Coming up roses
Plateau author Jeffrey Moore writes book, wins award, gets movie deal, visits Queen
by JULIET WATERS
Jeffrey Moore may be the best Montreal writer you've never heard of. Imagine a much nicer Mordecai Richler who may do for the Plateau in this century what Richler did in the last. Then try to find a first edition copy of Moore's Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain while you still can.
Moore's romantic comedy was completely overlooked in Canada when it first came out in '99. Then one night in New Delhi, he came to the attention of the international literary community. At the 2000 Commonwealth awards, according to The Hindustan Times, he stole the show from Salman Rushdie.
The scene was the ultra swank Oberoi Hotel. Despite Prisoner's rejection by every publisher in Canada except Thistledown, a small press in Saskatchewan, the novel was shortlisted for the Best First Book Award. The atmosphere was charged. Word was out that Rushdie, nominated for an award in the Best Book category, may attend. This was his first visit to his birth country since the fatwa was imposed. Security was tight. A usually harmless crowd of bookworms was being searched with metal detectors and sniffed by police dogs.
Moore, he told me over a beer this December, was a little drunk. He'd been on a "Scotch diet" all day after a touch of food poisoning. But he knew something was up when organizers make a special effort to introduce him to Rushdie and seat him at a table near the front. When Moore won, he deadpanned the first line of his acceptance speech, Steve-Martin-style:
"First, I want to thank Salman Rushdie for coming all the way here, just to see me win this award." Silence. Moore was hoping for some polite titters, but the audience exploded into laughter.
His "bon mot" led to an invitation to a writer's conference in London. Which led to signing with an enthusiastic British agent who sold the novel to a major British publisher (Weidenfeld and Nicolson) and a major New York publisher (Penguin-Putnam). Moore even had a "very surreal" private meeting with the Queen which, according to protocol, he's not really allowed to discuss.
For Moore, who "to use that pretentious phrase, 'divides his time'" between the Plateau and Val-Morin, this has been a long, strange journey.
Prisoner took 10 years to write and was his second published work after a translation of Pierre Valière's Un Québec impossible.
Moore, who was born in Montreal, explains how he came to translate an FLQ ideologue: "My involvement with Pierre Vallières is almost Woody-Allenesque. I translated Vallières out of love for a Québécoise, who was wildly Separatist at the time. I was living in Toronto when I met her and she was one of the reasons-all right, the only reason-that I came to live in Montreal. When things didn't work out, I decided to translate this book, Un Québec impossible, by a militant FLQ member-partly because I had some sympathy for the movement at the time, but mostly as a way of impressing her, of regaining her love. It didn't work.... I actually went to stay with Vallières at his farm in Charlevoix. I even made jokes about smelling explosives in his car."
Okay, so the comparison with Richler may not be without some important exceptions. Like his open-mindedness to Quebec nationalism and his willingness to charm the media. When asked if there's any truth to the rumour that Moore was going around telling every girl in the Plateau that the book was about her, he replies: "This is a particularly vicious rumour, Juliet, since everyone knows the novel is about you."
Me, if I were a radical, frigid, slovenly, East Indian feminist. (And everyone knows I'm not East Indian). Milena Modjeska is the love object of Prisoner's hero Jeremy Davenant. Jeremy, an incurable fatalist, is convinced he's destined to marry her. She has zero interest in him, but this is only one of his many problems with reality. He suffers from a twisted mentorship with a corrupt uncle. He is ceaselessly tormented by a cast of hilarious minor characters, including Victor Toddley, a "sensitive male" columnist for the Montreal weekly Barbed Wire, and Jaques de Vauvenargue-Fezensac, Barbed Wire's chronically cynical theatre critic. Jeremy is also teaching at a Montreal university on the basis of forged South African credentials.
Where the Richler comparison may still hold up is the strong possibility that Moore's novel will be turned into a major feature film. British producer Malcolm Clarke is currently rewriting the script and names like Hugh Grant, John Cusack and Ewan McGregor are being thrown around. If all goes well, the film should start production in the fall.
"If all goes well" is, of course, a pretty loaded phrase in the movie biz. But people have made the mistake of vastly underestimating Moore's success in the past. So this time around it's probably wise to err on the side of hype.