Q&A with Lee Ann Roripaugh, author of “Reveal Codes”
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Kosiso Ugwueze: “Reveal Codes” seems to capture a certain modern disillusionment. The main characters are bogged down by dead-end jobs and anxiety inducing graduate programs. Why did you choose to explore modern dissatisfaction? Do you think there’s any hope in the characters ever regaining the spark of life?
Lee Ann Roripaugh: In this story, I wanted to try and capture some of those transitional spaces between student life and professional life — transitional spaces that can be, I think, especially fraught for creative types. Because there’s no simply no guarantee one will be able to create a symbiotic relationship between vocation and avocation, right? I also wanted to capture a very specific type of modern disillusionment, too — the kind in which young people in the arts and humanities, who are exceptionally talented, intelligent, and highly successful in their graduate studies, can quite suddenly, upon graduation, find themselves transformed from being people of immense potential into people working dead-end jobs, saddled with unmanageable student loan debt. And so there’s an eerie kind of limbo, I think, a settled psychic unsettledness, that I wanted to explore. I’m truly fond of Neurotic Cat Boy and the protagonist of this story, and I think there’s definitely hope for them to move forward into better emotional, if not material, spaces. But first, they’re going to have to get through this particular set of adulting growing pains. Also, these are characters who are definitely going to need to move forward separately.
KU: I love that the characters are given names like “Neurotic Cat Boy” and “Barb the Word Processing Manager.” Not only are these funny names, but they are also incredibly descriptive. When in the writing process did you come up with these names? How did the names guide you as you developed each character?
LR: I sometimes find naming characters incredibly difficult! For example, if Neurotic Cat Boy had been named Ted, instead of Neurotic Cat Boy, it seems to me that “Ted” would have been much too constricted a vessel to contain all of the weird complexity that is Neurotic Cat Boy. By the same token, a more exotic name would have run the risk of simply being too much — too floral, too pompous, too preposterous. It was actually in another story from this collection-in-progress, where I was struggling to find the right names for the characters, that I decided to try experimenting with using descriptors-as-names. When I first read the story aloud, it was an aspect of the story that audience members specifically said they liked. I think what I particularly enjoy about naming characters in this way is that instead of having to try and pin a name on a character that feels like an artificial fit, the descriptor-as-name always/already fits. It also has the intimacy of a nickname, and all that a nickname entails — the knowingness, the affection and tenderness, and/or the pointedness. For me, being able to name this character Neurotic Cat Boy, allowed him to bloom into his Neurotic Cat Boy-ness with breadth and space, while simultaneously providing a clearly-embodied shape for the character to inhabit.
KU: The relationship between Neurotic Cat Boy and the main character was fascinating because it mirrors so many modern relationships. It is characterized by inertia, by both an inability to move forward and a resistance to letting go. What drew you to this type of relationship? How do you think modern relationships are either hindered or enhanced by the Internet?
LR: I was drawn to this type of relationship, I think, because I’ve been in this type of relationship, particularly when I was younger. I think, too, that for these characters, the relationship provides an ad hoc sense of stability during a time when so many other things in their lives feel exceedingly contingent, hence the inertia. That, and when your day-to-day life already seems rather soul-sucky, there’s sometimes just no additional emotional, psychological, or even physical energy left to do more than to try and hold down the status quo at home.
KU: In addition to the quiet despair in “Reveal Codes,” there is also a sense of anger. I saw this in the character Barb, in her “petty tyrannies” and the way she wields them with “the zealous gusto of a passive aggressive demagogue.” The word passive aggressive jumped out at me because it so aptly embodies the characters’ inability to be forward with their feelings. The two main characters even use their cat to communicate with one another. Did you set out to make a commentary about anger and modern communication? How do you think these two inform one another?
LR: I love this question, because all of the stories from this collection-in-progress explore aspects of communication, miscommunication, connection, and disconnection. What I think I wanted to capture with this particular couple was a sense of intelligent, academically talented young people who haven’t acquired the emotional intelligence required to communicate with a partner yet. The reasons why are probably varied (growing up in a non-communicative or emotionally abusive household, surviving some type of sexual or physical trauma, etc.), but the upshot is you have two people sharing the physical intimacy of a domestic space who find it too difficult or frightening to talk to one another in ways that would build any sort of real emotional intimacy. But still, these are people experiencing emotions, and these emotions need to go somewhere, so they end up popping out in these awkward and funny ways, like with the Polaroids, or through the cats.
KU: What did you find the most challenging about putting this piece together?
LR: For me, the most significant challenge about the story was braiding together and juxtaposing the elements of home life with Neurotic Cat Boy with the word-processing job at the corporate law firm in such a way that they spoke to and illuminated one another. You have two people who are utterly familiar with each other physically and domestically and can read each other’s signals with vivid clarity. Clearly, there’s something going on with Neurotic Cat Boy, and clearly, there’s something going on with the protagonist, yet they can’t seem to bring themselves to have an actual conversation about it. This is paralleled by the Post-It note game the word processors play with Barb the Word Processing Manager, and the protagonist’s longing for Reveal Codes, where she can open up a word-processing document and see exactly what’s going on behind the words.
Lee Ann Roripaugh is the author of five volumes of poetry: tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 (Milkweed Editions, 2019), Dandarians (Milkweed, Editions, 2014), On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), Year of the Snake (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), and Beyond Heart Mountain (Penguin, 1999). She was named winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose for 2004, and a 1998 winner of the National Poetry Series. The current South Dakota State Poet Laureate, Roripaugh is a Professor of English at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as Director of Creative Writing and Editor-in-Chief of South Dakota Review.