Lingering on Posted Land
An Interview with Leon Rooke
April 2003 WLT
For each of Leon Rooke’s nearly three hundred published stories, there are another two unpublished. Those six hundred, Rooke would say, represent the more interesting part. Rooke was born in 1934 in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. He and his wife, Constance, moved to Victoria, British Columbia, in 1969, before settling down in Eden Mills, Ontario, where he founded the Eden Mills Literary Festival in 1989. He began his career producing plays and wrote scripts such as Krokodile (1973) and Sword Play (1974). He has published numerous short-story collections, including Last One Home Sleeps in the Yellow Bed (1968), The Love Parlour (1977), Cry Evil(1980), Death Suite (1981), Sing Me No Love Songs, I’ll Say You No Prayers (1984), A Bolt of White Cloth (1984), and The Happiness of Others (1991). He has been awarded the Canada-Australia Literary Prize (1981), the Governor General’s Award for English-Language Fiction for his novel Shakespeare’s Dog (1983), the W. O. Mitchell Prize and the ReLit Fiction Award (both in 2002), and the CBC Literary Prize (2003). His other fictional works include Fat Woman (1980, shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and the Books in Canada First Novel Award and winner of the Periodical Association of Canada Award for English-Language Paperback of the Year); The Magician in Love (a novella, 1981); and A Good Baby (1989). More recently, a novel, The Fall of Gravity (2000) and Painting the Dog: The Best Stories of Leon Rooke (2001) were published by Thomas Allen. Rooke is currently editing a special fiction and poetry issue of the New Quarterly (Spring 2003) under the rubric “Bad Men Who Love Jesus.”
During a book tour through Italy with the interviewer, Rooke went off alone to Venice. Arriving by train at midnight, thevaporetto he chose took him, not into the city, but far out into the dark Adriatic. Gone the way of all those unpublished stories, perhaps, but Rooke miraculously re-emerged in 1999, after all the ports of call, in Winnipeg, where he has joined and contributes to that city’s lively cultural scene and is currently helping to organize the city’s literary festival.
Branko Gorjup In a 1985 interview, you confessed that one strong reason why you left the United States for Canada was your romantic sense of Canada’s unpolluted and uncorrupted space. You used the word beckon—a word Destiny would carry around in its magic bag. You said that Canada “beckoned” you because of what seemed at the time “to be a future . . . that wasn’t oppressed by dark clouds overhead.” Years later, how would you reconsider these statements? Has Canada been a cloudless place for you as a writer?
Leon Rooke [The notion] that Destiny goes about with a magic bag is an enchanting thought. A lot of people will be asking where that bag has got to, while the lives of a good many other people are an indication of its existence. I am not so much within enchantment’s power, however, or so much the addled dreamer that I am not aware, from time to time, of a darkening firmament. But, yes, I pretty much hold to those old views.
BG I’d be curious to hear you describe what “the dark clouds” might have stood for at the time you were about to leave the United States, and what those occasional instances of a “darkening firmament” might have referred to while you were setting up home in Canada?
LR I have not renounced the United States. I am alert to the genius of its eccentricities. Almost always I feel a wonderful buoyancy while there, whether in New York City or San Francisco or down south. It is a remarkable and remarkably vibrant show the people put on. Life as theater, let’s say. But when my wife and I left, the moral sky was indeed suffering an inconsolable blemish. I am speaking of the Civil Rights period. “We Shall Overcome,” and all that phrase might conjure up for you. Heroic blacks—and those blacks were outnumbered ten thousand, a hundred thousand to one, you would have thought. Even in my enlightened university town, referred to by enemies as the “red, festering sore,” street marches, sit-ins, and the like were a regular occurrence. Yet never would more than two hundred people join these marches, 98 percent of them black. A docile citizenry lined the streets and watched blearily. This, as elsewhere churches were being bombed, people murdered, jailed, beaten, stung by cattle prods, set upon by dogs, assailed by fire hoses, humiliated at every turn. So, on the one hand, we had the exhilaration of a movement that would not yield; on the other, a demonic opposition and, more frightful still, an apathetic public standing dumbly by, content to let History write the book. These are the heavy skies to which I allude, and Vietnam has not even been touched upon. Good ol’ Hanoi Jane.
Then hello, Canada! Hello, British Columbia! All that water, all those trees, those mountains, those gorgeous skies. My first dark day? At our table, Trudeau was revered—a truly exemplary human being. But here, suddenly, was the War Measures Act. Here suddenly was a Social Credit premier, “Wacky” Bennett, affirming his ability to “plug into” God with the same ease that his wife plugged in her electric skillet. Waiting in the wings, son Bennett, later of stock-market fame, and that good-looking fire hydrant, Vander Zalm. My sense of Canada as an innocent, airy Brigadoon underwent speedy revision. Lunacy was not absolutely unheard of, and dark clouds might arise occasionally, as they did recently, with the massive outcry over rusted ships piled high with unwashed immigrants sneaking their way in from Hainan Province, China.
BG Since you settled here in 1969, you’ve witnessed extraordinary changes taking place in this country. In the intervening years, Canada has emerged from cultural anonymity to identity. It has transformed itself from being decidedly monocultural, in spite of the Anglo-French connection, to becoming multicultural and multiracial. Its experimentation with cultural plurality and diversity is now praised around the world and perceived as the prime cause for Canada’s currently strong literary visibility. How true do you think this statement is? Do you believe that multiculturalism is good for the country and for its literary culture?
LR There exists that hideous cliché that informs us that the evidence is in the pudding. Yes, I agree with your statement, althoughprime cause might be stating the matter a bit too forcefully. A major factor in that visibility, certainly. And surely our multiculturalism is to be praised. The one thing that my wife, Connie, and I found weird and strange and somehow not right, when we moved to Victoria in 1969, was its absence. In that sense, Victoria is a far, far better place now.
BG As a Canadian author of American origin, do you feel that this apparent climate of openness, brought about by cultural pluralization, has benefited you as a writer in any particular way? Can you describe your experience of being an immigrant writer in Canada, as well as a writer who comes from a culture that has dominated the world for the last hundred years? Has your status as an American Canadian ever been problematic?
LR Canada has been very hospitable to me, lately in smallish doses. This probably has more to do with the kind of writer I am than my country of origin. The pride of Americans is such that they can never forgive, or understand, anyone who abandons their shores. The very thought seems to inflict personal injury. But in all the decades that Canadians have been debating the “brain drain” issue, I have never heard one express any personal “wounding” because a party of these parts has elected to go elsewhere. So this is pride of another kind. My theory is that Canadians understand that the building of a country is a continuing process, whereas Americans are satisfied that their nation-building was completed long ago. That’s one reason recent events in Florida, à la Bush and Gore, came as such a huge shock, almost as though the Almighty had deserted them.
BG I’d be interested if you could elaborate on your remark about hospitality being lately dispensed “in smallish doses”?
LR A slip of the tongue.
BG Humor me.
LR Oh, you know, Branko, that literary reputations rise and fall, they slip and slide, you’re down one minute and up the next. Or notup the next. There is no next.
BG For a writer like yourself, who occupies more than one imaginative space, what does the meaning of a “national” literature imply? In your opinion, how does a literature become national? What makes it national? I was mesmerized reading, in a recent review of your latest novel, The Fall of Gravity, the reviewer’s entreaty: “Leon, please come to Canada. You’ve lived here since 1969 . . . but you keep setting your novels in the United States.” How would you respond to this reviewer?
LR That she made this extremely intimate appeal in a very public organ, the Vancouver Sun, touched me deeply. It was heartwarming, really. The issue she raised—What, you’re a writer who doesn’t know where his books are set?—I don’t believe I had ever considered much, for the simple reason that I am occupied by what is yet to be done and scarcely at all by what has been created in the past. So, yes, she yanked my leash, and I would like to set the next novel here, if only to make her happy. As to a national literature, I imagine a nation’s literature becomes national at about the same rate as its drift is toward the universal.
BG But what makes it national?
LR Little spiders spinning big webs.
LR Well, one thing that does not make it national is utter dependence on where a work is set. It is probably factual to say that, just about in any nation’s literature, whether English, Irish, Italian, Japanese, or American, we will find that most writers are writing of people and affairs particular to the country they occupy. It is obvious, though, that those who are not doing so are also contributing to a national literature. A national literature is to be cross-referenced with a mature literature, and mature with universal. You cannot have one without the other. Only in recent decades in this locale has it become permissible—even desirable and profitable, an advantage—for the Canadian fiction writer to explore his or her own country. Whereas in Australia, practically from the beginning, they were defining their own land. And thus they had a mature—a national—literature long before we did. But if talented little Molly Crabtree, out there in her little railroad shack on the Long Straight [Australia’s transcontinental railroad], writes all her books about an imagined city called Hocus Pocus, a city having not the smallest claim on anything Australian, she, too—Molly, the Little Spider—is among those forging a national literature.
BG Shouldn’t we all, instead, like your Molly, strive for a transnational literature, which eludes any strong specificity by way of a national sentiment, a literature that’s easily comprehended by the largest possible number of readers? Or should we see transnationalism, at this point in time, as a devouring monster called literary globalization? A unifier of taste, which in writing means a skillfully produced, internationally approved, antiseptic, unchallenging fiction, associated by many critics today with the literatures written in the so-called international English?
LR No less a talent than [Kazuo] Ishiguro has bemoaned the presence of this “international” language, including, surprisingly, in himself. If all the world’s major presses fall under one ownership, which is our drift, then the writing you describe would seem to be a logical outcome. Could one argue that, despite their vast differences, in [J. M.] Coetzee’s Disgrace and in Ishiguro’s Remains of the Daythere is a sameness in the language each employs? Maybe, maybe not. It isn’t an argument I’d care to make. But hold on. The “specificity by way of national sentiment,” of which you speak, isn’t apt to disappear any more than is the teacup or the yellow wheelbarrow. And we will always have those terrifyingly bad blockbuster international potboiler pop writers to steer us faithfully on our course.
BG Over the years, critics have commented on your voice, more precisely on the endless variety of voices your characters are capable of assuming. Since a voice manifests itself through language, you have been also described as a wizard of tongues. Where did your interest in language come from?
LR As a child, I virtually did not speak outside my home. But I was listening, one ear to earth, the other to air. Then I discovered books, and an amalgamation occurred.
BG And what did the ears catch listening, what did the air say and what the earth? And which were the books you discovered? Do you remember any of them?
LR Mine was a fraught family, and the times were not conducive to a happy survival. So drama was afoot, and the ears caught an air and earth chock-full of accusation, justification, betrayal, mystery. Plus those stories peculiar to the region itself, ghostly tales handed down and passed around like a bowl of soup at the table. Books? The first book I bought and paid for myself, ordered for two dollars and postage from Black’s Readers Service, was Tolstoy’s Collected Stories. I was fifteen.
BG It must be important to you that a language is a product of place and history, defined by an environment stretching in time? Kent Thompson describes your idiom in terms of “patterns and rhythms and surprises” that are authentic of time and place. He is referring to your southern diction, the subtleties of which, he maintains, are likely to be lost on most of your Canadian readers. Yet much of your writing is not delivered in the southern idiom. Shakespeare’s Dog is the best example. And then there are all those “Italian” and “Mexican” stories, which follow a different linguistic trajectory. And one can certainly add your latest novel, The Fall of Gravity. Can you describe how the language works for you?
LR It may be merely this simple: many writers are content to follow their own footsteps, tracking the same path, writing the same book, over and over. I am not one of these, and this leads me into an exploration of new patterns and rhythms. An example. I currently have underway a novella set in Glasgow, Scotland, told entirely in what reputes to be the amazing street vernacular of that city, a vernacular spoken nowhere else on earth, which is its appeal to me. Now I, alas, have never been to Glasgow. I have been consulting with Michael Elcock, a Scots writer friend out on Vancouver Island, wanting to know how close I’ve come to the real thing, and Mike has made the following astute observation: It may be, he says, that you are only utilizing this dialect in order to keep yourself beguiled; it may be that once you have completed the novella to your satisfaction you will decide to drop the Glasgow peculiarities. But will I be that sensible?
BG Obviously, you’re not much bothered by those who find appropriation of another culture’s specificity, whether speech or theme, a transgression. What would you have to say to these people?
LR Rarely when I see posted land do I venture upon it. Crucial here is who is doing the posting. We all know the appeal of forbidden territory. My point is that often there are false guardians. The appropriation of voice issue had its day, not a good one. Let a writer go where he or she wishes, in acceptance of the legitimate risks involved. The very word gatekeepers employ, appropriation, is a loaded and suspect word. Surely there are times when venturing into a culture not one’s own is an honorable pursuit, and appropriation is the last word that should apply. But, yes, there are territories I would not encroach upon.
BG Can you give a few examples?
LR Caribbean talk. Gulag talk. The native reserves are not mine to speak of, either.
BG How is Caribbean talk different from the Glasgow street vernacular in relation to its culture, into which we step by reading the writer using it?
LR It is a matter of believing one is keeping the faith, Branko. Let me underline that. Keeping the faith. Being faithful to the culture entered. With Glasgow, for the moment, I believe I am. Keeping to their faith, I mean. It’s a test, really, to see if I can. But with Caribbean, I would be the tourist.
BG Why so? Because you feel culturally closer to Scotland than to the Caribbean world?
LR Quite the contrary. Listen, we are steered by our stars, by impulse, by strange contradictions peculiar to our nature. I couldn’t do justice to the Caribbean world and would have to offer a lot of tall explanation to Caribbean writers I admire.
BG “Steered by our stars”?
LR You don’t think we are?
BG Since your settings are sketchy and general, yet with some signifiers to anchor the tale down, our knowledge of the locale where the action takes place is also minimal. I suspect that the way to a broader understanding of the place your characters inhabit is through their language. But that’s tricky, too. Aren’t your settings more like theatrical sets? Serviceable, convertible, and provisional, the sites where human drama and comedy visit and pass through in time?
LR The novels, less so, but for many of the short stories, yes. It’s like a Seinfeld show. Cut to exterior shot, a building façade, certain windows dominating. Sound: voices. Cut to interior shot, the gang yapping. Don’t we always know where we are? Those characters in Beckett’s play, buried up to their necks in sand, where are they? Up to their necks.
BG If not in sand, you get buried in snow or you sink into mud, into one of the miasmic sinkholes lurking in the dark corners of your fictional landscape. Or you get boarded up in your room, like Ella Mae in Fat Woman. Who are these people who end up in such tight spots? Why are they there? Ella Mae is there because she’s fat, but not only for that reason.
LR Let’s reverse our thinking for a second. If Edward, her husband, got boarded up, it would be a different novel and, to my mind, a less yeasty one. It is women, over the years, whom men have attempted to “board up.” That Ella Mae is the single party holding her family and personal universe together is Edward’s terrible oversight. His blindness. She must suffer because he is suffering. But what, in practical terms, has put her in this tight spot? Had miserable Edward not got fired from his job, the pair would have likely lived lives normal to their time and place, safe from tight spots of this extremity. But people find themselves in spots like this all the time. Elements are at play beyond our control. Misfortune strikes. The guilty may not be punished, so the innocent must. And the most available innocent is usually beside us, in the home.
BG Why is suffering for your characters, and everything that falls under its jurisdiction—from punishment to pain to humiliation—a prerequisite for an improved life? How much of the Christian notion that the road to happiness leads through the vale of tears is present here? The most cited example of this transformation is your story “The Bolt of White Cloth.”
LR I by no means hold the view that these are prerequisites. I’ve often wondered why so many writers privately lead fine and privileged, luxurious lives, yet bring such a sour attitude to the lives others live, as they do to life generally. Even so, the vale of tears exists, and people trudge through it. But the view that they must is a repugnant one. There is a confusion here: a great many of my characters, to achieve the improvement you mention, are willing to put themselves out on a limb, to put themselves at risk. That limb can be troublesome. Someone—or society as a whole—frequently comes along to saw it off.
BG To me, your work is, among other things, almost always deeply concerned with social issues: from poverty and its twin brother, ignorance, to abuse of power—be it political, religious, or chauvinist—to racial intolerance and consumerist amnesia. Yet very few critics have seen it as political. Would you consider yourself a political writer?
LR Decidedly so. Often explicitly. At other times, I stalk a quieter trail. Humorous elements also confuse the critic. It can’t be about much if it is funny. Then, too, critics associate “political” with “realistic,” and my writing is not strictly bound by that category.
BG Can writing change the world?
LR It already has.
BG In which way? If it has, as you say it has, this puts a special burden on the shoulders of a writer, doesn’t it? What is, in your opinion, the role of the writer?
LR Okay. Deep breath. Literature is meant to serve humanity, and that service involves betterment, which means change. It also has a sizeable role in propping up the flagging spirit. In bringing the news. These are the easier and natural roles, hardly a burden, because it is in the nature of story itself, the telling and the reading, that these are accomplished. We have already spoken of defining or revealing a people or nation, and this too is not a burden, since no writer, except one gone round the bend, is going to set out with that objective. Such depiction occurs with the conglomerate. (What an awful word!) Other roles: to appease the innocent dead. To speak the speech of those incapable of speaking for themselves. Oh, it’s a list that goes on and on.
BG But writing can also change the world for the worse, can’t it? Writing can trick us into believing things we later discover morally reprehensible or untrue. One can think of a number of books that turned the last century into a slaughterhouse.
LR And the Inquisition had its books. But here you are speaking primarily of political, social, religious, or scientific texts. In the realm of stage art, surely Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles did little harm. Petronius and Apuleius sound pretty modern, and harmless, today. They still prop up the spirit and bring a smile, establish kinships, which is literature’s march.
BG Yes, they are pretty harmless. Yet writers and poets have disappeared, been silenced because they wanted to change the world. Osip Mandelstam perished in Siberia. The Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed as recently as a few years ago. Salman Rushdie lived in hiding for years. Virgil ended up being exiled to the boondocks of the empire. Plato wanted no poets in his utopian Republic, thought them too risky. Why so much fear of writing?
LR The names exist by the thousands. Scores are imprisoned this minute. Isaac Babel was so dangerous he had to be murdered twice. This minute, in Ottawa, there is the case of the schoolboy slapped in jail one month, trial pending, for writing a story in which a schoolboy threatened violence against his school. Writing it, for Christ’s sake. It isn’t only in the less open states that society’s keepers enact their measures. Such crimes are almost always explained as being done to maintain the security of the state. Done “for the public good”—in Plato’s time, no less than in ours.
BG Who is afraid of Leon Rooke?
LR Not a single soul, that I know. Although, last summer, Shakespeare’s Dog was banned in Boston.
LR An offence against public morality, so said the single party who closed the show.
BG Umberto Eco, in an essay called “The Force of Falsity,” discusses the presence of the untruth in our lives, humankind’s blind trust in systems of words, which he calls “false tales.” The question here is, Why do we accept to be governed by so much untruth?
LR Because if we didn’t, chaos would rule? Because we have come so far with these untruths that we are now ourselves composed in and of these untruths? How else to explain the utter ridiculousness, the craziness, of so much that we, as a society and personally, believe? But don’t forget that the blind trust Eco speaks of cuts both ways: a lot of these untruths are no more dangerous than the pillow we sleep on. In fact, are that pillow. Could we survive on a diet of pure truth? Doesn’t our evolutionary mental journey suggest that untruth, even with an informed citizenry, is preferable?
BG One of the great themes in your fiction is that of self-authentication, of jailbreak, whether physical or mental. Your characters begin in some sort of cage, dreaming or plotting escape. Many succeed, some don’t. Who makes their choices? The question I’m asking is one I’ve always wanted to ask you: what kind of universe are your characters given to occupy? Is it godless? One of relativity and accident? Or one run by some power, which can be, as in the Adolpho story, horrid or, as in “The Bolt of White Cloth,” benevolent?
LR They make them. The characters. Usually. Or attempt to. Sometimes they resist the choices it appears they are being compelled to make. That’s my sense of how matters stand, but after nearly three hundred stories, I would have to look at each individually. Personal attitude and belief are the great determiners. Existing also in whatever space we occupy are inexorable blind forces that have not a whit’s interest either in our attitudes or our beliefs.
BG Would it be inappropriate to ask about your personal attitudes and beliefs and the ways in which they have determined your fiction?
LR Totally inappropriate, but I’m an accommodating guy. My attitude is one of immense optimism, enthusiasm, and buoyancy, tempered at times by a darker side. A sense of how Uncaring Fate at any moment may blindside us, with fatal results. One might see hints of this in looking at the body of work, but otherwise . . . otherwise, I am pretty diligent about keeping myself out of other people’s stories.
BG Your work is often oppositional, staging the ancient battles between good and evil, pulling into itself both biblical imagery and imagery associated with the worlds of fable and tall tales. How important has the Bible been to your creative process?
LR As a youth, I immersed myself in its lore and responded to its cadences.
BG How would you describe stories like “Art” or “Raphael’s Cantalupo Melon,” in which art—painterly art—is the subject? What attracts you to the visual representation of experience and to its intersection with the world of words?
LR Those of us working in one medium are in the family of those working in another. The stories mentioned are a gesture of appreciation, a greeting, a way of honoring the comradeship. Of course, my times in Italy, with you and my wife pushing me into every museum, church, and gallery, focused my attention.
BG Many postmodern critics have responded positively to your seemingly endless capacity for deconstruction, to your ability to soften the lines of closure, to create self-reflexive tales in which the demarcation line between the narrator and the narratee is blurred or erased. Do you think of yourself as a postmodern writer? Is there a postmodern sensibility?
LR Sure, I’m postmodern. My sensibility is shaded, not directed by it.
BG How do you describe a postmodern writer like yourself? How different would you be from one that isn’t? Can someone living at this point in time not be postmodern?
LR Certainly they can be. Probably most of our writers have no postmodern tendencies whatsoever, especially in this country where strict realism, fidelity to the one way of doing things, remains the preferred route—with the exception of many of our younger writers, for whom, as you suggest, postmodernist winds are inescapable. What I find attractive about the postmodern is this: no simple adherence to old, legislated, often outmoded rules, but loyalty instead to a vision intent on breaking new ground. Which means a fusion of the old and new.
BG How and why did you make your shift away from realism? Your early stories, like the wonderfully suggestive “If Lost Return to the Swiss Arms,” were written in a realistic mode. Didn’t you start out as a realist?
LR In fiction, perhaps so. But I was writing a lot of stage plays at that time, plays owing a big debt to avant-garde artists like Ionesco. What this view ignores also is the unpublished work. Our magazine editors had a realist’s orientation, and only stories following the party line found acceptance.
BG You don’t think that realistic fiction is compatible with our postmodern sensibility? Why not?
LR I am not so foolhardy as to argue that realism is a sinking ship. Realistic fiction and the postmodern are kissing cousins, of the same family, even if they no longer speak to each other. Realism is fine, useful, some stories demand it. Others, not. Why should writers deliberately cripple—that is, limit—themselves?
BG This is a good point for me to introduce a question on the theater. You just said that you wrote a lot of plays during the early stages of your career as a writer. But you have never abandoned playwriting altogether. Every now and then you’re back at it. How does the theater enter into your creative process? Did you originally set out to be a playwright? An actor? Why?
LR I had thought I would support myself by working as a journalist, so that led me, in college, to journalism school. For a while I worked as a newspaper stringer, often covering, say, an evening assignment and having twenty minutes to write the story and phone or wire it in. I liked the pressure of those deadlines, the hurly-burly of having to work so fast. But school itself was, well, I’d have to say it was a bore. I was always enviously looking over my shoulder at those in the drama department. There was life there, and vibrancy, an obvious love for and excitement about what they were doing. I’d already had a few plays produced and was writing others, so I switched over. Acting, yes, some, but these ambitions remained largely under wraps. In the plays I was writing, I was already performing in my head all the parts, working up a sweat. Funny how that duality of being, acting out the parts even as you are writing them, can exist simultaneously. That waylaid some the desire to actually get up on stage and perform.
BG Any person who has seen you read could not have failed to notice a strong connection between reading and acting. The theater has, so it seems, deeply entered your attitude to fiction as an act of communication, as an act of communion. Tell us something about Leon Rooke the performer.
LR I have definite failings. I never rehearse. Usually I don’t even decide what I am going to read until I am striding to the podium. When I lose sight of lines on a page, I don’t mind improvising. Often, I will alter a text drastically to accommodate what I perceive as the sensibilities of my audience. I always foresee utter failure. These are all terrible sins.
BG The theatrical is present not only in a performative sense but also structurally. Many of your stories depend for plot and action on game-playing, in which the characters are engaged in acting out their roles, as, for instance, in “Want to Play House” or “The Guacamole Game.” Two of your novels, Shakespeare’s Dog and A Good Baby, have been recast as plays. Can you elaborate on this fascinating aspect of your fiction?
LR Actually, Theatre Passe Muraille’s Paul Thompson directed a Caravan Stage Company production of A Good Baby that toured British Columbia long before it became a novel. The novella “The Guacamole Game” was written in eighteen hours, all in one sitting. That’s writing as theater, casting your characters onto a supercharged stage, all aimed at getting to that final curtain.
BG Are you ever involved in the production of your plays? Didn’t you recently go to Miami, where you saw the theatrical production of Shakespeare’s Dog? Were you there as a consultant? And now A Good Baby is also a feature film. Did you work on the film script?
LR Not on the film script. That was the New Yorker Katherine Dieckman’s Baby. Let’s say I was supportive but didn’t intrude. ForShakespeare’s Dog, which Canadian playwright Jeff Pitcher adapted, I went down to St. Petersburg for a workshop before the play went into rehearsal. Paul Kirby (the director), Jeff, and I worked closely on Jeff’s script. I was interested in bringing a strong musical component to the show. They agreed. That meant I had to write some songs. Otherwise, we had deep discussions about plot and character. Then, at the close of the season, we all assembled in Miami to see the show, which Jeff and I had not seen before, and we hashed out matters again, since the show is being remounted again this year. Tour by tall ship, quite spectacular. So, yes, I frequently find myself very much involved.
BG In two of your latest novels, Who Goes There and The Fall of Gravity, you seem to have raised the ironic tone to a higher pitch. The language is not only more humorous but also more hyperbolic and bombastic, associated with the literary modes of satire and parody, which seem more appropriate to the subjects of the novels. Don’t you find satire and parody limiting?
LR Indeed I do. They are lesser vessels. That’s why I offer, I hope, compensating measures. Tone in a sentence is everything. The apparent irony may be illusional.
BG How would you describe illusional irony?
LR Language as the lizard changing its colors. A lingering sighting is required.
BG The experimental gusto in your fiction is impressive. You subvert, invert or simply rearrange used literary forms and conventions—as this latest sidestepping into the fields of satire and parody shows—giving them a new lease on life and at the same time suggesting their limits, which are those of fiction. What is it that you are parodying in The Fall of Gravity? The quest? The picaresque? The American “on the road” tale?
LR I will not accept “parody.” We need another word. Let’s look at what we have in Gravity: a flock of priests who have fallen from heaven, grown men dressed as chickens, the pope on nightly television confessing to the crimes of the church (all historically verifiable, by the way), a Widowhood Gulag, God lecturing us on the merits of two famous paintings, a City of Lost Women, together with much else that might lead us to think parody. But parody, no. If parody, we would be obliged to ignore the commentary of the novel’s main character, the ever-intrusive narrator, just as we would have to ignore the role of those thousands of deer striving through whiteout, through what mercy, that we might arrive at our rendezvous, where nourishment at last is to be found. And ignore, too, the New Indian in whom resides all possibility. When the narrator says, “Oh, come all ye faithless,” he is deriding no one, but in fact is referencing those possibilities. The Fall of Gravity is chasing but the heart.
BG Yes, I see. When I spoke of parody, I was thinking of a literary mode, of the ways in which The Fall of Gravity parodies the dream, the vision of the “failed” America, and, on a certain level, is also a demonic vision of a pastoral America. All that roadside accumulation of junk, and what it stands for, is staggering. This is not to ignore the novel’s affirmative journey along which all possibilities can be found.
LR I see what you mean. Even so, my emphasis would be on the latter.
BG You sound sure of this.
LR I am in a defensive stance, I guess. Likely, this will pass.
BG Another collection of stories is being published in April . Are they new?
LR Painting the Dog. It contains only one new story. Some of the others included date back nearly forty years. Putting together the collection had its humiliations: how much easier it would have been to assemble “The Best BAD Stories” of this writer.
BG I certainly wouldn’t agree with your last statement and would hate to leave off our conversation on the note of self-deprecation by one of our short-story masters. Instead, I’d like to thank you for being so forthcoming with your answers and ask you, Why has Heidegger been so much hovering above your imaginative magnetic field?
LR Being and Time. Being and nothingness. His two great questions. What are they? Why are they?
Libera Università degli Studi “S. Pio V,” Rome