Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Strange Arrangement Part II: Timothy Findley Speaks From The Great Beyond

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Strange Arrangement Part II: Timothy Findley Speaks From The Great Beyond

We are following on Friday’s theme concerning this ‘strange arrangement’ between writer and reader. How some readers feel a sense of real ownership with a particular series or a character, and perhaps they even think they “know” the writer from reading his or her work. As both a reader and a writer, and someone who has met many writers over the years, I no longer believe that reading a fiction writer allows me some secret porthole into their lives. A peek at the main components that turn their crank, definitely. The various neuroses and phobias and hang-ups that we all own, absolutely. But to infer that reading fiction provides an open window into the author’s soul is a stretch.

Back in the mid-1990s a friend of mine told me of her brief letter exchange with Leonard Cohen. I though, “Leonard Cohen writes back to people? Or maybe just girls?”. I had to find out for myself, and so thus began my participation in a little experiment of sorts. I would send off a favorite book, usually with a question or a request, and wait to see if the book returned autographed and with any insight into my specific query. These letters were not creepy, if that’s what you’re thinking, but rather the good intentions of a curious and fledgling young writer.

Here are a few of the more interesting results …

Leonard Cohen, the best pound-for-pound living writer, signed over his “warmest regards” on the cover of a 1988 tour program, and went on to offer a crytpic clue to a question I had posed concerning the task of the writer. The thick rice-paper return envelope from L.A. was a prize in itself, featuring a series of Cohen-engraved stamps: his famous linked hearts, a guitar, an angelic naked woman. The framed program hangs in my study in a place of honour.

Farley Mowat, who piqued an early interest in story-telling thanks to 'Lost in the Barrens' and 'Never Cry Wolf', shared a memory of childhood reading beneath a blanket with a kerosene lamp. “It’s amazing I’m here to tell the story,” he wrote. What a national treasure. If you don’t know how much moxy this guy has, read his memoir And No Birds Sang.

Michael Ondaatje signed a copy of the exquisite 'Rat Jelly' which I freely admitted had been stolen from my high school library when I was 15 years old and in search of good lines to impress a girl. So Master Ondaatje is now complicit in my crime. And if I ever get called in on it, you can bet I’ll rat him our faster than you can say Rat Jelly.

Richard B. Wright wrote a gentlemanly “good luck” inside his superb novella, 'The Age of Longing'. I hope everyone who bought the surprise bestseller, 'Clara Callan', goes back and reads his true masterpiece about fathers and sons and smalltown Ontario.

The sour-faced hermit Philip Roth scrawled his illegible name inside my first edition copy of his National Book Award-winning 'Goodbye, Columbus'. I was surprised he bothered to sign the thing, because Roth often complains he wishes he had chosen another profession, as though being a writer is some kind of burden he must carry. Give me a break. This from a curmudgeon who annually pumps out an award-winning novel (sure it comes with a variation on the same theme of old white men lusting after young girls) well into his 70s.

Ken Finkleman, creator of the brilliant mid-1990s CBC TV series The Newsroom, responded to my sharing of some writing ideas and drafts perfectly in the character of his narcisitic news producer George: “It’s perfect. I read the first few lines. I’m in a hurry ….” I loved that, it made me laugh out loud. The book version of The Newsroom scripts make sharp comedic reading, some of the smartest TV ever produced in Canada. Unfortunately, the more rope the networks gave Finkleman, the more bizarre and inaccessible his work became. Rather than trying to be Kafka or Federico Fellini, he should just be Finkleman, because it’s enough. He debut novel, Noah's Turn, is terrific by the way.

I wrote to John O’Brien’s sister to thank her for taking on the heavy task of finishing her brother’s final unfinished novel following his death by suicide. O’Brien penned the mesmerizing 'Leaving Las Vegas', which is known more widely as a movie featuring Nicholas Cage in his only Oscar-worthy performance. But the book is damned near perfect. It is every bit as confusing and beautiful and tragic and funny and poetic as watching a drunk stumble through the last stages of the disease. O’Brien wrote it in the year he managed to pull together some continual sobriety. Erin O’Brien returned a sweet note that will remain private, but suffice to say it was touching. I wish John O’Brien hadn’t taken his own life because he was a good writer and had many more books to share with us; I wish even more that there was no such thing as addiction.

My copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s oddly endearing but failed last novel, 'Timequake', came back with a signed bookplate taped inside. There was no response to the enigmatic question I had posed, but I was foolish to expect one. Vonnegut by this point was practically begging for death and turned off almost entirely from the writing world. So it goes …

There were more, but mostly they are the mundane stories of egotistical writers who think they are more important than they actually are, which has the be greatest sin of anyone with an ounce of talent.

The last and best one in this collection came from the much-missed craftsman Timothy Findley.

Actually, it didn’t come from Timothy at all, but rather via his longtime companion and first-rate editor, Bill Whitehead. See, I had written to Timothy with the hopes he would surprise my wife (an ardent fan) with a signed book for her birthday. Sadly, my package was received the same week Tiff took a fall in the South of France and ended up in hospital. He never left the place, succumbing to pneumonia and other complications.

Rather than return the package unopened, which would be expected and entirely excuseable in this time of grief, Mr. Whitehead crafted this typewritten note:

‘Thank you for your letter of March 20th, received just after we left for France. You will know why Tiff was not able to sign your book. Fortunately, a few years ago I had Tiff sign a few bookplates (I’m a great believer in back-ups, and envisioned all kinds of situations in which it would be impossible for him to provide autographs – including the present one). Therefore, I enclose a signed bookplate and hope that this will do – given the circumstances. As far as I know, only one other book bears this particular plate. Please thank your wife for her enthusiasm – and assure her that Tiff was very much at peace when he died.’

Bill, if you ever read this, know that your note is more than words typed on paper: it is at the very heart of this strange arrangement between creator and receiver, this thing we can’t quite name but that we all consider special and perhaps even a little holy.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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C.B. Forrest

C.B. Forrest is the author of the literary crime novels The Weight of Stones and Slow Recoil.

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