Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Pan Bouyoucas

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Pan Bouyoucas

Writer, playwright and translator Pan Bouyoucas recently published his second novel in English, The Tattoo (Cormorant Books), expanding on his well-established platform as one of French Canada's strongest voices. He talks to Open Book about being a tri-lingual writer, magic realism and the wild journey.

Open Book:

Tell us about your latest novel, The Tattoo.

Pan Bouyoucas:

Zoe is a young Montrealer leading a quiet, ordinary life managing her family business with her brother. One day, she gets a rose tattooed on her lower abdomen. A few days later, a bud grows off her rose’s short stem. The day after that, the bud unfurls its petals, another rose appears, then another, and another. How could some pigment embedded in her skin produce such a marvel, Zoe wonders. If it’s a miracle, what does its growth mean? what purpose does it serve? She consults all sorts of people — each one gives the rose bush growing on her skin a different meaning, some to authenticate their own perceptions, others to exploit it to further their own career or agenda.

OB:

The events that take place in The Tattoo are wondrous and strange. Would you consider your novel to be magic realism, or do you understand it to be something different?

PB:

If magic realism involves a realistic narrative combined with surreal elements of dream or fantasy, you could say there is a touch of magic realism here, but only a touch: the growth of a tattoo on a girl’s skin. The rest is as realistic as, let’s say, the narrative of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, after its main character wakes up to find himself transformed into an insect. But I don’t think in terms of literary genre. I have a story to tell, and I try to tell it as well as I can. However, in recent years, I’ve been trying to revive in my writing the feel of wonder and enchantment I used to experience as a kid when I read certain fairy tales, legends and myths. So, if we must put a label on this novel, I’d say it’s a fairy tale for grown-ups. Plus — maybe because of my background — I like odysseys. After all, we all need the wild journey that tells us what we’re made of.

OB:

You began your career as a novelist writing in French, but The Tattoo and The Man Who Wanted to Drink Up the Sea were written in English. Your third language! Tell us about why you decided to write in English and what the experience is like for you.

PB:

We spoke Greek at home, but I attended a French school till the age of 16. Then we moved to Canada, and found out I couldn’t go to a French school because I was not Catholic. So I finished high school in English, then attended an English university. After graduation, I worked as a film critic and wrote plays in English (one of them, Divided We Stand, was the Canadian Stage's biggest hit ever, and Toronto's biggest hit of the 1990-91 season). Only when I switched to the novel, I went back to French: all the books I’d read up to the age of 16 had been written or translated into French. Then a few years ago, I wondered if I could write a novel in English. That was The Man Who Wanted to Drink Up the Sea.

OB:

Does your writing process differ when you are writing a novel as opposed to a play? Do you have different primary concerns?

PB:

To me, a play involves a conflict and a confrontation resolved with dialogue, while the novel is the tale of a journey that may extend over a longer period of time and across all continents. Because plays last two hours, at the most three, playwriting forces you to focus on a specific event, get rid of the fat, strip down to the essential. I like that and try to do the same with my novels. Even as a reader I skip descriptions that go on for more than two or three lines.

OB:

Describe to us what your average writing day looks like.

PB:

It’s not different from any other work day. I’m at my desk at 10:00 a.m. till 4:00-5:00 p.m. The only difference is that I don’t stop thinking of the story I’m working on after 5:00 p.m. I’d like to, but it’s always there, in the back of my mind, no matter what else I’d be doing.

OB:

What writers would you say have most influenced your work?

PB:

In my youth, I wanted to write like one writer or another. When I look back now, I know I’ve been influenced more by some books than their authors. I’ve read all of Hemingway in my 20’s. The only book of his that I remember and cherish and have read more than once, is The Old Man and the Sea. And of such books I have too many to list here, from all eras and nationalities, starting with The Odyssey, The Bible and The Thousand and One Nights, even the stories my grandmother used to tell me before I’d learnt to read. As with every writer, all these stories, like my roots and upbringing, probably inform my writing in ways I’m not even aware of.

OB:

What is the best advice you've ever received as a writer?

PB:

Be true to yourself, your dreams and visions.

OB:

What are you working on now?

PB:

A novel. There’s always one in the works, otherwise I’d feel lost.

Pan Bouyoucas is a Greek-Canadian writer, playwright and translator. He has a BFA from Concordia University. Two of his works have been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award: L’Autre in 2001 and Thésée et le Minotaure in 2003. His book The Man Who Wanted to Drink Up the Sea has been translated into French, Russian and Serbian.

For more information about The Tattoo please visit the Cormorant Books website.

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

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