Robert Rodi was born in Chicago in the conformist 1950s, grew up in the insurrectionist 1960s, came of age in the hedonist 1970s, and went to work in the elitist 1980s. This roller-coaster ride has left him with a distinct aversion to isms of any kind; it also left him with an ear for hypocrisy, cant, and platitudes that allowed him, in the 1990s, to become a much-lauded social satirist.
His first novel, Fag Hag, was published in 1991 and was swiftly translated into Italian, French, German, and Japanese. It was followed by Closet Case (1992), What They Did to Princess Paragon (1994), Drag Queen (1995), Kept Boy (1997), Bitch Goddess (2002), and When You Were Me (2007). His first nonfiction book, Dogged Pursuit: My Year of Competing Dusty, the World’s Least Likely Agility Dog was released by Hudson Street Press in 2009.
Robert’s shorter fiction can be found in a number of anthologies, including Men On Men 5, His, and Sandman: Book of Dreams. His novella Glad, Gladder, Gladys was serialized online at USAToday.com. His literary criticism has appeared in the pages of The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, NewCity, and The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review.
Robert is the creator of several comic-book series, including 4 Horsemen, Codename: Knockout, and The Crossovers. He was a founding member of the Chicago-based performance art troupe, The Pansy Kings, who were active throughout the 1990s, and he wrote sketches for the Live Bait Theater’s revues Junk Food and Dear Jackie: The Queen of Camelot Remembered.
Robert still lives in Chicago, in a century-old Queen Anne house with his partner Jeffrey Smith and a constantly shifting number of dogs.
Q: BITCH GODDESS is wildly funny. You tell the story through so many different mediums: e-mails, newspaper articles, catalog copy, and more. Why did you choose this unusual structure? Was this more difficult to write than a more straight-forward narrative? Throughout the story, we feel like we’re looking over the shoulder of E. Manfred Harry. Was it challenging to keep track of all the pieces and integrate them into a novel?
A: After more than half a century of inundation by pop culture, people have become almost inhumanly efficient at making inferences and connections – they don’t need to be told or shown nearly as much as they once did for them to “get” what’s going on. Accordingly, with BITCH GODDESS, I wanted to toy with a new type of narrative – an invisible one, in a sense. I basically provide the raw materials – the subtext. The actual text is written in the reader’s head as he or she makes the required conceptual leaps between the chapters. I think this makes the book funnier than it would have been otherwise. You always laugh harder at a joke if you work out the punch line yourself. The actual construction of the book – composing it so that its juxtapositions prompt the desired effect – was of course difficult; but it was also a lot of fun. I got to write in so many different styles, aping everything from academic journals and court depositions to gossip columns and fan letters. I thought, “Here I am, writing a tour de force!” We’ll see if anyone else agrees.
Q: What was the genesis for BITCH GODDESS? Is Viola Chute based on anyone we know? What about E. Manfred Harry?
A: E. Manfred Harry is meant to be an everyman. A little ambitious, a little well-meaning, a little hapless, a little indecisive – yet not enough of anything to make him a standout in any way.
As for Viola … well, Joan Collins and I share the same publisher, and several years ago I heard she liked my novel Fag Hag. A short time later she appeared to be making a comeback, and I thought, “Great, she already likes me, I’ll write something for her.” That said, Viola Chute rapidly became a much more representative character, a composite of a certain breed of tabloid diva. (Viola was engaged to a U.S. Senator, for instance – a direct steal from Elizabeth Taylor’s marriage to John Warner.)
The irony is that
BITCH GODDESS is now being shopped around by my film agent, and Joan Collins isn’t even in the running – in Hollywood, you’re no one if you haven’t had a hit in the past six weeks. Still, in my mind, the role will always be hers.
Q: Princess Diana, surprisingly, figures prominently in the story. How did that come about?
A: Diana’s fatal auto crash was in the news when I was just beginning the novel. And while it’s amazing now to remember this, post September 11, her death was a major news story – the biggest of the season. We were saturated by wall-to-wall coverage. And the circumstances surrounding the event had a very marked, if temporary, effect on the public’s and the media’s proprietary attitudes towards celebrity. I realized that I could add another layer to Viola’s story – and also resolve a sticky plot point – by shifting it in time so that it synched up with the last days of the princess.
Q: One of BITCH GODDESS’s highlights is the scene in Studio 54, with Viola dancing naked for Andy Warhol, oblivious to an unfortunately placed piece of toilet paper. Did you spend any time at Studio 54 during the halcyon days of Andy Warhol? Was this vignette inspired by anything you witnessed?
A: I never visited Studio 54, but at this point the place has become legendary to the extent that it exists in the public imagination entirely separate from its actual history. I think Steve Rubell actually cultivated this – deliberately nurtured the club as a nexus for all kinds of wild fantasies. Accordingly, I think it’s fair game for writers to use it as a setting for imaginative fiction – in the same way no one should feel any compunction about setting stories in, say, the White House, or Carnegie Hall. As for the toilet paper story – I heard it from a friend who’d heard it from a friend who’d seen it at a gay club. I thought it deserved immortality.
Q: Is there a moral to BITCH GODDESS? What would you like readers to take away from the book?
A: Does satire ever have a moral? … Obviously I set out to skewer some sacred cows, among them the deification of celebrity and politically correct gender theory. But basically I just want to make people laugh. This is my rationale for remaining a novelist in a world that basically doesn’t care about the written word anymore. If I can make a few people laugh, I’m good to go. Laughter is always its own justification.
Q: You’re involved in a lot of projects. Where did you find the time to write this book? What is your writing regime?
A: People always ask me where I find the time to write. I’m a writer – I always have time to write. Ask me how I find the time to do everything else. THAT’S the real struggle in my life.
Q: What’s next for Robert Rodi? Will readers meet Viola Chute again? What about E. Manfred Harry?
A: Not to give anything away, but Harry’s situation at the end of the novel seems to me to preclude any further appearances. He’s just an ordinary guy, and this was his life’s big adventure. Viola, however … I wouldn’t bet against us seeing her again.
What’s next for me is more of the same – I seem to be at a point in my career where I want only to write about larger-than-life middle-aged women. It probably comes from reading too much Patrick Dennis and E.F. Benson, and watching too much “Absolutely Fabulous.” Also, I just turned 45, and suddenly I feel I have more in common with women my age than with younger gay men. I see these svelte gay ‘godlings’ running around town, and they look like an alien species to me. Then I see a forty-something woman in a smashing Chanel suit trying to get anyone behind the counter at Starbucks to notice her, and I feel an instant sense of connection.
Q: Who are you reading now?
A: Lots of Dawn Powell – the great American comic novelist who died in 1965. She was never appreciated in her lifetime, but it’s clear now she was just leagues ahead of her time. Her works are blatantly unsentimental in a way American readers simply weren’t ready for till now (I’ll bet they’d have loved her in Britain). My favorite so far is The Locusts Have No King, but The Happy Island may be her most gloriously cynical and savage.
Every artist has to have a standard, something to which he or she can aspire. For me, it’s the works of Dawn Powell.