The University of Iowa

Martin Roper Interview (Part One)

Martin Roper has a long history with the University of Iowa. In 1994, he left Dublin on a Fulbright Scholarship to participate in the International Writing Program. He went on to earn an MFA from Nonfiction Writing Program and later, founded the University of Iowa Irish Writing Program, which he currently directs.

Roper is the author of the novel, Gone, published in 2002 by Henry Holt, and he teaches creative writing at New York University. In this interview with the Writing University website's Kelly Smith, Roper reflects on his career as a writer and teacher, and shares his thoughts on a variety of topics related to the craft of writing, among them, the astonishing "audacity of nonfiction writers," and his reading passions, both past and present.

When did you decide to become a writer?
I think I wanted to recreate the same pleasure I had as a young child getting lost in comics. Reading and writing are the same thing in some ways, forms of escape. Later on, as a serious reader I longed to read about things that were all around me and were not described. There was nothing being written about the inner city in Dublin. Almost everything we read in school was by rural writers. I felt this emptiness. My world did not exist. Poverty is something that is not written about with any integrity or true understanding, and that is the working poor of Dublin. There is one exception, of course, a collection of short stories by one James Joyce. Everyone talks about Dubliners being about paralysis, even Joyce himself. It’s also about poverty. Poverty creates the paralysis, I think. (Knut Hamsun describes it well in The Hunger). The poor are usually patronised in fiction -- with either excessive dignity or with excessive humour -- and thereby they have their humanity stripped from them. I suppose the core of why I am a writer is that it is the only meaningful way I can protest at the invisibility of the poor. I saw -- still see -- the horror of what poverty does to the human being and how we create vital lies about the poor, and how the poor themselves create vital lies to go on. Of course, at the end of the day, poverty is just a single way of seeing the world. The honest and aware person, regardless of circumstance, sees life as it really is, that none of us have control. Ultimately, though, we all abandon the truth of life. We must abandon the awe, the ecstasy, the fear at how overwhelming the universe is and how insignificant we are. We must abandon reality in order to survive. It's an odd conundrum. I don’t want to let go of the awe, no matter how joyful and how painful it is. The problem is that then one is left with little but the everyday misery of life. Cheerful thoughts. Poverty wasn’t the only thing that stirred me. I found very little meaningful writing about sex. The writers I read seemed good but they rarely got at the essence, that sex means I am a self and I am a body. Books didn’t reflect how extraordinary an act it can be for the human being, this meeting, if you are lucky, of mind and body. With good reason. It isn’t easy to write about it.

How did growing up in Dublin influence that decision to be a writer?

It didn’t. At least I’m not aware of it. It would be tempting to say that because I grew up where Joyce once lived that it marked me but it didn’t. It did later, perhaps. At the risk of stating the obvious, I suppose it has influenced me in that I grew up speaking English as it is spoken in Ireland. That’s marked the construction of my sentences in ways that I only grew to understand after I moved to America, and especially during the time I spent in Iowa.

What was it like growing up in Dublin?

We grew up poor. When you are poor the world is a very small place. I should say that my parents were extremely poor, not we children. It’s a vital distinction because it was a long time before I was aware of the poverty. My parents protected us from it. When you grow up poor, vital importance is placed on education as a way out of poverty. Schooling, good grades leading to a decent job, that path. Corporal punishment was de rigeur in school when I was growing up. I had my share of beatings. It sounds terribly sad to say so (I suppose it is) but when I think of childhood, one of my overwhelming memories is of violent teachers. It’s odd that I went on to teach. Maybe that’s why I place such great emphasis on kindness in the classroom. Violence and poverty: all good material. Growing up poor is an influence greater than any writer, any book. Poor is its own nation.

Who were your early literary influences?

I think that question -- and it’s always asked, and it’s always answered with a straight face -- is absurd. By the time I was old enough to look around in the world all the influences had done their influencing. To look back is an artifice. Saying who I like to read is very different from influences. Influences go into the core of you. Books -- and I’ve happily given my life to books -- do not go to the core. People go to the core.

My parents were the influence. They valued education enormously but they had no time for writers, and I understand that. They knew of two well known Dublin writers and unfortunately these gentlemen were not gentlemen. Ironically, although my parents had no time for the lives lived (as they saw it then) by writers, they had a second-hand book shop. It’s odd, that. It was full of paperbacks. I don’t remember reading all of them but apparently I did. I remember reading a lot of comics. The Beano and The Dandy. I loved them. Then I went on to Enid Blython books: The Secret Seven and The Famous Five. A series of children’s’ adventure stories, all with the same essential story and I loved them for their repetition. I read them repeatedly. An interesting aside to these comics and books was that they were British publications and so the English they used was English as it is spoken in England as opposed to English as it is spoken in Ireland as so I loved them all the more for their foreignness. At the same time I felt a little guilty because in school I was learning about the history of our nation and it if felt somewhat disloyal, loving English books. I should be saying that Flaubert and Joyce and Dostoyevsky and Maupassant were influences but the grown up books influence in a very different way. The books of childhood go into the body unfiltered and untainted by formal education. Formal education tells us what is good and what is not good just as later on bookshops and publishers and critics tell us what is literary and what is popular and take all the fun out of it. Daring -- breaking new ground in writing -- is far more likely to come from Desperate Dan in The Dandy than from Madam Bovary. By the time you get to her, you have been told what the good stuff is and therefore you are less likely to create and instead to imitate.

What first brought you to the United States?

A holiday. It was the start of an eduring love affair with New York where I live today.

After your residency at the IWP, you stayed on in Iowa City as a writer-in-residence, attended classes at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and then earned an MFA from the UI's Nonfiction Writing Program. What compelled you to stay in Iowa?

The Fulbright allowed me -- even encouraged me to stay in the United States. The International Writing Program was three months long and the Fulbright people like you to stay longer, to get a greater sense of the country you are living in. I sat in on classes in most of the writing disciplines at Iowa: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, theater, journalism. I fell in love with the personal essay and applied to the Nonfiction Writing Program and was accepted. It was strange, becoming a student of writing after being a teacher of it for so long.

Did any of the writers you met here have an impact on your work, or on your understanding of the craft of writing?

Dr. Susan Lohafer had and continues to have an enormous influence. When I’m editing my work I ask myself if she would approve. Susan has had as big an influence on my teaching as she has had on my writing. She is intellectually vigorous and yet kind, and she has a lovely sense of humour. One of the weaknesses with some intelligent teachers is they lack a sense of humour in the classroom. I think they’re afraid it will undermine their intelligence. I don’t fully understand why but at times it seems hard to be fully human, fully oneself in the academic world.

What were your first impressions of the process of the creative writing workshop?

Too much credence is given to the opinion of the student.

I was a little full of myself. I was already published (albeit in a small way at the time) and I had this Fulbright that told me I was clever. And I had been teaching for the best part of ten years in Dublin so I had a clear vision of what I considered good teaching to be. And I had read a great deal.

I was shocked that the students spoke so much in the workshop. I expected the professor to do all the talking. I was also shocked that it seemed very casual a place, addressing professors by their first names, drinking coffee in the classroom, that kind of thing. But then I had never been in a university in my life so I didn’t know if this was how all universities functioned or whether it was just how American universities functioned. But the biggest shock was definitely that the students spoke a great deal and with great conviction. I was surprised that the professors didn’t correct some of the misguided assertions, but as time wore on I realised a couple of things: it is in fact a form of teaching to let students talk and assert, and it’s going to make little difference if a teacher imposes. I don’t mean to be cynical here. I mean that the adult student needs to seek out the teacher. Teaching adults is very different from teaching students. I listened and watched and learned a great deal at Iowa. It was the best time of my adult life. What I noticed was that it takes enormous effort to learn as an adult. Many adults in writing programs are learning things they should have been taught as children.

You also founded the UI's Irish Writing Program; could you share how that came about?

I was dropping a friend -- Ted Yanecek -- to the airport in Cedar Rapids. The airport was fogged in. We waited and while there Ted noticed a friend of his -- Emmett Vaughn -- and they started talking and suddenly Ted said we should make use of this Irish fellow, and that was it. Emmet Vaughn gave me the money to research and start a program. I knew a lot about teaching but I knew nothing about universities and overseas programs. We ran a pilot program in 1997 and it took off.

Our overseas program is a writing program -- that’s central. This makes it a challenge because clearly the cultural aspect is important, too. They need to get out and meet people -- experience Dublin, experience Ireland. But they also need to write. I believe our obligation is to immerse the student in the writing life. At the end of seven weeks they should be able to decide if they want to make a go of it as writer. And it’s no failure if they decide not to go on. As the director of the program I sometimes feel guilty about making them write so much but then I remember my time at Iowa as a graduate student. Simply walking into the English Philosophy Building was a cultural experience I valued -- I was surrounded by Americans and that was thrilling for me. I have to remind myself that they are engaging with Irish writers and teachers every day and that in itself is a thrill. And they have the delightful cultural experience of not being permitted to eat and drink in the classroom. They love it. We’re lucky to have a powerful group of teachers.

Upon your return to Dublin, you founded the Dublin Writers' Workshop, the first of its kind in the city. Did this happen organically, or did you identify a need in Dublin's writing community, and purposefully set out to form a workshop?

Actually, I had started the Dublin Writers’ Workshop many years prior, in 1984. As a young man I screwed up the courage to go to what was, to my knowledge, the only workshop in Dublin, the Grapevine, run by a man called John Grundy. I had notions of being a poet. As it happened, that first night I went to the Grapevine happened to be the last night of their workshop. John had decided to give it up. I was deflated because although I was terribly intimidated because I was still a teenager and these people were old -- in their thirties and forties and fifties -- I felt I had found an instant home. I joined these old people for a drink afterwards and listened to the talk. As the night wore on, John suggested I continue the workshop. At first I dismissed it. I was still a child. I was smart enough to know that. But John told me I had the personality for it. So I started the workshop in my flat in Harcourt Street in Dublin because they were being kicked out of the Grapevine premises in North Fredrick Street. Eventually it got too cosy -- we knew each other too well -- and we decided to rent a room over a pub and open it to the public. We moved a lot until we settled in the Oak bar in Dame Street for some years. I called it the Dublin Writers’ Workshop. I believe it’s still going on.

I suppose that was my first university in a way. I really listened there. Certainly I had read a lot but nothing like these people. And because it was open to the public, everything walked in through the door, I was constantly on my toes. I felt my job was to let everyone have a voice. Essentially that meant shutting up the big mouths for five minutes so the quieter people could speak. Initially that was a hard job but I got the hang on interrupting without being rude. It’s important to be polite even when dealing with people who are themselves rude.

People referred to every writer under the sun. I took note of the ones I hadn’t read and made sure to read them. Meanwhile I continued to be a decent time-keeper. I was inclined to be quiet. I didn’t see myself as a teacher -- I was too young for that. Some of these people were not just twice my age, they were three times my age. But, oddly enough, people often turned to me for the last word, as if I had some special insight. I didn’t.

How do you balance teaching with your writing life?

In truth it’s balancing my writing with my teaching life. That sounds far from cool. The cool thing is to be the writer, the artist but the truth is that I love teaching. It’s clear to me (at least sometimes it’s clear) that teaching is a noble profession. Teaching takes up enormous time and the pay isn’t wonderful but I don’t do it for the money. I write in the mornings and that way it gets done and in that way the writing gets my best hours.

During your time at the International Writing Program in 1994, you were primarily writing short stories, and since then, you've written and published a novel. What precipitated this change in format?

At that time, I did write a few stories but I spent most of those three months writing a novel -- nothing came of it. I’ve always written fiction.

When I became a graduate student in the Nonfiction Writing Program I had to write nonfiction. That was hard. Fiction is invented, you can say anything you like. It’s very different when you take on the “I” persona in nonfiction, and that persona is supposed to be speaking the truth. I am astonished at the audacity of nonfiction writers. I am astonished that they think they have permission to speak on a given subject. Why? Because they have an opinion and know how to type?

When you began writing Gone, did you know that it was a novel, rather than a short story?

Gone was a collection of essays at first. An agent came to Iowa city and read the essays and mistook them for a patchy novel. She said that although she liked the essays she thought they would be difficult to publish but she was interested if I ever had a novel. In fact she told me she was certain she could publish my work. I had always wanted to write a novel but was afraid of it. That meeting gave me the courage. So I turned the essay into a third-person novel and it was terrible, but it did have a certain cohesiveness as a story. So I then took the third-person novel and turned it into a first-person novel and that first person fictional voice -- a voice I would not have dared in nonfiction -- gave it the fire it needed and it became Gone. By then I had removed any of the personal details that would have been inappropriate to publish.

Did you find that writing a novel changed your writing process?

I spend longer sitting down.

Do you still write short stories?

Yes. I write a lot but am slow to publish. It has to be dead to me and that takes time.

What are you working on now?

A novel. It was supposed to be about an old Jewish man in New York coming to terms with his failures but instead it’s about a wonderful little girl in Dublin and how -- well I’m not done yet. Nearly done. Thank Heavens.

Do you write every day?

Yes. I do now. I didn’t always. I keep notes of my work schedule now. I have to write every day, I feel if I stop I won’t start again. At times it’s an unpleasant feeling, the feeling of having to keep going.

How would you describe your writing process?

Slow. The first novel took seven years. This has taken five. I hope that’s a good sign. It’s not a race but I would like to have a book out a little more frequently than I do. I read the words out loud a lot. I That way, I can’t actually hear myself speaking -- I hear the words inside my head. I tried reading silently but it doesn’t work. I think this reading aloud is a regression. It took me years to learn to read without moving my lips. It’s great to be able to do it again without getting into trouble, as I did at school.

Do you plan story structure and plot in advance of the actual writing of a story? Or perhaps you find that your writing process is more character-driven?

No. No planning. I hate planned books. Usually, unless the writer is very good, you can always see the plans. It’s like being unable to see the beauty of a house because it’s wrapped in scaffolding. Plot kills imagination. Plot is always about what happens next and that doesn’t interest me. I’m interested in reflecting life.

Usually I fall in love with an aspect of someone and that transforms into a fictional character in my head. I would never plan. I plan my teaching. I plan dinner. I only have one plan with writing: Write and write every day. If I have words on paper I have story eventually. The term “process” is alien. Why is this term applied to what we call “art”? Art is play. That is all. I wouldn’t ask a child what her process is for playing her imaginary game. I assume she would say she just does it. That is all.

You've lived in the United States for quite a few years, and visit Dublin at least every summer as the director of the UI's Irish Writing Program; does Dublin feel like home to you? New York?

The day I first arrived in Manhattan in 1991 I felt like I had arrived home. It was frightening and exhilarating and (I suspect this is largely due ot the power of films) it felt like home, it felt familiar. The part of Brooklyn where I live is changing rapidly and right now it doesn’t feel like home. Some small things give it as sense of home. The Arab in the local bodega who make fun of my accent while I make fun of his accent every morning. The Chinese lady who does my dry cleaning. We have a lot of fun talking about English. And America. The best thing about being a foreigner here is that I can ask all the other foreigners what they think about America. There are two very interesting types of foreigner: those who speak English as a first language and the ones who don’t. Most foreigners speak English as a second language. Language makes a huge difference. If you are poor and don’t speak English, you have a very hard time here. It’s similar for the Eastern Europeans in Ireland now. No place feels like home to me these days. Too much change. I’m ready for Walden. That’s not a romantic answer. I’m at home while I’m lost in some story, either the reading of it or the writing of it. The rest matters less and less.

Do you find that your stories are located more frequently in one city than the other?

Dublin dominates. As I grow older, the voices grow sharper. I’m better loving the homeland from a distance, a common predicament, I suspect.

What are you reading now?

My three best friends: The Paris Review, The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker. These three make up community much of the time.

Are there any authors or books that you return to again and again?

There are many writers and books I turn to again and again. I return to them for three reasons: the first is love. The second reason is teaching. And the last reason is for inspiration or to stave off aloneness. Sometimes I’ll go through a period of using examples in teaching from very contemporary writers but I’m always pulled back to the familiar names. My list is long but here are a few favourites: Sharon Olds. Michael Ondaatje. James Joyce. Samuel Beckett. William Trevor. Virginia Woolf -- her essays. T.S. Eliot. Phillip Larkin. John Donne. Michael Blumenthal. Flannery O’Connor. Virginia Hamilton Adair. Emily Dickson. E.B. White. Dostoyevsky. Matsuo Bashō. Juan Rulfo. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Virginia Axline. Brian Moore. Alice Munro. James Baldwin. Cavafy. Ralph Waldo Emerson. J.M. Coetzee. Elizabeth Bishop. John McGahern. Graham Greene. Camus. Proust. Ernest Becker. I’ll stop. I’ve been talking too long.


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