A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: "How did you sit on this story for so long?"
"There was a mess of fragments. I've been an academic, doing ancient history. Then I was a college president at Amherst. For too long entirely -- ten years. I would write bits of fiction, but really not with a novel in mind. I just dropped my pages into this small wooden chest. I got well over 1200, but it was never in the first 20 years, I would say, pointed towards a particular novel. And then I got a psychic boost that somehow I ought to try to do something with coherence in it.
"But in a couple of the pieces you see my worst person."
"Sergeant Braddis. He is terrible. He is wonderful. He is dreadful."
"He sprung as his own man. And then, I went back and I said, 'Take the old Scot and make him the central figure of the whole,' and then it came very fast. I wrote it in a concentrated burst from the day after Christmas in 2003, English Boxing Day, and I wrote the whole thing in seven weeks. I finished on February 17."
"So it came as though a giant bung was taken off. It came with a rush. I'm halfway through another one, totally unrelated. But it's this release into trying to think connectedly in fiction, this is the release I'm feeling. That I can put together events and characters and dialogues which have some connection to each other."
Knowing the story of Mr. Pouncey's writing of Rules for Old Men Waiting, I said, I wondered if during all those years he didn't write the book if he used it as an imaginative play toy, something to dream over as one went to sleep or dawdle in during meetings.
"Yes, very much. I think the hassle, the small-mindedness, the arbitrating of the silly, petty feuds in this or that sector of a college contributed. The fiction seemed somehow more innocent -- it was on its own ground and you could shape it."
The name "MacIver," how did he come by it?
"I never met him. But most of my career has been at Columbia in New York. And in the Columbia political science department -- so not my department at all -- there was a wonderful, old, crusty Scot, who I think must have died around 1960, '65, called Robert MacIver. And his accent never gave way.
"He was a Scot to the end. He was always slightly curmudgeonly but always right. I looked on the name, although I never met the man, with affection. And my affection for this particular character that I never met was known, and somebody once gave me... there was a Greek lyric poet, Pindar -- very difficult to read because it's in a dialect. The Pindar was the Greek text, and there were MacIver's corrections in it. So that I felt another bond with the man, even though he was a political scientist. He knew his Latin and Greek."
In a self-interview, Mr. Pouncey wrote that the writer whose influence on him had been largest was Thucydides. Other works have exerted their magic on him, he noted, "Homer and Herodotus perhaps most of all."
"Your book," I said, "with MacIver presiding over it, has the feel of The Tempest."
"Oh, yes, good for you. You're the first person who's said that. Part of the ache in the book is the ache of fading powers. So it is Prospero-like in that sense, very much so."
"There is," I suggested, "also the presence of the inspirational Ariel who urges MacIver on to finish his beautiful fiction."
"I think you've got pretty much what I was intending. It's the pull of the love story, the lighter touch in the episodes at the end. All that pulled it up. The man keeps himself going, the way we would all want to go. He is intensely involved until the very end. He rescues himself.
"And the other thing that he is very blessed with is that he's had someone who understands him perfectly. So those two are wonderful blessings on an old man at the end, it seems to me."
One rule MacIver makes for himself is that he will cook himself a meal every day.
"You can't say he triumphed on the observation of that particular rule, that he was going to cook himself something every night. I like it when he more or less dispenses with menus and concocts this mass cookie gruel. It's also a point in the novel when his body is sinking back to nature; to the same thing that he's feeding it. The fact is that it's dishonest if you have the man clearly sinking to his end, to leave him somehow untouched by mortality until it happens. I think he has to be in the toils of dying. Which makes his telling of the story so all the more impressive, that he holds himself to it."
MacIver, of course, knows that he is dying. He gazes at his body in a mirror. He watches the tumor on his side grow as, at the same time, he notes his loss of flesh. "His acceptance," I said, "of his death's inevitability kept the progress of the book from being a progress of decline."
"Good. You are my ideal reader. William Pritchard, the critic, an old friend, said about the book that although it's not depressing, it is kind of heartbreaking."
How, technically, did Mr. Pouncey put together the story of MacIver and the story MacIver is writing?
"I imagined him making up four characters, and at first, having them labeled A, B, C, D. Then he produced, out of that A, B, C, D, some actual names -- Alston, Braddis, Collum, Dodds. He saw the A, B, C, D as four pieces of himself brought into conflict. He has lots of violence as Braddis does, but he is passionate about art as Collum is, and the person who brings it all to its gentle rest is Alston, who loves nature the way MacIver does -- that is, as an observer, not as an abuser of it.