The Books Interview: Robert Coover

Why do you work so often with the fairy-tale form?
The way we structure our stories has a lot to do with the way tales are traditionally structured. So, in working through that, it inevitably happens that fairy tales reappear. My work has to do with that subliminal, underground narrative, which we invest in early on and never break free of.

Do you feel an affinity with experimental novelists such as John Barth or William Gass?
Yes, of course, and there are others you haven't mentioned, but we didn't launch forth [in the late 1960s] like a school, announcing manifestos and so on.

We simply responded to the whole of fiction as it was presented to us, and each of us in our own way had a reaction to that. It corresponded in some ways to what was happening in the French nouveau roman.There was a kind of desire for renewal, and desire does sometimes take somewhat experimental forms.

We kind of had a cockiness, I think, about our predecessors. Mostly I was simply bored by whatever I was reading. Everybody reported the same response. There were unique writers with special voices and so on, but they did not rise above the level of the new twist on an old tale.

We were listening for some breakthrough voices. They came along in the way of people such as Burroughs and William Gaddis, who triggered new thinking about how one could break out of the pattern.

Of that generation, perhaps only Thomas Pynchon has enjoyed commercial success. Why do you think that is?
Oh, I don't know, that's probably for someone else to say. I think Pynchon is a wonderful writer. His work caught on with an unusual reading audience: the emergence of the digital world, well-educated engineers, and so on, who just found in him a voice that they could relate to.

People who wouldn't normally read fiction?
Yes - or at least people who would not normally have been enthusiasts for or groupies of fiction writers, but he seemed to be speaking to this emerging generation. If you read any of the commentaries on him, often that's the background of the people writing about him - they have an appetite for abstruse physics.

You helped found the Electronic Literature Organisation. When did you first become interested in the literary possibilities opened up by digital technology?
In the late 1980s. It just seemed obvious to me that the world was going to go digital. Everything about it made it seem inevitable, and if that was true then I thought my [creative writing] students should be aware of it and know how to live inside this new world.

Is "electronic literature" a threat to books?
It won't displace books, though I don't think it's good for books. I think it's good for literary art of another kind. And the literature produced may be far more compelling and popular than print culture currently is.

One of the stories in Pricksongs and Descants is dedicated to Cervantes. Why is he so important to you?
He stands in the same position with regard to print literature as generations in future will stand to the digital world: the form that will dominate the next 300 years begins with Don Quixote. He stands for me as the sort of innovator that I wish to emulate.

What are you working on at the moment?
A sequel to my first novel, The Origin of the Brunists. Like that book, this one engages with the patriotic myth, conjoined with the Christian myth.

You've long been preoccupied with American myth-making, haven't you?
Yes. A lot of what I do engages with the American myth. There's nothing necessarily wrong with myths: we tend to need some sort of sustaining mythic notion or pattern or vision in order to get through each day. We need a little bit of structure to get out of bed, to keep going. But most of it
is stifling, in some way corrupting. So, the challenge I always have in my work is to unmake the myth. l

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire

Robert Coover's short story collections "Briar Rose and Spanking the Maid" and "Pricksongs and Descants" (both £9.99) and his novel "Gerald's Party" (£10.99) are all newly republished by Penguin Modern Classics