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From the National Book Foundation Archives
Interview with Norman Rush

Born in 1933 and raised near Oakland, California, Norman Rush has "always felt a compulsion to write. I've never wanted or intended to be anything but a writer." The son of an aspiring writer who gave up his vocation as a Socialist trade union organizer when Rush was born, the author has said "I think I probably began to write because my father didn't, or wouldn't. He wanted to."

One of his first projects was the writing, printing and selling of a newspaper called the Town Crier, at the age of 11. Before he had graduated from high school, he had written and illustrated more than 20 short stories about a fictional genius detective, Doctor Orion Curme, and had completed a novel that purported to be the journal of Phra, a Phoenician pirate-hero. As a conscientious objector to the Korean War, Rush was imprisoned for nine months in a minimum-security facility in Tucson in 1951, where he wrote another novel. Forbidden to take any of his writings with him when he was paroled, Rush took the precaution of copying his book onto small squares of onion-skin paper, which he then affixed to a batch of Christmas cards to escape detection; but back in Oakland, he said, "I read my novel again, decided it was derivative, and threw it out." While on parole, he attended Swarthmore College, where he met his wife Elsa. After graduating in 1956, he began to lead a "life where -- like most writers -- I've managed to write in the margins of making a living and rearing a family." In addition to selling used books and teaching, he worked with his wife in Botswana as co-director of a Peace Corps project there from 1978 to 1983 -- an experience that eventually led to the publication of his first collection of short stories, Whites, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1986. Five years later, he published his first novel, Mating, which won both the National Book Award and the Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize. He currently lives with his wife outside New York City.

How is it that you became a writer?
I've always wanted to be writer. I trace my determination back to the experience of living with my father, who was a failed writer. He was bookish and had a collection of books; and tracing back the roots of Mating, I remember that he kept part of his collection locked up, behind closed doors, because they were racy, I suppose, but classics nonetheless. In that cabinet were Rabelais, and The Sexual Life of Savages, and two books in particular, Moll Flanders and Rozana the Fortunate Mistress, written in the female voice. I was a precocious reader, and I concluded from that experience that a very good way to write a book was in the voice of a formidable woman.

Speaking of voice, the voice of the narrator of Mating is extraordinarily compelling. How did she spring to life?
I had started the book in an identified, third-person, male voice and it wasn't going terribly well for me. I realized that since there were so many things I wanted to touch on, I needed a voice that was ironic, comic -- the voice of someone intellectually intrepid, self-questioning, questioning of society, and recursive. I realized too that I had created a voice like that in Whites, so I decided to try it, and once I did, my difficulties fell away.

The narrator, in her vocabulary and her attitude toward language, is like several people I have known who considered themselves underclass and at a disadvantage socially, but who were smart and discovered that knowing how to use language better than the people oppressing them was a form of power. I tried to make her innovative or experimental use of language clear by context; I didn't want people to feel they had to stop and use the dictionary. My aim was to observe this very florid trait in the character without its becoming an impediment to the reader. The most difficult part of creating her was getting her not to be too discursive. I had to suppress her tendency to get to the bottom of everything and align it in a traditional academic sense. I didn't want the smell of a treatise to come out of the book.

The occupational model for the character was several women we knew in Africa who were on the loose and occupationally distressed; one was an anthropologist having difficulty with her thesis. The model for the mind at work in Mating -- there's no secret about it -- is my wife, Elsa. We've been together since 1953, and it's been a close and intellectually frank and open relationship. But the character became autonomous very quickly, though it was fortuitous to have the model sitting here in the house. Elsa is my editor, and for the second draft of the novel, she had a special injunction to read for infelicities in the female voice. That was great, because I knew the book would stand or fall on this question of authenticity.

What about "Denoon"? Was he inspired, at least in part, by a real-life model?
Yes. "Denoon" has a good deal of my own emotional and political history. My father started out as a socialist organizer and ended up doing the opposite, and Denoon's father goes through a similarly puzzling evolution. And some of the incidents critical to Denoon's evolution happened to me, like walking through Oakland and seeing those smashed greenhouses. But he's also a very American character, both in his practicality and his inventiveness, and in his reaction to the difficulties that Tsau encounters. His feeling is, if something's not quite right, maybe the solution is to expand.

The most difficult thing in the creation of "Denoon" goes to the heart of one of the early sections of the book, when the narrator sees "Denoon" in action at a debate. The section has serious political content, and I was advised to take this out, that it would be a stone wall for readers; but my position was that it was essential for both the narrator and the reader to be convinced that "Denoon" was a true thinker, a person of genuine intellectual interest.

So many reviewers seemed to have difficulty accounting for these two characters, and classifying Mating. How do you think of it?
A common thing that happened with the book was that some readings were driven very powerfully by an initial reaction to the narrator. I regard Mating as a true novel, but one that is essentially comic and based around a story of adventure and a passionate love relationship. That's the vehicle I used to explore very important moral questions, like What is good life? What is a justified life? Why is there so much lying in society? Who are the liars, and how much lying is socially necessary? The idea was to use a story of adventure and an exotic setting and a character who was relentlessly questioning, as a framework for these other issues.

But the central point I wanted to be clear about in the writing was the importance of intellectual content in a love relationship. That was something I wanted very much to keep compelling. She becomes interested in "Denoon" because he is a moral activist engaged in the epochal enterprise of trying to do good in some practical sense. Because she herself is more jaundiced; there's something about this that creates a great attraction, and awakens a side of her that the world hasn't been so likely to acknowledge. As part of the first wave of post-Betty Friedan feminism, she operates with all the strength and vitality that brought. But she's a romantic, too; and a part of what she's doing is attempting to interrogate romance. She both partakes of it and doubts it. One of the ways to look at her pursuit of "Denoon" is as an effort to prove or disprove the equation that a consummate relationship with a man is possible.

Are any of these themes present in your earliest work as well?
My early work was learning through pastiche from the kinds of stories that were compelling to me. Starting out, I wrote parodies -- though I didn't realize it at the time -- of Jules Verne. I liked his concentration on isolated, intellectually and emotionally different sorts of societies, places where life was being lived intelligently and with meaning. I liked that social utopian side of Verne a great deal, and I liked the adventure. I also put out a little publication called The Town Crier that contained a serial called "The Modern Buccaneer", about an ideal underwater society. When I was in junior high school, I wrote a pastiche of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown series, with a detective who was a proselytizing atheist, in contradistinction to Father Brown. Then when I was in prison, I wrote what I thought was a Conradian novel about the non-violent overthrow of a brutal South American dictator. I thought I was inventing a new, socially positive genre: the non-violent thriller. So I started out working in what I thought were extremely interesting, highly experimental forms, and gradually evolved a style that's more accessible and more practical.

What is the place of Mating in your writing life today?
Mating is the culmination of my writing life to date. The reaction to it has exceeded my greatest hopes and expectations. I was able to take the risks I needed to take, and am still overwhelmed with the fact I got away with it.

What do you want to attempt next?
What I've always wanted: to write the book that most completely answers the questions that lie at the heart of it; to write stories of other imagined lives as truthfully and completely as I can.

Readers who want to learn more about Norman Rush are encouraged to seek out some of the books that have shaped his writing life:
Under Western Eyes & The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
The Charter House of Parma & The Red & the Black by Marie-Henri B. De Stendhal
The Princess Casamassima by Henry James
When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head
Narrative Transvestism: Rhetoric & Gender in the Eighteenth Century English Novel by Madeleine Kahn

Books by Norman Rush:
Whites 1986
Mating 1991

-- Interview by Diane Osen





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