Talk to me #8: David Leach

Sep 9, 2016 by

Talk to me #8: David Leach

Where you learned to love.

Do we really “learn” to love? It makes love sound like something you teach yourself by watching YouTube, like fixing a faucet or speaking Spanish. I think we discover our innate capacity for love, and then spend the rest of our lives amazed and befuddled as we uncover complex new variations on this most strange and unsettling of emotions.

Your first cut – was it the deepest?

My first “cut” was probably when I was an early teen. My parents sent me to computer camp in the early 80s. There was an attractive counselor with long hair, tight T-shirts and an exceptional knowledge of microprocessors whom I pined for in nerdy silence. I don’t think the hormonal turmoil that I felt for her counts as “love,” but more than 30 years later, I still find Boolean logic and the smell of burning solder vaguely erotic.

Your love who got away.

I assumed I was going to marry my high-school sweetheart and we’d live happily ever after, but one summer she ran away with a treeplanter—he was 10 years older than I and an artist obsessed with dinosaurs and Barbie dolls. So I quit university, bought a plane ticket and flew to Israel to live on a kibbutz. That decision and my encounters with dozens of other foreign volunteers changed my life, blew open my sheltered suburban imagination, and inspired me to pursue my dreams of being a writer. (I also learned how to whisper “Ska vi älska?”—“Shall we make love?” in Swedish.) I finally returned to that story—and to Israel, several times—for my latest book, Chasing Utopia

Your “type” – and why.

Funny, feisty, independent, active, adventurous, well-read. (A collection of contemporary shorts stories, by any author, especially Alice Munro or Lorrie Moore on the bedside table is always a good sign.) Also: tolerant of my hoarding of old magazines and used bikes.

Your favourite literary romance.

Wuthering Heights. I read it as a teenager when I had to stay home sick from school and got seriously high on Benylin. I picked it off my mom’s bookshelf because I thought “wuthering” sounded like the most suggestive word in the English language and read it in one hallucinogenic bed-ridden sitting. I still don’t know what “wuthering” means.

Your thoughts on friends being lovers.

Bad idea. Full stop.

Your thoughts on the net amounts of pleasure and pain.

I’ll take Door #1, please. I am a pleasure-seeking animal and I figure life will deal you enough pain—before delivering its final knock-out punch—without going out of your way to suffer for love (or anything else). Maybe that’s wishful thinking. But really, we should all try to maximize the net amount of joy during our brief and messy time on this planet: ours and everyone else’s.

Your story about unrequited love.

Uh, pretty much my entire teen years. And most of my twenties for that matter. Unrequited love produced many bad poems and long, angsty diary entries. It took me a long time to realize that love could be requited. And that it’s pretty awesome/scary when it is. Admittedly, my love radar was often wonky.

Your favourite author/artist on love.

Intellectually, my favourite authors on the topic are Denis de Rougemont (Love in the Western World) and Michel Foucault (The History of Sexuality). Both revealed that much of what we take as natural and universal in love and sexuality is, in fact, culturally constructed and historically contingent.

Emotionally, I remain a huge, weepy sucker for The English Patient. The movie, not the book. (Is that okay to say on a literary website, or will I get exiled to CanLit purgatory?)

Your reconciliation of the domestic and the erotic.

It can be a tough adjustment to go from tearing off each other’s clothes after a night on the town to sliding under the duvet before 10 pm in your old PJs, with ear plugs in (I snore like a dragon) and a mouth-guard like a hockey player (because we both grind our teeth). I don’t know if you ever reconcile it. It just happens. Travel can help re-stoke the fire, thanks to the mystery of a new city and the erotic charge of sharing a hotel room.

Your thoughts on marriage.

Probably saved me. I’d likely be 40 pounds heavier and living like a hermit amid piles of unwashed clothes and back issues of Harper’s if it wasn’t for my wife—her healthy cooking, her own commitment to fitness and her “encouraging” me to clean up my scattered piles of crap—or what she calls my “Camp Davids”. True story: our first date was in a prison! (I’m going to save the rest of that story for another time.)

Love changes when you have children.

Yes. It expands exponentially, with new dimensions and new patterns—and new fears. Especially fears. Suddenly, there are these small people, with wild emotions, who are almost entirely dependent on you to keep them alive and not turn them into screwed-up adults. It’s a big responsibility! And the wild range of kids’ own emotions—from ear-melting rage to the most gushing, un-selfconscious affection, often in the span of a few minutes—is a revelation. As an adult, before you have kids, you often forget that you can feel that strongly about anything.

Your thoughts on resisting temptation.

I think you can enjoy temptation without succumbing to it—especially hurtful, damaging temptations. We live in a world (or at least an Internet) full of angry, selfish narcissists with little-to-no impulse control, so showing some self-regulation sets you apart from the hordes of trolls, online and in real life.

Your advice on breaking up.

Have a soundtrack ready. If the relationship really mattered, breaking up is going to kick your ass hard, so listen compulsively to the music that you love, to the music that touches you almost as deeply as that person did, and let it all pour out. Dance and cry and sing badly to the soundtrack that reminds you of all that you loved and lost. For me, over the years, it’s been Neil Young, Tracy Chapman, Sarah Harmer and large doses of The Clash.

The influence of love on your work.

First, I was going to say very little. I’m a magazine writer who specialized in outdoor adventure and just wrote a book about the history of the kibbutz movement in Israel. Sexy! But there is love in both my books: in Fatal Tide, there is the maternal love and loss of a parent reckoning with the tragic death of her son in an adventure race. In Chasing Utopia, there is the tension between kibbutzniks’ love of community, love of family and love of country—and how to balance these competing interests in their utopian experiment in radical equality.

Your lessons from love.

Always be open to it. Walls are too easy to erect—between nations, between people, and within our own hearts. I’ve had some adrenaline-juicing experiences: getting stoned (literally) in Jerusalem, backpacking in polar-bear country, mountain-biking through remote Peru. Nothing comes close to that disorienting flush of first love.

Your greatest regret in love.

Not saying the words “I love you” more often and more emphatically.

Your thoughts on infidelity – one night stand, fling, or affair.

I was a huge John Updike fan in my early 20s and he always made suburban infidelity seem like what adulthood was all about. But in the end, I’ve always preferred my drama on the page, while reading a good book (like Updike’s), or on the road, travelling to new countries or on an outdoor adventure. I think infidelity often springs from boredom and neediness and an urge to inject some drama and mystery into your life. There’s better way of adding pizzazz than cheating on someone you love and who loves you. I don’t need to feel like a wannabe hero in some badly scripted melodrama.

Your feelings about the existence of a soulmate.

It’s a nice fiction. There are more than seven billion people in the world, and there’s only one person right for you? The stats-fond rationalist in me says that’s highly unlikely. No, you make each other into soulmates by commitment and hard work.

Your ideal love: madness or redemption?

That sounds like the cover copy from a Harlequin romance! (Fun fact: I once started to write a Harlequin while working a boring summer job. My pen name was going to be Chalice Bower, and I finished three chapters but then bailed when I started to get to the steamy bits—I feared I might win the Bad Sex in Fiction award!) As for ideal love, I’ll go with redemption. It sounds less likely to keep me awake at night. And these days, I need my sleep.

Your advice on making love last.

Humour and humility. You need to realize that love ages and evolves and sags and shows its wrinkles just like our all-too-human bodies. Love won’t stay a beautiful sexy beast forever. It might not have even begun that way. Love is a marathon not a sprint. Just don’t try to cut out a few miles and take the subway. That’s cheating.

David Leach is the author of Chasing Utopia: The Future of the Kibbutz in a Divided Israel and the chair of the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria.


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