Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Conversations With: Martin Roper

This week I'm happy to have an interview with Martin Roper, author of the novel Gone. Martin recieved his MFA from the University of Iowa, and presently teaches at NYU, and also the Irish Writing Workshop at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, which is where I first crossed paths with him almost six years ago now.

Q: What do you make of all the fuss lately about the scandal involving James Frey, or JT Leroy? At what point do you draw the line between fiction and fact in a piece? When is creative non-fiction just fiction? Is there a line?

A: There is a simple difference between fiction and nonfiction and it’s fairly clear. When you write nonfiction there is a tacit agreement between writer and reader that the truth is being told. It’s that simple. There are facts to be told. (How those facts are told is the creative part of what we’ve come to term “creative nonfiction”) This is why we write and read nonfiction, for the thrill of the known. Fiction is invented and we read it for the thrill of the unknown. That sounds like a bit of a trite aphorism but I do think that’s the gist of the difference. Fiction allows us to get to truths that are impossible to get to in nonfiction, to imagine the other more fully. As for the line between fiction and nonfiction, any normal, non-psychotic person knows what this is, the differences between facts, opinions, and fantasies.

Q: What boundaries remain in writing today? Have all the forms been played out? Has the culture immunized all things taboo?

A: Yes, I think all forms have been explored, and they have been explored for a very long time now. Between James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, I think prose writing had been well and truly stretched to its limits. I’ve just been re-reading Ulysses and the enormity of what he did has struck me anew. I’ve been reading Ulysses for twenty five years and it’s still an astonishing experience. I’ve also, for the first time in my life, been seriously trying to read Finnegans Wake. I’m inclined to agree with his brother, Stanilaus, that it is a “rout of drunken words”. Still, it’s fun to be trying to read it. It’s like picking up the entire language (rather, languages), firing it all into the air and seeing what happens. It has the effect of reminding me that I should strive to be a little more limber. There is one thing that Joyce says about language when he is explaining Finnegans Wake : “One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.” I love that comment. I think Joyce would have made a great movie director. However, at the end of the day all that’s left is story, and that is all that matters.

As for the second part of that question. Do you mean has American television culture immunized all things taboo? I’m not being glib. I think often when we talk about culture in a very general way, we are in fact talking about what is being filtered through American television stations. To do that, is to greatly underestimate America. I recently went to a showing of Van Gogh’s drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and it was almost impossible to see the drawings, there were so many people in line. That’s part of America. I’ve recently started watching television. I used not have a television and I am freshly aware of its effect. It has an enormous effect on the human being in so many ways I hardly know where to start. You might think Americans are a profoundly stupid people. They are not. The news shows are insulting to our intelligence. They are both unethical and immoral. They are damaging the fibre of society as much by what they decide not to talk about as what they do talk about. I think television does a marvelous job of constantly reinventing and reinvigorating taboos. I’m waffling here. There are no taboos in books today because books do not have the collective power on the whole culture, books have an effect on the individual and the individual rarely changes society. I am not being pessimistic here, simply honest about my perception. I could go on and on about this but I’ll stop now.

Q: You live in both Ireland and America; do you find yourself writing about one more than the other?

A: I live here (in New York) ten months of the year and the other two months in Dublin so I live far more here than there. I am writing exclusively about America, about characters in this country. America fascinates me. In fact, it’s inaccurate for me to say America, even to say New York. I live in Brooklyn. Even that is inaccurate. I live in a tiny section of Brooklyn. I sit at a desk in an apartment slightly below ground level. When I look up from my desk, I see feet pass by. We all live in villages. At the end of the day, our view is probably a lot smaller that we imagine, especially the view of those of us living in big cities.

Q: There's been some criticism lately over the idea of MFA's being factories; as a graduate of one of these programs, and as a teacher, what's your take on it?

A: I suppose there has always been criticism of MFA programs and I imagine some of it may be justified. As a graduate student at the University of Iowa I had a wonderful time. I think the years I spent in school there are the happiest memories I have. I was extremely lucky. I had always wanted to go to university and I never had, so when I got the chance to do a Masters at Iowa it was heaven to me. I can think of nothing better to do in life than to read books and write and listen to intelligent professors talk about the art of writing. I didn’t want to leave university. I wish I was there right now.

For years I’ve heard people say universities are factories. Only people who never set foot inside a factory would make the comparison. I worked in a factory for two years when I left school. It was the worst time of my life. There is nothing, absolutely nothing harder in life than the brutality of factory life. It’s tremendously insulting to the dignity of the person who works in a factory to compare their day to the tremendous luxury that is the life of the average student or teacher.

Teaching is a noble calling. Universities are a little hampered by consumerism. We buy our education here in America. That is unfortunate. Despite that, a university education is a tremendous gift. Some students could take it all a little more seriously; teachers too. There is one particular challenge when it comes to the MFA in writing. The art of teaching writing is a somewhat elusive skill. Many writers are not very good teachers. There are lots of sound reasons for their inability. The art of teaching writing demands two very different skills (at least): one is the ability to teach the nuts and bolts of writing. The other is the ability to take the considerable imaginative leap into the mind of the student, the ability to understand what the student does and does not know. This last skill takes tremendous effort and intelligence. Few are capable of it, even fewer can be bothered to even try. I’ll stop on that cheerful note.

My thanks to Martin for his time and answers.

1 comment:

Fish Monkey said...

Great interview! Very interesting thoughts re: universities being hampered by consumerism. There's this almost tangible attitude of some students that they are the customers, so professors better give them what they want. I cannot help but think of Robert Pirsig's comparison between teachers and clergy: sure, you pay our salaries, but we don't work for you. We work for our ideal.

Anyway. Great stuff! Thanks to both of you.