Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Sean Dixon

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Sean Dixon

Sean Dixon's newest book, The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn takes the reader across a Toronto both foreign and familiar with a cast of characters that includes window cleaners, Vietnamese gangsters and of course the eponymous dreadlocked rose seller.

Sean Dixon talks with Open Book about our amorphous city, the importance of the right table and, of course, revenge.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn.

Sean Dixon:

Kensington Market gets almost completely destroyed, twice. First by rampant development and then by fire.

OB:

You’ve been praised for your portrayal of Toronto. What are some of the opportunities and challenges involved in writing about the city?

SD:

I’ve been a little surprised by that. If I were the average reader, I probably wouldn’t believe it. Our city is amorphous. There are a thousand ways of looking at this place and no single vision encompasses it. With Montreal, it seems the mountain can readily represent the city as a whole, or Mile End can, or the Old Port, or the Old City, or the Cote-des-Neiges cemetery. But with Toronto, it feels like individual landmarks or neighbourhoods refuse to represent anything other than themselves. The city is literal that way, it’s not poetic. That’s why I think the notion that a writer has captured Toronto in a work of fiction is automatically greeted with skepticism by the average reader here. I certainly felt that way while I was writing: I felt I was making a book no one would want to read. But the challenge was still there. I was still going to try and chisel out my own sense of this place. (It helped for a while that I was portraying the city for the benefit of an imagined UK readership and not for Torontonians at all. There’s still evidence of that on the very first page.)

OB:

What was the genesis of Kip as a character? What do you like and dislike about her?

SD:

Some years ago, I was writing a play that began with a young couple from Kensington Market robbing a rich man’s house. The rich man was next door, having dinner with Jane Jacobs. The young man got shot and killed, the young woman — Kip Flynn, a street-level entrepreneur — got paid off with a lot of money. And then nothing. Revenge seemed like a natural next step, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it, and the financial aspect was fundamentally confusing. So I dropped it, and then, years later, I sat down to try again, in novel form, assuming the answer would reveal itself with the clarity of time passing. Eventually I began to figure out what the real problem was.

Resilience defines Kip as a character. But ‘resilience’ as a human quality, is incompatible with staying power as it pertains to a desire for revenge. As an avenger, Kip was doomed, temperamentally ill-suited to it. If there was going to be vengeance wrought in the book, it took me forever to learn, it could not come from her.

OB:

What was the experience of writing about revenge like?

SD:

Impossible, for a long time. I had *promised* a revenge story as part of a book deal with a UK publisher. I was open with my material (foolish playwright that I was), and they couldn’t figure out why I was generating material about a character running away from revenge rather than toward it. Why couldn’t I (or Kip) just get on with it? I tried to draw inspiration from (and pay homage to) everything from the Greek tragedies and The Count of Monte Cristo to the brilliant South Korean Sympathy movies of Chan-Wook Park.

At one point, I had a fifteen year gap in which Kip went off to Architecture school. I got in over my head, trying to renovate the Royal York Hotel with a 25-storey addition. I gave Kip an eccentric architect ally named Armand DeJong who had also witnessed Mani’s murder. When I realized that the story was the same whether he was in it or not, I cut him out. Pat York was beyond creepy, Nancy was a cyborg; Henry took over the book every time he drifted into it. In my struggles, I took consolation from Hamlet, who had some trouble with the revenge idea as well, but that didn’t help me either. What’s more, rotten things were happening in my personal life that might have caused another writer to seek outlets of rage through the pen — an eruption of retributory violence, for example. But I just couldn’t do it, certainly without jettisoning my central character. And I couldn’t bring myself to jettison my central character. I was hooped. And then, during the global financial crisis of 2009, I lost the book deal — the last rotten thing.

Although, from another perspective, what I ended up doing had been the plan the whole time. It was just a struggle to write, and I couldn’t articulate its value in the form of a synopsis.

Still, when the book lost its publisher, it was in terrible shape, all smudged up with self-doubt. When Alana at Coach House got her hands on it, her preliminary note was simply, ‘fix it.’ She wanted the novel I was writing and not the one I’d once promised to someone else, and that made all the difference in the world. I looked at it, jettisoned everything I hated, including the original climax of the book, and was suddenly able to ‘fix it’ after all. The last year of writing was pure pleasure.

OB:

What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

SD:

See above.

OB:

Describe your average writing day.

SD:

If I can’t snag the northwest corner table at Alternative Grounds Coffee Shop on Roncesvalles, with its little side counter, first thing in the morning, then my average writing day is ruined.

OB:

You have a background in theatre as well; how does your playwriting experience inform your fiction writing?

SD:

I’m pretty sure if I’d tried to write a novel twenty years ago, the plot quotient would have been very low, the language-game or poetry quotient would have been very high, the character’s intentions would have been rife with ambiguity, and the book might have been quite long. Playwriting is the most conservative art form, period: it’s no accident that Samuel Beckett was considered the last modernist. Playwrights are always the last to arrive at the party. So, for better or worse, experience in the theatre world has beaten the poetic, experimental stylist right out of me. I admire risky prose — at least sometimes — but it’s gotten way out of my reach now; I’ve gotten too humble to indulge it. Ask anyone who’s known me my whole adult life and they will concur.

OB:

There’s a magical, sometimes other worldly quality to some of Kip’s experiences and acquaintances. What advice would you have for writers who want to explore some non-literal techniques in fiction?

SD:

I don’t know. I was trying to write something believable. So I guess the answer is: make it believable.

OB:

What were you reading while writing The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn?

SD:

I read a lot about architecture. It didn’t help for a long time but eventually crept in. I read Access All Areas, though I didn’t use it the way I thought I might. I read Peter Ackroyd’s great biography of the city of London. I read Xenophon’s account of the Retreat of Cyrus’ army from Persia, because I was craving true accounts of extreme and desperate behaviour from the classical repertoire. I’m more comfortable when I have source material from that canon, so I ransacked the Greeks for inspiration but found nothing that would help me. In fact, I was left without an inspiring mythical figure right up until the last Toronto election. That event was very focusing for me. My plot was fully in place by then, but the new mayor affirmed for me that there could be a lot of colour and passion, hyperbole and outrageous behaviour, here, in our city. He gave me confidence, since my book is full of that kind of outrageous behavior. So I have to confess in all earnest that the personality of the mayor made The Many Revenges a better book.

Also, in those last few months, I read several contemporary Toronto novels, plus Amy Lavender Harris’ Imagining Toronto, which had a decisive influence.

OB:

What are you working on now?

SD:

Henry, one of the secondary characters in The Many Revenges, gets his own noir novel, in verse. I’ve been trying to recapture his hard-boiled voice from the Toronto Noir short story ‘Sic Transit Gloria at the Humber Loop’, except in the third person, and for some reason I only come close when I think within the formal limitations of a metrical line. The story begins upstairs at Sneaky Dee’s, a couple of years after the events of Kip Flynn, and concerns the disappearance of a woman after something very much like a Trampoline Hall lecture.


Sean Dixon is a playwright, novelist and actor. His plays have been produced in Canada, the U.S., Australia and the U.K., and three have been collected in AWOL: Three Plays for Theatre SKAM. Sean’s first novel was The Girls Who Saw Everything (The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal in the U.S. and the U.K.), named one of the Best Books of 2007 by Quill & Quire. He is the author of two books for young readers, The Feathered Cloak and The Winter Drey. He occasionally plays banjo with the Toronto glam rock band tomboyfriend.

For more information about The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn please visit the Coach House Press website.

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

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