Interview — Canadian Paperback Edition of Natasha

Is this a good time to speak?

I suppose so.

Are you sure? It sounds as if I might be inconveniencing you.

What does it matter? I agreed to do this.

If another time would be better I could call back.

No, no, now is fine.

If you’re sure.

Yes. We can talk now. It will come out the same regardless when we do it.

All right. To be honest, I sort of expected this. I’ve read that you do not like interviews.

What’s to like about them?

Some writers enjoy them. They enjoy the opportunity to discuss their work. They also appreciate the attention. I don’t have to tell you how many books are published each year.

You don’t have to, but why don’t you?

All right. Thousands of books. Hundreds of thousands.

And to think of so many authors going uninterviewed.

I suppose someone in your position can permit himself the luxury of sarcasm. However, you might feel differently if you were among the uninterviewed.

I should be grateful.

Some might say.

You don’t think that there is some rationale behind who does and who does not get interviewed?

Rationale, certainly.

How about justice?

Justice is a different story. Look, I’m sorry, but this is becoming a pedestrian discussion. What would you like me to say? Bad books get rewarded; good books get overlooked, et cetera, et cetera. That isn’t really the point of our conversation, is it?

You tell me. You’re the interviewer.

Interviewing is like dancing. It takes two.

What about tap dancing?

Okay, with the exception of some tap dancing.

What about the hora?

Can the hora be danced by one person?

No, the hora, like the Native American round dance, is a group dance. Traditionally it demands more than two people. Tap dancing, on the contrary, can be legitimately executed by a solitary dancer. There are other examples, but I won’t belabour the point. All I mean to say is that the dancing simile is inapt. Commonly used, but inapt.

Very well. But it doesn’t change the fact that an interview, by definition, requires an interlocutor and a respondent. Someone must pose the questions and someone must provide the answers. That is, in any event, the conventional attitude. Personally, I don’t necessarily adhere to that kind of orthodoxy. I prefer to think of it as a conversation. I am open to a give and take. Somehow, I do not think you are. I get the impression that you are hostile. For you the word interview is synonymous with the word interrogation, which is not, in my opinion, what it is. You believe that the interviewer is attempting to reveal something about you which you would prefer to conceal. I can testify that I, as the interviewer, do not, in the standard sense, wish to expose you in any deleterious way. But perhaps it is that you regard any revelation as transgressive. Would you agree with this assessment?

If you are right, and I do agree, any answer I give would be revelatory and hence transgressive and hence a betrayal of my personal trust.

This isn’t going to get us very far. It will also not be very satisfying to a reader. A reader expects some personal revelation. Or, if the word personal strikes you as inappropriate, let’s just leave it at revelation. A reader expects some revelation, be that from a work of fiction – such as your Natasha – or from an interview with the writer of said book. I should say that from reading your book I had the impression that you were sensitive to the reader’s narrative and emotional needs.

I’m interested to know what you mean by sensitive.

Well, I’m glad you didn’t ask me what I meant by reader.

Did you intend that as a joke?

Of a kind. But I am not much of a comedian. I recognize that my humour, if we can call it that, is the kind that elicits polite, clubby laughter in faculty lounges or at cocktail parties attended by intellectuals and those employed in – what we now commonly call – the cultural industries. That said, my remark was only half-intended as a joke. Let’s say, at best, it was my attempt at being clever. Or, better yet, puckish. There’s a word that’s seldom used. I was trying, given the friction that is evident between us, to lighten the mood. But I was also, in, albeit an oblique way, alluding to something about your writing. I think you have a traditional approach to narrative and, as such, to the reader. Your stories are plotted. They are structured in the Aristotlean fashion with a discernible beginning, middle, and end. You do not seem engaged in some post-modernist exercise to subvert the narrative. It does not strike me that your enterprise includes drawing the reader into a debate about the nature of narrative or the nature of readership. You, as the writer, do not interpose your writerly identity into the stories. Though the stories tease at autobiography, I would not say that they are deliberately self-referential. In fact, I would say that they clearly avoid reference to the authorial self. Some reviewers have described them, in style at least, as classic. I would propose that what they mean by classic is precisely this Aristotlean, let us even say reverent, approach to storytelling. Would you say that this is a fair assessment?

Reverent as opposed to irreverent?

Precisely. I would say that you exhibit a general sense of reverence in your treatment of your characters.

Am I to take this as a compliment?

Well, I would be curious to know how you do take it. I can tell you that it was intended as a compliment. I concede that the word reverence has, in recent years, taken on a pejorative patina. I can only speculate as to why. Perhaps the explanation is simply that the word irreverence has indeed taken on a decidedly salutatory connotation and, one assumes, that consequently its antonym has been degraded. Certainly, anyone would be hard pressed to deny that irreverence – as a word and as an idea(l) – is quite widely celebrated. Now as to why irreverence is being celebrated I cannot claim to know, though I would not be surprised if this state of affairs exists because today’s writers – let’s say Western writers – are enjoying, on the whole, an unprecedented degree of freedom from war, famine, pestilence, and repression. Thus, in the absence of real threat or peril, irreverence becomes the dominant mode.

So how do you account for contemporary Western writers who do not write in that mode? Me, for example, since you’ve lodged me in that camp. Are those who exhibit reverence in their work necessarily products of the kinds of suffering you just itemized? How much suffering must a writer experience in order to write legitimately and sympathetically about suffering? Is this not quite an individual response? Does it not relate to an individual capacity?

What you are implying, if I understand you correctly, is that the handsome, coddled, erudite child of billionaires, who has been able to afford everyone and everything, but who has, for one moment, been reprimanded by his father for dropping and cracking one of the family’s several dozen Faberge eggs, could go ahead – were he also artistically inclined – and utilize that one traumatic incident to write a convincing novel of a peasant family, the descendants of generations upon generations of serfs, at the time of the Russian Revolution? Which is to say that he would be able to distill from one painful moment an understanding and intimate appreciation of the broad multiplicity of human distress.

Something like that. You don’t believe it is possible? Are there no precedents?

If by precedents you mean exceptions, then perhaps some exist. But I don’t think you can sustain a literature on exceptions.

So if the world was inhabited solely by handsome, coddled, erudite, billionaires, you believe there would be no writing?

Probably not. And if there was, I strongly doubt that it would be a literature that would appeal to me.

Not even if you too were a handsome, coddled, erudite, billionaire?

That’s difficult to say. But my instinct compels me to believe that even if I were such a person I would not necessarily be satisfied by a literature produced by people like me. I would thirst, as I do now, for representations of other people, often those who find themselves in situations far more dire than my own. I contend that even without first-hand experience with their particular problems I would be able to become invested in their plights. Why? Perhaps because even as a handsome, coddled, erudite, billionaire my life would still be touched by conflict and disappointment. And so I would be able to sympathize.

But not so much as to be able to invent such stories yourself?

I see where you are going with this. What we’re talking about here is a question of magnitudes. It reminds me of one of the theories used to prove the existence of God. The argument goes that one can only create something less complex than one’s self. Which is to say that man could not have created man. For this, a superior force was necessary – namely, God. The same can be extended – though perhaps not perfectly – to the concept of writing. Though one can appreciate the suffering of another even if one has not experienced it – just as we can contemplate the superior idea of God – one could no more hope to write such a story in the absence of a personal acquaintance with suffering than one could hope to create God.

And what if I were to tell you that, contrary to what you have read about me, I am not in fact a Jewish, Latvian emigrant. What if I tell you that I have never been to either Latvia or Toronto.

I would consider that very suspect.

Because of what you have read about me?

Yes. But, on an even more superficial level, because I composed the prefix “416” before dialing the seven digits of your telephone number and I know that this prefix corresponds to the area code for Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

What if I have entered into an arrangement with the phone company? Could I not have paid them a fee to grant me this area code for the express purpose of perpetrating this very deception?

Possible, of course. But not likely.

What is “likely?” “Likely” is a state of mind. What is unlikely for multitudes may be very likely for me. You have no way of determining that.

Fair enough.

What if I am actually a black man, born to Catholic parents in Togo, and a convert to Islam? What if you have reached me at my hut in Madagascar, where I have made my living tending goats and wild birds for the past fifteen years? What if I have never actually met either a Russian, a Latvian, or a Jew? Would you still believe that I was capable of having written the book you have described?

In a word: no.

But what if I insist that this is true?

Why would you do that?

Because I feel like it. Because it amuses me. Because I am not entirely right in the head. Because I hate being interviewed.

Is that true?

Ask my goats.