Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #17: Timothy Findley (1988)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of On the Arts.
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

Timothy Findley
In one particular chapter of Talking Out of Turn (Landscape and Identity), I wanted to feature artists whose sense of self seemed to grow out of the place in which they lived. For writers like Richard Ford (Rock Springs), Canadian poet Daphne Marlatt (What Matters) and Timothy Findley (The Wars, Famous Last Words) portraits of lives lived seemed almost inseparable from the lives of the people who created them. In the case of Findley, who died in 2002, he had written towards the end of the eighties a book of short stories called Stones that explored both the emotional and physical geography of Toronto, Canada. It is a city that we both grew up in that, by the eighties, was undergoing a dramatic change with the beginnings of a massive urban sprawl. That growth would cause Findley to leave for more rural surroundings. While I think some of what he predicted in 1988 didn't come to pass, the interview did indicate how the climate of commerce, the elevation of taxpayer over citizen, did reflect a city losing sight of itself. What Findley, I fear, saw coming was a Toronto where its inhabitants lived to work rather than work so they could live.

kc: Most of the stories in Stones concern themselves with Toronto, a city I grew up in. And one of the fascinating aspects of your book is the way you illustrate how the architecture of this city -- what some are now calling a "world class city" -- hides some things that aren't so perfect or world class.

tf: Yeah. I grew up here, too. I was born in 1930 so my memory of the city extends back to a time when none of what we now have was evidently in the future. I don't think people saw Toronto becoming the city it has become, so it has been extraordinary as a witness to watch it grow -- and grow in more ways than merely physically. It is, I think, a magical city in many ways, but I have great concerns for its future.

kc: What kinds of concerns?

tf: Toronto reminds me now so vividly -- almost like flashing double images -- of the New York I first encountered in the late 1940s and early 1950s when New York had this look and was still a magical city. And now, less than forty years later, it has become a nightmare city. And I think that's what maybe causes some of the stories in Stones to have a sense of nightmare, a nightmare lying in wait for the people who inhabit the book.

Toronto at night.
kc: I think the clearest example of that nightmare you describe is found in the story "A Gift of Mercy" where the Queen Street Mental Health Centre is featured. Here's a place that is supposed to be devoted to helping people who are emotionally disturbed. But when reading this story, we get a sense of something completely different.

The Queen Street Mental Health Centre.
tf: What's sad about that building and for those who work there is their sense of alarm about the situation. They feel that society is not willing to deal with the problems that are encountered because that building is there; and also, because of the flood of people who pass through those doors who are beyond help. You can't just go on building larger and larger institutions to house these people. There has to be some way for people with schizophrenic problems to live whatever version of a normal life is possible amongst the rest of us -- but in some dignified way. Part of what's going wrong is that Queen Street is spilling over with people who are regarded as being the dregs and not worth paying attention to.

kc: The overwhelming impression I got from Stones is that the architecture of the city dwarfs the individuals that live there. It intimidates them. In one story ("The Sky"), which takes place mostly at a concert in Roy Thomson Hall, one character is waiting for the sky to fall -- metaphorically and literally! The architecture you describe in these stories reduce people to such a size that they feel helpless. They feel that there is no way to be human.

tf: Well, I think...now that's a good point...because the other way that size and architecture are dominating our lives and making it impossible to make human contact in the city, or any large city, is the domination of the financial aspect of all of this. It becomes way beyond anyone's reach. Most of us who live here have nothing to do with that world of money.

Roy Thomson Hall.
kc: In what sense do you think that becomes intimidating?

tf: Well, if you live outside of Toronto, like I do, you get to see it growing towards you rapidly. You can take a route into Toronto and encounter a subdivision that wasn't there four months ago. And when you encounter these subdivisions, you are encountering houses that have a lowest price in the $350 thousand range. Those are the El-Cheapo houses, by the way. But they're all crammed together! There are no gardens. The trees are gone entirely. If you want trees, you have to plant them. We have no responsibility for putting green back in this landscape. We only take it away. So if you're going to go forever and ever into debt in order to live in these places, you're still going to live inches from somebody else. It doesn't gain you any biological contact with the planet. You're still not human. That's the other part of Stones, the sense of architecture gone mad. I don't mean just the great ups and downs and the widths of the huge buildings that are rapidly going up. I'm talking about the price of all of it.

kc: You're speaking of the human price we pay?

tf: Sure. We're now required -- supposedly -- to live in them at the most expensive levels. If we don't drive the Mercedes and patronize all the people who are bringing in all this money, then it's all going to fail. So everybody's struggling for absolutely meaningless things. In one story in Stones, I write about somebody having a walk along Bloor Street looking at all the glitzy stores and seeing the faces. It's something I've done when I've been walking there. And one of the things you immediately see is that all of these people are avoiding going home. I don't want to be with my wife, or husband, or to be with my children. I don't want to be with other known people. I need this hiding place out here in the street with all these other strangers because going home is horrible. It's the last thing I want. And, do you know what, it's increasingly becoming a way of life.

kc: In a story like "Dreams," where the landscape is the psyche, it becomes even scarier.

tf: Yes. In fact, there's one character who is a paranoid schizophrenic who has started invading other people's dreams. The real world is so appalling to him that his own dreams provide him with a landscape that he can endure. So he goes into other people's dreams and kills people in those dreams. That's where he moves, he moves into this other. That intrigues me. We become the dwelling places of other people's horror stories.

kc: I suppose since we haven't provided real homes for ourselves we've left a door open to anything.

tf: Sure. But we also haven't provided proper homes for them. I know that sounds condescending, but what I mean is that we haven't made it part of our civic duty to see that everyone in our city lives as well as can be expected of reality.

kc: But how do we come to define that reality?

Malcolm X Boulevard in Bed-Stuy (photo by BlueJake.)
tf: Kevin, this city is not real. Look out the window. It's not made for real people. It is a city made of commerce with buildings made of glass where you can't see in the windows. You get nothing but a sense of glare. They're ugly. I don't know what other people's dreams and nightmares are, but this is the landscape of my nightmares...The politics of this continent does not deal with the way people are. You look at the people in parts of America, like Bed-Stuy, or the little towns and villages that exist between the major centres in Florida that are totally populated by Blacks and Hispanics. And you can see that they are truly despised. This bullshit about what America is all about is getting really boring. If they really believed it, they'd alter the face of the country and they haven't. It's getting worse. So if we're going to change things, we're going to have to drag the Brian Mulroneys and the George Bushs into the truth of our countries and force them to see that they're there.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier concludes his lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) Tuesday, May 24th at the Revue Cinema in Toronto at 7pm. His five-part lecture series, Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, continues at the JCC Prosserman on Wednesdays from 1pm-3pm.

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