Featured painting by Leon Rooke: Sirens, 2013 (oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in.)
George Salis: What do you love about Shakespeare? Do you have a favorite play?
Leon Rooke: The language, the intellect, the expansive interest, the characters, the surprises, the humour. Favourite: Romeo and Juliet collide with Hamlet, and the witches lure me to Macbeth.
GS: When you read your work, it’s closer to a performance than an average reading, which speaks to your mostly untapped love for acting. If you could choose a single large role to take up in a play or film, which would it be and why?
LR: Most ambitious, commanding male actors I know appear to lust after the Hamlet role as final vilification. Me, too, if I thought I could do a little skip of pleasure at the final curtain, deceived into thinking I had nailed the guy. If not that, then either of the three main roles in Glengarry Glen Ross, or the honcho king in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, maybe some Beckett. Great would be the Rod Steiger sheriff in the movie he did with Portier, title of which I can’t this second recall [In the Heat of the Night]. The salesman in Fargo would be fun, although that’s already found perfection.
GS: You grew up and were educated in North Carolina but you moved to Canada in 1969 when you were about 35 years old, self-exiled, as it were. Is the turmoil of America during all these decades like watching a perpetual car crash? How would you compare and contrast America and Canada?
LR: Yes indeed, car crash about covers it. It’s difficult to accept that one crazy man could so quickly move his party and a large swath of the population into the bonkers zone. Not that current troubles haven’t been brewing for generations. The racism never departed. Canada’s difficulties are minimum, in comparison. Canadians are nicer, and it isn’t merely a tolerance or mindless acceptance of those unlike themselves. I’ll take this back if next week everything explodes.
GS: On your website, there’s a picture from 1997 of you and Umberto Eco at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Toronto. What can you tell me about this night? What was your impression of Eco?
LR: I’m hazy on some aspects but pretty sure it was an honouring evening for Umberto together with an art show, song, speeches, dinner, and lots of laughter. On the wall behind us, in the photo, is a magnificent, huge painting by Enzo Cucchi, another steady presence at the Istituto in those days. A very pleasant, captivating, friendly, smart, sophisticated, learned and funny man, Umberto.
GS: You’ve said in the past that much of Canadian literature is too safe if not formulaic. Have you seen much progress in the innovation of Canadian literature since then? How would you compare and contrast Canadian literature and American literature?
LR: Canlit, and most art categories, lagged way behind the US until the late 60s when the catch-up began, and now it would take a dim eye to perceive much difference in both the abundance of the superb and the shoddy, in either country….
GS: When did you start painting and sculpting? How do these artistic endeavors overlap with writing if at all?
LR: I had an early interest in art, though writing left little time for it until about fifteen years ago. The fields are made for each other; it’s a fine wedding. The process of discovery (what the story is, what the canvas finds) is precisely the same, and that for me is the joy.
GS: If I attended one of your art exhibitions and spat on a painting, what Shakespearean insults would you grace me with?
LR: I assume you know the story of Richard Ford (years after) spitting on the (distinguished) Black writer who gave Ford a negative review. If it was my painting you spat on, I think I’d ask myself questions about the quality of the work. Of you, too, of course.
GS: What is a novel you think deserves more readers?
LR: Most. Cynthia Ozick recently said that in terms of readership the problem with fiction is the word literary added to its front.
“His, Leon’s,” my publishers would say. The real answer is that this would be quite a long list. Two novels, just two, that stand high with me, and have through a long period: the now ancient How late it was, how late by the Scottish writer James Kelman and Preparation For the Next Life by Atticus Lish, son of Gordon. Neither lacked readers, though, late winning a Booker, and Lish…maybe it was a National Book Award? Then there is, on the poetry front, Carolyn Forche’s monumental work Against Forgetting, poets covering the universe of sorrow, insurrection, and death around the globe. It probably sold well also….
GS: Your debut novel is titled Fat Woman (1980). The title, let alone the content, is something that would offend quite a few people nowadays if not so much in the past. Should comedy and satire have limits or are people too easily offended?
LR: I take it as granted that I am myself too easily offended (that’s something of a lie). If I looked back at Fat Woman, I suspect I’d hustle to change much more than the title.
GS: Your latest novel is The House on Major Street. Started sometime in the 90s then forgotten till it was rediscovered in the fall of 2017, according to Tim Inkster, you wrote it on “several hundreds of surplus [2×8] Eden Mills bookmarks, blank on the verso, which Leon had been reluctant to ‘waste’….” This unusual method of composition recalls Nabokov and his index cards, which he would also shuffle if need be. Was this your first time writing a novel in this way and how did it affect the creative process?
LR: It was the first time and it is not a practice I can recommend. Still, it was easy and terrific fun filling those bookmarks. Better than writing in sand on a windy day, anyway.
GS: I’d assume with your love of canines, that you’ve housed at least one. In the spirit of Shakespeare’s Dog, how would your dog or a theoretical dog judge you if she or he bore witness to your life? Would you have welcomed any sage advice from a Mr. Hooker?
LR: I’d be far more advanced in the workshop had the mutt opened its mouth.
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Leon Rooke has published about 40 books—novels, short stories, plays, and poetry—and his art is exhibited widely. His most recent book, The House on Major Street (Porcupine’s Quill), appeared in 2019 and his most recent art show was at Toronto’s Yumart Gallery (June 2019). He lives in Toronto, Ontario. White Gloves of the Doorman: The Works of Leon Rooke, edited by Branko Gorjup, offers an extended look at his career. His website is here.
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.
3 thoughts on “Writing in Sand: An Interview with Leon Rooke”
Very enjoyable, witty interview. I’m interested in the picture of Rooke with Umberto Eco. We know the names of the two men and even of the artist who did the painting… who is the woman?
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Hey, Kate. Good question! Did some digging and this is what I found: “Adrienne Louise Clarkson PC CC CMM COM CD FRSC FRAIC FRCPSC is a Hong Kong-born Canadian journalist and stateswoman who served from 1999 to 2005 as Governor General of Canada, the 26th since Canadian Confederation.”