John Rosengren is the author of the new novel A Clean Heart. His other books include The Fight of Their Lives and Hank Greenberg, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post Magazine and City Pages. He lives in Minneapolis.
Q: Like your character Carter, you went through addiction treatment and worked as a counselor. How much did your own experiences inform A Clean Heart?
A: I went through treatment in 1981 when I was 17 years old, a senior in high school. They called us “baby dope fiends.” Later I worked in a couple of treatment centers.
In the late ‘80s I was a therapist at an adolescent unit in Nampa, Idaho, run by CompCare, which operated something like 200 treatment centers around the country at the time. It helped to understand the clients having gotten sober myself when I was young. I felt I had something to offer them from my experience.
The Nampa unit was crazy. Both staff and clients. It served as the inspiration for Six West. I began writing the novel not long after I left. There was not a nun on the staff though the director did seem driven by making money with very little understanding about the disease of chemical dependency.
Most of the book, though, is made up. Just ask any of the guys I play hockey with. No way was I close to ever getting a scholarship to play college hockey–I didn’t even make the varsity in high school! And my mom would like you to know she is not an alcoholic, thank you very much.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: I had no idea how the novel would end when I started writing it. I didn’t even know if I could finish it. I just kept feeling my way along through the story and tried to strike upon the most satisfying plotlines. The opening scene had come to me, and I just went from there.
At one point, I wrote a short story about a kid throwing his fire engine into a television set, which I liked, so I incorporated that into the novel.
The novel that became A Clean Heart went through many iterations and revisions over the years, some very major, such as switching to first person and back to third.
Every time I read it, though, I see something I want to tweak. Even through the final copy edit, I kept seeing ways to make the writing stronger, mostly by cutting. Maybe it’s so short because I worked on it for many years.
Q: You've written fiction and nonfiction--do you have a preference, and is your writing process similar regardless of what you're working on?
A: I love writing both fiction and nonfiction. Shaping the story is the same. Decisions about what to leave in, what to take out.
The challenge of nonfiction, of course, is staying true to the facts. But at least you have a mass of material to begin with.
The challenge of fiction is having to start with nothing, make it all up. It’s wonderful, though, when the story and/or characters take over in fiction, and I just follow where they lead me.
I know it sounds hopelessly cliché, but there are times I feel the muse is leading and all I have to do is follow along. It can be that way with nonfiction, too, in structuring a story.
Both genres involve the creative process, which for me is pretty much the same whether I’m working on fiction or nonfiction. I think about how best to tell the story and how to slot in various aspects of it.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from A Clean Heart?
A: I’m hoping that A Clean Heart will entertain readers and maybe shed some light on addiction and recovery. Robert Frost nails the paradox of recovery in that bit of his poem I use as an epigraph: we find our salvation in our surrender.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Today I’m working on an article about a women’s treatment program dealing with the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic and an article about a grandmother with a gambling problem who murdered her husband then a lookalike woman and sparked a national manhunt.
I’ve also got another novel in the works. I’ve finished it and am in the revising stage, which, as I noted earlier, never really ends for me until the book appears in print.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Yes, during these unusual and uncertain days that amp our anxieties, I have found the principles and practices of Alcoholics Anonymous to be especially helpful and practical. Live one day at a time. Be grateful. Be of service. Practice tolerance, kindness, honesty, and love.
Simple but profound ways to get us through the toughest of times.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with John Rosengren.