Lee Rourke is the author of Everyday and the forthcoming The Canal. He is contributing / reviews editor at 3AM Magazine and founder and editor of the online litzine Scarecrow. His criticism regularly appears in The Guardian and his book reviews have appeared in The Observer, RSB, TLS, Dazed and Confused, The Quarterly Conversation and Bookforum. He resides in Hackney, East London.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the ideas for the stories Everyday?
Lee Rourke: At the time of writing Everyday I was – unbeknownst to me at the time – experiencing quite a transitional period in my life in regards to my analytical and philosophical understanding of literature. I was reading new authors. I was reading theorists new to me like Maurice Blanchot and Jean Paulhan. I was beginning to think more about why fiction is the way it is, how it is, rather than why I write it. I was beginning to understand the writing process and forgetting about who might want to read it. I was already aware of the patterns and repetitions that I was acting out each day and wanted to replicate them on the page without metaphor, or any literary posturing i.e., descriptive narrative, characterisation and that sort of thing. I wanted Everyday to be enveloped in a muffling fog of boredom. I wanted the collection – like the emptiness within us - to be fragmented and cold.
MT: You call them fragments not stories -- why? And what is the difference to you?
MT: ‘Fragments’ just seems to be the word that fits for me. I see Everyday as something that was once whole and has somehow shattered into shards and fragments of something. It’s not a fragmented work of fiction in the customary sense as most of the vignettes have a linear progression throughout them (although Everyday is a book without endings). In Everyday I have fun playing with these worn out formulas. Everyday is basically the same story told over and over again. A kind of polygonal attempt at saying the same thing: the same story beginning over and over again and never really drawing to a close.
MT: HP Tinker said "writing a novel would be failure" -- I think this means that shorts/fragments guard against the potential hubris or world-building of a novel, and maybe guard against the "novelist as god". I'm not sure I agree -- a short story can be very controlled and hubristic, a novel can be aware of its impossibility -- but what is your take on this Lee?
LR: Isn’t all writing failure? An impossibility? Well, I liked that quote from HP Tinker. He’s a special writer. I like his insouciance. Although I don’t think he was thinking of anything other than not wanting to write a novel when he stated this. I don’t think he cares much about it – I could be wrong though. The short story is a strong discipline though and, if it is used correctly, it can be quite devastatingly beautiful. Novels, short stories, all fiction can be too aware – which isn’t a bad thing really - I rather like novels, short stories and fictional pieces that are aware of the simple fact that they are only fiction and nothing else. Short stories seem to eschew – to me at least – all that posturing in the contemporary novel. There is arrogance in all fiction, I suppose, yet the short story seems to be able to side-step this. They don’t get caught up. Some novels are just way too long because they are too preoccupied in being considered ‘literary’.
The short story doesn’t give the writer much time to think about anything other than the next word. And if you are a writer the next word is far more important than the next metaphor. The problem with the novel is that everyone – including the author – expects it, at some point to end, the reader demands closure, we all want that perfect ending. (Actually, the novel will never have the perfect ending as James Joyce already put a close to all endings in his short story ‘The Dead’ – possibly the greatest ending to any piece of fiction I have ever read.) The short story is stronger than the novel in this respect: it has no fear of ending, it doesn’t need to end. I much prefer the beginnings of novels than their endings. It’s the same reason why Kafka didn’t like endings, I suppose.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
LR: There’s that wonderful moment in Josipovici’s Everything Passes – a book that haunts me so much I have to re-read it about once a month – where it mentions Rabelais and how he first realised that he could write anything he wanted: due to the newfangled printing press and mass production. He realised he had no idea who was reading his work. Rabelais had – as Josipovici says – gained the world and lost his audience. He didn’t care who was reading his work. Writing for an audience had lost its meaning. Like Rabelais I have no idea who could be reading my book – or anything of mine that’s published. And like Rabelais I don’t care. Anyone could be reading my book. My book isn’t going to change anyone’s life. It’s not important. There are a lot of vital lessons to be learnt in reading Josipovici.
LR: Yes, but not as a mouthpiece anymore. Now I just want to publish interesting fiction. I just want to publish fiction that stands for fiction and nothing else besides fiction. There will be no more editorials. The book blog has evolved and I prefer to read other people’s blogs these days. I will still continue to publish writers’ work via scarecrow because it’s worth doing, I truly believe there is a point to it, that I’m not wasting mine or the writers’ time in doing so. In fact – at the time of typing – I am putting together another issue. Oh, and I have my own little blog that I call Lee Rourke’s scarecrow comment just in case anyone is wondering.
MT: Scarecrow was set up against the literary establishment and to promote the "misunderstood, ignored and abandoned underground" -- is there a literary establishment? If so, what is wrong with it and the literary scene in the UK at the moment?
LR: Of course there is, and more so when Scarecrow first appeared on the scene about four years ago. Things are still dire. Although things have changed a little. Luckily we now have publishers like Social Disease* and Semina at Book Works. Publishers who are willing to take risks. Who, most importantly, are not too bothered about gaining money. It just seems that in this country, and in the US, for literature to be accepted, for the establishment to deem it authentic, it has to be somehow seen as, or read as, ‘literary’. But, sadly, the establishment’s idea of ‘literary’ fiction is dissimilar to many of the exiting writers who are writing today. It seems like madness to me that most publishing houses still look for good characterisation, plot, and narrative arcs when assessing new modern fiction submissions, immediately dismissing, it seems, the myriad works which are sent to them that openly eschew such tired and weary tropes.
* Yes, they’re my publisher and it’s pretty obvious that I would mention them, but they published HP Tinker and Tony O’Neill before me and I’m a big fan of their writing.
MT: I note that your list of 10 Books on Boredom was quite academic/serious. Yet, over at scarecrow, you seem to champion ‘cult’ fiction. How have your views about such fiction and your reading changed over the past few years?
LR: I have always been interested in Heidegger’s writings and his notions of time, being, technology, you know, all that modern stuff (I’m a geek. I like power stations and electricity pylons. I watch the flight paths above me. I realise how we are being made smaller by it, how it is leaving us behind). I’m interested in how this modern stuff drills into the emptiness within us like a bradawl. It all helps to reaffirm my own philosophy of boredom and meaninglessness. It is why I have found it easy to accept the writings of Fernando Pessoa, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Philippe Toussaint et al.
I think everything I have written for The Guardian (with the exception of maybe two articles) has really, underneath the surface, been about my own writing. Scarecrow has really nothing to do with my own philosophical and analytical beliefs anymore – it’s just a forum, or started out as one at least, for writers who have found it difficult for their writing to find acceptance in established and mainstream places. I wish it had funding so it could look better, I wish I had more time in my life to devote to its upkeep.
You know, I don’t really understand the distinction between ‘cult fiction’ and ‘literature’. I see Blanchot as a cult author as much as I do any of the writers that have appeared on the pages of Scarecrow over the years. I do not look down on writing just because it is seen as ‘cult’. Some fiction is about sex, drugs and violence and some fiction is about writing and its impossibility. It doesn’t matter to me. I just want to read good writing. Life would be fucking horrendous if everyone just published and read Blanchot just as much as if everyone just published and read Boris Vian. Saying that, a bit more of both wouldn’t do the current publishing climate any harm at all.
MT: How has your new reading affected your writing? What have these books taught you?
LR: All reading is new reading, I think, and all reading influences me. It’s not that I feel I have moved up into a higher realm of literature just because I now read Blanchot and Ponge. It’s just new reading. It’s just new thinking. I’m as excited about it as I was when I first read Ginsberg, Corso, Fitzgerald and Dostoevsky when I was a teenager.
I have been reading Heidegger now for about 10-12 years. Every time I pick him up I find something new. I have been reading Blanchot for about two - three years. Blanchot has influenced me on a scale I have never experienced before, so you could say that Blanchot has affected my writing – I suppose he has taught me about the beautiful impossibility of writing. And that Modernism is something that still needs further exploration. Gabriel Josipovici demonstrates this premise to me too.
MT: Blogs v. Critics -- were do you stand!?
LR: Critics who write blogs! Stephen Mitchelmore is a fine example, his writing and criticism is a real inspiration. There are too many authors to mention that I now read because of him. But, to be honest, I don’t care where I read my criticism. I read broadsheets, blogs, and subscribe to many academic journals for my fix. As long as it’s judicious then it doesn’t matter to me where I read it.
Saying that, at a push, I’d side with blogs – faster/wider dissemination via the blog.
MT: What do you do in your spare time?
LR: I swim. I like to swim. I cycle too. I own an old beauty, a sit-up-and-beg bone-shaker that makes me feel superior when I’m weaving and wending myself through the London traffic. I watch aircraft too. Both flight paths to City Airport and Heathrow pass by my window. I can hear the winding down of a twin turbo-fan Pratt and Whitney on a Boeing 767 200s passing overhead as I type this. I’m an ordinary human being fascinated with extraordinary things.
MT: What are you working on now?
LR: I’ve just finished a novel called The Canal that I am very pleased with. I am also writing a non fiction book on boredom (mapping boredom through fiction*). Taking notes and reading reams in preparation for my next novel which will be about electricity and other stuff.
* How fiction is used, how boredom appears in fiction.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
LR: So, so many authors, Mark. Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Gabriel Josipovici, Samuel Beckett, Blaise Cendrars, Friedrich Holderlin, Rainer Maria Rilke, Maurice Blanchot, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Houllebecq, Ann Quin, Gwendoline Riley, JG Ballard etc.
Books? On any given day I would probably say Joyce’s Ulysses, Beckett’s Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, Cendrars’s Morvagine, Blanchot’s L’arret de Mort, Tabucchi’s Indian Nocturne and Vanishing Point, Moravia’s Boredom, Tsepeneag’s Vain Art of the Fugue, McCarthy’s Remainder, Home’s 69 Things to do with Dead Princess and all the other ones I have forgotten to mention* ...
* That’s a lie actually, obviously each of the titles above have been painstakingly chosen.
MT: What are your top tips for the aspiring writer!?
LR: In his report to the International Necronautical Society delivered at the Royal Geographical Society on 8th March 2002 ('Navigation Was Always a Difficult Art'), Tom McCarthy states, "[Francis] Ponge is what every writer should aspire to be." I can concur with this. Reading Ponge is vital to understanding words, language and expression. Doing so will help pretty much anyone who seriously wants to write.
I would also say watch as many Chris marker films as possible, especially La Jetée. In a piece for The Guardian I once wrote:
'La Jetée possesses everything I want from literature without even being literature. It effortlessly captures the perfect image all novels fail to illustrate in its blending of photo-precision and haunting narration. Like the writing of Franz Kafka or Maurice Blanchot, it is a story that reveals to us the "essential impossibility of writing" on every level [. . .] the act of trying to capture on the page the perfect image. That is, one that can never be found. As Maurice Blanchot explores in The Space Of Literature, in this respect we are like Orpheus. Though, where Orpheus plumbed the depths of Hades in search of Eurydice and brought nothing back, we scale the impossibility of ourselves, bringing nothing back to the page. The page remains empty. This is the beautiful impossibility of writing that confronts me every time I sit down to write.'
Good writing is always striving for that perfect image whilst knowing you'll never find it.
I would also say write as much as you can. Keep notebooks. And read, read, read. Read as much fiction, poetry, and philosophy as possible. And watch as much good world cinema as you can.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
LR: Just that everyone should buy their books from The Book Depository. And that ReadySteadyBook should be every serious reader’s homepage.