canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Jim Bartley

Jim Bartley is a playwright and First Fiction book reviewer for The Globe and Mail. Among four produced plays, his most recent, Stephen and Mister Wilde, has been staged across Canada and on CBC Radio. He contributes a monthly book column to Toronto's Xtra Magazine. A longtime Toronto resident, he has traveled extensively in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. Drina Bridge (Raincoast, 2006) is his first novel.

Interview by Nathaniel G. Moore, Winter 2007

Photo credit: Natasha Vasiljevic


TDR: Tell us a bit about your background, where you grew up, when you started writing, etc.

JB: I'm a kid from the western fringe of what used to be called Metro Toronto. An uneventful suburban childhood, decent parents, one-car garage, shag carpet, rec-room, beer-and-pot parties when the folks went away.  I played bass in a laughable high school blues band. When I graduated from University of Toronto I moved into a place in the Annex, started acting for dollars at a theatre called Toronto Truck. Had a lot of fun and lived on almost nothing. Got into the gay-lib scene and did some writing for The Body Politic, which morphed into XTRA Magazine -- I still write for them. Started writing plays in the 80s and had four produced, most recently Stephen & Mister Wilde staged in various cities and on CBC Radio.

TDR: How was your experience working with Raincoast Books?

I'm one of the Raincoast fiction authors who squeaked through their big downsizing of 2006. Some of their contracted authors were cut loose, so I have this mix of survivor's guilt and tremendous relief. I certainly can't claim they've neglected me, despite the fact that they have now completely killed their adult fiction list in the publishing section (they still distribute fiction and publish the Harry Potter books in Canada.) Raincoast makes attractive books and uses top quality and eco-friendly materials, so I was pleased from the outset about that, and Drina Bridge has a gorgeous design. 

They turned my work into quite a beautiful object, and found a Belgrade artist for the cover image, and put one of my own photos on the back cover -- a pic of the actual Bridge on the Drina in Bosnia. I feel I've done pretty well, in a business (publishing) that's so often disappointing for a new writer -- if not downright demeaning. I've had no sense of that from Raincoast. It's very clear they love the book. They answer my emails -- editors, publicists, marketing, they've been quite attentive.

TDR: How has being a playwright influenced you as a fiction writer?

JB: Plays are talk, so I think the dialogue in my fiction is likely more convincing (and the conversations are often longer) because of that. Plays have a tighter, more intimate focus on humans interacting, whereas novels open up the setting and action possibilities without limit. Stagecraft, as wonderful as it is with inspired artists, is limited by what's physically producible and within budget, whereas prose fiction is produced entirely within the writer's and reader's imaginations. There's no practical or logistical restriction on where you can go or what you can do in a novel. Shifting from stage writing to book-length fiction was a revelation for me.

TDR: What went into the creation of Drina Bridge, can you tell us how you came to put this story down on paper?

JB: So much coalesced, very gradually, to become the story in Drina Bridge. Elements from my life were very important in kick-starting the story, but the things that happen in the book haven't happened to me, except for the fact that I'm a gay/queer guy from Toronto whose life and friends are affected by HIV-AIDS, and the more specific fact that I did go to Yugoslavia in 1991 when the country was beginning to descend into war. The rest of the narrative grew out of my coming to know people in Toronto who'd fled Serbia and Bosnia and Croatia when things were falling apart, and from research into Yugoslavia history and the wars of the 1990s. 

I read a lot, and I went back twice to former Yugoslavia and put a few thousand kilometres on rental cars driving to the various places and landscapes that appear in the book -- Sarajevo, Belgrade, rural Bosnia and Serbia, gorgeous medieval monasteries in Serbia, ancient mosques. I met a lot of generous and accommodating people -- Serb, Muslim, Croat and also Yugoslavs who don't sport an ethnic identity -- who were often a bit bewildered that this Canadian guy was writing a novel about their history and culture. The research was pretty much a life-altering experience. I have a special affection for the place (ghastly as some of the reality is), which I don't have for, say, England or Italy or other places I've been to.








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