by Andrew DeCanniere
A short time ago, I came across Amy Rowland’s debut novel, The Transcriptionist (Algonquin Books, 2014), centered around Lena, who works as the sole transcriptionist for the Record, a major newspaper, spending her days alone in the paper’s Recording Room, transcribing reporters’ stories and sending them off to their appropriate destinations. Late last month, I had the opportunity to discuss the book with her. Read on to see what she has to say about her inspiration for writing the book, the role of the newspaper in society, the responsibilities of the reporter and the reader, the 24-hour news cycle, her influences and more.
UR Chicago Magazine: What was your inspiration for writing The Transcriptionist?
Amy Rowland: Inspiration is a tricky word. I don’t know that I was inspired to write it. I had been working on another novel, and I found work as a transcriptionist for the Times while I finished it. Just as I was settling in, the job, New York, the country changed drastically in a matter of hours on 9/11. It was a difficult time to serve as a human conduit for the news. Even stranger was the jarring quality of transcribing stories or interviews about 9/11 and then being interrupted by a vows column or a dance column. Over this strange somewhat surreal period of listening to the news for several hours a day, and taking it into my body and feeling certain fragments lodged there, I began to think about language, public language, and the inadequacy of language in the face of death and disaster. I finally abandoned that awful first novel I had been dragging around. Sometime later I began sketching fictional newspaper scenes in my notebook, and eventually, in tattered bits and jagged pieces, it became The Transcriptionist.
UR: You worked as a transcriptionist yourself. To what extent are the expectations or experiences of Lena, the main character in your book, related to your own? Have you ever felt, as she seems to, that in your efforts to record or transcribe the news, you were at risk of losing yourself in the process?
AR: Yes, I had done my protagonist’s job, and the process of the work and some of the details of the setting are taken from life. But much of it is not lived experience, except lived through the writing of it. In writing fiction, you’re creating the text whole cloth, so it would be almost impossible to transcribe life into fiction. And even if you could, it probably wouldn’t be interesting. (Of course, there are authors who seem to be challenging or at least examining that notion.) The style of The Transcriptionist is very strange, though at the time it seemed to suit the material, and I didn’t realize until later that I was flirting with surrealism. In truth, I gravitate toward that anyway—I like to find the spot where reality meets irreality and press all around it.
UR: At one point in the book you write, “For all his faults, and they are multitudinous, the man knows how to run a newsroom. He understands that the news is not about nuance. You have to be bold, you have to overwhelm with the Record’s force and set the national agenda.” What role should a paper have in society, and what is a paper’s responsibility as a whole – as an organization – to the society it serves?
AR: I was having a bit of fun with Katheryn, the corrupt reporter character, when I put those words in her mouth. The role of the newspaper is the same as ever, to provide information. Ideally, it also creates a shared community and enables collective action.
UR: What, for that matter, is the responsibility of the reporter in this day and age?
AR: The responsibility of the reporter is to inform the public, and to provide information that’s as unfiltered as possible. Objectivity is too optimistic, an unattainable ideal, but reporters can still strive for neutrality.
UR: What about the responsibility of the reader? What do you feel it is, and where does that enter into the equation?
AR: The responsibility of the reader is to be informed. The obligations beyond that are something I continue to struggle with myself. Being informed is a start, but then you have to participate.
UR: Later in the book, Ralph says that the paper is the “fourth estate.” Though they are not elected, the newspaper serves as this sort of check on all of the branches of government. He says that they are the guardians and with that “comes the awesome burden of responsibility.” Can you effectively be the “fourth estate,” this supposed check on all branches of government, and simultaneously allow the government to be involved in the paper to the extent that Ralph – and the Record, as a whole – seem to permit them to be?
AR: No, when the newspaper becomes an organ of power it ceases to be the record of the people. The Transcriptionist is set around 2003, and I was questioning the role of the news in times of crisis and war. Of course, my example is fictional, and it may seem extreme, but there was a time after 9/11 when the press did seem to bow to authority, or at least was in danger of bowing.
UR: Later it is suggested that “The news cycle now has no recovery time, we are bombarded with so much news that it has lost its meaning and people look for signposts that they touch like rosaries to order their world, repetition without affect. It did not take long for news of the war to be added to the rosary, touched but not felt.” How do you, personally, feel that the nature of news – or the news cycle – has changed over the years, and how does that affect both the news organizations that deliver it, and the ways in which people receive and absorb it?
AR: The news cycle is continuous now, it never stops. This is something that has changed in my lifetime. I remember when I moved to D.C. after college, I would spend half of Sunday poring over The Washington Post and The New York Times. When I moved to New York in the ‘90s, I would go to Astor Place late Tuesday night just to pick up the latest Village Voice when it came off the truck. That’s over. Obviously, news organizations are under tremendous pressure to meet the demand for news almost as it happens. Questions remain about which news outlets will be able to meet this demand, and what they might do to gain an audience. Like many others, I worry about the long-term effects on original reporting and the blurring of news and commentary. The effects on society will be revealed over time.
UR: Who are some of your influences? Who are some of your favorite authors or what are some of your favorite books? What draws you to their work?
AR: Influence is almost as slippery as “inspiration.” I’ve loved many authors at different times in my life, but I love the 19th-century novel best, though that has probably had the least direct influence on my writing. Ultimately, George Eliot may mean the most to me, but I couldn’t hope to write with her breadth and scope. Over the years, I’ve passed through phases of frenzied reading — Faulkner, Joyce, Melville, Woolf, Beckett, and, more recently, Coetzee, Saramago, and Bolano. I always return to Chekhov and Tolstoy. This year I’ve been taken with Elena Ferrante, Cynthia Ozick, and Iris Murdoch. I can’t really hope to be “influenced” by any of these towering writers, but I do take great nourishment from them.
Amy Rowland has spent more than a decade at the New York Times, where she worked, notably, as a transcriptionist before moving to the Book Review. Her articles have appeared in numerous publicatons, including the New York Times, The Smart Set, and Utne Reader. The Transcriptionist is her debut novel. She lives in New York City. For more information, visit www.algonquin.com/author/amy-rowland/. You can also find her on Twitter at @AmyRowland718.
The Transcriptionist is out now from Algonquin Books in hardcover and as an e-book, and will be released in paperback on January 20, 2015. For more information about The Transcriptionist, visit www.algonquin.com/book/the-transcriptionist/.