canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


TDR Interview: Sean Dixon

Sean Dixon is a writer and actor. Currently he is writing The Gift of the Coat, a play about a man and a coat. Other works for theatre include Billy Nothiní, Samís Last Dance, The Painting, Aerwacol, and a solo show, Falling Back Home. As an actor he has appeared on stages across the country, from the Blyth Festival to Toronto's Factory Theatre to underneath the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver. He helped to found the innovative 90's Winnipeg Theatre Company PRIMUS and is Playwright-out-of Residence for Victoria's Theatre SKAM.

His writing has been published in The Globe and Mail, This Magazine, Canadian Theatre Review, and the Brick Literary Journal. Coach House Books published Dixon's play collection, AWOL and his novel The Girls Who Saw Everything (2007). Dixon's young adult novel, The Feathered Cloak, will be published by Key Porter in the fall of 2007. He lives and plays banjo in Toronto.

Interview by Nathaniel G. Moore. May 2007.

*

TDR: So we should do a Q&A for Danforth Review and start off with how very topical it is to write a book about a book club, since well, book clubs are a sort of secret society, but do in many ways, influence book sales in every city all over the world. Have you ever been a member of a book club?

Sean Dixon: Iíve never been a member of a book club. I suppose I was attracted to the notion of the secret society because of my experience with theatre companies in which a small group of people have to set goals for themselves that seem outrageous or arcane from the outside. Whoís going to build the indestructible wedding cake? How do we shatter a huge sheet of glass without hurting anybody? How do we rehearse in an unheated warehouse in the middle of January in Winnipeg?

But itís nice to know itís topical. Writing this work has been such a long process that I thought I missed my moment. I had the impression that the book-club-zeitgeist in Canada had its apotheosis in the winter of 2002 when Ann Marie MacDonald appeared on Oprah. The original plan, when I began to write the play, was that we would be performing by then. So I remember thinking that for once Iíd been ahead of the curve (or even part of a curve) with my obsessions and Iíd blown it.

TDR: Can you talk about the main or minor differences in writing a play and writing a novel and how these two processes can compliment one another, or disrupt one another? How has acting influenced your writing?

SD: Because this work began as a play, I feared, when I started thinking of it as a novel, that as a novel it would be thin Ė like trying to dress a skeleton in a suit of clothes and make it pass for a living being. The process of writing a play is so much about stripping away; it seemed impossible to take it in the opposite direction.

But the play of The Girls wasnít working because (arguably) I was putting too much stuff into it to sustain as a piece of theatre Ė too much plot, too many characters, too many people talking at once. So when I started to rewrite it as prose, I told myself I had accidentally structured a novel, and it gave me some confidence to begin. But because of my skeleton insecurity, I wrote as much as I could to fill in the story. In the end, we cut it by over 30 thousand words, many of those words from the first third of the book. After the first third, I started to relax bit and let the story find its own rhythm. And in the end, the plot left the playís confines and struck out on its own.

Re the acting question: Some of my favourite parts of the novel were inspired by discussions I had with actors about the characters they were playing in the play. Kate Hewlett played the part of Missy in a workshop I conducted with Chris Abraham at the National Theatre School. She was bothered by the fact that Missy was such a bitch. I felt really bad about that and I remember telling her that I didnít think of the character as a bitch, but rather as a neophyte leader who hadnít necessarily learned everything about inspiring people to follow her. Missy had other flaws too, that were being depicted seemingly without sympathy. The same was true of the character Aline. With the novel, I was able to get behind their actions fill in a lot of those blanks. And my narrators adore Missy, so theyíre permitted to be as defensive about some of her behaviour as I was when talking with Kate.

So Iíve had the unique good fortune of having a team of actors help me with a novel. Itís going to feel a lot lonelier next time out.

TDR: When did you begin writing "The Girls Who Saw Everything"?

SD: About ten years ago I scribbled down in a notebook an idea that I wanted to find a composer and make an oratorio of The Epic of Gilgamesh for The Boys Choir of Lesbos, a choir that was performing in Toronto at the time. Iíd seen them take the unusual step (for a choir) of staging an all-girl production of The Lord of the Flies. It was a spectacularly over-the-top, fully committed ritual of women exploring masculinity. Nothing came of my oratorio idea, but a few years later, Chris Abraham asked me to come up with an idea for a large cast play set in Montreal. I dropped the choir idea but I wanted to retain the feeling Iíd gotten from seeing the Boyís Choir performing that play. So I came up with the Lacuna Cabal Montreal Young Womenís Book Club.

Also, the play was set at an unspecified time. The novel, though, is set in the same time period in which we were workshopping the play with National Theatre School students. So everything about that time Ė from the weather in Montreal and the Nindawayma in the Old Port, to the questions of the student-actors and the way they played their characters, not to mention the beating of the war drums in the US Ė came into play. I wanted to incorporate that whole debacle into the play, but I really didnít see how I could do it; the play was already so big. Then the bombing started, which was really a catastrophe Ė far too serious an event to connect to my arcane little story.

Then a strange little scandal happened. The one about the missing artefacts from the Baghdad Museum. I was already writing about a set of Cuneiform stones that belonged in that museum, and everybody was always asking me where they came from. I had to incorporate it, but the only way I could was to drop the play and make the leap to prose. Nobody wanted to do a play with a cast of fifteen anyway. And, in the end, it gave me a small window in to the tragedy that is that war.

TDR: How long have you been playing the banjo?

SD: Since 1992. I couldnít afford the 300 I paid for my first banjo, but I paid it anyway and six months later I traded it in for a thousand-dollar one, telling myself that learning how to play the banjo would somehow help my writing.

TDR: What is the premise of your YA novel The Feathered Cloak?

SD: Itís about a girl, Freya, in 10th Century Norway who fancies herself a falcon-catcher. She tries to capture one, and accidentally gains the friendship of a battered old tercel named Morton, who has recently escaped the keep of the king, Eric Blood-Ax. Together, they get caught up in the Civil War between the Viking king and his reform-minded brother. It takes a real event from the time and applies a bit of Norse Myth to it.

The second book is going to be called The Winter Drey, and it will be about Freyaís giant brother, Rolf, who gets tricked by a malevolent squirrel.

Nathaniel G. Moore is a former bookseller and current Features Editor at Danforth Review.

 

 

 

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