Susan Tomaselli interviews Lee Rourke
Since 2004, as editor of the on-line literary site Scarecrow, Lee Rourke has made it his business to “bang the drum for the unheard, the unconventional, the eccentric, the revolutionary and the radical”, turning his back on “the mainstream bookish blatherskites” and championing “misunderstood, ignored and abandoned underground and independent literary fiction and culture.” There’s something to be said for sticking to your guns: Everyday, Rourke’s collection of short stories, will be published in October by Social Disease, and the Offbeats, a group of like-minded writers brought together by the net, have been rattling more than a few establishment feathers. You are invited to read about this – as well as why Blaise Cendrars is so bloody good, the influence of Tom McCarthy, how boredom can be an inspiration and much, much more – in an interview conducted by email from 28 August to 26 September [with some time off in-between: me, Edinburgh & London; him, France]. As the chief hodmandod is fond of saying, onwards…
Susan Tomaselli: What was the first book that made you want to write?
Lee Rourke: I suppose I could lie and say it was something sumptuously intellectual and European; something aloof like Blanchot‘s L’Arret De Mort. But I’m afraid it was something mindnumbingly obvious, clichéd and male: I was about sixteen years of age when I first read Kerouac’s On the Road and it literally blew me away. The overt – and at times toe-curlingly corny – sentimentality and verbose emotional passages didn’t bother me then as they do now, and like most first-time readers of the Beats it was their lifestyle I was attracted to. Like most kids I thought I could write just like them without bothering to understand that Kerouac knew Joyce and Dostoevsky inside out; that Ginsberg savoured every word Blake had written; that Corso understood every caesura Shelley and Byron inserted into each painstakingly laboured line – that iambic pentameter and trochaic meter mattered just as much to the Beats as booze, sex and Benzedrine. Foremost I wanted to be like Kerouac. I read everything he wrote. His writing appealed to me: the idea of just freewheeling across the page, hammering at the typewriter until the whole thing was finished – just the realisation that it didn’t have to be like the stuffy, turgid British novels I was being forced to read at school. It was only later in life that I realised I had to actually learn how to write before attempting such folly. So many new writers fall into the same trap. The following quote from Kerouac is indicative of my interest in him: “The one thing that we yearn for in our living days, that makes us sigh and groan and undergo sweet nauseas of all kinds, is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be reproduced (though we hate to admit it) in death.” So, it was Kerouac’s On the Road (possibly my least favourite book of all time) that inspired me to write; he was great for me then. Not now though. I would never attempt any of that spontaneous stuff now. My writing now is purposely resisting all that.
ST: Everyday has been described as “both contemporary and nostalgic” as well as “dark and seamy stuff”. How would you describe it? And your writing, for that matter; if not spontaneous, what?
LR: Although dates and years are not that important to me I definitely wanted Everyday to feel contemporary. It is set in the present, our present. There is more than a whiff of the current political climate in the collection – although this is revealed subtly in surface movement and actions rather than omniscient authorial voice or certain characters’ intellectual conceits. Maybe the nostalgia mentioned is a ripple of feeling that things could have been better; that there could have been something else? Or maybe the collection harks back to an innocence that is now lost? We are jaded and tired. We know, as J.G. Ballard quite rightly pointed out, that the “future is going to be boring.”
Whilst writing the collection I read an interesting book called The Vertigo of Late Modernity by Jock Young, in it he states, “Our narratives seem unfair – they are frequently broken and discontinuous, they have no ending.” I would describe Everyday as an understanding of this; an acquiescence: the realisation that we are fragmenting, falling, and that it is never ending: just repeating. This fall can be seen in the patterns within Everyday: the repeated walks away from work, away from action, through the city, through the oncoming traffic – over and over again. These are everyday patterns. Tom McCarthy‘s Remainder and Men in Space are obvious blueprints I return to again and again. A while ago in Dogmatika I mentioned that I am interested in the constant duplications, the routine patterns and the commonplace variations born out of the same dreary themes. There is nothing new or clever in these stories. There is no symbolic meaning. In his seminal work The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem states, “The economy of everyday life is based on a continuous exchange of humiliations and aggressive attitudes.” I guess my interpretation of this premise can be construed as “dark and seamy.” There are certainly dark and violent elements in the collection. Again, I have already mentioned in Dogmatika before that it is these same innumerable and rather unambiguous ‘humiliations’ and ‘aggressive attitudes’ that I am trying to unearth in my fictions. I am interested in the destructive and clichéd outcome of the male gaze: violence. I am interested in boredom. We are all bored. I am interested in two character archetypes: those who embrace boredom and those who try to fight it. Those who try to fight boredom are invariably more violent than those who embrace boredom. People who say I burnt down the church because I was bored are missing the point: if they truly accepted their boredom there would be no need to burn down the church. These are the only two characters in the whole collection. Schopenhauer articulated all this far better than I ever could when he proclaimed: “Unrest is the mark of existence.”
Everyday and the stories (I like to call them fragments) contained within could never be spontaneous experiments in writing. I am not interested in the unconscious at all – just surface movement. I am interested in our movement, the surface of things. I am constantly resisting writing. I purposely leave things out of my prose: certain descriptive passages for instance, feeling and emotion. Although, unlike writers such as Duras (this is not a comparison to her) who use this technique I am not intending my writing to be ambiguous. The style of my writing can be quite plain and unexciting: quite boring even.
ST: One of your first Scarecrow editorials was on Blaise Cendrars, a writer you’ve continued to champion. You even told Vim Cortez you’d like to be Blaise Cendrars. Why has Blaise Cendrars been so influential on you? Are Cendrars’ books, like that Kafka quote (“a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us”) axes to you?
LR: I love Blaise Cendrars. I really do. It’s his literary insouciance I love the most. The temerity of that man! Really. Have you read Moravagine? Read it, I urge you! His books opened up the possibility to me that a writer should be just that: a writer! Nothing more. Even though he became bored with it, wanted to leave it behind, tried his hand at many things to escape it Blaise Cendrars could never avoid the fact that, first and foremost, he was a writer. He fictionalised everything he did. If he was interviewed he’d treat it as an exercise, always blurring fact with fiction, always the writer. If you read his interviews now they read like long, bizarre works of fiction, the little stories of his life. I have written about Cendrars’ impact on my life a few times – most notably at 3:AM Magazine and the Guardian. Cendrars’ axe is a powerful thing, we only have to look at the effect he had on Apollinaire to see that, or John Dos Passos for that matter. It’s funny, his writing bears no influence on my writing whatsoever. My writing is nothing like his. How could it be? Mine is stripped back and resists the verbosity and assiduousness of his. Whereas Cendrars wants to encompass vast continents and stretch the imagination of both himself and the reader I just want to hone in on the minute particular of something: Cendrars’ prose engages itself in the vast oceans of life: travel, adventure, tycoons, gold, madness, murder, war, poets, filmmakers, thieves and nefarious brigands that occupy his – as he sees it – world, using it as a colourful and chaotic backdrop, while my writing documents the little alleyways and back streets, the faceless individuals and pigeons that occupy the crumbled space of a city – and in the case of Everyday a certain terrain of London – or it’s mundane environs. Cendrars wants to capture the whole and then move on while I am interested in the same recurring fragments we can’t escape from. When I said to Vim Cortez that I’d like to be Blaise Cendrars I guess I was trying to illustrate my desire to write, to be nothing but a writer. I am interested in failure.
ST: Everyday is published by Social Disease, a truly independent publisher synonymous with the Offbeat Generation. How important is that to you, to be independent?
LR: Social Disease Publishing is a magnificent thing. It’s following a great tradition. Heidi James, as well as being a writer and novelist I greatly admire, is most definitely the Sylvia Beach of the MySpace generation. Heidi James has guts; there are not that many people who would just start a publishing company up from scratch, without any outside parties’ investment, without the help of the Arts Council or any other backing. It is pure altruism on her part. Heidi started Social Disease knowing that it won’t make her rich quick (if at all); it is her own money she uses to fund her company. But she just had to react, like most of the writers I know the current publishing climate sickened her. The writers she was reading on sites like Scarecrow, 3:AM Magazine, Laura Hird and your very own Dogmatika were being ignored by the established mainstream (some still are!). So instead of just moaning about this Heidi decided to do something about it: the first book she published was by the great writer Tony O’Neill, then she published H.P. Tinker‘s first collection of stories (I am convinced that this book will be considered a great work of Literature in time), then The Flash anthology edited by Peter Wild (all proceeds to Amnesty International) and now my book, Everyday.
I sent Heidi the manuscript for Everyday some time ago now. I didn’t think she’d like it at first. But she did. She passed it straight away to Andrew Gallix to edit and write the introduction. Like all independent publishers things have taken longer than a publisher with a big budget but this isn’t a concern of mine. The whole editing process, book cover design and typesetting has been open to me – my suggestions have been taken on board and my opinions valued. Heidi wants the author to work closely with the publisher. I know countless writers who feel a distance from their publisher. I feel I’m lucky in this respect. I can’t see myself walking away from Social Disease. I have another manuscript that I would love them to publish. I am deeply adamant that independent publishing is the way forward. If I and Social Disease were to part I would never allow my work to be mauled by a conglomerate. I only ever want to be published by independents . . . Always.
ST: Talking of the Offbeats, what is the Offbeat Generation? How does it feel to be part of a literary movement? And I have to ask, doesn’t being an Offbeat break Scarecrow‘s manifesto? “Keep away from other writers and also avoid meaningless slaps on the back. Groupings of such ilk lead to inertia. Follow the Bukowskian approach to the art of writing and hate your fellow poet – hell is other people.”
LR: The ‘Offbeat Generation’ tag was invented by Andrew Gallix, editor-in-chief at 3:AM Magazine and author of many surreal, tightly composed short stories. It isn’t a group of writers as such. It isn’t a movement either. Anyone can be Offbeat. There is no collective manifesto. There is no ideal. Writers who label themselves Offbeat (or who have been labelled ‘Offbeat’) are not subscribing to a literary movement that strives to change the face of things. Many of the writers who can be labelled ‘Offbeat’ haven’t even met each other. Some reside in America, Paris and Brazil. We just want to do things our own way. In a recent Scarecrow editorial I stated: “. . . this gathering of like-minded individuals, who all eschew the current trend in publishing, have acted alone. We are elsewhere. We don’t belong. We have, more or less, turned our backs on the conglomerates; we ignore those vainglorious money-men who’d rather lunch in the stinking, laughable Groucho than sniff out new writing talent; those moronic cretins hell-bent on sales, sales, sales; we ignore marketing departments; those same bozos responsible for the horrid 3 for 2 dross in every high street bookstore; those grand panjandrums that are mostly responsible for everything that is wrong with contemporary literary fiction in this country.”
I stand by that. The Offbeat Generation is more of a collective feeling: a feeling born out of the realisation that the conglomerates are ruining literary fiction in this country. When Heidi James said,
“I really hate the homogeneity of the publishing world where it’s next to impossible to get genuinely interesting work published. The big publishing houses would have you believe that there isn’t a market for new and exciting work that takes a few risks and makes a demand on its readers, but that’s bollocks. Absolute bollocks.” Amen, baby.
I think a lot of writers who would consider themselves ‘Offbeat’ do so with quotes like this running around their craniums. Tom McCarthy (who has no qualms about being labelled ‘Offbeat’) is a classic blueprint for any writer who may share similar feelings. His first novel Remainder was pitched to many conglomerate publishers, their editors rather liked it, but their marketing departments thought it impossible to sell in the current market. Those of you who have read this book will understand that it is not your average work of life-style fiction. It is a work of ideas, steeped in serious literary and philosophical practice. The marketing departments of the publishers he contacted saw no place for such a book, so every publisher of that ilk turned it down. Eventually he sent it to the small independent publisher Metronome Press in Paris. They published 700 copies. These sold out fast and then Alma Books bought the rights. It’s interesting to note that when some rather large publishers caught a whiff of the rights for Remainder up for sale they came knocking on his door (even those who had turned him down flat) . . . Tom, being ‘Offbeat’ at heart told them where to go and signed with the independent publisher Alma Books. Like many of the writers who have been labelled, or label themselves ‘Offbeat’, such as: Tom McCarthy, Stewart Home, Andrew Gallix, Travis Jeppesen, Heidi James, Matthew Coleman and Tony O’Neill et al., I very much stand alone.
Ha! Okay, the ‘Scarecrow manifesto’, eh? . . . I thought I’d destroyed it? . . . What can I say? It was originally written for a friend of mine called Tobias Beer. He would sit over a beer and listen to me rant about the Stuckist Manifesto that I used to walk past everyday on the way in to work. They had posted it on the windows of their premises on Charlotte Street in Shoreditch. I really disliked it. I hated it, but secretly wanted one of my own. Tobias used to rib me for this – knowing that I am a great hypocrite. So one day I did it. I wanted to write my own pretentious, hypocritical manifesto for my mate and then stick it up on Scarecrow for a laugh. But be serious about it too, just in case anyone like me read it. I’ve always been interested in manifestos. The Surrealist, Dadaist, Communist . . . I even wrote the thing in the library at the British Museum. I actually like it. Manifestos of such pretentious abandon are actually fun to write . . . And I’m a true believer that hypocrisy is the greatest luxury. I may attempt to get it published one day.
ST: You mention you have another manuscript. Is that a novel? Or are you of the opinion, as H.P. Tinker is, that a novel would “be surrender”? If it is a novel, would it be a “slim volume that contains more literary weight per page than most fat, sprawling, literary epics”?
LR: I have a novel called Dead Land that I have put in my bottom draw. I don’t want to think about it at the moment. I spent far too much time writing it. It needs to be drastically rewritten (possibly thrown away) – it’s too long. A red pen must be taken to it like a sword! I must admit H.P. Tinker’s premise that writing a novel would be some kind of “surrender” does tickle me but I wouldn’t go that far. I just think that writers should hold back. If I ever write a “slim volume that contains more literary weight per page than most fat, sprawling, literary epics” (you were quoting me there weren’t you? Which means I just quoted myself back to you – how odd) then I will die a very happy man . . . I might have a very long life ahead of me though as I am definitely not up scratch as yet and, quite possibly, never will be. Who knows?
The manuscript that I am most excited about at the moment is the short novel I have just written (about 60,000 words). It’s called The Canal. I am just tweaking it at the moment and I am very pleased with the way it has shaped up. It’s about boredom (of course) and the fetishisation of modern culture and violence (especially the kind of violence that is deemed by its perpetrators to have a ‘just cause’: terrorism is a good example of this). It is also about the Regents Canal in London; a bench; a man; a woman; a gang of youths; secrets; commuting; work; bicycle bells; canal dredgers; technology; swans; Canada geese; coots; memory; civil aircraft; the London bombers and 9/11. But crucially it is about the man, the woman and the swan – and in particular the man’s repressed desire, the woman’s repressed fetishism, and the swan’s ever-present beauty. I was recently talking with Tom McCarthy and I was explaining all this to him and he said: “You’ve read ‘Leda and the Swan’, right?” and I have but many, many, many years ago. I went home that day and picked up off my shelves Yeats‘ Collected Works and re-read ‘Leda and the Swan’ and Tom was right, The Canal is all about that same repressed desire Yeats so perfectly illustrates in that poem. It was obviously a coincidence and nothing whatsoever to do with my unconscious mind linking back to Yeats’s poem or narrative patterns and symbolism in Greek mythology. I certainly had no particular Hellenistic Relief in mind when writing. But it’s a nice touch all the same. I have been reading a lot of Heidegger (boredom/mood), Ballard (technology/violence), Beckett (ennui/repetition), Pessoa (emptiness/the ordinary) recently and, in particular, an amazing book called Montano’s Malady by Enrique Vila-Matas (literary suffocation). The Canal could not have been written without the guidance of the above. It’s hard not to be influenced by such writing.
ST: Going back to Scarecrow, in many of your editorials and reviews, it is clear that you have met other writers whose work you have found stimulating. How useful has that been to your writing? And what has surprised you most about the evolution of Scarecrow?
LR: It’s funny, I remember the night I decided to start Scarecrow. I was sitting with my laptop on a Sunday evening with absolutely nothing to do. I was even too bored to read – does that happen to anyone else? When you’re so bored you just pace the room unable to do anything? Anyway, I had my laptop. I knew next to nothing about html and blogs . . . but I had been reading RSB and 3:AM Magazine for some time. So I set up a blog called Scarecrow (scarecrows are very special to me, always have been). I wanted it be like Andrew Gallix’s Buzzwords (that was the first literary blog) and thought that I would just use it for rants about books. But then I realised it would be a great place to publish writers. I built the site by linking other blogs together to make one huge site – Scarecrow is just a series of interlinking blogs basically. After a while the writer and filmmaker Matthew Coleman joined. I had always admired his work, his tenacity and enthusiasm. He’s one of the most humorous, funny and generous people I have ever met. I sometimes feel I drive him mad because I am a dreadful editor when it comes to managing the site. I am terrible at replying to submissions and very, very, very lazy. If it was up to Matthew there’d be a new issue of Scarecrow up each week – but that’s impossible. Two, maybe three a year . . . I don’t know. You should see some of the work that gets sent to me – it saddens me. It’s like there’s just this one writer in the world who churns out the same story over and over and over again (which wouldn’t be a bad thing if it was a decent story). It can be depressing. But then, blam!, something arrives in the inbox that is interesting enough to read more than once.
I have met many writers through Scarecrow and many friends also. How can you not be stimulated by writers as varied and talented as Stewart Home, Tony O’Neill, Heidi James, Ben Myers, Adelle Stripe, Noah Cicero, Mark Safranko, Dan Fante, Tom McCarthy, Paul Ewen, Matthew Coleman, Andrew Gallix, Chris Killen, Donari Braxton, H.P. Tinker, Steve Vermillion, Michael Keenaghan, Travis Jeppesen, Robert Woodard, Paul Kavanagh, Ellis Sharp, Joshua Cohen, Bob Short and all the others that have been published on Scarecrow? It has been very useful to me; I have learnt a lot from many of the above mentioned writers. And they continue to inspire me. The one thing I’m proud of is that Scarecrow is not stuck in the past. Although I admire the greats, the dead philosophers, the theorists, Scarecrow concerns itself with the new . . . The majority of the writers I have published on Scarecrow have emerged in the last two years, most will go on to do great things. I am proud that I have played a little part in their burgeoning careers. New writers need sites like Scarecrow. And sites like Scarecrow need new writers. I suppose the most surprising thing about the evolution of Scarecrow has been the sheer number of writers who share the same thoughts as me: something has to be done about the current publishing climate. It also surprises me when people say (after I have been introduced to them for the first time): “Oh, Scarecrow . . . I’ve been reading that for years. When is the next issue up?” . . . It kind of freaks me out a little. But it’s worth it. Damn, I feel bad now that I’ve left it this long for the next issue . . . I must get cracking on it.
ST: Finally, is being Lee Rourke really so boring?
LR: Obviously it’s not. I have a wonderful partner, Holly, who continually dazzles me with her lust for life. I could never be bored as long as she is in my life. Although, this doesn’t mean that I am not interested in boredom in the literary sense. When I sit down to write, life is boring to me. It has to be. Boredom inspires me to write. I see boredom in everything. Obviously there’s a lot to dislike Heidegger for but the following sums it up for me really: “Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference. This boredom reveals being as a whole.” But then again I also concur with this beauty from Ian Curtis: “Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio / Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio / Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio / Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio.” A combination of the two kind of sums me up really.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Susan Tomaselli is the editor of Dogmatika as well as a contributing editor to 3:AM Magazine, where she writes on comics.