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When Catherine Bush's second novel debuted, the media reached a rapid consensus. The Rules of Engagement was well reviewed in many important journals -- The New York Times, the Toronto Star, the San Francisco Chronicle, ad nauseam. And it was all good stuff. Reviewers found the characters compelling, the premise engaging, the prose stimulating and so on. But most of the reviews held a subtext: that a woman writing about war was, well, a little weird. "I am just interested in larger issues like that and the place where our private lives meet public events," says Bush.
The Rules of Engagement isn't actually about war, at all. Rather it is a novel that injects the events of its era into the life of its main character, Arcadia Hearne, a London-based researcher who studies contemporary war. As esoteric as that sounds, The Rules of Engagement is a taut, suspenseful story told by Arcadia as she puzzles through her past and grapples with her planet's present. "I always feel as a human being and as a writer that my life does not stop at the door to my house or the end of my street or the restaurant up the block," says Bush, "but goes outwards from there. And I want that world to sort of feed into and seep into my fiction, too."
The Rules of Engagement's Arcadia is an unwitting siren. A serious beauty for whom men jump through hoops, sometimes without either Arcadia or the men in question knowing it. Arcadia's dark secret involves a duel that was fought over her in a Toronto ravine 10 years before the book opens in London. Bush says that, in Arcadia, she "wanted to create a character who was a smart, thinking woman who was also attractive and didn't have to take off her glasses and whip her hair out of a bun to transform into being attractive."
While Arcadia and Bush are alike in several important ways, writing The Rules of Engagement and holding it up against her previous novel "brought home to me how much these twin themes of risk and safety just kind of ripple through both books in a way I wasn't really conscious of." Neither of Bush's books have been autobiographical. She says that type of writing is uninteresting to her. However, "I think inevitably you draw on your phychic stuff. How can you not?"
Bush, 39, holds a Bachelor's degree in comparative literature from Yale University. She lives in Toronto where she's at work on her third novel. "I describe it as a sort of neurological mystery," says Bush, adding that it is, essentially, a novel about pain.
Linda Richards: Rules of Engagement was your second novel. I understand that the first, Minus Time, is being made into a film.
Catherine Bush: It is. It's in the sort of long production period. Jeremy Podeswa has the option on it. He did a movie called The Five Senses that came out a couple of years ago. It went to Cannes and did very well critically. He's adapting my novel and Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces at the moment. So he's got his hands full! [Laughs] It's like all movie stuff: there are so many variables involved and so much money and money raising at a certain point that it's hard to put any money on it until you actually know it's... even when it goes into production. But I really like Jeremy's work and I'm interested to see what he's going to do with it.
The vision for your vision?
Yeah. I like the idea of someone else taking it over and translating it into their world. It's turning it into something completely different. And the demands for film are so different [from] the demands for a novel. A short story is far easier to translate to the screen than a novel is. Obviously, it's going to have to be changed into something that's quite different and they're going to have to select a much narrower vision and then bring their own vision to it. I think that's fine. I'm much more interested in seeing what someone I trust will bring to the material than feeling that it needs to be faithful [to the book] in some really literal way. I'd like them to be true to it in some emotional or metaphoric sense.
One of the reviews I saw of Rules of Engagement said that the metaphor for love through war was a tired one. I don't think that's true.
Well, it is true that a lot of people use war as a metaphor for love and trials and tribulations in love. That's why I kind of wanted to come in from this weird angle with the duel stuff. And Arcadia writes about war, but she writes specifically about issues of intervention. Because that's what really interests me. You know: the whole question of when do we intervene? Whether it's to help people in need or to help countries that are in the midst of civil war, or whatever. That's why I wanted to find a particular angle. And that seemed to me really timely.
Why does it interest you?
I guess because I'm someone tuned in to world events and public events and I need that food on a daily basis. I always feel as a human being and as a writer that my life does not stop at the door to my house or the end of my street or the restaurant up the block, but goes outwards from there. And I want that world to sort of feed into and seep into my fiction, too. I don't know: it could have something to do with the fact that I had this grade three teacher in Don Mills, Ontario who had us all at the age of eight writing not only stories and poems but thoughts -- that's what she called them -- about current events of the day. She was asking us to write responses to [things like] the Vietnam war. To take stuff from the newspaper and write our own kind of meditations on it. It was the late 1960s, after all. But I think that at a very influential time when I was a kid, she opened us up to the wider world and probably imprinted my little impressionistic proto-writer's brain with some of this stuff. I am just interested in larger issues like that and the place where our private lives meet public events.
What led to you taking up this story?
I think there were a couple of things that really led to the origins of this book. Partly hearing a story that a friend told me -- a real life story -- about a contemporary woman who wrote about war and had a duel fought over her. And I really loved the idea about a woman who was writing about war, because that's sort of taboo breaking in a way. And then her not quite being a victim of violence, but her being implicated in this weird event that she can't quite stop and leaves its own scars. I know nothing more about the real life story than that, but it just fascinated me as a scenario.
My youngest sister, Jennifer, is a development worker who has spent most of the last 10 years in Africa. And I went to visit her in Kenya in the early 90s. That was right after the Ethiopian government had fallen and Somalia was already in a mess of civil war. And I just for the first time felt I was in a country that, just across its borders, there were countries that were collapsing. I had been involved in bringing some money to a refugee who was fleeing Ethiopia trying to get to Canada. And through my sister [I] met someone else, a woman from Somalia, who had fled with her family. She herself was a refugee worker. And somehow, I don't know, I just felt how close our stories were. And I came from such a safe place and they came out of lives that were so dangerous. And yet there -- even in cities like Toronto or London -- you're colliding with or crushing up against people who carry these stories with them.
So, I don't know, all of this began to sort of stew the way stuff does in you. There had to be some point to bring together these two stories: the duel story and the refugee story.
Now that I've met you I can see that you do have some things in common with Arcadia. Not to suggest the novel is autobiographical, but I think you have the same ethics as she does. The same kind of wiring.
Yeah: that's probably true. I had the weird experience of having to proofread my first book around the same time I was copy editing the second because Minus Time was being re-released. That isn't something I would have chosen to do. I had no interest in reading my first novel again. I just thought it would be a horribly painful process. But it brought home to me how much these twin themes of risk and safety just kind of ripple through both books in a way I wasn't really conscious of. And I just thought [that] it's weird coming up against some of your own unconscious material going: OK, that must be some of the stuff that's just hardwired into me. You know: these are some of my obsessions that I'm just going to draw on whether I like it or not.
I don't write overtly autobiographical or confessional books. I'm not interested, really, in the confessional mode. But I think inevitably you draw on your phychic stuff. How can you not?
Arcadia is an interesting character. There's an element of unwitting seductress about her. She attracts these people to her that fight duels, after all.
Yeah. I like describing her as a sort of unwilling seductress because I didn't want to make her too overtly flirtatious. I mean, she's aware in some ways that she's attractive and she uses it in certain ways, but I hope in somewhat complicated ways and not just to flirt. So I didn't spend a lot of time calling attention to what she looks like or whatever because I was more interested in how she responded to situations. I also wanted to create a character who was a smart, thinking woman who was also attractive and didn't have to take off her glasses and whip her hair out of a bun to transform into being attractive. That she could be sexy and talk about war at the same time and be sexy while talking about war.
And she inspires these guys to go to amazing lengths.
Yeah. But half the time I think -- especially with the young guys, Evan and Neal -- are as much in love with the idea of being in love. Especially Evan.
Are you working on anything now?
I'm working on a new book, a new novel. When I talk about it, I describe it as a sort of neurological mystery. It's about pain. It's about people with migraines. And it's about a woman who disappears and the search for her.
Do you have a sense of when it'll be done?
No. And I think that, what I learned with the second novel is just... I mean, I didn't know this book was going to take me six and a half years to write. If someone had told me that in the beginning, my jaw would have dropped and I'd have said: No. No! That's not possible. [Laughs] But what I had to do was learn to let go of a lot of outside expectations and just say at a certain point: OK. It takes as long as it takes. I've got to work on it until it's as good as it can be and I figure out how to write this story. I hope this one won't take as long, but I've just learned to be sort of sanguine about: I'll write it until it's done.
You said earlier that you had to reread your first novel long after you wrote it. Did it transport you? Do you know what I mean? Did it take you to that reading place?
Well, I think most writers, the last thing they want to do when they finish a book is reread it. They just want to move on to the next thing. It had been five years since I read it. And what happened was it was being reissued in paperback and they had to re-scan it all in.
Oh, like they'd done OCR [optical character recognition] on it and wanted to make sure it was OK?
Yeah. I wanted to just make sure. And then they made the mistake of saying to me that I could make a few copyediting changes. I cut out 30 pages. [Laughs]
Were you allowed?
Yeah. They were really good about it. There just seemed to be a lot of unnecessary words, basically. A few unnecessary moments, a few unnecessary scenes, a couple things I just changed to have a little fun: do a Henry James on it. [Laughs] That was the only way I could read it. But it was really odd, because at the same time it had been so long, I couldn't remember exactly what was going to happen so I wasn't predicting. I was just reading as if I were an editor, with a pencil.
As opposed to reading in the bathtub or something.
Right. But at another level you're made aware of all of your bad habits. Like how many times someone leans forward -- like when they're having a talk with someone across a café table -- and there are certain adverbs that I use. Though now I never use them anymore [Laughs]. They shall remain nameless and I've excised them all from the first one.
Do you think people would notice the difference [between the original and the edited versions]?
No one would notice. That's the thing. And that was the idea: I wasn't trying to call attention to it. I just tightened it.
Not many writers get to do that.
No. And it was only because of those circumstances. I would never have chosen to do that. I'm happy just to leave a book behind when I'm finished and then go on to the next. You know, you live in this world, you live in these characters lives, you develop these relationships and then you move on to something else.
So it's almost like a director's cut.
Yeah. That's what my film friends have said, exactly. My director's cut.
Are you a disciplined writer?
Yeah, in theory. I am. Ideally I get up in the morning and I'll try and write from five to seven days a week. It's just, I don't know, even if you're basically writing full-time, I just think life and writing is an endless juggling act and there's always other stuff coming in -- stuff that needs to be done. One of the things I'm learning to do as I go along is, you know when you're young you think: Oh, as I get more established as a writer I'll get these great long uninterrupted spans of time to work. What I think I've actually learned to do is just go in and out much more quickly so I don't need as much transition time. I'll just use whatever time I've got.
Are you hoping the next book will require a shorter completion time than The Rules of Engagement?
I just believe that, whatever you do, you sort of have to become the person who can write the book you want to write and it just takes as long as it takes. The one thing I like about books that are written over a period of years is they gain a kind of texture of time. They have a depth and verticality. And there's no other way to get that other than time.
Do you think that, over time, you change and you bring that to the book?
Yeah. One of the nice things about writing a book over that period of time is that it gives you room for the random. Like weird, spontaneous collisions. You know, it wasn't until later in the process that I met someone who told me about these dueling handbooks. Or that I met the nuclear engineer whose father did just what I wanted the father in the book to do. And I was writing the whole time but, I don't know, it's just more of those spontaneous encounters are given room to occur and they feed the work in all sorts of unpredictable ways. It's like you're embarked on this journey.
But you weren't writing for the whole six and a half years?
Yeah, I was. I was rewriting parts of it. And a lot of the book constructed itself like a jigsaw puzzle. It took me a long time to figure out how the various parts came together and how to order it. I mean, I sort of started at the beginning and went through to the end but there were holes in the middle and I read through [to] the end and it was really awful and I wrote the second half again and then went back to the first half.
How did you know there were holes?
It was clear. There was just stuff that didn't happen [Laughs] because I couldn't figure out how to make it happen. So I'd say: Just leave that and go onto the next part.
So you're not a heavy plotter, then? Not file cards, or...
No. What I have is a sense of trajectory. And I was just trying to figure out when the reader needed to know things. Because there is an element of suspense in the book and I hadn't really worked with that in my first novel and it's hard! It's hard to do that well. And so there was a lot of trial and error in that.
I start with character scenario and I really need to know what my characters jobs are, for some reason. That's really defining for me. People's work. Because I really like people who are passionate about their work. And then I do have a sense of trajectory. I don't even know what is going to happen at the end, but kind of where they're going to end up. And then I have to figure out how to get them there. Like this duel stuff. I didn't start out knowing why they fought this duel. So Arcadia is now at the point where she can go and retell the story for the first time in ten years and she's trying to explain to herself what happened. And I was really in the same position she was. Trying to figure out: OK, why did they do it? And: How do I tell this?
What's your educational background?
I have one degree. I have a B.A. in comparative literature. When I was an undergraduate I mostly did medieval and Renaissance stuff. Oddly enough, I didn't read a lot of novels in university and I feel like I'm still catching up in that regard.
I wrote an undergraduate thesis on amazons in 17th century literature, which was great fun, I have to say. Arcadia is sort of named after that period of my life because one of the most amazing and interesting amazons in 17th century literature is from Philip Sidney's [The Countess of Pembroke's] Arcadia which is brilliant. It's kind of like the first novel in English. It predates Richardson's Pamela and it's a bizarre, strange book. Kind of obsessed with gender roles, in some ways. I found that really fascinating, but I also didn't want to be an academic so I didn't bother to go on to graduate school. I went off to New York and got my master's in life and tried to figure out how to be a writer.
Were you writing in that period?
I wrote since I was a kid. I always wrote. I did my degree at Yale and it was a very intense place to be a writer in the early 1980s. It was actually a quite competitive place for writers and there was a lot of pressure to succeed early. I think when I went to New York I kind of backed away from that. I spent three years writing about performance and dance and was very involved with the East Village performance scene in the mid-80s. And it was great just to do something totally different. But I was writing fiction the whole time.
You were writing for magazines?
Yeah. I wrote mostly for this downtown paper that the only time they [gave] me a check I hung it on my wall because A. I didn't think I'd ever be able to cash it [Laughs] and B. I didn't think I'd ever see another check from them again. I made money proofreading at a running magazine and doing weird freelance assignments. Like writing a quasi-Harlequin romance about stuffed teddy bears. Ghostwriting it, I might add. I didn't invent it, this woman did. And they wanted someone to make it more literary. But you do what you have to do. I was, for this period of my life, a font on running statistics. But only when I went in to the office. When I was there I knew all these runner's terms and...
Are you a runner?
No! Most of the women that worked there, well we were all pretty fit but we weren't runners. All the male editors and publisher were in their 40s or around 50: ex-runners limping around on gimpy knees. Hardly an advertisement for the running life.
Were you surprised by the success of The Rules of Engagement?
I think, for any writer, when a book comes out there's things you hope will happen and most of us have fairly high expectations. [In] the process of having a book come out, some great things happen and then some things you wish happen that don't. You're always riding a bit of a roller coaster. I think that's absolutely inevitable. But I've been pleased with how the book has done and the reviews have been great and I also think what every writer hopes for, which is a kind of word of mouth momentum at a certain point. That people start talking about it and telling their friends about it. I feel like this book has a certain kind of momentum and that's priceless, in a way. | June 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.