In an interview he gave late last year, Timothy Taylor was modest when asked if he had any special talents. "I can sit at a keyboard for long periods of time," Taylor told Western Living for their Winter 2001 issue. "It's not why you get into the business, but a reality of it."
While no writer would argue with Taylor's assertion, there are also presently few who would wholeheartedly agree, at least in part: Taylor's talents are many and his peers are sitting up and taking notice. In fact, the 37-year-old has become a sort of wunderkind over the last half year since two of his short stories were shortlisted for the Journey Prize, a prestigious Canadian award. It was a first in the history of the prize: only three stories are shortlisted in total. Another first: three of Taylor's stories were included in the Journey Prize Anthology, in a collection that included only a dozen stories. The reality of the publishing industry being what it is, if you can follow that kind of distinction with a novel, you have a hat trick. As luck would have it, Taylor's first novel, Stanley Park, was already scheduled for a spring 2001 release at the time of his Journey Prize win. And thus are careers properly launched.
These distinctions given to a writer approaching his fourth decade are all the more startling when you learn about his background. Not one to spend too much time languishing about the garret, Taylor is a former commercial banker. He studied economics at the University of Alberta and went on to do his MBA at Queens University in Toronto. "When I was a kid I always wanted to write." Taylor says that he figured he wasn't "taking care of the business. I should return to this. So I decided to quit banking, because I found it impossible to write and have a full-time career at the same time."
In Stanley Park Taylor manages to weave several disparate worlds into a fascinating and surprising story. An idealistic young chef named Jeremy has recently launched the restaurant of his dreams, the Monkey's Paw Bistro. Jeremy struggles for the high road and features only local produce cooked innovatively to international standards. Jeremy is worried about his anthropologist father, known widely as "the professor," who has moved into Vancouver's huge city park: Stanley Park, which is a real -- not fictional -- place and, at around 1000 acres, it's one of the largest city parks in North America. The professor wants to study the night people who live in the park: firsthand. While living in the park, he stumbles across a mystery that's been buried there for almost 50 years, but Stanley Park is no one's idea of a murder mystery. Rather, it explores the father-son relationship in a way that hasn't often been done in literature.
Timothy Taylor lives in Vancouver with his wife, Jane, who works in corporate finance. Taylor's second book, a collection of short fiction called Silent Cruise, will be published in the spring of 2002. He is currently at work on a novel.
Linda Richards: Are you a food guy? Are you a chef?
Timothy Taylor: No. I never trained commercially. The big research gap that had to be filled in writing Stanley Park was the jump from knowing the home cook's stuff about food -- sort of an essential understanding of how stuff goes together. I cook every day, I go to the market every day, so I'm into food. I'm into home cooking a lot more than I am into restaurant-type food, to tell you the honest truth. My day-to-day traffic every week does not take me to three, four or five restaurants. When you go from a home kitchen to a commercial kitchen, the whole set of problems becomes exponentially more difficult because you're doing things to a clock and you're doing many [versions] of the same thing, as opposed to carefully working through building up your meal. For even six guests, you can make them wait -- just open another bottle of wine, kind of thing. But you can't do that in the dining room.
So, for that I had to recruit the assistance of a couple of chefs that I was fortunate enough to know. It's very difficult to get into a kitchen because, typically, you simply don't have room to have an observer: the space is very efficient. And they're so focused because the nature of the work is that in some point in every service you almost feel like you're about to overwhelmed by the incoming orders and then it subsides, sort of like a wave and you go: Well, we made it again.
You impart that very well in Stanley Park. That sense of the onrushing waves in Jeremy's busy restaurant kitchen.
That's what I noticed watching. You could see it in terms of the way the whole kitchen, as a consequence of movement within the kitchen, appeared to be wailing. It reaches this state of activity where everything is in motion and then it slowly passes through. Then the number of dishes on the grill gets to a manageable number and the guys slow down and have a second to sort of think and then things eventually coast down.
You found it very interesting.
Oh, I loved it. It's an amazing physical thing to watch: the choreography of how chefs work together. How a dish is prepared. The fancier the restaurant is, the more hands and the more cooks will actually have a role in getting your dish to the plate.
Other research you had to do would have been researching homelessness, I guess. Living in Stanley Park.
I didn't go there. I didn't spend the night there. One thing I was very conscious of when I wrote the book is that you take a risk in writing about homelessness. I worked as the chair on the board of a non-profit agency for seven years. We served people with mental illnesses and a lot of people who were our clients were homeless, so I have a certain amount of practical exposure to what it's like for these people to be out there.
On one level it's just cold and just wet and miserable, right? If you write about homelessness you always run the risk of potentially romanticizing it, which would be a mistake and if I did that I failed. I was aware of the risk and tried to avoid doing that. The other thing about writing about homelessness is sort of the flip side: You can, in an attempt to be really cold and practical and factual about what these individuals are going through every night, kind of end up treating them as if homelessness -- the fact that they don't have a roof over their heads every night -- is sort of the single most important thing about them as individuals, which is also not true. They're not stats: these men and women are complicated individuals.
So, I didn't live in Stanley Park because the reality of living there, I didn't go to test that out and do research there because...
... it would be scary.
It would be scary. I think it would be physically dangerous for anybody. But I don't know this for a fact because I don't know anyone who has done it. Interestingly enough, not one but two people have come up to me since the book came out and said that partly what [they had] found so incredible about this book was that either they themselves or someone they knew personally had lived there at one point. So I thought that was kind of remarkable.
Stanley Park is your first novel?
Define the book for me.
I would just say that, at its core, it's about a father and a son who are, on the surface, doing very, very different things with their lives. The son is running a small restaurant. A little place that's very much the product of his own culinary ideology, if you will. It's really a project of the heart: it's what he believes in. It's what he's all about. But he's struggling with it, because he's a wonderful chef but he's a financial disaster: not a very organized and sensible business man in some ways.
His father, meanwhile, is an anthropologist who has made the really radical and somewhat disturbing choice -- if you talk to his son -- of moving to Stanley Park to research the community of homeless people there. And the professor is under the seemingly deluded impression that maybe the two of them are working on parallel projects somehow. His son is very interested in cooking local produce and focusing people's attention on this idea of what comes from the land around you.
You can't do it exclusively. You almost couldn't run a restaurant if you were constrained in that way and Jeremy knows it but he struggles to try and do it as much as possible: to tell this story about what comes from the land around us. His father, in his research, imagines that they're doing the same kind of thing. Jeremy rejects this at the outset and then, as the story goes by, hopefully what begins to emerge is that there is a kind of a strange intertwining of the two tales. And, at the end of the book they're sort of brought together in one very -- hopefully -- dramatic and surprising scene.
You were born in Venezuela?
Yes. A lot of people ask about that. The reason I [included that information in my bio] is that my parents were travelers in their early years. My mom was a refugee and ended up in Equador. And my dad was a guy traveling by choice ... and was out to see the world and have adventures. He worked for quite a few years in the Philippines. He worked in Asia and sort of worked his way around to South America and, as these things happen, he met my mom. The significance of that tale, it seems to me, is that after they met and -- I was the last of five kids -- they decided: We've got to settle [somewhere]. We've got to root somewhere. So they chose Vancouver. We lived in Horseshoe Bay, in West Vancouver. And I think the reason I've kind of bonded with Vancouver has something to do with how our family came here. After quite a few years of traveling, this was the destination that they chose to root in and I took on that project with enthusiasm when I was a kid. We lived in a really idyllic setting above Horseshoe Bay on a little street called Madrona Crescent. it was sort of life growing up in a Norman Rockwell painting. There were tons of kids to play with and it was really beautifully forested in there so we kind of lived in the woods, kind of half wild. [Laughs]
How old were you when you [moved] to Canada?
I was just a little tot: I was like two years old. But my brothers and sisters stretch up above me. My sister would have been about 11 at that time.
But then [when I was] in grade seven or something, my parents moved to Alberta. I was sort of uprooted [and] that was a bit of a struggle with me. I actually now like the prairies a lot and I lived there for quite a few years, but eventually I moved away and I think I always kind of knew I was going to make my way back to Vancouver. I wanted to be back here. So when I got my first job after graduating from MBA school I came out to Vancouver.
Yeah, I have a slightly atypical background. I actually went through business training. I took economics and a business degree. I came out [to Vancouver from Toronto] with the Toronto Dominion Bank. At the time, for an MBA grad to go to Vancouver was considered not to be a very aggressive decision, because Vancouver was sleepy in comparison to Toronto which, in 1987, was go, go, go: it was the place to be. So when I signed on with the TD in May of 87 and I opted to go to Vancouver I think they were all glad because it was hard to get people to move out here at that time. But it suggested that perhaps I didn't have the killer mentality required. [Laughs] But I was really glad to get out here and I've been here ever since.
But not in banking.
No. When I was a kid I always wanted to write. Four years after I got back to Vancouver I ... figured: I'm not taking care of the business. I should return to this. So I decided to quit banking, because I found it impossible to write and have a full-time career at the same time.
Well, I was glad I took that route to get to writing.
What kind of of banking?
I was lending money to companies. I was a commercial banker. I guess every career deserves your full attention. That's how I felt. And I thought: I'm either going to do a bad job of both, which is not good for anybody. Or maybe I'll just have to take a plunge and get into some kind of work that allows me to have a bit more control of my time.
It was very risky going from something that would seem financially secure to writing.
Well, I didn't get into writing right away. The first thing I tried to do as freelance writing was journalism. And I did do a bit of that, but it's very tough to just start, you know, with no history. So I really struggled with it and, frankly, the financial realities of freelance writing were sort of fast dawning on me. [Laughs] So then I rejigged things a little bit and, partly through fortune and partly through trying to change directions, I ended up doing some consulting work in the fisheries area. And that, over time, grew into a fairly busy little consulting practice. I did that for about five years. It was pretty good work. I really enjoyed it: fisheries is interesting stuff. I was engaged. I was working part-time because it's a consulting gig and I was able to start writing seriously.
Is your wife a writer also?
No, my wife works in corporate finance, actually.
You met her in your banking days?
Yes. We were university sweeties, more or less. But we married when we were pretty young. I've been married 13 and a half years.
How old are you?
When I read the name of Jeremy's restaurant in Stanley Park -- The Monkey's Paw Bistro -- it evoked something in me. Was it an Edgar Allen Poe tale?
No. But it's a story about being careful what you wish.
Right. A guy brings a monkey's paw -- like a rabbit's foot -- home to his wife and they wish for things that they get. And then the last wish. The wife wishes that their son was still alive and the husband says: Don't wish for that! And then their son rises from the grave.
Jeremy would have named it that knowing that it had that slightly creepy quality to it. It was intentional on his part. But at the same time it does function a little bit in his own life because, what he wishes for in this little restaurant where he focuses his efforts on cooking local food and trying to do that sort of thing, ends up becoming a very difficult project for him and, in fact, he ultimately is unsuccessful with it.
You were saying that after you left banking that you started to freelance and I know you've done exceptionally well as a freelancer.
In more recent years, really. Yeah. I mean, at the very beginning it was a financial necessity that I develop some way of paying the rent. I've wanted to have my own office for writing for quite some time. I've had my office for over five years and I found it an enormous productivity boost when I first got it. It really works for me. I like it. I go there in the morning: I actually start quite early and I sort of work through while I've got this natural burn and momentum. What I found working at home, it's not so much that I got distracted easily, although you can, right? It's easier to chill and relax when you're at home, so the office kind of puts you in work brain.
What happened at home was that my physical space was starting to spill out and take over the house. And, for me, my wife was out of synch with me because she was coming home at the end of the day having been all day in an office. So she wants to come home to a place that's removed from her work and I'm like: O.K.! Let's go out. Because I'd been in all day. Our clocks were off. That wasn't the dominant decision factor but it was one of them. The dominant decision factor is I just wanted to be separate in a place totally unto myself. But all of that came wrapped with certain financial obligations. It's not an expensive office space, at all. But I had to figure out what I was going to do to pay the rent and stay productive. I didn't really start seriously writing Stanley Park until sort of 1995/96, which meant that there were a couple of years there where I didn't have this big project on the go so it's not like I had something to fill up all my days. So I felt like I had to do something productive.
Where was your first byline?
Gee, I think my very first byline was in Canadian Lawyer Magazine, believe it or not. I pitched this article right as I left banking. I knew a whole bunch of young lawyers -- well, at the time we were all fairly young -- and a bunch of them were leaving the conventional practice of law to do other things, often with their law degrees, but in some cases completely outside their law degrees. It was kind of topical for me to write about lawyers leaving the law because I was leaving banking, so I had my head in the same place as some of them.
So that was my first article, for Canadian Lawyer, but I didn't keep it up steadily. I found that it was quite difficult to do. If you just decide one day that you want to pitch freelance ideas to editors, nobody knows you, no one has seen your work and it takes a little while to build your confidence up. I think I did like six or 10 things in the first year or so and it felt like I was staying busy but then, let's be honest, you add up the checks and it's a very questionable source of income. That's when I began to retool things and start to look for consulting work and I was pretty lucky in this fisheries consulting practice. It grew organically, like it does in consulting. You get one gig and then people start to know that you've done something so they ask you to do something similar and before you know it you've done half a dozen things.
It sounds interesting. It would have put you into a whole different realm.
Yeah. And, like I said, I enjoyed it. The experience I had with fisheries policy actually helped in the creation of Stanley Park. One thing about salmon is that it's this incredibly powerful emblem of local food. The whole nature of the beast is it does this crazy, almost mystical thing. It goes out into the ocean after being born in this little stream and it swims around for four years, in the case of the Sockeye salmon, and then it finds the identical little stream: right down to the rivulet offshoot. It finds that spot and has sex and dies, basically. That's what it does: It starts this cycle again.
This animal is absolutely rooted in the landscape [in which] it lives. If you destroy that landscape -- you run a road across that stream and cut off the top of the stream -- the fish will die. They won't, typically, spawn somewhere else. So it's really a fascinating animal. And there was even more to it for me. There were communities of people who were dependent -- aboriginal groups as well as European communities -- that depend on this fish. So they too were very rooted in that place. They couldn't just up and move because the fish weren't going to up and move with them. So, to the degree that their livelihood was connected to this resource, they were locked. They had to live there. And, unfortunately, in the last six years or so, the fortunes of the resource have been bad. We had terrible trouble with the Coho salmon about four years ago, though I think that's rebounded to some degree now. But it certainly helped me begin to frame up my thoughts about some of the tensions involved in trying to be local nowadays. It's hard. So fish played their funny role in helping me frame up my thoughts about this.
And then you wrote a book.
And then I went and wrote a book, yeah. [Laughs]
How long did you work on Stanley Park?
Five years. Technically it might be longer because when I started working on Stanley Park I actually pulled together some short stories that I had written that I decided belonged together and not separate.
Are those some of the stories that ended up in the Journey Anthology?
No. Totally different stories. These were stories that had never been published separately. They just fused together and became Stanley Park. There were sort of three and one story didn't even get worked in. It was just that Dante, the character, was born in a short story some years before I began Stanley Park. And I never really did anything with him and I didn't finish the short story, so he was sort of banked. I knew I had a character that I liked and I had a sense of what he was all about, but I didn't know where he was going to plug in.
And Jeremy began as a short story. Again, this is in the couple of years before I started the book. And the professor in the park also began as what I thought was going to be a short story. So these characters were kind of born in the context of a short story and it took a while before I realized that they were somehow part of the same thing.
Did you take any writing courses or anything?
Because, to hear you tell it, you have almost none of the creds that would usually lead to you being one of the most talked about "new" writers in Canada right now. Do you know what I mean? You didn't spend half your life moaning in a garret. You didn't do a doctorate in creative writing. You didn't do any of the things that a lot of writers need to do to be successful. And yet, here you are.
I couldn't have been a writer coming through another route. It's just the way my cards unfolded. Clearly, there's no proper way to become a writer. You become a writer any number of different ways.
Were literary magazines a path to the publication of your book? Because it sounds like your publication in literary magazines came after you knew the book would be published.
No. They were all during the time I was writing Stanley Park. And, in fact, someone did tell me when I was half way through Stanley Park. Maybe a third of the way through. And it was pretty fresh, which is to say maybe not as well crafted as it should [have] been. It was pretty first draft kind of stuff. And I showed this guy and he's a guy who knows what he's talking about. And he said to me: Are you still writing your short fiction? Because I'd published two stories at that time. And I said: Well, no. I've sort of set these things aside because I want to concentrate on Stanley Park. He said: You may want to, in the back, keep a couple of short stories going because there's not a lot of cross-fertilization between lit mags and major publishers, but there's a little and it's better to have some publication history than to have none at all.
What's significant about this is that the stories I went back and wrote at that time -- and I suddenly set aside Stanley Park and started pumping out short stories -- is those are [the ones] that ended up getting anthologized last year. So, in fact, his advice ended up being enormously important to me and when -- long before the Journey Prize or any of those things happened -- I submitted one of those stories to Descant magazine. Allan Hepburn at Descant magazine did something no literary magazine editor has ever done before or since, for me. He picked up the phone and called me and said: This is a great story, I really like it. What's your deal and who are you?
It was an enormous thing in my life because I'm working away in the dark doing consulting work and writing this novel which I have no idea if it's ever going to be published and somebody has just told me: Go back to writing short fiction. And I do. And six months later I get this call. He said: Why don't you throw another story my way? I said: Well, in fact, I do have another one ready to go. So I sent it off to him and he phoned me back and said: This is really good. I like this stuff. I'm going to publish this one too. But I think you have something going here. I should introduce you to an agent. So that's how it happened.
So, for me, literary magazines were really important to how I ended up making contact with anybody whatsoever. Because, I think, for beginning writers the only dialog you have going on about your writing -- where anybody will actually talk to you -- is the letter exchange you have with lit mags. They write you back and sometimes it's to the point: Sorry. We don't want the story. But sometimes it's much more than that. I had quite a few letters where they said: Sorry, we're not going to take the story but I liked a lot about this. And the editor took the time to write stuff. And that conversation -- you writing and submitting and them writing you back this letter -- represents this small dialog and it's the only one you're having.
So lit mags are important to me and I'm grateful to them. And then, to get the Journey Prize was a complete shock. I was just amazed.
Are you working on anything now?
Yes. I'm writing a couple of short stories that I'd like to add to the manuscript that's going to be published about a year from now. A collection of short stories called Silent Cruise. And I'm working on a second novel which will be a couple of years past that. | April 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.