember dozens of men walking over the bridge from Poland into Germany to go to work. The traffic was slow at the border, and I was told that people became poorer as one drove east. In Russia, driving was risky, because of bandits. We went back to Berlin that afternoon.
I’ve visited Hong Kong a few times and Singapore once to attend writing festivals. I was excited to be in my mother’s home country (parts of Hong Kong are on the mainland)—I finally made it there, and I want to go back.
There’s another angle to this topic: how I’m perceived by people. I’m often seen as the “other,” and the other can be anything. My Medgar Evers College students, most of whom are of African descent, see me as Caucasian. Many Asians also see me as Caucasian. But Caucasians see me as Asian, Latino, Hawaiian, Native American, etc. Few people see me as Eurasian, which is what I am.
How do you approach revision of your writing?
I believe that revision almost always makes a piece of writing better, though it is possible to over-revise. I revise in order to “re-see” the story. The revision can be of each line, each sentence, to make the voice or tone consistent, or it can be a more substantial, structural change. If I’m not getting a good response from readers or editors, I know it’s time to revise.
It often helps to let the work sit a few days (or longer), to let your mind get away from the circular pattern of being close to the work. When you go back, you might see the text with a fresh eye.
Do you have a piece of work that you return to over and over again?
I take this to mean a piece of my own work. I have files of unfinished work grouped as dreams, childhood memories, or current incidents. I often go back to this material to see if there are things that jump out, fit together, or suggest more. The idea is to push the material beyond the everyday and make it more meaningful—to transform diary-keeping and make it “art.” Anyone involved in creating something must go through a process like this.
Who or what are your greatest non-literary inspirations?
Some of my greatest non-literary inspirations would be places I’ve visited, whether those places are far or near, recent or in the distant past. I’ve been fortunate that my mother still lives in the village where I grew up. When I visit her, I remember things about my childhood, and I see places that remind me of where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I’m also something of a traveler; I always like to see new places and discover what happens there.
I’m also inspired by animals and nature—I grew up in the country. I’m interested in how we relate to nature, and how we share things with animals. I care about how animals “think.” This tells us something about how we think. Some of my works are solely about animals, with some humans thrown in.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my family: my wife and daughter, who I live with in Manhattan. Daily life is the reality; but there are moments of hyper-reality. Those are the moments one wants to “write down.”