Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Anton Piatigorsky

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Anton Piatigorsky

Multi-genre writer Anton Piatigorsky is most recently the author of The Iron Bridge (Goose Lane Editions), a collection of short fiction where we meet young versions of several historical tyrants.

Anton is also known as one of Toronto's most beloved playwrights, having received wide-spread acclaim for his plays, including the hit Eternal Hydra, and filled the prestigious playwright-in-residence role at Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Today we speak with Anton about the universal fascination with dictators, the differences between writing fiction and writing for the theatre and his extensive reading list while working on The Iron Bridge.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Iron Bridge.

Anton Piatigorsky:

The Iron Bridge is a collection of six stories about 20th Century dictators when they were teenagers — Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Trujillo and Stalin. The stories focus exclusively on their youths, and don’t project into their futures. When we see them as teenagers, these young men don’t have to become the infamous killers we associate with their names. They could, potentially, make an alternate set of decisions, and live radically different lives. These stories are small, multifaceted arcs that take place over a single day, or a few connected days — deeply felt personal events. They are not trying to be grand ‘eureka’ moments of transition.

OB:

Why do you think we're so fascinated with tyrants? What drew you personally to this subject matter?

AP:

These six dictators were some of the worst people who lived in the past 100 years, but they began their lives as children, just like the rest of us. I think many people have particular interest in journeys that transform normal, innocent kids into mass killers. Their terrible lives are like the worst case scenarios for our species; they are embodiments of our fears about how bad we might be or become. For me, at least, I was curious about how much I might have in common with these men. That said, I found them much more accessible, understandable and, on occasion, sympathetic when they were young, before they made all the violent choices that ossified them into monsters. Later in their lives, they become set in their ways, so unable to do anything good, or even to really feel the conflict between making good and bad choices. As adolescents, they were in the thick of moral conundrums they would later abandon. When we read about them in my stories, we can still wonder if they will make productive or destructive choices.

OB:

You've achieved widespread success as a playwright. How do you balance writing in multiple genres? Do you find writing different kinds of work a valuable experience?

AP:

Fiction, I’ve learned the hard way, is very different from playwrighting. Writing a play is much like creating a blueprint for an experience, and so I would say that the craft has a lot in common with composing, architecture and acting. Maybe more in common with those arts than it does with novel or story writing. A book is not a blueprint — it is the thing itself. So even when the plot is moving quickly, I find the pace slower. The words alone have to do more of the work. The research is the same, and many of the structural qualities are the same as well, but I definitely had to learn different skills. The dialogue, of course, came naturally to me. Still, even then, a conversation works in different ways on the page than it does on the stage. Ideally, I’d go back and forth between the two forms. Both offer something that the other can’t do as well, and I love them equally. If my brain can handle switching, I think I’d be happiest doing both in the future.

OB:

Were there any short fiction collections you read while working on this project? What are some of your all-time favourite collections?

AP:

I’m always reading eclectically, and short story collections are usually part of the mix, but I wasn’t really focused on short fiction while I was working. I read lots of non-fiction — biographies, histories, articles, etc — and fiction that features these dictators at various points in their lives. I was curious to see how other writers handled them. Some of the books I read were Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest, Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev, Gilen Foden’s The Last King of Scotland, Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat — plus others. I thought of this book as a unified concept more than a set of short stories, almost something between a novel and a traditional collection. I don’t know if that’s how other people perceive it, but I guess that’s not my business to decide.

OB:

What are you working on now?

AP:

A novel about fictional Justices on the US Supreme Court.


Anton Piatigorsky has twice won the Dora Mavor Moore Award. Eternal Hydra, commissioned by the Stratford Festival, was called “one of the best Canadian plays of the past decade” by NOW Magazine and opened in Vancouver at the Touchstone Theatre in October 2012. The chamber opera, Airline Icarus, for which he wrote the libretto, won the Italian Primo Fedora Award in 2011. He was most recently the playwright in residence for Soulpepper. His new play, Breath In Between, had its premiere at Toronto’s Summerworks Festival in August 2012.

For more information about The Iron Bridge please visit the Goose Lane Editions website.

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

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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