INTERVIEW: JODY RATHGEB

Long and Short Reviews welcomes Jody Rathgeb, whose debut novel Fish-Eye Lens is out from Belle Isle Books. Fish-Eye Lens has also been nominated for the 2012 Library of Virginia Literary Award in Fiction.

Jody told me that almost as soon as she knew what stories were and could put sentences together, she started writing—stories, songs, poems. She started her first novel when she was eight.

“It was awful,” she admitted, “and I never went beyond a few pages.”

She improved, however, and over the years she had some short stories published and many features and columns she did for four newspapers and about ten magazines. She never took herself seriously as a fiction writer, though, until she moved to North Caicos Island.

“The island inspired me and gave me material. I was bartending at the time and listening to the local guys was entering a new world that I wanted to share. I felt the rhythm of their speech and learned about what was important to them and their attitudes,” she explained. “I started developing my own opinions about the island’s politics and issues as well, and when it came time to express them, I turned to fiction. I tell people that Fish-Eye Lens was written out of wishful thinking. There was a certain person on island who was completely insensitive to the local culture and the environment, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if you could kick someone like this off the island?’ That’s where the book came from.”

For Jody, the characters come to her first and then the conflict, or plot, grows from them. Fish-Eye Lens started with the jerky developer, Benny Royston, and the trio of good-time island girls who love the island dearly. They are going to try everything they can to get Benny off the island.

“My job was just to arrange their attempts into a story arc and let it fly!” she said.

After she completed Fish-Eye Lens, Jody began a sequel to it, but it wasn’t going well so she took a break and started a series of short stories, all connected with the islands.

“I have quite a collection now, a few of which have been published, so I’d like to do some polishing and tinkering, then try to get the collection published,” she told me. “I also have a draft for another novel that came from participating in National Novel Writing Month last November. I promised myself I’d let it cool and then take a look to see if it’s worth pursuing. I think it is, at least in part, but whether it is another novel or a couple of stories remains to be seen.”

When she was writing nonfiction, she never had many problems with writer’s block, because the deadline kept her focused and moving forward. She can, however, remember getting stuck when she moved away and developing a story was left up to her and wasn’t an assigned story. What she would do then would be to write just for herself, without a goal in mind.

“It was somewhat like a journal, except I was doing island vignettes based on the things that were happening to me or small character sketches of people I was meeting,” she explained. “That eventually led into the novel writing. Nowadays I don’t call it writer’s block, but it still happens, and I blame it on the busy-ness of life. ‘Oh, I can’t start a new short story because the cat is sick and the laundry needs to be done and we need some groceries here.’ My solution there is just simple discipline. I pretend I have an editor breathing down my neck, sit down and do it.”

Jody told me that she’s an outliner—of sorts. She will jot down notes about where she’d like the plot to go, mostly as reminders to herself when she’s in the thick of the writing.

“It’s somewhat the same with characters, since most of my characters are blends of people I know, myself, and common traits. So I’ll write something like: Rebecca. VCU student, from islands. Conflict with wanting to be American, past drawing her back. Wants to belong, but which way? Then, as I write about her, I can go back and keep remembering the basic tension within her.”

She does try not to overplan, however.

“I’m not a puppeteer. Instead, I’ll just keep asking questions. How does she feel about going home for the holidays? What would she do if Eric asked her to marry him? How are she and her roommate getting along? The questions help with both plot and character.”

No matter whether Jody is writing or not, she makes a list for every day, and the writing has to fit into the list.

“Where it goes depends on what else is on the list and where I am,” she told me. “When I wrote Fish-Eye Lens, my mornings and afternoons were devoted to the hard, physical work of maintaining our island home: weeding, painting, cleaning, etc. Then in the mid-afternoon I’d have a swim and a shower and then sit down to write. Here in Richmond I seem to write better in the mornings, although I do weave household chores into the work to give myself spaces to think. I almost never write in the evenings, but now that I’m developing some aging insomnia I do sometimes get up at 2 or 3 a.m. and write a bit.”

“What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?” I wondered.

“No matter what it is, I always start on paper, with a pen. I will eventually go to the computer screen, but at least the first sentence, and commonly the first couple of paragraphs, are in black ink on a legal pad. I have a favorite pen, too. It’s broken so that I can’t retract it, and my husband wants to replace it, but I won’t let him. I panic if I can’t find my pen. It’s not exceptional – a Cross ballpoint – but I’m attached to it.”

About the Author:

Jody Rathgeb spent sixteen years as a full-time journalist before launching her freelance writing career in 1994. She is a regular contributor to Times of the Islands, a regional magazine for the Turks and Caicos Islands, and from 2003-2008 she lived on North Caicos, where she and her husband built a retirement home. Her nonfiction and fiction pieces have appeared in numerous publications, and her weekly blog, “An island life/a writing life” can be found on her website, www.JodyRathgeb.com. She currently resides in Richmond, Virginia, with her husband, Tom, and two cats. Fish-Eye Lens is her first novel.

When Cherry arrives on the island of East Taino as part of an ecological documentary film crew, she has two things on her mind: proving to her boss and male colleagues that she can handle anything they can throw at her, and figuring out what to do about her husband back home, whose notions of wifely duties have become increasingly stifling. Her job is to interview the women on the island to document how they drove out a seedy land developer named Benny Royston. Cherry delves right in–only to discover that the real story is far more complex than it appears. She quickly finds herself sucked into an insular world of booze, gossip, sex and religion–a world in which she might lose herself or find a sense of purpose and a place within the unlikely Taino sisterhood. If only she can stay out of trouble and root out the secrets no one’s telling her.

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Comments

  1. I am always looking for new authors to read and your book sounds really good. I have added it to my TBR list.

  2. Fish-Eye Lens is a snappy page-turner, with all sorts of quirky details about island life woven in. I enjoyed it immensely and highly recommend it.

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