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Interview with Robert Crooke, Author of "Sunrise"
Robert Crooke is a journalist, media executive, and teacher. His poetry has been published in the West Hills Review, the literary journal of the Walt Whitman Birthplace in Long Island, NY. He has lectured at Suffolk County Community College, the University of Nebraska, New York University, and the University of Connecticut. He began his career as a sports reporter and columnist for the Long Island Press and for 13 years served as North American press spokesman for Reuters, the international news group. Currently, he heads financial media relations for the US division of Makinson Cowell, a capital markets advisory firm, founded in 1989, which provides independent research and advice to a wide range of companies based primarily in Europe and North America. “Sunrise,” his second novel, was published in December 2007. His first novel, “American Family” (2004) was critically praised, and became a regional bestseller, popular with east-coast book discussion clubs. He and his wife reside in Bridgewater, CT.
Tyler: Welcome, Robert. I’m happy you could join me today to talk about your new novel. Let’s start by your telling us a little bit about the theme of “Sunrise.”
Robert: Thank you, Tyler. It’s nice to be with you. “Sunrise,” my latest novel, is a love story, but a complicated one. It follows the love affair between Stephen Dahl and Alexis Jordan, two of my main characters, over more than three decades. Along the way, there is both disappointment and hope in their relationship, which is meant to describe the course of their generation, the 60s generation if you will. It is meant also to suggest the same complex tension between disappointment and hope in that generation’s relationship with America-its youthful love affair with radical liberalism and its more recent flirtation with a kind of aggressive conservatism as they age and seek to understand the ambiguous global realities of our present moment. It’s a story about a generation with a penchant for extremes, when reality is in fact quite a more complex thing.
Tyler: Tell us more about the main character, Stephen Dahl. I understand he is an expatriate American living and teaching in Paris. What made him choose his life as an expatriate?
Robert: Well, yes, when the story begins, Stephen is a professor of American literature at a Paris university, and is a novelist with a modest following there in France where he has lived since the late 1970s. Throughout the story, the reader is shown flashbacks of Stephen’s youth in America, events that led him to certain disappointments, and more or less without any family of any kind. In some ways, out of answers, in the America of the late 70s, wanting to live as a writer, uncomfortable with the conservative ascendancy of the late 70s, he moved to Paris, a place that in some respects offered him solace because the ideas and ideals of his youth remained largely unopposed there. Interestingly, as Stephen says several times in “Sunrise,” even Paris is changing in the 21st century. But essentially, he had been more comfortable in Paris than he might have been in a more conservative America, during the 80s and 90s, which is not to say that he is happy or untouched by the tragic sadness of his former life.
Tyler: Why did you decide to write the novel from Stephen’s perspective rather than in third-person?
Robert: A first-person narrative is more intimate, brings the reader closer to the narrator. I knew, for the purposes of my story, Stephen would be a somewhat complex and not entirely likeable figure. He is in fact a sinner who is trying to come to grips with himself. I didn’t want his mistakes, his sins, if you will, to seem theoretical. I wanted them to feel real to the reader, so I asked the reader to come closer. I wanted the reader to know how it felt to be Stephen, to feel his sadness, to understand the tragedy that befell his family, to understand perhaps why he found it so difficult to deal with that family tragedy, and also to feel the renewal of hope and the growing sense of personal responsibility with which the story ends.
On another level, since I knew my story would be told in alternating blocks of time, moving smoothly, I hope, between the late 60s/early 70s and the early 2000s, I wanted the reader to have the main character as a touchstone, rather than to depend upon a disembodied, third-person narrative voice.
Tyler: What makes the September 11th terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq important to the novel?
Robert: The events of that day happened to all of us, all Americans. But the way in which that day was understood, is understood even now, and the ways in which our country decided to respond to that day, are far more diverse and complex. In many ways, the route that America chose to respond to September 11th defines who and what we are as a nation right now, and that is a very complex thing.
In some ways, the horrible tragedy that befalls Stephen Dahl and his family, in the part of the book that describes his youth, is similar in effect to the horrible events of September 11th. I wanted to make an emotional, spiritual and perhaps even moral connection between the way Stephen and his family deal with their tragedy and the way we, America, have dealt with ours. Both tragedies represent my primary themes. Stephen and his family find it almost impossible to let go of their sadness. Sadness and guilt fill them, plague them, and in some ways destroy them. And I’m afraid that America since September 11th has had a similarly difficult time letting go of its own sadness, its anger, and its fear. These emotions are quite understandable, but they cloud the more rational part of our makeup and lead to questionable decisions if we’re not careful. I’m making no political statement, here, just a human one. I believe most Americans, if they had the chance, would take back some of the decisions they made in 2002 and 2003.
My narrator, Stephen Dahl, is a man who, if he could, would also take back many decisions he made in the past, out of sorrow, sadness, unclear thinking.
Tyler: Robert, will you tell us what the tragedy was that happened to Stephen and his family? Is that tragedy what leads Stephen to Paris?
Robert: Stephen’s young sister, Ellen, is killed in a tragic car accident under circumstances in which he and his parents all feel a sense not only of loss, but personal responsibility. The reasons for their feelings are unfolded within the story. Not just this tragedy, but the ways in which Stephen and his parents deal with it emotionally, the overbearing weight of their grief, lead to a loss of faith. Ultimately, yes, his beloved sister is killed, and his father’s death, and his mother’s slow decline and death, leave Stephen homeless, without a family. Homeless wandering is another of the book’s spiritual themes, and Stephen’s move to Paris helps convey this.
Tyler: Stephen returns to America after the death of his best friend, and he reacquaints himself with an old lover, who was his best friend’s wife. Is this a love triangle situation that Stephen is returning home to make peace with?
Robert: Yes. Stephen and Alexis were passionate lovers before she decided to leave him for Tom Westlake. Stephen’s love affair with Alexis and his friendship with Tom are keys to the book, and to understanding Stephen, and why he left America in the first place. Now, as a man trying with difficulty to become honest with himself, to become a better person than he was, he is indeed seeking to make peace with the past. Once back in America, though, he finds that his own feelings remain far more complex than he realized, and that his friends’ feelings toward him were far more complex than he’d ever imagined. It’s all a learning experience for Stephen. I guess, as a writer, I subscribe to the idea that love is the door to enlightenment and understanding, not endless happiness. Anyone who’s been in love knows that it’s a journey comprising sadness and happiness, disappointment and hope, in equal measures.
Tyler: Will you tell us why Alexis left Stephen for Tom?
Robert: Essentially because of his self-destructive, alcoholic behavior, but there also were more personal reasons for her, involving her past, her sense of uncertainty about the meaning of love, and her confusion about her professional ambitions.
Tyler: What is Stephen hoping for in his return to the United States, and does that hope become reality?
Robert: Stephen is hoping to become a better man, and that opportunity is provided to him by the events of the story. In some ways, the opportunity for forgiveness, for atonement, and for love and friendship, are more than he might have imagined at the start of the novel. When we first meet him in Paris, he’s haunted by something in his past that seems mysterious to him, and to us, the reader. Protected in a day to day existence-a sort of endless now-that has salvaged his once destructive, alcoholic life, he is still spiritually frozen, almost imprisoned within his own being, in a foreign country, far from home, unable fully to imagine the future. Then, the events of September 11th occur, and the news that his old friend Tom has died, news that comes in an unexpected, but surprisingly welcome phone call from his former lover. Thus starts a process of reawakening within Stephen.
As the story proceeds, his past comes back to him, relentlessly and irrevocably. The story of how he became blocked and stalled as a person, even as a writer, is gradually revealed, and finally resolved, at the moment he embraces the truth and implications of his past. The book starts with Stephen looking out a window onto the City of Paris. And we leave him where we found him, at another window, in America, except that this final window has a view of the future.
Tyler: Is Stephen hoping to rekindle his relationship with Alexis?
Robert: At the beginning of the story, Stephen denies this to himself, but as things proceed, he admits his desire for her more and more. By the story’s conclusion he has fully accepted it, and expressed it. But by then, he has been shown what such a rekindling will demand of him and Alexis, too, morally and spiritually. They are ultimately given a choice between real love and illusion.
Tyler: What led Stephen to being a writer, and what kind of books does he write? You mentioned he has a small following in France? Does he have an audience in the United States?
Robert: Stephen was born to be a writer. It’s in his blood, his psychological and spiritual DNA. He writes, as one character describes it, “books about America from an old-fashioned, European perspective.” But when we first meet him, he has reached the end of his ability to write these sorts of books. Throughout the story of “Sunrise,” he is working his way out of writer’s block, reaching for a book about his past, and about America, that represents a new style, and a whole new spiritual and literary perspective.
Tyler: Robert, what inspired you to write “Sunrise”?
Robert: We live in a time when there is much talk of religion and morality. Religion and morality have always been central concerns for Americans, throughout our history. Not only are we a serious, church-going nation, but our fervent belief in our churches and our religions has always had a strong political dimension-as it does now. This is both good and bad. Some of the greatest advances toward democracy and freedom and fairness in our history were fueled by religious trends or at least moral fervor-the American Revolution, Abolition, the Progressive Era, the Civil Rights movement to name just a few, but over-politicization of religion and morality also have led to misunderstanding. I wanted to write a fictional story that dealt with these issues, but allow the reader to feel and understand the essence of goodness and sin, of tragedy and hope, of right and wrong, about ourselves and our country, without the overbearing limitations of religious or political “correctness”-not that my characters don’t have very strong political and moral opinions of their own. I just wanted to place these concerns in the wider cultural and historical context, a human context, a universal context-just as many of the great American novelists of the past did, writers like Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Richard Yates, and as some working today do, like Philip Roth, Ian McEwan and Michael Ondaatje.
Tyler: The novel has many negative themes of loss and illusion, but the title “Sunrise” suggests hope and renewal. In choosing that title, what was the message you were making about the novel and your perspective on life?
Robert: I would say that the title carries the major theme of the book, that the reality of our lives, the history and future of our nation, the nature of man, of love and friendship, the essence of reality itself, is the balance of disappointment and hope-not one or the other-but both together. The hopefulness of life is that tomorrow, the sun indeed will rise again, giving us all a new opportunity. But that sun will rise on reality, not on a dream or a fantasy.
Tyler: I understand the book has been compared to “The Great Gatsby.” Why do you think that comparison has been made, and do you agree with it?
Robert: I do agree with it. “Sunrise” is, on one level, an ode to literature, and in particular to that great American novel, “The Great Gatsby.” I didn’t start out thinking in those terms. I didn’t seek out Gatsby as a subtext for my novel. It was more a case of that book, its insights and themes, finding me, guiding me to myself, confirming that I was on the right path artistically. I suppose the mysterious and mythic aspects of the Long Island setting make a perfect echo between Fitzgerald’s great work and my own homage to it.
Tyler: Robert, who would you say are your literary influences? Are there one or two books or authors specifically that had a profound influence on your writing?
Robert: I think both the realists and the modernists of American literature have influenced me. As I think of it, the writers who most profoundly have influenced me are those who have somehow combined features of realism and modernism, people like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, John Updike, Michael Ondaatje and Ian McEwan.
Tyler: Your publisher, iUniverse, designated the book as one of its rare “Publisher’s Choice” novels. Will you tell us more about why Sunrise was chosen for this special designation?
Robert: iUniverse really seemed to like “Sunrise,” and they seem to feel it has great potential commercially. I guess I can only answer this question by telling you what they told me, that “Sunrise” is ‘an entertaining, literate, moving, and witty novel, with commercial appeal and literary value.’ They’ve been very kind to this book and very supportive of it, and of me, which the iUniverse “Publisher’s Choice” designation reflects.
Tyler: Robert, you previously published “American Family,” which is also told in first person and exploring the past and present. How is “Sunrise” different from your first novel?
Robert: Well, you found one big similarity-that first person narrative, which is meant to bring the reader closer to the character! I think I’m attracted to complex lead characters, people who must make a journey, whether from innocence to adulthood, or ignorance to understanding, or even, from selfishness to something more loving and mature. That’s a daunting task for a writer, because some readers want to fall in love with your main character right off the bat. I don’t think you fall in love with my protagonists so easily. Rather, you take the same journey they’re taking, the same arc of transcendence and enlightenment. And I suppose I feel more comfortable letting the reader get very close to those characters, as a way to help them see the humanity in those characters, even when they might be doing certain things we wouldn’t particularly admire-at first. I really think that’s why I’ve depended on the first person narrative.
“American Family” was a work of historical literary fiction, set during the Red Scare Era of the early 1950s, the story of a family caught in the paranoia and danger of that time, a time of betrayal, when a mood of betrayal and feeling betrayed, and of danger and fear, filled the atmosphere, the media, politics, even school and church. I suppose on that level, “American Family” and “Sunrise” are dealing with certain issues in common, but the stories and the historical times they each explore are different. And the moods of each novel are different. “American Family” is narrated, for the most part, by a prep school boy learning what life is all about. It carries his mood of innocence and youthful indiscretion. “Sunrise” is narrated by an older, somewhat more disappointed man. However, in both novels, the narrator is guilty of a great spiritual sin, which must be acknowledged and atoned for.
Tyler: What is next for you, Robert? Are you working on another novel?
Robert: I am working on a new novel, yes. It’s called “The Earth and Its Sorrows.” It’s a contemporary story, another first person narrative, about a successful businessman who recently lost his son in a terrible car accident. He and his wife and surviving daughter, are in a state of almost frozen mourning. As the book begins, this narrator has arrived at the little town where he grew up, prepared to sell off an old family cottage, because he and his wife have decided to retire and “downsize” their lives, or at least to simplify things, hoping to move on from their grief more or less. But it only takes a few minutes at this old cottage where he hasn’t been for years, for the narrator suddenly to feel more emotional and alive than he’s felt in some time, since even before his son’s death actually.
Most interesting of all, I hope, he suddenly feels the presence of his dead son. So, he can’t sell, and can’t quite explain to the realtor, or to his wife or daughter, exactly why. He fears they’ll think he’s a little crazy, and they do, anyway. But he tells them he wants to stay at the cottage for a few days, just to think. A few days turns into a few weeks, in which he meets old friends, descendants of old families he grew up with. His estranged brother shows up, and he runs into his high school sweetheart. Old hurts and even sins are revealed and resolved, and a historical mystery held within the cottage is also revealed, interestingly, I hope. Basically, this place of his youth renews him and saves him from the deep despair with which he arrived. In many ways, this is the funniest book I’ve written, or at least, the one that offers the most heartfelt laughter, along with its other themes of loss and spiritual renewal. I have high hopes for this new book. Thank you for asking.
Tyler: Thank you for joining me today, Robert. Before we go, will you tell us a little bit about your website and what additional information can be found there about “Sunrise”?
Robert: Of course, Tyler. The URL of my website is http://www.robertcrooke.org. Visitors will find a lot of visual and written information there about both my novels, including the chance to read the first chapter of “Sunrise” if they’d like. They’ll see some of the nice press notices and reviews both books have received. People also can see what personal appearances I’ve made or plan to make, at bookstores, libraries, colleges, press clubs, writers groups, and book discussion clubs. There’s some bio information there about me, and there are links to both Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com, enabling folks to purchase my books.
Thanks again, Tyler, you’ve been awfully nice.
Tyler: Thank you, Robert. It sounds like you’re on the path to being a literary giant. I wish you much joy along the way.
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