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Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain
The Memory Artists

Yorkshire Evening Press
Working on a chain plan

by Chris Titley

Why did a Canadian author set part of his award-winning debut novel in York? CHRIS TITLEY finds out.

JEFFREY Moore's first book, Red-Rose Chain, was prompted by a visit to Oxford. Last week, he brought it to York. In between were 12 years, three jobs, several trips between York and Montreal, lots of rejections, publication, critical acclaim, an award, and a meeting with royalty.

To begin somewhere near the beginning: the three jobs this genial Canadian holds down are (1) French lecturer at Montreal University; (2) translator; and (3) writer.

It was (1) and (2) that brought him to Oxford in 1990, to pursue a doctorate. "My original idea was not to write a novel. It was rather pretentious," he says.

"It was to go to Oxford and do some studies into Shakespeare and Shakespeare's reputation in France. I decided after 20 minutes talking with the professors that life was too short to spend with these academics. I got on the next plane out of Oxford."

It was on the plane that he decided to try writing a novel with a Shakespearean theme. As soon as he arrived home, he looked up the entry on William Shakespeare in his encyclopaedia. On the same page were entries about Shakantula, a heroine from an Indian love epic, the Zulu tyrant Shaka ("probably the most psychotic man in history") and the Ukraine city of Shakhtyorsk.

What an amazing page, thought Moore - and the literary device for his novel was born.

At the start of Red-Rose Chain, Jeremy Davenant is a child living in York. In his inspirational "uncle" Gerard's library, Gerard blindfolds him and tells him to let his other senses guide him to a page in a book - then tear it out.

Jeremy's page, of course, is the one from the author's encyclopaedia. And the rest of the novel resonates with links between the entries it contains and Jeremy's life.

This was no mean writing feat. "When you start with an artificial device such as that it takes an eternity to try and integrate sensibly all of the places on the paper in the plot," says Moore, grimacing as he recalls the effort.

Soon after the book opens, hero Jeremy and family emigrate to Canada. But he continues to look back to his childhood in this ancient city. So why did Moore choose York?

"I needed some kind of magical city, with fortresses, a cathedral and walls," he explains. That set him thinking about his grandma.

"She was born in London and had a restaurant on Carnaby Street, now demolished. She had relatives up here she would visit."

"Back in Canada we would get these lovely pictures of the walls and the snickleways."

Before last week's visit, Moore had already been to York a few times, the last two trips to research his book.

"I needed to describe the city with some sort of accuracy," he said. And he does such a good job of conveying York's atmosphere that people have asked him what it was like growing up in the city (he grew up in Montreal).

Red-Rose Chain is part romance, part satire. Jeremy, who teaches Shakespeare at Montreal University, falls in love with the mysterious dark-haired Milena - the Shakantula of the book - an infatuation which pulls him into funny and frightening adventures.

The author views the world through eyes at once sceptical and romantic. When he was a teenager he devoured the works of Jane Austen. "I am a sucker for the well-told literary romance."

And he used the pain from a doomed love affair from way back to inform the relationship between Jeremy and Milena, finding the process cathartic. But critics have compared his style to the humorists, including Woody Allen, David Lodge and Kingsley Amis. "I do like the British satirists and sense of humour," he said.

Red-Rose Chain (originally called The Prisoner of Red-Rose Chain) was rejected by the big publishers, and came out via a small Canadian concern. Then it went on to win the 2000 Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book.

That changed his life. "Without the award, I wouldn't be here talking to you now."

More impressively, perhaps, it led to his meeting Salman Rushdie, not to mention the Queen and Prince Philip.

With his famous tact, the Duke of Edinburgh asked if Moore was from Quebec, "because I can't understand a word they say in French".

The author replied by saying he had trouble with the Yorkshire accent, having spent a 90-minute cab journey unable to understand a word the driver uttered in broadest Tyke.

"The Prince laughed. He said, `I see your point'."

Moore's stock continues to rise. The rights of Red-Rose Chain have been sold to an Anglo-Canadian film consortium, and could be developed by Working Title, the company that brought us Four Weddings And A Funeral and Notting Hill.

The star of both, Hugh Grant, would be perfect to play Jeremy, opines the author. It would be interesting to hear Hugh's version of a York-Canadian accent, certainly.

Now Moore is writing his second novel, a darker book with the theme of memory. The main character has hypernesia, a condition where you cannot forget anything, while his mother suffers from the early onset of Alzheimer's Disease.

It is another clever idea from an author who will surely soon have to drop jobs 1) and 2) to concentrate on his gift for 3).

Red-Rose Chain by Jeffrey Moore is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, price £12.99

Updated: 08:57 Wednesday, July 03, 2002