canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Leon Rooke 

Leon Rooke is the author of six novels including The Fall of Gravity, which was chosen by The Globe and Mail as one of 2000's top books. His 1981 novel Shakespeare's Dog won the Governor-General's Award and his novel A Good Baby was recently made into a feature film. A native of North Carolina who has lived in Canada many years, Rooke is a frequent reviewer for U.S. newspapers including The New York Times. Leon Rooke makes his home in Winnipeg and Mexico with his wife Constance. Painting the Dog: The Best Stories of Leon Rooke was published in 2001 by Thomas Allen Publishers. 

Michael Bryson and Nathan Whitlock interviewed Leon Rooke by email in September 2001. Special thanks to Ken Sparling and George Murray for their suggestions.

Photo by Sam Tata

TDR: First the biography. You are U.S. born, and have been in Canada quite a long time. What do you consider the major peaks and valleys of your autobiography so far?

ROOKE: Writing about the self has never held even the smallest attraction for me, so I think I will largely by-pass this question. My personal peaks and valleys can be defined pretty much the same way as those of any other party. As for highs and lows in the writing life, the lows one always recognizes, whereas the highs--unless very high indeed--mainly pass unnoticed.

TDR: Next, moving from the biography to the work. I’m not sure how you feel people attaching labels to your work, but “post-modern” seems to easily apply, which places you strongly on the strange side of Canadian literature though in the comfortable company of your American contemporaries (Pynchon, Vonnegut, et al). Canada has been called “the most post-modern country in the world,” but its popular literature tends to turn away from anything radical. Do you think Canadian publishing has a tendency to domesticate its stranger writers (and have you felt such pressure)? Or do Canadian writers domesticate themselves (and for what reason)?

ROOKE: Interesting point, that Canada is the most post-modern on the planet. Maybe so. Maybe France and Italy contend. I likewise find it weird that (not only) popular literature but literature here in all its major forms remains among the most insular on earth. What a peculiar contradiction. I am pretty sure it is writers who domesticate, or strangle, themselves, and the publishing industry should not be blamed for this. Nor should the the rather timid taste of the general public be blamed.

TDR: Ken Sparling told us your writing has an "earnestness" which attracts him to it. He defined earnestness as a way of handling individual characters as though they are all trying to do good, no matter how misguided they wind up looking in the face of the plot they wind up on. What do you think about that characterization of your characters and their worlds?

ROOKE: Well, one has to be earnest, which is to say, serious. What is the contribution apt to be if one says, oh, I am just fooling around? Naturally, a party often is just fooling around. The curtain opens and there's a guy buried up to his neck in sand. A basic situation where, when the idea first comes, clearly the author is just fooling around. The pursuit is to find something of value within the fooling about, and not to have foolishness as the final result. Ken's take is pretty much straight on.

TDR: One of the more interesting literary collaborations in the past 25 years was the writer/editor collaboration between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. Recent years have seen a debate about how much of Carver is really Carver and how much of Carver is really Lish. Some people think Carver was the real genius; others lean towards Lish. To borrow a term from Sparling: Carver might be the earnest one, and Lish the cynic. What do you make of this debate? In your opinion, does the Carver/Lish conflict represent a significant aesthetic cleaving? In what way?

ROOKE: Both occupy a genius zone. Carver's stories before Lish crossed his path are nost unlike those of the later period. Was Carver at one point in trouble? Did Lish assist. I think so. One difficulty I have with your appraisal is that I don't see Lish as a cynic. In any event, he served Carver well. There is considerable heart within Lish's cynicism. He is evangelistic in his zeal for excellence. I've sat in, for a week or so, on his uninterrupted, vastly eloquent, spiel: his call is for the writer to align him\herself with the best, and the best is always in alignment with humanity's summons. The Carver stories, by the way, published after his death -- especially the fine one about a dying Chekhov -- is Carver through and through. Lish was there, but when he wasn't, Carver was.

TDR: You've worked in a number of genres, including drama and novels, but your greatest measure of output seems to be short stories. Any idea why that might be.

ROOKE: Yes, some three hundred published stories now. Another fifty or so piling up from the desk and floor. Why? Other than it is a beautiful form? Other than the enticement to enter a flood of hugely diverse human lives? Other than a desire to explore a form the full properties of which have yet to be realized? Other than a writer's submission to the sheer, witless power of language, the invitation given to the writer, say, in a simple declarative sentence such as "A white dog was walking the beach"? Whose white dog? Why? What does the dog do next? Would not any sensible person who is a writer rather be tracking that dog than remain where one was before language had that dog put in an appearance?

TDR: George Murray suggested we put this one to you. Any advice for sustaining literary friendships over the long term (given the competitive environment, the seeming inevitable jealousy and bitterness, and the constant, exhausting ego-stroking most writers require in order to feel even partially actualized)?

ROOKE: One, remember all gets sorted out in a time beyond our own. Two, remember no one forced you into this field. Three, even the most vaunted should recognize that there are people we have never heard of who are better than any of us. Four, allow your friends a high degree of slack.




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