Image: “I must explain, specify, rationalize, classify, etc.,” by Frances Stark, 2007.
Emma Raddatz: How did you begin writing “Misplaced Anger”?
Jack Reibstein: I started from a prompt, an assignment for one of those master classes they have in the Shapiro Writing Center every semester. The prompt was to write a story, and the main character had to be ourselves 20 years from now. And we had to commit a crime. And my crime was public indecency. When I turned the piece in, a lot of people were like, “Oh, you didn’t really do the prompt. It all happens in his head!” I don’t know, I wrote out this entire other story where me, 20 years from now, gets drunk and pees in public and gets arrested for it. It just didn’t really—it was sort of interesting and definitely entertaining—but it didn’t really resonate, and I couldn’t really see myself actually doing that. Like I do do that sometimes, but I’m definitely not going to be doing that 20 years from now. Then again, I don’t know that I’m going to be a widow 20 years from now. I really hope that I’m not a widow 20 years from now.
Liz Cettina: Can you speak to the use of the close third person narrator?
J: That was a limitation the teacher of the master class put on us. It was definitely interesting because I’ve been writing a lot of first person personal non-fiction throughout this entire year so it was interesting to see how things changed when I was forced to use the third person. I really like limitations for writing. There was one assignment I did a few months ago where we were asked to set our own limitations, and I wrote this piece in only questions. I wanted to see if I could do that. Well, actually, I started off being like, “Can I write this thing in one sentence? That would be really cool.” And that ended up as the first page, a really long sentence. I love limitations, it gets your brain going in different ways.
E: What was this master class you took?
J: It was with Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. He read one of his stories, he just visited Wesleyan. Great guy, great class. It was a great excuse for me to write some fiction in a formal setting this semester because for the past year all I’ve been writing are things that are close to me like, “Ah, my feelings!” My thoughts about my family, interrogating different aspects of my life. It was refreshing to write “Sacco,” it was good to write about somebody completely different from myself.
E: Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
J: I didn’t really write prose, in the way that I think of it, until I got to Wesleyan last year. I took a Techniques of Fiction course with Hirsh Sawhney, and I was like, “Yeah, this is something I really want to continue doing.” I had always made little movies with my friends, and I was in a sketch comedy group in high school, and I’d always been writing stand up bits, things like that, so I’ve always been drawn to inventing wacky scenarios. This year was definitely the first time I seriously sat down to write about myself and about my life, and I’ve taken a few classes this year that have dealt with life writing and analyzing life writing. It’s something I want to keep doing. I think I’m going to do something related to life writing for my thesis next year.
L: What are you thinking of writing your thesis about?
J: I think it’s going to be—it could change—but I think it’s going to be a collection of essays surrounding addiction. So my mother works at McLane Psychiatric Hospital in Massachusetts. She’s the Director of the Substance Abuse Programs there. And there’s been a long history of substance abuse in my family. So I think I want to write about addiction and the intersection of addiction and just day to day habits. Where do things that we do every day become addiction? Where do we lose control of them? Where do they start controlling our lives? It’s not only going to be about substance abuse. Like I think I’m addicted to listening to sad music, eating junk food. Sort of inspecting people’s habits and how they take control over their lives.
L: How does humor factor into your writing?
J: Writing with humor comes easiest to me, I think, because, for a while, that’s all that I wanted to do. To a certain extent, I want to keep writing comedy stuff throughout my entire life. I see it as a part of my life. More than any book or any movie or anything, I’d say that “The Simpsons” inspire me more than anything else, really irreverent, ridiculous humor. So humor just always finds a way of seeping into my writing. I also think that’s from my family background, laughter and joking are the things we go to even when things are hard. My parents will always try to crack me up, and I’ll always try to crack them up.
E: How is the comedy writing process different than that of fiction or non-fiction writing?
J: So stand up does more of, I’ll see something in my day to day life and I go very quickly to observational humor. I’ll see something and be like, “Yeah, I could talk for a few minutes about that.” With stand up, anything that comes to mind I’ll immediately write it down, even if it’s crap. Most of it is crap. For stories—I don’t know—I write a lot of ideas for stories that don’t really pan out, and essays that never end up taking any form. But in order to really get into something that I’m writing and spending a lot of time writing, it’s got to be something where I had a moment like, “Wow, I could definitely write at length about this.”
L: Are there formal techniques from comedy writing you incorporate in your creative writing, or vice versa?
J: I think what I’ve realized is what my comedy and creative writing share is rhythm more than anything. I don’t know, I feel like that’s a thing a lot of comedians talk about that’s really abstract, in a cloud somewhere, that people access at some point. I always feel weird talking about it because it can feel like a very abstract concept and comedians will discuss it as if it’s just something you’re born with, but it takes time and practice to develop rhythm in both performance and writing. I know a lot of people who will sit down and bang out a few 1,000 words and that’ll be it, and they’ll go back and edit it later. For me, I really need to craft and fine tune a paragraph, make sure it sounds good in my head, because that’s where I derive the meaning, if it sounds like something that would come from me or that I can understand.
E: What do you like to read?
J: Recently, because I think I’m going to be writing more non-fiction, I’ve been trying to read more of it—life writing in general. Over break, I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, because everyone’s been talking about it. I also read this great collection of short stories by Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women, which was great because all the stories were her at different points in her life. She led such a strange life where she lived in such varied places, she lived in Texas, the San Francisco Bay area, Chile, all these different places. And you’d think you had her pegged after reading a story, like, “Oh yeah, I know who this is,” then she’d jump into a completely different aspect of her life. And none of it is precisely her because it’s fiction, but it was really cool to see all the same person, all coming from the same person, but catching her at completely different points in her life. That was one of the best things I’ve read recently.
L: Can you speak to the narrative arc of your stories?
J: I think that’s the thing that’s most similar to the sketch writing I’ve done, escalation is a huge thing in writing comedy. You start at a place that’s more realistic, let the audience in so they understand, it’s sort of about tweaking it more and more until it’s this thing that’s completely unlike anything we’ve ever seen, but also the truest thing to what we know. That definitely bleeds into “Misplaced Anger,” and “Sacco” because you go through his life and nothing really happens until the end, that’s where the big reveal is. That always feels like the most natural way to write a story, starting with real details and building from there into something that’s bigger and more out there.
E: How did you start the “Sacco” piece?
J: Saïd prompted us to write about a crime. He assigned us all a specific decade. As soon as he gave me the 1920s, I remembered being in Italian class in middle school, watching this documentary about Sacco and Vanzetti and I don’t know, me and my friends didn’t take it that seriously at the time, we were like, “He has a funny mustache!” But it’s a really messed up case, these two guys. I mean, nobody will ever really know how much they had to do with the murders. But just the fact that these two guys, either way, they had a history of having unpopular opinions, and that’s kind of what killed them more than anything. The implications of that case did not hit me and my friends when we were watching that documentary in seventh grade. We were just like, “This is one of those movies they make us watch to pass the time.” But Signora Pencheri, she knew it was bigger than that.
L: In “Misplaced Anger,” you use wordplay. Is this something you do often?
J: I don’t know. It’s not something I search for, I’m like, “Oh, what’s going to be the wittiest title? What’s going to hit them in just the right spot?” But if those things arise, I’m definitely game.