Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Michael Wayne

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Ten Questions with Michael Wayne

A novel about "Lincoln faking his own death, moving to Canada and fulfilling his dream of living openly as a transvestite…." Open Book talks to Michael Wayne about "literate slapstick," American history, reading and his novel, Lincoln's Briefs (Kellom Books). The launch for Lincoln's Briefs is on November 5 at Ben McNally Books. Please visit our events page for details.

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your latest book, Lincoln's Briefs.

Michael Wayne:

My father is the late Johnny Wayne of Wayne and Shuster fame. A reviewer once called his comedy “literate slapstick.” That would be a good description of my novel, “literate slapstick.” Granted, Lincoln’s Briefs has a more sardonic edge than the sketches my father and Frank Shuster wrote and performed.

The story begins when Yale Templeton, an unassuming and, frankly, very boring, history professor at a unnamed university in Toronto, mentions to his class on the American Civil War that he has discovered evidence proving Abraham Lincoln was not, in fact, assassinated. No, the Great Emancipator faked his own death so that he could take on a new identity, move to Canada, and fulfill his lifelong dream of living openly as a transvestite. This (seemingly) insane revelation soon finds its way into the press, producing panic on three fronts: At the university, where the new president and CEO has recently initiated a $3 billion fundraising campaign. In Washington, where the President is desperate to recover whatever evidence Templeton has found so he can “protect the inalienable right of every American to believe in the innocence of his country.” And, eventually, in England, where Templeton’s aged mother, who long ago came to believe that she is Queen Elizabeth I, concludes that one of her loyal subjects — “he is like a son to me” — has been captured by American “Savages.”

The novel is populated by a wide range of improbable characters: a stunningly beautiful CIA agent sent by the President to recover the evidence (“Think Marilyn Monroe only better looking.”); a computer systems analyst who believes he was Henry Hudson in a previous life and accepts a commission from “Her Majesty” to rescue his fellow countryman; Native Canadian tricksters; a Mad Trapper; identical twin brothers from a hamlet in Quebec, one a passionate separatist, the other an equally passionate Canadian nationalist; and the Great White Moose, who shambles in and out of the story and serves as a metaphor for Canadian identity (or so, at least, the narrator claims). But, then, Lincoln’s Briefs is really, in its own satiric way, an extended exploration of identity: Canadian identity; American identity; English identity. It is also a manifesto for the right of every individual to lay claim to his or her own personal identity unconstrained by conventions imposed by society at large.

OBT:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

MW:

I had no particular readership — no particular demographic — in mind. Just people like myself, I suppose (of which my wife assures me there are very few). Let’s just say people with my love of satire. The sort of people who laugh when remembering the more outrageous scenes from Catch-22. The sort of people who like listening to Randy Newman songs, who enjoy watching Arrested Development, who now and then circulate an article from The Onion among their friends. People like that.

OBT:

What sort of research did you do for your book?

MW:

Most of my references to the United States come from my years of teaching and writing about American history at the University of Toronto. I did have to carry out some research into Canadian and English history and geography. I find myself constantly amazed by how easy the Internet has made tracking down information. On the other hand, as I repeatedly warn my students, you have to be very careful when searching for evidence on-line. Wikipedia can be a useful starting point, but it should never be more than a starting point. (And then there was the visiting student from England who drew on an article in The Onion for a biographical essay he wrote for me on Maya Angelou. Apparently he did not know his source was a satirical magazine.)

OBT:

When you talk to Americans about Lincoln's Briefs, what are their reactions?

MW:

When I tell Americans what the novel is about — Lincoln faking his own death, moving to Canada and fulfilling his dream of living openly as a transvestite — I get the same reaction initially as I do from Canadians. A burst of laughter. But then usually the Americans shake their heads and say, “Some people are really going to be offended by this.”

OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

MW:

In my study, alone in the house. Maybe no one else even on the block.

OBT:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.

MW:

No particular experience comes to mind. But how about this? A lifetime of watching Hockey Night in Canada, and, in particular, rolling my eyes and changing channels during the Coach’s Corner segment directly inspired one chapter in the novel.

OBT:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

MW:

Because understanding Canada means understanding Tim Hortons and because understanding Tim Hortons means understanding the history of the donut, I would include Steve Penfold’s very fine The Donut: A Canadian History.

We are a nation of immigrants. Walking Since Daybreak by Modris Eksteins is a powerful and compelling exploration of the tragic history of eastern Europe during the twentieth century. It is also, not incidentally, a moving account of how the family of a boy who grew up to be one of Canada’s leading historians came to find refuge on our shores.

Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town because… well, because Leacock is Leacock, because he wrote with a wonderfully ironic voice, a uniquely Canadian voice.

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

MW:

Gulliver’s Travels. For my book club.

OBT:

What advice do you have for writers who are trying to get published?

MW:

Most published authors have at one time or another, if not frequently, faced rejection. It goes without saying that anyone who writes needs to develop a thick skin. A determination to persevere as well. But my own feeling is that, if getting published is foremost in your thoughts when you sit down to write, then you probably should consider doing something else. Granted, that’s easy for me to say. Writing on whatever historical subjects interest me has been part of my job description for the past 30 years. But I am inclined to believe (perhaps naively) that the best work is produced by authors who are writing first and foremost to give expression to their own thoughts and feelings, to address their own questions and concerns, to sing their own song and not to gain an audience. Which is not to deny that other people — friends, relatives, agents, editors — can help you find your own distinctive voice.

OBT:

What is your next project?

MW:

I actually am more than halfway through a scholarly examination of the construction of black identity in the United States from the colonial period to the present day (meaning, of course, to the election of Barack Obama). The working title is Imagining Black America. I expect that down the road I will write more fiction. And likely another play. (Some years ago Joey Slinger and I co-authored a children’s musical comedy called Barkadoodle: Or Can Lillian Finsterwald, Age 8, Save the Galaxy? It’s about a young girl who is kidnapped by space aliens who mistake her for the President of the United States. It is not based on a true story.)


Michael Wayne is a professor of American history at the University of Toronto. He writes the History Sleuth column for the Ottawa Citizen and is the author of two acclaimed works of scholarship: Death of an Overseer and the prize-winning The Reshaping of Plantation Society. Lincoln’s Briefs, his first novel, explores the satiric side of historical possibilities. He comes by his talent for humor honestly (or perhaps genetically). He is the son of the late Johnny Wayne of the iconic comedy team Wayne and Shuster.


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

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