Penguin Website Interview
1. The Memory Artists is such a smart and entertaining novel, the characters are fully drawn, the subject matter is fascinating—how did it come about? What was the starting point in the writing process?
Smart? Entertaining? Thanks for that—the two words don't often go together these days. As for the book's starting point, it was my parents' battles with memory loss in the 1990s that set things in motion. Writing about it, or around it, was a way of dealing with the whole mess—the proverbial catharsis, I suppose. But things didn't really begin to cohere and crystallize until I looked up "memory abnormalities" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and learned about hypermnesia, and the case of a Russian named "S" who had an abnormally vivid and persistent visual memory—along with an unusually high degree of synaesthesia, or coloured hearing. So it was at that point that I got the idea for Noel, a synaesthete with a troublingly exact memory, as a foil to the other main character with a faltering memory (his mother Stella).
2. Noel has an incredible aptitude for chemistry, poetry, even Arabic. This can be explained by his hypermnesia and synaesthesia, but how is that you were able to write about all these things? Can you tell us a bit about your own educational background?
My father was a drug salesmen and then bacteriologist, and he taught me all about chemistry when I was nine years old—after I asked for a chemistry set for Christmas. He did his job so well, in fact, that in Grade 4 I could've waltzed through the Grade 12 chemistry exam. But after high school, which I loathed by the way, I gave up any plans for a career in science, opting instead for literature and philosophy at the University of Toronto. Then French lit and language in Paris, then translation in Ottawa. As for the poetry, in both the last novel where I drew upon Shakespeare, and this novel where I drew upon Byron and a host of "decadent" poets from the 1890s, this was something I needed to sustain me over the long and arduous process of writing a novel, and to inspire me musically (none of it rubbed off, alas). By continually reading poetry, or poets' biographies, I was sometimes able to keep the creative spark flickering (or keep me from losing my mind). Am I forgetting something? Right, the Arabic. Like most writers, I'm interested in etymology—and Arabic has been an Aladdin's cave for the English language (e.g. "assassin" deriving from an Arabic word for "user of hashish").
3. Noel and Norval look almost identical and share many of the same traits—a keen intellect, a love of poetry, a similar name, but their personalities are radically different. At one point they're compared: "[Noel] had made love to a total of two women in his life and loved both monogamously, undyingly; Norval had made love to over two hundred, detachedly, including his two half-sisters." Had Noel not suffered (or been blessed) with synaesthesia, would he have become Norval?
Good question. In his dreams at least, Noel certainly would have loved to have become Norval. In my first draft, by the way, Norval's name was Léon, a mirror image or palindrome for Noel, which I discarded as overly cute. The pair are a bit like Clark Kent and Superman—Noel being the bland and circumspect Clark Kent, except that he can only dream of changing clothes and turning into the action hero, or heart-throb, that he sees in Norval. But all this in the realm of fantasy, of course, because Noel is much too reverent of women to exploit them as Norval does. And in fact when he discovers that Samira is next on Norval's alphabetical "hit-list," he reacts with anger, and tries in his awkward way to get him to end his debauched siege. Oddly enough, I think that it's more a case of Norval wanting to become Noel, since Noel has qualities he admires and will always lack: sensitivity, compassion, genius...
4. Through diary entries and a shifting point of view we're able to see many different takes on the same story. Can you talk a bit about why you decided to give all the characters a chance to narrate the story?
I honestly felt I had no choice; I simply couldn't tell the story in any other way. Until I added Noel's first-person narrative, in fact, I was totally bogged down in the narrative. Once I gave Noel a first-person diary, then I thought the others should also have a chance to give their subjective versions of events. As it turned out, I think that having an Alzheimer patient voicing her thoughts becomes much more poignant than third-person description. And when the various first-person or third-person accounts of events conflict, then you create ideal conditions for dramatic irony and humour. You also raise questions about the reliability of the narrator, and the nature of truth and lies in fiction, and so on. But we don't want to go there, into dreadful post-modern domains.
5. Your novel offers a very sympathetic and hopeful approach to Alzheimer's—do you have first-hand experience with the disease and if so, how does it play out in the character of Stella?
My father was a victim of Alzheimer's—or perhaps Pick's disease, it was never very clear—and my mother was beginning to suffer from short-term memory loss when she was killed by a reckless driver while crossing the street. So if the novel is sympathetic to Alzheimer's, I have two very strong reasons for that. As for "hopeful," I've always feared that this is one of the things The Memory Artists will be criticized for: its upbeat ending, a dénouement that involves finding a cure for the disease within the next two or three years. But I strongly believe we're getting closer and closer. As for the character of Stella, she resembles my mother insofar as she's a teacher—and beautiful inside and out. My mother was extraordinarily thoughtful—in a way that seems old-fashioned today, or extinct. I don't think we see much of this total sacrifice anymore, this selfless, steadfast concern for family and friends. Maybe I'm wrong.
6. At one point, Samira asks of Noel's synaesthesia, "I want to know if it's a good thing or a bad thing. Would you ever want to get rid of it?" How would you respond to this question if you had the condition?
If it were relatively mild, as most cases are, and didn't impede communication or daily activities, then I'd undoubtedly consider it a good thing, something I'd miss terribly if it were taken away (as is it in Noel's case, without wanting to give away too much). I'd likely pity others for not having that colour-wheel, that interior kaleidoscope.
7. A reviewer of Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain wrote, "We are pulled at breakneck speed through every nook, cranny, alleyway and basement of his obsessions until we are giddy [...] You may not remember everything that happened, but you know you had a good time." The same could be said for The Memory Artists. Do you agree that your books have a certain obsessive quality to them?
A library in New Zealand—don't ask me how I know this—has a copy of Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain with "Obsessive-compulsive disorder" in its subject heading. Not "dark romantic comedy" or "Shakespeare" or anything like that, but a psychological disorder. This made me laugh, and yet I'd be the first to admit that the book is dominated by a compulsions and obsessions. As is The Memory Artists, though perhaps not to the same extent. Noel does become obsessed with finding a cure for his mother's condition, to the point of nearly ruining his own health, and Norval is an obsessive sexaholic ("It started out recreational, ended up habitual," he says) who obstinately refuses to forget childhood wounds.
8. There is a hilarious interior monologue near the beginning of the book where Norval, the Byronesque ladies man, lambastes "an assortment of tourotrash." Baseball caps worn frontward or backward, pants with the crotch at knee-level, entire families wearing tracksuits—have things improved since the 1990s?
Things will never improve as long as we allow vulgar and venal and juvenile American companies to dictate aesthetic trends worldwide.
9. Any thoughts on your next writing project?
Yes, it's a consumer satire provisionally called The Dollar Store (or perhaps The Dollar Story if I'm taken to court), in which the struggling—and somewhat unprincipled—owner suddenly becomes filthy rich either through an inheritance or a lottery. Instead of quitting the trade, however, he decides to do some good in the world (and thereby attract a woman who was previously out of his orbit) by opening an entirely new kind of dollar store: one that sells objects and services worth much more than a dollar...
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