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"I don't believe in theory. I don't talk about it. Nothing is ever plotted along the lines of any given theory because that would kill the writing. Then you're writing for another reason. And you have to force your storyline and force your characters into a mold. And why do that? You've killed half the impetus of what writing is about. Which is about exploring. Exploration. You're exploring the people you write and they develop under your hand and become whole."
The first time I interviewed Timothy Findley was in 1995 while he was promoting his splendid novel, The Piano Man's Daughter. Findley took the opportunity to introduce me to a lovely white Zinfandel. A Californian. As crisp as the late summer day was hot and so lovely on the palate, it melted: if a wine can be said to melt.
At our most recent meeting, Findley introduced me to another lovely wine. We were in the lounge of the Hotel Vancouver (the last bastion of civilized smoking in that city. And Findley did rather a lot of that.) and he pressed a glass of an astonishing Australian red on me from his own decanter. "Wolf Blass," he intoned as only Findley can intone. "Don't forget to ask for 'Yellow Label'."
Never mind that he was in a strange city in the midst of a cross-country tour promoting his new book, Pilgrim. Never mind that, in any city he chooses to land, interviewers line up for the pleasure of his company, practically -- according to one publicist -- drawing straws to even get into the line. Over the period of our lunch, Findley was my host. Regal, gently in charge. And I... I was his willing supplicant. Timothy Findley does that. But a bottle bearing that yellow label is now in my cellar. His recommendations tend to be good ones. Not given lightly. And when he speaks, it's impossible not to listen.
Though involved in the serious and necessary business of promoting his most recent work, often he seems to delight in talking about anything but. The stories he tells over lunch seem to roll from his tongue as effortlessly as the stories he's told in writing over the years. In all, nine novels, one novella, three collections of short fiction, four plays and two works of non-fiction have thus far been given to the world through his writing. And how many stories has he told beautifully over lunches just like this? It's best not to even guess. Better, rather, to sit back and enjoy what he chooses to share over delicate bites of his well-made sandwich, practiced exhales of light blue smoke and swirls of that astonishing red. There are amusing stories that involve the housekeeper at his home in Provence, others about the cats that he and partner Bill Whitehead have kept for many years and adore or -- really -- any little bit of anything he chooses to share. Timothy Findley has that kind of magic.
He's woven a lot of that magic into Pilgrim and, perhaps, not without motivation. "I'll never write a book with the scope of this particular book again." And while I gasp audibly at this revelation, part of me can't help but think he might be right. He is less hale at this meeting than he was at our last two. And, while still perfectly clear and sharp, he seems slightly less of the world. The tour is tiring him, I think. And while one hopes that this most celebrated Canadian author will be weaving his wonderful tales for many years to come, it isn't hard to silently agree with him that this might not be in the cards.
However, it might just be the slightly morbid tone of Pilgrim that has Findley thinking along these lines. Or maybe it's the other way around. Whatever the case, Pilgrim is, in many ways, completely concerned with death. Or, at the very least, attaining it when desired.
A period piece, Pilgrim takes place in Zürich in 1912 where the famous "self-professed mystical scientist of the mind," Dr. Carl Jung, meets his most challenging patient to date: the wholly fictional and single-named Pilgrim. Pilgrim has been brought to the Swiss clinic where Jung is in residence because he has made several unsuccessful suicide attempts. Or at least, they were apparently unsuccessful, because Pilgrim lives. If his doctors back in England are to be believed, however, Pilgrim was clinically dead and then came back to life. Pilgrim has a powerful death wish, and with good reason: he is the man who cannot die. And death's very elusiveness haunts the searcher, Pilgrim.
Timothy Findley is one of Canada's best known and best loved writers. He is a recipient of the Governor General's Award for Fiction, the Edgar Award, the Chalmers Award and he has won the Canadian Author's Association Award three times. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada as well as Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France. He maintains homes in the south of France and in Stratford, Ontario. And when he weaves his magic, readers everywhere stop and listen.
Linda Richards: I loved Pilgrim . It's wonderful. Magical. It seemed to me to be quite unlike anything you've done before, but correct me if I'm wrong.
Timothy Findley: No. I think it is.
Everyone seems to be comparing it to other things but it seemed to me to be quite different.
I think it's an extension of the others rather than a reflection of them. It's sort of like the obvious next step. If you take the larger novels -- begin with The Wars, Famous Last Words, Not Wanted on the Voyage and then skip a couple. Then Headhunter I guess is the next really big one and then Piano Man's Daughter, but not utterly. Except for all the psychiatric carry on. And then this. It's almost like a natural progression. And the thing that's extraordinary to me is that I look back -- and it wasn't plotted or planned -- on how much of my writing actually takes place in psychiatric wards or hospitals or clinics. And none of that was deliberate.
It's like names. I nearly fell down! It was not until I had completed Piano Man's Daughter and Bill and I were talking something about Headhunter and I suddenly realized that Lilah Kemp and Charlie Marlow: Lilah and Charlie. And in Piano Man's Daughter it was Lily and Charlie. And I didn't know that until it was all done and I sort of went, Ah. A couple of people who won't let go.
You said it wasn't intentional, but what do you think the reason is? The psychiatric sort of... the kooky themes.
I think it's that people in psychiatric situations are all in peril. They're all in jeopardy. No one's going to understand them. They may not understand what's happening to them or in the world around them. And that -- in the main -- is the perfect ingredient of a good novel. For a good storyteller. There has to be jeopardy. There has to be danger. And there has to be something for the leading figures to get through in order to clarify their own lives or whatever.
If you were to put Pilgrim in a genre, where would you put it?
Well, you're asking a dangerous question.
Because I know what genre are. There are historical novels. There is science fiction. Or whatever. And I don't think any of my work is within any given genre. They're all sufficiently different that it's perfectly clear that I don't write in terms of genre. I just write whatever I write.
It's the same thing as theory. I don't believe in theory. I don't talk about it. Nothing is ever plotted along the lines of any given theory because that would kill the writing. Then you're writing for another reason. And you have to force your storyline and force your characters into a mold. And why do that? You've killed half the impetus of what writing is about. Which is about exploring. Exploration. You're exploring the people you write and they develop under your hand and become whole. And you're exploring a certain situation. And the same is true. But if you were writing with a list of necessary ingredients or whatever: Oh, I want this book to say this or do that. Then you've immediately cut off half the possibilities open to the people in the book and to the storyline.
Perhaps some of the book's own natural energy?
Yes. Once or twice only I've had the experience -- once with a play and once with a novel -- of literally seeing the entire piece flash past me in 60 seconds. 120 seconds. Two minutes. Then you have to go and put it all back together. And, it's in doing that that all the side doors start to open on your way through. So that you can have a sense of having to achieve the impact for the reader of material that had impact on you. And somehow find a way of articulating the journey heading for that impact.
But you still see it as a whole before you start it?
Yes, but the whole is sufficiently diffused that you don't know until you start writing how you've gotten from day to day. But I would say that that only happened twice: one play, one novel and everything else is open-ended. I never know sitting down to begin how it's going to end. And I don't want to until I get there.
I must apologize, now that I've had a chance to think about it, for the genre question.
No! Why? It was a valid question.
Yes but, you're right. Where you are in your career and where you are in your writing is quite beyond that. Which is wonderful. But what has struck me in some of your work, including this latest novel, are the fantastical elements. And there are fantastical elements.
I believe that Pilgrim had lived forever.
There was proof. It wasn't, sort of, well maybe he did and maybe he didn't. You established that he had.
There's sufficient proof that he must have. As Jung decides, on his way through and Emma on her way through the journals, there are things that only someone who was there would know. Could possibly know. Therefore it begins to dawn on Jung that he may be dealing with someone... there was a wonderful review that said that the difference between Emma and Jung lies in the fact that she got to the moment of belief before Jung himself did.
Emma strikes me as being completely more whole. She seems to be the most sane character -- if there is such a thing -- but she just seems more focused and in the world.
Well, she's very determined to survive.
And you can't help but liking her.
Oh: I adore her!
And if I can offer an observation: Emma and Sybil seemed the strongest characters.
Yes, I think you're probably right.
Not the most important, maybe. Or with the most screen time. But they seemed very strong. The women seemed strong.
I think that's always true in my writing. If there is someone strong, it is usually a woman.
Is there a reason for that?
Sure there is. You know: what you see on the way through. I've known some women who've survived situations and lives that I can't think of a single male friend who could have survived the same battering or whatever it happens to be. I just mean battering by circumstance. I think men have a more careless attitude toward survival. They only fight back when they are truly face-to-face with the fact of total failure or death. Total loss. And that galvanizes a man, but the woman is already on the way to survival before the man even starts. And then men flail. Women don't flail in the presence of danger... they go: Calm down. I'm walking through the fire. I'm starting here and I'm going through now.
Why Jung and not some fictional analyst?
Because he's always fascinated me. And I whooped with joy when I realized that he was there to be written. And a perfect moment to pick him up: in 1912. 1912 wasn't arbitrary. I wanted a sufficient lead in time to the First World War for the characters and the reader to become aware of the fact that that's what's coming. And it seems that only Jung and Pilgrim are aware of what's going to happen. Those dreams of Jung's [mentioned in Pilgrim ] are actual. He really did have those dreams about the whole of Europe being flooded with blood. And the other one about the whole of Europe being overcome by ice.
Of course, Pilgrim dreams about trenches and until that moment there'd been no such thing as trench warfare. So he's gained -- by whatever means -- access to the actual imagery of that war.
Are you working on the next book?
Are you able to talk about it?
No. It's just not a good idea. I will tell you that it's called Spadework . And it's set in Stratford, Ontario. Now. In the world of theater and in the world of restaurants. That's all I know myself, basically. I mean, I've got people. But I don't want to talk about them. And I have a good situation to start from. But that's all I can say about it.
That's a lot.
Well, that's enough. And the thing that's interesting with my work is that I might make a few decisions: like I know the title is Spadework and I know that it's set in Stratford. Then the book that emerges is actually set in London, England and it's called The Shovel Brigade or something. So it can change too easily. And too violently. So you never pin yourself down.
Pilgrim is doing very well.
Yes. So far it's doing wonderfully well.
Does it seem that the early reviews and the early sales have been better, perhaps, than any of your other books. Is that accurate? It seems to have shot to number one and stayed there, in Canada.
It's the fastest that one of my books has gotten there. But the good reviews have not been universal. Mostly they're very positive. Others have been positive with negative niggles. And then there was The Toronto Star . I think that there's no question that Phillip Marchand -- and I really shouldn't be talking about him, because I'm giving him space -- he's declared war on me and Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies... there's a whole raft of people he's setting out to destroy. This is a book, I'm talking about. Not just an article. So we knew The Star was going to be bad. But he didn't have the guts to do it himself. He hired an assassin. And, if you read the review, you could make up a very clear picture of this assassin saying, I've got 12 straight razors, seven pairs of scissors, eight machetes, five revolvers and 17 shotguns. And he just picked every weapon up and went for broke.
When Bill brought it [the review] in, he read it to me. He'd read it already. He said, "OK. Be prepared. This is not a review. This is graffiti." It was literally graffiti. And then I remembered something wonderful that I'd read a long, long time ago. It was one of the great Roman philosophers who said, "If you're not making enemies, you're not doing your job." Isn't that wonderful? So I thought, I must be doing my job very well because a couple of enemies like that and you really don't need any more.
It's nice though that, despite that, it's been number one in Canada almost since before it came out.
Yes. It's been wonderful. Particularly at this age.
I'm about to be 69 and then I'm in my 70th year. I'll never write a book with the scope of this particular book again.
Well, never say never.
Hmmm... never say never. That's a good title, but I think it's been used. But, of course not. Or it could be the deathbed book. I'd drop dead five minutes later. How many times does that happen?
But stop it: 69! And you look wonderful.
Thank you. It's the clean living that does it. [Laughs] | November 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.