Catherine Bush

The Rules of Engagement
– Q&A with Catherine Bush

Interview with Catherine Bush by Ron Hogan of


RH: What was the first thing that you wanted to know when you started Rules?

CB: I started with the idea of a woman who writes about war theory and has a duel fought over her. I just loved the coming together of someone who writes about, and intellectualizes, violence and war and also has this bizarre violent event in her own life. I wanted to talk about violence, confront it in myself, to think about it in ways that I had resisted thinking about it, and a duel seemed to be an interesting angle at which to come at the issue. It was also a way for me to talk about some early relationships in my own life, and the kind of intensity that early relationships often have. Even if they don’t lead to duels, they can still be deeply shaping and scarring, and we all live with the legacies of those intense relationships.


RH: One of the first challenges of this story is to create a psychologically convincing fiction in which the idea of fighting a duel in the modern world becomes plausible, and the reactions to it seem realistic.

CB: Exactly. I like books that take that kind of dare, and I like to make myself take those kinds of dares. It interested me to take a lot of nineteenth-century overtones and a veneer of romance, something that seems very historical, and put it at the end of the twentieth century–see what we, with our modern mindsets, would do. But whether a duel is fought in the nineteenth century or the twentieth, I’m really interested in what it feels like to have a duel fought over you. That story isn’t told in traditional dueling literature, which is all about the guys who fight. Duels aren’t always fought over women, but they usually are, and I wonder, what’s it like to be fought over? What sort of scars does it leave?


RH: There are elements of the story that could be, in another context, the basis of a political thriller, but you keep them grounded in the characters’ personal situations.

CB: I’ve just started work on a new book, so I’ve been thinking about the types of books I love to read and ideally would like to write, and I keep thinking about a book that would be the secret love child of Alice Munro and Haruki Murakami. One of the things I love about Murakami’s work, especially The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, is the way he’ll take the conventions of, say, the detective genre and then build a very literary overlay on them. But I like the element of mystery that’s embedded in the story, that keeps you reading. I like that element of suspense, of motion in a story, and as a writer I’d like to be able to pull the reader along in that way. Alice Munro is usually seen as a realist but there’s a strong strain of the Gothic in her stories too.
We all have secrets of one kind of another. We’re all forced to confront various situations where we either take risks or don’t– emotional risks, psychological risks. And I’ve spent a lot of time travelling between countries. My family’s originally from England, then we moved to Canada, where I live now. I lived in the United States for ten years, and when I was writing this book, I spent a lot of time in London for research. So I live my life on this weird, triangulated axis between three countries, and I think a lot of my obsession with geographical displacement, and people who live between borders, comes out of my own experiences.
And you’re always in a funny position as a Canadian, because you’re innocuous and invisible and usually mistaken for an American overseas. At the same time, our neutrality has its own desirability. Canadian passports are the most forged in the world; when I found that out, I was fascinated. I knew I had to write about it somehow.


RH: Other people’s reactions when they learn about the duel are an important part of the story. What sort of reactions did you face when you told–and tell–people you were writing a novel about a duel in modern-day Toronto?

CB: At first they don’t quite understand what you’ve said, so you start making pistol signs in the air with your hands. “You know, a duel, with pistols…” And then they ask, “When is the book set again?” I like being able to take people by surprise like that. Some people have told me that it’s too extraordinary, how could something like that happen in Toronto? But my feeling is that stuff happens everywhere, weird, violent stuff. I remember riding in a cab in Montreal, with a Yugoslavian cab driver describing his conversations with Quebecois about the civil wars in Yugoslavia. They would tell him, “It could never happen here. We’re not violent.” And he would always tell them, “You may not be violent, but you can become violent.”
Young men, especially, can be so volatile, can believe themselves to be invincible. That’s a global phenomenon. On that level, the idea of a duel doesn’t seem so surprising to me. And Toronto has such a reputation for being nice and staid that I liked to shake up its literary image a bit. It also has these ravines where various writers, including Margaret Atwood, have placed weird, wild, terrible events. If weird stuff happens in Toronto, it’ll happen in the ravines; they’re a wild country within our city.

Read the full interview

Writing a novel is a terrible experience during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay."

- Flannery O’Connor

The Rules of Engagement

“The novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.”

- Randall Jarrell

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