April 07th, 2008
JANE RULE was born in Plainfield, troche New Jersey in 1931. She came to Canada in the late 1950s to teach at the University of British Columbia. She encourages change by creating characters who struggle, information pills increasingly as a group, to step beyond the limitations of social conventions to seek love born of strength, not weakness. Desert of the Heart (1964), a first novel about two women who fall in love in Reno, Nevada, became a film called Desert Hearts. Other fiction includes The Young in One Another's Arms (1977), Contract with the World (1980), Inland Passage (1985) and Memory Board (1987). Non-fiction works include Lesbian Images (1975) and A Hot-Eyed Moderate (1985). Jane Rule lives on Galiano Island, BC. She was interviewed in 1978.
T: Do you consider yourself an American writer or a Canadian writer?
RULE: Well, simply a writer in English is always best. Some of my work is set in England because I lived there for a while. Then I went back to the States and found it very alien. When I came to Vancouver and found a beautiful place to be, I simply elected the city. I came on a beautiful August day, twenty-some years ago, so that it was still a little charming city. I didn't even think of it as Canada. I mean I knew it was Canada, but I was that kind of American. It was north of Seattle and it was a place called Vancouver. Now I've spent just about half my life in Canada all my adult life-so, since I didn't really have roots in any specific place in the States, my commitment to a nation is really much clearer as a Canadian.
T: Have you resented being pigeonholed as a "lesbian" novelist?
RULE: I reacted to it at first, but I don't much any more. If there was a usefulness in resenting it, then I would. But I also know that it's politically important to other people. I'm a responsible person, so it seems to me I have to put up with it.
T: Do you put much faith in politics to solve social problems?
RULE: Well, it seems to me politics is housekeeping. I don't look to politics as a place to change anything. We get the politics we deserve. Politics really are to clean up the house. You have to do it every week. I don't find it interesting, just as I don't find sweeping the floor every week interesting. I do it. I vote.
I prefer to work wherever there's a possibility of changing things. I work with lesbians, I work with gay men, I work with the women's movement. I really believe through the countermovements in society change can be made. We're living witnesses of it. The last ten years have shocked even the most optimistic of us.
T: Are you consciously evangelical for your own politics when you write?
RULE: No, I don't suppose so. In fact, the thing that is peculiar for me about reaction to my books is that I've had an awful lot of reviewers take me to task for not being political, for having no other great interest than writing some kind of gentle soap opera. Desert of the Heart got a very bad review in Quebec because I got all the social analysis correctly, I understood everything that was wrong, then I bloody well accepted it instead of blowing the place up!
Of course I do get reviewers who say that I'm a revolutionary, that I really ought to be called to confess my revolutionary zeal, which is hidden under a slick surface. But I don't feel politics lurk in my books or dominate them.
T: Actually it's often not politics people find threatening. It's ideas. People read "only the good can be guilty" in Desert of the Heart and it shakes them.
RULE: Sure. That's why I expected to get absolutely fried with that book. But what I didn't expect was to hear from all the readers who were in anguish. I was shocked by the number of people who were needy for that book.
T: Coming from a different generation, I'd almost say I don't understand what the fuss could be about.
RULE: Absolutely. I think it would be very hard for anyone to imagine what it was like in the fifties. I think about the only valid criticism I got when Desert of the Heart was released was that there's no hostility surrounding Evelyn and Ann. The landlady is consoling. There isn't any climate of hostility. But I chose that consciously. So many people in those days were trying to get sympathy for homosexuals by showing how mean everyone was to them. I didn't want to get into propaganda. I wanted them to say what they really would say and feel what they really would feel. I didn't want to drag in a lot of social pressure to overshadow that.
T: I think many readers would agree today with Virginia Woolfs description of The Well of Loneliness as a "meritorious, dull book." Do you think Desert of the Heart will ever replace it as the lesbian novel?
RULE: I don't suppose so, alas. Radcliffe Hall wrote The Well of Loneliness as a piece of propaganda and therefore included all kinds of theory and minor characters. It's also a tragic story and I think that as long as people are willing to be broad-minded, The Well of Loneliness is an ideal book. Because the people suffer and get punished. Desert of the Heart has already taken the place of The Well of Loneliness for lesbians, but for the range of society, no. Because Evelyn and Ann apparently get it together. It's not tragic.
T: After having written Lesbian Images, where do you stand on the question of rationalizing the origins of lesbianism?
RULE: I think there is only one origin: that you love another woman. The person you love is the motivation. As physical creatures, we react to sexual stimulus. So it's probably true that we are capable of responding sexually to either sex. Of course the predisposition for reproduction is heterosexual so the majority of people move in that direction. But there are lots of people who are so frightened of sexual feelings that they don't feel anything for either sex.
T: Would you agree with Havelock Ellis that sexual inversion tends to occur in individuals who are above average in intellect and character?
RULE: No. That was one of those defensive statements that you'll find coming out of any minority that feels threatened. You know, that Shakespeare was bisexual. And Plato. To get your act together and claim everybody under the sun is good, strong, brave and true.
T: Where do you suppose you got your strength for living a life of non-conformity? From your family?
RULE: Partly, yes. But partly also by not finding it easy to conform. A lot of people find strength because they have to have it, not because they go around courting it. For instance, I didn't grow up in one place. Therefore I never experienced a lot of intimate social pressure. It didn't really matter to me much what people thought because I knew I'd be gone in a year. I could really base my choices on what I wanted to do. My parents were also very supportive and taught us all to be non-conformists, even though they're conformists themselves. They conform because they can.
T: Which brings us to Jane Rule on morality. "Morality is a test of our conformity rather than our integrity."
RULE: Yes, I do think morality is simply part of the quality of life, sometimes a very bad part and sometimes a very good part.
T: One of your characters says, "What you lose is what you survive with." Does that statement come out of your life?
RULE: No, it comes from observing more than experiencing. Some of the people I know who have carried the heaviest burdens are people who figured how to let those things work for them. So I wanted to create a character who had that kind of guts. As long as you're alive, what you lose becomes part of your understanding.
T: With that what-you-lose-is-whatyou-get angle, was The Young in One Another's Arms meant as a definitive novel of the sixties?
RULE: No. The experiences that come from me for that book go back to the end of the Second World War. In that respect, it's really too bad when something like draft-dodging gets to be associated only with the sixties. I'm always startled when a reviewer says, "Oh well this is about the sixties, no point, dead issue." I think fiction isn't about those issues. Those issues are part of the climate of fiction. The notion that a book should be "new" is new since television.
I remember I sent a short-short to Redbook. A short-short is only about a thousand words long. I wrote it at the time of the Cuban Crisis and sent it off. They accepted the story two months later but they said they needed me to invent a different world crisis because the Cuban Crisis was dated. Crazy, just crazy.
T: But The Young in One Another's Arms is essentially about people trying to set up an economic and emotional commune. So it is a reflection of the sixties.
RULE: Sure. But the word is politically loaded for me. At that time I was listening to an awful lot of young people out at UBC who were so earnest about living in a commune you knew it wouldn't last. Everybody had to have exactly the same amount of space. I remember saying to one girl, "What happens if I'm a writer and my friend Tak Tanabe is a painter? I could work in a closet and he couldn't." She said, "Oh well, those are only hobbies." And every Tuesday night you have a criticism period. That whole era is what "commune" got stamped with.
T: Were you personally affected by all that sixties idealism floating around?
RULE: No. But it certainly affected the young people I knew at the time. I was very busy being a teacher and trying to find time to write. We always had draft dodgers with us, or people who couldn't cope with the university, but I was too involved with the commitment I had made to writing. Consequently I've never been one to think of solutions for my own life coming from things I do with other people.
T: Yet you're writing these books where you're almost prescribing communalism, or at least the notion that a communal way of life is a very real and worthwhile alternative.
RULE: Well, I know it is. It can be done. But art is a job that has to be done alone. Contract with the World is about artists and what it is like to be committed to that kind of job. The kinds of good friends I have are people who are perfectly willing to have me say I'll see them in six months, and live right next door. A number of people do that with me, too. But you don't do that and live in a commune.
T: How do you feel about the anti academic sentiment of the sixties and seventies?
RULE: I am "anti" a lot that's going on, at the big universities particularly. But I'm an academician. I really care about the academy. When I feel critical, it isn't that I'm being anti intellectual. I'm saying this is one of the important places and you better clean up your act. I feel very strongly that they haven't been emphasizing teaching and that's death to learning.
T: Is it important for you to keep in touch with other writers?
RULE: Not as a thing in itself. But it's very important for me to keep in touch with people who happen to be my friends and are writers. Certainly in Canada we're very fortunate in that the government helps us keep in touch. We all go to Ottawa once a year on the government. I need to see Marie-Claire Blais once a year. And Peggy Atwood. And Margaret Laurence.
T: With the setting of Desert of the Heart, you gave equal time to how relationships work and how society works. But as your books become more technical, it appears social analysis is becoming less emphasized.
RULE: That's probably true. Essentially what I've been trying to teach myself over these last few novels is how to deal with a group of people. Technically that is more difficult than doing the structural things, as in Desert. Desert is the most structured of anything that I've ever done. From natural to social to individual. The characters were provided with certain intellectual chores that they had to get through in that book, never mind make love to each other and all those other things. The Vancouver setting for The Y Dung was nowhere near as important. And in Against the Season, the setting was even less important again. I was mostly interested in people living in a no-place, a place that was dying. Also in that book I wanted to try to write that conventional kind of English novel. It has an omniscient narrator, which I hadn't done before. That's conventional. But it wasn't conventional for me. It was far out to sit there and let the quips come and have them be my own.
T: That's something I really enjoy about your books the humour. Your characters' talk is very modern, like people I know. They're always using humour to break social ground, as a reaching out.
RULE: Well, I have a feeling that the kind of dialogue I write is very West Coast. I get an awful lot of flak from eastern editors saying this is absolutely unbelievable dialogue. Their claim is that the only people who are witty are people who use lots of references to books and other intellectual paraphernalia. There's a kind of snobbery in the east, and also a slowness. People are not kindly offhand. There's not the kind of teasing that has nothing to do with anybody needing to be defensive. A sort of joking attentiveness that goes on in a more relaxed world.
T: I think another strength of your writing is the repeated appreciation for the aged. What accounts for all the elderly characters in your books?
RULE: I spend a lot of time with people a good deal older than I am. I always have. I grew up with grandparents and was very close to them. On Galiano Island, most of the population is over sixty-five. Elisabeth Hopkins, the painter, is eighty-six and is, I suppose, our closest friend. So older people are very much a part of the world I live in.
T: Living on an island is another recurring motif. Do you get special comfort or stimulation from being here on Galiano?
RULE: No, I suppose I think of this mostly as "away." One of the characters in my new book says, "If there was a town called Away I would drive to it." Galiano is for me a bit of a fortress. I was beginning to be bugged in town, I couldn't lead my own life. Coming over here, I can spend my time as I want to. When I go to an event here, it's as treasurer of the Galiano Club. I take the quarters. Nobody pays much attention.
T: One last highly pertinent question. Do you really drink Coca-Cola for breakfast?
RULE: Yes, I do. Except they don't sell Coca-Cola on the island. I had to switch to Pepsi. The guy who owns the store over here had a fight with the Coca-Cola people and he won't buy it. I said, "Vic, I am nearly fifty years old. This is a lifetime addiction. You didn't tell me when I moved onto this island that you were going to have a fight with the Coca-Cola company."
T: So Jane Rule took the Pepsi challenge.
RULE: I did. And I can't tell the difference.
Essay Date: 1978