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.
‘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.
(You can read Lisa’s review of Lee’s short story collection Everyday, published by Social Disease, HERE.)
Cross-Atlantic cultural exchanges happen this week in Vulpes Libris.
Monday 30 June: With the new version of Roots starting Monday on US television, Jackie remembers the impact of watching the original.
Wednesday 1 July: Kate wonders about the flaws in Barbara Pym's Jane and Prudence.
Friday 3 July: Guest reviewer Susan from The History Chicks podcast and the Kansas City Star goes back to This is Where The World Ends by Amy Zhang.