Raised in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove, Professor Versaci is the product of an Italian-American family, too many movies, and countless books. In his Midwestern suburban adolescence, he was brought up to root for perennial underdogs–the Bears, Cubs, and Illini. Ever the loyal fan, he left for the University of Illinois in the fall of 1985. In 1991, Rocca Versaci left Chicago and headed to Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, where he earned his M.A. in 1992 and my Ph.D. in 1997 (both in English). In 2003, at age 35, he was diagnosed with cancer. Rocca Versaci spent most of the summer in chemotherapy, and he spent most of the time after that learning the truth of Robert Frost’s words that “way leads on to way.”
His way eventually led to the road; in the summer of 2010, he set out alone on his bicycle–which he named “Rusty”–from Ocean Beach, California and two months later wound up at the Outer Banks of North Carolina. In October of 2013, he was diagnosed with cancer–again–and once more stepped into the world of the unwell. After two surgeries, one major surgical complication, and twelve weeks of chemo, my treatments are over and his prognosis is good. What all of this means is that he might have to go on another crazy bike ride.
I want to start by thanking you for taking the time for this interview. I just finished your memoir That Hidden Road and it was a great read. One thing I noticed that you did very well was that you made jumps in time from your bike trip in 2010 to your first diagnosis of cancer in 2003. When you sat down and began writing was that the idea you had in mind with the formatting of your novel. Was that the direction your novel took as you fleshed out you memories or was it premeditated?
Like the ride itself, the writing (and revising) of the book was very much a process of discovery in that I had to abandon some preconceived ideas and go in a different direction. I thought about what the book might look like before I began riding, and I had always planned that there would be two main narratives—the bike ride itself (rendered in the present) and the “sorting out” of memories (rendered in the past). But it was a pretty stark outline, mainly because both of those narratives had yet to be filled; I didn’t know what I would encounter on my ride (much less how I would shape those stories), and I didn’t know exactly how (or which) memories would be arranged and come together. My initial idea was that the memories would unfold in reverse chronological order where the first memories that surfaced would be of the most recent events in my life and then work backward into my childhood as the book progressed. But the problem was that the conflicts this established were resolved too early in the book, and that drained the tension. Figuring out the best way to maintain a large narrative arc and punctuate it with smaller arcs was the biggest challenge in telling this story, and I was only able to solve it through drafting, revising, and sharing the work in progress with smart readers.
You mentioned in the acknowledgements that writing this book was harder in all aspects except physically. Can you elaborate a little more as to what you found difficult about constructing this narrative. Did you find it hard to remain objective while you sifted through your past experiences? What was your process when you sat down and decided which memories experiences and people you included in your memoir? Did it slow down the construction of this novel deciding which details to omit and what you felt was vital to the content of the book?
There’s a grueling repetition to a long bike ride—getting up, getting dressed, pedaling through difficult weather and/or terrain for 6-9 hours, bedding down, and then doing the same thing again day after day after day. Eventually, you just give yourself over to it and get the work done. It’s the same for writing, though instead of pedaling, you’re sitting at your desk. One big difference, though, is that the biking becomes mindless. Out on the road, my thoughts would drift in a thousand different directions and make the time go faster. It’s not the same for writing. In drafting and revising this book, I found that the mental challenges to my mind/imagination/ creativity were much more exacting than the ride’s physical challenges to my body. Also, the goals were more clear-cut in the ride. I knew what direction I was heading and as long as I covered some miles to get there, I was doing all right. In writing, I could spend a long time on something that ended up coming to nothing. For example, I spent about a week working on the scene that I was positive would open my book. Drafting it, revising it, tweaking it here and there. But it ended up on the trash heap because it just didn’t work. Another important difference between the riding and the writing was that, since I was writing about my life, I felt the stakes were much higher than the ride in “getting it right.” Interestingly, the idea of “objectivity” helped with this. I wasn’t objective when I sorted through my memories; I wanted those scenes that would best represent my subjective self. But at some point in the writing—I can’t pinpoint exactly where or when—I began to see myself as a character in the story as opposed to a guy trying to write about himself. It was a subtle shift, but it definitely freed up my writing and allowed me to see the whole story from a different, somewhat objective, perspective. As for deciding what to put in and what to leave out, it was agonizing and definitely slowed down the whole process. My strategy in the book—and it’s what I advise my creative writing students—was to overwrite the draft. Put it all in, so that it’s a big, overstuffed mess. Then, revision becomes a matter of cutting, reshaping, rearranging as you find what the real story is. There were some characters and scenes I hated to see go, but in the end they weren’t a part of that story.
From when you began writing this novel to its publications what were some of the biggest changes in content and structure? Were there any surprises you encountered while writing your book and what were they?
My original vision was of a much more fragmented book, where in addition to the narrative proper, there would be different “types” of chapters (e.g., one where I answer questions, one that had short, fictionalized vignettes, etc.). I figured out kind of early on that it wasn’t going to work, and that the best way to convey what I was going for—the fragmented, scattered nature of one’s thoughts while biking long distance—would be in the cutting between past and present. Also, I had a very difficult time with the first quarter or so of the book—basically the time leading up to Colorado. Initially—and through several drafts—it was a long slog that didn’t really have much shape, and I felt like I was recounting events instead of choreographing tension and conflict. A very generous agent’s assistant made a simple suggestion about the very beginning, and this suggestion was a breakthrough that allowed me both to reimagine the opening and to see how the big emotional arc would play out. Another surprise that came later was that I had to write about my affair in the book. My original plan was to leave it out, but it became pretty clear to me during the revisions that the story (and, by extension, I) was dishonest without it.
What was your overall approach on a daily basis when you were actively writing this book?
My approach was to try as hard as I could to put in the work. One thing I noticed about the ride is that I biked into shape on the road. The early days and weeks were very tough, but eventually I found a rhythm, and by the end I was logging miles in conditions that would have been beyond me at the very beginning. Writing this book was very much the same: a slow start while I forced myself to draft out something, eventually leading to longer and longer stretches as I got into a rhythm and wrote solidly for several hours a day (it helped that I had a sabbatical the fall right after the ride). It was only during that semester off and the summers when I could write for long periods of time, but even when teaching I would force myself to do at least a little something each day. For me, I need to get to the point where I feel guilty if I don’t write, and to do that, I need to make it a habit.
The first sentence of your novel hints an almost ironic awareness of mortality over a confusing Christmas card and the title “Roll Me Away” feels like a perfect match for the content within the first few pages. How did you cancer diagnosis in 2003 change your perception of life? You mention later in the novel that you, “were walking around with the arrogance of the healthy in a carefree land.” What’s changed in your day to day life since your diagnosis as a direct reaction of being forced to acknowledge the impermanence of life?
It’s trite to say that “life is short,” but it’s one of those truisms that has different levels of understanding. Before my first go around with cancer, I understood that statement intellectually—which is to say, I didn’t really understand it at all. Cancer made me reckon emotionally with my own mortality, and that very much became a theme in my book, which is one of the reasons I start with that first line. I would say that overall the diagnosis has made me not sweat the small stuff as much as I used to. Whenever I find myself getting wound up over a generally low-stakes issue, I try to remember the numerous and very serious problems that other people are facing. One concrete form that thought often takes for me is of all the people sitting in cancer treatment centers every day.
What were your first thoughts after your second diagnosis in 2013? Was your attitude more accepting having already faced similar circumstances in the past?
After the initial shock, one of my first thoughts was how glad I was that I went on that bike ride. It was something I had thought about while going through cancer the first time; sometimes we get big ideas when we’re under duress, and then when things return to normal, those ideas fade away. Going cross-country alone on a bike could very well could have remained in my imagination, but fortunately, it didn’t. So when I was diagnosed again in 2013, I had that experience to draw upon. Along with the memory of my first bout with cancer, I knew how to weather a long, difficult process. Of course, there are no guarantees—with cancer or anything, really—but I felt at peace and patient (for the most part) going through each stage of treatment, which by the way was much worse than the first time in all ways except for the fear.
The overall tone of this book felt very heavy and serious but there were instances of comedic relief. I found myself laughing when you described not putting your best foot forward during your testicular exam or when your son seemingly gave you a hard time for hitchhiking on one occasion during your three thousand mile bike trip. How relevant was it to lighten the heavy content of this book with well-placed humorous passages?
Humor is a big part of who I am, and it’s helped me through a lot of tough times. In fact, I think the comic and tragic are inseparable, so I would look for those moments when I could leaven some of the heaviness in the story with humor. I felt that it was an accurate reflection of my voice, of my identity. When I went through cancer the second time, I chronicled everything in my blog, and my objective was to find the funny in really trying circumstances.
There were certain passages that stood out as more than just memories. Looking back now on your coast to coast trip do you find it difficult remembering how truly miserable the experience was, biking up mountain ranges, and through the hills in the Ozarks or do you in any way romanticize it?
I do remember how difficult a lot of it was, and when I look back on the physicality of it, it’s less with romanticism than disbelief. I honestly can’t understand how I made it through a lot of that ride with all the weight I was carrying. It does, however, feel very good to say that I did it, and that I did it in my 40s. I like to leave the romanticizing to other people. One pattern I’ve noticed from several readers who have liked the book is the feeling that they have always wanted to do something like this. I think my book provides that vicarious experience for those who have, at some point, wanted to “light out for the Territory”—an idea very much wrapped up in our cultural fantasies of escape, exploration, and self-challenge.
Would you consider doing something similar again or was this a one time thing?
Well, I probably wouldn’t do a cross-country bike ride, mainly because this experience has become so big for me (for reasons other than just the book), and I would be afraid that another ride might suffer by comparison. I could see myself doing something, though. I just turned 50, which seems like a landmark to me, and I’m certainly grateful to be here and don’t want to waste my current good health, so who knows?