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Interview de Robert V.S. Redick aux Utopiales 2009

Par Linaka, le lundi 23 novembre 2009 à 14:19:41

L'interview en anglais

What do you think of the buzz that surrounded the launch of The Red Wolf Conspiracy ?
Well, it was my first buzz, so it was such a new experience for me. It took me a long time to know how much I should participate, and I guess one never completely knows ; it's different with every publisher, every book. I got lots and lots of different advice, and sometimes contradictory advice. And so I was very appreciative of all the efforts that went into it, but also maybe a little lost for a while in terms of, you know : should I be participating or should I be hidden away writing the sequel ?
I guess I also learned that the buzz doesn't make a real difference in the end, because the readers decide for themselves, and with the internet now they talk among themselves. And I'm glad of that, it's a bit more democratic than, maybe, in the days when the New York Times could decide what books the public would hear about.
Do you like the French edition ; what do you think of it ?
I love it ; I read French only slowly, so I haven't read it yet, but I love the aesthetics of the book. I think that Jean-Sébastien Rossbach captured my vision of Captain Rose as well as I could hope for. You know the picture : that's really Rose. Maybe it has a quality that is a little more Gallic than I imagined, but it's just great, and I think it's very creative. I also love that it's neither completely abstract, nor completely specific, it's in-between. There's room for the imagination.
We're making this interview in English, but I know you spoke French before ! Why didn't you keep up with your French ?
Well, to make a long story short, I switched first to Russian. French was just a high school subject, and I switched to Russian because I fell in love with Dostoevsky, and I wanted to read Dostoevsky in the original - but I never got that good. Then, my girlfriend at the time went to school for a year in Germany, which is the only reason I ended up coming to Europe. I wanted to go to - well, eventually to Russia, and I also wanted to go to South America - but I hadn't imagined spending time in Europe. I was following her, and that's how I ended up for one semester in England. So the only other visit to France in my life came after that semester, twenty years ago, when I worked in Provence on a peach farm. But I didn't get to practice my French very much : all the workers were from Morocco and Tunisia and Spain.
I read in your biography that you were involved in a few humanitarian organizations, anti-poverty, human rights, and so on. Do you think these activities had a serious impact on your writing ?
They did. Those activities were part of a larger trajectory in my life during those years. I went to graduate school in a program called Tropical Conservation and Development at the University of Florida. It was a program that immersed me in Latin American studies for about four years of my life, and came with a scholarship for research in Argentina, where I went in 1992 and 1993. So, the first of those organizations actually came a bit later when I joined my fiancé in Colombia. She was doing her Ph.D. research, and I worked with a human rights foundation there.
Both the work and the research, and the deep friendships we made (we have godchildren from Colombia and so on) all changed my writing and changed my way of seeing the world. I try to not have a sort of divided self. I try to be honest about what I do know and what I don't know, and not assume any divine authorial access to wisdom. I'm searching as a human being and as a writer. As my understanding of the world changed, it was reflected in my work. And certainly I hope that the humanitarian work has given me some opportunities to be maybe a little less ethnocentric than I might have been, and a little less hubristic than I think Americans sometimes are guilty of. I have certainly some of that inheritance myself. You know, there's a lot of need in the world, and I want to try to be opened to it.
Why did you choose teenagers as main characters ?
Why ? is always a very hard question for me, because I usually have multiple answers. But I've thought about this one. Sixteen is an age that fascinates me. I think in my imagination, at least maybe in my memory, it's a time when you have truly ceased to be a child, but have not yet made the transition to being an adult. You don't have a stable identity as one or the other, and it makes for a very open moment – sort of a hinge moment between one state of being and another. And of course it's not the same for everyone, but I think it's a common age to be in that state.
In some ways I feel like I recognize myself more in a sixteen-year-old than in another age. Even before I was sixteen, I felt like I was, and I think part of me just stopped there, and froze into a sort of wonder about the world that crystallized at that age. It's an imaginative crossroads in my life. I like the way of seeing I had at sixteen. And the possibilities of that age continue to fascinate me.
When I read your biography, I thought I might discover that you have been living close to the ocean when you were a child, or that at least you had close connections with the world of the ships and the sea. But it looks like you grew up in Iowa ! Could you explain to me why the ocean took such an important place in your imaginary ?
I really don't know – that's the truth, it is strange, because I was as far as you can get from the ocean in North America. But maybe that's part of the reason in itself. Because it was so far away, and I saw it so rarely, it could take on a sort of magical, mythic quality. And of course there's a certain inherent romance to the sea.
I love stories of great journeys and voyages. And on the scale of our own world, it was perhaps the largest step you could take before the Modern Age : the transoceanic experience. The fascination and the notion of stepping away from the world you know and only having the vaguest idea of what lay beyond. I think of that iconic moment when Balboa first glimpses the Pacific : those instants of absolute, awe-inspiring wonder are often associated with the sea. Somehow they became that way for me.
I guess the red cat, Sniraga, in Red Wolf, was inspired by your own experience with your cats Maya and Blue...
I don't think so. They’re a lot more tame than Sniraga, and smaller ! I was raised actually a dog-person ; we had an anti-cat bias in the house. But with my partner came a cat, and she never let me forget that that cat was in her life one month before I was ! (laughs) So I've become a cat-person, even if I'm still a little bit afraid of them.
Are the other characters also inspired by real people around you ? Do you put a lot of your everyday environment in your novels ?
Inspiration comes from many sources – and certainly from my everyday life, but in those cases it’s transformed in so many ways that to try to trace it back and explain is a futile effort. It's like an image that's been transformed by camera tricks so many times that only the person who made the changes could trace them.
But there are a few exceptions. Captain Rose is one. His physical form came to me from an actual professor of mine, who was perhaps the world expert on carnivorous mammals. He was an old drunk mammalogist, and he had a huge frame, a big woolly beard, and a limp and a scar on his face, and he looked like a pirate captain. A big rumbling voice, extremely gruff. He would come to class drunk, he would give the same lecture two days in a row because he wouldn't remember the day before. By one standard he was completely unfit a teacher and by another he was the world expert – which was the only reason he got away with it all.
So Rose has some connections to that sort of personality : he's impossible, he's something of a rogue and a villain, and he's also the best at what he does, and people need him. But usually it's not that straightforward.
The fantasy reader is familiar with a lot of things in your novel : the wizard – Ramachni, the Lilliputians – Ixchel, the mermaids – murths... But all of them are very original though, thanks to the way you exploit them. Are you aware of this new challenge fantasy must rise to – keep the fantasy elements but avoid the old clichés ?
Yeah, I'm aware of it, I feel it deeply. Honestly I don’t think I've avoided every cliché ; some do lurk and skulk around my book. As Ursula K. le Guin said, every book is its own kind of failure. Whatever the verdict of the world, the author always knows its limitations, deep down inside. And clichés can enter in so many forms : there can be clichés of language, of relations between characters, relations of gender. And of course, of societal organization, if you take a European medieval/feudal structure and drop it onto the page without much consideration or thought ... Then there are the desperate clichés of Tolkienesque dwarves and elves we see again and again...
I worked hard to avoid those dangers. This world of Alifros grew and gestated very slowly. Years ago, when I first started given it shape, I had to face an early temptation to use something like dwarves or elves myself. I wanted to, because there is a certain deep love and response in me as a reader to these things. But I knew very quickly that I could not, and had to rise to the challenge of looking for other humanoid species that fit my world, that would become as alive as human beings and as some of these others archetypal inventions – but that were my own creation. It took a “very” long time, but there's no real way around it unless you just want to recycle the familiar.
You describe Conquistadors, your mainstream novel, as following « the loves, obsessions and transformations in four people caught up in the Dirty War of late-1970s Argentina ». The characters in Red Wolf could also correspond to this depiction – caught in a different war. Are you particularly interested in this kind of context ?
I suppose I am. But the interest has taken me somewhat by surprise. Argentina was an accident in my life, and so was doing research that required me to learn so much about the dictadura, the dictatorship, the pain of that time. And with the Red Wolf Conspiracy, the tragedy and crime that was the invasion of Iraq happened just as I began to write. If any of this had changed, perhaps my own need to talk about war would have been reduced.
I always have an intimate relationship with the books I'm writing, I don't think I'm capable, emotionally, of choosing a project that I’m personally indifferent to. It has to be part of some deep excavation for me on an emotional level. So my concerns about war and what's being done to our own world simply declare that they're going to be in my books, whether I want them to or not. The Red Wolf Conspiracy, before it had a title, before it had a definite shape, I did not intend to write a story of war. But the war erupted, and it was started by my country in the worst of circumstances, and I found I had to write about it.
The Rats and the Ruling Sea is freshly out – have you already had reactions to it ? Can we expect a translation into French next year ?
I talked to the translator, Michel Pagel ; he says he hopes to turn it in March, so that should get it on the shelves by late 2010 or early 2011. And I've had some reactions and reviews, and they've all been positive, so I'm pretty encouraged.
How is the third book doing ?
It's coming along. Book II ends with a cataclysm - with a kind of political atom bomb. Everything that we think we know and the situations of all the characters’ lives get radically shaken and changed at the end of Book II. And that set up a very great challenge for the writing of book three. I'm finding my way. Like the characters themselves, I've found the ground pulled out from under my feet, and I'm struggling forward. I’m sure it’s an appropriate struggle, but it's hard !
And to finish : any plans yet for a fourth book ?
Well, in fact yes, it's definitely going to be a quartet, a tetralogy. And it will end with the fourth book. That’s a guarantee. I have other stories to tell after this one ! At first I wanted to write a trilogy, but the story grew too large for three books. But I do have the whole story planned out : the ultimate fate of the Chathrand, the fates of Pazel and Thasha, Felthrup and Captain Rose, Diadrelu and all of them. And as I get closer to the end, four feel more and more like the perfect number.
The third book is called The River of Shadows, and the last will be called The Night of the Swarm. And they're on their way.
  1. L'interview en français
  2. L'interview en anglais

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