“Looking For Performance”
An Interview with Robert Kroetsch
The Puritan: Considering the numerous works of fiction and poetry you’ve writtensince the 1960s, are there any that you consider as definitive or representative of your
career as a whole?
Robert Kroetsch: I read my published works, on the rare occasions when I read them,with a curiosity about who the writer was. Writing in a way erases the writer.
The P: What was your most enjoyable experience in the actual process of
writing? Which element of a story’s composition do you find the most pleasing or
RK: Rewriting. After the challenge (the anxiety?) of facing the blank page comes thepleasure of rewriting; the discovery of what it is you’re trying to say; the wonder of
creating something that didn’t exist until the now of the completed draft.
The P: How would you describe your writing process? How has it changed over the
years, as you’ve aged and grown more experienced? Is there a major difference in the
way in which you approach a series of poems as compared to a work of fiction?
ROBERT KROETSCH is an author, editor, literary critic, professor, and one of Canada’s most celebrated writers. He was born in Heisler, Alberta in 1927. His numerous works of fiction and poetry include
But We Are Exiles (1966), Words of My Roaring (1966), Gone
But We Are Exiles (1966), Words of My Roaring (1966), Gone
Indian (1973), Badlands (1975), Stone Hammer Poems
(1975), What the Crow Said (1983), Completed Field
Notes: The Long Poems of Robert Kroetsch (1989), and The
Man From the Creeks (1998). His novel, The Studhorse
Man (1969) won the Governor General’s Award for
fiction. In 2004 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. RK: I would describe my writing process as slow. I pester a story idea until it tells
me what to write. The nice thing about writing novels is that you only have to get an
idea once every few years. Perhaps my being attracted to the long poem is the same
thing; I get an idea, then let details and implications multiply, and then listen for a
The P: Which contemporary writers do you find most exciting, inspiring, orchallenging? Who are you currently reading?
RK: Here lately I’ve been watching weather reports. Weather might be the key tothe Canadian epic. I marvel at the knowingness of writers like Richard Ford, Cormac
McCarthy, Marquez. Here lately I’ve been rediscovering Virginia Woolf. She writes
out of English weather.
The P: What are your thoughts on the state of publishing in Canada, and inparticular, the role of small press publishers and independent literary journals?
Which publications do you find most compelling?
RK: I find hope in the recent resolution of The Puritan into print. Print itself begins toknow new versions of desire.
The P: In 1988, Gary Geddes asserted that you perceived a “puritanical and
conservative streak in the Canadian consciousness”. To subvert the expectations of
this general conventionality, you are often known to espouse a “Dionysian aesthetic”.
How has your understanding of the Canadian consciousness (and writing) changed (if at all) throughout forty years of reflection, reading, and writing?
RK: Dionysius, recently, has fallen on hard times. The victory of celebrity is a victoryof sobriety; the Dionysian threatens to become a fake posture. Consider Hollywood.
Consider politics. And the government liquor stores keep raising their prices.
The P: The Man From The Creeks, your last published novel, describes the eventssurrounding the death of Dangerous Dan McGrew—an incident recounted famously
by Robert Service in his poem, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” (1907). The novel is
narrated by Peek, an elderly man recalling events that took place in his childhood over one hundred years in the past. Peek is unsatisfied with Service’s version of the story, and wants to give an accurate account. The novel is thus a text based upon the correction or revision of another text. What other fictional or non-fictional texts inspired the novel? Can the reader expect to hear reverberations or echoes of other
writers who have similarly engaged with the notion of textual revision?
RK: On one hand, I like to think my novel is unique; on the other hand, I see everynovel as a revision of prior texts.
“Looking for performance ” Robert Kroetsch
The P: In The Man From The Creeks, the narrator claims to be attempting to set the“record straight”, that he isn’t “afraid to face the facts”. However, Peek (himself a
fictional character), is ultimately concerned with a fictional event. What does this say
about the role of fiction in our society? Do you believe that fiction has a corrective
capability in real-world terms? Or does fiction merely amend or re-order other works
of fiction, engaged in discourse with textual versions of reality alone?
RK: A novel is not simply about experience; it is experience. Who are we to judge anarrator? Is it really possible for the facts to speak for themselves?
The P: In A Likely Story: The Writing Life (1995) you wrote that the North offered
you “an escape from the authority of tradition and hierarchy, an escape that would
allow [you] to become a storyteller”. Your narrator in The Man From The Creeks never
returns home once he arrives in the Klondike. Is Peek’s journey north a reflection of
the same escape you made? Or is Peek’s preoccupation with the irrevocable past—
and the physical and emotional stasis that follows—reflective of a failure to remake
or re-imagine tradition?
RK: Yes, you’ve nailed it: the question of stasis haunts the printing of a story. There
is also the question of the stories that were never written. The North accommodates
both interrogations. We, most of us, long to return home. Why were we so busy
The P: Many critics and readers perceive a highly physical and sensual tone toyour work. As in some of your other novels, The Man From The Creeks is laden with
descriptions of work—manual labour and toil. To what degree is writing labourious?
Are your rich descriptions of labour reflective of your personal writing process?
RK: To sit alone in a room staring at a computer screen is, if we define labour loosely,
labourious. But the retreat (?) into imagination might merely be laziness. When I
first went North I hired out to be a labourer on the Fort Smith Portage. I wanted to exercise, to experience, my young body. Because I had a university degree in English
and philosophy I was promoted to working with a pencil. Perhaps, then, I began at
once to imagine and avoid labour. The P: Throughout The Man From The Creeks, plans are continuously referred to
as “schemes”. Lou, Peek’s mother, uses this term most frequently, but soon Peek
adopts it as well. Is this word merely a colloquial term, or does it reveal more?
Should Lou’s scheming point toward a class-conscious quest for social or monetary
betterment, taking into consideration the rabid gold-lust of the late nineteenth
RK: My novel, in a way, can be read as a treasure hunt, a boyhood story, amythological quest. “Scheme” is a word I treat seriously in my consideration of
“Looking for Performance ” Robert Kroetsch adulthood. Consider today’s lust for gold and the shapes it gives to society.
The P: As in some of your earlier works, such as But We Are Exiles (1965) and Badlands(1975), The Man From The Creeks is structured upon a river journey motif. What is
your fascination with this recurring plot element?
RK: Somewhere in my youth I read Heraclitus and tried to understand that I
couldn’t step into the same river twice. I seem to have written three novels in my
continuing effort to understand. And yes indeed, the river journey, with its built-in
time metaphor, invites the elaboration of plot.
The P: In an Afterword to The Stone Hammer Poems (1975), Ron Smith writes that youhave a “preoccupation with the need to ‘uninvent’ the old mythologies and invent
or create a new mythology”. To what degree is The Man From The Creeks fueled by
this preoccupation? Considering Peek’s attempts at “setting the record straight”,
would you say that the novel is not so much concerned with uninvention, as it is
with reinvention, seeing as how Peek’s story is concerned with a re-imagining of a
preexisting work that has achieved a sort of traditional or even mythological status
in Northern consciousness?
RK: We can only re-tell stories; we attempt, in doing so, to tell new stories. Is there away out of this bind? I think the trick is to enter into it completely. Avoid purity. The
idea of perfection sounds awfully boring. I see I’m not answering the question. But
maybe I am. For that matter, do we ever answer questions?
The P: At the end of The Man From The Creeks, Peek never reveals the truth of thefamous shooting to the “randy tourists” who come to hear him play the piano. Does
Peek’s decision to “face the facts” in text, but perpetuate the myth in performance, at all reflect your ideas of stories and storytelling? Who are Peek’s readers, if they are not the tourists he continues to fool? What might this distinction in audience reveal
about your own?
RK: The story-telling act involves a conspiracy between teller and audience. As astory-teller myself, I am, paradoxically, on the side of the audience. The audience
isn’t looking for something called truth. It is looking for performance. How are the
three of us doing?
The P: The Man From The Creeks was published in 1998. Can we expect to see a newnovel in the near future? If not, what are you currently writing?
RK: Yes, I like to think I am expecting. The old birth metaphor is hard to avoid whenyou’re writing. But we have no writing tests that tell us what the offspring might be.
Am I about to give birth to a novel? Or to a monster? Or to a couplet? “looking For Performance ” Robert Kroetsch
The P: Peek says he plays to “join two partners, who, once they were together, werenever really apart again”. For you, does writing seek to join disparate elements? Or
in your push toward postmodern deconstruction and uninvention, do your narratives
resist totality and the instinct to unify?
RK: The Western tradition has it that we long for versions of unity. The plural formof the longing calls the longing into question. That plurality invites my participation.
I don’t want to escape from time. I like juxtaposition. I like the openness, the
indeterminacy. As Wallace Stevens put it, death is the mother of beauty.
The P: Is retirement from the craft of writing an option you’ve considered? Or, likePeek, will you “simply go on playing”?
RK: A serious reading of your word, play, is the clue. That says it. At least for now.
The P: Winnipeg or Calgary?
RK: For a writer obsessed with notions of place, I am singularly intimate with thephilosophic notion of not-at-homeness. I keep trying to reduce the size of my library.
Winter is my favourite season.
“Looking For Performance ” Robert Kroetsch by Puritan