Leon Rooke has been called "a national treasure" by the Globe and Mail with good reason — his contributions to CanLit over an astounding 50 years of work have been hugely influential. And he's not slowing down anytime soon. His most recent book is Swinging Through Dixie (Biblioasis), is a formally interesting combination of two novellas and three short stories. United by place and atmosphere, the pieces have drawn comparisons to the likes of Jose Saramago or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
We're pleased to welcome Leon to the site today to talk about the men, women, and children who populate the pages of Swinging Through Dixie, as part of our ongoing In Character series.
He tells us about how to change one's name in Texas, the value of eavesdropping in public places, and what it is like to relate to the characters in his nearly 350 (!!!) short stories to date.
Tell us about the main character in your new book.
With two novellas and three short stories in Swinging Through Dixie we have lots of main characters. Both novellas, one set in Dixie, the other in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, delineate a vast assortment of local inhabitants. Central to Dixie is a married pair of pool sharks and their young son, who may or may not be — but probably is — the author; Trading With Mexico portrays a Zapatista hamlet, with most of the action revolving around a disturbed mother, her perfect daughter, and the daughter’s love for a boy found tied to a tree when his village was destroyed by government marauders.
Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?
I would distrust almost any work of fiction in which the characters did not take on a “life of their own.” That the writer, thereby, loses control is a misconception fostered, I suspect, by writers who do not that much enjoy what it is they do.
How do you choose names for your characters?
One of the stories in this book, set in Texas, is called “Sara Mago et al.” In Texas, for $29.95 and postage, one may change one’s name. Sara Mago, a waitress in a bleak dining establishment miles from any place, has done that. Does she love the great Portuguese author Saramago so much? It seems so. It’s rare that we think the names our friends have are the wrong names for who they are. Character names should work a bit like that.
What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?
I began writing in my teens, and to learn how people talk I installed myself in public establishments where I could overhear them. And of course I read widely, taking note of how writers did it. A good exercise for beginning writers is to compose page after page of dialogue, scrapping the she said/he said, while at the same time incorporating a narrative — telling a story — in naught but speech. Look upon pure dialogue as yet another way to reveal character and advance the story.
Do you have anything in common with your main character? What parts of yourself do you see in him or her, and what is particularly different?
I’ve published a batch of novels and nearly 350 short stories, and a good many characters in these works are not people I’d want over for dinner. The majority, however, are fine, loving, highly-motivated people only a teensy bit screwed up. Funny thing is, with Swinging Through Dixie — which has a large cast — I feel a strong commonality with practically everyone in the book.
Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader?
Peculiarly enough, it’s often a book’s distinctly minor figure that hangs most powerfully in my memory: someone like the little guy, with scissors, always snip-snipping the grass, — Ibraham, I think, is his name — in Paul Scott’s great Staying On. Or take a devastating short story of Leonard Michaels, “Manikin,” about rape and suicide, which opens with the line “At the university she met a Turk…” and closes with the author ushering in a character, Wanda Chung, by name, who previously did not exist in the story. Or Flem, in Faulkner’s novel The Hamlet, forced into a secondary role by the brilliant “characterization” of his string of incredibly wild ponies being sold at auction.
What are you working on now?
A long piece, novel or novella, called Keeper of the Tides.
Leon Rooke is a novelist, short story writer, playwright, editor, and critic. He was born in rural North Carolina, but has been a resident of Canada for many years. Over the course of his career, Leon Rooke has been writer-in-residence at numerous North American universities, including the University of Victoria, Southwest Minnesota State University, and the University of Toronto. Rooke is also the recipient of numerous awards and honours, including the Canada-Australia Literary Prize (1981), the Governor General’s Literary Award for Shakespeare´s Dog (1985), and the North Carolina Award for Literature (1990).
Grace O'Connell is the Contributing Editor for Open Book: Toronto and the author of Magnified World (Random House Canada). She also writes a book column for This Magazine.
For more information about Magnified World please visit the Random House Canada website.