Q and A with Rocco Versaci, THAT HIDDEN ROAD
1. Tell us a little about your book.
When I was forty-two, I rode my bicycle across the country, from San Diego to North Carolina. I did this alone and with no history of distance biking. That Hidden Road is a memoir of this journey. More accurately, the “through line” of the book is this ride, but it’s also very much about the events that led to it—my divorce (after eighteen years of marriage), my first bout with cancer, my relationships with my kids, my brother, and my parents. In the book, the ride becomes a way to confront all of these things (which impact each other both directly and indirectly) and my deeper motives for “lighting out for the territories” on my bike (named Rusty). Because I traveled on smaller roads through smaller towns and at a fairly slow rate, I got a rare and unique look at America and Americans, and I attempt in the book to capture those places and characters in interesting ways. Also, there are comics.
2. Have you always been a cycling aficionado before you embarked on this cross-country trek?
Not really. It’s actually embarrassing how little I know about bike mechanics; I can fix a flat and that’s about it. My later-life biking began out of necessity. When my (now ex-) wife and I moved to California in 1997, we had only one car, so she used it to drive our young son around, and I biked to work. Before that, I hadn’t ridden a bike since I was a kid. But when I was going through chemotherapy for the first time in 2003 and wasn’t able to do much at all physically, I remembered how important my bike was to me as a kid. In the summer, I would pedal and pedal for hours, getting completely lost in our suburbs. It represented a kind of freedom for me—though I would have never thought of it in those terms as a kid—and the idea of heading out on my bike, of being free, had a lot of traction in the mind of someone who, at the time, couldn’t even make it up the stairs without stopping to rest.
3. What were some of the biggest influences on your conception of this book’s structure and contents?
In a really global sense, there’s the road story, which has always been important to me. There’s Huck Finn and On the Road, of course, but two books that I read in college and that have stayed with me are William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways and Peter Jenkins’ A Walk across America. Those two had different means of transport—a van and feet, respectively—but both show the richness of intertwining internal and external journeys, which is what I had in mind, too.
In terms of the writing itself, Tobias Wolff has always been a big influence. His style is very “clean”—not a lot of ornamentation, close attention to detail—and I try to emulate that. I also am a great admirer of Tim O’Brien, and in particular his three great books about the Vietnam War—Going after Cacciato, The Things They Carried, and In the Lake of the Woods. The mix of styles that he uses and the effortlessness with which he moves back and forth between different storylines was something that I wanted to capture in That Hidden Road.
One of the things that struck me during the ride was the utter chaos of my thoughts. When you’re riding for six to nine hours a day, your mind wanders, and I wanted to capture that wandering in how the book unfolded. O’Brien’s work seemed like a natural model for that. The chapters where I felt I played the most with stylization—“Not in Kansas Anymore” and “Confession”—are ones where I wanted to textually represent confusing, fragmented thoughts, and my influences here were stories that employ this technique masterfully: Susan Minot’s “Lust,” Joyce Carol Oates’ “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again,” and just about anything by Lorrie Moore. Also important was William Gass’ “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” a title that I shamelessly rip off for Part II of my book. As for mixing prose and comics, there are a few outstanding “hybrid” books that I had in the back (and sometimes front) of my mind: John Callahan’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Stan Mack’s Janet and Me, and Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. Mack’s book hit especially close to home, as he writes about his partner’s battle with cancer.
4. What was one of the biggest challenges of writing a memoir, other than trying to get the facts straight but at the same time tell a compelling story?
Now I feel totally unoriginal—you must see that answer a lot, and that’s exactly what I was going to say!
But really, the biggest challenge was figuring out how much to reveal. Cartoonist Dan Clowes has a great story called “Just Another Day” about how agonizing autobiography can be. Essentially, the struggle is to be honest without appearing like it’s all performative—like you’re just oversharing to show how honest you are. My problem early on was not going far enough. Looking back on the first few drafts of the book, I could see that I was pulling punches and taking it easy on myself. I received some valuable notes from different people, and the real breakthrough came when I started to see myself as a character; doing that provided the necessary distance so that I could tell all the parts of the story that needed to be told.
5. What are you working on now if you don’t mind telling us?
Marketing That Hidden Road is taking up a lot of time, and it’s requiring me to use parts of my brain that I don’t normally use. More creatively, I’m working on a series of short stories. I love the short story form and have been teaching it in my literature and creative writing classes for years now, and after finishing this book and sporadically updating my blog, I’m eager to do work where I’m more free to invent. I have in mind a connected set of stories—connected how, specifically, I don’t yet know—where my characters’ lives are tangentially but significantly impacted by different celebrities’ deaths. Some of the stories are much further along than others, but the whole thing is still pretty much in the larval stage.
Rocco Versaci is an English professor at Palomar College (near San Diego, California), where he teaches a wide variety of composition, creative writing, and literature classes. He was raised in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove, where he subsisted on a steady diet of television, movies, books, and his mother's lasagna. A lifelong comic book reader, he is the author of This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature (Bloomsbury, 2007) and created a popular class on comics at his college. In the summer of 2010, he rode his bicycle, alone, across the country. He wrote about that experience as well as some others (he is a a two-time cancer survivor) in his second book, That Hidden Road: A Memoir (Apprentice House, 2016). He has two sons, only occasionally grumbles about how they're both taller than him, and lives in southern California.