Trevor Corkum interviews Rachel Cusk about her Giller Prize-nominated novel, Outline.
Welcome to the final post of our 2015 Giller Prize spotlight. It was a pleasure interviewing Anakana Schofield,André Alexis,Heather O'Neill, and Samuel Archibald and now I'm pleased to present my chat with Rachel Cusk. Rachel is nominated for her book Outline (HarperCollins Canada), "a novel in ten conversations ... [that] follows a novelist teaching a course in creative writing during one oppressively hot summer in Athens."
From the New York Times review of Outline:
"By freeing the narrator of a body, the novel allows readers to accept a more complex portrait of a person — a self instead of a set of gender stereotypes. The result is a heartbreaking portrait of poise, sympathy, regret and rage, and with this book, Cusk suggests a powerful alternate route for the autobiographical novel."
Thank you again to Publishing@SFU for sponsoring this special Giller Prize installment of The Chat.
THE CHAT, WITH RACHEL CUSK
What did you immediately do when you found out you’d made it onto this year’s Giller shortlist?
I’m not sure I remember exactly what I did, but I was delighted.
How was Outline born?
The novel came out of a long period of thought ignited by a short period of experience. I wanted to find a new form for my writing, and I eventually found it through the shape certain realities took.
What’s a question no one has asked about your book yet, that you wish they would ask?
I’ve been asked so many questions about this novel I don’t think I’d presume to beg another! But more generally I think it might be interesting if writers were asked whether they ever read their past work, and what emotions it causes them to do so.
Your protagonist is a British writer teaching a summer writing course in Greece. Imagine you’re spending a day with her. Where does she take you? What do you talk or argue about? What’s the one thing you learn from her?
The narrative space in Outline is deliberately extremely restricted: other people fill the emptiness of the narrator with narratives of their own. So while the whole substance of the novel is to be found in what it’s "like" to be with her, she herself remains indistinct. But I tend not to view my characters literally; my creative process doesn’t work quite like that. I operate much more out of a sense of shared being. And in the case of Outline I found it hard even to ascribe a name to my narrator, let alone imagine social encounters with her!
As for the stories, he still likes them, still picks them up and reads them now and then. They get reproduced every so often in anthologies; a little while ago his agent sold the rights to a publishing house in Albania. But in a way it’s like looking at old photographs of yourself. There comes a point at which the record needs to be updated, because you’ve shed too many links with what you were. He doesn’t quite know how it happened; all he knows is that he doesn’t recognize himself in those stories anymore, though he remembers the bursting feeling of writing them, something in himself massing and pushing irresistibly to be born. He hasn’t had that feeling since; he almost thinks that to remain a writer he’d have to become one all over again, when he might just as easily become an astronaut, or a farmer. It’s as if he can’t quite remember what drove him into words in the first place, all those years before, yet words are what he still deals in. I suppose it’s a bit like marriage, he said. You build a whole structure on a period of intensity that’s never repeated. It’s the basis of your faith and sometimes you doubt it, but you never renounce it, because too much of your life stands on that ground.
What was going on for you when you wrote this? What do you think this reveals about the novel at large?
Very often in writing a novel one can end up confined in one’s own structure, rather like being stuck on a train and looking out through the windows: it can feel as though you’re passing through landscapes of life rather than penetrating them. With Outline I really wanted to be able to dwell in areas that were more nuanced and intangible, more meditative and less psychologically driven by "plot"; even to be able to dwell on the process of writing itself. And I found, too, that a far less black and white conception of character came out of this plotlessness, the notion of shared being that I mentioned earlier. I suppose I was looking for a level of life where unity might be found, where I (or the reader) could find myself in others. So the character’s remarks about writing, though not personal to me, share an interiority with me.
I really wanted to be able to dwell in areas that were more nuanced and intangible, more meditative and less psychologically driven by "plot."
Compulsively readable and dazzlingly intelligent, Rachel Cusk’s Outline follows a writer’s journey to Athens to teach a summer writing course. Along the way she encounters a cast of characters who share with her the outlines of their own life stories. The result is a novel of breathtaking skill and originality. Perfectly paced, without a word out of place, Outline reminds us of the truly formidable power that good literature has to change our hearts and our minds.
1 Before the flight I was invited for lunch at a London club with a billionaire I’d been promised had liberal credentials. He talked in his open-necked shirt about the new software he was developing, that could help organisations identify the employees most likely to rob and betray them in the future. We were meant to be discussing a literary magazine he was thinking of starting up: unfortunately I had to leave before we arrived at that subject. He insisted on paying for a taxi to the airport, which was useful since I was late and had a heavy suitcase.
The billionaire had been keen to give me the outline of his life story, which had begun unprepossessingly and ended – obviously – with him being the relaxed, well-heeled man who sat across the table from me today. I wondered whether in fact what he wanted now was to be a writer, with the literary magazine as his entrée. A lot of people want to be writers: there was no reason to think you couldn’t buy your way into it. This man had bought himself in, and out, of a great many things. He mentioned a scheme he was working on, to eradicate lawyers from people’s personal lives. He was also developing a blueprint for a floating wind farm big enough to accommodate the entire community of people needed to service and run it: the gigantic platform could be located far out to sea, thus removing the unsightly turbines from the stretch of coast where he was hoping to pilot the proposal and where, incidentally, he owned a house. On Sundays he played drums in a rock band, just for fun. He was expecting his eleventh child, which wasn’t as bad as it sounded when you considered that he and his wife had once adopted quadruplets from Guatemala. I was finding it difficult to assimilate everything I was being told. The waitresses kept bringing more things, oysters, relishes, special wines. He was easily distracted, like a child with too many Christmas presents. But when he put me in the taxi he said, enjoy yourself in Athens, though I didn’t remember telling him that was where I was going.
He was expecting his eleventh child, which wasn’t as bad as it sounded when you considered that he and his wife had once adopted quadruplets from Guatemala.
On the tarmac at Heathrow the planeful of people waited silently to be taken into the air. The air hostess stood in the aisle and mimed with her props as the recording played. We were strapped into our seats, a field of strangers, in a silence like the silence of a congregation while the liturgy is read. She showed us the life jacket with its little pipe, the emergency exits, the oxygen mask dangling from a length of clear tubing. She led us through the possibility of death and disaster, as the priest leads the congregation through the details of purgatory and hell; and no one jumped up to escape while there was still time. Instead we listened or half-listened, thinking about other things, as though some special hardness had been bestowed on us by this coupling of formality with doom. When the recorded voice came to the part about the oxygen masks, the hush remained unbroken: no one protested, or spoke up to disagree with this commandment that one should take care of others only after taking care of oneself. Yet I wasn’t sure it was altogether true.
On one side of me sat a swarthy boy with lolling knees, whose fat thumbs sped around the screen of a gaming console. On the other was a small man in a pale linen suit, richly tanned, with a silver plume of hair. Outside, the turgid summer afternoon lay stalled over the runway; little airport vehicles raced unconstrained across the flat distances, skating and turning and circling like toys, and further away still was the silver thread of the motorway that ran and glinted like a brook bounded by the monotonous fields. The plane began to move, trundling forward so that the vista appeared to unfreeze into motion, flowing past the windows first slowly and then faster, until there was the feeling of effortful, half-hesitant lifting as it detached itself from the earth. There was a moment in which it seemed impossible that this could happen. But then it did. The man to my right turned and asked me the reason for my visit to Athens. I said I was going there for work.
‘I hope you are staying near water,’ he said. ‘Athens will be very hot.’
I said I was afraid that was not the case, and he raised his eyebrows, which were silver and grew unexpectedly coarsely and wildly from his forehead, like grasses in a rocky place. It was this eccentricity that had made me answer him. The unexpected sometimes looks like a prompting of fate.
‘The heat has come early this year,’ he said. ‘Normally one is safe until much later. It can be very unpleasant if you aren’t used to it.’
In the juddering cabin the lights flickered fitfully on; there was the sound of doors opening and slamming, and tremendous clattering noises, and people were stirring, talking, standing up. A man’s voice was talking over the intercom; there was a smell of coffee and food; the air hostesses stalked purposefully up and down the narrow carpeted aisle and their nylon stockings made a rasping sound as they passed. My neighbour told me that he made this journey once or twice a month. He used to keep a flat in London, in Mayfair, ‘but these days,’ he said with a matter-of-fact set to his mouth, ‘I prefer to stay at the Dorchester.’
He spoke a refined and formal kind of English that did not seem wholly natural, as though at some point it had been applied to him carefully with a brush, like paint. I asked him what his nationality was.
‘I was sent to an English boarding school at the age of seven,’ he replied. ‘You might say I have the mannerisms of an Englishman but the heart of a Greek. I am told,’ he added, ‘it would be much worse the other way around.’
His parents were both Greeks, he continued, but at a certain moment they had relocated the whole household – themselves, four sons, their own parents and an assortment of uncles and aunts – to London, and had begun to conduct themselves in the style of the English upper classes, sending the four boys away to school and establishing a home that became a forum for advantageous social connections, with an inexhaustible stream of aristocrats, politicians and money-makers crossing the threshold. I asked how it was that they had gained access to this foreign milieu, and he shrugged.
‘Money is a country all its own,’ he said. ‘My parents were ship-owners; the family business was an international enterprise, despite the fact that we had lived until now on the small island where both of them were born, an island you would certainly not have heard of, despite its prolixity to some wellknown tourist destinations.’ Proximity, I said. I think you mean proximity.
‘I do beg your pardon,’ he said. ‘I mean, of course, proximity.’