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Rules of Engagment in Love and War. An Interview with Catherine Bush
by Nancy Wigston

Catherine Bush

Born in Toronto in 1961, Catherine Bush has also lived in Montreal, New York, London and Provincetown, Massachusetts. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Comparative Literature from Yale, has worked as an arts journalist and dance critic, taught creative writing at Humber School for Writers and at Concordia University, and has attended Yaddo and MacDowell writers' colonies. Her first novel, Minus Time, was short-listed for the 1994 City of Toronto Book Award and the Smith Books/Books in Canada First Novel Award. A film adaptation of Minus Time is currently in development with Five Senses director Jeremy Podewesa. Her second novel, The Rules of Engagement, released to glowing reviews in March 2000, has been short-listed for this year's City of Toronto Book Award. Currently at work on her third novel, Catherine Bush was interviewed in Toronto by Nancy Wigston.

Nancy Wigston: Let's see, you've just come back from Italy and are shortly leaving for Florida?

Catherine Bush: Yes, I was in Italy over the summer at a writer's retreat outside Florence. We were in a 13th century signal tower where Bruce Chatwin wrote¨he was very good friends with [the owners]. And Michael Ondaatje wrote part of The English Patient there, so it has this wonderful literary lineage. And then I was in Positano, in a little cottage overlooking the Mediterranean¨the first time I've ever stayed somewhere that was literally on a postcard [she fetches a postcard]. See those three windows? That's where I stayed. In Florida I'm Visiting Writer for a semester at the university in Gainesville.

NW: All this movement seems to echo some patterns in your books. In Minus Time, Helen Urie, the central character, has an astronaut mother who's circling the earth, a father who tends to earthquake victims in Mexico, and a brother in Montreal, while she leads a secret life in Toronto. Early on she says: "We came from a family that specialized in disappearing acts." The main character in The Rules of Engagement disappears from Toronto in her early twenties, after two men fight a duel over her. Does disappearing figure in your new book?

CB: It's about pain, about a woman who suffers from migraines, who does disappear. My stories involve disappearances, being left behind, being on the perimeter. Helen has lost herself, her mother has disappeared. Arcadia [Arcadia Hearne, the narrator in The Rules of Engagement] returns, she writes herself back into the duelling narrative. I thought that, at the end of the 20th century it would be interesting to write about men who fight each other¨what was always a man's story¨and reclaim that story. I don't question it [the theme of disappearance]; it's part of my psyche. I'm really not that peripatetic, although we moved every year when I was a child. I'm the child of immigrants, the eldest of three girls. All three of us fled the country¨I went to Yale at eighteen, then I lived in New York for five years. But I miss Toronto a lot. I have a house here.

NW: Your fiction is mainly about extraordinary people¨like astronauts and their kids¨or the highly intelligent people in your second novel. They don't seem like the people next door, yet emotionally you draw us into a world not dissimilar to what many of us experience.

CB: Maybe they're not the people next door, but then, who knows what's really going on next door? To assume ordinariness is sometimes the wrong move. I'm not an esoteric writer. I like a good story. People may be sparked by the ideas, but I hope they're drawn in by the story. As regards Minus Time, years ago, when people would ask me what I was working on, I'd say, "Oh, I'm writing a novel about a woman whose mother's an astronaut." They'd say, "Oh, science fiction." Hello! Astronauts are not science fiction. Women actually go into space pretty regularly these days. I saw Barbara's career path as a step more extreme than the ones a lot of women her age followed. I do like to push situations a little bit to the extreme. And I'm interested in what I've described as 'elastic realism.' As regards the duel in The Rules of Engagement, some people have come up to me and said, "Oh, that's so fantastic, I don't believe it could ever happen." And other people respond, "You know guys fight over girls all the time¨it's not that unusual." Not everyone uses old World War Two pistols, but two young men fighting over a woman is something that happens pretty regularly.

NW: Absolutely. And you've done something else: After the duel, Cay flees to London; she spends hours watching boys playing violent video games, then studies to become an expert on war. You're actually looking at the whole issue of testosterone and love. As you ask later in the book, is violence inevitable in our lives?

CB: I don't think it's inevitable. But I think that violent tendencies are innate to a degree and that in that kind of scenario, it's more likely to be young men who fight a duel. I also think that people in their early twenties aren't aware of their own mortality. That renders them kind of reckless. And there are tendencies at that age to idealize love and to idealize the love object. I think that Arcadia feels very constrained, finally, by Evan's love. Romantic entrapment is pretty typical of passionate love affairs that take place when you're in your late teens or early twenties. Romance like that can be so seductive, but also a prison. I was living in the States during the Gulf War and the man I was in love with had a brother in the Canadian army and my brother-in-law had been in the Israeli army. I had the typical liberal response of 'war is bad'; I wanted to explore that further. I hadn't done a lot of thinking about violence and where it comes from, and I needed to. Also I'm drawn to territory that doesn't look inherently female¨so there's an appeal about writing about a female astronaut or a woman who writes about war. It's the kind of boundary crossing that excites me; I wrote my undergraduate thesis about "Amazons in 17th century Literature."

NW: I found it very interesting too that when Arcadia tries to solve this ten-year-old mystery, she learns, in a wonderfully true-sounding phone conversation with his brother, that Neil [her other lover] went to teach in China. She then discovers that her younger sister told Neil she'd gone to China and wasn't "ever, ever coming home." At first reading that seems like a piece of the puzzle solved¨yes, he did love her and did try to find her. But then, on second reading, it seems quite different. Her sister, who disapproved of her sneaking around with Neil, has lied and sent him off on an impossible quest.

CB: People respond really strongly to that line. My feeling is that there are many possible readings. Maybe he went after her, maybe he didn't. He doesn't actually go to China first of all, he goes to Hong Kong. You can read it in the true romantic way if you want to and Arcadia might want to¨but you don't have to. The fact is, she'll never know. I resisted the impulse to tidy things up at the end. Some readers might have found that a little frustrating; they might have wanted something more tangible at the end, a kind of closure. But it felt false to me. I think that we have to reconcile ourselves to the past without having all the pieces in place. We don't always get the closure we want.

NW: It's a maturing process too, these were very young people after all.

CB: Oh yeah. Arcadia journeys back to Toronto to make her own script, after the shock of walking into someone else's. This is true to a lot of women's experience, as it was true of mine, regardless of what's happened in terms of feminism. A lot of young women still find themselves in other peoples' scripts. The book is a journey toward that, so she can possess her own story. Amir [her lover in London] is a man who knows her as an adult. I was interviewed by a loony Dutch journalist about the book¨he writes mostly about rock stars¨who told me my view of romantic relationships was utterly bleak, that love and ambivalence are mutually contradictory. I think to learn to live with love's ambivalence is to learn to live with love. That's not anti-romantic. That's romantic! It's the way adult romance gets played out. The dialogue between her and Amir is a duel of sorts, but I believe they are engaging each other in a way she hasn't managed before.

NW: Let's talk about Toronto. In Rules, Toronto is the dangerous place, and London is the sanctuary, whereas most of us would see it differently. London is a big international capital, more dangerous than good old Canada. You've reversed that. The journey back to Toronto is one that Cay [Arcadia] has been putting off for years; she goes at least partly to make certain that Basra, the Somali woman to whom she delivered a fake passport in London, is actually safe.

CB: There are multiple reasons for her decision to track Basra down. She does want to make sure she's safe; she also wants to know whether she can trust Amir, and Basra is the only one who, simply by appearing, can verify that. And yes, I did want to play with this reversal of accepted attitudes about London and Toronto. Every writer approaches the city they write about as an imaginary place and it seems to me that there's a lot of room in Toronto for dangerous things to happen. We do not have the history of warfare and extreme violence that other places do, but people come here who bring those histories with them. In the psychic life of the city those stories still exist. I get frustrated with Toronto's image as safe, neutral, boring. It has a rich and strange history. As a writer I want to create a parallel rich and strange history, [the city] deserves it. A duel really was fought at the corner of Yonge and Carlton.

NW: Yes, there is blood under the streets there

CB: A little blood. But, like so many North American places, we obliterate and ignore our history. I think we're quick to pat ourselves on the back and say 'we're the good guys.' It's true that Canada has not played a strikingly militaristic role in the nuclear industry but the export of Candu reactors is, from a moral viewpoint, deeply troublesome. And our record as peacekeepers as witnessed by the whole Somalia affair has its dark side. Yet we're this environmentally do-good nation because we have lots of trees and mountains. We're not. I like to undermine cultural clichTs. I love Toronto as a place to write about; I just like to make it as strange and wonderful as it can possibly be. I'm not the first to set a duel in a Toronto ravine¨Timothy Findley did it too. There's a grand tradition of ravine writing¨Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Anne Michaels. I just wanted to join it. As someone who grew up here, left for ten years and came back, I have access to an outsider's vision of the place. I like that dual perspective. The challenge for me with Arcadia was to write from the point of view of someone who's truly left for ten years. What sort of things would she notice? Things like all the electrical wires that hang through the streets here That's the sort of thing that struck me¨'this is so weird'¨so small-townish, what are all those wires doing in the air? You don't see them in other big cities.

NW: There's so much that's newsworthy in your writing¨women in the space program, toxic drinking water, wars, the worldwide refugee problem. How are you so connected to what's happening or about to happen?

CB: I may be a bit of a news junkie. I really feel my world does not stop at my front door or at the end of the street. I believe in connectedness. We are all porous, permeable to the world at large. Sometimes I wish I were oblivious. I've been this way since I was a kid. My experience mirrored Arcadia's only to the degree that I wasn't allowed to watch television, except for things like The Nature of Things or Don Messer's Jubilee. When I was in grade three my teacher had us writing 'thoughts' about big things like the Vietnam War. I'm interested in the way the larger public world infiltrates our supposedly private lives. I feel they're connected; I have no agenda except to explore that connectedness. Michael Ignatieff talks about zones of safety and zones of danger and I'm interested in what happens when they collide. I'm also a child of McLuhan. Toronto represents that legacy, which for me is ridiculously typified by the CN Tower, a great radio tower. I think that's a really fitting Canadian monument.

NW: And what about intervention?

CB: The duel story is different because it's not just about 'why do these guys fight?' but also about why no one, Arcadia included, does anything to stop them? We think of duels as private romantic moments, facing off with pistols at dawn, but they were also embedded in a social fabric, with seconds, witnesses, a doctor. At the end of the twentieth century we were asking ourselves a lot of questions, given the series of civil wars in the last decade¨about intervention. It seems to me these [questions] grow more potent as the world grows more connected. To whom do we reach out to help? Who is an intimate, who is a stranger? These are pressing questions for our times. I was at a book club in Toronto and one of the women was mad at Arcadia; she felt she should have done something. A South African woman who'd lived through apartheid identified with Arcadia; she said 'you don't know what you're going to do when you're pushed to the edge¨you might have the best intentions but you don't know.' Some readers do find Arcadia a difficult character; she keeps things close to her chest and she can be prickly, but I don't think it's my duty to make characters nice.

NW: I wondered about Arcadia's name. She is almost victimized by her father's insistence on giving his daughter such a romantic name.

CB: Sometimes in novels you'll see people with metaphorically resonant names and you'll feel it's just the author imposing this from above and the character remains blissfully unaware of it. I was interested in giving my character a freighted name, and her having to deal with what it meant to carry this name around.

NW: Speaking of names, the young male idealist in Minus Time, Foster, tells Helen that he'd like "everyone [to] look down and see how small and fucked up the planet is and how everything connects." I thought for a while his name was actually Forster, like E.M. Forster, as in "Only connect."

CB: I read Howard's End when I was eighteen, and I remember taking that to heart.

NW: What other writers do you admire?

CB: I owe a lot to Michael Ignatieff's books on nationalism and intervention issues for The Rules of Engagement. Susan Griffin's Chorus of Stone, which I read in the early nineties, is a very hybrid book. I was struck by the way she took large events or public figures like "Bomber" Harris who made the decision to start bombing civilian targets in the second world war and linked those to the story of her family, the way so many domestic, private stories are threaded with unexpected violence. And I've always been drawn to Nadine Gordimer too, who so splendidly brings together the political and private, and the political and erotic. ˛.

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