Paul Rome’s Intense Debut Novel Is Cringeworthingly Good

paul rome by katarina_hybenova

Okay, let’s be real: Bushwick Daily has officially been crushing on Paul Rome for years now. We named him one of our “30 Awesome Bushwick People” back in 2011. We sat down and chatted with him about his 2011 epic audio play called The You Trilogy. We interviewed him and Roarke Menzies about their literary performance, Calypso, in 2012. So when we found out that Rome wrote a novel, we just had to get our hands on it and talk to Rome about how he came about getting published. ASAP.

We All Sleep in the Same Room follows four months in the life of Tom Claughlin, a union lawyer in his professional prime, who lives with his charming three year old son and wife of 21 years in a small, rent-stabilized one bedroom apartment in Union Square. As Tom revs up for a big case – getting a wronged clinic worker her job back – he finds himself spending more and more time with a young legal assistant at his law firm. When he breaks his abstinence from alcohol, a “symbolic pact” with his wife after the last time he got drunk and took things too far with a coworker, the pleasant facade of Tom’s life begins to unravel.

“How about making a show where a family sleeps in the same room so nobody has a sex life? Maybe it’s already been done. I switch the TV off.”

All kinds of creative types have been filing into Bushwick and a considerable amount of trendiness is trickling in from its ultra-hip neighbor to the west, Williamsburg. New dive bars, bodegas, and gallery spaces continue to flourish, fueled by the intrepid movers and shakers that are pouring into Bushwick’s converted loft spaces.

While Rome’s novel hints at the traditional themes of balancing one’s home, social and work lives, this isn’t a romantic novel about a man at a moral crossroad. Tom’s impending infidelity catapults the story forward, but the backbone of the novel is Rome’s effortless exploration of complex human relationships in New York City. The dynamics between the cast of characters are odd, oftentimes uncomfortable; as in real life, motives are never known for certain – characters’ gestures are scrutinized, thoughts are inferred. Masterfully written, We All Sleep in the Same Room is claustrophobic and serious, in a very good way. People are complicated, relationships are messy (especially when it comes to sex), and sometimes you just don’t really know what’s going on.

“Deception hadn’t figured into any of this. The lies had simply come out, almost smoothly, with very little hesitation. Things are becoming shady, but I’m not yet guilty of anything.”

We had the opportunity to talk to Rome about his debut novel, living in Bushwick, and getting published. Read on for all the deets!

: Paul, we already know you’re a “writer, coffee shop manager [of the Wyckoff Starr], and long-time New York City resident,” but give us a little more background about yourself. Did you have a former life as a union lawyer?

Hmmm, not sure there’s too much surprising to learn about me. I like basketball, jazz, whiskey, Woody Allen movies…I’m from a suburb of Boston, but the New York bug got me at a really early age when I saw the movie Ghostbusters. At five, I wore proton-pack wherever I went, and my friend and I would act out the film in its entirety. Luckily, my friend, who was quite bossy, liked Egon so I got to be Peter, which is Bill Murray’s character. I thought Bill Murray was the coolest person I’d ever seen and I still do.

As to the union lawyer connection, that’d be my father. He bears almost no resemblance to Tom in the book, but I’ve always been moved and inspired by my father’s political convictions. We remain very close and talk about politics and literature a lot.

Paul Rome at the age of five (kneeling in the right corner) with his best friend wearing proton-packs (photo from Rome family archive)

: When did the idea for We All Sleep in the Same Room first come to you?

The ideas started coming to me the same year I set the book and the same year I started writing things down – fall of 2005. I’m guessing that at every moment in history, the fate of humanity has probably seemed bleak, but at least in Manhattan, where I was living at the time, there was a distinctively dark mood in the air that year with Bush as president and two extremely violent wars escalating. Then Katrina struck. An idealistic, union lawyer in that context seemed perfect to me.

In my personal life, I was feeling a lot of apprehension about growing older. I’d just graduated college and I was in what would turn out to be the last year of a long and happy but also tumultuous relationship. For work, I was a baby-sitter and I did see one family’s lovely, but small one bedroom apartment, which they shared with their child. I felt concerned about the parents’ sex life and the implications that might have.

The fact that I was writing my first novel at the same time as experiencing these different things, led me, unconsciously, I believe, to adopt the rather unusual, first person, present tense style. It’s a style I’m still exploring. I appreciate it because it doesn’t allow the author, or character of the author’s creation, to frame the story after the fact, in a moral context. In present tense: things happen, then other things happen. It’s cinematic. I didn’t have perspective on the story I was writing, and likewise, Tom, the story’s narrator, doesn’t know what’s going to happen next or how he’s going to react, or, for most of the novel, how he even really feels about what’s happening in the present. It all catches up to him in the end, but I never say it explicitly.

: Space plays such a big role in your novel – just look at the title…

Literarily, space provides these objective dimensions, this backdrop on which to hang everything else. It limits and defines the action in important ways. The paradox being that space is entirely mutable in memory and imagination. And a further paradox for a writer being that the more words you devote to describing the specifics of a space don’t necessarily make the space clearer or more alive to the reader. In many instances description can confuse, stifle imagination, and interfere with the psychological flow of the scene. Space, understood in a broader sense, as the lingering image or feeling a story leaves you with, could be considered a story’s defining quality.

I should say I do often find myself drawn to works where the space is severely constricted. It makes things claustrophic and the characters and their relationships inherently theatrical. Two films I love for that reason are Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and Polanski’s Knife in the Water.

: Speaking of space, where do you get most of your best writing done?

I have some attention and mild dyslexia issues so I have to work at home and keep distractions to a minimum. Not too long ago, I had my single most productive days writing at a friend’s house in Vermont. My friend actually left so it was just me in this old house with a wood-burning stove. I fantasize about having a place upstate like that to retreat to.

: What do you find special about living and working in Bushwick?

I like the people and the tacos. I’ve met many of the most important people in my life at The Wyckoff Starr Coffee Shop. I like drinking whiskey at the Northeast Kingdom and cheap beer at Pearl’s and 3 Diamond Door. I’m also the bartender on Monday nights at Café Ghia.

: Where do you get inspiration for your characters and their relationships? A memorable cast of supporting characters – including Doreen the clinic worker, and the taxi driver – really packs a punch…

Thanks. So glad you liked Omar. This might sound corny, but when I’m in the right mood, I genuinely like people. I like the right kind of stranger in particular. I develop temporary crushes on him or her and find myself completely absorbed while listening about his or her life and opinions. Cabs, bars, park benches are excellent place to have these conversations. New York in general.

: Which authors have had major influence on your work?

James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Richard Ford, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and James Salter are each important influences. I’d also add Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as works that seem, in an almost mystical way, to give endlessly. The voice of Louie CK, as well as the radio artist Joe Frank, streams regularly through my head.

: Any quick advice for fellow Bushwick writers who want to get published?

Getting published is typically complicated and, from what I can tell, it almost always varies from author to author and work to work. For what it’s worth, the quick advice I can offer to writers relates to writing and it’s: respect your imaginary audience. They’re smart and they’ve read and seen a lot.

We All Sleep in the Same Room (November 5, 2013; Rare Bird Books) is now available on Amazon.

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