Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Basil Papademos

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Basil

March 22, 2011 -

Open Book: Toronto:

What was your first publication and where was it published?

Basil Papademos:

The first thing I ever had published was a satirical story in the Seneca College newspaper, way back in the Pre-Cambrian age. My first non-student publishing effort was having another satirical story published in Magnetic City, a Toronto mag that circulated when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

OBT:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.

BP:

Around dinner time on December 6, 1989, I was standing at the window of my apartment in Montreal, on the east side of Rue Coloniale. From the third floor, I had a spectacular view of Mount Royal, almost its entire eastern face, maybe a little over a kilometer away. It was a cold winter dusk, the light almost completely gone from the sky as evening rush hour crawled up The Main.

So I was standing at the window as it rattled in the wind, shivering, smoking, listening to a friend of mine breathe while she slept in the bed behind me. First, I heard sirens, countless sirens, many different kinds. They wailed and bleated and howled. Toward the northeast I saw the strobing red and blue lights of emergency vehicles racing up the mountain. I grabbed my binocs and watched a long line of police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, rescue vehicles and unmarked black vans flying up Chemin Camilien-Houde. More were stuck at the bottom, panicked maneuvering to get around the jammed up traffic. I turned on the radio but nothing was being reported, not yet. I checked the horizon for any pillars of smoke, then the sky for aircraft or missiles. I had a strange sense of large-scale disorientation, to have no clue what exactly was happening but to know it’s something big, real big and no doubt real ugly.

Within a couple of hours it was being called The Massacre. Marc Lepine, aka Gamil Rodrigue Liass Gharbi, had gone up our mountain and had not come back down. Up until that time I’d believed, as many people had, that Montreal was different, it was an "open city," where you could live more or less the way you liked. Eccentricity was tolerated, even encouraged. As long as you didn’t bother others, they wouldn’t bother you. I had been living there only a few years at this point and it felt so free and alive and poor and loving and graceful and lenient. I’d finally felt at home somewhere.

What happened that day brought on a profound sense of shame. People avoided one another’s eye whenever the subject came up. Nobody wanted to discuss it much. The rationalists demanded answers. Why would Lepine do this? Was there a rational reason? Of course not. Yes, there was depthless hatred, but he didn’t spring out of a vacuum. Lepine was a descendant, an inevitable result, almost mathematical in its absolute madness. In a way, he was just following orders.

So the events of December 6, 1989, appear in my novel, Mount Royal. Not as reportage or as a documentary. More as a driving force in some of the book’s underlying themes, things like the deformation of male-female balance in individuals and in societies as a whole.

OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

BP:

Let’s see… I wouldn’t mind a place where I could write outside, near water, preferably hot and humid as hell. I love the heat and I’ll take the humidity if it means big heat. It can’t get too hot for me. (Perhaps I should live inside a volcano, like Tom Cruise’s forebears) or maybe in a bodega next to the sea, near the equator, with a covered bamboo patio for the occasional torrential downpour… with a cheap shortwave radio for company when I stop to mull things over. And of course, Sooty the mercurial black cat snoozing in my lap.

OBT:

Do you have a specific readership in mind when you write?

BP:

This is something I debate with myself once in a while. It’s difficult to imagine a specific reader so I move on to a "class" of readers. Needless to say, they’d be very smart, excellent conversationalists, smoothly sophisticated, cosmopolitan, sharp dressers, good looking, well-adjusted and highly adaptable. They’re able to instantly grasp complex ideas and can pull off sometimes outlandish behavior with terrific aplomb. The kind of people who move effortlessly from the gutter to the stars.

OBT:

What are you working on right now?

BP:

Right now I’m working on two new novels, Thracian Tales and The Straight Life, along with the odd poem. Actually, this work is not entirely new. Like Mount Royal, these manuscripts are the result of digging through some old boxes of notes I’ve dragged around for ages. The notes were written over many years in many locales, in Canada and abroad. I mean like spiral exercise books, black sketch books, weird Eastern Europe lesson books with binding that falls apart at the first touch, piles of loose pages, many hand written, on napkins, airline tickets, coffee stained and often with burn holes here and there. I go through this material to see if there’s any sort of thematic thread running through it I can use. Luckily, I’ve found a few.

Thracian Tales is set in Canada, England, Greece and that region of southeastern Europe known as Thrace. My family comes from there and I’ve visited many times, often for long periods. Thracian Tales is a kind of tribal history but like Mount Royal, it’s also profane and hopefully somewhat amusing.

The Straight Life is straight up off-the-wall satire, political, cultural and otherwise. To be totally honest, as far as this novel goes, at the moment I know less about the what than the how. I’m hoping that, as with Mount Royal, the how will eventually reveal the what.

OBT:

Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to get published?

BP:

I know this doesn’t help much but it really seems to be the right person in the right frame of mind at the right place at the right time, reading the right manuscript, a confluence of events, serendipity — stumbling across a publisher or editor who can see clearly through your eyes and your voice. But you do need to write something worth reading — and not worth reading just for you.

I sent my Mount Royal manuscript to a few places but — and this is going to sound pretty space cadet — I concentrated on Tightrope Books because I liked their whole vibe. I have a friend who works at a very traditional CanLit publisher and paid him a visit to ask for suggestions. The whole atmosphere was so goddamn white it hurt, and made me think to myself; “Jesus, Whitey, like what the f**k is going on here!?” A sepia-toned portrait of the long-dead founder glowers down as you enter, but still exerting monstrous influence. Don’t you DARE publish that book! Everyone seemed to whisper and tip-toe around, as if they might wake some ogre living under the boardroom table. Not my scene at all.

When I got a message from Tightrope saying they wanted to publish Mount Royal, I was stunned and meeting the women who run the place was shocking — shockingly good. I had my guard up, not knowing what to expect but they were relaxed and open and funny, smart and stylish. It felt more like an early indie type record company than a CanLit publisher. And I had been harboring a secret wish that Tightrope and I would get together, sorta like having a crush on the girl or boy you’re sure doesn’t even know you exist — and then he or she asks you out on a date! I’d even tried using The Key of Solomon to conjure up some good Tightrope energy and well, something happened.

So I’m not sure what to tell someone who wants to get published. Agents and the like say you should do a ton of research and figure out which publishers suit you.

I got my impression of Tightrope from their website, the books they publish, but mostly from the interviews with and writing by Tightrope’s co-founder and publisher, Halli Villegas. She came across as talented, funny and soulful, a pretty tough combo to beat — and let’s face it, who can resist a tall, brainy redhead with a ready quip?

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