Stride Magazine - www.stridemagazine.co.uk
Rupert Loydell talks to Russell Hoban
[from Stride magazine no. 26, 1986]
At the time of the following interview, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker had just been adapted for the stage and shown at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. It got critically slated but I and many others found it a wonderful piece of dramatisation which clarified much of the book. I spotted Russell Hoban at one of the performances we attended and asked him for an interview, which he kindly agreed to. The interview was conducted at his Fulham house in March 1986.
RUSSELL HOBAN INTERVIEW, MARCH 1986
I wondered how you felt at the moment, having to go back to Turtle Diary, when you were dealing with the film, and Riddley Walker for the play?
Oh, Turtle Diary I didn’t have anything to do with! That was simply a matter of doing a deal with United British Artists and approving Harold Pinter as screen writer. That was all; I had no further say in the matter.
Pinter didn’t come to you?
I saw the film company and they came up with Pinter. Then he came over here to look at the neighbourhood, because it was one of the locations for Turtle Diary. He then did the screenplay in three or six weeks – a very short time.
And you did Riddley
I did Riddley Walker in a year; there were about five weeks of rehearsals.
Did the actors contribute much, or was it very much you objectively? Was there improvisation?
Oh no, there wasn’t any improvisation. I mean, Braham Murray was the directory, and he very generously allowed me to be at all the rehearsals, and to say anything I wanted to say and to make comments about the text; often there were misinterpretations of the text which I had to correct. The actors didn’t put any improvisation into it, beyond what actors normally do, that is as people grouped on stage would work things out. But I must say that the actors did put a very high degree of commitment into it. They consistently put in time above and beyond the call of duty and had meetings where the actors who had either no lines, or only a few lines to speak, worked out their backgrounds and the details of their lives.
I liked the dogs. I wondered when you decided to personify Auntie, and if you thought that worked?
Well, Auntie is spoken of in the book that way – as a person.
But it is much more abstract.
Yes, and on stage the female part is much amplified – it’s expanded from what it was in the book. It simply grew – there wasn’t any doubt that I anted her that way, because she was an important aspect of the female principle in the book.
So you wrote it as more of a person than I read in the book, because I always saw it as a more abstract female mother figure.
Well, in the book they talk about Auntie as the Death Figure – when you die you need a death figure to step in. My reference for this was a hag figure in Indian religion; the idea of the hag as an aspect of the Mother Goddess occurs in many mythologies throughout the world, and seemed important.
Beyond the Saint Eustace story there seemed very few remnants of christianity, or Western religions. Do you think they wouldn’t survive?
Well, I was making the assumption that, after the destruction of civilisation by nuclear bombs or by nuclear technology – either way – in a few thousand years christianity might well have fallen by the wayside, simple because people would turn against anything that had brought them to that point of destruction. They would have turned against the technology that did it, they would have turned against any religion involved in the build up to it.
It bothers me there’s nothing I can do about it. When I wrote the book, I write it the way it came to me, and I took a lot of trouble with it. I spent five and a half years getting it right. When I was satisfied that I had got it right, I considered it finished. Now, with the stage play, it was the same thing. I had to make a highly concentrated version of the material in the book, and I went through nine drafts before rehearsals started. I really worked it into a tenth draft during rehearsals, with many cuts and changes. There, too, I thought that I had finally got it right, I had Braham Murray’s comments all through the drafts, and he and I both thought it worked by the time we got to the final copy.
I don’t believe, as you say, in writing down to people. There is some material that is by its nature difficult, and if you make it easy, all you are doing is draining the material of its vitality. There is no way to make everything easy.
You often use the theme of something living behind our eyes. Is that something you actually believe or just a literary device?
No, I actually feel it. It is more than a matter of belief – it just feels that way to me, as if we are inhabited by something that lives with us.
Does that tie in with your interest in shamanism?
I suppose so, in that shamanism is a mode of opening the self, opening the conscience, to forces that we can’t ordinarily perceive in ordinary ways. In my writing I am always trying to be more open to things that don’t come to our minds in ordinary states, and the way I do it is just by tuning in obsessively to ideas that come to me, by working late at night, by staying with things until I am very tired, and until this stiffness of the mind breaks down and loosens up, and thoughts come in that wouldn’t come.
That is a sort of sensory deprivation almost, where you stay until you are tired – ready for writing. Have you looked at the surrealist, automatic writers, that sort of thing?
No, which ones do you mean?
The surrealists believed that – basically they did what you did. They wrote from the subconscious. Artaud is one who wrote then; he founded the Theatre of the Absurd.
Going on from that, do you see yourself as anything more than a storyteller, as a modern shaman? Is that too strong a word?
No, I don;t think that is too strong a word. That is the novelist’s proper function, well as I see it – there are all kinds of novelist, and that is the kind I am. I get into all kinds of strange mental states, and I invite ideas that are not what we ordinarily entertain.
Do you see it as cathartic, for you?
Yes, it is cathartic for me, but I think that it is useful to society in general to have people who do that, because I think that our – what I would call our ‘limited reality consensus’, what we call our normal idea of reality, isn’t very useful, it isn’t much good. It is like a road map that doesn’t have most of the roads on it.
I wondered how interested you are in telepathy, psychic phenomena, things which we are taught to be very sceptical about?
I have always been interested in that kind of thing since childhood. I remember we had a book in the house called Mental Radio, by a writer who is not normally associated with that kind of thing, Upton Sinclair, and I also remember writing to J.P. Riley of
And does that tie in with Riddley Walker, Pilgermann and The Lion...?
I was going to answer Jachin-Boaz and Boaz-Jachin, just ordinarily.
You talk about ‘doers’, and suggest to Riddley that he should be called Riddley Runner instead of
Well, I didn’t, I called Riddley a ‘happener’ in the book, not a doer, this being an active person. Do I think they control their destiny? I don’t know that I think of anybody controlling his or her destiny. I think more of us living out what is in us to be lived out, living out the action that comes to us, living out the action that enters us.
Which is where Riddley gets caught up, running round.
Yes, he is doing what nations are doing now. They are caught up in this action because it is the sort of action that catches you up.
I wondered if that was why I noticed in the play the mention of Cruise, which I don’t think is in the book, but it became very direct. Was that deliberate, to bring it home?
It was deliberate.
What about the sexual aspect, does that just derive from mythology, which is often fairly free?
Which sexual aspect?
Well, you’ve got Auntie at death being seen in copulation, and in Pilgermann there is a lot of sexual violence.
I think that humankind is tremendously violent, and is obviously much motivated by sex. The idea of death being an experience where you do it with Auntie... I hadn’t ever found that in any mythology; it seemed right to me as being part of the natural cycle, that death is a coupling of the self with that aspect of the Great Mother that swallows you up, uses you and finishes you off.
Do you think Riddley
I think it is a very optimistic book. It has in it the idea that although we are driven by all sorts of demons that make us destroy ourselves, we are equally driven by demons that make us try to understand why we destroy ourselves. So in us there is always a mingling of destructive and creative forces. I don’t think that humankind has ever worked out whether it wants to live or die. It is always assumed that we want to live, but our actions do not bear them out, because what we do with cars on the roads, what we do with drink, what we do with drugs, with cigarettes, what we do with violence everywhere...
It does not look as if we are actually certain which it is we want, and I don’t think that this has ever been recognised. It is always assumed that we really do want to live, and I don’t think we can make that assumption. I think the two urges are always in conflict, and the conflict is still unresolved.
So that is a very important thing that you try to put across in art? You think art is the place to try and show people?
Yes. I think it is not so much a d
You would like to show people the options they have got rather than expect anything – without preaching?
In effect one is showing. What I am simply doing is responding to what I am compelled to respond to. I don’t have any choice in the matter. This is what comes at me and I am not able to do anything but what I’m doing.
Can you tell us how you actually write? You said you stay up late to push a response. Do you push a response along a story line, a theme, or around an object?
Well, I have a very simple discipline. I work seven days a week. I start writing after breakfast, and I work all morning. I have a nap after lunch, then I work in the afternoon, in the late evening and late at night, so on my full strength days it is usual to put in ten hours or so. I simply stay with the thing until it lets go of me. It is as simple as that.
You reject a lot. Do you keep it on file?
I reject a lot, but I keep it around. I use a word processor, so I have it on a disc. But it takes me a long time to get things down on paper the way I want them, and very often I’ll spend a whole day over a paragraph, or a whole page, and then find it’s nothing I can use after all.
I know you edited 500 pages from Riddley.
Well, that was the first two years of it, which I just discarded.
Will you ever... will that end up as part of another book, or is it just by-product?
No, it won’t end up as part of another book.
I must admit that Pilgermann, although I’m in the middle of reading it again, left me very confused.
Which surprises me.
Is Jewish theology important to you? Were you brought up in the faith?
No, I was not brought up as a practising Jew. I stayed home from school on Jewish hol
Did you enjoy the research bit?
I did, yes. Research is always enjoyable, it’s very easy to let research become a stall, and you can put off ever writing the book by just researching and researching.
I wondered if you had ever read Alan Garner, as I spoke to him a couple of years ago, and he basically said he’s got the same writing process as you. he researched Red Shift for five years – which was Roman History in Cheshire – and put off writing for as long as possible, then got down to it for two years.
I have only read The Owl Service, and not Red Shift, and I didn’t research Riddley Walker for five years. I was working on it for five years, and the research on it wasn’t all that much. For Pilgermann I was working for two years, and I don’t remember how much of that time was reading and research.
Would you mind saying something about what Pilgermann means to you, without giving the game away?
It’s funny, you would think somebody would have asked me that before but nobody has, and I haven’t got a prepared statement in my mind.
But you must see it as more than a series of Bosch-like images and things about different theologies?
Yes, it is more than that, but I could not define what it is. You know I always write without a plan, without an outline. When people ask me what I had in mind I am always reminded of an interview somewhere with Buster Keaton, where the interviewer said ‘In such and such a scene’ – whatever it might have been, in this train chase or something like that – ‘was this symbolising the conflict between capitalism and the workers?’ or whatever, some high-flying question. And he said, ‘No, what we do is work out one scene, then work out another scene.’ And that is about what I do. I always go by how it feels and how the thing takes me. I always think of it as flying by the seat of my pants. If it feels right, if it feels as if it’s going right, as if the thing is finding the shape that it wants, and getting itself down on paper the way that it wants, I trust that it means something.
Certainly, looking back, Riddley is about events after ‘the bomb’. It is obviously a lot more than that, but there is nothing that just stands out.
I couldn’t really say there is.
I wondered about the idea of personification in Kleinzeit. Was it just a literary device? I mean, it is very funny, and it is interesting how it makes the characters work against it.
Well, my answer to that is that things are always talking to us in one way or another. A simple example of this is a hard chair with a straight back is saying ‘sit up straight’, and a deeply upholstered easy chair says ‘sink back and relax’; a narrow pavement says ‘you have to walk in single file’, and a broad walk says ‘you can walk side by side’. Everything is talking in one way or another. I always experience the world as being anamistic. Things are speaking personally to me.
Did you write it as humorous? It comes over as incredibly funny.
Oh sure, purposely.
I think you have stopped writing for children?
Well, I haven’t done it for a long time.
Did you enjoy writing for children at the time?
I still do, but I have not had any commercially successful children’s books since some of the very early ones – the Frances books. Now I have done a number of books called Bedtime for Friends, Bread and Jam for Friends, this and that for friends... And those were all done more than twenty years ago.
So things like the crocodile, which I have got, haven’t sold well?
You mean Dinner at Alberta’s? No, they haven’t. The ones that have sold well are of a particular kind. They are always d
A couple of years ago you wrote an article for The Listener, reviewing the TV programme Threads. It is always unfair to quote, but there you said ‘Hell is where we are’. Do you mean that you are living in some kind of hell, or do we create one?
That was a quote from Marlowe. Dr Faustus says ‘Hell is where we are’, and I simply mean – Heaven is where we are too – this is where it is all happening. This is the depth of our despair, and our punishment, right now is the punishment for our sins, and right now is the reward for ever.
So you don’t believe in a personal God? Just this abstract thing?
I believe in the god I think of as ‘it’, this what-ever-it-is that is looking out from the eyeholes in our faces, living in us and making us live out its impulsions.
But there is no give and take, no personal relationship beyond that manipulation?
I don’t know... I always feel that we are going on from what Camus says about life being an absurd game. It is an absurd game, but I seem to remember that he also says that it has its rules and one ought to play it honourably. I feel it is on us to respond to what is moving us, by living out our response. [That’s not very clear!]
You mean living – ‘extremely’ sounds ridiculous... living life to the full, even in despair, that sort of idea?
It is very difficult to say anything which is an absolutely incomparable logical argument, but in the tragedy of Oedipus, when you watch it I think there is always a lift to the spirits, simply because watching it we feel that Oedipus has made his tragedy his. He is not simply a victim, but he has entered fully into the living out of himself which resulted in his being driven out with blood streaming from his eye sockets. He comes out on top of it, he transcends it, because he takes it into himself and makes it his own. So he ends up as being someone whose burial is though of as giving good luck to the place where he is buried.
This is not any kind of big statement. It is what it is. I think big things that we feel are not really clear arguments of any kind, they are just powerful gut feelings.
So you are living your life to the full by writing; you’ve got a compulsion to write?
Yes, that’s right.
Do you draw any more?
No, I don’t. Writing is all I do.
Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment? A continuation of the article in Granta magazine?
I am working on what I hope will be my next novel, called The Medusa Frequency. That is where the conversation will be more obvious.
And is that excerpt the preface? In your article it said ‘the preface’.
No, it is an episode in the thing. It has gone through a number of revisions so it is not as it was in Granta, but it is still a conversation with the Head of Orpheus.
Is there still a narrator in the book?
Yes, there is still a narrator, and [I can’t describe it any more than the rest of my books] this has to be do with the action between men and women more than my other books have done.
In an emotional and sexual way?
Do you think it is important to almost re-invent myth, which is what you do when you take a Greek myth and weave it into a new story?
Yes, I think the myth-making capability is vital to our survival, and I think it has been allowed to atrophy, to shrivel up. I think the mythic way of receiving things is a natural one, that helps us understand the world better, to get a better grip on things than what you would call the rational.
Are you versed in American myth as well, and English myth, or do you just follow whatever you are interested in?
I don’t think there is much myth in America, there is folklore and legend of a kind.
Is that because it is such a young country? What about the Native American Indians?
I used to read Indian references as a child.
Do you read other authors who work with you? What influences you?
No. Most of my reading is either research or light entertainment reading. I don’t read other contemporary novelists.
You read classics?
Classics or classical? Classics is like Greek or Latin.
Modern classics I mean.
Yes. I have read all Dickens’ novels and most of Trollope.
But not writers of this century? You’re not interested in the Americans?
Oh, I’ve read some of Faulkner... Up to what point have I read modern literature? I guess I would draw the line at live authors. I haven’t read many of those. A lot of dead guys, but not too many of the live ones.
So when you use a literary device in your books, you don’t read people like Joyce, and look for literary devices – they come to you spontaneously as you write your books?
As far as I know. I haven’t read Joyce, well I have read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but I never made it with Ulysses. I can’t remember how many pages I read of it, when I was seventeen or eighteen. I can’t think of any writers who influenced me stylistically. I can think of several writers who have shown me standards to work by, so that I can think of the density of Conrad’s writing and the way he used all kinds of baffles and screens to keep you circling around the essence of whatever story he was telling; I think of the vitality in Dickens, just the amount of action in his words. I think of the light and shade and colour in Walter de la Mare, and of the three that I’ve just names I guess that Walter de la Mare is the closest, in that the territory he writes in is pretty much the territory in which I write – that is the shadowy edges of things.
You don’t see other living novelists involved in the same myth-making or storytelling that you are?
You see, I don’t see them.
I mean, you don’t regard them as being.
I have no idea. I’m sure a lot of them are.
You said it was important to carry on myth-making and yet other people who might be doing this, you don’t read?
I am sure there are other people doing it. I just don’t want to know what they are doing, because one way and another they put me off. I am naturally too competitive, and if somebody else is doing something and I know about it, then it is going to bother me too much.
Do you enjoy being almost a cult? You have become almost a bookish man. Picador is quite a trendy literary publisher.
In my experience, if I am a cult, it means that a lot of people know about me but I don’t sell a lot of books.
You would rather be a household name and have more people read your books?
Well, I would rather make a little more money out of it than I do!