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.