Interview: February 22, 2002
February 22, 2002
Martin Roper, author of GONE, has created a novel that reflects his feeling about his own Irish culture even though its setting is the streets of New York. The restless search for identity embodied by his main character leads to thoughts on the assimilation of American culture through the vaste wasteland of television. Read what Roper has to say about this issue as well as his views on education, writing, and the differences between Irish and American students in this interview with Bookreporter.com's Chuck Leddy.
TBR: The novel's setting alternates between Dublin and New York. How were you able to accurately render both places? How important is the novel's setting?
MR: I hope I have rendered them accurately. I'm a Dubliner and I've lived in that part of Manhattan before. The setting is important, I think, only because Stephen finds the courage to be himself in New York. The erotic is released in him. He needed to be elsewhere for that to happen. And he needed a woman like Holfy, her sado-masochism forces him to face life. I'm not sure Dublin could sustain a woman like Holfy. She can exist only in a very big city. Her kind of depravity needs anonymous streets.
TBR: Stephen seems emotionally and geographically rootless. Where does this rootlessness come from?
MR: It's strange talking about him. I feel I'm being disloyal to a friend, and, when it comes down to it, I don't know him that well. How can we say we know anyone? We are all a mystery to each other, let alone some fictional character. Perhaps I wrote the book to get to know someone like him. I suppose there might be a sense of restlessness in him more than rootlessness, a sense of needing something else, something his own city cannot give him. Television creates longing in him too, that and films. Something like ninety percent of the television we watch in Ireland is American. There was a lot of "television" in the first draft of the book but I cut it all out later. Although on the subject of rootlessness I think we Irish are losing our roots. Perhaps not losing them but planting different flowers. We are becoming more European --- and more American.
TBR: Is there a difference between Americans and the Irish in their willingness to discuss their emotional pain?
MR: I don't know. If you judge people by television talk shows I think you might believe there is a difference but I think these shows distort human behavior. Television has, in some ways, done the American people a great disservice. I think a more accurate way to see a society is to look at how it deals with death. I think we create our cultures in order to deal with (or deny) death. I'm not sure there are many differences today between the American and the Irish in this regard. We use material objects and entertainments to turn away from death, to turn away from the sacredness of life.
TBR: Stephen seems caught in an unending cycle of fleeing from commitment. By novel's end, is there any sense that he can break out of this cycle?
MR: I hope so. I often wonder what Stephen is doing now. I think the final scene of GONE suggests he is at least aware of the challenges that face him. He's trying, and if nothing else redeems him, the effort does.
TBR: Stephen tries to write, but has difficulties "finding his voice." Why?
MR: Fear, I think. The voice is always there but he's afraid to use it. I talk to my writing students about this. Fear is a great blocker. What happens if I use my voice and nothing of importance comes out? What happens if people dismiss me? The act of creation takes courage, the courage to face mockery.
TBR: You teach writing in Ireland. How was the experience of writing this (your first) novel? What was the writing/publishing process like?
MR: I don't like writing, at least most of the time. There's an old joke: I love writing but I hate the solitude and the typing. I feel the same. The publishing process was wonderful. One of the happiest moments of my life was when Beth Vesel (my agent) telephoned me to say Henry Holt was interested in GONE. Both Beth and Jennifer Barth (my editor at Henry Holt) helped a huge amount to bring the book into being. I was still living in Dublin at the time so most of the editing took place either over the phone or by e-mail. It's a humbling experience to have people dedicate so much time and concentration to your story.
TBR: As a teacher of writing, what sorts of things can be taught, and what cannot? Ever taught Americans? How are they different from Irish students?
MR: How long do we have to talk about this? I've fierce opinions about teaching creative writing. I tell my students if a writer who is teaching you tells you writing cannot be taught, walk out. Would you pay a carpenter to teach you a little carpentry if he told you he couldn't teach you but would happily take your money to finance his next creation? You might not make the steadiest table on earth but you will build a table, and it will be *your* table. Teaching writing is one of my greatest joys. Writing, at its simplest, is speech, is thought, slowed down. Anyone --- anyone --- can write. There is no mystery. One word follows another. I tell my students that if they want to write, really want to write, they'll be writers by the end of my course. You can teach, or perhaps I should say introduce the student to everything: form, technique, voice, all of it. You can introduce them to the thrill of creation, to the intense pleasure of reading closely. Of course, to use one of my father's old saying, you can bring a horse to water but you can't make him drink. But if they want to drink I can make them thirstier than they've ever been. The most important aspect of teaching is to create a safe environment, to reduce the fear, to make it fun, to give permission if permission is sought, to strip away the pretense of divinity. Then torture them. I teach in a terrific program for the University of Iowa --- it's a summer study abroad program we set up with the help of Trinity College, Dublin and the students are addicts. I remember sitting at the front of the bus we were taking to Belfast and I turned around and everyone, every single student was reading. That's the education our children deserve. I could talk about the teaching of writing and reading all day...
As for the difference in Irish and American students. Americans tend to be more direct, more opinionated, more vocal. It usually takes more work to get the Irish to give their honest opinion. As a teacher, working with Americans is more rewarding. In fairness to my own race, the Irish students are more inclined to take time to formulate their opinions, and consequently when they do speak, they speak with deep understanding. Of course, all this is a generalization and generalization is a killer of the uniqueness of us all. Generalization is the breeding ground for ignorance and contempt, one of the reasons interviews worry me. It's too easy for the interviewee to speak nonsense.
TBR: In the cadences of some of your sentences and in the bare emotional landscape of the novel, I was reminded of Joyce and Beckett. Are they influences on your writing? How so?
MR: Long live the flattery. I wish. I love DUBLINERS and bits of ULYSSES and "Krapp's last tape" is an old favorite. Literally, I don't see the influence in my own words. It's both a blessing and a curse coming from the same city as those two. The encouragement I do feel from them is in the attempt to be daring. Both of those writers stretched and contracted language, worked to make the words sing, or howl. I want the language to be part of the story. Plot alone murders. Words must do more. Two influences that are greater than Joyce and Beckett are Mr. and Mrs. Roper, my parents. They can talk for hours without taking a breath and it's always fascinating. When I lived in Dublin we three would go to their local pub on Sunday night and I would sit and listen. I miss that. My father gave me a copy of Joyce's DUBLINERS when I was eleven. I learned afterwards it was to put me off writing. They encouraged education but discouraged writing as it wasn't a job. Writing, to them, was something people who didn't want to do an honest days' work did. They're right.
TBR: Stephen has little respect for the priests and politicians who seem to dominate Ireland. Is this cynicism shared by the Irish in general, or is it peculiar to Stephen?
MR: I think Stephen responds to one particular priest and one particular politician. Both individuals fail in their calling and this angers him. Politicians and priests shape our society (in Ireland). Priests perhaps less than previously. I think both are two of the more demanding callings in life. The well-being of our society depends on their wisdom. I envy neither. I think we Irish abdicated our responsibility for a long time. We handed over our morality to the church and the state. It's disingenuous to blame them (at least exclusively) for our own lack of courage. But the scandals of the last ten years are perhaps an indication that we are finally maturing as a nation. There is hope. There is always that.
TBR: What's next for you --- another novel?
MR: Yes, another novel. About a quarter way through. And teaching of course. And finding a pub with good conversation and no television. I think I've found one. God Bless the borough of Brooklyn.