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Sacred Monsters
by David Homel

APPROACHING HIS 50TH birthday, Michel Tremblay is unquestionably one of Quebec's best-loved writers, and one of Canada's most successful dramaturges. From the sacred, androgynous monsters of the Main who inhabited the stage of Toronto's Tarragon Theatre and other venues to the more wistful tone of his novels and stories, which chronicle the Montreal neighbourhood of Le Plateau Mont-Royal, his childhood home, Tremblay has built himself a distinctive and complex literary territory. David Homel caught up with him at last November's Salon du Livre, the Montreal book fair, just before Tremblay's departure on a writing retreat to Key West. Tremblay loves the crowd, and it loves him, even when he stopped in the middle of a book-signing to point out to a future reader that the zipper of her jeans was open. The conversation revolved around the whole of Tremblays career, especially his latest book, Les Vues animees, a memoir of growing up in front of the movie screen.

BiC: Les Vues animees ends with a short story you wrote as a 16-year-old. Hats off to you for -your courage for publishing something you wrote during adolescence, but what got into you to take such a chance?

Michel Tremblay: When Pierre Filion, my publisher at Lemeac, read Les Vues animees over the summer of 1990, he already had this earlier story in hand. A lot of university types, specialists in exegesis, knew it existed because it was in my bibliography. "Les Loups se mangent entre eux" is the title. I honestly hadn't read it in 32 years. But it was still publishable, I decided; after all, in those few pages, all my later themes appear. We chose not to change anything, except for a few spelling errors. All the naivete is intact.

BiC: And you managed to hang on to the story, despite your travels and changes of address?

Tremblay: It wasn't my fault. The late John Goodwin, my agent, held on to it. Otherwise I wouldn't have bothered.

BiC: In Les vues animees, the young man discovers very earl, - early that he's not like the rest. He's Possessed of a superior sensitivity. Is it possible to be born sensitive!

Tremblay: I don't know. It's like the question about being born homosexual. Is it social or something from birth? But sensitivity - yes. My brothers went through the same things 1 did and they didn't become writers. There has to be something from birth.

BiC: 1 remember seeing your plays when they first opened at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. Watching them, I didn't have the feeling I was watching the work of a gay writer, perhaps because of the mythic dimensions of the work. But nowadays, it seems the writer's identity is as important as his or her work - though perhaps that's just a marketing ploy. Is your novel The Heart Laid Bare your first openly gay book?

Tremblay: No. There's a gay character in Les nouvelles d'Edouard, Don't forget I wrote La Duchesse de Langeais in 1969. Everything was always out in the open with me.

BiC: The sacred monster, the mythic creature is very strong in your theatre.

Tremblay: I don't want to be known as a writer of realist works. I always make sure my characters go beyond realistic truth. What interests me is what I can add to life, not that I can reproduce it. Once you're on stage, who cares about real life?

BiC: The sacred monster appears on the screen in Les Vues animees, and forces an identification from the young man in the audience.

Tremblay: Definitely!

BiC: Over the years, you've been well served by English-Canadian theatre.

Tremblay: Twenty years ago in Toronto was a very exciting time in theatre, with David French and David Freeman, around the Tarragon. It was a passionate time. I used to go to Toronto several times a year to see what was new on the Canadian stage. There was a kind of momentum between, say, 1970 and 1976. As a group, we were a hard act to follow.

BiC: It seems things have slowed down since then. Though perhaps new theatre in Quebec is doing better than new novels.

Tremblay: I don't know about that. I like Louis Hamelin's novel La Rage. I hate the persona of Christian Mistral, but Vautour is a really good book.

BiC: You've written both novels and plays. How do you compare the use of timing and representationality and character in two media that are so different? How do you choose one over the other?

Tremblay: The story itself chooses the medium for me; there's never any doubt about whether something will be a novel or a play. It's hard to describe; it's physical. A novel comes out more slowly, but a play will jump out at me. I know physically the choice I have to make. It comes through an image, a compelling image; it can be anything, a line in a film, for example. I'm not the kind of writer who chases after subjects; I wait for them to come to me.

BiC: What made you make the move to fiction, especially after the full and successful world you created on stage?

Tremblay: After I finished Damnee Manon, sacree Sandra, which ends up in a horrible kind of schizophrenia, I felt as though I had nothing left to say in the theatre. My fiction has always described people much older than I was. Then as I got older, I started wanting to describe the genesis of my characters' Armageddon. I decided to make them all 25 years younger and find out how they got to be the way they turned out. You could say I started out at the end with my plays, then worked back with my novels.

BiC: How does a person become a monster? That's one of the big themes in Les Vues animees, and part of the enterprise of going back to the childhood of your characters.

Tremblay: I'm not sure....That's what I'm working on now. I have to find a way, with Marcel in En pieces detachees, for example, of showing how he got to be the way he ended up - especially since I got quite attached to him as a character in the childhood state. I have to make him into a monster. I have to deliver him into a state of complete schizophrenia. That's what my new play is about: the moment when he falls into total schizophrenia. I've been putting off that play for years. It's easy when your characters are already monsters, but building up to that state .... What fascinates me is having built the puzzle from the end toward the beginning.

BiC: Talk to me about nostalgia. Does a book about the past, like Les Vues animees, necessarily have to be nostalgic? Is nostalgia always a bad thing, a kind of laziness of the spirit and the pen?

Tremblay: Badly controlled, it's always bad. That was a major challenge when I wrote Les Vues animees. I wanted to write a coming-of age book using the movies. Each chapter was like a step forward for the character, a discovery - of fear, of sexuality, of art - and that thematic aspect saved me from nostalgia.

BiC: The style is quite sober, after all.

Tremblay: I played the truth game, I admit. I chose only those things that were true for inclusion in the book. The anecdotes were as true as the effect of the films I describe. There's no nostalgia in Albertine, for example: it's a play about rage. You might say that La Maison suspendue is nostalgic, but my new play certainly isn't vengeance is its subject.

BiC: How has the reception been when you've written more literally about gay subjects?

Tremblay: First of all, I never wrote gay lit. I write about everything and everybody. I'm not a ghetto writer. I remember in France, when The Heart Laid Bare came out, the papers said that only in Quebec could a novel about two homosexuals bringing up a child together be a best seller. I never pushed my writing as gay lit, which is maybe why everyone reads it. After all, Radio-Canada made a film of the book in 1986, and it ran on prime-time television.

BiC: You like book fairs, public forums, working the crowd. What does it bring you?

Tremblay: It's the only direct contact a writer has with his public. In the theatre, you have everyone in front of you: they laugh, they cry, they react. A novelist needs that too. That's why I do a lot of library appearances, for example.

BiC: Did you ever go onstage yourself?

Tremblay: I know my limits. I'd be a very bad actor.

BiC: Where do you go from here?

Tremblay: This morning I finished the third version of my new play. It's called Marcel poursuivi par les chiens. And now, I'm heading for Key West for four months. I have an idea for a novel, and I haven't known what to do with it, but I figure if I travel, something's bound to happen. I'm going to follow a playwright on his opening night, from morning through to night. In his computer there's something he calls his Hell, which are the things he writes when he's pissed off at people. That Hell is mixed in with what happens to him on his opening day. I don't know if I'll be able to pull it off.


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