Keith Rosson is a longtime Portland illustrator and graphic designer. He mostly works in the music world, making posters and album art for everyone from Green Day to the Goo Goo Dolls and Against Me!. Then last year, he released his first novel — a supernatural thriller titled “The Mercy of the Tide.” NPR gave it a glowing review, calling him a “talent to be watched.” The book was recently nominated for a Bram Stoker award and optioned by one of the producers of “Game of Thrones.” Rosson joined Aaron Scott at OPB to talk about his new book, “Smoke City.” Here are some highlights from the conversation.
On how “Smoke City” came together
Rosson: I have this lofty notion that I’m a literary author, but I grew up on Stephen King and comic books. So I cannot keep fantastic or magical elements out. Everything I write it has a ghost in it or a robot or yada yada. But I also love literary fiction. All of my stuff is a merging of the fantastic and what I consider character-driven fiction.
On setting the novel in the ‘80s commercial art world
Rosson: For one, it’s really entertaining to write about excess. So much of my work focuses on these very universal themes of guilt and shame and then redemptive quality. So that, coupled with writing about ‘80s art stardom, it just kind of held root for me. I was really into [Jean-Michel] Basquiat as a younger painter, so I’ve immersed myself in that time period a little bit. But so much of writing is just about faking it until you get by. This was initially just about Mike Vale, and then it wasn’t fantastical enough for me. The secondary character, Marvin, was an add-on, and it just took off.
On the origin of character Marvin Deitz, the reincarnated executioner of Joan of Arc
Rosson: There is a biography of Joan called “Joan of Arc: Her Story,” and it’s by Régine Pernoud [and Marie-Véronique Clin, translated by Jeremy duQuesnay Adams]. There is a very brief mention of an executioner, Geoffroy, and it’s an anecdote that’s sort of survived history. The anecdote was he could be seen in the tavern that night, after lighting the pyre, totally drunk and weeping. He was crying to everyone that he had seen her soul leave her body in the shape of a dove through the smoke, and he worried that he had damned himself to hell for murdering a saint. And I read that in that book and was like, “Oh my gosh, I have got to learn more about this.”
On why Rosson’s version of reincarnation requires Marvin to remember all of his previous lives
Rosson: There has to be stakes. People think of reincarnation as this wonderful thing where it’s like, “Oh, I get gifted with life over and over again, and it’s wonderful.” And that’s not an appropriate vehicle for a novel, or at least the sort of stuff I write. So I had to up the stakes and make it so that it was worth it for him to try to do something different.”
On the supernatural force at play in his next book
Rosson: That is a really good, secret question. I will say, there might be a unicorn in it … It’s about a kind of down-on-his luck cryptozoologist. Someone sends him footage of this unicorn in this very small, entirely made up island off the coast of Iceland. For various reasons, he has to get out of the country really fast, so he’s like, “Hey, this will be a good excuse.” So, he hires a hapless assistant and madness ensues.