Luke Rolfes: Robert Long Foreman is the author of three books. Most recently the novel Weird Pig from SEMO Press and the collection I Am Here to Make Friends from Sundress Publications. You also have a collection of essays from Pleiades Press. I’ve followed your writing for several years, and it seems that you are really finding your stride lately in the realm of the surreal and the absurd. Can you talk a bit, holistically, about the evolution of Robert Long Foreman?
Robert Long Foreman: I started writing memoir / personal essays right after I finished a master’s degree in literature, at Ohio University, when I was twenty-four. I was really into Spalding Gray at the time because that’s what a cool guy I was. Inspired by his monologues, like Swimming to Cambodia, I thought it seemed like a great idea to go looking in my own life for significance that could be teased out using the essay form. Everyone wanted to be my friend because I was so cool.
I shied away from writing fiction for a bunch of reasons, including how alienating I found all male fiction writers to be at that time. I know a lot of really good male fiction writers now, who are good people—such as yourself—and I’d met plenty of them by then, too, actually—but there were a few who stood out in my mind as not good, and I was at an age when that mattered. Despite my slick exterior, I was really insecure. I didn’t want to write fiction if it meant turning out like those guys. I’m honestly not even sure at this point who they were.
About seven years after that, I finished a PhD in English with a creative writing emphasis, with a further emphasis on the literary essay. And when I was done writing my dissertation, which was an essayistic memoir about a recently deceased relative, I was drained and felt spent.
I went hunting for morels with my friend Will. I thought morels looked like brains. I was compelled by this notion, and I recognized that it was a notion I could not do justice to in an essay. So, I went home and wrote a short story about a guy who goes to the woods for morels and instead finds a human brain. He takes it home and his dog eats it.
More stories followed, and ten years later I am now the sort of obnoxious asshole fiction writer who originally kept me from wanting to go anywhere near the genre.
LR: I’d like to focus on I Am Here to Make Friends for a bit. I know you write and publish a ton of work in several different genres. The pieces in this collection are quite different from each other, though they seem to be thematically stitched together in the fact that the characters within are searching for something. Connection, maybe? What was the process of putting this book together, and how did you know you had something complete? Did you consider some stories “brick” stories and some “mortar” stories, or are they all equally load-bearing?
RLF: I suspect that some of them are more “mortar” than “brick”, but to me, they’re all load-bearing. Maybe that’s the lesson I should learn from that book and from your question: to the writer of the collection, all stories should appear to be equally important, even if they don’t seem that way to the reader.
I don’t know if that’s true, though. I’ll have to think about it more.
The process of making that book involved taking what was, under a different title, a much longer collection, and whittling it down over the course of several years, switching out older stories for new ones, and making other adjustments, until it all seemed to click into place. There was a lot of trial and error involved, and submission fees for contests that were thrown away on versions of the collection that just weren’t good enough yet to be published.
When I submitted the book to the open reading period for Sundress Publications, who were the ones who ultimately published it, I had to cut some stories to meet the maximum page requirement. And once I was made to do that, I found I was left with the collection in its ideal, slimmer form. My inclination before then was to include everything, but it’s not always best to include everything.
Like a lot of first books of poems, I think, that collection basically consists of all the stories I wrote up to a point. They have a lot in common with one another, like that yearning for connection you’ve identified. They’re all written in the first-person, which was why my friend Kate McIntyre (author of the excellent collection Mad Prairie) suggested I call it I Am Here to Make Friends rather than just Here to Make Friends, which I’d intended to call it.
I’m putting together a new collection, now, and I’m more thoughtful this time about what all the stories are doing together, how they all add up to a whole. But I’m starting to think, too, that there’s no need for that, that the themes will emerge on their own. If you put a bunch of stories in front of the reader, then the reader will do the work of finding patterns. It’s part of the fun of reading a story collection. I think it’s probably enough for the writer to make sure the stories themselves are as good as they can be.
LR: You don’t shy away from much in your work, and you certainly aren’t afraid to satirize American society and social mores. The final piece in the collection is long—a grim novella called “Gunmen” that addresses guns in schools. Can you talk a bit about this piece? Was it a difficult one to write? In America, in the wake of repeated school violence, there is a growing call to arm teachers. Does it freak you out to see reality trying to conform to the dystopia you imagined in this piece?
RLF: Things I write have a tendency to come true. When I was a professor in Rhode Island, I wrote a whole unpublished novel about a fictional version of myself quitting teaching to become a ghostwriter. I had no intention of doing that, but then a couple years passed, and I quit teaching and became a ghostwriter. It’s not exactly the most unlikely scenario; it doesn’t make me Nostradamus. But still.
It does freak me out, having written about how bad it would be if all teachers had to carry guns, and then seeing calls for that exact measure being taken, which could only lead to more classrooms pooling with the blood of young children.
I wish that my having included that novella in the book meant more people would read my book now that its events are coming true. But I guess it doesn’t work like that. Should I hire a publicist?
I guess this is just how predictable things have become. This country is always tending toward bigger fractures, toward privatization of things no one should own, toward violence, paranoia, and hatred. Fear and loathing. Arming teachers is not where this will end.
But that novella was basically what I wrote instead of writing a farewell-to-academia essay. It seems like when a lot of people leave full-time teaching jobs, they write long goodbyes to their old jobs. But at that point, I was in a phase of my life when I couldn’t seem to write essays. I’d just read Herta Müller’s novel The Appointment, and I was really taken with the way it’s one long, unbroken account in the voice of a protagonist who’s afraid and completely hemmed in. So, I tried to do something structurally similar to that.
LR: You moved to the Midwest within the last decade, and I’ve been wondering about your story “Cadiz, Missouri.” Like you, the main character, Karen, experiences a move to the Midwest. There are new threats here that Karen has not experienced, such as big bugs and weather that can kill. It all seems otherworldly to her—fascinating and terrifying at the same time. How much does place and landscape affect who a character is in their core? Are they the same person in a different location, or does location get inside of them? Did writing a story about a person relocating to Missouri help you process and understand what it means to relocate?
LRF: That story actually came out of my first stretch of living in Missouri, when I was in grad school at the University of Missouri. People would enter the program having lived in big cities on the coasts. Some of them would spend their first years sneering at everything, complaining how small the town was. They couldn’t get over how backward they found everything to be, and in a lot of ways I’m sure they weren’t wrong about the place, but it seemed weird to me that someone would write off an entire region because a small town didn’t, say, have enough Thai restaurants.
The word “empathy” was partly what led me to write that story. Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams had just come out, and lots of people were using the word “empathy” a lot, even more than they do now. So, I wanted to write a story about apathy, about someone who embraces apathy and defends it, despite what she knows everyone else thinks.
The funny thing is that as much as I wanted to satirize the disdain people have on the coasts for places like Missouri, I recognize now that in writing that story I was channeling a real discomfort that I felt with the landscape here. I like it here; I don’t intend to move; but it will probably always feel strange to me, as a native West Virginian, that when I go outside and look around in Kansas City, I don’t see ancient mountains in every direction. When I go home to WV, I realize what I’m missing, and feel restored somehow, and that definitely informs that story and probably everything I’ll ever write that takes place here.
LR: Let’s switch gears and talk Weird Pig, quite likely the most wonderfully strange book I’ve ever read. The premise: A walking, talking, foul-mouthed pig takes on America. A ridiculous amount of weirdness, violence, and sex ensues. One way I might describe the book: If Weird Pig were a song, it would have to be played at maximum volume. What was the inspiration for this book and character?
RLF: It started soon after my second daughter, Rose, was born. She was a colicky baby, maybe the most colicky baby in history. No one in the house could sleep. One morning I read to our older daughter, Moriah, the Arnold Lobel story “The Small Pig.” All morning, after that, I was deliriously repeating “Small Pig,” to myself, in my head. Eventually, after enough repetitions, that became “Weird Pig.”
Sometime later, I went to Panera Bread, in Cranston, Rhode Island, which is the most miserable place you could ever do anything and wrote a short story about Weird Pig called “Weird Pig.” It’s about the life of Weird Pig.
Soon I started writing other stories about Weird Pig. I wrote each one within one hour only—forty minutes to write the first draft, twenty minutes to revise it. The reason why I did that is a long, boring story. Mostly they were terrible, but some of them were good.
Once I’d written a bunch of those stories, I realized I had a whole character arc. In some stories, Weird Pig was like Babe the pig, really nice and innocent; in others he was a vicious monster. I asked myself, how do you get a little pig to go from being nice to being so horrible? The novel arose from that question. I wrote the connective tissue between the stories, and that became the novel.
LR: I’m curious if you ever wrote (or attempted to write) a chapter or a Weird Pig adventure that got too weird, even for Weird Pig? If so, what was it?
RLF: There are many Weird Pig outtakes. Most of them just didn’t turn out well; they were weird and dumb, but not in a fun way, in a boring way.
Probably the weirdest chapters ended up in the book, like the climax of the novel, which is based on a story that’s written in a few paragraphs on the sleeve of Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak LP.
But to show you how bad and stupid the Weird Pig stories could get, here is one. You don’t have to include it, of course, if you don’t want to. I was basically trying to write an If You Give a Pig a Pancake for Weird Pig:
“When I said I was working on the Weird Pig story cycle, Weird Pig thought I’d said something about a pigcycle. He got excited and demanded that someone spin him around. The strongman obliged. He grabbed Weird Pig by his front hooves and whirled him in a circle as the little passenger shrieked and laughed. When that was over, Weird Pig went to the kitchen and ate all the Fig Newtons he could fit into his young pig body. He ran in a straight line for a while, and ended up in front of the television, watching Newshour on PBS because, he said, there was nothing else on.
Someone was going to have to buy him a pigcycle. Once Weird Pig got an idea in his head, it stuck there.
Farmer Dan obliged. He ordered the pigcycle out of a Hills catalog, plus a giant bag of pre-popped movie theater popcorn. When they arrived, Dan had a popcorn feast and watched Weird Pig ride the pigcycle up and down the block for three hours, squealing all the way, and honking the horn, which made the recorded sound of another pig squealing. It ran on diesel gasoline and got all right mileage.
The next morning, early, Weird Pig woke and decided that up and down the block was not enough. I have to go farther, he said. I must exceed my prior conquests. So, he hopped aboard ECTO-5, which was what he called his pigcycle, and rode straight to the busy interstate.
The pigcycle’s top speed was 40 mph, and people drive fast on interstate. No one liked having to slow down for Weird Pig. He lasted three minutes before someone in a pickup truck pulled up beside him and shot one of the wheels of the pigcycle out from under him. The bike spilled and tumbled, leaving Weird Pig skinned and squealing on the highway shoulder.
The pickup stopped about a hundred feet ahead of where Weird Pig had wrecked.
The driver emerged, reloading the shotgun he’d unloaded on the pigcycle with both barrels. Locking it back in place, he stalked up the highway, drooling spit and hungry for pig, while commuters sped past him.
Weird Pig was just gathering his limbs off the highway, barely able to walk, bleeding from every knee due to the ultimate pigcycle wipeout. He saw what was coming up the road for him: death with a shotgun in his hand. He tried to remember what Peter Fonda did to escape the same scene in Easy Rider. He couldn’t remember what he did, which was for the best.
Just then, who was driving on the interstate but Patriots quarterback and hero to millions Tom Brady, a man who had, like Weird Pig, faced down many threats against his life and his honor, a man who had persevered, who had bet against the odds and won big.
Tom Brady’s pickup—a fully-loaded Ford F-150, the only rig that Tom would ever drive—squealed to a halt right behind Weird Pig. He leapt from the cab of the truck, and at the shotgun guy he tossed a perfect Hail Mary that hit the man on the throat and left him choking by the roadside.
'Get in!' shouted Tom. 'Get in the truck!'
Weird Pig just managed to climb into the truck bed as Tom peeled out, accelerated fast with a thousand horsepower, and crushed the attempted highway killer’s head with his wheels.
'You won’t have to worry about him anymore,' cried Tom through the back window to Weird Pig.
He tossed him a Coors.
Weird Pig said, 'Thanks for the Coors, Tom. But didn’t you just kill that guy?'
'Isn’t that against the law?'
'He had a shotgun, Weird Pig. I was standing my ground.'
'He wasn’t standing, though. He was totally unconscious.'
'Don’t worry about it,' said Tom, cracking open a Coors with one hand. The Coors was custom-made for him at the Coors canning facility. Instead of saying Coors on the can, it said Tom’s Coors. 'Here on the open road,' he elaborated, 'I have political immunity.'
He took Weird Pig to his own private hospital, where Weird Pig was restored within hours to perfect health. They even corrected his farsightedness and cured his asthma.
When Tom drove him home, they listened to Counting Crows, full blast.
It was probably the best day of Weird Pig’s life, up to then.”
LR: I’m interested in your revision process of this novel. So much of its genesis, I’m assuming, was you pushing the boundaries—challenging yourself to see what Weird Pig would do next or challenging yourself to move past the constraints of a normal narrative arc. How did you balance the rawness of the initial drafts with the need to give readers something cohesive and polished?
RLF: The earliest draft of the novel is one in which I really didn’t care what the reader thought. I wasn’t interested in giving them something polished or cohesive. I wanted to spill a big mess in their lap and laugh about it. It was, I think, about 40,000 words longer than the book ended up being in the end, and it contained basically everything I wrote about Weird Pig, including all the short stories. There was this long chapter about a wolf that Weird Pig threw into a lake with its legs tied together.
I sent that early draft to a contest, the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel. And it didn’t win that year, but editor James Brubaker wrote in the rejection that everyone there liked it, they just thought it was overlong and messy. And so, I went about ruthlessly cutting anything from the novel that wasn’t essential, and ultimately there was this relatively cohesive, but much more presentable book. And that was what won the same contest the next year.
It's worth emphasizing, I think, that sending that message to me wasn’t something James Brubaker had to do; he could have just sent a regular “you didn’t win this year, try again” message and left it at that; he was doing extra work by telling me that the book, despite its flaws, was well-received among the people who read it. If he hadn’t done that extra work, I wouldn’t have probably bothered revising Weird Pig; I would have considered it another failure—not my first or last—and moved on. He’s a wonderful editor, because he took the time to communicate to me what he did, and for all his input in the editing process after I ultimately won that same award.
LR: What’s next for you and your writing? How do you follow up to Weird Pig? A sequel? Another novel or collection? Are you going to keep pushing the boundaries between reality and absurdity, or do you want to switch gears and write something realistic?
RLF: I want to do both!
I have a novel that I’ve recently finished, called We Eat the Rich. It’s about four women who roam the USA in a van, killing and eating people they perceive as having accumulated too much wealth. It’s absurd at times like Weird Pig is, but it’s got a much greater sense of gravity than Weird Pig could have had.
Most of my writing, though, isn’t as absurd as Weird Pig. I’ve got some short stories I’d like to gather in a collection of more realist work. And I’m working on a novel called The Housesitter’s Housesitter’s Housesitter’s Niece, which with any luck will be funny but grounded. It’s about a young woman from Kansas City who travels to New York to visit her aunt, who’s housesitting in place of several other house sitters for a billionaire with a luxury skyscraper penthouse. I’ve never been to New York, so it will all take place inside the penthouse, which fills and fills with social climbers until all hell breaks loose.
We’ll see if any of this turns into anything. I’m always expecting the last thing I did to be the very last thing I’ll have ever done.
I hope I get to keep going for a while, though. There’s so much more ridiculous garbage I want to spew at everyone.
Bio: Robert's first book, AMONG OTHER THINGS, a collection of essays, won the inaugural Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose and was published by Pleiades Press in 2017.
His collection of short stories, I AM HERE TO MAKE FRIENDS, was published by Sundress Publications in early 2020.
His first novel, WEIRD PIG, won the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel. It was published by SEMO Press in October 2020.
Robert has won a Pushcart Prize for his fiction. Six of his essays have been listed as "Notable" in the Best American Essays anthologies.
He has won fiction and nonfiction contests at The Cincinnati Review, Willow Springs, American Literary Review, and The Journal, and he has published short stories and essays in such magazines as Agni, Crazyhorse, Electric Literature, and Kenyon Review Online.
He earned a Ph.D. in English with a Creative Writing emphasis at the University of Missouri.
He lives in Kansas City.
In addition to writing his own work, he is a freelance editor / writer / ghostwriter.