An Interview with Russell Hoban

by Edward Myers

This interview was originally published in The Literary Review in 1984, and is © 1984 Edward Myers. Used by permission.

Many thanks are due to Olaf Schneider for scanning this and sending it along, and to Edward Myers and The Literary Review for allowing me to use it.

DURING THE SUMMER OF 1981, Summit Books published a novel, Riddley Walker, which drew immediate and widespread critical acclaim.

It was in some ways an improbable success. The book tells a bleak, fable-like story about a hunting-gathering culture struggling toward civilization thousands of years after a nuclear war, and moreover tells it in a strange English vernacular appropriate to that distant future. But many readers have found Riddley Walker unexpectedly beguiling. Once they take the language on its own terms, they often find it a source of amusement rather than frustration - a language simultaneously intense and playful, harsh and gentle, straightforward and yet full of puns, neologisms, and bizarre metaphors. The story, too, turns out to be less forbidding than it first appears. Though stark, the events in Riddley Walker gain illumination and depth from the wiseacre insights of their adolescent narrator. The book ultimately succeeds on many levels: as poetry, as entertainment, as mythmaking. The author of Riddley Walker is an American named Russell Hoban.

Many people at first considered him a literary newcomer, but he has been around for a long time. Besides having written Riddley Walker, Hoban is the author of some fifty children's books and four other novels. The novels The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz (1973); Kleinzeit (1974); Turtle Diary (1975); and Pilgermann (1983) have consistently met with favorable responses from literary critics. However, like other writers who have written a variety of books but have received disproportionate attention for just one of them, Hoban seems restless when identified too exclusively with his most popular work. He clearly wishes to be considered more than just "the author of Riddley Walker." Such restlessness is justified. Riddley Walker is a remarkable book, but the others deserve attention as well. From the slapstick of Kleinzeit to the philosophical ruminations of Pilgermann, Hoban has proved himself a versatile novelist, at once a clever linguistic game-player and a gifted storyteller. Hoban is fifty-nine years old, American by birth but a resident of England since 1969. He currently lives with his wife, Gundel, and their three young sons in the Fulham section of southwest London. The first floor of their three-story house contains the study where Hoban has written most of his novels. It's an attractively chaotic room. A long table extends from the bay window and accommodates Hoban's word processor, printer, and other writing gear. Books are all around--shelved, stacked, wedged here and there. And a fine clutter decorates the walls: prints, children's drawings, a photo of the Space Shuttle Columbia, a chart labeled (in German) "Day and Night Birds of Prey," and various puppets and marionettes, among them a lion and Punch. In this setting, we settled down for our conversation on a rainy afternoon.

EM: Why don't we start where most interviews end up? I'd like to know what sorts of books you're working on now.

RH: This year, I don't expect to get much done in the way of novel-writing, I'm working on two theatrical projects--a stage version of Riddley Walker for the Manchester Royal Exchange and a collaborative project with a group called the Impact Theatre Cooperative. This project will be devised by six or seven of us sitting together for six weeks of daily sessions and exchanging ideas, getting a performance together, rather than my writing a set play.

EM: What about novels?

RH: What I'd hoped would be my next novel is sort of standing to one side, waiting for me to stop running around and start sitting at my desk again. I've disrupted myself. For a month from the end of February to the end of March, I was in Australia; then I was in New York for two weeks. I took on too many speaking engagements and readings this year. I've just kept myself from having any working continuity. What I wish I had done is to leave more empty spaces in the calendar. The hoped-for novel is not moving ahead in a straight line. I wish I'd indulged myself in playing around and indulged myself with experimenting with other things, but not rushing around, exhibiting myself and indulging in various sorts of self-display and promotion.

EM: Is that personally against the grain anyway to be in public discussing books? Or is it more a side effect of just wanting to be working?

RH:It's a side effect of wanting to get back to work, and also a direct effect of having over-exposed myself by my standards, by my lights. That month in Australia, I was invited to the Adelaide Festival of the Arts, and it ended up being a promotional tour because my paperback and hardback publishers organized it that way. I did something like nineteen readings and talks and thirty-one interviews, ranging from three hours to five minutes each. It wasn't a good idea, because I'm paying the price for it now. I sort of tore all the earth off my roots to expose them, and now I've got to cover them up again and let things happen by themselves. I've become disconnected from myself.

EM: Has this kind of demand on your time come directly out of the acclaim that Riddley Walker has gotten, or has it been more general?

RH: It seems to have come mostly because Riddley Walker got a lot of attention. There hasn't been nearly that much response to Pilgermann, though I do find more and more that I meet people who say that they really dug Pilgermann, and that they can see how the two--Riddley Walker and Pilgermann--go together.

EM: Could you describe something of what's been of importance, or pleasing, or displeasing, about each of your books?--Excepting Riddley Walker, which I do want to talk with you about separately.

RH: My first novel was The Mouse and His Child. It was written from 1963 to 1966, and it was published as a children's book, but I really thought it was an adult novel. It was as much novel as I could put together at the time. It was about a father and son who were clockwork toys, and their quest to be self-winding. Fathers and sons come into my work a lot. And quests for self-winding, of one sort or another come into my work a lot. So that was my first novel. And I finished it at the end of '66. It was published in '67. I thought after that I'd be writing novels all the time, but I didn't get another idea for another couple of years. The idea that I did get was the sequel to The Mouse and His Child - it was called The Return of Manny Rat, who was the villain of the first book. But that got lost in the transition from the U.S. to here. And--

EM: What do you mean, "lost"?

RH: What happened was that I came here in 1969 with my first wife and our children, and we broke up here. She went back to the States with the children and I stayed on here. Then I married again, and now I have a second family. I'd come here in 1969, and by 1971, I was writing my adult novels. I simply didn't have it in me to carry on The Return of Manny Rat, because I didn't want to write about animals and clockwork toys and surrogate humans.

I wanted to write about real men and women. That's what happened. My first adult novel The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz was, as my novels go, the most autobiographical, and it was the most inward-turned, the most concerned with self. And I think that [my] development since then has been about what you could expect. Kleinzeit, I think, may not be my best book as literature goes, but it's the closest one to my heart because that's where I found my characteristic narrative voice. Pilgermann is sort of an expanded, deepened, broadened Kleinzeit. And that's the one where I made friends with death, which is a big turning point for any middle-aged person. I still enjoy that book whenever I pick it up and look at it.

EM: Do you reread the others also?

RH: It only happens that I reread them because I get invited to readings, and I think, "What'll I use?" As I look through the books, I end up reading a chapter through here and there. Turtle Diary was moving out from myself- looking not so much inward, but more outward at the world, with two narrators, who were involved with freeing the sea turtles (from the London Zoo). Then came Riddley Walker. You say you want to talk about that separately. Pilgermann followed Riddley Walker. So it's been a process of getting out of myself and into the world a bit more all the time.

EM: Something that struck me about each of your novels is that there's an attractive mixing of reality and myth in them. Do you feel that there's that mythic sense in your writing, whether the books are "realistic" or not?

RH: I do think there is a mythic sense. I didn't start out planning that way, but I noted its development. And I accepted it as my way of going at it, and I'm doing it more and more as I go along. I think that the myth- making capability is an essential one, and it's a resource that is not used enough. Rational thinking is not enough to get us through what we have to get through. If the heads of governments, East and West, could perceive events more in a mythic way, they would be in better shape for working things out. The way it is now, the Russians think the West is the enemy, and the West thinks the Russians are the enemy. But it seems to me that if you look at the natural and possibly savage way that the mind works, what happened is that in the Second World War, a monster was called up, and it now looms over both the East and the West; and that monster is the enemy. We are not truly the enemy and the Russians are not truly our enemy.

EM: Jung and others--but Jung most notably--worried that there is a tendency not just for leaders, but for people in general, to see their own dark side in the other populace or the other leader. And he felt that the only way to prevent catastrophe was to withdraw these projections--to quit framing others with our own fears. Is that part of what you're talking about?

RH: Yes-that's included in what I'm talking about. I haven't, as it were, diagrammed the mechanics of it. As I think about it now, what happens between individuals is often a triangular arrangement. A man and a woman fall in love. From their two individual points of self, they are focussing on something else that is the composite of what they have, or is the life-objective that they have, or is the way that they want things to be. I guess that's the simplest way of putting it. Here's person A and person B, and element C is the way they want things to be. That's the bonding element between them. It happens in love that way, it happens in friendship, it happens in career arrangements, and it happens in relationships between nations. And I think the correct and wholesome relationship between the East and the West would be for both sides to focus on the terror that's being created. But instead, they're each projecting a black beast image on the other.

EM: In writing a novel, is this third party something like the lion between the father and the son in The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, or like the turtles betureen Neaera and William in Turtle Diary-in the sense that they symbolize this force or relationship between the characters?

RH: That would be a correct way of putting it. In the one book, the lion is element C. In the other one, the turtles are element C. In Kleinzeit, the recognition of death and the passing of time is element C. In Riddley Walker, there is a much more complex element C than I've undertaken before. It has to do with power, knowledge, and, in a way, the urge to preserve and the urge to destroy.

EM: Perhaps the complexities of that book could be represented by the complexities of the different puppet shows.

RH: Yes.

EM: Let me ask you about Pilgermann. In the preface to Pilgermann, you wrote that there was still unfinished business after writing Riddley Walker, and Pilgermann was part of it. Do you feel that you've settled the unfinished business in writing that book'?

RH: I don't think I said "unfinished business"; I think I said that Riddley Walker left me in a place where there was further action pending. And the further action was further thinking along religious lines. Further thinking about the human condition. The concerns that were developed in Riddley Walker expanded in Pilgermann, and that pretty well wound up that cycle of thought, I suppose. I think of myself as something of a religious writer, but not in any really definable way.

EM: I sensed in Riddley Walker, and in reading the other books, that each of them had religious issues and religious moods involved--a mixture of Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist, depending on the book.

RH: That's true. There was a time when I was reading a lot of Zen Buddism, and that found its way into my work, certainly. And Pilgermann integrated all the other elements that had come forth.

EM: I recall reading that your background is Russian Jewish.

RH: My parents came from a town called Ostrog, in the Ukraine.

EM: Has there been a process in your writing these books of your exploring your own Jewishness in terms of background?

RH: There hadn't been until Pilgermann, and I didn't know that that's what was coming next. It just happened.

EM: Another issue--it seems to me that there are writers who leave their place of origin and then write about nothing but that place--James Joyce being a classic example. But in your books, there's very little sense of anything American, or of Americans. There's a sense of other places, primarily England. Do you feel that the American part of your experience doesn't well up into your books; or are there other things going on that account for the absence?

RH: Yes, my American experience simply doesn't well up in my books. It doesn't come up in my writing. I haven't tried to analyze why, except that it seems that my books seem to come out of where I am at the time I write them; and in that time and that place, I draw on whatever I am. But my books don't seem to come out of the places where I've been.

EM: Now I'd like to ask you about some of the cultural issues in your books. In Pilgermann, especially, but also in Turtle Diary, there's a strong sense of the looniness or even madness of modern life, where wonder and horror mix together, often incomprehensibly. In Turtle Diary, William says something to the effect that madness seems to be the normal state of the human condition, and that to expect anything else is madness compounded. Pilgermann fleshes that out vividly. But the books also seem to hint that a religious perspective is a crucial way,of grasping what's going on, of reconciling the contradictions.

RH: When you say "religious perspective," do you mean -

EM: I don't mean religious in an ecclesiastical sense -

RH: You mean getting an overall view of the human condition in relation to all of the universe.

EM: But perhaps through a religious tradition.

RH: Well, your question sort of branched off while it was being asked. My answer has to do the same. Pilgermann is a look at the human condition and the human position in the universe relative to God either as him or as it. While writing Pilgermann, I was very much aware of what Schrödinger says that there really is just one mind, and that in that mind the time is always Now. I have felt that way. I do feel as if there is only one single universal consciousness, and we are all receptors of it; and I do feel as if the time is always Now. I remember climbing the long snaky path to Masada, and up on the top of it, in that dry, hard, stony sunlight, seeing pebbles and potshards casting sharp, black shadows; and feeling that the events that made Masada what it is were continuing to happen - that the suicide of the Zealots and the coming up the ramp by the Romans were still going on. It's just that there were no people to see. And I think a lot of people have addressed themselves to that phenomenon. Everything in Pilgermann had to do with ideas of what it is to be a human particle of the universal consciousness. Sometimes people say that I'm pessimistic; sometimes they say that I'm apparently pessimistic, but that even Riddley Walker has a note of optimism - it ends with the human spirit prevailing, and all that. But more and more, my point of view gets less anthropocentric. I don't think that we're necessarily the last word in evolution or in manifestations of consciousness. In the new Scientific American, I read that our present universe may just be a part of a much larger

universe. So I think this is just a little bit of action going on in this corner of the universe. Everything is not necessarily going to come out all right- it may just be an experiment that is a dead end. But to me, the whole thing is worth it for the action.

EM: Am you active in any sort of religious tradition?

RH: I have nothing to do with any organized religion of any kind. I think I'm a very religious person, but I don't go in for anything organized, whether it's Judaism or Buddhism.

EM: You're kind of a freelance mystic?

RH: Freelanee mystic, yes. That's a good way of putting it.

EM: Let's move on to Riddley Walker. I've heard that Riddley Walker was a considerably longer book at some point, and that you took five years to write it. What was it before, and what prompted you to change it into this kind of dense, fable-like story?

RH: It took five and a half years to write, and in the first two years, I wrote five hundred pages, which I discarded; I went back to page one and started again. Then I went back to page one fourteen times, or something like that. And every page was rewritten many times. The reason that I discarded the first five hundred pages is that they were too diffuse, too sloppy, too fat. There were too many people covering too much ground. Too many events. And I could feel the whole thing wanting to get very lean and spare and concentrated and dense, and not be all spread out. It was just a matter of recognizing that the thing was not in the shape that it wanted to be in. The five hundred pages had perhaps been necessary as scaffolding, or to fill me in on the kind of a place and time it was. But they were not it.

EM: In the preface of Riddley Walker, you describe visiting Canterbury Cathedral and being very struck by the place, und shortly after that starting Riddley Walker. You saw a painting there The Legend of St. Eustace. What was it that inspired you about it? Clearly something spurred you on very quickly. And what was it that prompted Riddley Walker to become a post-nuclear book?

RH: Have you seen the reconstruction?

EM: No.

RH: I have a black-and-white photograph of it that I can show you, [Hoban gets up, crosses the room, and brings a large cardboard-backed photograph in a plastic bag. He takes the photo out and unfolds it. The photo shows a complex allegoriral painting, full of figures in medieval dress. ] They have now restored the original wall-painting. When I went there, I couldn't see a whole vertical thing like this; the reconstruction had been cut up into sections. Now the original painting has been restored.

EM: Was there one part of it that particularly affected you or moved you?

RH: Yes.

EM: Was it this [pointing to the stag, vith the crucified Christ between its antlers, in the painting's lower-right corner]?

RH: No, it was this [indicating St. Eustace, standing in the middle of the painting]. It was when I got to Eustace in the middle of the river, there with one of his sons being carried off by a lion and the other by a wolf. His wife had been carried off by pirates before that. So he was all alone in the middle of the river. And everybody he loves has gone. And it, it got to me personally, because [of] where I was in my own life having been separated from the children of my first marriage. And it also, it seemed to hit me very hard in a way that made me feel that it wasn't just something that I was responding to personally, but there was some essence in it that mattered to everybody. And then the whole world of Riddley Walker dropped into my head. I had already been thinking a lot about Punch. Suddenly I had this idea of desolate England, long after civilization is destroyed and Christianity is defunct, when the state religion is something that's carried on by puppeteers going from one little fenced-in settlement to another. Which is more than I usually get at the beginning of a book. And as I say, it all jumped into my head pretty much at once.

EM:So the vision of that time came full-blown?

RH: Yes.

EM: Was the struggle with the subsequent drafts a matter of how to grasp that, rather than of how to work out the details?

RH: It was a matter how to grasp it, how to get it to be what it wanted - what it wanted from me.

EM: In the earlier drafts, was it so fable-like?

RH: It got simpler. I mean, there was a time when Riddley Walker had a girlfriend, a woman-friend, and, as I said, there were many more characters. There was much more of the folklore of his people - many of their stories of various kinds. And what happened was yes, it did get more fabulous in its approach, tighter and simpler and more boiled- down.

EM: At what point did you invent the Eusa religion?

RH: That came to me pretty much all at once. From the very first, I had notes about the Eusa cult and about the Eusa show. It took some working-out. The Eusa story was one of the first things; I worked that out before I got to where it first appears in the book.

EM: How did you go about evolving the language for Riddley Walker?

RH: I started writing it in straight English, and it just began to drift. The characters began to say words that didn't exist in English, and their English began to drift into a vernacular. Then I saw that what was really happening was the real linguistic process that does happen. Speech always encapsulates a place and a time and a world-view. And their speech would naturally do the same. They wouldn't be talking BBC English.

EM: Do you have philological training of any sort?

RH: No.

EM: You didn't consult anyone about developing the vernacular?

RH: No.

EM: Because it strikes me that the book is remarkably accurate in how words would compress and alter and boil down over the centuries.

RH: Just as in Kleinzeit: early on, I decided that I wasn't going to do medical research and find out symptoms and proper names for things; I'd just wing it. I thought, Here, I'll just rely on my ear. Otherwise I could have stalled endlessly on the research.

EM: When people I know have asked me about Riddley Walker "What's the language like? I've heard it's 'different'" my way of describing it is that it's equal parts Chaucer, Beckett, and Pogo.

RH: Well, I don't know about Pogo!

EM: But I'm thinking about words like pernear and myswel, the sense of word play--

RH: Pogo is hillbilly talk. Just as "Lil' Abner", too, is bowdlerized hillbilly talk though it's a long way from real hillbilly talk.

EM: But I'm being facetious - I'm trying to give people a sense that there's a compression and streamlining of words, some of which are extremely playful. And the language seem to be one of the things that people are constantlly baffled by and attracted to.

RH: Yes I had no idea that the language was going to be such a big thing. I mean, such a big thing for the readers.

EM: Do you have any sense of how your writing style has come about? Are there specific literary influences?

RH: Well, my literary infuences aren't quite what are thought of as literary. Conrad was a big influence on me, but I don't try for a Conradian style. The density of the work in Conrad, his use of baffles, his techniques for keeping you from the heart of the matter so that you don't get to the essential information too soon that always impressed me. And Dickens, just for the sheer word-power, the energy in the words. But I guess one of the biggest elements in my literary makeup is the mishmash of supernatural and fantasy and science fiction stories that I cut my teeth on. I can trace in elements of my books things that probably wouldn't have been there if I hadn't read certain otherbooks. For example, Charles Williams's book The Place of the Lion. There's a Platonic lion that comes into existence. My lion in The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz is very much related to that lion. In Riddley Walker, my propensity for that kind of language first came to my attention--it must have been twenty, maybe thirty years before I wrote it when I read a story that I'd long since forgotten. Australian friends since tracked it down for me: a story by Gerald Kirsch called "Voices in the Dust of Annan," in which an archaeologist in the future ruins of London comes upon some little humanoids only about three feet high little pale, wretched creatures who live underground and herd rats and wear rat-skins and they sing corrupted versions of "Who Killed Cock Robin" and "Bless 'Em All." "Ballassemoll!" The idea of language sliding and blurring like that was very beguiling to me. I guess without thinking about it, I was looking for a chance to do something like that.

EM:I suspect that when you wrote Riddley Walker, you weren't intending a kind of cautionary fable, but you wrote a story that welled up in its own right?

RH: I didn't start out to write a tract of any kind. I didn't know at the beginning that Riddley was going to end up supplying the missing "gready mint" for the 1 Little 1 [the re-invention of gunpowder]. (Laughs.) Gready mint!

EM: There are a number of writers, including Doris Lessing and any number of SF writers, who have written about World War III as if it's a foregone conclusion. I'm wondering: is this part of your own intuitive sense, or are you simply projecting a possibility?

RH: Well, I suppose I'm rather wistfully thinking that perhaps if we look at possible projections, we can back away before they actually happen. But, there's not a great deal I can say about that. If you ask me what are the probabilities of a nuclear war now, all I can say is that the dangers of it proliferate. The more people there are who have weapons, the more fingers there are poised on the buttons, the more likely it is that some crazy son of a bitch is going to hit it one day- if for no other reason than to end the suspense: being tired of waiting for someone else to do it.

EM: Something that continues to strike me about your books is that there's a strong sense of the hideousness of history, and of day-to-day absurdities. But there's also a sense of tremendous beauty in living and in the world. In Riddley Walker, there's a point when Riddley exclaims, "O what we ben!"

RH: I think they're not at all inconsistent. Horror at the actuality of history and joy in being alive and conscious go together quite naturally.

EM: But there's also a sense of marvelling at our civilization.

RH: Oh, yes. I find the world continuously exciting and interesting. As I said before, my fascination with the action outweighs any optimism or pessimism, the trip is worthwhile just in itself.

Back to The Reading Room.

Back to The Head of Orpheus: a Russell Hoban Reference Page (home page).