Author Interview With Rufi Thorpe
I can’t even tell you how excited I am to bring you today’s author interview! Rufi Thorpe is one of the authors I discovered this year, whose books helped me get through this tough period. Her newest novel, The Knockout Queen is my favorite novel of 2020.
Rufi Thorpe grew up in Southern California, whose people and coastlines and real estate listings continue to obsess her. She was a Henry Hoyns Fellow at the University of Virginia’s MFA program. Her first novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, was long-listed for the Dylan Thomas and Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Thorpe’s latest novel, The Knockout Queen, was an IndieNext Pick, a People Magazine Book of the Week, and a Book of the Month. She lives with her husband, two sons and an insane dog in Los Angeles.
Author Interview With Rufi Thorpe
Ramona Mead: Did you aspire to be a writer from a young age?
Rufi Thorpe: Well, I was always in love with books and reading was my great comfort and companion as a child, but it didn’t occur to me to try to write stories until I was a teenager, and I wasn’t honest with myself about how badly I wanted to be a writer for real until the end of college. I was always trying to find something else to do that would allow me to write in my spare time or on the side, but that was more because I was addicted to writing than that I thought I would have success at it. I went to grad school for creative writing, and I thought: this is it, I’m on the path to becoming a real writer! But then you get there and you realize it is a guarantee of nothing. Even when you publish a book, you think, oh then I will be a real writer, but the moment you publish one you realize it is no guarantee you will get to publish another one. I’m not sure you ever do hit a point where you are positive you are a real writer, or maybe you just realize there is no such thing. You are just permanently a weirdo like everybody else.
RM: Your newest novel, The Knockout Queen, came out in April of this year. How was that release during the pandemic different than your prior ones? What was most notable about publishing during a pandemic?
RT: Honestly, it was great. It was kind of right at the start of the pandemic and no one knew what to do or how it was going to work and as a consequence, everyone was just so kind. Booksellers were offering events when they were scrambling to try to move their entire business model online and they barely had time to breathe, Bookstagrammers were realizing what was happening, that all these books were going to drown and just not get read, and so they were so generous with their time and help and advice, other authors were so kind and generous to do events with me, and since we weren’t limited by geography I got to do some pairings I never would have gotten to do. I did an event with Kevin Wilson and Aimee Bender and we were all in different cities, it was a bucket-list type dream event for me that never would have happened if we weren’t doing it all online. So all in all, I feel like I had a really lucky time of it in what was a globally bad situation.
RM: I’ve described your novels as “exposing the seedy under belly of the suburbs.” Do you feel that’s a fair assessment? Why or why not?
RT: Ha, well I think I do it that way just because that is how life seems to me. People are always referring to my books as so dark, and it is true that I think my obsessions, the things I am bothered by and need to work through, are about the darker parts of human nature, but I also think some elements of darkness are just incredibly common. Alcoholism and abusive relationships, non-ideal sexual situations, violence, these things are maybe not talked about openly, but you really can’t find a family completely untouched by them once you start looking at people and asking: why are they this way?
RM: All of your novels focus on unique friendships to some degree. What draws you to write about those kinds of relationships?
RT: I like friendships because they are to me the purest love. There is very little economy in a friendship, you aren’t using each other for money or safety or sex, you don’t need each other, you just really like each other. And so I think it enables a kind of understanding and acceptance of who the other person really is, deep down, the good and the bad. Sometimes you can’t stand to know about the darkness in your son or daughter, or in your husband or your mom. But in a friend, you can stand to really look at it, and that enables me to draw a fuller portrait.
RM: Do you plot your novels out ahead of time? Or do you discover the story as you go?
RT: I do plot them out. I usually have an idea or a premise and a rough idea of the plot, and then I write maybe the first third, kind of act one, and I do that to find the characters and understand the voice and the themes and everything. A lot of times I have to rewrite act one a million times just to get to something that feels true and right, and then from there I can go ahead and plot out the rest of it, and I do it at a pretty granular level, scene by scene, and then I write pretty fast after that, just kind of knocking out the scenes and then I spend a long time rewriting and fussing with it. I’ve never been able to just see where it goes, although sometimes the characters do surprise me, they won’t do something I had planned, or some new element gets introduced that has a weird power to it and you realize it needs to get folded into everything. There are always lots of surprises, no matter how carefully you plan.
RM: How do you get the creativity flowing?
RT: Gossip. I mean, just people talking, the stories people tell. I’ll hear about something, say, like, I heard about these kids, teenagers, who broke into an abandoned mansion and were playing around, and one of them went down the trash chute and accidentally triggered the compactor and died this horrible gruesome death, but as it was happening screamed to his friends warning them not to go down the chute. I hear a story like that and I just can’t forget about it, it’s like a burr stuck to me, and I will turn it around and around trying to figure out what is bothering me about it, what is scaring me about it, or what is charming me about it. But I don’t try to make it into a story, it’s just that I can’t stop thinking about it, and then something else will come along, some other story or image or detail that will suddenly seem to match, and I will realize they have something to do with each other, and then I know I am collecting something, pieces of a puzzle that will become a novel. So it is a very collector mentality, I think, coming up with ideas for novels. It’s a very magpie impulse, this desire to try to save something from the slipstream of consciousness.
RM: Do you have a daily habit of writing?
RT: Not really. I mean, I am happiest when I am actively working on a novel, but I tend to need large chunks of time if I am really writing, and that isn’t always possible. Sometimes I spend months just being a mom and reading and noodling around. I think the idea that you have to write every day is a little misguided. What is true is that writing will make you better at writing. It’s like anything else, you have to put the hours in to get good at it, and one way of doing that is to write daily.
RM: Do you read much? If so, who are your favorite authors?
RT: Oh, I wish I read so much more, I prefer to read two or three novels a week, but that rate is just impossible for me now, there are too many demands on my time, especially in quarantine, I’m barely able to keep up with the books I’m supposed to read for events or blurbs, or for research, or that friends have published. I miss spending just whole days getting lost in a book. But even still, I’m always reading something. I think my favorite writers really are the big female novelists of the last forty years: Jane Smiley, Ann Tyler, Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Strout, Margaret Atwood, Karen Joy Fowler, Louise Erdrich, I mean there are so many of them. But I have far-ranging taste, I love mystery novels and more magical/speculative stuff and sci-fi too. I loved Black Friday by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.
RM: What do you like to do in your free time?
RT: Play video games with my kids. Lust after woodworking equipment I would use to make incredibly ugly furniture if I ever bought it. Not on purpose, I just assume my ambition would far outstrip my actual aptitude. I have a bull terrier named Coco, who is insane, and I love playing around with her. She likes to bounce on the trampoline with me and the boys.
RM: Can you tell us about your current projects?
RT: The quarantine is tough, running the kids’ school has fallen to me as my job is the least real or demanding or official, I guess, and so it’s really a lost year for me. I did start working on something and wrote the act one of it, but I’m really not sure if I am going to continue it. It was about a girl who is making her living on OnlyFans and develops this very deep but not strictly sexual or romantic relationship with one of her fans, but he is a data scientist who writes these deep learning algorithms and together they wind up creating all these fake girls using AI and opening these accounts where they are generating unreal images and text for people to fall in love with, so very much a book about the line between the real and the imagined, what’s fake and what’s not, and how you are supposed to tell the difference.