Author Michael Winter sees the self in the story

Michael Winter is sitting at a table on the empty patio of the Cadillac Lounge in Parkdale, talking small to avoid posing for the photographer who’s snapping pictures.

“We bought a house in Newfoundland for $5,000. No running water. No electricity.” It’s about an hour outside St. John’s, “on the road out to a lighthouse,” near the homes of some other writers who are generous with the use of their shower facilities.

Winter is about 12 hours off the plane from out east, back in Toronto for the winter; he’s wearing an army jacket and runners, sipping coffee from a paper cup with bags under his eyes. The deep shadows come with a buoyant mood; they’re the facial baggage of a man with a three-week-old son. I ask about bringing his first-born, Leo, home to the rough-and-tumble cabin, where he’s lived all summer with his partner Christine Pountney. “He’ll have it in his biography – that his first home had no running water,” he says. No running water and a newborn kid. You working on that?

“Oh yeah. Feel these muscles, Ed,” he says, gripping a bicep. “These are not writing muscles.”

But, if you’ll excuse the cheeseball transition, he’d be entitled to brag on the writing muscles if he wanted to. The Architects Are Here (Penguin, $34), his fifth book – launching Oct. 4 at the Cadillac Lounge as part of This Is Not a Reading Series – is already on the Scotiabank Giller Prize long list before it’s even out of the gate. The ambitious novel marks the return of narrator Gabriel English, Winter’s fictional alter ego and the subject of his first three books. With those early books, Winter encouraged the perception that his fiction was not very fictional – and as a result, people in his life reading themselves in his stories were hurt. So his last novel, The Big Why, veered into the relationship-preserving realm of historical fiction. And this time, the only bits of real-life biography present, Winter says, are his own.

Except one. “There’s a part in the book when [Gabriel’s] brother says, ‘If you write about me again I will deliver a punch to your head from which you might never recover,’” a threat Winter’s own miner brother made to him. “It’s his line. That’s the end of my brother in fiction.”

And the story departs, too, from the chapter in English’s life readers already know, the twentysomething years spent in St. John’s – looking backward to his upbringing in Corner Brook and forward to his life in Toronto as it explores his complicated relationships with his smooth-talking, Falstaff-meets-Gatsby friend David Twombley, his riddling romance with Nell Tarkington and their intersection with the Hurley family, the tar-paper Corleones of Corner Brook.

It’s unmistakably the English of the earlier books, yet the experiences are buried, subtext – one can read this book and feel they know Gabe English inside and out and yet be unaware of three volumes of his life. Which, as it happens, is kind of a theme of the book.

From the book: “You never know how different people’s histories can be from what they are now.”

Winter, at the Cadillac: “We think we know people and we try to pin them down to a thing: this is what you are, this is what you’re like. But, in truth, we only know a small part of people.”

In The Architects Are Here, the fact of people’s complexity is made plain. We all contain multitudes of history, emotion and personality that stay hidden from various people. We are different, but no less genuine, depending on who we’re with. But these “other selves,” as Nell calls them, don’t remain in the past, they are beside us always. Which can bring on unintended consequences for those we love. Which, as it turns out, is another theme of the book.

Winter: “My mother told me, ‘You’re in your forties now; you need to write a book that shows consequences.’”

And consequences – usually unforeseen and often disastrous – are everywhere in the novel, as each personal, secret act reverberates outward, damaging lives along the way, and then ripples back in, dangerously and sometimes lethally, before emanating outward again.

It’s a mature book, in Winter’s mastery of his devastatingly effective prose style (spare, poetic sentences that create full, round imagery) and sprawling, entrancing plot and in the concerns of his thirtysomething characters. It’s big and ambitious and exciting: it’s a Toronto novel and a Newfoundland novel and a road novel all rolled into one; a love triangle and a buddy story and a revenge epic; a boozy, funny portrait of achingly true characters you might have a beer with playing out their lives on a widescreen scale.

There are princes and presidents and technological marvels and classic roadsters, lost parents and dead children and adultery and explosions and violence. Yet for all its Hollywood scope, it feels, days after the covers are closed, like a book about screwed-up people trying to figure out how to live with one another, and with themselves.

“I’m looking for that contrast,” Winter says, about taking plot elements that could be from a romance novel or action movie and avoid the melodrama by focusing on the inner lives of the people involved. “To take what the reader’s expecting and do something completely different – and to then, through the characters, make them believe it. Make it real.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly on October 4, 2007.


The poetry of the city

What we need are more poets and fewer businessmen involved in deciding how we are governed. Fewer businessmen and lawyers and economists and planners – who see the city as a series of cost-benefit analyses and balance sheets, as so many lines on a map representing problems to be managed – and more painters and philosophers and sculptors.

There’s an inherent danger in putting poets in charge of getting things done, I realize. But what’s almost always missing from the urban debate is an ability to see the city as a relationship we citizens are involved in with each other, both a physical and psychological place in which our hopes and dreams are played out, and where we work and grow prosperous, yes, but also where we screw and hurt and risk ourselves, where we experiment with ideas and identity and fall in and out of love with each other every day. To see the city as an essential part of the drama of life, as a player in the romances and comedies and epics and tragedies of its millions of citizen protagonists. To see the city through the eyes of an artist is to recognize that beauty and truth and soul are not qualities that can be conjured by planning. Rather they come from the citizenry, from the frictions – productive and destructive – caused by rubbing up against one another in the urban public sphere.

“Isn’t the city a poem in progress?” Toronto Poet Laureate Pier Giorgio Di Cicco asks in the introduction to his new book Municipal Mind: Manifestos for the Creative City, launched this week by Mansfield Press. “Aren’t the citizens the authors of the poem they will have to read to their children?”

Yes. The Poet — as my colleague Shawn Micallef simply calls Di Cicco — gets it. The author of 17 volumes of poetry, a Catholic priest and university professor who has lived in Arezzo, Montreal, Baltimore and Toronto, understands the poetry of the city.

This strange little volume — his prose is like a philosophical tract, long on logic and aphorism and shunning case studies — is more mediation than manual, laying out the principles that underlie the creative city. He believes that often the greatest thing a city can do is get out of the way of its citizenry; has insights into the trickiness of urban planning and design; and lays out the many and various ways that corporate imperatives and a culture of technological convenience have eroded the civic arena.

But perhaps his greatest and best-taken themes are that the great and metropolitan city exists to create intimacy — “The purpose of city living is to perfect and rediscover the city as a forum of unexpected intimacies” — and that the city exists not primarily in buildings and squares and traffic patterns and budgets and bylaws but in the hearts of its citizens. “Indeed: the soul of a city is antecedent to the construction of a city. The dream of civic communion precedes the construction of it. The civic dream stems from the desire for a city to be made happy by a common meditation on the good, enacted by literary grace, in a forum where the transaction of mutual delight results in prosperity.”

Yes. We may need fewer books on city planning, as Di Cicco writes in his introduction. But we’ll take more poets, please.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on June 28, 2007. 

It’s so refreshing when they get it right.

The gala Charles Taylor Prize luncheon ceremony held at the Windsor Arms Hotel on Feb. 27 offered lots to groan about, for those in the mood: an insanely packed room that had the wait staff showing off their bending, ducking and stretching skills and made trips to the washroom an embarrassing chance to get close and personal with the other guests; a lot of pretentious and over-articulated blather from awards foundation trustee (and Charles Taylor’s widow) Noreen Taylor about books “brought into being” (that’s “written,” for the rest of us) by talented writers; and some truly cheeseball, if well received, not-quite-mastering of the ceremonies by CBC radio host Alan Neal.

But in the end, the wine flowed freely, the roasted chicken with pesto and corn salsa was very edible and — gasp! — the best book won.

For his page-turner of a true-life detective story/travelogue Dead Man in Paradise (Douglas & McIntyre), J.B. MacKinnon took home a handsome glass trophy and $25,000 (which he — in response to a message from last year’s winner, his drinking buddy Charles Montgomery — characterized as “beer money”).

The award is the richest in Canada for non-fiction. Past winners are Montgomery, Isabel Huggan, Wayne Johnston and Carol Shields.

“I was so certain that this was not going to happen that I did not prepare any remarks. I hope the other nominees will take that as a sign of respect,” MacKinnon said in accepting the award, before noting that this is two years in a row that the prize has gone to a Vancouver writer with a book about a missionary.

Among those other nominees, beside John Terpstra for The Boys or, Waiting for the Electrician’s Daughter and Laura M. Mac Donald for Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917, James Chatto may take further consolation: earlier in the ceremony, in introducing Chatto’s very good book The Greek for Love: A Memoir of Corfu, juror Laurier LaPierre broke down into tears. Some might have thought that a sign that the book was about to win, but MacKinnon’s stunningly detail-rich piece of investigative reporting won out over Chatto’s satisfyingly sentimental memoirizing.

The investigative work — and the documenting of all those details — is especially important in the age of James Frey, MacKinnon says.

“I gave myself a rule: anything that appeared in there as a fact had to be source-able and documentable and supported by records or books or sources and it was excruciating to go through the book and make sure that I could do that, but I couldn’t see any other approach that would be acceptable. The pleasure of that is that you then carry a book to the public that you feel very, very confident about.”

No stranger to prizes, MacKinnon says the satisfaction of taking home the Charles Taylor is greater than his two National Magazine Awards. “You put so much of yourself into a book that to have — it’s somehow exponentially more personal in a sense, so to be rewarded for that deep personal involvement in a project is very exciting.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly on March 2, 2006. 

At a luncheon ceremony at the Windsor Arms Hotel this Monday (Feb. 27), the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction will give $25,000 to the Canadian author “whose book best combines a superb command of the English language, an elegance of style and a subtlety of thought and perception.” The safe money this year is on tragedy: all four of the nominated books deal with death or destruction. For those looking to wager further, here’s a guide to the four nominees and my assessment of their chances.

The book: Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917 (Harper Collins). The author: Halifax-born, New York–based writer and radio producer Laura M. Mac Donald. The tragedy: In 1917, a munitions ship stocked up with explosives ran into Halifax harbour and exploded, killing 2,000, injuring 10,000 and leaving two miles of the city in ruin. The redemption: Halifax rallied heroic relief and rebuilding efforts and, in their remembrance of the tragedy, locals demonstrate how we “accept the unacceptable, bear the unbearable, keep going.” Elegance of style: “The air was the color of bruised plums.” Subtlety of thought and perception: “It is funny how, more than 120 years after Edison invented the incandescent bulb, something as simple as turning on a light switch can still fill us with awe.” Why it could win: This is CanLit, after all, and a slice of devastation set on the East Coast marking a pivotal moment in Canadian history ought to be pretty tempting to the jury. Also, for what it’s worth, Mac Donald is the only woman among this year’s nominees. Why it may not win: Though there are plenty of vivid character details, the tragedy is not personal to the author. Judging by their other selections, this jury seems to have a soft spot for familial loss. Odds: 3-1.

The book: The Boys: Or, Waiting for the Electrician’s Daughter (Gaspereau Press). The author: Hamilton poet John Terpstra. The tragedy: All three of the author’s wife’s brothers suffer from muscular dystrophy and die in their early twenties. The redemption: Though wheelchair bound and facing certain death, the boys are full of life. Elegance of style: “There are many ways to enter, and inside is where they live, where she has always lived.” Subtlety of thought and perception: “Only [death] didn’t get there first. First there was the attraction that brought the two human beings together, that sparked the fire by which the third was created. All death could do was watch, and long, and wish. / And tamper with tiny flame.” Why it could win: As a lyric piece presented in an unconventional format, this would be a chance for the jury to show off its sophistication by rewarding a “difficult book” from a small press. Why it may not win: It’s a heartbreaking and heartwarming story of the human spirit triumphing over adversity, written in a style completely alienating to those who like such stories. Odds: 14-1.

The book: The Greek for Love: A Memoir of Corfu (Random House Canada). The author: Toronto Life food critic James Chatto. The tragedy: Just as the author and his wife have adapted to life in their adopted home in a Corfu village, their son is diagnosed with — and dies of — leukemia. The redemption: Through time, the joy of their memories conquers the sorrow of their loss. Elegance of style: “The tall white and purple irises were fading under the almond trees — the air was no longer heavy with their extraordinary incense — but now the whole hillside was covered in bright red poppies, thousands of them, so many they seemed to emit a scarlet glow in the early morning sunshine.” Subtlety of thought and perception: “But the wall beneath me was real and tangible. It would outlast me, and one day Joe would bring his children here and show them the house where he grew up, the patio where he watched the ants and played with his cars, the small rhombus of land with its eleven olive trees where his brother’s ashes are buried.” Why it could win: This is the only book on the list most people have heard of and Chatto, a prominent media figure in Toronto, would be a popular choice with critics. Why it may not win: I can’t think of a reason. Odds: 2-5.

The book: Dead Man in Paradise (Douglas and McIntyre). The author: Vancouver magazine journalist J.B. MacKinnon. The tragedy: The author’s uncle, a missionary priest, is martyred under mysterious circumstances in the Dominican Republic in 1965. The redemption: None, unless you count an astonishingly good book that wraps together travelogue, geopolitics, murder mystery, personal memoir and meditations on the nature of truth, faith, justice and forgiveness. Elegance of style: “There are flies, and as long as there are flies, there will be lizards.” Subtlety of thought and perception: “…when he speaks it is directly to the part of me that wants so badly to give pardon … Roberto’s eyes, far more than his words, ask me to guard against forgiveness given too easily. There is a hesitation within him, as though he’s afraid the price of understanding is the ruination of something pure.” Why it could win: Three of the previous four winners have been travelogue/memoirs or family memoirs, and this is both of those and more. Also, it’s the best book nominated. Why it may not win: Judging by his photograph on the book overleaf, the author is about 17 years old. Odds: 9-2.

Originally published in Eye Weekly February 23, 2006. 

Finally getting a hold of him, after being repeatedly asked to call back by his assistant, EDWARD KEENAN spoke to Tom Wolfe by telephone from his home in New York, where he’s on a short break from being “out shamelessly flogging my book.”

EYE WEEKLY: A profile of the New York social scene in Bonfire of the Vanities maybe seems like it was a bit of a gimme for you, and the corporate titan in A Man in Full also was maybe an obvious subject. College life strikes me as less so. What attracted you to the subject?

TOM WOLFE: To me it actually seemed obvious. I was working on A Man in Full since the 1990s, and I would hear these stories that just came through the air about co-ed dorms and political correctness — there was all kinds of talk about that. And binge drinking — there was now a name for heavy drinking — and I heard a little bit, not all that much, about drugs, and it was obvious that certain ideas were being nurtured and spreading from colleges.

A good example is feminism. As far as I know, there was never any debate about the rights of women to work in the upper levels of corporations with men, it just seemed that one day all the corporate leaders woke up and scratched their heads and said, ‘Gee, I guess we have to hire some women, and I guess we have to put them high up in the field, as high as it gets beneath the glass ceiling,’ and they didn’t know why. Gee, all this happened and it seems like this is all you have to do and there was never any debate.

And also all the new topical value seemed to be coming out of the colleges. I think just the co-ed dorms alone seemed to be titillating enough to for somebody to stake out on it.

So at one point when I was working on A Man in Full, I was having so hard a time with that I was tempted to drop it and do something on colleges. I thought it could be done very quickly. By somebody it probably could.

EYE: It never seems to work out that way does it?

WOLFE: Not for me lately.

EYE: I was rereading “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” [Wolfe’s November, 1989 essay for Harper’s Magazine] the other day and of course you mention this New York social novel you had been thinking of writing. You figured you would finish in a year or two, which turned into more than a decade, I guess, and went from being non-fiction to fiction.

WOLFE: Right.

EYE: Fiction seems to take you more time. Looking back over your published work, it seems that you had a book every year or two for a while, and this switch from journalism to novels has sort of slowed the pace.

WOLFE: I have a feeling, I wrote something on this line when I was young. Of course when you’re young the possibility that you ever might be old is ludicrous. I mean, I was born in 1930, so I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, if I reach 70 it’ll be the year 2000.’ But that’s not even — obviously by the time you’re 70 you’re not even functioning, so what does it matter if you get there. And as you get old you say, ‘Well, maybe I’ve got a few more years.’

Anyway, I read that writers tend to become more perfectionists as they get older. Now this is ex post facto author’s psychoanalysis, but perhaps they feel there’s more at stake because they’re so wonderful in their later years and that the world will expect something closer to perfection. There’s writers who get the idea that the world expects anything from them, but the world can get along fine without you.

But there’s also the challenge — I’d never written a novel before and here I was 54 when I started The Bonfire of the Vanities and I’d been thinking of this non-fiction Vanity Fair for a long time. Then I said to myself, ‘If I’m ever going to do a novel, now’s the time.’ I had a limited financial cushion from The Right Stuff. And I must have sat catatonically at my desk and I just couldn’t get — I think I was intimidated by switching to this new form. That’s when I went to Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone and suggested a serial novel, and I think Jan was probably the only editor in the country that was mad enough to run a serial novel at this point in history. If people want a story every week they just turn on the television, there’s lots of stories that resume every week. But he went ahead and did it, and I think if it had not been for that I could have never finished it. I knew I could meet a deadline if I had to meet a deadline, having worked for newspapers for 10 years. And pretty much the way it worked out, I didn’t miss an issue for 27 issues, that’s a little over one year’s worth. Of course I had to change it a great deal, because I’d basically written a first draft in public.

I really only meant to write one, just to prove that I could do it. And that seemed to go over pretty well, a lot better than I thought it would, so I thought, weeellll, I’ll do another one. And that’s the one that stretched on forever. I tried to jam so much into that one book, A Man in Full, there was going to be a Japanese component, an Art World component, there’s a whole novella that appeared in the collection Hooking Up — a novella called “Ambush at Fort Bragg” — that was originally part of A Man in Full. Just why, I’m not sure, where it was going to go in there.

And then I think there was the lure — I know you’re not supposed to mention sales, but god, that book sold a lot of copies. So I thought, ‘Ahhh, I’ll do one more.’”

EYE: The critical reception of the new book has been mixed. But it seems like there’s something more than not liking the book in the negative reviews that have appeared. The viciousness of the invective makes it seem like they must have had their knives sharpened for a long time, laying in wait for your next book. And I wonder what you think motivates that kind of all-out personal attack.

WOLFE: I don’t know whether that’s the case or not. I always assume that if somebody gives the book a bad review, after all I can’t confront them and say, “You did too like it — you thought that book was great.” So I don’t know, George Orwell once said that it was impossible to enjoy a book written by someone whose political views differ from yours. And now, I’m not very political, I have no agenda, but I can’t stand go along with all these sheep that live in New York in the writing and literary and journalistic community. And if I make fun of contemporary art, as I did in The Painted Word or From Bauhaus to Our House, that’s taken as a political act. That’s a conservative thing to do. Now neither of those books passes any critical judgment in the sense of questioning taste, but they do knock certain icons, so I guess that’s sufficient.

I don’t know. If somebody doesn’t like the book, I guess they didn’t like it.

EYE: I guess that looking over your work — not just this book —one thing that sticks out in much of your writing, fiction and non-fiction is that status is of paramount importance. And I wonder if you ever read these reviews and think that status considerations play a part in their tone.


EYE: Hunting the big dog or what have you.

WOLFE: Well that’s, I suppose, always possible. But on the very subject of status — it has always bothered critics, I think, when fiction dwells on status. For example in [John] O’Hara [author of Butterfield 8], whole novels turn on that very subject. And I think a lot of people, and this would include a lot of critics, they reject the theory because it’s an uncomfortable theory. And many, many people just assume the world doesn’t work that way, I think. Psychological problems are fine, but status problems are something else again, it seems a little, it seems kind of dirty.

EYE: Now contemporary North Americans have no problem looking at fiction written in the 19th century and seeing the class structure played out there and seeing that class is such an important factor in, say, Dickens, for example. But maybe they nurture this belief that they live in a classless society and these status considerations conflict with that. Which again they must read as political somehow.

WOLFE: That’s possible. I really don’t know whether that’s the case, but it’s certainly possible.… You know, you’re right. I think particularly writers — and artists too, people in the plastic arts — feel that they’re part of an aristocracy that is aloof to all of these considerations. Matthew Arnold wrote that, I believe he said that there was now a fourth class, there’d been the upper class which he called the barbarians, the middle class he called the philistines, and the working class or lower class — it used to be that the lower class meant people who worked, it doesn’t anymore — the lower class were called the populace. Even then you didn’t have funny names for the lower orders. They were called the populace rather than barbarians or philistines. And he said that now there’s a new class, which, this isn’t very mellifluous, he called them the people of sweetness and light, a kind of a charming aristocracy of taste. And I think a lot of them — and I may include myself — believe that if you’re a writer or an artist or something, then somehow you’re aloof from that whole status breakdown.

EYE: On the subject of status, looking back to the introduction of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, way back in the beginning, you point out that you realized that in Las Vegas, on racetracks, in teenage dance crazes, there were new, essentially American art forms being created and that no one was paying attention because it was popular and because it was proletarian. Do you feel vindicated now that almost our memory of the 1960s is almost entirely made up of those things?

WOLFE: To me it was pretty clear that for the first time, probably in human history, that young people were able to get their hands on enough money to express their beliefs or just simply attitudes in a big way. For example, if you’re able to customize a car, that takes money, and most of these custom cars — the title, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby was a car after all — they somehow had the money to create these forms. And they were by no means from the upper orders, these were street kids in Los Angeles. And the same thing would later be true with surfer communes that I talked about in The Pump House Gang, they would be young, really just boys and girls no older than 14 or 15, living together communally in the same town where their parents lived, and somehow they had the money — often the money was probably from their parents — to live this kind of communal life. And out of the communal life comes the possibility of styles such as the baggies, the swimming suits that the boys wore that now look like the NBA basketball shorts. And they had the vocabulary, “Hang ten” and all that.

Then there were the hippies were the same in a big way, living without working in a colourful manner. It was only made possible because there was somehow money in the air that could be somehow tapped into. What I found in the hippy communes would be three or four women with children and no husbands and each would qualify for aid to dependent children and if you’ve got four in one house then that’s not bad, that goes a long way to paying the rent. And that was all new and I think it was — I wasn’t really writing them in terms of predictions, the subsequent history has played out pretty much according to the — “youth revolution” seems like such a trite term — the changes that the youth living together created.

Without The Beatles, there’d be no heavy metal and all the other things that have come along. The Beatles look like pretty tame music now but they showed the way in the ’60s for everything else. It started in the ’60s and now it’s standard, in the life of young people particularly.

EYE: Now I guess this is something that ties back into the current novel. One of the criticisms or observations people have is that — and I think you said it yourself — is that you found it really interesting, the sexual atmosphere on campuses. And as one of the primary chroniclers of the counterculture of the 1960s and being an eyewitness to the sexual revolution in the first place, was it really surprising to you that on college campuses the attitudes are what they are today?

WOLFE: That’s something that also started in the ’60s in these communes, it was the idea of releasing all the restraints on sexual behaviour in the communes. I don’t know if you remember that a townhouse in New York City blew up, on West 11th Street. It turned out to be a bomb-making factory of the Weathermen or SDS, one of those fairly violent anti-Vietnam war groups, and it was a real explosion, demolished the whole thing. And running from the ruins were two naked girls. Everyone assumed that the force of the explosion had blown their clothes off. That wasn’t true at all. The commune had decided that as they went around making bombs all day they would wear no clothes, so they became a nudist colony. And of course, also a — to use an old term — a free-love commune.

And the seeds for all of that came from out of the 1960s.

EYE: So is that just playing itself out on college campuses?

WOLFE: What I kind of bring out in the book, in one way, is to have one of the main characters who is a male senior who’s a virgin. Males have always hidden their virginity, but he’s really obsessed about the fact that he is a virgin and all of this sexual carnival taking place around him. But this atmosphere, I found extremely hard on women. Women used to have natural outs if they didn’t want to engage in sexual activity — they had to be in by 10:30, or boys couldn’t come into their dorm — there was always something that they could point to, something that seemed external to their own decision-making, something that kept them from granting the boys’ wishes. But now there’s really nothing other than a desire not to have sex.

And girls now respond like boys do. It used to be that the worst slut in the world would maintain a veneer of virginity, and today there are female virgins in college who try to create an air of sexual experience. It’s turned around 180 degrees. And the most extreme version of this is the co-ed bathroom. I can’t imagine that there’s one girl out of 50 who likes that, but you don’t want to object, because that makes you very uncool or prudish. That’s something also that was never debated. Co-ed dorms were never debated either, they’re something that just happened in the colleges. You can make an argument for co-ed dorms, a feminist argument, it’s stretching things a little bit, but you can make the argument that unless you’re able to form the same kind of old-boy or in this case old-boys-and-girls network through close contact, you are at a disadvantage if you intend to go into business. But I don’t see any argument for co-ed washrooms or bathrooms.

EYE: You issued a challenge to novelists in The New Journalism, and then seeing that the challenge hadn’t been taken up, in 1989 in the Harper’s essay, you took up your own challenge to write a novel that would compete with The New Journalism. Since then, have any other writers been getting it, the way that you think they ought to?

WOLFE: Well, certainly someone like Richard Price. He had written three novels based on his own experience; the first one was what I consider a really superb novel called The Wanderers, which was about growing up in the Bronx as a teenager with all sorts of gangs forming. And there’s a lot of humour, as well as suffering in that novel. Now, there are many instances of writers who create wonderful first novels based on their own life so far, and he did, he wrote… the next two novels were, let’s see… one was called Blood Brothers, and the next was called Ladies’ Man, and he was drawing on his experiences since then, but the experience was getting thinner. He’s such a great writer, I mean these books are not bad books, he’s just one of these naturally gifted writers. But then I think he reassessed his choices, then did something I admired tremendously. I don’t know how exactly he hit upon the subject, but he decided to go out and get in amongst the low-level and a few high-level drug dealers in Union City, New Jersey, which is just outside of New York, and did so. He started off with police contacts, and through them he eventually made contact with the dealers themselves, and then wrote Clockers, which I think is a wonderful, wonderful novel. Another example would be Po Bronson whose first novel — he’s only in his early thirties, I’d imagine — his first novel was called Bombardiers, and it was about the investment banking world, and probably based on his own experience, working for First Boston Investment Banking in San Francisco, but his next one was The First $20 Million Is the Hardest, which was about the Silicon Valley, and he had nothing to do with the Silicon Valley but he just went out into the Valley and essentially did reporting and came up with what seems to me the only treatment from the inside, there may be others, but — that I know of that whole wonderful history, particularly in the 1990s, up until the bubble burst in the Silicon Valley.

So those are two novelists I like. Another is the interesting figure of Carl Hiaasen. In a literary sense, he’s usually written off as a genre writer who writes comic thrillers, who does write comic thrillers, but he has enough talent and enough curiosity about the world outside of his own world to branch off in any direction he might ever want to. He is — although he’s a very wealthy novelist, I’d imagine, unless he’s squandered [laughter] lots of money, which I doubt — he maintains his job on the Miami Herald as a way of constantly being in touch with new phenomena, new things that are happening in South Florida, and with every novel there’s some new information about the life that goes on there, so he’s another writer I do admire.

EYE: The elite, and of course your Three Stooges [Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving], have yet to embrace the type of writing your like. Is it the same cultural snobbery that made people overlook the types of art forms and cultural movements your wrote about in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby that cause the art elite to embrace theory over nearly everything else and that now causes them also to try to stay away from the realistic, reported novel?

WOLFE: Yes. I think there are so many writers that consider themselves part of a charming aristocracy — that’s not my phrase, that was the phrase of Catulle Mendes, in France in the 1880s when that kind of world — charming aristocracy of taste coalesced, and at that time they were part of the literary world — for the first time the literary world began — and they valued above all else the poetry of Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Rimbaud, and they all stated that realism, or naturalism as they called it, had come to an end. At the same time as they happened to say that, Zola was probably the most popular novelist in the entire world. And probably Maupassant was second. Both realists using great detail. But that idea of the charming aristocracy in which the poet doesn’t so much need to address the information as he wafts a sensibility. You don’t get direct meaning from the poem, you get zephyrs that move you on some higher emotional level.

Now that didn’t hit the United States until after the Second World War, but then it hit in a big way. It would have hit earlier, except that, starting in 1900 with Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, the American realistic novel rose and it was so powerful — it starts with Dreiser and then you have Dos Passos, Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Faulkner and Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton and Richard Wright and Thomas Wolfe, my namesake … and eventually Steinbeck in 1939 with The Grapes of Wrath. These are all realistic novels done by writers who understood you had to go outside of your own life. Hemingway went to Spain to the Spanish Civil War to get new material. Steinbeck knew nothing about these Oakies and the migrant labour camps. He’d heard about them and nobody had written about them — almost nobody had written about them at all, but certainly not from the inside — and he bought an old truck and got some blankets and some food and started travelling around to the migrant labour camps where people were working for 12 and a half cents a day, and came up with what to me is unquestionably one of the great American masterpieces.

The French fashion would have started in the ’30s, except that the Depression hit and suddenly wafting sensibilities had to take second place to what was happening right in front of your face.

But after the Second World War, finally the French won out and it suddenly, in the literary, world began to seem rather loutish and amateurish to dig into the dirt of realism. And it was time to do the small novel of psychological nuances.

And it just killed the novel. In recent weeks, both Philip Roth and V.S. Naipaul, both obviously highly regarded, both say they give the novel maybe another 25 years. And they’re quite right. Unless novelists go back to the spirit of the novel — or the American novel anyway — in the first half of the 20th century. The easy solution is to just go out and do it. The United States is such a bizarre, sprawling country and the terrain has hardly been touched. I mean you can settle in anywhere in the United States, if you spent a few weeks in a place you’d encounter more strange stories than you ever dreamed existed. In no small part because there’s so much money out there and people can obviously make their feelings — I mean Las Vegas was created by gangsters, which enabled people with no education (most Mafioso never finished high school) to create this whole architecture and this entire city. And that’s what the strip is. It’s a gangster idea of Miami.

EYE: And it’s a monument to themselves.

WOLFE: It is.

EYE: I won’t keep you much longer, but I have one awkward question that I want to ask. Almost every character that you’ve ever written about, status something that’s there for them. You must be aware that you are an iconic figure in American letters. When Harper’s Magazine was looking for somebody to put on the cover of their sesquicentennial issue alongside Mark Twain, there was you. You sell millions of books and you’ve contributed dozens of phrases and concepts to the culture and I guess —

When you look at yourself in the mirror with a second set of eyes, as Hoyt does in the book, what does it feel like to be Tom Wolfe?

WOLFE: You know, I wish that every morning I looked in the mirror and felt like an icon — I’ve, I’m really — I love the question because it raises the possibility that it might be true — I just cannot possibly think that way.

I mean, bless you for even toting it out as a question to which the answer might be yes, but you know I grew up in the South and we’re always raised to be essentially modest, and I.… Well, to answer the question, I’ve never really entertained the thought — it might be dangerous to entertain the thought, ‘Hey, I’m an icon — hey, listen to me.’

EYE: Well certainly I’m not surprised by that response at all, but it’s certainly something that, you know, in The Right Stuff with Chuck Yeager and the astronauts, it wasn’t something they talked about. And I understand obviously that nobody walks around thinking of themselves that way every day, but I just wondered if you sometimes sit back and feel like a Master of the Universe at all.

WOLFE: I still have creditors, and — on a more serious level, I’ve seen signs of writers doing that and it becomes a fatal flaw. I’ll give you a good example: Edward Albee became extremely celebrated for his first play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and I think at that point he decided that that play was awfully rooted in the here and now, in the particular era of the 1950s, and that from now on he maybe should write plays that were more timeless and had more symbolic richness so that they could be as easily appreciated in the year 2500 as today. And that’s when he began to write plays like Tiny Alice, which were forms of magic realism, I would say. Even Fellini fell into this trap, a little bit, after the huge success of La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2 he began to do movies that featured clowns who are ageless figures… and there were all sorts of archetypes in these films … and not realizing that the real power of La Dolce Vita was specifically rooted in Italian life after the Second World War in Italy and for that reason it’s just as easy to watch that movie today, it’s just as powerful, just as funny as it was when it was made.

So I think it does become a trap for writers who think that way — I think in long-term ways.

EYE: Norman Mailer springs to mind for some reason.

WOLFE: He’s a good example of what I’m talking about, because after The Naked and the Dead, which was a realistic novel and was a great success, he began listening to the Francophile view that the novel of the future would be the novel of psychological nuance and sensibility and things on a much tighter, narrower scope, and he wrote a book called Barbary Shore which is a book about, near as I can remember it, about a group of intellectuals living in a rooming house in Brooklyn. What a come-down after a book that had gone out into the world and tied huge events to the individual psychology.

EYE: Well, as you mentioned about Hemingway and Steinbeck, Mailer wrote that he specifically signed up for the army because he wanted to write The Book of WWII and it’s exactly that kind of research you think he abandoned.

WOLFE: I think I read somewhere that he transferred from one zone to another because there wasn’t enough going on in his zone to get the kind of material he wanted. If that’s all true, God bless him.

EYE: But he abandoned that?

WOLFE: He did. But then he lucked out with The Executioner’s Song when this remarkable guy Lawrence Schiller, a photographer who gets great book ideas and he tries to get a writer, preferably a well-known writer to collaborate with him. He supplies the idea and the material — and the material through his own reporting, and all the writer has to do is type it up. And that’s what happened with The Executioner’s Song, which was the only novel of Norman Mailer’s to get a good reception after The Naked and the Dead.

And Schiller just turned up at his door one day like Santa Claus — “Hey here’s the story of Gary Gilmore, the killer.” The Gary Gilmore case was a great sensation, I can’t remember why, but it was. And as far as I can tell, all that Mailer did was transfer passages from the tapes that Schiller had made with Gilmore and Gilmore’s family and people who’d been affected by the killing and so on — just transferred from transcriptions of tapes right straight into book form.

Mailer has never been able to write dialogue. To write dialogue, you really have to be interested in somebody besides yourself. (Laughs) And with these tapes, suddenly he had realistic dialogue. And after it was a success, he should have drawn a logical conclusion there that he should get Lawrence Schiller to do all the work for everything else he wrote and then he could just write it up. But he ignored the obvious and.…

I have come to the conclusion — and I am sincere about this — when you first decide to be a writer, usually that means “I’m going to be a novelist,” and you assume that 95 per cent of a great novel is your own genius, 5 per cent is the clay that you’re using to demonstrate it. I would turn it around a bit. I would say it’s 65 per cent content and 35 per cent talent, that really makes the difference.

Originally published in Eye Weekly December 9, 2004. 

The last American literary hero (yes?) varoooms into town

On the publication of I Am Charlotte Simmons, his 14th book, Tom Wolfe seems like one of his own characters: the Brightly Kolored Exclamation-Point-Flaked (VAROOOM) Overdrive Writer. Right?

I mean when Tom Wolfe looks at himself in the mirror with “a second set of eyes,” as one of the characters in his new novel does, and sees himself as others do, he sees a man who has changed the way journalism is practised all over the world, a man who wrote definitive accounts of three different decades of American civilization, a man who has coined or popularized dozens of now commonplace expressions (good old boy, the Me decade, radical chic, flak-catcher), a man so iconic that Harper’s Magazine selected him to appear alongside Mark Twain on the cover of its 150th anniversary issue, a man who can inspire a first run of 1.5 million copies of a novel everyone fully expects to be terrible because he sold 1.2 million hardcover copies of the last novel, the one the giants of American letters ran into the ground. Here’s a man who can look into the mirror and say, “I Am Tom Wolfe, an American Icon, a Master of the Universe, A Man in Full, the very definition of The Write Stuff” — right Tom?… Tom?

There’s a long pause over the phone from New York, where Wolfe is on a break from a publicity tour that brings him to Toronto on Dec. 14.

“You know, I wish that every morning I looked in the mirror and felt like an icon — I’ve, I’m really — I love the question because it raises the possibility that it might be true — I just cannot possibly think that way,” Wolfe says. “I mean, bless you for even toting it out as a question to which the answer might be ‘yes’… but you know, I grew up in the South, and we’re always raised to be essentially modest, and I… well, to answer the question, I’ve never really entertained the thought. It might be dangerous to entertain the thought — ‘Hey, I’m an icon! Hey, listen to me!'”

Aw c’mon, Tom. If there’s one thing you’ve taught us, it’s that status is all that counts (you’re either on the bus or off the bus, you have the right stuff or you don’t), am I wrong? So now — of course no one ever says this kind of thing out loud — but that’s what all the sniping’s about, isn’t it? That atavistic thunder of ballistic invective roiling out of the critical community is just them firing wildly at the largest target they can find. According to Stephen Metcalf at Slate, Charlotte is “An eminently foolish book — overdrawn, overlong, underconsidered, and filled with at least one forehead-slapping ay caramba per page.” Closer to home, Lynn Crosbie in the Globe wrote, “Wolfe… comes off instead like one of those horrible professors who tried to make you listen to “Imagine” while simultaneously getting off on his status as a pedagogical errant.” But this trashing is just a straightforward reinforcement of Tom Wolfe’s status as the biggest dog in the alley, right?

Now he’s laughing. “I don’t know whether that’s the case or not. I always assume that if somebody gives the book a bad review — after all, I can’t confront them and say, ‘You did too like it — you thought that book was great.’ So I don’t know…” Really? “George Orwell once said that it was impossible to enjoy a book written by someone whose political views differ from yours. And now, I’m not very political, I have no agenda, but I can’t stand going along with all these sheep that live in New York in the writing and literary and journalistic community.”

Now we’re talking. He’s a Wolfe and the rest of them are sheep. So that’s it? “I don’t know. If somebody says they didn’t like the book, I guess they didn’t like it.”

Well, quite a lot of them didn’t like it. So before moving on, let’s have a look at I Am Charlotte Simmons. Is it as bad as the critics say? Yes. And no. It does have head-slapping anachronisms, though not as many as you’d expect from a man more than 50 years removed in age from his primary characters. It does employ the pyrotechnic verbal effects (“rutrutrut,” or, in one for the books, “::::STATIC::::”) and the ubiquitous exclamation points and liberal application of italics that make Wolfe’s prose verge on self-parody. It does seem to stand laughably in awe of the very existence of teenage sexuality and ignore the possibility of young women having sex because they enjoy it. (Wolfe acknowledges as much on the phone: “This atmosphere, I found extremely hard on women. Women used to have natural outs if they didn’t want to engage in sexual activity … there was always something that they could point to, something that seemed external to their own decision-making, something that kept them from granting the boys’ wishes. But now there’s really nothing other than a desire not to have sex,” he says.) Its characters do often seem to be archetypical caricatures and one is left with an air of weightlessness upon completing it.

And yet what no one mentions is that the book is fun, it’s exhilarating to read, it nails the frustrating details of college experience more often than it misses them. Many of the “man from Mars” observations (about the now ever-present “fuck patois,” for example) are perfect little essays on contemporary culture. You’ll have a hard time finding a big book this season that’s as entertaining to read as I Am Charlotte Simmons.

But the book at hand seems beside the point. Because no one going to see him read at Convocation Hall is going to see the author of I Am Charlotte Simmons. They’re going to see the icon, who’s spent 40 years frustrating the elite and pointing out status struggles and glorifying the subcultures that have shaped America while the establishment was making other plans.

Look at the introduction to his very first book, The Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, in which he explains, in 1965, how he discovered the Great Big Story that only he had seen, that car racing and Las Vegas and teenage dance crazes were bona fide art forms, except that, because they were products of proletarian culture, they were invisible to the elite. “Yet all these rancid people are creating new styles all the time and changing the life of the whole country in ways that nobody seems to bother to record, much less analyze,” he wrote then.

Does he feel vindicated now that his version of the 1960s is the one we remember? “I wasn’t really writing them in terms of predictions, but the subsequent history has played out pretty much according to the — “youth revolution” seems like such a trite term — the changes that the youth living together created.”

Flash forward eight years and he’s at it again in the introduction to an anthology he edited called The New Journalism, declaring war on the novel, saying that in the hands of skilled practitioners, journalism had supplanted fiction as the great literary art form in American society.

Then, having stormed the gates of fiction as the leader of the new journalists, Wolfe in the ’80s decided to also become the champion for the defence. After writing The Bonfire of the Vanities, a lively and thrilling novel of New York, Wolfe laid out his novelistic manifesto in a 1989 Harper’s essay entitled “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” The only way to save fiction from its case of acute introspective irrelevance, he wrote, was for novelists to go out and be reporters as Dickens and Zola and Balzac had done. As he did in Bonfire.

“I really only meant to write one, just to prove that I could do it. And that seemed to go over pretty well, a lot better than I thought it would. So I thought, weeellll, I’ll do another one [1998’s A Man in Full]. And that’s the one that stretched on forever … I know you’re not supposed to mention sales, but god, that book sold a lot of copies. So I thought, ‘Ahhh, I’ll do one more.'”

After a few choice words for his old sparring partner Norman Mailer (“Mailer has never been able to write dialogue. To write dialogue, you really have to be interested in somebody besides yourself”), he offers one more piece of advice for the “charming aristocracy of taste.” If they don’t like the way he captures America in his fiction, they should capture it themselves rather than writing small psychological studies.

“[Such books have] just killed the novel. In recent weeks, both Philip Roth and V.S. Naipaul — both obviously highly regarded — say they give the novel maybe another 25 years. And they’re quite right, unless novelists go back to the spirit of the novel — or the American novel anyway — in the first half of the 20th century. The easy solution is to just go out and do it. The United States is such a bizarre, sprawling country and the terrain has hardly been touched. I mean, you can settle anywhere in the United States, and if you spent a few weeks in a place, you’d encounter more strange stories than you ever dreamed existed.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly December 9, 2004.

Michael Winter House of Anansi, 384 pages, $36.

To hear Michael Winter tell it over coffee at a café on King Street West, his life is a series of conveniences and immediate shortcuts. “I guess I’m not somebody who really has a goal in mind. I don’t know what a good life is, I don’t have an idea about the type of life I’d like to live. I’m just enjoying a coffee with you, it’s a nice day and I’ve got some money in my pocket and everything’s going to be OK for the next little while. And I’m really happy about this,” the England-born, Newfoundland-raised Toronto author says.
“But a lot of people are really kind of driven with this sense of the ideal life they wish to attain.” And those are the sorts of people — they of the goals and ideals and grandiose plans — Winter portrays to devastating effect in his historical novel, The Big Why. “People just ignore huge sides of who they really are for this kind of template of what might be an ideal person in their mind.”

The Big Why is full of such characters (and some could say the same frustrating pattern of ill-concieved grandeur applies to Newfoundland’s strange history itself). Notably, there is Bob Bartlett, who bases life and identity on a failed polar expedition, and principally, Rockwell Kent, the New York artist famous for his woodcuts who spent a year in Newfoundland prior to World War I.

The novel is structured as Kent’s memoir of his year among the colonial savages, in which his adopted town of Brigus, Newfoundland loses sons to the whims of the ocean and a pointless war. Kent remains firmly married to an idea of himself writ large, a dreamer’s striving coupled with a pig-headed stubbornness that alienates nearly everyone around him — including, eventually, his wife — and finally sees him kicked out of the country in 1915.

Kent the narrator is wise to the flaws of his younger self, if not exactly regretful. As Winter says, “As an old man, I wanted him to reflect on his life and think, ‘I was so willful in my life, and yet I’ve sabotaged the very things I was after through that willfulness.'”

The Big Why represents an interesting break in Michael Winter’s career, despite the current mania in this country for historical novels. Winter’s two collections of short stories and his novel, This All Happened, concerned themselves with the contemporary life of Gabriel English, a character whom most assumed (and Winter admits) was a thinly veiled stand-in for himself.

Winter says the change of timeframe and subject matter was itself partly a convenient matter of self-preservation.

“This thing about autobiography is something I encouraged people to think when they read my work. I like that when I’m reading writers, feeling like these things must be closely observed and felt by the author, because it’s so interesting and heartfelt and true that he can’t just have invented them,” he says. “That’s fair for me, but it’s not fair for my family and friends who read a book and say, ‘That’s me in there, and people are going to know it and I’m slightly hurt by it.’ So I was hurting people left, right and centre by the things I was writing, and you look back and start getting a bit wounded as a writer. You think, ‘Am I doing something wrong? Is this bad, or is it just the case that a writer loses all his friends and family for the sake of his art?’ I don’t want to do that, I love these people.”

He depicts his approach to historical accuracy similarly. “First of all, if I have someone who’s not a Newfoundlander, he can get things wrong, and it doesn’t matter. Because getting things wrong about Newfoundland culture? I’d get shot. Secondly, if you have an old man reflecting on his youth, you know he only spent a few months in Newfoundland, he can get things wrong about his youth…. So anachronisms can creep in and I’ve got a good excuse for them.”

Whatever the motivations and method, the effect is powerful. Winter successfully conjures an historical Newfoundland that is both remote from the present day (the whims of nature spell death for more than one character) and yet feels contemporary.

“Some historical novels treat the past as if everybody was in starched shirts and they spoke to each other in a very polite manner and in a composed way and had no blood dripping through their veins; I don’t believe it. I don’t believe people are like that,” he says. “Even if people were kind of formal in the smoking room, I didn’t want to write that scene. I’m interested in what they do in the bedroom, what do they do privately, what are their private thoughts while formal things are going on. So that’s what I focused on.”

The writing is exciting in its freshness and all the more exciting for the lack of any apparent po-mo cleverness. Winter’s short, precise sentences perform a service both to the scenes about hunting and fishing (at times it feels he’s channelling Hemingway) and to the impenetrable yearning that afflicts nearly every character in the book. His dialogue manages the neat trick of finding the rhythms of Newfoundlanders without any Aye’s-the-bye-ism. He turns poetic phrases into scenes into a panoramic survey of the culture.

Historical in setting or not, The Big Why is not a book about history. It’s about sex and relationships and art and about how ambition is its own nemesis. By the time the title is explained in the end, Winter has gone a good way to shedding light — one short sentence and elliptical comment at a time — on that really big, important unknown.

Originally published in Eye Weekly October 21, 2004. 

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