Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Jules Lewis

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Ten Questions, with Jules Lewis

Jim Myers, the narrator of Jules Lewis's debut novel Waiting for Ricky Tantrum (Dundurn), is a painfully shy kid living in Toronto's west end Bloorcourt Village. On the first day of junior high, Jim crosses paths with Charlie Crouse, a brash, mouthy kid full of wild stories about his past. Through Charlie, Jim is introduced to the electronic strip poker machine at the Fun Village Arcade in Koreatown, a Queen Street hooker, the diverse utterances of Charlie's landlord’s three lovers — and more.

Jules Lewis talks to Open Book about his novel, which launches Oct. 14 at The Ossington. See our Events Page for details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your novel, Waiting for Ricky Tantrum.

Jules Lewis:

That's a big question. It's about lot's of things — school, sex, identity, adolescence. My most direct answer is: it's about some kids growing up in Toronto.

OB:

Your novel is very dialogue driven, and the dialogue itself is alive and colourful. Was this a conscious decision? How did you write such true-to-life speech?

JL:

For the most part this wasn't a conscious decision. The rhythms and nuances of speech were in my head and easy to transcribe into print. It's the most natural way for me to write. Also, when I was writing Ricky Tantrum — which was quite a while ago now — I was influenced by a number of books fueled by lively, exciting dialogue: Philip Roth's My Life as a Man, Joseph Heller's Something Happened, Henry Roth's Call it Sleep.

OB:

Another vivid element in the book is the Toronto setting. Why did you choose to have the city play such an important role?

JL:

The neighborhood where most of Ricky Tantrum takes place — around Bloor and Ossington, where I grew up — is full of all sorts of strange, lost, morose, sleazy people. And strange, lost, morose, sleazy venues to match. It was fun to write about. And I guess it also has a special significance to the central characters in Ricky Tantrum — all young, all experiencing a lot of things for the first time — because their burgeoning independence is wound up in this urban landscape. The places they frequent — a pool-hall, an arcade, a desolate park, wherever — offer them their first taste of a world completely devoid of parental influence; a world they can relate to and experience on their own terms.

OB:

Tell us more about Charlie Crouse, the narrator's rough-around-the-edges buddy. What was your inspiration for this character?

JL:

I'm not sure what my inspiration for him was. I suppose that initially he was a sort of collage of a number of people I knew growing up. As soon as I started seriously writing about him, though, he transformed into a completely fictional creation and lost any resemblance to anybody I'd ever known. I was also definitely attracted to his capacity for untruth. He's such a talented and shameless and prolific liar. There's a great quote from Robert Musil's The Confusions of Young Torless that I think applies to Charlie: "There always comes a point when you don't know whether you're lying, or whether what you've invented is more truthful than you are yourself." I don't think there was ever a time in Charlie's life when he hadn't reached this point.

OB:

Can you suggest a couple of other Toronto-based novels that you would recommend a foreigner (or even a westerner!) read to get a sense of the city?

JL:

The book that sticks out is David Bezmozgis's collection of stories, Natasha and Other Stories, although it does not at all give a broad sense of the city; simply depicts an insular ethnic neighborhood. But I think that in itself is reflective of Toronto: it's a city divided into disconnected, mostly insular worlds. I can't think of a novel that does for Toronto what, say, Richler's best fiction does for Montreal. Or what Bellow's best fiction does for New York or Chicago. And I don't think that has anything to do with the quality of Toronto novelists; more so it's that Toronto offers a particularly problematic landscape to capture in fiction.

OB:

What do you most enjoy about being a writer in Toronto?

JL:

That's hard to say. I suppose it's a pretty decent place to be a writer. People are generally supportive and there's very little chance of getting thrown in prison or socked in the nose for anything you write.

OB:

Do you have a day job that affects your writing?

JL:

At the moment, no.

OB:

Who are your literary mentors or influences?

JL:

Initially I was attracted — or at least thought there was some sort of profound honesty — in the crudest literature. I remember coming across Miller's Tropic of Capricorn when I was about fourteen years old in my neighbor's bookshelf and being completely blown away by it. Here was a world much broader and more exciting and morally complex than anything I had previously experienced. And the other good thing about Miller (for an uneducated fourteen year old) was that in reading him I was provided with an excellent syllabus: his autobiographical protagonist introduced and turned me on to the great 19th-century Russian and French novels. So Henry Miller was an early influence on me, although I no longer have much interest in him. When I was a few years older, a friend of mine introduced me to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud — all of whom I continue to read and be influenced by. But for some reason I'm always going back to the Russians, namely Dostoyevsky.

OB:

In the acknowledgements to Waiting for Ricky Tantrum, you thank your late grandmother for putting you up during the writing of the novel. What was it like living with her during this time? What did she think about your writing?

JL:

It was a quiet, isolated existence; perfect for writing. My grandmother was for the most part supportive of my endeavor.

OB:

What are you working on now?

JL:

I'm deep into another novel and have recently finished a play.


Jules Lewis was born in Toronto and is still based there. He has lived in Montreal, New York City and Istanbul, and has written for Toronto’s Eye Weekly. This is his debut novel.

For more information about Waiting for Ricky Tantrum please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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