Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Lee Rourke talks to Kit Maude (or possibly vice versa).

Guardian

‘I want to get a pair, tortoise…tortoise shell? Is that what they’re called?’

Lee Rourke, a Young British Writer rapidly rising, is very pleased with what will soon be his new house – it will have enough space to keep cats. Is he not able to have a cat where he is now?

‘I live in a flat and there’s a busy road in front, so I’d have to keep them (‘them’ notice, the prospective cats already exist) inside all day or…’

‘… be prying cat flesh off the asphalt?’ suggests the interviewer brightly.

Lee and I have come to Bar Italia in Soho on a cold Thursday evening. This is the sixth attempt that we have made to meet but the first that has been successful. He is the younger side of thirty something, with closely cropped blonde hair and beard. There must be periods when the cutting and trimming are coordinated to create a uniform fuzzy-blonde ball with eyes, nose and a mouth. Not unlike a cat, the interviewer thinks but does not say. We are here to talk about his book Everyday, which, unusually for a début collection of short stories from an independent publisher, has recently gone into a second edition.

‘…it’s about the people I see at the bus stop everyday, the same faces, the repetition, that feeling of dread. What the machinery does to people.’

Are they the same faces? Interrupts the interviewer, strangely sceptical. The interviewee reflects for a moment and replies with conviction.

‘Yes, I think they are.’

I ask because routes and routines are a feature of Rourke’s writing and it would be very easy to make reality fit the fictions. During the moment of reflection before the answer, however, one can see him picturing not only the bus stop but also the individual faces waiting there, everyday. Rourke is not only convinced but convincing.

This serves him well as the conversation goes on; the mention of ‘machinery’ has led me to mischievously bring out that horrible adjective; ‘kafkaesque’. Rourke bristles.

‘The only kafkaesque writer is Kafka.’ Although he acknowledges the influence (who doesn’t?) he seems keener to emphasize his credentials as a Becketteer; the emphasis on habit, routine, pointlessness.

‘“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” I think my stories have that idea in them…’ He’s also a fan of the painting of Wilhelm Hammershoi. ‘There’s this wonderful painting by him of the British Museum where he’s actually focussed on the railings on the street in front, the British Museum only appears faintly in the background, I love that.’

One of Rourke’s favourite subjects is boredom. Who, wonders the interviewer, writes about boredom?

‘Very few people…the best that I’ve read on it is by Heidegger, from his Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, a series of lectures. He examines boredom properly…I think we should embrace boredom.’

The characters in Everyday are often pretty bored. They tend to have uninspiring office or service jobs and usually no relationships to speak of. But Rourke is not attempting a faithful recreation:

‘Realism itself is a construct, as unreal as anything else. In Everyday, I’m also writing about fiction, the sheer impossibility of it. I read a lot of Blanchot, he has this metaphor of writers being like Orpheus going down into the underworld. He says that they want to bring something back, something that existed before language, but they always look back. They have to look back because they’re writers.’

If, I wonder, according to Blanchot, writers are trying to bring something back from the underworld, is that thing universal or individual? Should someone achieve the impossible and come out with a piece of writing without looking back, would anyone else recognise it? Or would it represent a collective triumph? Neither of us know.

But enough silly questions. The interesting thing about the man before me is that whilst he talks of impossibility, pointlessness, boredom, he does so with an incongruous warmth and enthusiasm. He is very pleased with a collection of poetry that he has been writing in his lunch break: ‘I’ve named it after this parasite that clings on to the underside of bees and sucks the life out of them.’ This joie de vivre (or joie de unvivre) comes out in Everyday. Not to mention that most of the characters seem to be young men who work in an office, like a drink and animals…how much of Rourke is in the book?

‘Of course, it’s written in my voice, there’s no attempt at characterisation. But it’s not about my life, my life’s great! (This comes with a big smile. As well as the house, Rourke has recently got engaged.) But my observations are grey. This (his writing) is much more about what I see, and it’s all in different shades of the same colour. Which is beautiful too.’

But there are, I insist, a lot of situations in the book that must come from his own experience?

‘That’s me writing about the people I see, the stories are set in places that I go, I want to write about the ordinary.’

So where did the desire to write come from?

‘I grew up in north Manchester, it’s a wasteland now. They’ve done a lot of rejuvenation in Manchester but not there, so everyone’s moved into the centre and that part has been neglected. There wasn’t a book in the house where I grew up. I went to two really, really terrible schools. The teachers there, there were one or two who were okay, but most didn’t care about the students. I think my aunt was a big influence, I remember when I went round her house I always used to go straight to the same volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and open it up to the same page. It had this painting by Peter Bruegel, “Triumph of Death”. She was a primary school teacher, noticed that I liked books and used to encourage me’. Later he got two degrees from the University of Manchester, the second in creative writing and publishing, studying under Michael Schmidt, editorial director of the Carcanet press. Next he founded the online magazine Scarecrow which champions fiction of the kind that doesn’t tend to get published in the mainstream. The magazine sprung a blog, Scarecrow Comment, and he writes for the Guardian, TLS and a number of other publications. He is currently working on a full length novel, The Canal.

Back to the silly questions: if writing is, as Blanchot declares and Rourke subscribes, destined to fail, doesn’t that encourage a certain measure of insouciance or impotence? ‘No, there’s another quote from Beckett; ‘Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better.’ It is clear that the advice has been taken to heart.

—:oOo:—

(You can read Lisa’s review of Lee’s short story collection  Everyday, published by Social Disease,  HERE.)

9 comments on “Lee Rourke talks to Kit Maude (or possibly vice versa).

  1. Lisa
    December 19, 2008

    I do like a tortoiseshell cat (and indeed have one present in my Vulpes Libris picture. Her name is Pebble and she’s trouble with a capital T, but somehow still lovable). But anyway, great interview and especially interesting given that I’ve just read and enjoyed Lee’s collection “Everyday”. Particularly liking the format of this interview too – makes a nice change from straight questions and answers.

    Could you tell us more about the novel you’re working on, Lee? The Canal? If it’s not top secret, that is…

    Thanks to both Kit and Lee for the interview.

  2. Alex Pheby
    December 19, 2008

    Roland Barthes writes about boredom in ‘The Pleasure of the Text’. It’s one of the indicators of oncoming jouissance.

    Nice interview – will go off now and look at Scarecrow.

  3. Kit Maude
    December 19, 2008

    Glad you liked the format Lisa, Moira called it ‘different’ which left me unsure…

    thanks for the Barthes tip Alex (if I may), I shall make a note.

    By the way, I’m pretty sure that I let Lee do most of the talking; he’s very engaging. I just sat, listened and marvelled at how two coffees and two glasses of (house, long-opened) wine could possibly have come to £15.

  4. Moira
    December 19, 2008

    I like to worry people, Kit. :mrgreen:

    And I’m sure that Lee did most of the talking … I think it was just that your image of scraping the cat off the road was particularly vivid.

  5. Jackie
    December 20, 2008

    I was trying to ignore the cat/road thing.
    There was a nice flow to this interview, the side comments, the quotes, very enjoyable & showed off the personalities of both parties in a subtle way.And that dark humor winding through the whole thing. Lots of food for thought, especially the idea of “embracing boredom” rather than avoiding it. I think a lot of people try to do both and neither successfully.
    That painting of Hammershoi sounds intriguing, I must see if I can find it online. Thanks both of you for the very interesting interview.

  6. RosyB
    December 20, 2008

    I enjoyed this interview very much and the different format is refreshing. We always like to see new ways of doing things. I do wonder about the comment that not much literature deals with boredom and bored people though. I feel like this is quite a modern theme. Or, at least, pointlessness. Is that a different thing? But maybe I’m coming at it from the drama angle, I’m not sure, where Beckett, of course, influences all modern drama.

    “The interesting thing about the man before me is that whilst he talks of impossibility, pointlessness, boredom, he does so with an incongruous warmth and enthusiasm.”

    As Lisa said in her review, it’s hard to write about boredom without being boring. But it sounds from the review and this interview (quote above) that Lee Rourke really manages this really successfully. Good luck with the collection.

  7. Tania Hershman
    December 21, 2008

    A great interview, thank you Lee and Kit, I felt that I could almost have been sitting with you both (and the phantom cats)! Love the Beckett quote and the idea of writers going into the underworld to bring something back but not being able to stop ourselves from looking back. That really speaks to me.

  8. Lee Rourke
    December 21, 2008

    Hullo all,

    Yes, you see, it’s always a pleasure talking with Kit, so I do tend to go on a tad when we meet. I think he covered pretty much everything we talked about and he didn’t even take notes – I’m impressed!

    The Canal is about two people who sit on a bench on Regent’s Canal every day: watching the swans, the coots, the moorhens, the cyclists, the office workers. It’s also a novel about secrets and memory. As well as about gravity and technology. It’s about stuff and matter. Ordinary things.

    The boredom thing: it’s a complete product of the modern; almost perfectly so.

    Anyway, it was, indeed, an honour and pleasure to be featured on this site.

    Merry Xmas and continued success for the new year to foxes everywhere!

    Lee Rourke x

  9. Moira
    December 22, 2008

    Thank you Lee! It was a great interview … and a really refreshing change of style for us, I thought.

    The Canal sounds intriguing …

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This entry was posted on December 19, 2008 by in Interviews: authors and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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