April 07th, 2008
When Robert Kroetsch was living and teaching in Winnipeg, no rx he was interviewed in 1979.
T: Would you agree that your novels are chiefly concerned with probing how sexuality has influenced the sociology of the Canadian west?
KROETSCH: I can only begin to answer that by saying there's a great deal which is repressed in our society. Look at the vicious need for order that makes us all rush out at five o'clock to have a drink. People used to drink on ceremonial occasions. Now we drink automatically at five o'clock because the pressure we've been under all day is intolerable. We live in a very repressive society. It has to be repressive to make people work eight hours a day. Sexuality is too illogical for society so it's repressed. But the impulse towards sexual "disorder" is inherent in almost all of us.
T: Is this why marriage in your fiction is always depicted as a repression of sexuality, order not an opportunity for embracing it?
KROETSCH: I must admit my novels reflect a terrible scepticism about the state of marriage. Perhaps based on personal experience.
T: On personal experience and Sigmund Freud?
KROETSCH: Yes, I do admit it. I do acknowledge that. I liked his statement somewhere that work and love are the two things we have in this world. Putting the two together is very difficult because only occasionally are they the same thing.
Often for a writer, work and love can come together. I'm someone who believes very consciously that the writing energy comes out of a confrontation with the Muse and the Muse takes the form of immortal woman. Often one almost hates a dependence on that. But I really depend on the relationship with a woman for that writing energy.
T: A feminist might label your work as male sexual propaganda because in examining the male desire for freedom, you've painted an extremely unflattering picture of the role women played in the settling of Canada. Women carry the dreaded civilization instinct. They thwart the Prometheanism of the male.
KROETSCH: That's too naive a statement. When I look at the male world that I grew up in, I think I mock it now a great deal. I think Western Canadian males are into this macho posture which is grotesque. They're acting in a way which doesn't fit any societal need any more. Have you ever been in a beer parlour in Yellowknife? Those men are still hooked on the notion of a quest. They have to ride out and win the favour of a woman. And the way you ride out in this society is so grotesque that it's comic.
T: But except for Badlands, it seems only your male characters are "riding out." Don't women have quests, too?
KROETSCH: I don't say women can't. Margaret Laurence with The Diviners has written one of the greatest quest stories of our time. It's also a quest which happens to take her through a series of males.
T: That allegorized world of women at home in their Yellowknife kitchens while their men get plastered in the bar is a fair stereotype, I agree. Do you think that men and women cannot exist in harmony?
KROETSCH: No, I don't think that at all. What I think is that our roots are very much in small towns and rural communities. Now we are an urban people. This creates problems we have to solve. We have come into our glorious urban centres with a way of thinking that dates back a generation. You come to Edmonton or Winnipeg and you find the men are still sitting around in huge beer parlours, talking about women in that naive way men will talk about women. At one time this division between men and women might have been a very functional distinction. Now it's harmful. The women who want to participate like men are forced into a kind of isolation.
T: So our problem is really how to become an urban people.
KROETSCH: Yes, that's really what is fascinating about Canada right now. How in hell do we go about inventing these brand new cities? Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver are surely the three most interesting cities in Canada. Every one of them is full of people trying to define a new version of urban. At the core of that new version there's going to have to be a new definition of the male/female relationship. I'm not writing about breaking the land any more. I'm writing about urban people remembering that rural experience. How we remember it conditions how we act! Sinclair Ross already wrote about the terrible nature of a 1930s prairie town in As For Me and My House. Why should I try to duplicate that novel? I'm writing about people living in this rich society where there's an incredible sense of money, yet people don't know how to spend the stuff. They were taught to grub and save. Now they've got all this wealth and freedom and they don't know what to buy or do. So they buy more beer. My friends won't even buy good liquor for me! That's what I'm writing about!
T: Using a backdrop of rural origins to discuss urban problems.
KROETSCH: Exactly. What the Crow Said is not the description of a real community on the Alberta/ Saskatchewan border. It's a real community in our imaginations. Where nature and woman can possibly come together. Where an Indian reserve is at one end of town and a Hutterite colony at the other. The book is full of balances and halves which we have to put together. That's what intrigues me now. I'm intrigued by the idea of bringing back together not only male and female, but also the self, with that total relationship with the world. Unfortunately, the men are still more interested in doing the impossible, like building their tower of ice to heaven.
T: A phallic tower of ice.
KROETSCH: Absolutely. And they can't get it high enough to satisfy themselves.
T: Are you at all optimistic about the chances of resolving these warring relationships between men and women?
KROETSCH: That's a serious question. And I don't know. There are days when I feel a little despair and I understand some of the women's lib philosophy that says to hell with men. I don't know if there are mass answers any more. Maybe that's one of the things we have to learn is to do away with the notion of a generalized answer.
That's why fiction is so important. That's why poetry is so important. The inherited system is breaking down. The intrusion into our society of leisure and money has broken down inherited role definitions. We have to work out new relationships. And art can point the way.
T: Let's bury the past and concentrate on the future?
KROETSCH: Yes, I'm against nostalgia. I remember what it was like on the farm. I picked roots and drove a tractor fourteen hours a day. I know how hard these jobs are to do, mind you, I had a relatively easy life, don't let me fool you. But I did do those jobs. I know that our memory is not of Europe or high culture. Our memory is of work. Just look at all the good writers on the West Coast who are using logging as a kind of metaphor for getting at an understanding of what they are.
T: I'd be interested to hear your opinion of Leslie Fiedler's "Huck Finn" theory. He has said men came to North America to flee European civilization and form a homosexual bond with a native male.
KROETSCH: I don't think it explains much in Canadian literature. And it's very glib about American literature. What I find much more intriguing is the power of women in Canadian writing. I would say our culture has a much larger percentage of good women writers than American culture. I don't know why. Maybe it's because Old Queen Victoria was back there as a role model.
T: Or else because feminism came to the fore at the same time that Canadian nationalism did.
KROETSCH: That could be part of it. But Nellie McClung and Catherine Parr Traill were back there long before that. Whatever it was, it's certainly healthy. I like the fact that a woman can now say I'm horny tonight. Or today. Or this morning. That's a great breakthrough in our society.
T: They're breaking out of their role definitions but they don't always find new ones to replace them.
KROETSCH: The same as men. In order to go west, a man had to define himself as an orphan, as an outlaw, as a cowboy. With those definitions, how can you marry a woman? How can you enter the house again? You have to lose that self-definition. That's the problem for the male. He must break his self-inflicted definition of maleness.
T: That would explain why so many of your characters are fatherless.
T: Your novels are so riddled with significance that I can see the very conscious level of creation turning off a great many potential readers. Does that concern you?
KROETSCH: Yes, it does. Because I think intellectual play is an important part of human pleasure. Why are we, in this culture, so afraid of intellectual pleasure? In a country which has produced such interesting political movements as NDP and Social Credit, why are we afraid to be caught thinking? For instance, right now I just thought of your pun "riddled." When something is riddled it's full of holes or else it's full of meanings. That was a great remark you made. And to me that's fun. That's often what poetry is to me. Intellectual play.
T: So you would never temper down the intellectual input into a novel to make it more accessible?
KROETSCH: No, I wouldn't. I think if I have failed somehow it's not because I'm too intellectual; it's because I haven't given my books enough emotional weight. I realize there's the darker side and sentimental side to life which I could play up more. I'm beginning to acknowledge these things.
T: The disadvantage of being so obsessed with meaning and therefore also imposing form is that it's hard for your readers to gain an impression that your characters are ever responsible for their own actions. There's always an awareness that you manipulate the strings. That's probably why The Studhorse Man has been your best received novel, because Hazard Lepage takes over the book from the author.
KROETSCH: Since The Studhorse Man I've been much more interested in literature as an intellectual activity, as play. I say to my reader, watch me do this, this is impossible. Then I do it. And of course there's a danger in doing that too much.
T: Do you ever ask yourself how a kid from Heisler, Alberta, developed the mind it took to write your novels?
KROETSCH: The question has intrigued me because it certainly wasn't a literary background. I grew up on a farm. But there was a great deal of talk in that environment. People were talking about each other, and in that sense inventing each other. Uncles were into politics and loved to make speeches; old aunts were repositories of family history. So I grew up hearing a great deal of talk.
T: What sort of reading material were you exposed to?
KROETSCH: Well, the hired men often had very interesting books up in their rooms! I'd find their old pulp magazines and lane Grey stories. And there were travelling libraries which came to the schools. This great big box of books would arrive and I remember the delight of plundering through the boxes, which contained everything from best-sellers to the classics.
But I lived an incredibly free life on a huge farm. You had the run of the place. And you lived in your imagination.
T: What about those biblical overtones in your books. Were you religious?
KROETSCH: Well, I wasn't terribly into the Bible actually. My parents were Catholic but I was an agnostic at a very early age. I don't know why that was. I remember thinking they were putting me on with that stuff.
On the other hand I do like the kind of cosmology that religion offers. The Bible is a total story of the universe. I think that's where some of my interest in what I would call cosmology comes from. Those great yarns.
T: The obvious biblical influence that springs to mind is that litany of hockey players' names in The Studhorse Man. It's like a genealogy. Mahovolich began Beliveau begat Howe.
KROETSCH: The catalogue of names is a great old poetic device. The radio announcers we heard were great at inventing hockey games. We only found out later that the hockey game wasn't at all the way Foster Hewitt described it. He was a fiction maker.
T: Was W.O.Mitchell an influence, too?
KROETSCH: I think he was the first Canadian writer to influence me. He gave me the realization that you could write about the prairies. All the literature I had read was about people somewhere else. Then suddenly I read his Jake and the Kid stories and Who Has Seen the Wind? The education system had insisted that all writers were dead. I think I was in grade twelve before a teacher told me there were living writers as well as Shelley and Keats and Byron.
T: Were you old enough for the Depression to affect your upbringing?
KROETSCH: Yes, I was very much aware of Social Credit coming into power in 1935 when I was eight years old. The radio was the principal device Aberhart had struck on. He was a genius at using it. I remember the men especially listening to the radio, desperately hoping for an answer. And I remember my dad was a Liberal- I don't know if one should confess this nowadays anywhere west of Toronto! But he was sort of the last Liberal in the Battle River country. I remember the really vehement arguments that went on. I suppose I even had a sense of fright as a child to hear men arguing so vehemently.
T: That would account for The Words of My Roaring. Were you always aware of this friction between east and west or did that come later?
KROETSCH: Well, I was in a very ambiguous position in that my father had come from Ontario as a homesteader. He had dreamed as a kid of going out west and being a farmer. In a sense he became a fulfilled person. But he had left Ontario when he was seventeen, so I grew up hearing about this Edenic world called Ontario. That contradicted my sense of politics because we always heard about these capitalists who were manipulating us from back there. I think I still have that very ambiguous sense of good and evil about the east.
T: You've written that the American and British experiences are concealed within the Canadian experience in the same way that Latin words often conceal Greek roots. Do you think the prairies are resolving that conflict ahead of the rest of the country?
KROETSCH: I don't know. Certainly the prairies do have one answer which came out of the Depression. The thirties wiped us all out. Right down to zero. So we started to invent a new concept of self and a new concept of society. Now I'm intrigued to watch that developing in the prairies.
T: You share with Rudy Wiebe a feeling that the natural construction of sentences needs to be altered to jar the reader's equilibrium from time to time. Is it possible, since we're so bombarded by the imitative realism of television, that realism in literature might eventually become counterproductive to art?
KROETSCH: Yes, it has become counter-productive. I find the concept of realism incredibly boring. We can talk for an hour because our culture has sentence patterns and we fill in the slots with words. But I think there's a danger in not learning new models of sentences. Rudy and I fight about the notion of what realism is and we tamper with grammar in different ways, but I think both of us want to dislocate perception.
T: To construct your novels into intellectual mazes, do you have to map everything out beforehand so you don't get lost?
KROETSCH: No, you have to leave room for discovery as you go. One of the pleasures of reading is surprise. To get surprises happening, often you have to be surprising yourself. That's part of what I'm writing about anyway. Metamorphosis. How things get transformed.
T: Do you have to be turned on to write?
KROETSCH: No, I can write every day when I'm really working. Waiting to be turned on could just be an excuse not to write. However, you do have to understand when not to write. Because I believe the body writes the book, not just the mind. How your whole body feels it important. When you wake up in the morning refreshed with that incredible burst of energy, just out of a dream state, you're rediscovering the world. You're being reborn. It's not just intellect that writes the book.
T: Would you ever wake up in the morning and say, "My being is not feeling well today. If I sit down and write today, I will not write well"?
KROETSCH: Yes, I would. We call that a hangover.
Essay Date: 1979