Interview with Gordon W. Dale about his novel, Fool’s Republic.
A sense of outrage, really. I started working on the manuscript in 2007 after I had moved to the United States from Canada, and when the details about secret CIA prisons started to become known. Probably they’d been reported on earlier, but that was when they first caught my attention in a vivid way. I started thinking about what it meant to live in a society where individuality is celebrated as an ideal but conformity is the rule, and the concept of liberty is bound up with a perverse amalgam of God, democracy, and free markets. I began to imagine this character, Simon Wyley, who has spent his life passively resisting authority and now finds himself in a situation where passive resistance is no longer tenable.
What is the greatest influence on your writing?
I hope this doesn’t sound corny, but the greatest influence on my work is my wife. She’s my first and best reader, and the wisest person I know. If I’m not happy with a piece of writing , I’ll ask her to look it over and she’ll immediately put her finger on the very issue that’s troubling me, the passage that doesn’t ring true. She’s able to identify the underlying problem and describe it clearly and cogently. That’s a rare gift.
Is there a book that changed your life? What books have made a major impact in your life and writing?
I’ve read widely since I was a boy—not always well, I fear, but widely, so it’s difficult to point to any particular book or books that have made special impact. But I suppose, when it comes to fiction, I’m most drawn to novels, whether character or plot driven, that turn on ideas. Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, for example, which explores the life of the spirit versus that of the senses, is a book I’ve reread countless times. Narcissus and Goldmund is considered a literary novel, but genre doesn’t really matter. Ross McDonald, who wrote the Lew Archer detective series, used his books to explore the idea of family in a very profound and nuanced way. We had a well-thumbed copy of The Chill at our family’s summer cottage and I reread it every year.
Who are some writers whose work you admire?
Philip Roth, because I read him early, and he’s had a long career of putting out first-rate books. Hermann Hesse, particularly for Narcissus and Goldmund. Truman Capote, who was a great stylist in both fiction and nonfiction. Timothy Findley, a fabulous Canadian writer whose Famous Last Words is one of my favorite novels. And John Banville, a contemporary British writer. For historical nonfiction, which I enjoy, you can’t do much better than Antony Beevor, particularly The Fall of Berlin 1945.
My mother was mad about books, which were considered holy things in our home. They filled every nook and cranny and were stacked precariously on every flat surface. My father was always building more bookshelves, which were soon at capacity, the texts overflowing like lava onto the floor. Everywhere you looked there were books. So I guess you could say I was born to it.
What is the one thing that you want readers to take away from your book?
That resistance to oppression, in any form, is noble and necessary.
How do you write? Do you have a daily routine? What’s good about it? What do you hate about it?
I don’t have a daily routine; I write rather haphazardly. I have a notebook in which I capture thoughts, snatches of dialogue, descriptions of scenes, the way a visual artist might sketch out preliminary lines on a canvas to be fleshed out later. When I get down to work however, I tend to focus for long stretches at a time, neglecting other aspects of my life. And I rewrite compulsively. Writing is hard work that requires considerable concentration and effort. It’s not a job I recommend.
How did you find the publisher for this book? What has your experience with the process been like?
I approached Richard Grossinger, Publisher of North Atlantic Books, with Fool’s Republic because I was looking for someone who would support what I was trying to do with the book. Fortunately, he got it immediately. I’ve made the inevitable adjustments based on the editorial process but the book remains true to my original vision, and I’m thankful for that.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a novel about memory. There’s a line of Joseph Brodsky’s I like: People are what we remember of them. In the book I’m writing now, the main character is trying to discover the truth about his mother, who abandoned him and his family during their return trip from Africa to Canada when he was 12. It’s an exploration of how we create our own history and the histories of those around us through a delusive synthesis of myth and memory, and of how, when we die, those histories pass into the hands of others, to be written and rewritten anew.
What have you learned about human nature that isn’t common knowledge?
I know less about human nature than I do about what’s common knowledge, but one thing I’ve learned is that unpredictability is a deep and fundamental aspect of the human psyche. People simply do the damnedest things. We spend a lot of our lives trying to figure people out, and a number of professionals, some novelists included, earn their livelihoods by claiming to do so, but it’s a sucker’s game. People are little infernos of conflicting emotions; you never really know what they’re capable of, given the right combination of circumstances. That’s why we love stories about people’s secret lives, about the mild-mannered accountant who’s a CIA assassin on the side, or the heavyweight boxer who spends his weekends knitting baby cardigans. We know instinctively that people are complex and unpredictable, but still we have this need to predict what they will do next. Hence literary critics write things such as: that particular behavior didn’t ring true for me. Such and such a character would never do that. Nonsense. People behave in unexpected ways all the time. That’s why we’re so interested in them. The Iliad opens with Achilles, the greatest warrior of his time, sulking. Not hacking and hewing and stabbing, as one might reasonably expect, but sulking. That’s what makes a great story great.