In his multi-award winning (Winner of the Edgar Award and Louisiana Literary Award, shortlisted for the 2020 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing) debut book Tinderbox, writer Robert W. Fieseler explores the 1973 fire that devastated New Orleans’ queer community. The book chronicles what happened the night when 32 people lost their lives in one of the largest mass murders against gay and lesbian people in our country’s history.
The book is an eye opening account that all interested in civil rights and the queer community should absolutely read.
Below, Robert W. Fieseler answered Debutiful‘s “A Life of Books” questionnaire.
Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?
No book ever quite affected me as profoundly as Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s a book about the clash of extractive capitalism and creativity, being oneself while also having a moral compass. These are notions I’ve obsessed about my entire life. I remember the day Charlie found me. I remember being five years old, having just learned to read, not because I couldn’t before then but because I public school kid lost in the mix of mass education, and I walked into Maplebrook Elementary ready for another boring morning, where I’d be told to shut up and sit still and be quiescent. Then the teachers gathered us all up in a common area to tell us something terribly important had happened: Willy Wonka had released five golden tickets! So began the most breathtaking story. I could feel in my bones the teachers inviting us to play pretend with them while sitting still, to let the imagination hover above the body, and it was all so real because I could literally visualize the words and characters and scenes they were using to describe poverty and candy and honor and despicability. Charlie was the first book to ever transport me to another place, and it was therefore the first book I ever loved. It encapsulates what I’ve come to love in every book: Its ability to capture attention and take you on a ride, its function as a human teleportation device.
Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?
I’m of the opinion that a child’s imagination should be stoked without limits (trust me, life will place limitations all by itself) and that children should read widely and bravely beside sympathetic elders who’ll help them wrestle with what they’re encountering. I’m the proud Guncle (gay uncle) of four nieces under the age of three. Two are already becoming readers, and I look forward to the day when I can do for them what my teachers did for me, when I can gather them in a room and tell them that something terribly important has happened: Willy Wonka has released five golden tickets! Then I suppose I’ll experience it all again from the other side. I’ll watch tops of their heads fly off as they ponder the injustice of Charlie’s poverty and the competing values of humility and ambition in the five children wanting something from Mr. Wonka, as well as the dark complexity of Mr. Wonka’s complete lack of responsibility for the fates of other human beings.
Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?
I tried to read To Kill a Mockingbird my freshman year of high school and hated it. Not the message. I appreciated its core message about the evils of racism and the violence of making something “the other.” But all the saccharine characters seemed cast in a two-dimensional morality play. I didn’t like Scout, and I never could believe that Atticus was a good as she thought he was. I myself had an exceptional father, an idealist and an attorney who was also a classic manic-depressive, who had a profound moral compass but who behaved very differently as the charming man in public or the angry exhausted, put-upon guy in private. I suppose this reality prevented me as a teen from believing that a man of stoic patience like Atticus Finch would ever be so holistically consistent. In real life, Atticus Finch’s children would resent the way strangers blindly admire him. I admired my dad in the way Scout admired Atticus, but I also saw him in the way that children of manic-depressives see their parents—as performers. Those who perform for others are incessant manipulators of rooms, bullies of what they can’t control, hypocrites when alone. We’ve all, of course, learned through Harper Lee’s later re-visitations that she also perceived Atticus as cracked and flawed and morally ambiguous at various points in her creative process. Having reread To Kill a Mockingbird as an adult, I appreciate now why many love the book and believe it to be seminal. It’s a book I wish I could let myself love, which I think would mean I’d live a simpler life. I honestly don’t know if that will ever happen. Yet I do believe that the decades-long push-pull between To Kill a Mockingbird and myself constitutes a deep relationship. We engage with each other, check in.
What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?
I loved Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. It got into my teenage loins and made me want to wander and make mistakes, to expand my mind and my limited worldview as well as experiment with psychedelic mushrooms. I still think this book has a vital place for young minds and can certainly invigorate a life, but as I’ve grown older and dated my fair share of Peter Pans, I’ve met so many – pardon my French – self-admiring, indulgent fuckboys who leave a wake of damage and describe On the Road as their favorite book. I feel like I keep meeting this guy who says that his favorite line of literature is, “The only people for me are the mad ones…,” which ends with Kerouac’s ode to a roman candle. It’s become such a red flag. I avoid this person today as a toxic narcissist who views every human relationship as just another note in the guitar solo of his life’s fuck-yeah-ness. On the Road is certainly a carpe diem book, but it’s not a book of self-awareness. I mean, the hero of the book Dean Moriarty abandons Sal Paradise, the protagonist, near the end of the book when Sal is sick. I guess I’m saying that one’s worship of On the Road does not age well, kind of like how that dude at a backyard barbeque who tries to corner you with a spring-loaded lecture about his love for the band Rush does not age well. People grow past things or grow stale.
Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?
Nobody’s really asked me this before. Um, yes. I wrote a work of nonfiction, a serious queer history about a tragic event, but books I looked to for structure and inspiration were actually works of serious speculative and science fiction. I read Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos to learn how to introduce, hold and balance multiple characters in an ensemble story. I inhaled almost the complete works of Ursula K. Le Guin to learn how she could portray setting as character. The Dispossessed. The Left Hand of Darkness. The Word for World is Forest, from which James Cameron clearly filched to create Avatar, but I digress. I thought that the City of New Orleans needed to be the biggest character in Tinderbox, and, insomuch as I succeeded, it was Le Guin who helped me do that. Nonfiction writers, with almost religious obsession, almost exclusively stick to their own genre for pleasure reading, and that is a mistake. There is so much to be learned from poetry, from science fiction, from lessons that can be gained by listening to and admiring those unlike yourself from a distance.
What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?
I had to think a lot about this one. Because, honestly, I’m not envious of other prose writers. I don’t wish their books were mine. When a book is great, it is wholly, fully, an expression of that author’s unique voice, and I am glad for it. Sure, I’ll read a beautiful work or one of those beatific lines that seem to lift from a page and be filled with wonder, but I will feel not the pangs of associated insecurity or paranoia or the wish for schadenfreude to be wrought upon that voice for the sin of “beating” the rest of us poseurs. My reaction is never, “Fuck that guy for being the genuine article and making that beautiful thing.” I think there’s a certain egalitarian, workmanlike quality to prose, and it constantly reinforces the notion that with enough work and sustained attention and single-minded practice/devotion, I – or anyone else, really – could learn to write something approaching such profundity. With prose, you learn to make it simple. You lay your clean sentences like wood planks, one after the next, and work to polish and improve them. Eventually, they gleam. What does make me jealous, what does provoke the covetous desire for ownership out of me is great poetry. The work of Keats, of Frost, of Louise Glück. A perfect line in a great poem can be savored forever. It’s, in some senses, the highest form of language. Between the words, approaching spirituality. It’s like the songs of Tolkien’s elves, of un-fallen creatures. I don’t know how to do what they do. But poets are artisans, and I am more like a journeyman contractor. We both build, but come on! It’s so easy to write a bad poem, so hard to make a good one. Authors like myself will write an entire book-length work of prose just create one poetic moment.
What have you been reading during your quarantine and social distancing?
I’ve been reading N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy. It’s speculative fiction at its highest form. She’s literally rewriting and expanding the possibilities of the genre, and I aspire someday to write one book as good as The Fifth Season. I’ve also read some incredible Southern queer nonfiction. Stone Motel: Memoirs of a Cajun Boy Book by Morris Ardoin, which is really the first testimony I’ve ever read about the gay Cajun (Gayjun?) experience, and Coming Out of the Magnolia Closet: Same-Sex Couples in Mississippi, by John F. Marszalek III, which explores the complex and multigenerational queer societies of Mississippi. It’s NOT what you think. Queer Mississippi is legit.
And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.
Nail Book 2.