Interviews

Norman Rush, The Art of Fiction No. 205

Interviewed by Joshua Pashman

For forty-nine years, Norman Rush and his wife, Elsa, have shared a small farmhouse on New York’s High Tor Mountain, off an unmarked, crumbling road that narrows as you drive up it. Lawns and suburban tidiness have overtaken most of Rockland County since 1961, but the Rushes’ two acres, still largely wooded and bound by a stone wall, feel incorrigibly rural. The eight meetings for this interview included two at the Paris Review offices and two at the Skylark, in Nyack, Norman’s favorite Greek diner. Our four longest and most freewheeling conversations, though, were all taped on his back porch, near a defunct old well, and away from any tidying influence.

Rush was born in San Francisco, in 1933, to an aspiring opera singer and a socialist trade-union organizer. (He was named, in part, after Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party’s recurrent candidate for president.) Today, in his mid-seventies, Rush is an imposing presence, bearish, with iridescent white hair and an almost eerily unwrinkled face. Yet he puts you at ease. He wears jeans and a pocket tee around the house, his reading glasses loose in the pocket. He speaks in a baritone, for the most part seriously, on history and politics as often as on literature. But he also elicits and attends closely to anecdotes, rewarding them with squinting laughter and jolts of empathy that can seem just as helpless. Rush in photos resembles a commanding emeritus professor, and while in person this image never quite vanishes, it can get disheveled, along with his hair, by his open-hearted bursts of grad-student avidity.

The downstairs rooms of the farmhouse, where Elsa works, are bright and very attractive. But Rush writes in his one-room attic, amid clusters of treasures and junk. A basket of ostrich-eggshell water carriers etched by Basarwa shares a corner, up there, with stray parts from a disassembled twelve-harness loom. The papers Rush has saved since 1978 (when he burned all his early writing) fill many cabinets, and also cartons on top of these cabinets, and spaces on top of the cartons. (Rush has diagnosed himself with “incipient Collyer brothers.”) His “desk,” which dominates his attic, is not a desk, exactly, but a large U-shaped assemblage of tables and doors on sawhorses that incorporates, also, a desk. The assemblage supports three manual typewriters, each a gorgeous antique, along with bottles of Wite-Out, pencils, scissors, and glue. Rush rolls his writing chair from one station to another many times in the course of his workday. Rush has written three books in this attic (a fourth is almost complete).The three are all set in Botswana, where he and Elsa worked as Peace Corps co-directors from 1978 to 1983. Rush’s first, Whites, a story collection, appeared in 1986. This slim, eventful book of expatriate intrigues—sexual, political and folk-medicinal—was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Rush’s first novel, Mating, appeared five years later and won the National Book Award. Mating is charged by the voice of its narrator, an antically observant and linguistically stellar female graduate student (she never tells us her name), who crosses the Kalahari alone to find a secretive utopian village—all in pursuit of the village’s founder, the seductive polymath Nelson Denoon. Both an adventure story and a “novel of ideas,” Mating is also a microscopic, Lawrentian examination of an embattled courtship. In a recent poll sponsored by The New York Times Book Review, Rush’s fellow writers voted Mating one of the best American novels of the last quarter century. The votes came entirely from novelists younger than forty. Rush may have begun publishing late, but he has found his fiercest partisans among a younger generation of critics and readers. 

Although Mating remains his most widely-known work, Rush’s third book, Mortals (2003), has generated an even more fervid evangelism. Mortals is another hybrid giant, its many moving parts observed and gauged by Ray Finch, an amusingly imperfect forty-seven-year-old CIA operative (and Milton scholar) forced into crisis by the end of the Cold War. Ray is so rigidly and fearfully in love with his wife, Iris, that he schemes to deploy CIA assets against a perceived romantic rival: her shrink. The resulting fiasco unfolds in a succession of tour de force scenes—interrogations, imprisonment, paramilitary battles, and break-up sex—that the critic James Wood has called “some of the most extraordinary pages written by a contemporary American novelist.” It is no longer unusual to hear Rush praised at this pitch.

Any account of Rush’s working life should acknowledge Elsa’s role, or roles. She is his most significant editor, and character model, as well as his daily muse and companion. She was born Elsa Scheidt, to an FBI special agent, whose career took his family from North Carolina to New York City but did not prevent him from blessing her marriage to the professed radical she had met at Swarthmore College. Along with her Peace Corps directorship, she has worked as a handweaver, designer, and teacher of design, and as the director of a program for “dependent and neglected” children. She is slightly taller than Norman and looks younger, with striking blue eyes. She speaks rapidly, with the “unsettling directness” her husband gave to Iris Finch and the wit he gave to the narrator of Mating. In the comically Rushian gestation of this interview—three years, over five hundred transcript pages—among the most addictive pleasures were the days-long e-mail chains with Elsa. And, to be sure, with Norman as well. Who sent which e-mail was not always apparent, at first, since both wrote from the same address, often on the same topics, and with comparable vitality and casual precision.

Elsa’s involvement in Norman’s writing was a running topic in our conversations. Though she tirelessly plays down her part, it seemed natural to include her in the interview. The final revisions of the edited transcripts were, just as naturally, a three-way effort.

 

INTERVIEWER

You didn’t publish your first book, Whites, until you were fifty-three. What were you writing all those years?

RUSH

It depends on where you want to start. Not, certainly, with my comic book series, Mac of Mars, circa 1945, or my faux Father Brown detective stories, featuring Dr. Orion Curme, circa 1947. My brother printed a manifesto of mine, Papers Against the State, on a handpress, when I was seventeen. I wrote a novel at eighteen, when I was in prison. At Swarthmore I published some gnomic poems based on little-known events in the tragic history of the democratic Left. I began the typical march through the literary quarterlies, via a string of short stories, some of them picked up for anthologies. I wrote another novel, also never published. James Joyce was a wondrous and calamitous influence on me. Interspersed along the way—having a family, running a book business, too much reading and drinking, and too much perfectionism. And then, chiefly and for much too long, I wrote agonizingly experimental stories that simply baffled editors. 

INTERVIEWER

What were the editors’ complaints?

RUSH

That the work was too dense, too complex for the medium.

INTERVIEWER

Was it?

RUSH

Well, for instance, I once wrote this extremely abstract story called “Stupor Vincit,” in which all four characters fall asleep in their chairs, apparently rendered unconscious by the nullity of modern life. Elsa didn’t love it. She said to me, Consider maybe that there are some very smart people out there who are not interested in stories that require a seminar. So I took that under advisement, and produced a novella which—I presented this to Elsa very proudly—took place at a cocktail party populated by representatives of every branch of American radicalism. There were eight kinds of Trotskyites, five kinds of Communists, two factions dedicated to an obscure Dutch Communist, Pannekoek. There was one man representing an Italian, named Bordiga, who had exactly one follower in the United States. All there. The party’s host—I forget his political affiliation, but he had a son with his own cult, dedicated to H. P. Lovecraft. They had a terrarium, for instance. I was so interested in the human project of trying to reshape the world, in all its particular guises and methods.  

INTERVIEWER

And Elsa was skeptical of that kind of writing?

RUSH

She wasn’t skeptical. She appreciated it, as writing. She noted that I wasn’t happy with the kinds of responses I was getting, but was entirely supportive for decades. She didn’t think I could change, and felt bad for me. 

But I’ll tell you, her patience with my arcane fiction was part of a greater patience, over a sort of battle we waged for years. Some couples don’t ask much of one another after they’ve worked out the fundamentals of jobs and children. Some live separate intellectual and cultural lives, and survive, but the most intense, most fulfilling marriages need, I think, to struggle toward some kind of ideological convergence. I was a sectarian leftist when we met. Radicalism was essential to my self-definition. So there had to be a long period of argument and discussion before I developed, let’s say, a less immanentist view of social change. Also—and this is relevant to Mortals—I was sort of a stage atheist when we first got together. I just couldn’t believe religion was still happening. She had a much more humane view of the whole business.

INTERVIEWER

A view that won you over?

RUSH

In part.

INTERVIEWER

Were you trying to reshape the world politically, at the time?

RUSH

That would be comically overstating it. I was active in the pacifist movement—demonstrations, marches, the usual. I was for years on the boards of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors and the War Resisters League, and was active in CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality.

INTERVIEWER

How did you end up in prison?

RUSH

That was earlier, during the Korean War. I was in college, and had committed myself to what was then called absolutist pacifism. When I got my draft notice, I wrote a letter to Eisenhower saying I wasn’t going to go.

INTERVIEWER

Did you apply for conscientious-objector status?

RUSH

To be a CO at the time you had to stipulate a belief in a supreme being. I wasn’t going to do that. I was seriously committed, and anyway it all happened very quickly. The FBI came and got me at school in Los Angeles. I had a trial, pleaded no contest, was sentenced to two years. Directly from the courthouse to L.A. County jail for two weeks. Then they drove me to San Diego, then Tucson.  

INTERVIEWER

Were you in with the general population?  

RUSH

Sure, but it was a minimum-security prison. There were a few other draft resisters, mostly Quakers, and also these fascinating people who had committed lewd acts on federal properties. And what we called “uniform fruits”: people caught impersonating federal officers. Some Mexicans, too, who had been caught crossing the border once too often. I made some good friends in there, including a few of the Mexicans, though I haven’t seen them in years.

INTERVIEWER

How were you able to write in prison?

RUSH

Anything we wrote was subject to confiscation, so I did it secretively. I wrote on onionskin paper, jamming tiny letters onto both sides of each page, then built a very funny-looking chessboard at the prison’s wood shop, and stashed half my novel inside. As for the other half, I prevailed on a visitor, a friend of my uncle Henry, to sneak it out. I hid it in the visitors’ bathroom before he arrived, in the cardboard tube of a roll of toilet paper. I thought I was very clever, but when the time came, my uncle’s friend was terrified. He was a local lawyer. He had come out of the goodness of his heart, as a favor to my uncle. Involving him was stupid and reckless on my part. I’m still ashamed.  

INTERVIEWER

When you left prison, though, you had your first novel. You joined the two halves and—

RUSH

It was absurd.

INTERVIEWER

What was wrong with it?

RUSH

It was a nonviolent adventure story, set in a mythical South American dictatorship, involving a peaceful uprising organized by three smart people, and so on. Everything that could be wrong with it, was. It was entirely a projection of my belief in nonviolence: you know, nonviolence had to be the answer. I wish I still had it to show you. The dictator’s name was Larco Tur.

INTERVIEWER

Which writers were you reading then? Who’s to blame for Larco Tur?

RUSH

Well, I had discovered Joseph Conrad before I went to prison, so my prose would have already become rather laconic. As for my earlier influences, they were largely determined by my father’s library. D. H. Lawrence. Actually, a lot of Lawrence. And James Joyce. The Sexual Life of Savages by BronisÅ‚aw Malinowski—my father was a sort of armchair libertine. Even with American novels, he favored those considered, at the time, risqué. He was a great champion of James T. Farrell, for instance, who in the thirties was known as a very graphic writer, with men going to prostitutes, that sort of thing. There was older fiction as well: Defoe’s Moll Flanders, a racily illustrated edition of Rabelais.

My father was in some sense a thwarted writer, and in a larger sense a thwarted man. He had been a trade-union organizer, and the California state secretary of the Socialist party, and also wrote a kind of Whitman-esque protest poetry that he self-published in a journal called The Rebel.

After my birth, my mother delivered an ultimatum: no more activism, time to support a family. She got her way. My father ended up as a salesman, and then a trainer of salesmen. His library continued to attract me as the residue of his truer self. The collection was divided: some in ordinary shelves and some he kept locked behind glass doors. I was more interested in the locked. I picked the lock and read them all.

INTERVIEWER

Did you also read adventure stories as a boy?

RUSH

I wasn’t a big fan of adventure stories, particularly, though I did like H. G. Wells, and the Rider Haggard stories set in Africa. Then in jail, I was forced to read whatever strange books made it into their library, and that included the complete works of Rafael Sabatini, a master of Caribbean pirate tales.

INTERVIEWER

When you enrolled at Swarthmore, after prison, did you study literature?

RUSH

I’d always wanted to write fiction, but it never appealed to me as an object of academic study. In college, I focused more on modern European history, especially since the First World War, which I regarded as the moment when everything began to go wrong. Socialism had been on a roll until then. I wanted to know what had maimed it as a powerful force, as a presence. My minor was philosophy, by which I mean analytic philosophy.

INTERVIEWER

So which novelists were you reading on your own? 

RUSH

Conrad and Dostoevsky, above all. Conrad continued to be a huge revelation to me about serious political thinking taking place in a novel. Under Western Eyes and, especially, The Secret Agent. Dostoevsky meant Notes From Underground and The Idiot, especially, though it’s very hard to privilege one of his books over another. All were important to me.

But the most significant literary moment at Swarthmore came when I met Elsa. Elsa was everything. I was only there a few months before we met, but—she would do a much better job with these stories. Shall we invite her to join us?

INTERVIEWER

Why not?

ELSA

Well. Do you know Swarthmore? It was in their main building, in a quite formal parlor with velvet sofas and big oil paintings. I was sitting on one of these sofas with—my God, it was heaven!—young men all around, talking to me. At least five. Maybe eight. Some were sitting on the floor.

INTERVIEWER

All competing for your attention?

ELSA

I was naïve. I was eighteen. I’d only had one boyfriend and never got over being shy with him, so I didn’t think of myself as holding court. I just thought, Gosh, this is fun! No good dates in high school and now all of these conversations, with clever men asking my opinions about philosophy to show how sophisticated they were. At some point a mysterious stranger appeared in the doorway, wearing a black coat. He stood and listened for a minute, and when someone asked me a question—I wish I could remember what; I’ve thought of it many times—this man in the doorway said, “You don’t have to answer that.”

RUSH

I thought the question was intrusive.

ELSA

I actually wasn’t upset by the question, though I did understand what this man in the doorway meant. Then one of my couch suitors said something provocative, and the man gave a reply that infuriated them all. He said—instead of arguing, he said—

RUSH 

I gave them a reading recommendation.

ELSA

And they hated it. He said, Why don’t you read such-and-such? Which is very annoying, of course. It’s a way of saying, “You’re not equipped to have this conversation with me.” I wish I could remember the book he recommended, though in a way it doesn’t matter, because Norman has done that so many times in his life.

RUSH

She means that I’ve often been aggressively, unpleasantly authoritative.

ELSA

Correct. Though at the time, I was smitten. I went back to my dormitory and told everyone that I’d met the man I want to be with forever. I was completely taken by his gestalt. And even later, after we’d married and departed Swarthmore, I remained this way, though when I disagreed with him, I certainly said so. When he wanted us to live in a commune, for instance.

RUSH

I felt the world would be a better place if more people made good faith efforts at cooperative living.

ELSA

I was pregnant then.

RUSH

She was a good sport. She agreed to visit various communes with me, though each place we stayed, she would—go ahead.

ELSA

The first place he took me was brutal. We were very kindly invited to lunch. They served nice, wholesome fare—with flies all over it. I thought, This is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen. And then they led us to the laundry room, just the hottest, steamiest place you can imagine, and I don’t think I ever said, Why is everyone in here a woman? I just said, This looks like a difficult assignment. Do you all rotate? Do people change jobs? The answer was no.

RUSH

Men assigned the jobs.

ELSA

It was that kind of utopia, yes. So we tried another place, Prospectville, a citadel for beatniks. Each room had one bare bulb on a wire coming down from the ceiling.

INTERVIEWER

For interrogations?

RUSH

No, their hearts were in the right place. It just wasn’t for us, and certainly not for Elsa, who still occasionally wonders aloud if those people ever discovered the lamp shade. We did finally settle for almost a year at a quasi–commune for artists, near Woodstock. The country up there was wonderful, we made some good friends, and I enjoyed ditch digging and roofing, which supported us. But the place got ruined for us by a dingbat feud, a hate fest between a painter-poet couple and a science-fiction writer.

INTERVIEWER

And that was it for communal living?

RUSH

We put it on hold, is the way I looked at it. We moved to 71 Second Avenue, a railroad flat on the Lower East Side, very cheap. We both got part-time jobs. Elsa bought a loom and taught herself to weave from a book, and became a designer and the head colorist at a textile design studio, still working half-days. And I began my long career as a dealer in rare books. We split the workday so that we could both spend time with Jason.

INTERVIEWER

Out of a belief in equal parenting?

ELSA

The meme that fathers should be closely involved in child raising came later. We just both wanted the fun of spending time with our little boy.

INTERVIEWER

Norman, how did you come to deal in rare books?

RUSH

I stumbled into it. Looking for a book one day, I visited the offices of a rare-book dealer, and found a customer there asking about an obscure title. When I answered his question, the dealer, Frances, offered me work. But Frances turned out to be satanic. She had an employee she beat with a cane.

ELSA

Frances did another delightful thing. She kept people there by implying that she was going to leave the business to them—including the poor fellow she beat with a cane.

RUSH

Yes, she had people working for peanuts, for years, all haunted by this notion of a cooperative endeavor. Soon I left for a bookdealer on Eighth Street, this frail, elderly, Russian anarchist—a fascinating man whose daughter worked for him. He often said of her, “Work from her is like from a dead man a fart”—which was why he needed help. He had a bad heart, kept an oxygen tank handy. His greatest coup was finding the archive of the Socialist Party of America on the street, left out for the garbagemen. Working with him, I began to think that if this old anarchist with his bad heart could make a living selling rare books, then I could do it, too. I put out a catalogue of books that belonged to other people, sitting in bookstores underpriced and with their research value unappreciated, and mailed it to university libraries. When the list sold out, I took the money, and began to buy books in the usual way. We moved up here in 1961, for the schools, mostly—our son was ready for kindergarten and the Lower East Side schools were abysmal—but the house had the added advantage of providing space for my stock. Elsa set her looms up for weaving in the living room, and all the walls were lined with cones of yarn and out-of-print books. On nice days we’d drive to library sales in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Princeton. 

ELSA

Norman at these sales was like a machine, throwing books into boxes—just: ‘Psh! Psh! Psh!’—while Jason would grab the boxes and guard them. At sunset the prices came down: all you could carry for five dollars, two dollars, one dollar.

RUSH

It was a fun way to make a living. But one of the things about people who deal in scholarly and out-of-print stuff is that they find it difficult to sell a book until they’ve read it. At least I had this problem of reading too much, and somewhat waywardly. I was reading history and politics and philosophy when I should’ve been writing.

INTERVIEWER

You did publish a story in 1970, “Closing with Nature”—an observant young woman travels to a mountainside retreat, gets lost in the woods, meets a strange man. It doesn’t read like mainstream fiction—there’s such close attention to her thoughts—but it’s not “experimental” either.

RUSH

I was trying to write something simpler. And to sync thought more closely to a character’s actions. I also wanted to write something less developed, about people I understood less well. For once I didn’t fuss over the prose. I wrote it in a month, got the Writers’ Market or whatever, and sent it to the Massachusetts Review.  

INTERVIEWER

After years of writing for Elsa, how did it feel to have something in print?

RUSH

Disturbing! Actually, I got some encouraging letters. But for the moment, not much changed for me except in the writing itself, which continued in the direction of relative simplicity.   

INTERVIEWER

“In Late Youth” came next, and later appeared in Best American Short Stories, in 1971. A rare-books dealer returns to San Francisco after many years to visit his mentor, who has become a literary figure in the meantime. The mentor only half-remembers him.

RUSH

That was my farewell to the poet, Kenneth Rexroth, my great friend and acquaintance, which is to say: a man I imagined to be a great friend who turned out to be just an acquaintance. Elsa had thought for years that he was a complete schmuck, and when she read his autobiography and later biography, felt she had documentary evidence. I considered him a mixed being. Rexroth, whose poems are still in anthologies, and whose third wife, Marthe, left him for their marriage counselor, was an imposing, polymathic intellectual who had been a pacifist during the Second World War. When I was a teenager, he came to speak at a church in Oakland and I got in, formed a connection. Years later, when he and his wife came to stay with us on the Lower East Side, I could feel our connection fading, and by the time I went back out to visit him with my son—Rexroth was nominally Jason’s godfather—I could not ignore the fact that my place on his horizon had shifted. His poetry had gained him an international prestige and, after the Beats took him up, a kind of glamour attached to his activities that left me out. His celebrity had nothing to do with me. But when I visited him, I still assumed a deep personal connection, which it turned out he didn’t. This goes to something I’m writing a novel about now: the enigma of friendship, the different perceptions of the same friendship, especially between friends with different social standing.

INTERVIEWER

The narrative is tidier than in “Closing with Nature.” One hour in one house, from anxious arrival to frustrated departure. You even number the sections.

RUSH

Ever since I read Hume, I’ve wanted to do fiction with numbered paragraphs. The numbers impose a definiteness on the breaks in the story in a way not conveyed with normal paragraphs. But you can see I was still experimenting in other ways, too: with colons, for instance. I thought that a weakness of modern narrative was the absence of a thought-face, something to indicate that thoughts are happening, equivalent to quotation marks for speech. So I wrote long sequences of thoughts, using colons to indicate cognitive jumps.

INTERVIEWER

Which forced you to avoid other colons, I noticed.

RUSH

Yes! I avoided all other colons, because—well, you see the problems. You have to accommodate the mechanics of actual publishing, it seems! You can’t put thought in italics without changing the weight of the thought. And you can’t say, “he thought,” too often because that breaks the flow and ruins the unity of expression. It took me a long time to admit that if you deploy thought cleverly enough in third-person you can get away with a presentation that’s not obtrusive.

INTERVIEWER

Did you feel that the more prominent young American novelists at the time—your contemporaries—were too accommodating?

RUSH

No. I was just in my own world. I mean, Kerouac—I didn’t regard that as a breakthrough. And I think I had a thing against Pynchon’s reductive satire, which seemed to be never-ending and predictable. I felt that novels, to be penetrating, had to get beyond a satirical send-up. Roth and Updike were writing fine books—in Roth’s case, books I came to see as great ones. But the questions that most compelled me at the time were not being addressed by either Updike or Roth. The discourse I was most deeply interested in ended, I’m afraid, in 1925 or so. I know that’s funny.

INTERVIEWER

The New Yorker took its first story from you in 1978, “After the Life Class,” about an instructor at an experimental college. Did you see yourself as a writer of short stories?

RUSH

I actually completed a coming-of-age novel in the seventies, Equals, about—it’s ridiculous—another experimental college, with characters drawn from people I’d known at school, and myself, of course, all connected to some radical organization. Radicalism, coming of age, the perils of friendship: a crude translation of my experience with utopian belief, and the making of a self. Equals gave me a first try at getting these themes in perspective, at not being ruled by them, but it was still dry, too focused on details of beliefs. An agent sent it out and it elicited some rave rejections, and almost got taken twice, but was, as the publishers said, uncommercial. I still didn’t understand what “uncommercial” even meant. I blame the nineteenth century. 

INTERVIEWER

Your career is unimaginable without your five years in Botswana. How did you and Elsa end up working for the Peace Corps?

RUSH

Botswana was a fluke. We had never planned to work for the Peace Corps. We knew Sam Brown, an antiwar activist, whom Carter had appointed head of ACTION, the umbrella agency for the Peace Corps. But I didn’t know of his appointment at this dinner party where Sam and Elsa and I got into a political argument. Sam had already conceived the idea that the Peace Corps should appoint spouses as co-country directors because too often in the past, inevitably, one spouse, usually the wife, would do half the work and get no credit. We must have impressed Sam as being qualified, though I don’t know how. Maybe as a couple who liked to argue? Anyway, he set up a day of interviews for us in D.C. We figured we had no chance but that the interviews would be fun. They wanted people with Ph.D.’s in economics, or development studies, or at least some work overseas.

INTERVIEWER

You must have really killed in the interview.

RUSH

The main thing in an interview is to think you have nothing to lose. We had nothing to lose, and so we killed all day. The final interview was at a very large table, with people wandering in, asking questions, wandering out. When we left, Elsa turned to me and whispered, “Oh for God’s sake, they’re going to ask us to do this,” and they did. We were to be a pilot project, the first Peace Corps co-country directors. The question then became where we should go. Because we each had had six years of school French, they planned to send us to Francophone Africa. We proposed Benin, but were mistakenly delivered to a different B desk, the Botswana one. The Botswana desk officer liked us, and unbeknownst to us, put in a request as soon as we left.

INTERVIEWER

Did you leave for Africa planning to write about it?

RUSH

At first I thought I would do more stories like “After the Life Class.” But as soon as we got there, the contrast between the two settings—the urgency of one, against the mere poignancy of the other—it just wasn’t equal. Africa was so stark and transfixing.

INTERVIEWER

Were you able to write when you got there?

RUSH

The volume of work made that nearly impossible. And there were always distractions. We arrived in country on the heels of a tragic misadventure: an unhappy love affair between a Peace Corps staff member and a staff person at the embassy. A jilted lover had a psychotic episode and, in a parking lot near the embassy, shouted allegations of a Peace Corps/CIA connection, possibly targeting ANC exiles in Botswana. The windshields of embassy vehicles were smashed. It ended horribly, with the person who had the breakdown committing suicide. Rumors abounded briefly, all false, but there was an understood absolute wall between the Peace Corps and CIA, so even rumors caused problems.

INTERVIEWER

Did everyone in Gaborone know the identity of the CIA station chief, as the characters did in Mortals

RUSH

It was an open secret. Elsa and I were required to leave the country team meetings when the Chief of Station gave his report, but of course there is always a great deal of gossip in such hothouse situations, and things leak out around the edges. I got a fascinating glimpse of how the CIA operated, and used it, along with a good deal of research, in Mortals.  

INTERVIEWER

What was a typical week like for you two, as co-directors?

RUSH

Varied and hectic. The weekly country team meeting, meetings with other NGOs, running seminars and plenaries. And there was a perpetual need to visit sites around the country to make sure they were operative, that the volunteers had what they needed, and that their Motswana superiors were satisfied. Most of the sites were along the rail corridor, Gaborone to Francistown, but some were remote towns in the far north, near the desert. We had to be in loco parentis for the younger volunteers who got ill or depressed or into trouble. Most were solid, admirable people—thirty-seven was the average age of a Botswana PCV—but the few incorrigibles had to be kicked out, and that involved much evidence gathering and paperwork. Elsa’s job. Over five years, we had a few florid cases. The fewest volunteers we had was sixty, the most two hundred. And a fourteen-to-twenty person staff, presenting the usual sorts of problems.

INTERVIEWER

I can see why you had no time to write. But I assume you were taking notes?

RUSH

I carried a spiral notebook everywhere. And I collected school journals and periodicals, newspapers and bureaucratic papers. I was especially fascinated by the sexual picture in the country for the expatriates. Sex was available to expatriate men, in this poor country, on a scale to which they were unaccustomed. It was curious, sometimes appalling, to watch mores adjust in response. Some of this made it into “Alone in Africa,” in Whites. And then there were the ongoing dramas of sandstorms, drought for years, and witchcraft in the office. Life was an endless job of maneuver, and terrible things happened routinely. It was nerve-racking, exciting and it was nonstop. I returned to America with cartons of material.

INTERVIEWER

Your prose style changed somewhat with Whites. Did your experience in Africa affect it?

RUSH

There was some situational effect, I think, yes. We both returned to the U.S. in a state. It took a long time not to jump when the phone rang—for years, we expected an emergency. So it’s entirely possible that the shorter sentences in Whites and the occasional abruptness in the narrative owed something to my state of mind. Or maybe it was something else, related to the experience. Like being away from my usual sorts of friends, associates, and interlocutors.That’s what Elsa thinks. That my social milieu changed, and changed me.

INTERVIEWER

How did you find the voice in the story “Bruns”? It so nearly resembles the Mating voice.

RUSH

“Bruns” was the first Botswana story I wrote. I actually managed to write it at the end of my stay there. I started in the third person, and found it didn’t work. By shifting to first, a useful tension arose between the narrator—the skeptical anthropologist who’s telling the story—and Bruns, the missionary, whose interests lay elsewhere. Dan Menaker at the The New Yorker took it and when the story came out, it drew the attention of an agent, Andrew Wylie, and an editor, Ann Close at Knopf, who gave me a deal for a novel and book of stories. Since that time, I’ve been able to devote myself to writing or writing-related activities.

INTERVIEWER

Was it always clear to you that the “Bruns” voice could carry a novel?

RUSH

It should have been, but instead I had to work my way through another false start. Mating began with a much less idiosyncratic voice, in third person, the story told from Nelson Denoon’s perspective. About two hundred pages in, I ran into great difficulties of credibility, about the scope or range of interests plausible to Denoon. A male character’s thoughts can range only so far in a novel about courtship, or at least that seemed true for this character. I concluded that a female voice would be less constrained and inhibited, and began to look for one before I realized that I had found one already, in “Bruns.” After I made that decision, the writing came easily. It felt right.

INTERVIEWER

Was Denoon modeled on anyone in particular?

RUSH

There were a lot of people founding cooperatives when we were in Botswana, but the closest resemblance was to Patrick van Rensburg, a South African exile who had worked in the diplomatic corps before he became disgusted by the apartheid regime. He created a utopian project, the Brigades, consisting of rural centers that combined education with profit-making endeavors—carpentry shops, brickmaking, hulling peanuts, or “ground nuts,” as they’re called there. The original notion was very egalitarian, designed to spread skills through the countryside, and the great internal debate was over different pay for different jobs, a debate he lost.

INTERVIEWER

Did any of these villages have a feminist component?

RUSH

In name, yes. But feminism was still more an idea in the minds of development professionals than in the actual communities. It was an idea whose time they were trying to make come. There was nothing on the ground like Tsau, with women exclusively enfranchised and able to own property. Of course, many older utopian models had strong feminist elements.

INTERVIEWER

And your incomparable narrator—what were your models for her?

RUSH

The earlier version borrowed from one of Van Rensburg’s girlfriends, Rosemary Morse, a development professional, a feminist, and a tough, resourceful and notably good-looking woman we got to know in Gaborone. Later I met a nutritional anthropologist suffering a vocational crisis, and lifted that. But the real model for the narrator—I’ve hardly tried to hide this—was Elsa. Her fearlessness of thought; her determination, almost to the point of parody, not to be deluded, tricked, deceived; her comic sense of life, and a totally empirical kind of intelligence, as opposed to Denoon’s more theoretical intelligence. She’s pretty much a straight lift.

INTERVIEWER

In her early involvements with the photographer, the activist, and the spy, the narrator also somewhat resembles the manipulative woman in “Instruments of Seduction.”

RUSH

They’re both moral entrepreneurs of a sort, yes. They find acceptable ways to cooperate with an environment powerfully and oddly dominated by men. They find ways to get what they want.

INTERVIEWER

Yet what the narrator of Mating mainly wants are impossible things. Her utopia is “equal love between people of equal value,” she tells us, while falling for a man older and much more accomplished than she is, in a village founded by him.

RUSH

Yes, and she doesn’t approve of that herself. Her problem reflects the problem with equality on a larger scale. Renewing in a conscious way the balances between men and women, keeping things equal, is a difficult goal everywhere, but especially in American society given the competitive structure of work, of advancement. So to take this ideal and apply it to something like a marriage or a long-term relationship—that becomes even more of a task. She wants to have a honeymoon from all that, but by associating with Denoon at Tsau, where he’s the center of power, the spaces in which she can express or define herself are narrowed.

INTERVIEWER

The advent of Denoon’s mysticism is what finishes them as a couple. But she also harries him with offers of help.

RUSH

I think that’s a neurosis common to men and women both, but maybe at a higher level of intensity in people who don’t yet have a clear understanding of what they want and are likely to be able to do in life. They look for ways to be useful and become frustrated when they’re not needed. He’s less prone to it than she is, because he knows what he wants to do, himself.

INTERVIEWER

What were your main artistic uncertainties once Mating got underway? Did any choice feel especially tough?

RUSH

I was most worried about the audacity of taking on Africa, of not being able to penetrate or be fair to the Tswana and their tribal culture. Even after I got back to the States, I did endless research, and still worried that I didn’t know enough.

After that, I had local concerns, about parts of the novel. The lecture Denoon gives early in the book, for instance, on the five surcharges of socialism. There was originally a longer lecture that included the nine problems with capitalism. I must say, I admire my restraint! I felt a need to prove to the reader that Denoon was an intellectual of a certain caliber. I didn’t want the narrator saying, “Oh, trust me, he’s brilliant.” My very patient editor, Ann Close, was a little worried that my extended proof would put some readers to sleep, but she loved the harangue and the narrator’s reactions to it.

Another thing I struggled with was the presentation of Tsau. In early versions, more of the village came through in scenes and action, but these became cumbersome, especially as they appeared late in the novel. To speed things up, and to vary the texture of the prose, I used my anthropologist narrator’s field notes on Tsau. I also became very attached to Tsau by the end, and had to make myself stop inventing new parts of it.

INTERVIEWER

Like outhouses? Water-retention schemes?

RUSH

Right, though Denoon’s outhouse, with the sliding toilet seat, I found in one of the alternative-technology journals I subscribed to. And qanats were part of an ancient Persian system of conserving rainwater.

INTERVIEWER

I love the corso scheme. Each home puts a light on after dinner if they want visitors.

RUSH

That was from village life in Russia. Tolstoy wrote about it.

INTERVIEWER

The prose in Mating is so free, but the story is carefully patterned. To what extent were you conscious of reining yourself in to fit a plan?

RUSH

Which patterns are you thinking of?

INTERVIEWER

The narrator’s first boyfriends, for instance—Giles, Martin, and Z—each had one conspicuously attractive quality: sexual confidence, political seriousness, an air of secrecy. Denoon seemed designed to combine all three.

RUSH

Correct, that was set up. Though the men also had other virtues that are simply common to Westerners who end up in the third world: they are trying to break from some template of an ordinary existence, and they tend to be pretty good sports.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever read literature deliberately as an aid to writing? The narrator’s interest in “refuge fantasies” seemed eerily Proustian.

RUSH

In fact, I was rereading Proust! And a piece of Richard Howard’s never-to-be-completed but great translation came out in The Paris Review at about that time, I think. Refuge fantasies are interesting. They start early, and you revise them very little as you age. It seems.

INTERVIEWER

Mating seems concerned, above all, with the frustrations of social and romantic utopias. How close an analogy did you intend?

RUSH

The novel was primarily about courtship and mating: a romance set in a utopian development. But the relationship between the two kinds of utopia was part of the plan. In both cases, there’s a kind of tormented thinking about equality, and the material limits to achieving it in the real world. The utopias suffer for different reasons­—more complicated in the case of the love story, less complicated in the case of Tsau—but yes, they were meant to reflect each other, reflect on each other. I see that I’m conflating Mating with Mortals, in which Tsau’s fate becomes clearer.

INTERVIEWER

Should novels offer discernible arguments?

RUSH

I like to discern an unstated, but illustrated, argument in a novel. I mean, I like to become aware of an embodied view of a particular moral-slash-philosophical problem or circumstance. With my novels, I want readers to argue about my argument, at least in their heads. While writing I am very conscious of it.

INTERVIEWER

Mortals was already underway when Mating was published. Did the success of one affect your work on the other?

RUSH

I don’t know if it helped or hurt, but I do think it raised my ambitions. I wanted to top Mating by having the new novel do more things at once. I wanted a discussion on religion, which had only been glanced at in Mating. I also wanted to dramatize the effects on the personal lives of individuals who had been variously invested in the continuation of the Cold War. Africa was an iconic venue for observing these effects, because it was the elephant’s graveyard of socialism.

INTERVIEWER

How many of Ray Finch’s problems in Mortals are connected to the end of the Cold War?

RUSH

He’s vocationally disappointed, for one thing—unsure if, in battling the Soviets all his life, he’s used his talents well. And now he’s in a difficult situation, morally and intellectually, because he knows that the CIA has done very bad things, along with a few good things, and that the rationale for this trade-off is disintegrating. The way Ray handles himself is, I think, representative of the way people handle such dilemmas. He tries fitfully to think himself out of it, rather than act his way out of it. It makes for a kind of comedy.

But the Cold War is not his only problem. He’s also struggling to give Iris what he thinks he ought to. But he falters. He feels he’s got to stay in Africa, at the one job he thinks he can do well. Ray could make a better life for them both but believes that he can’t. He’s weak, he’s afraid.

INTERVIEWER

Was it your intention, after Mating, to write about someone less “heroic”?

RUSH

Not exactly. The story was always told from Ray’s point of view, but originally, Ray was more of an observer, an expert noticer­—what with being a spy—of more admirable characters like Davis Morel and Samuel Kerekang. Morel’s campaign against Christianity and Kerekang’s insurrection were more important. There was also more about the brother, Rex, and Ray’s combination of rage at him and admiration for his brother’s ability to manage an unorthodox and freer life, by his wits. But at some point Ray took over. I developed some sort of identification with him, and couldn’t stop writing about him. The baffled, compromised liberalism Ray represents was a matter of growing interest to me.

INTERVIEWER

Was Ray a different person in his earlier incarnation?

RUSH

He was more devious, more Machiavellian. And there was more of a focus on his tradecraft and often unpleasant powers as a spy. He believed, for instance, that he could always intuit when someone was homosexual. That was obviously connected to his conflicted feelings about his gay brother, Rex.

INTERVIEWER

Ray worries at one point that Morel is not a “settled man.” Is that a significant category for you?

RUSH

Yes, it is, especially when I’m looking at a character. Men are “settled,” I’d say, when they are past their demons, the demonic phase of self-definition that can be so painful and go so wrong. Ray worries that an unsettled Morel will mean trouble. Being settled doesn’t have to coincide with middle age, or a calm demeanor. For instance, I was raised by an atheist. Then overnight my father became a social-gospel Christian, and eventually a kind of mystic, a Rosicrucian. Totally onto the other shore. That was a great shock to me, with lasting repercussions. He was not a “settled man.”

INTERVIEWER

In the first half of Mortals, the real action takes place inside Ray’s head. The second half is “action-packed” in a more conventional sense. What were your reasons for dividing the novel this way?

RUSH

In the early part of the book, Ray is laying the groundwork for proper action. He’s not fully aware of this, but his behavior is making action inevitable, and we know he’s trapped and looking for a solution. I intended this section to be an ironic reflection on the “vitalist” tradition in American novel-writing—I’m thinking of Stephen Crane, Norman Mailer, Robert Stone. In their books, excessive and self-endangering actions lead to spiritual deliverance. Ray gets all the action he can handle, and it’s bloody and nasty and leaves him with many of the same problems he began with. All it does is force him to break his connection with the CIA, which he could have done simply by writing a letter and getting on a plane with Iris. Joining Kerekang’s insurrection is a kind of penance for his accommodations with the evil in his past life as a spy. But there is no exaltation in it, at the end.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a philosophy about endings?

RUSH

That’s a question I ask myself constantly. I mean, just in a workaday sense: I have a hard time letting go of a novel. With Mortals, Elsa threatened to move to Mohonk Mountain House, which is a pricey place to move, until I let go of the manuscript.

There’s another thing, too. It’s a rare reader who doesn’t go to the novel looking for a kind of encouragement to live. No doubt this is because the novel is the rude pretender who stepped into the place of that long-reigning narrative, the religious bedtime story, which, before Darwin and Lyell and those guys, was the only narrative in town. As I write a novel, I’m aware that I’m struggling against the “obligation” to solace. But I want my books to reach only the conclusions that are implicit in the trajectories of their characters. As it happens, both Mating and Mortals have sad outcomes—but optimistic codas. So sue me.

A related question is, when should novels end? I must love big novels, because that’s what I’ve written. It takes a while before you begin to breathe the air the characters breathe. I also like long exchanges, because plots so often turn on nuances in the ways characters understand each other. In moments of madness, I’ve had the fantasy of simultaneously publishing my novels in two versions, Regular and Jumbo. In the book I’m working on now, though, I’m trying to keep everything shorter: shorter scenes, fewer plots, general brevity. But a shorter novel goes against some of my deepest instincts. Dostoyevsky died still intending to write another volume of The Brothers Karamazov. It’s like a knife in my heart that he didn’t.

INTERVIEWER

We still haven’t talked about your working habits.

RUSH

I try to be very diligent about writing every morning. On an ideal day, and there aren’t many of those, I would get upstairs by nine and work until lunch on new material, then spend the afternoon revising it, or doing other literary work: reviews, introductions, and so on. Generally I produce a very raw, highly associative, difficult-for-anybody-else-to-interpret version in the morning, which I then break down, edit, and try to make readable in the afternoon. But my work life has been irregular.

INTERVIEWER

In your attic office you have a very strange desk with three separate workstations.

RUSH

I use three different typewriters at once, two Royals and one wide-carriage Underwood, all from 1955. I write the main narrative on one of the Royals, while reworking earlier sections on the other Royal, and generating fresh associations on the Underwood. That way, I’m inhabiting the novel in different stages without getting too far from the main stream. I’m not unaware that my system is ludicrous, and something like a prehistoric computer. Once I have twenty-five pages or so, I’ll then use the main Royal to retype the draft for Elsa. I do that on yellow sheets, what used to be called “second sheets” in the days of carbon paper—my ancient, beloved Sphinx Saxon Manila 33B. (I can’t get it anymore—if anyone has a stock, I’d be grateful.) Elsa marks anything she wants to discuss, and after that, the draft goes to a typist. We do the final edit together.

INTERVIEWER

What sort of things does Elsa mark on the draft?

RUSH

She keeps my thought episodes under control. Tries to, I should say. They tend to sprawl or become too branching, and Elsa’s great at seeing when the point has already been made, the mood or association created. And then she’s also invaluable on questions of credible language, whether something would be said or thought by a particular character. That was essential with Mating because of the narrator.

INTERVIEWER

Do you recall a particularly significant bit of advice from her?

RUSH

There were so many I can’t recall them. What I remember instead are a few lines I kept in over her strong opposition. One came back to haunt me when a reviewer picked it out and said, No woman would ever say that: “I had been working my tits down to nubs.”

ELSA

I wrote in the margin, My God, that’s awful! I assumed he would get it right away, and was horrified when he defended it. I tried to tell him that, first of all, it’s viscerally disgusting, if not to a man, then certainly to a woman. And it’s a poor metaphor for the effect of hard labor. Tits don’t get worked down. But because it’s not really a defensible position to say that no woman would say something, it very quickly became me telling him that I would never say that, nor would any friend of mine, nor would any woman whose voice I could imagine myself into.

INTERVIEWER

Did you usually prevail in these disputes?

ELSA

I don’t want you to think that more than a few of my comments led to actual disputes. With Mating, I’d usually just come to a phrase and say, “I think a woman would say this instead,” and he’d say, “Oh. Yeah.” But now that I think of it, for years, when we were young, Norman didn’t much like my critiques of his work. It was hard not to modify my reactions so as not to hurt his feelings or trigger a kind of writerly arrogance, because who was I? I had no qualifications. But I saw what I saw, and over the years, he relaxed. My stock had gone up, somehow.  

RUSH

Let’s say, way up. Elsa has the ability to enter characters very fully. She helps me remain faithful to their essential natures when I wander off into unhelpful portraiture that tends to leach in from their dossiers, and—

INTERVIEWER

Dossiers?

RUSH

Oh. Before I start a novel I make a dossier for each character, even minor ones. Life history, curriculum vitae, oddities of culture and taste and background, appearance, gait, voice: it all goes in there. These dossiers can grow quite extensive, and some get completely out of hand. I’ve had to train myself not to keep expanding them endlessly when I should be working on chapters. Even so, with the book I’m working on now I’ve almost driven myself mad, writing dossiers.

INTERVIEWER

How much from each dossier works its way into the novel?

RUSH

Often very little, directly. But absorbing that deep background gives me the sort of conviction about each character that allows me to write. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you map your plots beforehand in a similar way?

RUSH

No, just the characters. But the characters write the plot. Their natures do.

INTERVIEWER

Your main characters are not always “likeable”—Ray Finch, for example. I find his presence addictive, but some reviewers seemed to hold his lack of congeniality against your book.

RUSH

That drove me crazy.

ELSA

It was as if the characters were running for student-council president, and the novel were a pamphlet meant to sway the reader’s vote. Reading chapters of Mortals, I would think, How wonderful! A complicated, neurotic, in some ways pathetic—

RUSH

Inadequate?

ELSA

—Inadequate, yes, but also a very smart and decent, very American man. At the same time, I did worry that a certain kind of reader would find him repellent. Norman had no such idea. He loved Ray for whatever Ray did or said, and so, just to alert him, next to the more egregious lines I would write RP, for repellent persona. Once, I wrote, Oh my God, you asshole! But I didn’t mean that Ray should be heroic.

INTERVIEWER

Though by the end, he’s precisely heroic.

ELSA

Oh, yes, he’s insanely brave. But it’s not until he’s naked and battling on the roof of the Ngami Bird Lodge that you see just how heroic Ray is. He’s more than a low-level spy with an unhappy housewife he’s always trying to manipulate. To me, his manipulations are human and pitiable, but people don’t like to be reminded of all the manipulation in their own lives. It’s too ordinary.

INTERVIEWER

Ray and Iris are extraordinary in other ways, though. Their banter, for example.

ELSA

I know some readers thought couples don’t really talk that way. But I don’t believe their dialogue is so extraordinary.

RUSH

It is and it isn’t. A couple’s private language can develop in peculiar ways that look ordinary to the couple, but very strange to any outsider.

INTERVIEWER

Didn’t the narrator of Mating coin a word for that? An idioverse?

RUSH

Right. And that’s not often captured in fiction. So people can be a little slow to get that you’re not trying to make some showy point of it. Extraordinary language is sometimes just what happens between two people living closely over many years.