canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Michel Basilières

Michel Basilières is the author of Black Bird, a comic novel about the October Crisis. Basilières grew up in Montreal with his French father and Anglophone mother. He was ten years old at the time of the October Crisis, which he still remembers vividly. He now lives in Toronto, where he works as a bookseller while writing his second novel.

Danielle Couture interviewed Basilières in August 2003.


TDR: Salut! Comment ca va aujourd'hui?

Pas pire, merci. Toi?

TDR: How are you dealing with all of the publicity that has surrounded "Black Bird" in the past few months? I know that you work at a book store. I imagine that you are being approached a lot by would-be-authors and fans of your work. Is it ever "too much"?

Thankfully it's over now. It was very exciting and fun, but it was also an enormous amount of stress and pressure. I figured, like everyone else, I'd end up at a small press and have to fight to get noticed. Instead I found myself thrust into a very public role for the first time in my life. It's not like you ever imagine. It seems like it would be great, and it is, but it changes the way you think, and it changes the way people think about you. I found every relationship I had was coloured by it, even if only in my own head. It was like, for years I told people I was writing this book, and they'd say, still? And after a while they gave up on me, I don't know what they thought I was doing - jerking off, probably. But now they see me in a new light. Plus, I had been working hard for a long time with no break, and even at my day job it intruded. I'm a bookseller, so you can imagine my co-workers were excited for me and very enthusiastic. But I work in a large store, so there are a lot of them, and after a while it was overkill to talk to everyone about it all day long. I just wanted to do my job and go home - where the revisions were waiting for me. So in the year before it came out, it was like this inescapable thing that loomed over me everywhere I went. After spending so much time with the book in complete privacy and obscurity, the mental switch was extremely hard to make. Couple that with it being so completely unexpected, and I was overwhelmed.

Of course I wouldn't give it up for anything. It's really a dream come true. I was so stunned when Knopf made me an offer I actually said to my buddy John, "You never really expect your dreams to come true." I kept thinking they'd call and say, "Just kidding!" I worried about it even after the contract was signed. And just as you really have no idea that there might be some downside to it, you end up with perks you didn't expect either. I got a lot of free meals out of it, for instance. And people treat you like a pretty girl, they do things for you, you get gifts, you get great service. It's ridiculous, but it's fun.

And yes, you get approached by would-be authors. But no one recognizes writers unless you're really famous, so no fans. But the thing is, people approach you or are interested not necessarily because its you, but just because you're a writer. You could be any writer. So you can't take it personally, it's not about you.

TDR: Tell us a bit about yourself. Your biography states that you are the son of a French father and an Anglophone mother. What was your experience growing up in an interlingual family during the height of the October Crisis?

I was ten, so I was going to school; plus it was Halloween. My parents were both on the same side of the independence debate: against it. My father was _pur laine_, but by then he was about fifty and a father and a small businessman, so he wasn't by any means radically inclined. And he was perfectly bilingual and to be honest seemed to prefer anglophones. My mother is completely anglo, but she on the other hand seemed to like the French more than not. However, since she grew up in the working class, it was hard for her to see the nationalist's point about how the anglos had it any easier.

What's hardest for people today to understand is the fear many people felt, both French and English. The nationalist camp was closely associated in the public's mind with the terrorists. Mailboxes had been blowing up in Montreal for ten years and people were killed. The October Crisis was the culmination of a decade of violence, and many of the most prominent cultural figures in Quebec were open sympathizers. Crowds gathered at public concerts, singing Gilles Vigneault's "Gens du pays" and waving flags. Fights did break out on the streets between French and English speakers. Not long before 1970, Pierre Trudeau, prime minister at the time, was pelted by the crowd at a parade.

And when the Crisis finally erupted, it immediately became the focus of world attention. And we were invaded by the army. We were under martial law, and we knew that anyone could be arrested and detained without charge on the least pretext. And that happened. 500 artists, writers, journalists, musicians, poets and professors were rounded up and incarcerated. People don't seem to understand when I make this point about Canada, the country I grew up in: we sent the army to arrest the intellectuals. We had always been taught that this kind of thing was the brutal act of repressive dictatorships. This sort of undertaking was called "the Purges", "show trials", these were the actions of immoral brutes. Not freedom in a democratic state. But this happened before my eyes -- not on television -- in my home town -- not in a country I'd never heard of -- when I was ten.

In sum, we were scared. Everyone was scared, it didn't matter if you were French or English or Nationalist or Federalist, or even if you didn't care. One invisible army was striking randomly, and another very visible army was marching around pointing guns at everyone who sneezed.

TDR: "Black Bird" does a wonderful job of showing the beauty and many contradictions of Montréal. Can you describe what Montréal was like when you were a child. Has the city changed much since then? What prompted your move to Toronto?

Thanks for the compliment. It's really a lesson; I tried very hard to leave description out of the novel. One of my complaints about Canadian fiction is that it's too descriptive, too many authors waste way too much time telling you every last detail. Who cares? All this time is spent describing how characters look and dress, and readers completely ignore it. Or much is made of the landscape, as if we can't just look out our windows and see what the world looks like for ourselves. To me it's a sign of a lack of story, a lack of viewpoint. It's flabby and irrelevant. There are other mediums that do documentary much better, like film and photography, even television. It's true, you know, one picture being worth a thousand words. Use your thousand words to do something else, something film can't do. I pared as much as I could away from Black Bird, to get down to the essentials. And in the end everyone tells me they can see the city in the book, that it comes across right.

I grew up in Montreal's golden period. It was the largest and most important city in Canada, the Habs owned the Stanley Cup, Drapeau was mayor, Levesque was premier, Trudeau prime minister. We had the Quiet Revolution, Expo 67, Canada's first major league baseball team, the October Crisis, the PQ was elected, the Olympics came to town, a referendum was held. It goes on and on. Physically it's changed somewhat. The neighbourhood I grew up in was either bulldozed or gentrified, there's a lot more modern development. When I was a kid you could always get parking on major streets, you'd just pull up to the door. The spirit's different, though, too. Montreal's been through a lot of strife and hard times, yet the bitterness is virtually gone and the lifestyle has not only been preserved, it's been enhanced. Quebecers more than any other Canadians were made aware of the importance of their cultural identity, and it's so strong now it's hard to believe it was under threat back then. The result is a marvelous, unique place where life is really lived, not simply endured or conquered.

My wife and I are both in the arts and working in English. We first moved to Toronto when Montreal was really at a low point economically - it was awful, most of downtown was boarded up. So we came here like everyone does, for work. Like it or not, Toronto is the center of English Canadian culture. It made sense for me to come here, and it paid off. It was a hard adjustment for me, but in the end I like Toronto a lot, and one thing it gave me is the understanding of what it means to be a Montrealer. The distance and the difference really underlines the separate identities of both cities.

TDR: While reading your novel, I noticed that you used actual streets names in Montréal. Do you think that using obvious landmarks and street names allowed for native Montrealers, and those familiar with the area, to further connect with the family Desouches?

It wasn't so much the characters I was worried about, it was the fantastic or outrageous events. I felt I had to ground everything in reality to make the distortions acceptable. I was worried that what I was doing was against the accepted Canadian traditions of realism and naturalism, so I worked hard to make the setting, the social background and the characters are real as possible. For me this amounted to catching myself whenever I was "writing" -- by which I mean putting something on paper because that's how it's done, or because the story wanted it. In bad books and films you see characters doing things because there's a strategic need in plot terms or thematic terms, but not because it's "in character" or realistic. That's cheating, it's bad writing. There's a scene in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway that explains this very succinctly. They're rehearsing the play onstage, and the gangster watching from the seats complains, "People don't talk like that."

TDR: What can we expect to see next from you? Are you doing more writing than reading these days?

I've started another novel, but I'm not in a hurry. I notice a lot of writers bring out a second book much too quickly. It's a great temptation but my success came from taking my time. Otherwise I'm doing a lot of book reviewing, so I'm reading a lot. I'm trying to stick closely to what interests me or what I need to read, so in effect I'm getting people to pay for my reading time. Reading is a huge part of writing, its part of the job. I want to be paid for it. Plus I beleive writers should review books. There's a great lack of this aspect of the community in Canada. Writing is not such a solitary act as so many people claim. We feed off each other, we write in response to each other - and we need each other's professional opinion on what we're doing. We're too shy of offending each other, of losing work or friends. We need to treat each other like scientists or philosophers do - debate, argue. Writing is a discourse, it's not just some egocentric personal expression or disconnected and disposable time-killing entertainment. Again, that's what television is. Writers in Canada need to risk confrontation and risk failure. Athletes do this all the time. You go out, you fumble. It's part of the game. Sometimes you get tackled. It hurts, but you heal. Besides, you got published, what does it matter if the reviews are bad? You started with the ultimate good review - professional acceptance.

TDR: What authors and individuals have influenced you over the years?

How much time have you got?

TDR: Finally, have you had to shelve your own book yet?

I moved it to a prominent display area and make sure it's fully stocked all the time. If there were still an Oprah table, I'd sneak it on there. All my co-workers keep encouraging me to hand-sell it, but I can't do that. It's there, let people make up their own mind. You can't force readers, you can only make sure they notice you. My years as a bookseller have given me a kind of knowledge about the business and about readers that many writers lack. I've seen so many books come and go and I see the patterns in sales, and I see what helps and what hinders. A book has a brief window of sales and then it's over. You can hope for a resurgence, say when the paperback comes or if lightning strikes and you win some prize, but basically you've got two or three months to do any business. Then you've got to look for a job again. Considering this, it's astonishing how many writers refuse to do publicity, or do it so grudgingly they're actually hurting themselves. I'm telling you, there's an amazing number of writers out there cutting their own throats because they're so out of touch or self-important.

Dani Couture is a Toronto-based poet.







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