WHY IS IT so difficult to imagine the great writers of the past being interviewed? ("Could you tell us, in your own words, Mr. Milton, what you really meant by Paradise Lost?") Is there not, implicit in the idea of a "literary interview," the supposition that it will clear up any difficulties we might have had with the author's work, and show the writer to be someone who, in the presence of a tape recorder, can be both folksy and profound? There's a humanizing (perhaps I should say "levelling") quality to the interview that includes both the conversation (Leon Rooke being asked by Bruce Meyer and Brian O'Riordan, "Do you remember your father?") and the setting in which it takes place ("On a hot June day in the Annex area of Toronto we arrived on Atwood's doorstep....A small cat jumped into her lap and she sat stroking its fur calmly throughout the interview.") I submit that Emily Dickinson would be a great deal less intriguing to us if she had ever consented to answer questions about her father while stroking the family pet.
Canadian interviewers need not worry, however, unless they take it upon themselves to visit Mordecai Richler, that their interviewees will regard them as intrusive boors. Few Canadian authors of more than a book or two have not been interviewed, or so it seems, and fewer still have questioned the need for writers to make extratextual pronouncements. The interview, as Meyer and O'Riordan see it, has become a "literary form" in its own right, and the interviewer not simply a disembodied voice or a finger hovering over the on/off switch, but a critic -- someone who brings to the inter-view "a thorough knowledge of the life and the work of an author." In addition, Meyer and O'Riordan see their task as going beyond the illumination of a specific writer's work; their goal in Lives & Works is, they say,
to create a conversational chronicle,
not only of our literature and its writ-
ers, but of the national ethos that
those writers articulate as it develops
and evolves over a long period.
This does sound impressive, but the brevity of these interviews dictates that the "national ethos" articulated here is a good deal less comprehensive than, say, one day's letters to the editor of the Globe and Mail. All of the writers interviewed in Lives & Works have something to say about various aspects of Canada -- its geography, Culture, and politics -- but usually this amounts to no more than a couple of hundred words in each interview.
In a volume of 128 pages, there are 14 writers interviewed: Margaret Atwood, Margaret Avison, Neil Bissoondath, Lorna Crozier, D. G. Jones, joy Kogawa, Patrick Lane, Alistair MacLeod, Erin Moure, John Newlove, Leon Rooke, Bronwen Wallace, David Wevill, and Adele Wiseman. The interviews are comparable in length to those of Alan Twigg in For Openers (1981), but far shorter and less interesting than those of Geoff Hancock in Canadian Writers at Work (1987), or some of those collected by Peter O'Brien in So To Speak (1987). Meyer and O'Riordan can certainly not be faulted for their scholarship; as they showed in their previous volume, In Their Words, they do know their authors' lives and works in remarkable detail. They are not interviewers of the "what-time-of- day-do-you-write and what-colour-pen-do-you-use?" school. But no sooner do they get started on a discussion of a specific Work, theme, or technique, than they move on to some general topic, or a different work or theme, or some aspect of the writer's life. They are perhaps too malleable, allowing the authors to guide the interviews into shapes neither linear nor round, leaving many pathways briefly glimpsed but not thoroughly explored.
In contrast, David Cayley's Northrop Frye in Conversation gives us, in its 228 pages, Frye's plenty, as it were. Here is Frye, recorded shortly before his death, on Blake, Milton, the Anatomy of Criticism, the Bible, Canadian culture, education, technology, and much else. The most pleasing aspect of this book, and what might be seen as the strangest by those unfamiliar with Frye and his work, is that in conversation he frequently sounds more like a novelist or a poet than the novelists and poets do. His speech, like his writing, is consubstantial with his imagination -- entirely rooted in metaphor. It expresses a coherent vision of literature and what we, if not Frye, would call the "real world." ("Life," says Frye, "is inside literature. All you have to do to find out about life is just read literature.") Wittier, more insightful, better read, more sensitive to the power of words than any other Canadian writer I can think of, Frye simply takes Cayley's questions -- and very apt questions they are -- and dances with them. There is no subject that Frye's vision is unable to encompass. Northrop Frye in Conversation is no substitute for any of Frye's books, but it is worthy of being called one of Frye's books. Praise enough.