The Reluctant Memoirist: Jay Roberts Interviewed

November 8, 2013 § 8 Comments


In late September, Jay Roberts’ insightful, haunting essay “Center of the Universe” was published in Orange Coast Magazine. This essay explores seduction, sexuality, and self-awareness through the unlikely frame of a chance encounter with a serial killer. Like many readers, I first discovered it at the end of October, when it was republished by Thought Catalog and began showing up on Facebook. I was so struck by the voice that I went looking for other work by the author, and discovered that “Center of the Universe” is his first published piece, so I used my magic Brevity talk-to-writers-I-admire card to ask him to discuss the process of creating this work and how he feels about it’s reception. He graciously said yes.  – Sarah Einstein, Managing Editor

toy-soldiersSE: For me, one of the most compelling elements of your essay “Center of the Universe” is the way in which you use this event to examine yourself and your reactions to Randy Kraft. As Andrea Denhoed of the New Yorker says, “This story could have been told very differently. It easily could have been angled for a ‘Whoa, that’s insane’ effect. What’s truly remarkable about Roberts’ s account is how honest he is about his own reactions to Kraft–how pliantly he responded to his requests, how hungry he was for his attentions.” Can you talk a little bit about your choices as a writer in this piece, and about what you wanted the reader to understand after she had finished it?

JR: My immediate reaction was just as Ms. Deanhoed suggests this story could have been.  I was clicking around the web, recognized Kraft, and nearly fell out of my chair.  And the next day or two, I related it that way to a couple of friends, my role in it exculpated by the denial and revisionism that I still allowed myself to believe.

Even with that context, I was just floored to have had something like that touch my life. It was just beyond belief and I was pretty distressed.  Nonetheless, I attributed it to the “whoa, dude” aspect of it.

A very close friend of mine from my Navy days responded to an email with comments along the lines of, “What a scumbag. I bet you were happy leaving that room.”  I quickly and without much reflection wrote back, that no, you don’t understand, I really liked this guy.

Rereading that reflexive reaction amid all the distress I was feeling made me think I really had to get to the bottom of this.  It was bothering me a lot more than simply a near death experience should seemingly do.  I’ve had a few close calls, but there was something different here.

So I set out to uncover what was different and began writing, peeling away layers of the onion.  This began with a bare facts recounting, retracing the afternoon, then filling in what I was thinking and feeling at various points through a number of revisions.  In retrospect, I can see it was like a moth tentatively approaching the flame.

During this process I was confiding with an old girlfriend with whom I was discussing my thoughts and what I was writing. At one point, she remarked, “Oh, you were in love with the guy.”  My reaction was that you are beyond nuts, that is the craziest girly sh*t ever.  Tough former Marine, right?

But she had a point, it was starting to sound an awful lot like a love story.  And the more it developed in that direction, not the events, but what I thought about them, the more I knew I was getting things sorted out.

And I was immediately aware when this process was done, that I had gotten to the truth about myself. I had been at the keyboard almost non-stop for a few weeks and I just walked away from it.

So for choices, I didn’t make any other than my goal of understanding why this new information about an old event was so disruptive to me. As for the reader, I wasn’t writing for public consumption. I had no intentions whatsoever of publishing this when originally writing this

That being said, beyond the story itself, I learned something that I hope a reader does as well.  That one’s past is as much of an unwritten story be as is one’s future.

SE: Orange Coast also published the Fact-Checker’s findings on your essay. I particularly love his line, “Roberts conceded that he’d identified the building using 33-year old memories and Google Earth, and could have been wrong about the motel’s exact site.”  I think for many people who write personal essay, this need to recreate a demonstrably true set of events from scraps of old memory is one of the biggest challenges we face. Can you tell us a little bit about how you went about recreating such a detailed account of that evening, what challenges you faced, and how you overcame them?

JR: First, though I never raised the issue with Orange Coast, I have a little bone to amicably pick about “conceded”.  My original draft was very detailed about using Google street view for reconstruction.  “Conceded” could be interpreted a little like “admitted” or “confessed”, that I had hid this fact.

When I first started reading about Kraft, frenetically really, I was actually looking for something that would rule him out.  Something like this couldn’t possibly have happened, it was so far off the charts.  I scoured the Web, even reading scattered, obscure comments on obscure forums, that sort of thing.

But everything matched, would be an extension of what I remembered, or didn’t conflict.

For instance, my impressionistic memory of the first beer he handed me.  I compared my memory with pictures of Heineken bottles, just a guess, but it didn’t match.  At some point along the way, I read that, when arrested, his car was littered with Moosehead bottles.  Several other accounts/memories mentioned that he was quite fond of this.

So I looked up Moosehead, specifically from that era and bingo, that was it.  That was a chilling moment and I had more than a few like this.

Very early on, I became aware of the pitfalls of this exercise, that what I was learning could, even unintentionally, get subtly incorporated in to what I truly remembered.  I decided that I would pay unfailingly attention to this, down to little things like the beer label.  Sometimes when you pay attention to the little things, the big things take care of themselves.

You may not consciously notice, but when in sections recounting events, I never refer to Kraft by name.  That is because I didn’t remember his name. I’m horrible with names even after a brief period, much less 33 years.  So it is all “this guy” and “that guy”.  In retrospect, it seems a nice literary device, but when I wrote it, it was for an entirely different purpose.

Both never having spoke of this for 33 years nor returning to San Clemente since I left the Corps in 1980 probably worked to my advantage in this exercise.  It was all frozen in amber, not clouded by later discussions or events.  And likewise, that afternoon and the aftermath, wondering about sexuality, made a vivid impression; it was unique, disturbing, and out of character for me at the time.

SE: In response to praise on the Orange Coast site, you mention that you worked closely with editor Marty Smith on this piece. Can you talk a little bit about the process of that work and about how working with Mr. Smith helped to shape and inform the piece?

JR: I connected with Marty Smith via Dennis McDougal, who wrote a book that has become a major reference piece about Kraft.  At that point, I was hoping to track down that photo and figured that Dennis, despite his book being 20 years old, would have connections and/or advice about how to do this.

I wasn’t looking to get published but I attached my draft story as a calling card, to further explain why I was seeking this.

He referred me to his old friend Marty, who immediately responded, asking if I would be interested in publishing this.  I thought about it, including some hesitation about letting the world, or Orange Coast at least, read something like this about me.  I had shared it with a few friends by way of discussing the incident. They all loved it, said I should publish it, but they are, ya know, my friends.

But here was this Chief Editor of an established print magazine saying the same thing. I explained my hesitation and Marty suggested we start working on it, see what happens, without any firm commitment on my part.

Were I looking for irony in this, it somewhat paralleled my experience with Kraft, a completely inexperienced guy being drawn into another world.

I learned a lot working with Marty, the first being that one’s writing becomes something bigger, with other stakeholders in it.  Marty knew what was going to work for both him personally and his audience.

Technically, it was mostly a matter of removing areas, not drilling so deep into various issues and thoughts.  The narrative and style remained unchanged, Marty’s job was mostly extractive. One element, the only one I remember, where he wanted me to change things, add something, was about what I’ve done since then.  While Kraft is, oddly, virtually forgotten almost everywhere, he remains at least somewhat well know in Southern California.  So there may be readers who wouldn’t believe that I had never heard of Kraft.  Frankly, I think Marty was a little surprised himself.

It was a long editing process, though.  My goal was to ensure that things didn’t become fictionalized or sensationalized.  I was probably quite an annoyance in this, getting pedantic about the meaning of a certain word and such.

Beyond that effort, though, Marty’s real job was to convince me to actually go through with this.  I nearly bailed, one time going off to play fiddle tunes w/friends under the moon and stars in Virginia and just think about this, the story itself and then now the telling of it to the world.

Even up to the last day, Orange Coast’s print deadline, long after we had a finalized version, I almost bailed, but my wife brought me back to earth, reminding me what a horrible person I’d be letting everyone down now.  She’s Japanese, they are really big on teamwork and thinking about others and does a lot to balance my self-centeredness.

Really, it doesn’t feel fair at all to others.  Recently, I’ve visited some writers forums, filled with people anguishing for years over getting published, sweating over dialogue, pronouns, pacing.  And me a non-writer, dash something off and get this sort of reaction; the gods must be crazy.  Not that my experience is unique, but definitely not the usual course.

Then there is my wife, Yukari.  By way of background, Japanese folks tend to be much more of a show than tell bunch, especially with regard to feelings, compliments, advice, personal stuff about which they can be very elliptical.

This summer even, we had a discussion about how an American movie with the line “I love you” was translated in the Japanese version as “the moon is beautiful”. It has become a running joke with us; sometimes when I come home and tell her that the moon is beautiful.

The other day, we were skyping about the reaction this piece is getting and some of my trepidation about it.  At one point, she texts me the simple line, “Your writing is beautiful”.  I stared at that for a while, sort of processing it, so long that she even repeated, “Did you see where I said your writing is beautiful?”  Not a casual thought, she was sending me a big message that I’m still thinking about.

I do have other thoughts and I’ll close my long winded response to this interview with what I sent to a very established journalist.  He had sent me a long and thoughtful email encouraging me to write more.

Here it is, somewhat expanded:

When in Okinawa, I was what you would call a marksmanship instructor, but the Marine Corps calls a rifle range coach. All of us were given this as a temporary, 6 month to 1 year assignment away from our regular units because of our superior shooting scores.

The hardest position to shoot is the one you most commonly think of with shooters – standing up (offhand position). It is a very unstable position, notoriously so, compared to lying down, sitting, or kneeling, the other positions in the standard course of fire.

Hence, in this training/qualification, you only shoot offhand from 200 yards and even then shooters universally shoot their worst scores in the 200 yard offhand.

The farthest distance you shoot from is 500 yards. During the course of our duties, I once claimed to my fellow coaches, again, all pretty crack shots, that I could hit a bull’s eye from the 500 yard line in the offhand position.

They ragged me on this for a week or two, it got to be a bet/dare situation and, frankly, inside I was actually quite unsure I could do it. But finally, I attempted this, asked to use the rifle of one of my shooters who I knew had well adjusted sights (you know this when you are a coach…).

Everyone is watching, 200 eyes, the whole firing line and trainees, this is very unusual, almost unheard of on a USMC range. It also was against every rule in the book, we virtually never fired our trainee’s weapons. And then we needed a valid reason and get permission from the safety officer. So I aimed and fired rather quickly. I didn’t want to get the inevitable order to cease fire before I got the shot off.

Bang, target goes down, and, you know the answer already, comes up in the black. But not only that, it was a luscious dead center bullseye, the kind that just thrill you when shooting.  F*ck yeah!

Being young and cocky, I was like, “see, told you, pay up”, but it was false swagger. I knew that it was luck and skill combined, luck the far greater part of it. And, of course, there was the audacity to even attempt the stunt, to break the rules.

I never tried this again, despite considerable further egging. For one, probably the only reason I didn’t get in trouble was because I actually got the bullseye and such a beautiful one at that.  It was a remarkable shot as well as making the range staff look so studly to our shooters, both things even the officers appreciated.  Had I missed, or maybe even had it not been such a perfect bullseye, the hammer likely would have been brought down upon me.

So the risk of getting in trouble were I to falter in a subsequent attempt forestalled me. But mostly, I just didn’t want to ruin the magic of that moment.

And, now, I’m afraid I may feel the same about this story & writing in general.

SE: I was really struck by your ability to create the character of Kraft as you encountered him, without letting the media reports and what you came to learn later about him overtake your memories. You make him so compelling that you even defeat the reader’s tendency to overwrite your piece with her own knowledge. Can you talk to us a little bit about the craft of capturing him, as a character in this essay?

JR:  In the previous question, I addressed how I approached memory, forgetting, and overdramatization/fictionalization.  I’d sum it up as just being scrupulous.  Were I to give advice to one embarking on a memoir, it would be to do what I accidentally did to a great degree in this piece.  That is, write up every darn thing one remembers about an event before looking into things that may create false memory issues.  That becomes a later reference as one learns more from outside sources.

It is true that I read the basic facts immediately, Wikipedia article and such.  But then I laid out everything I could remember, I just had to know.  It was only later that, trying to reconcile glimpses, mental photographs, I dug into details like beer labels, car colors, posture, mannerisms, and so forth.  And again, at first this was just to find out if this could actually be true.

I don’t feel like I took any conscious effort to develop Kraft as a character, just recalled what I remembered.  Since writing this, I’ve discovered that a piece like this is in the creative nonfiction genre – facts recounted with a literary flair.  As we’ve discussed elsewhere, I strove to not include anything that was truly creative.

Reading this, Kraft comes across as a bit of cipher, albeit a pleasant one.  Again, that isn’t a conscious effort on my part but, given the nature of the story, seems to make a strong impression on readers.  But without the serial killer aspect, which the reader knows going in, he’d just be another guy, nothing especially remarkable about him.  He was intelligent, warm, friendly, that sort of thing, but not in any way that he was the brightest or warmest or friendliest guy you ever met.

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