When asked how I came across Jon Chopan’s Pulled from the River, the answer is easy: Who could resist a book with a crushed up Genny Light can on the cover? It looks just like the cans under the seats of my car. The Rochester, NY that I found in the book felt just like the Rochester that I breathe in everyday. We met up with Jon Chopan and asked him what inspired him to write a novel about his home town.
The story told in Pulled from the River is inextricable from Rochester. You no longer live here; what is it about your hometown that held onto you enough to put this book together?
Well, I suppose leaving made it possible for me to see the city from a different vantage point, to reexamine it, reimagine it. I think, of course, because my family is there, because I spent most of my life there, that it was the material I knew best, the thing I felt I had some ownership over. But that, it seems to me, isn’t really accurate, because writing about a place is about letting go of what you knew or what you thought you knew when you started. I suppose the not knowing is always what makes me interested in writing.
Do you believe that Rochester, NY is as dark a place as portrayed in your book?
I like to think it isn’t all dark in the book. Or, that it isn’t as dark as Rochester can be on its worst days. But, I think Rochester is a pretty fascinating and complex place. I think, in that way, I was trying to explore the middle ground, that place between joy and despair where so much of our lives is lived.
The River is almost an extra character in your book. Did it always feel that way to you, that the Genesee was something more than a geographical feature?
I don’t know that I always saw it that way. But, certainly, the history of the city, my life there, revolves around it. The river itself provided one of the better reasons to establish a city on that otherwise icy stretch of earth. And for me, as a kid, I spent so much time near it that it felt like the center of things, a kind of epicenter for my life and the life of the city. Certainly, for a writer, something like that can too easily be overdone or too heavy handed. But, I didn’t work at making the river a character so much as it became one as the stories began to accumulate.
What about the legend and reality of Arthur Shawcross, (The Genesee River Killer) was able to turn something that would seem singular into something that could be read as poignant and universal in terms of loss, though most people have never known anybody to be killed by a serial killer?
In this case I actually had a friend who was affected by the Shawcross killings so it might be the case that I had access to some of that singular insight, which could have helped me attempt to reach the universal. But, too, this is what good art does, I hope, attempts to make the singular universal. When I am writing, especially now that I’ve grown a bit, I try to have faith in the specifics of a story, in the characters, which is where readers begin to feel something, be moved by something, even if they haven’t got personal experience with the specific events of a piece. Those details, those characters, attach themselves to some other experience that readers can access, and then they feel something, or understand something about the world of the character and the story.
When the narrator speaks about his father infiltrating small communities with his camera, those communities are recognizable as are places and people written about in the book. Did you ever feel as though you were betraying anything while writing this?
I don’t think I was. I tried to be true to the real people who characters in the book were shaped by. But, I also took liberties with the “facts”, and for that reason published the book as fiction. I also don’t feel that I owed anyone anything. The narrator is, in many ways, me, and I think the thing I needed to do was remain true to my version of things, to my memory, imagination, and confusion. I did the best I could to remain true in that way, to my perceptions of the people, the city, myself. But I don’t claim to have any authority over other people’s versions of things or claim to have the “real” version of what Rochester, New York is like. I doubt one book could achieve anything that would begin to explore the rich variety of lives in this city.
You make decay beautiful in your writing. When you are looking at decay and pieces of the city washed up along the edges of the river do you really see it as symbolic? Or is it just garbage until you put it to paper?
I don’t see it as symbolic in the moment, or didn’t. I think that kind of thing, often, happens when you are looking back on the decay and the trash. That’s the thing that makes writing so fresh and exciting, when you’re working on it, is the act of discovery.
Your characters are rooted in real people. How did those real people respond to the book?
For the most part everyone was okay with it. My father thought he came off as a jerk, at times, and didn’t like that. But I’ve never heard anyone, except him, say that he seems like a jerk. Most people seem to like my father on the page, strange and complex as I hope he came off. But, that’s something you have to work with when you write about real people. No one wants to be seen naked in this way. No one wants to have their complexities, their flaws, on display. On the whole I hope I exposed myself enough to make everyone feel like I was being fair on that front. I wasn’t trying to tell anyone’s secrets, except maybe my own.
The Hotel Cadillac of your story becomes a place to get tested for HIV rather than to acquire it. How did you come to turn the Cadillac into a more positive place?
I don’t know that it is more positive. Maybe a kind of purgatory between bad places. But, this too, comes from my own life. I went there once with a friend to get tested. I don’t know that the clinic was at the Hotel Cadillac, but I remember seeing the sign and wondering what that was all about. It was just a detail that stuck, a marker for that place and time. Maybe in that story the Hotel Cadillac is a place full of both hope and fear.
There is an element of the cycle in your book, with things being replaced or returned to the river. Do you feel that communities must go through that process?
I’m sure they do and to some extent must. I am not a historian or an economist. I am not someone who specializes in the academics of this. But, it seems to me that, and Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit are all examples, all cities must undergo this. These cities, rust belt cities, have had to reimagine themselves in the wake of failing industries. They have had to convert their economies, their habits, in order to survive. I think the cycle is a kind of reevaluation of the self, of the place, and I think it is a part of the natural order of things.
Do you feel that this story could have been set somewhere else?
I suppose there are a number of American cities that would have provided a similar backdrop. But the specifics of it, my story, could not exist anywhere else. I am, as we all are, a product of the country I live in, the state, the city, the household. There is no way for us to erase that. And, in that way, Pulled from the River, is my attempt to make sense of all that. It could not be told without the city, without the specifics of it, the bars, the streets, the river, Kodak. Each of these things, the details of the places I come from, had a way of shaping me, and for that reason I don’t think another setting could get near the truth of the story I was trying to tell.