We All Sleep in the Same Room, the debut novel from Paul Rome, follows the life of Tom, a labor lawyer in his forties living and working in Manhattan. He lives an enviable life: happily married, father to a child, and in the prime of his career. And then, piece by piece, he being to make a series of decisions that cause his life to unravel. That contrast, between a publicly heroic face and a collapsing inner life, propels this novel forward, and I reached out to Rome via email to learn more. The book’s trailer can be watched here; Rome will read with Adelle Waldman at NYU Bookstore on February 24.
Tom, the protagonist of We All Sleep in the Same Room, works as a labor lawyer. What led you to choose this profession for him?
My father is a labor lawyer in Boston. I grew up hearing stories about the victories as well as the frustrations that accompany the profession. A lot of protagonists have an indifferent or contemptuous relationship to their job (or no job at all) and thus a certain indifferent or ambiguous understanding of their role in the world. Tom isn’t like that. He has strong convictions and a developed sense of morality that drives his commitment to defending the rights of the working class. I was drawn to the idea of Tom’s understanding of his role in the world, his moral compass so to speak, being in tension or opposition with his behavior. I wanted to set the stakes as high as possible for him and for the reader.
The novel is set in 2005, and references a few events from that year: John Roberts’s Supreme Court nomination and the New York City transit strike among them. When you were first writing the novel, did you know from the outset that it would be set in this particular year?
Yes. The transit strike was a really big, disruptive event when it happened — Bloomberg and the business community were understandably horrified by the prospect of how the strike might affect Christmas shopping — and I always knew that I wanted to incorporate it into a novel about a labor lawyer. Earlier drafts actually had a lot more topical events and allusions, but I tried to leave in only what was essential.
Ambiguity plays a large part in the book, from questions of the guilt or innocence of Tom’s clients to the whereabouts of certain characters that Tom isn’t always able to contact. Did you know, at any given point, where a certain character would be, even if it didn’t make it onto the page?
Yes and no. I thought about every potential ‘off-stage’ event — sometimes for hours and weeks at a time — but there remain some questions to which I’m still undecided. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that, but on the other hand, I feel it’s true to experience. Some things, including what constitutes guilt verses innocence, are unknowable. I find that notion to be as liberating as it is terrifying. Haunting, really.
I have this quote taped to the wall by my desk from the South African artist William Kentridge that says: “I’m interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures, and uncertain endings. An art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay.” I felt an immediate kinship with Kentridge when I read that.
Is Frank’s role in the novel — art-school graduate, babysitter, and later writer — indicative of a certain kind of post-college progression?
Ha. I never thought of that, but I like it. I didn’t go to art school (I attended NYU’s Gallatin School), but I was a babysitter after college and I know lots of young, and not-so-young, artists who are babysitters. In the end, it’s a decent paying job and it offers certain freedoms that other jobs don’t. At the same time, the psychological pressures of being in charge of a child can be intense. Children are like sponges: they watch, listen, and imitate their guardians, including their babysitter, scrupulously. Similarly, while the book opens with Tom somewhat eerily looking across the street at Frank and his son, the reader may wonder throughout the extent to which Frank is observing Tom. I think Frank’s late announcement that he has taken up writing certainly fuels that notion. It provides a sort of noir twist. I’m a big admirer of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy books, which make explicit and entertaining the idea of writer as existential detective. Perhaps, if anything, Frank’s “progression” to writer is indicative of the reader’s awareness of Tom’s instability.
Given that you did set this novel several years in the past, I’m curious — have you thought about where some of these characters have gone from here? (I’m thinking less about Tom and more those whose lives he has affected adversely, particularly Raina, Ben, and Jessie.)
Occasionally, I consider doing what Updike did with the Rabbit series and Ford did with Bascombe — returning after a set interval of years to write about the same characters — but for now these characters live in the past for me, or rather a sustained present, like Groundhog Day.
How much of the legal maneuvering in here came from familial recollections, and how much came from research?
I have to be careful what I say about where I got my inspiration. Of course, I did hear countless stories from my father growing up. I also spent a summer during college working for my uncle’s law firm in Midtown where I got a sense of law firm office culture. When it came to the story, though, I would mostly write the scenes first and then run the language by my dad to check for verify its accuracy.
Tom and his family are, by some accounts, very well-off: they own an apartment in an enviable part of New York, but at the same time, as the title indicates, it’s not exactly spacious. To what extent do you see this claustrophobia as pushing Tom to fray at the edges, as opposed to his decision to start drinking?
It’s true that Tom and Raina are well off at this point in their careers. Tom makes an allusion at the furniture store to their likely future in a two or three bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. We’re catching Tom, Raina, and Ben in a transition. When Ben was a newborn there was no need to have a larger place. Plus, they like their lives in Union Square. There’s a certain dignity for Tom in living in a humble, rent-stabilized apartment. He still self-identifies as a blue-collar New York native. Now that Ben’s older and more demanding, it’s gotten crowded — too many agendas for one bedroom.
But really the claustrophobia is twofold: sure, physically there’s not a lot of space, along with the psychological discomfort of that shortage. But for Tom, there’s also the claustrophobia of the rigidly prescribed life trajectory he’s confined himself to. In many ways, that’s more severe. His own moral walls are closing in on him, threatening to collapse. The drinking may just be the escape hatch.
You’ve also written for the stage – to what extent does that writing affect your prose (and vice versa)?
Along with writers like James Salter, Joan Didion and the essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing for stage has really made me appreciate a striking sentence. In a performance you’re asking for someone’s attention for a certain amount of time and you generally don’t want people to come away feeling like they’ve wasted that time. So there’s a certain amount of pressure to give them something memorable, but also to keep it succinct. To me, literature is the same way.