AD: A friend of mine and I were sitting around years ago talking about growing up in this mill town along the Merrimack River. I was bitching and moaning one more time about my rough little childhood in these ugly, depressing towns, and my friend Paul Yuan, who is a beautiful actor and teacher, said, “You know, Andre, you’re so full of shit.” I’m going, “Why do you say that Paul?” I really looked up to him so I was a little bruised. He said, “Well you know, you always talk about how tough it was, but whenever you talk about growing up in these towns, there’s always such love in your voice.”
RR: All of my books have trapped me in exactly that emotion, which I can’t seem to escape and, the older I get, don’t really have any particular desire to. I’ve come to terms with the paradox. As I wrote about in that essay about Gloversville, I never had those experiences in those glove shops. I watched my grandfather strangle to death as a result of a leather dust that he breathed over 35 or 40 years working in the shops, but I myself never worked there.
The stories of these guys — many of who had fingers chopped off or hands made into flippers from the roller machines — no one’s ever really told their stories. It’s not my story to tell, but nevertheless, nobody else is really telling it. As I describe the work that they did — while somebody can still do that — I feel both the rage that you feel for somebody who really has no other option then to do such work that puts food on the table and is poisoning or maiming them at the same time.
I feel astonishing class rage even as I love the guys that did that work. Pissing and moaning, Andre, as we both do — the thing about these people, men and women both, is that they never pissed and moaned about it at all, and they were the ones to have cause to do so.
AD: I think Americans are more willing to talk about being an incest survivor than to talk about the fact that they would never think about hanging out with the guy that hung their sheet rock. I think class is still a taboo subject, I think it’s one of the elephants in the room, because it’s anti-American.
In that essay in Granta, weren’t you talking about your guilt over your nice shoes at your daughter’s wedding, and you Pulitzer prize, and your best selling books and your movies. How did you get the fuck out of the tannery track?
RR: There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about all that. There used to be a time when everybody in America used to think about class all the time, [especially] during the 30s and the 40s, with the Great Proletarian novels and writers like John Dos Passos and Sinclair Lewis.