Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Thomas Trofimuk

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Ten Questions with Thomas Trofimuk

Bestselling author Thomas Trofimuk's latest novel, Waiting for Columbus (McClelland & Stewart), is "a wild romp through the 15th century" and "a wild ride in present day." He talks to Open Book about his research, his reading and his next project.

OBT:

Tell us about your latest book, Waiting for Columbus.

TT:

It’s about a man who wakes up in a Spanish mental institution and professes to be the one true and only Christopher Columbus. He wants to know what happened to his ships. He wants to speak with a king and queen who lived 500 years ago. Obviously, they keep him, and he eventually begins to tell stories about himself (Christopher Columbus) to Consuela, his nurse.

It’s a love story, a mystery, a tragedy and a romance. When I say romance, I don’t mean “romance” as in the genre. I mean “romance” as the idea that anything is possible – that we can recover from heart break, from tragedy, from loss – that love can abide in the strangest circumstances. Waiting for Columbus is a wild romp through the 15th century as Columbus tries to get his ships and set to sea. And it’s also a wild ride in present day, as this delusional man moves closer and closer to unraveling the mystery of what happened to him.

OBT:

Describe the research you did for Waiting for Columbus.

TT:

This is a small, quick list of areas that I researched: dissociative identity disorders (or DIDs), possible drug regimens that might be used to treat DID, mental institutions in Spain (from 1400 to present day), ocean temperatures in the Strait of Gibraltar (and which way the water flowed through the strait), 15th century clothing, ocean navigation (compass, sextant, navigating by the stars), Christopher Columbus (half a dozen books and probably 100 articles on the man and what we think we know about him), the Catholic Kings, the Inquisition, Moorish architecture, Interpol, the bubonic plague (timelines, how it worked and who was blamed), the flora and fauna and the weather of Spain. Of course, once I’d learned enough to write about these things, I started to throw out what I knew because I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t writing a historical novel. And, for Columbus the mental patient, the 21st century started to interject into the 15th century. So, some of the history is correct (or at least, would resonate with the scholars), and some of it is pure liar-liar-pants-on-fire story-telling.

OBT:

What was the most interesting thing you learned about Christopher Columbus?

TT:

In a few of the books I read on Columbus, there is mention of Columbus on his deathbed and that he said something along the lines of: “Tell Beatriz, I’m sorry.” Now, Beatriz was the mother of one of his boys, but he never married her. This alleged penultimate line by Columbus haunts me. What was he sorry about? Was it that he never married her? Or did they argue that morning? Something weighed on him about this woman.

OBT:

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

TT:

Not really – not in broad terms. Though, I know that women are the ones who buy most of the novels these days. I hope I’m writing entertaining literary fiction for whatever group it is that reads entertaining literary fiction. In a smaller scope of “readership,” if my writing brings pleasure to my wife (my first reader) and a close friend then I’m happy.

OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

TT:

A room with wooden floors and windows that look out over a lush forest. In the summer there will be a thousand, thousand shades of green. In the winter, the snow will gather on the branches of the trees in stark white outlines. There will be birds in every season. There is a French press of coffee on my desk. Somewhere in the house, there is a cat. The chair will not be uncomfortable, but it will not be too comfortable. There will be books – shelves of books in no particular order. I will have dinner with my wife and daughter later. Perhaps my wife and I will share a bottle of wine, sit, and look at the trees.

Really, I can write anywhere. Twenty floors up in an office building. In a basement office. Or a mountain retreat. Just so long as I have “time,” which becomes more and more precious.

OBT:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.

TT:

I’d like to deflect this one. I’d like to avoid the fact that I couldn’t identify a “Canadian cultural experience” even if I was sitting on one. I’m Canadian and I’m embroiled in this culture. So, for me, every experience is a Canadian cultural experience. Buying bread at my Lebanese bakery. Buying French wine at my local liquor store. Ordering the Quran from an on-line US publisher. Taking my daughter to a digital arts summer day camp. Having a beer with an Australian couple on a deck at Miette Hot Springs Resort in the Rocky Mountains – near Jasper. All these things are mixed up in me and they will influence my writing – someday.

OBT:

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

TT:

Twelve books would be too few. Fifty books would be too many. These three would make a good beginning:
Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of the Lion,
Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners,
Leonard Cohen’s Stranger Music.

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

TT:

A Year with Rumi (Coleman Barks translation). Just finished Irshad Manji’s brilliant book The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith, The Quran: a reformist translation and Updike’s Rabbit novels.

OBT:

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

TT:

You mean apart from read, read and read some more, and then write, write, write? I believe we get good at this through practice, by writing, a lot – and by walking through this world with writers’ eyes, and ears and hearts. Writers must be curious about everything. We must annoy our husbands and wives and partners by being curious about everything. Our job is to show great stories that shine a light on the human condition. Reading, writing a lot and maintaining an uncontrollable curiosity are elements of the formula to arrive at great stories. Publishers want great stories.

That’s my advice. Oh, and, never use the word “quirky” when describing your own writing, even if it is.

OBT:

What is your next project?

TT:

I’m working on a quirky new novel tentatively called “How the light enters you” – which is a line from Rumi. Two men meet on a beach south of Cancun, Mexico. One is a Canadian who has been in Mexico for seven months, hiding; seeking refuge from the ruins of a marriage. The other, believes he is utterly failed as a Muslim, and has just been released from Guantanamo. Both men are wounded in their own ways. And it’s not really quirky at all.


Thomas Trofimuk’s first novel, The 52nd Poem, won several awards, and his second, Doubting Yourself to the Bone, was a #1 bestseller (Edmonton Journal) and a Globe and Mail Best Book of 2006. He lives in Edmonton with his wife and daughter.

For more information about Waiting for Columbus please visit the McClelland & Stewart website.


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

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