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Interview: Daniel Riddle Rodriguez

Fourteen Hills Press is pleased to announce that Daniel Riddle Rodriguez is the winner of the 2014 Bambi Holmes Award for Emerging Writers for his story “Cockroach,” which was published in Fourteen Hills 20.1.

Daniel is a full-time student and father from San Lorenzo, California, where he lives with his son. Moonlighting as a performance poet, he represented the Oakland Slam Team at National Poetry Slam 2014. His previous and upcoming publications include Prairie Schooner, Juked, Gulf Stream and Ampersand Books among others. He is thrilled to be here.

Fourteen Hills (14H): How did you arrive at writing?

Daniel Riddle Rodriguez (DRR): It started five years ago. I had just bought the movie A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, based upon Dito Montiel's memoir of the same name. The menu screen was all neighborhood kids doing neighborhood things, a mosaic of corner-store thugs and stoop bullies, smoking pot and fighting, and Ace Frehley's "New York Groove" was playing in the background, and I'm not exactly sure what happened, but I was overwhelmed by the compulsion to write my own stories—my own hagiography, if you will. Everyday after that I let the menu screen loop while trying my hand at short fiction. I never did watch the movie.

14H: Hagiography of your own characters is an interesting method to approach them with. Is this something you think about often? How might a situation or scene that occurs be approached with reverence in mind?

DRR: Yes, a reverence—but tempered with a blue-collar Catholicism. Which is to say: baptized, confirmed, lapsed. You know we have 10,000 saints? Canonized for all manner of things, from curing cancer to holding papal office; patron saints who band together to fight whooping cough, volcanic eruptions, dog attacks. I write about gritty things, you know? Sex work, petty crime, drug abuse. I'm not saying my characters—who are, for the most part, amalgamations of people with whom I grew up—are saints. They aren't. They are human and botched and beautifully unrepentant. The world already has a patron saint of reformed prostitutes, penitent criminals. But the recidivist prays too, and he or she needs an interlocutor. LOL, now I sound irreverent . . .

14H: Doesn't sound irreverent to me. It feels like your work and approach respect these characters and what they embody. Would you say that your stories serve as remembrances for the characters who get swept beneath the cracks or marginalized by society?

DRR: They are certainly remembrances for me, but I'm not sure where society fits in. I don't have a social agenda; I’m not interested in "giving voice to the voiceless." Social protest novels are fine, but I'd rather leave them for a writer more partisan than myself. Besides, all my characters have recurring roles in one another's stories—Valentine, a supporting character in "Cockroach," is the main protagonist in a different story—and I would not be able to maintain interest in them if they were only victims. Self-agency is what drives them: ownership. They are no more interested in staying within society's margins than the average person is in stepping outside of them.

14H: You have also published some poetry. Is there any interplay between your poetry and fiction?

DRR: Definitely. I came into the performance poetry scene almost two years ago. A friend of mine, a slam poet, invited me to an open mic under the—very false—pretense of it being a normal poetry reading. And by normal I mean quiet, sedate, a room full of people facing forward with their mouths closed, some snapping fingers if they're feeling rowdy, right? About thirty seconds in I realize I've been duped, that this is not a "normal" show, but a workshop followed by an open mic, where, ideally, poets can share the work they just wrote. That was the rub. Every poet who touched the stage had to read something new.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should make clear, before that day, I had never written a poem. A dye-in-the-wool philistine, I didn't so much as read modern poetry. Long story short, my name ends up on the sign-up sheet, and I, no doubt a victim of identity theft and mild forgery, find myself onstage reading what could be called a poem, but was only a bunch of metaphors, daisy-chained and yelled into a microphone. I was hooked. Still am, really. It's an affair with practical benefits, as well. I've learned to pay close attention to the rhythm of sentences, to cadence. Poetry is an exercise in concision—right word right order, yeah?—and concision is a good thing. Plus the slam world is all embracing. Fiction writer, page poet, stand-up comic, whatever—if you are dope, you are in. I've met some great people in those rooms, talented, brilliant.

(Shout out to Tim "Toaster" Henderson, Jazz Sufi, and Jelal Huyler!)

14H: Are there any authors that you turn to for inspiration?

DRR: Yes, of course. Everyday. I keep a copy of The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel in my bag at all times; ditto Lorrie Moore's Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?; Donald Barthelme is in constant rotation. I make it a point to reread Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man every year or so—the first one hundred pages are murder! Conrad, Tolstoy, and, of course, Shakespeare—always Shakespeare. When I was a kid, my father would read to me from The Riverside Edition of his complete works, going over each line until I was practically counting entendres, and then we would watch a performance. He was trying to show me that language is a living thing, and how a story, once written, has the potential to outlast us all; however, as long as we are here, we get to participate, actively, as readers and as members of the audience. It felt sacred. That's been the greatest inspiration for me—sitting in the dark between my parents, watching A Midsummer Night's Dream, and all of us waiting for Goodfellow's final monologue so we can join hands and grant the Bard his pardon . . . I was kind of a weird kid.

14H: If there was one piece of advice that you would give an aspiring author what would it be?

DRR: I would tell him or her to be a reader first. The secrets are all there, in print; all you have to do is acknowledge your predecessors, and they will give you everything. Maybe because I started at this writing game so late, I never think of myself as an aspiring writer. My aspiration is to write well. There is a subtle yet very real distinction between being something and doing something, and the two aren't always mutually inclusive. So I write as often as possible. Everyday. I'm selfish with myself and my time. LOL, I am a thirty-one-year-old, cigarette-smoking, ex-con whose family history is dense with cancer, diabetes, and suicidal depression; the way I figure it, I'm already about halfway done with life—or is it the other way around?—so I'm going to get it in while I can. I don't believe in inspiration or writer's block. I don't have a room of my own, or a window with a beautiful view. I have a close circle of friends—only two writers in the bunch—and we never talk shop . . . we talk hip-hop! You know, Jay-Z vs. Nas (Jay-Z, of course), or Kendrick Lamar vs. J. Cole (J. Cole, of course). And most of them haven't read my work. I am blessed to have them.

14H: What are you working on right now?

DRR: A book of interconnected short stories, all of which are set in or around San Lorenzo, and feature a recurring cast of characters. I'm drawing upon all my influences: Winesburg, Ohio; Cannery Row; Othello (Shakespeare, always Shakespeare); Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County; Wise Blood; and, of course, my own life. Here I'd like to quote the inimitable Flannery O'Connor: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” I sit down everyday with the belief that there isn't a writer on the planet save myself who could tell these stories with any authority. There's a lot of dirt under these nails . . .

Outside of work work, I am trying to knock out Shakespeare's oeuvre by the summer—just about halfway done. I bought a skateboard one month ago and am determined to "skate or die!" And lastly, my partner, Samantha Aper—who moonlights as my muse, and without whom "Cockroach" could not have been written—and I have joined a gym, because, she insists, there is a mind/body/universe connection. And I'm not one to pick a fight with the universe . . . my arms are way too short, dig? Yeah . . .

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