Bill Roorbach will be the Ithaca College Department of Writing's 2006 guest in its Distinguished Visiting Writers Series. He will be on campus January 30 to February 2, during which time he will give a public lecture and reading from his fiction and nonfiction works.
Onetime drifter Bill Roorbach '76 writes of pure, deep, and simple joys of this earth.
by Lorraine Berry
Bill Roorbach '76 doesn't remember much about his first three years of classes at Ithaca College. A musician, he spent nights at the Salty Dog and the Haunt, playing in bands. At various times he was a member of Klondike, Blues Rangers, and Sky Acres Band. He'd get up early in the morning after staying out late in the bars -- and go rock climbing. "Classes were," he admits, "an afterthought."
Ithaca was a place to play his music, hang out, get high, seek romance. But, as any writer will tell you, all of these life experiences were moving the writing forward. Roorbach, a native of New Canaan, Connecticut, was recently named the Jenks Chair of American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross. His latest book, Temple Stream: A Rural Odyssey, was published by Dial Press in July.
Roorbach left school in the middle of his junior year and hit the road. "It was a sort of vision quest," he says. "I headed out to Montana for a while to live with an uncle. I played in bands in New York City."Then he decided to go back to Ithaca, because, he says, that other life "was harder than it looks. Early in college I was distracted. But when I came back I was focused, and I graduated cum laude."
What helped him to focus was the passion he'd had since he was small: writing. "When I was in kindergarten I asked my mother to buy me a desk for my birthday," Roorbach says. "I told her that I wanted to be a writer." There was no writing program at IC when he was a student, but Roorbach found English professors -- such as Edward Hower (now in writing), Michael O'Brien, and Ferris Cronkite -- who aided him in his long-held ambition. And Susan Parr introduced him to F. Scott Fitzgerald. (His manuscript-in-progress, A Dancer, is a book of stories in which Fitzgerald will figure. )
Roorbach continued to play music after graduating, but he also worked part of the year as a remodeler of kitchens and bathrooms. "I was always thinking about writing. I'd work on a plumbing project and then go to the [Martha's] Vineyard for three months to write."
Music was another way to express that creative energy. "When the music was going well, I didn't do construction," he says. "Most summers I was playing music, most winters doing construction -- but writing all the while," he says. That was his life for a decade.
Roorbach was on a bus in Norway in March of 1986 when he realized that "the energy for music and writing was coming from the same place." It was 5:00 a.m., and he was tired, traveling from one gig to another. He suddenly came to the decision that he couldn't keep living "like a teenager." So the 33-year-old decided to channel the energy and divert its flow into graduate school. He was accepted at Columbia University and entered its M.F.A. writing program. "From the outside it looked like I was adrift," he remembers. "But when I got into Columbia, it made the skeptics -- friends and relatives -- realize that there was more going on than they thought."
He and Vincent Passaro, a fellow student (now known for his book reviews for the New York Times) formed the Riverside Writers Group and led community workshops. Roorbach's first book, Summers with Juliet, was published in 1992. It chronicled his eight-year courtship of Juliet Karelsen, who became his wife. "During grad school I wrote several essays that were the basis of Summers with Juliet," he says. "At the suggestion of an editor friend, Betsy Lerner -- now my agent -- I put them in order and made an annotated table of contents for a projected book." Lerner sent the book to an agent. "We sold the book to Houghton Mifflin within a week," says Bill. "Nice, because I'd had a lot of rejection before that. I was 37."
More books -- novels, short stories, and essays -- have followed. Roorbach's work has been published in Granta, Harper's, and the Atlantic (among others). His 2001 collection of short stories, Big Bend, won the Flannery O'Connor Prize for Short Fiction.
Temple Stream is the body of water that runs through the town where he and Juliet and their daughter, Elysia, now make their home in Maine. The book is a love story -- a paean to the running water that begins near Roorbach's house and then "makes an unhurried confluence with the Sandy River. The Sandy continues east till it meets the mighty Kennebec," and so on, until, finally, the waters of Temple Stream flow into the Atlantic. "The Temple," he writes, "is our point of contact with all the waters of the world."
The stories that are yielded up by the stream could be considered mundane, and yet Roorbach makes them miraculous. Whether documenting the work of a beaver family or telling seemingly tall tales of a bad-tempered woodsman neighbor, Roorbach is the perfect river guide -- pointing out the details that most people miss.
When Roorbach first arrived in Maine after the hurly-burly of New York City, however, those details were not readily apparent. "It was slow in Maine," he says. "At first I pined for New York. But eventually I began to rediscover and reconnect. I found in nature what Rachel Carson has called 'a sense of wonder.'
"In a way, it was like being seven again, rediscovering my boyhood sense of wonder and adventure. There was something powerful in that."
Roorbach writes about those moments in his latest book. For example, floating on Temple Stream in a canoe, he writes: "Something caught my eye: caddisfly nets, silken, finger-size tubes blowing full in the current, attached to the bricks by caddisfly nymphs to strain the water for nutritious plant matter. I'd seen these nets before -- true of so many things in the stream -- in fact, I'd studied them closely when I was a boy, named them windsocks. Forty years had passed, and here those windsocks blew again. And here was the boy again, late for dinner, all alone in his canoe, drifting homeward."
What motivates his willingness to do reportage on the most minute details of nature? Roorbach says that he's always had a literary interest in nature writing, but it runs deeper than simply admiring the genre: it is the headwaters of the infinite.
"There is a romance to places such as Temple Stream," he says. "These are the places that love might happen. Love and the natural world are tied together." And Roorbach has written previously, in Summers with Juliet, just how romantic love and nature are inseparable. Nature and Eros merge.
Paying attention to the tiny details is an act of love. "It is an erotic appreciation of the details of the universe," Roorbach says. "The big abstractions are singular, always the missing ingredients for happiness. But the details of the universe are endless. If you can love them, you have an infinite source of joy."Photos by Paul Kandarian