Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Holly Feld is talking with David Rogers Jr., author of The Lay-Off House.
FQ: One of the first things that struck me about Doug was that he was completely content after he lost his job. He had some savings and knew he’d be fine for several months. Most people would panic in such a situation. Was this your attempt to show readers that there are other options beside staying in “the rat race” indefinitely?
ROGERS: Doug has lost hope, or so he thinks. He attempts to approach his lay-off with calm because he figures that’s how life goes and there’s nothing to be done about it. Of course, at the end of that week he falls into alcohol and despair because damaged hopes turn into rage, eventually. Doug does panic, it’s just delayed. He’s suppressive.
When we go through lay-offs, there’s this “stiff upper lip” mentality we are supposed to have. Don’t rage about it, don’t see the injustice, just get back on LinkedIn. Hand your resume out on street corners instead of panhandling, we all know the stories. But what you shouldn’t do is think of the bigger picture, the inequity that got you there. Doug internalized that.
FQ: Doug’s house becomes a character in your novel. Beyond the descriptions you provide of the brownstone, it is always present in the background. Was this intentional? Did you want the house to take on a life of its own? Especially as the object that brought everyone together?
ROGERS: A friend who read the book early on said it reminded them of the house in Fight Club, but wholesome.
“Home” as an idea has always fascinated me. It’s the only place where you can be completely yourself, and so is essential for creating yourself. All these people in some way or another are incomplete and they need a space to be themselves in so they can reconstruct themselves to handle the pressures of the outside world, of public life. The house embraces everyone there and gives them a safe space to self-actualize.
Well, except for Tyler. He’s probably the most complete of everyone in the house.
FQ: Tyler is probably my favorite character. He reminds me of a “surfer dude” who just lets life float right by him. Was it important to include such a laid-back person in your story? What do you think he adds to the house’s environment?
ROGERS: Tyler straddles the line between the blue-collar, working-class people who value what little they have and still manage to maintain some joy of life, and ultra-competitive white-collar workers, especially tech and finance, where there’s a sense of failure if you only get the 3% raise and not the 5%, or you’ve been in the same job description for a whole twelve months. Tyler is the opposite of Polly’s world. He was raised working class but managed through his skills and gifts to make it to the tech world.
Tyler is there to say, get some perspective. It could be a lot worse. When things get tough, just pick yourself up and get going. Don’t dwell on it. Let’s survive together. It’s what working people do, the ones who don’t go to college. They don’t have a choice. I think it’s something a lot of the go-getters need to hear, since they usually do a lot of damage to themselves and everyone around them as they try to grab that brass ring.
FQ: “People without jobs did not concern them.” Wow – that really stayed with me. It appears early on in the story and is how Tyler’s roommates thought about their former roommate. Do you believe this feeling is ingrained in our society?
ROGERS: It was absolutely the attitude when I was growing up in Chicagoland, the whole “City of Big Shoulders” thing. If you lost your job, it was your fault. The poor management or the loss of investor money wasn’t the issue. A lay-off was punishment for not being important enough to the company to keep around. Because they didn’t lay everyone off, right? So why didn’t they keep you? Because you were lazy, stupid, and just not trying. You deserved to lose your job.
And who wants to be friends with a loser? People get afraid of being associated with you or want to avoid helping you. You’re in danger of becoming a mooch. So, losing a job often means taking a hit to your social life as well. You find out who your real friends are.
The Great Recession tempered that a bit because nearly everyone got hit. But look at all the snarky commentators around that time, and since then. “If they can’t afford their rent, why don’t they buy fewer iPhones and avocado toast?” Now with another recession being planned, look for more of the same. Even though the Fed has openly said they want to cause high unemployment, it’ll be the workers who get blamed for their own suffering, once again. Inflation is their fault for eating, or needing to pay rent, or gas their cars. Got to make sure they do less of that. It’s part of the self-mythologizing of the 1%: CEOs deserve all the award and none of the blame, and the people doing the work deserve all the blame and none of the award.
FQ: Once Tyler has settled into the house and spends hours gaming, Doug notes a change in himself. He is now content to simply hang out with his new friend, watching him play his games. How do you think Tyler affected Doug’s attitudes toward life and his relationships with others?
ROGERS: Doug is voluntarily alone to protect himself emotionally. Tyler bursts into his cocoon without knowing it (or maybe he does?) and it’s exactly what Doug needed. Tyler’s calm acceptance of life as it is does the work of neutralizing Doug’s neuroses. Tyler’s philosophy of taking one day at a time and not panicking about what cannot be changed is the antidote Doug needs.
FQ: The best example of the “roommate-ship” that develops within the walls of the house comes with the joke about “who the f$$$ is allergic to dogs?” While lighthearted, I think it shows the development of relationships perfectly. Was this scene carefully thought out or did it just happen as you wrote?
ROGERS: I’m fascinated with the way groups of friends form, and it’s always through shared experiences and in-jokes. You can’t force a group to be a group. Not even “mandatory fun” at work can do that. So, when I was writing that scene, or other moments of spontaneous joking, I just let the writing work itself. It’s a cliché, but characters do have lives of their own and if you let them off the leash, they’ll do exactly what they would do if they were living people. If I try to force a conversation, I catch myself: “What am I doing? They’d never say that.” Letting the characters riff on their own is so much fun.
FQ: Along with the relationships in the house, you also show interactions outside the home, such as when Clara and Marco deal with racism at school and Doug having to deal with the HOA and issues with Polly’s garden. Was it important for you to show how awful others can be? And how the housemates come together in times of trouble?
ROGERS: One of the main themes of the book is “dignity.” So much of our society is about kicking people when they’re down or reminding them that they have no power no matter what they may think of themselves. Every executive parking space, every expensive by-pass line at airport security (which our tax money already paid for), the extra PTO for the bosses, the vicious scramble to get your kids in the “good” school instead of making every school a good school. Racism. Sexism. The list goes on and on, we all have our own. We may not be able to label it with an “-ism” but when know it when we see it.
Dignity is reserved for a small sliver of American society. To counter that, it’s up to us down here in the trenches of American life to treat each other with dignity, to recognize the individual importance of each person you know, because we sure aren’t going to get it from our politicians and bosses, the people who think they’re better than us. We’re on our own.
FQ: The story style starts out as third person narration and then, about halfway through, switches to first-person, going from one character’s narration to another. And then back to third-person. Why the switch around?
ROGERS: I started writing this as all from Doug’s perspective, but he’s just too mopey and stuck in his head, to be honest. A whole book of Doug’s ruminations would be boring. I realized that I would have to give everyone their own story with the house as the base. It also allowed me to differentiate the voices. Doug is third person because he’s emotionally distant from his own existence. Switching to first person for everyone else let me show them as fully engaged with their lives, along with the fun of capturing their unique voices. It wasn’t easy, but I hope everyone sounds like their own person.
FQ: Without giving away the ending, the story doesn’t end as a “happily ever after” but more like real-life. Why did you decide to go this way?
ROGERS: Life isn’t linear and broken up into chapters. It’s also why I choose an unusual structure for the book, organizing it by month. That’s how life really flows. And life isn’t totally good, or totally bad. We win some and we lose some, and then you go to bed and wake up the next morning and do it all over again. These characters continue their struggles because it’s the rare person that wins it all. And even then, old age, sickness and death beat us in the end. The process of life continues, and I wanted the book to end like that; with the implication that while these struggles are temporarily won, there will be more. Maybe even the same struggles. Such is life.
FQ: Might we see any of these characters in another story? For example, a continuation of Polly and her dreams for a Farm to Table business? If not, what’s your next project?
ROGERS: Oh, definitely you’ll see them again, or some of them. The next book which my subconscious is currently constructing seems to be a combination of The Razor’s Edge, the Bhagavad Gita and the old TV show Convoy. Thanks, subconscious! I’m certain Blue Butterfly Farm is going to need some deliveries. And I can see Tyler and Malcolm cajoling Doug into hitchhiking for at least one stint, to get him out of his house and experience something of life. Maybe as far as...Des Moines! The shock. Yes, these people have more to tell us.
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