In an interview you did with Tin House, you said that your previous works came from a reaction to something, like a news story or historical anecdote or piece of art. Did Passersthrough start as a reaction to something, and if so, to what?
Peter Rock’s newest book, Passersthrough, is an unnerving mystery that dissects the way secrets can fester when left in the dark for too long. The book follows a father as he does his best to reconnect with his estranged daughter; at the heart of their disconnect is the mystery behind the week, nearly 25 years prior, she disappeared in Mount Rainier National Park. Where did she go during that time, and what did she bring back? This eerie novel contains so much: a lake filled with bones, a murder house, bodily possession, ghosts, audio transcripts, and a fax machine.
Passersthrough is a haunting, lovely book, made even lovelier by its familiar, mossy setting. I feel so lucky that I was able to ask Rock some of the questions that came up while I was reading it. His responses were, unsurprisingly, both funny and enlightening.
A daydream, a murder house, a pandemic, dog walking, my dad's dementia and death.
Perhaps if a person gets lost in the wilderness trying to locate a lake they've found before, it's not the fault of the wanderer; it could be that the lake itself is moving from place to place.
This notion, appearing out of nowhere like so many of my daydreams, has stayed with me for a time. Reading books about wayfinding and wilderness survival, as I do — practices that are largely about feeling prepared or combating anxiety — it's not surprising that I might start to wonder if I wasn’t entirely to blame for all the reasons I felt lost, times when I couldn't find my way back to places I'd been before, where I wanted to go. Perhaps these places had actually moved.
And what kind of lake would move like that? And why?
I think that's a fair account of how it started. And then that daydreaming attached itself to other aspects of my daily life, a life circumscribed by the pandemic, where longer travels were forestalled and I wandered my neighborhood, walking my dog, imagining all the possibilities that were happening around me — the squatters in abandoned homes, the bike thieves, the people watching me through windows… and then the story of a house around the corner where a terrible murder had been committed, and where each successive occupant had been beset by tragedy. This house, its address was 7734 (flipped and reversed to read “hell”) — only in recent years was its house number changed, at the behest of realtors, and perhaps its spirits cast out. (Also, much sage was burned.)
That daydreaming attached itself to other aspects of my daily life, a life circumscribed by the pandemic, where longer travels were forestalled and I wandered my neighborhood, walking my dog, imagining all the possibilities that were happening around me
So if I were to wander my neighborhood daydreaming in a challenging time when also my dad, who'd been suffering with dementia for years, passed away, this would be the story that arose.
What is the relationship between the living and the dead? Can we talk? What about the living and the living, those who've been apart from each other. Can
they talk? How?
Nothing comes from nothing, and it's true that in the past I've perhaps more consciously collected artifacts and histories, artworks and other books to react to, to surprise myself, to see what came out of me. This time it was more like I was letting the story come to me as I walked around like a bewildered magnet.
Passersthrough feels like a spiritual successor to My Abandonment. How would you position this new book alongside your others?
I'm both embarrassed by everything I've written, these failures, and am largely unconscious of most through-lines or continuities while writing. Much later I realize, or some kind person like yourself will see similarities; I like “spiritual successor” as a way to characterize it. After being inside a story for a long time, years later I'm here outside of it, and then I can see my interests repeat themselves: the way the invisible is present in the visible, the people and energies we suspect but agree not to notice, fathers and daughters (I had a father; I have two daughters); the wilderness and wildness. Too pretentious to say liminal spaces? — between the living and the dead, the awake and the dreaming, the wild and the civilized. Or perhaps those are false distinctions and I'm exploring their overlaps and connections.
What I write tends to be a reaction to my dissatisfaction with what I've written. I've been seeing things one way, using words in particular registers or eating the same food every day and I'm trying to do something really different, to find a new language, a new taste. And yet, as you and I recognize, I circle back. We all have our limits and obsessions and the hope is that limitation can bring depth or more complexity, more awareness and sensitivity and subtlety? My last book, The Night Swimmers
, involved so many artifacts of my “real” life and relationships. This time I simply wanted to write the best story I could.
Throughout Passersthrough, the main characters communicate with each other via voice recordings and fax messages, which I thought did a great job lending itself to the fractured relationship between the father and daughter. I'm curious where the decision came from to include these different modes.
Oh, that's a good question. The answers are manifold. First, distances — not being able to physically visit my parents during this time was really hard, and trying to figure out technological workarounds is so tricky. I mean, I have a friend who is watching her aging parents on remote cameras all the time, like one might surveil a pet left at home or a suspicious nanny…
I've always liked epistolary novels, or any letter or artifact of communication in a piece of fiction; it's convincing, it gives a character a voice and ties that voice down in a time and place. And if there's time delay or tangle, that feels familiar, too.
Also I used to work as a temp in the late nineties and there's something about fax machines that is so HOT. I mean, all this texting and email and messaging and actually talking on the phone is okay, but the way a fax machine makes all those sounds and crinkles the paper, and often breaks down, and then produces an actual physicalized
object: can I say it better? That gets to me. It's magic.
What's the best writing advice you've ever received?
I used to work as a temp in the late nineties and there's something about fax machines that is so HOT.
Not to listen to writing advice? Actually the best advice I've received was always so bound to a specific piece of writing or a phase and then it became, over time, bad advice. A limitation. A mantra like an anchor. As a person who teaches writing, I'm aware of the hunger in others and myself for general advice, because writing is so slippery and impossible and provokes anxiety just like being alive. Somewhere Flannery O'Connor says, “The best way to learn to write stories is to write them.” I guess our path is to turn our own peculiar mistakes into what is original and best, so paying attention to what we've done can help to see what we might do next. (And yet the kind pressure of a reader is another thing that can help us forward, to keep working into that place where we might take responsibility by our own lonely selves for what we're doing.)
We (obviously) love reading books set in Portland. I'd love to know what it means to you to write about this particular place, and how that fed into Passersthrough's story.
I feel confident writing about this place, as I've been here over twenty years. I'm walking my dog, I'm in the river, I'm riding my bike, I'm lost. Talking to all the neighbors, the eccentrics, aware of the history, good and bad. When one knows the visible world really well it's perhaps easier to feel the invisible within it? And Portland's also a city surrounded by various kinds of wildernesses, and during this period of time felt so tenuous — the pandemic, the wildfires, the ice storm, the protests and the reminder of chronic injustices, the many unhoused, everywhere. So I guess it also means trying to be honest about feeling tender and responsible for where I live.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
That they are happy that they read it, or that they found it worthy of their time. That it made them feel something and perhaps look up as if they'd awakened from a dream or walked out of a darkroom into bright light, or crashed out the exit of a haunted house with their heart racing.
(That they know something about dining on roadkill? Honestly, it is overwhelming to think of readers. Focusing on the characters inside the story was my obsession.)
I love to read so much that if someone felt the way I do after reading a book where I lost track of time and space that would be so satisfying.
You're welcome. Thank you!
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Peter Rock is the author of ten previous works of fiction, including My Abandonment
, which won the Alex Award and was adapted into the film Leave No Trace. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and is a professor of creative writing at Reed College. His previous novel, The Night Swimmers
, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He lives in Portland with his wife and two daughters.