Is it true that this novel was twenty-five years in the making?
Twenty-three actually. The first part I can remember writing can be dated to early fall 1981: the story of a boy taking his mother rowing on a lake in the highlands of Scotland. The boy, as far as I remember, had no name. The sequel to the rowing in the present book is the same boy taking (and putting back the next day) a Golden Eagle’s egg from its nest on a cliff above the lake, which was not written till 1991 at the earliest; by then he was called MacIver. So it was all a slow evolution and a complex series of layers and accretions. There was no particular agitation, or even urgency, about the slow rate of progress. I was heavily engaged elsewhere at the time, studying the writings of the ancient historians or being a college dean or president, and I looked at these escapes into my imagination as a relief and relaxation from sometimes more stressful preoccupations. In the end, there was a chest filled with pages to draw on. And when you are two-thirds of a century old, it is borne in on you that this may be the last chance to complete what you most wanted to do.
You mentioned your work on the ancient historians. What influence have the classics generally had on your writing?
A strong influence, beginning with my efforts to master two precise languages, Latin and Greek. In these heavily inflected languages, (i.e. they have many cases, extra tenses, moods etc) the form of words is altered to convey exactly the function that the word plays in the particular sentence, and one’s attention to each word, to its ending, to the rhythmic contribution it makes in its context, is a very good spur to paying attention to one’s own language. In England, we were schooled from an early age in trying to write in both languages in prose and poetry, and it was useful. There is no doubt that an only averagely educated citizen of antiquity would have a more nuanced eye and ear for how language behaves than his modern counterpart.
When it comes to literature, the biggest influence on me is probably the historian Thucydides; I first read a chunk of him in Greek for my English A levels (roughly equivalent to American Advanced Placement exams). The passage we were responsible for was book II of the Peloponnesian War, and included the startlingly juxtaposed Funeral Oration and Plague — the glory of Athens and instant decay, high-flying rhetoric and depressing fact. I was at once fascinated and troubled by it and still am. Since then other works have exerted their magic on me, perhaps Homer and Herodotus most of all.
Could you talk about your experience as a university professor?
It’s a great profession, especially if and when you get past the impulse to perform in class. It took me a while: for quite a few years, I was more preoccupied with enjoying myself and putting on a show, rather than in having the students actually learn anything. On a good day, I could be moderately funny. Later, when life had sobered me up a bit, I became quite absorbed by the students’ progress in learning, spending more time on their written work and enjoying it. It is a wonderful thing to be able to see a young person’s mind wake up to an idea and run with it, and to attend with close concentration to the words on a page and make them deliver an unseen secret. With that kind of engagement, the students often teach the teacher, and that is the highest reward you can be given. MacIver certainly knew all this.
How similar is MacIver’s life and personality to your own?
There was originally a chronology attached to the book (we scrapped it because it voided suspense), and I noticed that I gave MacIver my own birthday. But that may be as far as it goes. He is larger than life and lacks caution, cutting swathes through situations, too dangerous to be trusted with the management of any complex mechanism or institution. I’m not sure I would want to associate with him on a daily basis–he is a little too large for the room he fills. I think he is a noble old warrior, though, and I admire him in his honesty, his absence of self-pity, the immediate passion with which he gives himself to experience. It would be a mistake to equate his bluntness with any kind of dullness of mind or spirit.
There is much emphasis on MacIver’s Scottishness, though he seems to have spent at least half his life in America. What about his Americanness?
Good question. He is an American as well. There is no trace of old-country stuffiness about him; he belongs in a large landscape. He is entirely democratic about the people he’s interested in–Ben Winterbourne, the gas attack victim; Bonnie, the check-out girl. Of course, he’s also a ham, and likes to summon the skirr of the bagpipes with his accent at strategic social moments. But there was no question of his ever dying anywhere but in his auld American wooden house, in the auldest part of America.
Is MacIver’s wife, Margaret, too good for him?
Of course, she is and he knows it, and knows that if he ever attained the state of grace it was through her gentleness. But she also loves him — for his honesty and the fact that he is big-hearted as well as large-framed, and that he is capable of quite delicate insight. And also, interestingly, she likes his anger, when it is righteous indignation.
Why does MacIver choose to tell a story for his work?
I think he’s weary of himself. The internal turmoil of grief and dislocation after Margaret’s death allows him no respite from which to make sense of his predicament. The story moves his reflections to neutral ground, as it were, pulls him outside himself, interests him in a larger world once more, and thus indirectly, by the inferences he draws, gives him an avenue back to self-knowledge. It was a smart move, I think
Rules for Old Men Waiting deals largely with wars of the twentieth century. What is your first memory of war?
I have written in a memoir that I’m working on, called The Broken Times, about coming to myself near the pleasantly peaceful city of Victoria, British Columbia, on the southern point of Vancouver Island. We had washed up there, looking across the water at Mount Baker, at the outbreak of World War II, and were there through the war. It was fine for us children, but a desperately anxious time for our mother: “Bereft of her husband incommunicado with Chiang Kai-shek’s government in the far west of China, of her father and brother in a Japanese interment camp near Shanghai, and of her own mother in the blitz in London, my mother listened in the kitchen to the BBC news, hearing the Axis extending its reach through the world on an ever-widening front. We three children listened with her in silence, sensing her fear, and fearing it.”
How do the wars of the twentieth century relate to our times?
There is no question that the follies of 20th century are the same as our own. The scale of consequences rises: recently we celebrated 150 years since the Charge of the Light Brigade. On that day English cavalry charged the Turkish artillery batteries in the Crimea, and only 195 out of 600 returned. On the first of July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, there were 67,000 British casualties before lunch — waves of perhaps the finest volunteer force ever assembled sent as infantry across level ground into the teeth of modern machine guns, some of whose barrels became red-hot with the ceaseless slaughter they were dishing out. The pattern is in fact invariably the same: the generals and politicians almost never know what they are sending their men into. It was the same with Athens, in the middle of the war that would destroy her: she decides in 415 BCE to send another expedition to conquer Sicily. An army of 40,000 prime troops and a fleet of 200 ships were comprehensively destroyed. Jingoistic slogans seem almost always to win out over considered thought.
Why does MacIver choose to die alone?
Here we are on delicate ground. Many animals, including beloved family dogs, feel they want to go through their last ordeal by themselves, and withdraw. But that is slightly different. I feel that MacIver is one of those people who know that, for all their public strutting and fretting, their real self lies deep within. It’s nothing to do with the subconscious, or anything like that; in fact, it is the part of them that thinks and feels most clearly, most quietly, most deeply. It never lies, so it is the source of their integrity. They are most themselves when they are in touch with that inner core. So those who know and love such people recognize the need they have, and leave them time and space to retire to their private place. I imagine Margaret often let her husband slip away to his. The Roman philosopher Seneca has a line: Whenever I go abroad among men, I return home less a man. MacIver and I may be alike on this: we both feel we do best when we keep to our private cells. At the end, of course, he had outlived closeness with all those he had cared for, so his choice to die alone has a kind of necessity about it.
Ultimately, do you think that your book is depressing?
Not at all, for two reasons. The first is that early in the book MacIver, after all sorts of shakiness, takes hold of his life again, and keeps hold of it, with mental and spiritual vigor and bite, to the very end. We would all want that to be the way we go; MacIver is very fortunate in his ending. The second reason is the matter of a love that was almost lost but is found again: the arc, as it were, of love restored to confidence and ease, from doubt and an impossible loss, emerges ascendant on the far side of the sinking war narrative, and rescues the whole from darkness, I believe.
How does it feel to be on the threshold of finally publishing your novel at the age of 67?
It feels pretty good at this point. But just as you don’t count pages, you don’t count years either. The fact is I want to complete three more books–another novel, a memoir, and a translation of Lucretius–and I hope I shall drive them to conclusion on a rising trajectory of strong writing. There is a pleasant sense of urgency nudging me on, and clearly time is a factor. But I’ll take whatever I’m given with relatively good grace–at least for me.