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"Balzac loved writing. He wrote 52 books or something. I write a lot. I can't help it. If you could choose a career, no idiot would choose writing because it's thankless, it's hard, it's basically not a great job. But you do it because that's what you're wired up to do. That's your gig. That's what I'm here to do."
When I meet him, Evan Solomon is having a bad day. Earlier, he's been accosted by journalists wanting to know if rumors that his CBC show Hot Type is in trouble are true. "It's stereotypical television stuff," he tells me. "If it's true, I guess I'm the last to know." To make matters worse, an early reader of his first novel, Crossing the Distance, has reported no less than 15 typographical errors in the first edition. And -- just when you thought that enough was enough -- the book store he's scheduled to give a reading at later in the day still doesn't have copies of the newly-released book in the store.
As we sit down to lunch in a peaceful, grotto-like Vancouver restaurant, Solomon comes off pure Toronto. He takes three emergency calls on a cel phone before we order appetizers, his smooth face creasing into lines of concern as he neatly dispatches first one then the next. He apologizes profusely after the conclusion of each call, but at least one fact is clear from the outset: Solomon thrives on emergency and flourishes under pressure. His concern for each urgent situation is obvious, but he glows under the weight of each breached crisis. Evan Solomon understands life in the fast lane better than most.
At 31, Solomon is a bit of a whiz kid. A fact that isn't helping his first novel at all. "'Evan Solomon has got too much of the cultural pie.' They told me that. That's a line that someone said. 'We don't like you. You've done too much. You can't do this now. TV writers shouldn't write books.' So, I've had a little bit of that."
If some literary critics aren't being entirely effusive about his first novel, it still seems likely that the book is destined to be a success. Solomon is, after all, a man with a large enough following to have fans. He is a television personality who one Canadian journalist recently said had, "more than a passing resemblance to Brad Pitt or Joaquin Phoenix." Though he doesn't. If he must be compared to someone still more famous than he is, it's film producer Quentin Tarantino. Solomon himself disagrees, "He's uglier." And it's true. Solomon's look is similar to Tarantino's, but smoother somehow. Prettier. And the camera loves him as -- rumors of disaster notwithstanding -- viewers of his successful television show will attest.
Solomon isn't, however, a television journalist in the strictest sense, even though the most visible part of his career has been spent in front of the camera. He holds a masters degree from McGill University in religious studies and was part of the team that started the successful new culture magazine Shift in 1992. More recently, Solomon was the host of the CBC show FutureWorld and he's also written a screenplay whose present status he won't talk much about, other than to say it's completed and tentatively called The Deadline.
And, of course, he's written a novel. Crossing the Distance is, he says, "a love story between brothers," but one that was written, for the channel-surfing mentality. "Walking down the street of engagement and disengagement. Cycling through those."
Linda Richards: You've done a lot of things in your life. Different things. If people say to you at this point, "What do you do?" How do you answer? How do you define yourself?
Evan Solomon: I think of myself as a writer, but in the broadest sense of the term. I would say a storyteller. And I don't mean that pretentiously. I mean that through my whole life I've been interested in stories. I did a Master's in religious studies because I was interested in myth and ritual and how they played out in ancient cultures and then in popular cultures in more secular times. It strikes me that storytelling has always been a sacred thing. The act of literacy was an act of power and through stories we conveyed all of our moral meanings and our power structures and who we were. I'm Jewish and even as a Jew the people of the Book -- the act of the rite of passage into Judaism -- is a Bar Mitzvah. You have to learn to read. The Jews were the first tribe to have literacy as a rite of passage, which I think is really interesting. So for me all of those things are connected. Being a journalist or an editor or starting a magazine or writing fiction, which I've always done. It all has to do with stories.
Being a journalist you're telling a story. You're purveyors of story. That's our job as journalists. As an editor, running a magazine was about documenting a story at a certain time and a certain place. Then being a fiction writer is just another storytelling. I've been asked if they're competing things, you know: interviewing authors on television, editing and writing for magazines and writing fiction. And it's funny because I've always seen them completely as the exact same task. I'm interested in what stories we tell and I'm interested in telling.
I think of you as a journalist. And I wanted to tell you that I've enjoyed the book very much. The character of Rachel is amazingly written. I think she's one of the most beautiful and desirable women I've ever met in fiction, and I've read a lot! But there's something so beautiful about her that makes it so tragic when she dies at the beginning of the book.
Cool. She was kind of a hard character to write because she sort of disappears. In some sense she's the conscience of the book. But she has to appear strong at first so you care enough about her. Even though it's a very minor character at first. But Jake is fascinated by her and she reappears in memory.
Are you a sibling? Do you have brothers.
Yes. I have a brother and a sister.
Because this is a story about brothers, really.
Yes. It's a love story about brothers, I think. The backdrop is thriller-ish, but very deep in the back. It's really the story of two brothers. And love. You know I always say, "When does unconditional love become conditional?" Which is the archetypical question of brothers. You know: Cain and Abel and Jacob and Essau. This question of what are the limits of the bonds of love and how do we reconcile those things? If you're married, we have conditions. Don't cheat on me. Don't kill someone. That's a condition.
Blood relations don't have that condition. Karla Homolka's mom loves Karla Homolka even though her daughter is a serial rapist, a serial killer and killed her other daughter. But she says she still loves her daughter because blood love is unconditional. I mean, really unconditional. I find that's a very profoundly powerful thing to say given what Karla Homolka did. And I think we negotiate our way through conditions of love all the time. These two brothers: one is very righteous and we're not sure if he's evil or not. And one who is very indifferent and we're not sure if that's evil or not. And they had this childhood where they loved each other.
And they're fairly damaged.
They strike me as such.
I guess so.
I mean, self mutilation and...
I guess we all carry around our...
It's a damaging thing, I think. You're right. But Jake has his own issues. I think part of the book is about that we all carry a certain degree of ambivalence about the things inside of us -- some of the really violent things or unresolved things -- that are manifested in really odd ways. I mean, you get into a conversation with someone deeply and you'll find pretty quickly that they've been through a lot more than you think. People have died, they've been alcoholics. Life can't be lived frictionlessly. There's friction and there's failure and mechanisms to deal with failure. No one comes through pretty clean. We want to. That's the fiction. We want to resolve things and we want to have truth. "I'm a good person. I went to school. I have a good family. I got married. I had kids. It worked out." It doesn't. Even for the people that all those things worked out for, it didn't work on another level. People passed away. They failed. There's unhappiness.
So I don't think they're damaged so much because I also think of it as a redemption story. But, of course, who is redeemed by what actions? What are the things that redeem you? Part of the book is very comical. Satirical. And part of it is very serious. And the part that we're talking about is a more intimate part of the book. You're right. It's about redemption from a certain... do you see what I'm saying?
I do. But it struck me that fairly close to the opening, Theo kills someone self-righteously. And Jake seems very unhealthy. So... you know.
It's hard to talk about that without giving away the end, but I think you're right. Theo is interesting. It was challenging because he does kill someone.
You've done some really interesting stuff. You traveled throughout North America and Asia...
I used to live in Asia. I wrote as a journalist in Hong Kong. And then worked a lot in the Philippines and India and Thailand.
You're too young to have done all this stuff! You look like 23.
No, I'm 31.
How long has the book been out?
I think the pub date was May 1st. And it was probably out for a week before that.
You're doing a reading tonight. What are you reading?
Excerpts from the book. About four excerpts. A few things at the beginning and then a few things from the middle. I like to skip around. And I'll only read the funny bits. I don't think readings should be too serious. I'll read some serious things but nothing really disturbing. Which does discount a fairly large chunk of the book. [Laughs] Because the book is designed to reflect that channel-surfing mentality of very serious and very, you know, one second very engaged in the events you see with the war in Kosovo and then two seconds later you're looking at Seinfeld or something and laughing. So when you read the book you see that there's the intimate parts with the brothers where you're really engaged and you're very into it. Then there's the media sections which are satirical and funny. Then you go back and it sort of reflects that ocsillating cycling through of moments of being really engaged and Zen-like and then being totally disengaged when you pass a bum on the street and it's meaningless. You don't think, "Oh, poverty." You just don't think anything.
It's designed to reflect the channel-surfing mentality. Which is an interesting way of putting it.
In a sense, yeah. There's a mentality that we have channel-surfing. Walking down the street of engagement and disengagement. Cycling through those.
Do you have a sense yet on how the book is doing?
I've had really great reactions from people. And the reviews have been really good. And some sort of mixed and not so great. I think the best responses have been just about the book. And the worst responses have been when it's about me. The intrusiveness of my life on television or at the magazine. "Evan Solomon has got too much of the cultural pie." They told me that. That's a line that someone said. "We don't like you. You've done too much. You can't do this now. TV writers shouldn't write books." So, I've had a little bit of that. But mostly people just judge the book. If you like the book, it doesn't matter who I am.
A book becomes the possession of the reader, instantly. The reader becomes the narrator. The reader shapes the voice. So in my book, I don't think my voice ought to intrude at all. The voice that I have outside of the author's voice. The reader just submerges and immerses themselves into a book. They take it over and if it works, the reader goes, "Wow!" If it doesn't work, the reader says, "Forget about it." But they don't say, "Well, this guy is on TV so I'll keep reading." It just doesn't work like that.
When did you leave Shift?
I left about 10 months ago. I stepped down as editor. We'd sold the company two years ago. So we kind of made our money and weren't owners anymore. Worked there happily, it's still growing. Andy [his partner at Shift, Andrew Heintzman] is still there. I just wanted to work on some fiction.
Did there come a point where Shift was no longer interesting to you?
No. I just edited it for seven years, and I wanted to write. I was writing full time. It started with two of us as a fiction magazine and when I left there were 33 people and I was managing a pretty big company. And it's growing. The future of Shift is so bright, but I always said that I wanted to make a successful magazine and then leave it to do other things. I didn't want to sort of have my cultural perch and just grow old at Shift. I was pretty young. I was in my 20s, editing and stuff. I wanted to tell different stories, I guess. That's the story that I'm really proud of. It's been successful. I've passed it off at a successful time. I feel really close to it and I love it and I have a very close, ongoing relationship with it.
I guess I'd learned the lesson of Shift. Shift was a lot about documenting fearless people who were telling stories. I interviewed the Dalai Lama, for God's sake. Writers and artists and all about following your heart and telling your story and not being afraid. Shift was part of my story, but then I realized there was other things and I had to take a chance. When I left it was very logical. Everyone knew that I was going to leave eventually, because I'd told them years ago. But I wanted it to be steady and stable and I wanted everything to be set up. And we did it. So, I left at sort of a high mark: I didn't want to leave it fumbling. I just really needed to write more. Editing is a very selfless act. You give away your best stuff and you're always helping other people. As a writer, finally, I needed to kind of focus on my own writing.
You're working on another novel now.
Can you talk about it? It's okay if you can't...
Yeah. It's very early. It's sort of about a guy who struggles with the nature of evil, but it's supposed to be funny. I don't know why, because it's quite dark.
The stuff that I find most funny is usually quite dark.
Yeah, well, I'm not sure how it's going. I mean it's so early to say. With novels the gestation period is dinosaur-like.
Is writing laborious for you?
Balzac loved writing. He wrote 52 books or something. I write a lot. I can't help it. If you could choose a career, no idiot would choose writing because it's thankless, it's hard, it's basically not a great job. But you do it because that's what you're wired up to do. That's your gig. That's what I'm here to do. When I was writing the book, my family would say, "Why are you doing this? It's killing you? Take a vacation." But this makes me happy. I take a vacation and I go write. I'd rent a cabin and I'd go write for two weeks. Even if I might be kind of broody and moody and an asshole, or something. I've gotten happy. That's where I wanted to be: writing. It's a bit of an affliction, I think. Wouldn't you say so?
I write because I breathe?
Yeah. I was on the plane coming here and I was writing in my journal and, you know how sometimes it just goes? And I was laughing and it was funny. I was writing about my father who has just had surgery and it turned into something quite funny. I was just sort of getting a bang out of it, scribbling away and it wasn't a great thing to write about, but it ended up being kind of a good thing. And then sometimes I just write and it's lousy and I just question the whole endeavor, like every writer. It's a totally useless task.
I should be selling lightbulbs.
Yeah, yeah! And then you do sell lightbulbs for a day and then you say, "No, no!"
But ultimately, it's cathartic -- writing, not selling lightbulbs -- because you have to do it.
Yeah. It's just your truth. People say you ought to be what you ought to be. I think a lot of people are waiting to find out what they ought to be. You know? What their passion is? What is the thing that they're meant to be here for? And I think people don't know what they are. They're waiting for it. They're always discovering who they ought to be. And I think the thing that keeps people from discovering who they ought to be is fear. At the end it's the fear of taking a chance or risking something or betting on themselves or telling a story or feeling that they're worthwhile. All those things, fear is really the thing that I'm interested in. In the book, Theo says, "I'm not afraid to be afraid." Every true thing is fearful. If you're going to be afraid if you do something that's close to your heart, you have to be unafraid to be afraid. You'll know that you're afraid. Don't try to get rid of fear, because it's useless. It's like protesting snow in February: it's coming. If you live in Toronto. [Laughs] But, you have to be unafraid of it, and then you just acclimatize yourself.
Maybe everyone isn't meant to do something. Does everybody have something?
I think everyone ought to be... to me it's all different.
Well, maybe some people are waiting for something that isn't. That would be scary.
There's no guarantee that the life you make is the life that you wanted. You have to become what you ought to be. I don't mean that platonically, as if there's a truth out there that one ought to find, like a chalice. Because some of the errors have to be reconciled and made your own. You have to work them in, not work them out, you know? But I do think that we are the architects of our lives and we have to design them to fulfill that sense of who you ought to be. Our identities are both active and passive, right? You inherit an identity and you accidentally become something. I'm intrigued by that notion of becoming who you ought to be. In being a writer -- I just have this sense that I ought to be that thing. That's some kind of truth for me. It doesn't make me feel any better. People think, "Oh you must feel great all the time because you know who you are." I mean, I still feel just as shitty sometimes...
Just as shitty as what?
Just as anybody. Just as phony or just as regrettable.
Your humor is going to have to be black.
Exactly. But do you know what I mean? We all have the same attendant anxieties and panic attacks, but that's part of the package if you're on that journey.
So what's next?
Another book. More interviews. More stories. I'm doing another book and a screenplay I've just finished. A comedy. A dark comedy.
Can you talk about that at all?
I think it's very funny. I think it's not as dark. It's basically called The Deadline and it's about a writer who has writer's block and he has two weeks to finish a novel that's two years overdue. And the Palucci Publishing House has given him a million dollar advance. The Don has died and the Palucci son is an art lover and has taken over the family and turned the family into an art house. All of the thugs have become literary agents and they've given this guy two weeks and they'll give him $100,000 if he finishes it or they'll cut off his head and use it as a paperweight if he doesn't. Anyway, it takes sort of a bizarre turn because he has a love interest -- a fictional love interest -- that comes to life, and they don't get along. It's a funny comedy. And it's about, sort of, when your imagination betrays you.
Where is it at?
It's done. And beyond that I won't tell you, because I have to decide what I want to do next. It's just too... this could be the strangest turn in my whole life, if I want to do something with this. I don't know. We'll have to see. It's going to be a weird summer. I hope.
Weird could be good.
Yeah: weird's good. You know, everything could bomb. But I don't give a shit about failure. I've failed so often already.
When you were like six, right?
People think Shift was an instant success. But for seven years we just lived with bankruptcy every day. So people say, "Are you afraid to fail." And no: failure was my roommate. I slept with that person. I know it really well. And someone says, "Are you afraid your book is going to bomb?" I say, of course I'm afraid my book's gonna bomb! That doesn't mean I'm not going to write another book. I can't really do anything about that. I just can be truthful. This is me. I love to talk. I've got ideas. I love creative people. I love communities. I don't bullshit. That's me. That's the whole deal. Some things really do well and some things really don't. I think I'm surrounded by people who, basically, are pretty similar. They're risk takers and they're pretty interesting.
You're involved in so much, though. It sounds really busy.
Not like I used to be. Because I left Shift. I never slept in my 20s. I really didn't. I remember for years I did the magazine full time, and I hosted FutureWorld. We recorded on weekends in the first year: 48 shows, Saturdays and Sundays. And I'd work at Shift. And then I was coming home and writing. Then for years I dated a singer and she lived wild hours. So I'd just write until two, go and see her after a gig until four or five. And I'd say, "Oh. I have to go and record my show." My producer used to say, "Have you slept yet?" And I'd say, "No. Make up." I lived this crazy, excessive 20s life. But now I've left Shift so my days are really sleepy. I do the show once a week. And I just stay at my house and try to write. Slog along. | June 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.