Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Tom Ue

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The Lucky Seven Interview, with Tom Ue

From Adventures in Babysitting to X-Men, innumerable films have used Toronto as a backdrop — usually standing in for another city altogether. While most film-loving Torontonians are limited to victoriously pointing out the CN Tower or a lurking streetcar, Tom Ue, a SSHRC and Canadian Centennial Scholar at University College London, has gone much further. He is the editor of World Film Locations: Toronto (University of Chicago Press), which digs into Toronto's history via its appearance on film.

Tom speaks to us today about Toronto's cinematic identity, Cronenberg and some favourite depictions of Toronto in both books and film.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book.

Tom Ue:

World Film Locations: Toronto (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press, 2014) charts the city’s history through its filmic representations. It looks specifically at 44 locations featured across a range of different films, while bringing together nine original essays by experts on literature, human geography, film, and film history. We trace Toronto’s emergence as an international city and demonstrate the narrative interests that it has continued to inspire among filmmakers, both Canadian and international.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

TU:

When we started working on the book, we were especially interested in the links between Canadian and international cinema, and the role that Toronto played as a prominent filming location in both. The city’s identity formed the strategic core of the book’s collective thinking. We are fascinated by Toronto’s ability to pass for many cities and its uniquely hybrid identity.

David Cronenberg foregrounds this aspect of the city in many of his films, including Cosmopolis (2012). In it, Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) reveals to his wife Elise (Sarah Gadon) that the cork lining that he had built into his stretch limousine failed to shut out the street noise:

The city eats and sleeps noise. It makes noise out of every century. It makes the same noise as it made in the seventeenth century, along with all the other noises that have evolved since then. No. I don’t mind the noise. The noise energizes me. The important thing is that it’s there.

The sounds that Cronenberg, through Packer, describes here gesture towards the historicity and the vitality of the city, a site of convergence between the past and the present, and of negotiation between distance and proximity, between estrangement and intimacy. Our cover image speaks closely to these central themes.

OB:

Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

TU:

Production of the book began in summer 2012, and the final edits were submitted in January 2014. From the preparation of the book’s proposal to the end of the production period, we researched widely on Canadian and international cinema. Our understanding of Toronto has certainly changed. David Fleischer, one of our anthology’s contributors, writes “Reel Toronto,” a column in Torontoist.com that explores the city’s representations on television and in films. The series has been running for seven years now, and it attests to the sheer number of media projects that continue to find a home in Toronto. David’s articles are richly informative, and they, along with the comments on them, are a constant inspiration to our project. We are equally interested in building a context for these empirical findings.

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

TU:

The Canadian Film Encyclopedia, hosted by the Toronto International Film Festival, and the British Film Institute’s Reuben Library in London were indispensable resources for this project. Bob Dylan, Philip Glass, and the wonderfully talented Canadian composer and musician Owen Pallett are constant allies.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

TU:

I would read something that is outside of the areas in which I am presently writing. One of my upcoming projects is a new Dictionary of Literary Biography on twenty-first century British novelists for Gale Cengage Learning. I am constantly impressed and invigorated by the range and quality of contemporary writing. As an intellectual historian, I am especially interested in textual allusions and the circulation of ideas, often, but not always, through the printed text.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

TU:

In George Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), the titular character suggests that a book’s greatness is defined posthumously: “For the work of man’s mind there is one test, and one alone, the judgment of generations yet unborn. If you have written a great book, the world to come will know of it.” A great book, Ryecroft reasons, is one that resonates with future readers, and it does so, perhaps, by asking challenging questions which are as pressing for us as they are for future generations.

One of my most vivid literary experiences of Toronto is that of the city brought together in a march down Yonge Street in Timothy Findley’s The Wars (1977). This celebration, mediated through sepia photography, is juxtaposed with scenes of the central protagonist Robert Ross’ sufferings later in the First World War. Findley hones in on the picture to show an earlier Robert: “Then you see him: Robert Ross. Standing on the sidelines with pocketed hands — feet apart and narrowed eyes. His hair falls sideways across his forehead. He wears a checkered cap and dark blue suit. He watches with a dubious expression; half admiring — half reluctant to admire.” This instance of relativistic narrative constantly reminds me of the centrality of narration to our readings of literature and history.

Other works of fiction that I greatly admire are Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), Henry James’ What Maisie Knew (1897), Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts (1941), and Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades (1968); and non-fiction, Alexander Welsh’s The City of Dickens (1971) and Philip Horne’s Henry James and Revision (1990). Welsh’s and Horne’s close readings are both informative and enormously illuminating.

OB:

What are you working on now?

TU:

I am presently revising my dissertation on Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of James, Gissing, and Oscar Wilde. I am concurrently beginning work on a monograph about legal theory and the nineteenth-century novel and preparing the Dictionary of Literary Biography. My next major film project will be a book on the White Messiah and its persistence in Western cinema. This monograph will build on some of the ideas that I explore in my column in Film International: http://www.filmint.nu.


Tom Ue is Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellow and Canadian Centennial Scholar in the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London. Ue has taught at University College London and was a Visiting Scholar in the Department of English at Yale University, and the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer, and he has held an Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship. He has contributed essays on Thomas Hardy, Gissing, Wilde, and with John James, Sherwood Anderson and James Cameron. His work has appeared in a number of journals including the Journal of Gender Studies, The Gissing Journal and New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing.

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