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Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain

The Memory Artists


Woodstock Arts (New York)

CHMR September 19, 2000 1 p.m. NDT
CKDU: October 8, 7 a.m. ADT
CHSR: July 31, 1 p.m. ADT
CJMQ: July 30, 11 a.m. EDT
CKUW: August 1, 9 a.m. CDT and August 3, 10 a.m. CDT
CJSF: September 19, 5 p.m. PDT

I have read that you were considering a Ph.D. at Oxford on Shakespeare, but decided to do a novel instead. Is this how the book began?

Yes, in a way. I actually went to Oxford and talked to some profs about Shakespeare's reception in France—how he was translated and how French audiences throughout the centuries have responded to Shakespeare, and so on. But after a few discussions I decided that life was much too short to spend with academic drudges and drones, so I then thought of writing a novel that would incorporate certain elements of Shakespeare. I knew that a novel would take a long time to write, and so I thought what better way to sustain my interest than to read and re-read Shakespeare. And in fact, one of the first things I did was to open up the Encyclopedia Britannica, curious to know how anyone could telescope, summarize the achievements of Shakespeare—and the page I opened (naturally) was the "Sh" page. I first read about Shaka, the Zulu king, with mouth agape, and then on to the other entries... And I thought, God, what a fabulous page! What if someone were to choose this page at random and it set in motion... Never mind.

The opening chapter has a wonderful "once upon a time" quality to it...and the protagonist's "Uncle Gerard" is setting Jeremy upon his life's path. Could you tell the audience what happens?

Jeremy is around twelve when the story begins in York, in the north of England. He and his Uncle Gerard are in the uncle's flat, which is jam-packed with objects of every description, including rows and piles of books. So the uncle decides to blind-fold Jeremy and tells him to choose any book at all in the room, but only after he gets a feeling of some sort. So Jeremy nervously does as instructed, groping at books, touching the spines and covers and waiting for a feeling, which he never really gets. But he chooses a book anyway, his uncle takes the book from him, and flips through the pages, telling Jeremy to stick in his finger when he feels it's the right moment. So Jeremy sticks his finger in, takes his blindfold off, looks at the page he's chosen. His uncle then tells him to rip the page out of the book, and to keep it forever, because this page will be his map, his blueprint, his guide in life.

Gerard is a sort of Peter Pan character, isn't he?

Yes, do you remember when Jeremy and his uncle are in bar in London much later in the story, and Gerard is clowning around, doing accents and voices and toasting everyone, individually, in the bar? And Jeremy says something like "I was a boy sliding down banisters and Gerard was sliding with me. He was acting as young as he felt—somewhere, I would guess, around thirteen." So definitely, Gerard in many ways has never really grown up. He still makes jokes about his sexual conquests, still believes in magic and tall tales and essentially trying to be someone he's not.

Of the four grown-ups that looked after Jeremy Davenant's formative years perhaps it is Gerard that exerts the most influence. Do you agree?

Yeah, I think that most of us when we're young choose someone to idolize, even if the choice is hopelessly irrational, even if that person is a scoundrel. Jeremy admits early on that Uncle Gerard is his idol, his ideal. Why? Because Gerard knows how to talk to children, how to enchant a child, how to fire the imagination of a child. Not all adults are good at this. In Jeremy's case, certainly none of the adults around him were.

Could you read aloud pp. 11-15?

In interviews you cite Jane Austen as a writing influence. Your novel evoked a bygone era of a richly rewarding literary tradition. Was this a goal?

Well, I'm not sure Jane Austen has influenced my writing—she's in another orbit, another stratosphere, when it comes to style and plot. But what I like about her is that she writes intelligent comedies of manners, intelligent romances—a rare feat. She's also a tremendous observer of human nature, so it's always a delight to read her. Another of favourites, by the way, another great observer of human nature, is the Irish writer William Trevor. Although he's darker.

One of your sub-plots deals with a minor Shakespearean play entitled "A Yorkshire Tragedy."

Yeah, although it's highly unlikely Shakespeare wrote it. When it came out it had his name on it (thanks to profit-hungry publishers) and there are some scholars who think Shakespeare did write it, but they're in a minority. The play, A Yorkshire Tragedy, is based on a real-life event that happened during Shakespeare's lifetime—in fact it took place on his 41st birthday. A man named Walter Calverly, a vicious and depraved gambler, brutally murdered two of his children and almost stabbed his wife to death. Now, the reason I tied this macabre tale into the plot of the novel is that one of the encylopedia entries on the Page that Jeremy chose, namely "shaking palsy," is used as a metaphor in the play — palsy being the gambler's disease, the shaking hand tossing the dice. One of themes of my novel is chance, and gambling obviously relates to chance.

In contrast to Gerard, what sort of man was Jeremy's stepfather Ralph Stilton and why did he move the family to Canada?

Well, if Uncle Gerard is the Peter Pan character who relates so easily to children, then Ralph Stilton, Jeremy's stepfather, is the exact opposite. I think in life we've all met people like Ralph: people who, as Jeremy says, seem to have been born an adult, forgotten their childhoods like amnesiacs. Ralph makes a good foil for Uncle Gerard; Ralph is conservative, penny-pinching, religious, whereas Gerard is wild, extravagant, irreligious. So when the two men meet, and clash, something has to give. In this case, the stepfather decides to move his family to Canada, to escape Uncle Gerard's so-called depravity.

Jeremy's teaching credentials are somewhat shaky; could you explain?

Again, it's Uncle Gerard who has influenced Jeremy, saying that it's a waste of time to go to school and get a degree, that all academics are ignorami, that you can easily to do the reading and research on your own, and then simply forge your own credentials. Which is what Jeremy ends up doing. In fact, this is what a lot of academics do, in essence, when they inflate their résumés. Myself included.

The quixotic qualities of "the page" stream throughout the book. One person who amply embellishes this theme is Milena. What sort of person is she and what is her role in your book?

Milena represents, among other things, an unreachable goal. She's an idealized figure, put on a pedestal by Jeremy, someone who will reject, or disappoint, those who have the misfortune of falling in love with her. So, I suppose the quixotic elements of the page that you refer to—i.e. the pursuit of unreachable goals, the absurd idealism it represents—are embodied by Milena, the femme fatale, or feminist fatale, who is in many ways unreachable, the Ice Queen, a person who is troubled and confused by some of the things that happened to her in the past, and by her own muddy sexuality. Also, she embodies unrequited love, which is an extremely powerful emotion that all of us go through, particulary as adolescents.

What drives Jeremy and what does he want out of life?

Jeremy is the incurable romantic, who's looking for the kind of love that probably doesn't exist, except in romance novels. This, I think, is what drives him—mad, irrational, compulsive love, and he becomes blind to everything else.

Do you suppose Jeremy's fabulist tendencies set him up for his intoxication with Milena?

Yes, absolutely. He's almost doomed to fall irretriebably in love with someone like Milena, because he's created his own personal goddess, made her into someone she's not, created an aura and mystery for her that she may not really have.

Could you read aloud pp.78-82?

Milena's gypsy background and her sexual ambiguity seem to be at the root of her elusive courting dance with Jeremy.

Well put. A gypsy, by definition I suppose, is someone exotic, an outcast, a free-spirit, a wanderer and so on. Certainly someone difficult to "tame" or "control" or dominate. Kierkegaard has a theory that love and attraction are only possible when there's resistance—so in the case of the novel, Milena's "sexual ambiguity" as you describe it, is obviously a powerful form of resistance.

Could it be argued that the hero's fixation with "the page" is also to blame for Milena's absenteeism?

Hmm. Another good observation. I wish I had a good answer. I suppose that Jeremy's fixation with the page, which is something irrational or childish, is something that would turn Milena off, since she's doesn't believe in chance or magic or destiny. So yes, it could be argued that the Page is driving her away.

It occurred to me that Milena could be a female version of Gerard. Am I off-base?

Yes, Weston, you're totally off-base. I can't believe you could possibly think... Just kidding, you're right. Both Milena and Gerard are, in some ways, figments of Jeremy's imagination. Do you remember at one point Jeremy says something like: "My image of Gerard was a distorted magnification; I saw him about as clearly as I saw Milena. The less you know the more you idolise." So in that sense, you've hit the nail on the head. Milena seems to represent something magical for Jeremy, a long and treacherous but ultimately romantic quest. Just as the Page that Jeremy chose represents some long, romantic quest towards destiny.

Another sub-theme is wagering. Gerard is a real plunger for the ponies, Jeremy is goner over Milena, and Milena is an anti-gambling freak. What's up?

I think that, deep down, Jeremy knows that gambling can be dangerous, evil. So when he meets someone like Milena, who hates gamblers and lotteries because she's seen first-hand what kind of damage they can do, it confirms some of his doubts, or least gets him to re-think what kind of a character his uncle really is, and how his uncle has in some ways hurt him or misled him.

Every comedy of errors requires a straight man; who is Clyde Vincent Haxby and why is he in a lather over Jeremy?

Clyde Haxby is a pompous, stuffy, know-it-all academic. As Jeremy says, he speaks every dead language and publishes at least one incomprehensible article a month. He's upset at Jeremy for lots of reasons: because he hangs out with a guy named Jacques, who trashed one of Professor Haxby's works in an alternative weekly. Because Jacques is gay and Haxby's homophobic. Because he's discovered that Jeremy is teaching with forged credentials. And because Jeremy has publicly humiliated him at a staff party, by, shall we say, exposing his manhood.

Read aloud quote from "A Yorkshire Tragedy" on p. 187 & pp.188-190

In the writing skills department, how has translation work honed your creative writing?

I don't think it's done anything for my creative skills, for my powers of imagination, if I have any. But for the nuts and bolts—like grammar, usage, phrasing, rhythm, clarity, euphony—I think translation has been a great training ground.

What was it like winning the Commonwealth Prize?

It was dream-like, I kept thinking they'd made a mistake—that someone would eventually come up to me and say, "Terribly sorry, there's another Jeffrey Moore from Trinidad and he won..." And the competition was bloody stiff. But to tell you the truth, after the exhilaration it was a bit saddening, because I realized then that the only ones that I ever really wanted to impress were my parents. And they both died in the 90s while I was writing the book.

When Hollywood calls, what will your recommendations be for the parts of Milena and Jeremy?

Well, Hollywood has called. All hot air so far. Let's see. Maybe Edward Burns as Jeremy, and there's this black-haired woman who played in Ivanhoe, the British TV movie a couple years back, and she was also in an episode of Cracker. Her name's Susan Lynch. She'd be perfect. Or maybe Milena (the "dark lady") should be played by an unknown actress—an East Asian or African-American.

Current projects?

The CBC—Canadian Broadcasting Corporation—has just commissioned a short story from me. It's an interesting series: Five established writers recommend a younger writer, and then the ten stories will be read on air in the fall by an actor and then anthologized in a cassette. I've never written a short story before, so it's killing my summer.