Frequently Asked Questions
What inspired you to write your most recent novel, The Origin of Species?
Most of my books go back a long way, and this one goes back, in part, to a book I read in the early 1980’s called The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. By looking at evolutionary mechanics from the perspective of genes rather than of whole organisms, Dawkins was able to put forward a convincing evolutionary explanation for altruism. He thus threw a monkey wrench into many people’s usual notions of good and evil, including my own. I never quite saw the world in the same way after that book: it felt like a darker place but also, in some ways, more wondrous, working as it did according to laws whose nuances and interrelations had developed over billions of years. At that stage in my life the idea of becoming a writer was still a bit of a pipe dream, but I had already begun to wonder how I might one day find a way to explore the implications of evolutionary theory in fiction.
Around this same period I met a woman suffering from multiple sclerosis with whom I became very close. She was a person of tremendous spirit and will, infuriating in some ways, stubborn, demanding, but also with a glow of goodness and hope to her that made her seem larger than life. At the time that I knew her I had the sense that her story had fallen to me in some way, that it had become my responsibility, though I doubted I would ever have the skill to do it justice or to bring out its larger implications. It was only some years after her death that it came to me that some of the basic questions she faced in her life were of the same sort as the ones posed by evolutionary theory. From there, The Origin of Species began to take shape.
How did you conduct the research for The Origin of Species?
I once heard the Saskatchewan writer Ven Begamudré describe his writing thus: “I write what I know, and what I don’t know I research, and what I can’t research I make up.”
I once heard the Saskatchewan writer Ven Begamudré describe his writing thus: “I write what I know, and what I don’t know I research, and what I can’t research I make up.” That is a pretty good summary of my own methods. In a novel like this one that requires a fair amount of research I usually do enough up front to feel I have some level of authority over the material and then dive into the writing, filling in whatever gaps need filling as I go along and then sometimes doing some post-research just to make sure I haven’t fudged things too badly. The internet has greatly simplified research: in an instant I can find, say, the most popular song of a given year or even the newspaper headlines of a given day, research that might have taken half a day of tracking down obscure reference books in the past or scanning through microfiche in gloomy library basements.
Travel is trickier. The Origin of Species alludes to a trip Alex makes to Machu Picchu — covered in much more detail in earlier drafts — that I put together almost entirely from many weeks of taking virtual journeys along the Inca Trail on the internet. But there is no real substitute for breathing the actual air of a place. I have been to Sweden several times, both as a backpacker, under terms not so different from those of Alex in the novel, and as a published writer, and have always felt a special connection to that country, not just because it is socialist and cold in much the way Canada is but because there is some deeper spirit there — the elegiac spirit, say, of the Old English poets, who were essentially Norsemen — that feels very familiar. The Galapagos, on the other hand, I went to specifically for research purposes, and under circumstances not like Alex’s at all, aboard a well-appointed yacht where five course meals were served daily and where the crew would greet us with canapés and cocktails when we returned from excursions. Unfortunately — or maybe not so unfortunately — that is how one must do the Galapagos these days, because travel there is so carefully controlled. However, I was able to talk to people there who had been around since the frontier days, and who remembered when Galapagos travel was a bit more as it turns out to be for Alex, a primal encounter with the bare bones of life..
How did you come to be a writer?
I first thought of being a writer when I was eleven or twelve. At the time I used to read a great deal, and at some point it occurred to me that someone had to write all those books out there, and that one day I might write one myself. I had already shown a penchant for writing by then and indeed was known among my classmates for my long stories. I wrote my first novel in the fifth grade, filling about one and a half exercise books. The story concerned a rather large, multi-purpose bicycle that also did service as a space ship and a time-travel machine. Much of the plot line was borrowed from TV shows I watched at the time (for instance, a series called The Time Tunnel) as well as a popular Disney series of films and books about a Volkswagen Beetle called Herbie the Love Bug.
It was not until my mid-20s, however, that I actually made a concerted effort to write in a consistent way, after several failed attempts at doing so. At that point I enrolled in a Master’s program in creative writing, the primary virtue of which was that it provided a structured environment for me to develop the discipline to write on a daily basis. It was as a result of that experience that I wrote my first novel, Lives of the Saints.
What role did your Italian background play in your becoming a writer?
I am not sure what role my Italian heritage played in my formation as a writer. On the one hand, it was not a profession encouraged by my parents, nor was our household one in which books abounded, given that both my parents received a very limited education—to grade five—as children in Italy. Thus my literary education took place almost entirely outside my Italian heritage, and had much more to do with English (i.e. from England) literature, with a bit of Russian, French, American, and Canadian thrown in there and perhaps a few books from Italy as well. When I came to be a writer, it was more with the thought of writing in this world tradition of literature than out of my Italian-Canadian background.
That said, the experience of being an immigrant probably gave me the necessary sense of marginality and outsidedness that I think is important to one’s formation as a writer, since it is often that sort of distancing that gives writers their clearer perspective on the society around them . Also, my Italian-Canadian background bequeathed me a wealth of rich material which subsequently proved very important to my writing.
Which authors have most influenced your own writing?
It probably would be true to say that the most influential writers are those one reads youngest, since the mind is most malleable then. Among my influences I would have to include, then, a host of nearly forgotten children’s writers such as Hugh Lofting, creator of the original, pre-Eddy Murphy Dr. Dolittle; Walter R. Brooks, author of the Freddy the Pig series of books; and many other writers whose names have long faded from my memory, authors of such books as Pitcher with a Glass Arm, Today I Am a Ham, The Horse in the Grey Flannel Suit and, of course, the Herbie the Love Bug series.
In adulthood, I have moved on to more conventional influences: Shakespeare, Swift, Dostoevsky, Yeats, Nabokov, Woolf, and many others. My own ideal is to try to take something from everyone I read. I am very opposed to the school of writing—if it actually exists—that believes you should try to avoid influence. I believe you should seek influence, and cultivate it; it is the only way to progress as a writer.
There is no single quality I look for in a writer other, perhaps, than credibility—in other words, that the writer has succeeded in creating a well-rounded, credible universe, regardless of whatever rules that particular universe is governed by. I tend to think of literature historically, and feel a literature can only really be grasped and understood through knowing its historical roots; and as I result I tend to give somewhat short shrift to contemporary writers, since if literary history teaches us anything, it is that the vast majority of us writers will be utterly forgotten in the space of a generation or so. That said, I don’t think I could survive as a writer without having a good stock of contemporary writers who I admire and learn from, and who help keep my own writing fresh and alive. Among that group I would include Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Don Delillo, Italo Calvino, Thomas Pynchon, Doris Lessing, Richard Ford, and a host of others, as well as many single books such as Fifth Business and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz that proved important in my own formation as a writer.
Do you have a regular writing schedule?
Children make having a schedule difficult, particularly as my wife and I are both writers and so are often competing for the same thin slice of time against the encroachments of childcare and domestic chores. On a good day, I will be able to work from, say, 9:30 AM to perhaps 3 or even 4 or 5 PM. Currently, such days happen perhaps two or three times a week. The rest of week, it is a matter of squeezing in what time I can.
What do you do when your work is not going well?
When my work is not going well I just tend to keep working until it does. I don’t really have any other method for dealing with that sort of problem. Generally I take heart from the fact that I have completed other projects in the past which also didn’t seem to be going well, and will probably complete the present one too.
What is your opinion of literary critics, and have they influenced your work?
In Canada there is no real class of literary critics per se, which is perhaps a shame, and hence many reviews tend to get written by other writers. This mightn’t be such a bad thing if most of the writers in this country didn’t know most of the other writers, and so could write truly objective reviews, or if writers were any more likely to be good judges of literature than anyone else. The fact is that book reviews tend to be superficial and unreliable by their very nature–they are written by people who are being poorly paid to give a day’s thought to a work that someone else has just spent three or four years thinking about. As for academic criticism, it tends to be unreliable for different reasons, usually because it is written out of whatever school of thought happens to be in fashion at the time and because it tends to stress things like symbolism and theme that have little to do with how books are written.
I think we would be hard-pressed to find much in the way of literary criticism that has stood the test of time. On the other hand, we find a fair amount of literature that has done so, often the very stuff that was vilified or dismissed by literary critics when it was first published.
What inspired you to write your novel Testament?
The original seed of inspiration for Testament probably goes back to the first book I ever owned, a picture bible called The Guiding Light that was presented to new-borns in my hometown by our local hospital. The light-bathed Jesus depicted there became my first hero, and its stories of sinners and miracles the backdrop to my imagination. As I grew older, that first blissful relationship I had with Christianity gave way to a somewhat thornier one that saw me pass from post-Vatican II Catholicism to born-again evangelism and finally to a last, desperate phase with Norman Vincent Peale. But though by early adulthood I could no longer have properly called myself a Christian, neither could I say I’d got free of Jesus, who seemed far too powerful a figure to rid oneself of by so simple a thing as a loss of faith.
Already by my early 20s I had conceived the idea of doing a fictional treatment of the life of Jesus, to reconcile my sense of the power of this figure with some of the more problematic aspects of the Christian tradition. It took me some two decades to finally get around to the project, the final outcome of which was the novel Testament.
My idea in Testament was to try to look at the figure of Jesus in purely human, and hence non-Christian, terms. In other words, if we supposed that some actual historical figure lay behind the myth of Jesus as it was handed down, what might he have been like, stripped of interpolations and inventions of Christian tradition? What sort of person could have been responsible for the teachings that have come down to us, some of which were truly revolutionary for their time, and for the often contradictory figure that comes through in the gospels?
What are some of the recurrent themes in your fiction?
It is hard to speak of themes without seeming reductive. I generally start with characters, not themes, though certainly recurrent theme-like entities or motifs have indeed grown out of the characters I’ve tended to work with. They are the usual Big Themes, I think: life, death, home, family, what it means to be human. There are a few subsets within these that are a bit more specific—my obsession with Catholicism, for instance, which led one critic to label me as a kind of Canadian Graham Greene, though I am certainly not Catholic in my life and really regard Catholicism less as a theme, per se, than as a particularly tempting corpse to dig my vulture claws into. I have also been very interested in the whole issue of displacement, something that comes out of my immigrant background but that is really a basic aspect of being human in our time, and one that goes back to many recurring motifs—the journey; the search for home, for a lost paradise—that have been central to the Western tradition.
How do you compare your Lives of the Saints trilogy to your subsequent work in terms of style and vision?
I see quite a bit of continuity between my trilogy and subsequent books such as Testament and The Origin of Species. In the end all of these books go back, as I say, to the matter of the big questions. The importance of home and family figures as largely in Testament, for instance, as it does in the Lives trilogy, as does the issue of faith. The Origin of Species returns to many of these same questions again, though this time seen through the lens of evolutionary theory.
In terms of vision, then, I have been stubbornly single-minded: the same issues that obsessed me when I began writing obsess me still. Stylistically, I have tended to be more wide-ranging, I think, trying on different voices, different tones, though what might seem wide-ranging to me might to an outsider appear predictably homogenous. In The Origin of Species I have returned, in many ways, to the voice of Lives of the Saints, more ironic, more self-effacing, more comic, partly because I feel this voice allows for a more nuanced, and perhaps more accurate, view of the human condition.
Which philosophical influences have shaped your fiction?
I have had many philosophical influences in my life, and in the early drafts of a novel I always work very hard to weave them into the text, then spend most of the revision process threading them out. Writers, when they write, have to be bigger, I think, than their own particular philosophical influences; they have to act as if they know nothing for certain, as if all comers have a fair shot at coming out on top. That is the only way to stay true, I think, to what is most important in a novel, the characters themselves and their particular stories. In the context of fiction, a character’s deeply help philosophical beliefs are much more important than an author’s, I think, and they should have every chance to flourish or fail without the author putting his or her two cents in all the time.
How does ethnicity fit into your fiction both in terms of human experience and the nature of the modern world?
Ethnicity is one of those words that makes me want to run in the other direction. What does it mean? It almost invariably has a belittling tone. Things are ethnic only by contrast, and the implication is always that ethnic cultures are being contrasted to some realer, truer culture they are merely sideshows to. Alternately, ethnicity is raised up as a banner of specialness, which leads to all sorts of fascistic excesses. I suppose the way in which ethnicity has played into my own work is that I have somehow felt it my job to take apart these notions of ethnicity, and to avoid falling into the trap of them. I am more interested in complexity than ethnicity—the particularities of cultural differences, yes, but only as nuances within a range of other formative and connective forces.
What traditions do you see your work as part of in stylistic and formal terms?
My formative training in literature was in the English literary tradition—Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, as we said—and that training has stayed with me at a deep level. That tradition is certainly not one to scoff at, and I feel very fortunate to have been exposed to it. At either end of this exposure, however, are a mongrel host of other influences—all the nameless books I read as a child, for instance, and which were really what awakened the force of imagination in me, and then the eclectic assortment of world literature I have come to in one way or another, including through a year I spent studying at the University of Florence.
Stylistically and formally—in the architecture of my sentences, for instance, in my use of language, in my reliance on certain conventions of literary realism—I still look back to the English tradition as the important one. But in the matter of tone, I am not so certain. Maybe one of the major influences on tone in my writing was not literature at all but the films of Federico Fellini. There is something in the pathos of Fellini’s worldview, in the mix of irony and tragedy, in the willingness to include the whole range of human experience, that is very appealing to me, and that I have also found in writers like Svevo and Calvino. Perhaps this is an area in which my Italian roots have been determining ones.
What do you believe are the important contributions of a writer in modern society?
I used to make very lofty claims for writers, but now I am more ambivalent. The lofty claims ran something like this: that literature was the true repository of human knowledge, what was most likely to survive over time and what best captured all the nuances and complexities of human experience. We looked to writers, I thought, more than to any other source, to give meaning to our existence. But maybe this was just self-aggrandizement. Most writers are utterly forgotten, and probably don’t do much for the furtherment of the race. Then it is an open question whether the race is indeed furthering itself, or if we are on some sort of evolutionary dead end that writers, by giving us a false sense of our importance in the grand scheme of things, have merely helped to obscure from us. Maybe it is true that the important literature, today as in the past, is the literature that reminds us how small we are, and how little we know, and that we will come to dust.
What do you believe makes the novel, as an art form, universal? How does the depiction of a particular time and place fit into this idea of universality?
I suppose what makes the novel universal, if it is truly so, is that it is about humans, and we are all humans. From my recent research into evolutionary theory, I’m tempted to say that even cows and dogs might find the novel universal, if we could find a way to communicate one to them. Given that we are all shaped by the same basic forces, essentially animal forces, anything that speaks to these is going to strike a chord with people. That is what novels primarily do, I think—they speak to our most basic motivations and drives, giving a shape to them that no straightforward analysis or description could ever quite capture.
The question of time and place does seem a bit thorny in this light, but maybe only superficially so. In my own work, time and place are central, I would say, and I think that is the case in the writing I most admire. I suppose we respond to the particular in literature because we live in the particular, and need to feel rooted in some sort of credible world in order for a piece of fiction to work. That world might be quite different from ours; the important thing is that the author makes us believe in it. But part of that belief, I think, has to come from a leap we make at some point, from the gut sense that that different world has become our own, because the author has teased out the merely particular and time-bound and somehow connected these to a larger commonality.
What is the role of the novel today, given the massive dominance of visual imagery, especially through television and film?
The novel has died many deaths, yet it still straggles on. In strict percentages, surely a greater proportion of the human race is reading literature today than was ever the case in the past, given how recent widespread literacy is. So there is hope. I think it is also true that people have an insatiable need for narrative, that this is something that is hard-wired into them, and that the novel perhaps remains the primary source for complex narrative. You could certainly make the argument that film, as far as narrative is concerned—and narrative is central to it, as it is to most popular entertainments—tends to be highly derivative and reductive, and that if the novel died, film might go with it.
The novel and indeed most forms of literature have always been more meditative than direct, and it is true that it is hard to compete with the onslaught of much more visceral stimuli. But the brain is a complex place, and will always eventually crave complex enjoyments. So maybe the role of the novel is to be the guardian of the complex, of the view of reality that sees it in its fullness rather than reduces it to its most sensational elements.