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The Return Of The Crazy People
by Peter Buitenhuis

TIMOTHY FINDLEY IS the author of six novels: The Last of the Crazy People (1967), The Butterfly Plague (1969), The Wars (1977), Famous Last Words (1981), Not Wanted on the Voyage (1985), and The Telling of Lies (1986); a play, Can You See Me Yet? (1977), and two collections of short fiction: Dinner Along the Amazon (1984) and his most recent book, Stones, published last month by Viking/Penguin Canada (reviewed on page 22). Findley was in Vancouver recently, to read at the Vancouver Writers' Festival. He was interviewed by Peter Buitenhuis.

BiC: I think most people know that you came from acting to writing. I'd like to begin by exploring with you what connections you see between acting and writing.

Findley: I now look on my time as an actor, which was roughly 20 years, as being an apprenticeship ?? almost a perfect apprenticeship as a writer. Setting out, I didn't know that I wasn't going to be an actor forever. I had done a little writing, but it hadn't occurred to me when I began acting, in my late teens, that writing was what I'd end up doing. As I got further into performing, I began to discover (towards the last five or six years) that it wasn't doing everything for me. I had a lot of work and could have gone on being a useful character actor for the rest of my life. But I started writing seriously during the long run of a play and, through whatever process ?this is all a kind of mystery and I don't like to probe too much ?? by the mid?'50s there seemed to be a voice to my writing that was my own, that was unique. 'Men I began to think this is the other part of what I had been looking for, something you don't get from acting. Maybe it's something about controlling what's going on instead of being the agent. Having been an agent for so long and having worked with some splendid people, both actors and directors, I'd learned a lot about language, a lot about why people do what they do, because that's what actors have to discover. They have to discover why they say every word they say ?? because that's what the playwright has given you. In discovering that there were so many interpretations, for instance, while doing Shakespeare, you then discover the glorious, wonderful, almost bottomless possibilities of how to portray people, and how to feel them ?? people other than yourself

BiC: You say you discovered a voice. Is this the narrative voice which you then used to control the other voices that figure in the narrative?

Findley: I guess that is what I mean, but I also think I mean a story, yes, a narrative, story? telling voice that told the stories in a particular way with a particular sort of emphasis. The eye and the ear kept landing on a set of images and sounds that I slowly began to recognize as being my own version of the world, and they would come again and again. 'Mere was a crazy or alcoholic or troubled mother who turned up in a lot of stories and novels. Well, my mother wasn't crazy and she wasn't an alcoholic, so where did this woman come from? And you slowly begin to realize, as you are writing more and more, that what that may be about is a character you have seized on and for whom you have to find the ultimate expression, no matter how many goes around it takes.

BiC: You've spent your creative lifetime investigating this central figure.

Findley: Yes, exactly. At one point, my father was in the process of dying and my mother's life had become fairly impossible. She turned to drink, not as a totally dedicated alcoholic, but in a way that she'd never done before. I had this really crazy idea, "My God! she's going to become the person I've written about." It ultimately didn't happen that way, but it was there.

BiC: Thornton Wilder was a major influence at the beginning of your career as a writer, as indeed he was an influence on mine. He was around the Yale Drama School when I was in the graduate school ?? an enormously energizing figure. The quality of his enthusiasm turned me on, and I expect he did the same for you. What else did he do for you?

Findley: When you said "the quality of his enthusiasm" you moved your hands just exactly as he did!

BiC: Really? That's influence! He encouraged you to write your early stuff, didn't he?

Findley: Yes, he did. Literally, he'd say, "This is terrible! This is mock drama." He kept saying "Dramatize!" That's what Henry James used to say all the time. As you may remember, he had all these quotes. One of his ways of sewing things up was to get you within someone else's voice.

BiC: He was a grand actor as well.

Findley: He was wonderful, and he told me everything that was wrong. Then I began to ask, "Why do you think I ought to be writing?" And he said, "All the instincts are there. The choices of words are there. 'Me sense of what you want to tell is there, but you're doing it all wrong. You're putting it together all wrong." He was not afraid of offending me or putting me off because I think he had a real sense that I wouldn't be put off, that I really wanted to know.

BiC: Did you begin with short fiction or The Last of the Crazy People?

Findley: I began with short fiction. The first story was published in the first issue of Tamarack Review by Bob Weaver. I had played in Wilder's The Matchmaker in England and stayed on to play Osric in Hamlet with Paul Scofield. Then I came back into The Matchmaker in New York. It was at that time Bob Weaver published my story.

BiC: Wilder has obviously been an influence on you, and John Cheever, and Conrad, because his name crops up in various forms all through your fiction. Is there anyone else you would point to as being a formative influence on you?

Findley: Auden. I don't really know why, except that the tone of Auden's voice is one that I recognize. I could read him by the hour.

BiC: He's apparently not read much any more. It's a strange thing.

Findley: It's crazy because he's one of the great voices, I think. He speaks in the tongues of those who live in your mind and articulate things so much better than you do ?? the writers' tongues that reach for articulation without messing around with the long prestigious words, but simply find a way of saying it in profoundly simple language.

BiC: T. S. Eliot does the same thing in the vernacular, for dramatic effects.

Findley: Eliot too had this great effect on me because of the rhythms. This is the thing I think I've brought from acting ?? a sense of rhythm, a sense of pace which I've worked very hard to achieve. 'Mat's the thing that causes most of the rewrites, getting the rhythms right.

BiC: Given this emphasis in your work, I'm surprised that you haven't turned more to the dramatic form.

Findley: Well, I have, but it's all in drawers. I'm not happy with myself as a playwright yet.

BiC: Are you working on it?

Findley: Yes, I've got one going now that I think comes a lot closer to what I'm comfortable with.

BiC: I want to turn now from questions of influence to subject. Your first novel, 'The Last of the Crazy People, might in fact be said to be the first of the crazy people that you've dealt with in almost all your fiction. You certainly have a concern for the mentally obsessed and the unbalanced. Is this largely for dramatic effect, or is it because you yourself have a fascination with the world of the mentally excessive and unbalanced?

Findley: I think the latter. It's a conception of what other people call crazy. It is the ultimate simplicity. It may be focused on one gesture or one passion, but the way in which it is focused, with the mentally troubled, tells me so much about the human spirit and mind and the obsession with perfection.

BiC: So you tend to build fictions around such states?

Findley: Yes, obsessive aspects give the piece of writing a kind of focus. When you're writing, you don't (or I don't at least) sit down and decide, "This is what I'll do." I sit down with a figure in my mind, someone who has placed himself in my path up here, the way fictional characters do. It's like meeting someone who won't go away. So you realize, "O.K. This is someone I'm going to work with," and you start writing. Each writer I'm sure discovers what this is. 'Mat fits over here. This is going in that direction. This is what that person is about. Robert Ross in The Wars, for instance, arrived in his uniform. He was riding a horse and he was wearing a First World War uniform, so I knew immediately where I was, what his story was apt to be, but not what it was about. I didn't know it would be about saving horses. I just knew that this person would be thrown into the horror story of the war.

BiC: What had you read about that war?

Findley: I had read All Quiet on the Western Front and I deliberately didn't reread it. Graves I read quite deliberately because I wanted to be sure that I got the literary feel of the time, and I read Sassoon. I had also read by that time the diaries of Virginia Woolf and others who had gone through the war. I had extraordinary letters from my uncle (my father's brother) which was the whole Canadian version as he experienced it both in Canada and France.

BiC: In a way the whole Canadian contribution to the war effort had up to that time been seriously undervalued by historians. You were filling a big gap. The method you chose to deal with the subject was a fascinating one ?? the uncovering of archives. Is this because you felt that you could discover the truth through evidence, being without personal experience of war?

Findley: Yes. I love that kind of technique, and it seems to have been in a lot of my writing. There are various forms of that ?? the dating of things, putting things in order, numbering the little interior passages. My experience of that war was photographs and the letters my uncle had given me. He was my godfather.

BiC: Since we obviously don't have time to cover all your fiction, I want to talk to you about books that have particularly interested me, the most recent one before Stones being The Telling of Lies. It seems to me that you deliberately take up various genres in order to exploit their potential. That was Your first mystery. What was it about the form that appealed to you?

Findley: Well, there was the form that was given. The fascination for me was not in devising who killed whom, nor in devising how the detective figure works out how the murder was accomplished, and then putting the finger on that person, but on how do you manage this for the reader? How do you keep in touch with the reader's intelligence but also maintain the mystery so that you are always just a flick of a second beyond the reader? I found that really difficult and fascinating to do so. That was the first book entirely in the first person. Famous Last Words had a lot of that, but this one was totally first? person. That also fascinated me.

BiC: You've returned to war in the title story of Stones, the one about Dieppe. Was it again a question of obsession, a man obsessed or destroyed, whom you saw as the focus of a family situation?

Findley: No, although of course that's what it turned out to be. It arose out of my having gone to Dieppe myself. Dieppe entered my life when Bill Whitehead and I wrote a two?part documentary for television, which involved the survivors. My only other involvement with it had been my memory as a child, and not a young one either. I would have been nearly 13 when the battle occurred, and I remember one of the men coming back who had the kind of breakdown that happens in "Stones." I can remember going to have dinner with his family because I was a friend of his son. The atmosphere of the table never left me.

BiC: Had the father been accused of cowardice?

Findley: No, no; he hadn't. This was a story that came about from a sudden knowledge that I didn't want to deal yet again with someone who had done what he should do. The man had been destroyed by the battle, as many men were destroyed by that battle, because of the terror of being trapped in it. 'Me slaughter around him was unbelievable. The whole thing was a total disaster, The more you think about it, the more you realize that the attackers must have gone doubly mad because it was so blatantly obvious the minute they hit the beach that with the stones the tanks weren't going to work. They must have thought, "Why have they done this to us? They're blind about where we were to be, everything, awful." Anyway, in the course of going from draft one to draft two of the story it suddenly swept over me: write about this, write about not being a hero, about having to live the rest of your life in horror at having failed in everybody's eyes, but failed at something impossible.

BiC: It would seem that the only sane thing to do was to get out of there.

Findley: Was to turn round and run exactly. But in battle, you see, we've all been brought up to believe that you don't do that for all the basically false reasons that have to do with valour in terms of your flag rather than valour in terms of your friend. But most valour turns out not to be about countries. It's always about friends.

BiC: It's a question you faced with Robert Ross. What was true valour in that situation? I think you defined it entirely as a personal code rather than as an abstraction.

Findley: Absolutely, because the abstraction is what creates wars. The abstraction is the thing that drives people to go, just because everybody else is going. I've never forgiven my dear father for his reaction when he was told he was going overseas in the Second World War. He got up on his bed and jumped for joy. I thought then: "You bastard! You're escaping from us to go and join the other kids in the war, like joining a hockey game."

BiC: Your reaction could not have been typical of your generation. Most of the people who joined, and those who were left behind, were swept up in the war. It seems to me you achieved a remarkable detachment from the reality of patriotism and the selling of the war. This may be part of your strength as a writer, that detachment.

Findley: I think I had that all through my childhood for various reasons. I was a real watcher.

BiC: You recall to me that image of Henry James as a child, watching through the railings of a park in New York other children playing games. In the first story in Stones, "Bragg and Minna," you talk for the first time in your fiction, I think, about a homosexual relationship.

Findley: 'Mat's quite right.

BiC: Was this some kind of breakthrough for you?

Findley: Yes. I didn't want to write about it, but I'm opposed to the ghettoizing of homosexuals. "Gay" is a word I loathe and detest. As a homosexual, it offends me deeply and it offends me twice deeply when other homosexuals choose that as an appellation ?? as an "us against them" word. It's so confining. 'Me point is to join the human race, as my mother would say. If you create a ghetto and go there to live, you've stepped away from the rest of the human race. That is why I consciously didn't write a gay novel or play about homosexuals. As characters they appear from time to time in my writing. In this series of stories ?? and there will be more of them ?? there's no point in walking around it, because it's of interest. The stories came out of my relationship with Marian Engel, which was very close. But they're also an exploration of writers, which is something I hadn't done before. These are people whose lives have been variously screwed up, who engage in the business of writing and then come together. There is this terror of the future and the fear of children and the problem of having them or not having them. I have been condemned, for instance, to live my life without them. Marian had children, which wasn't always easy, and so that was the foundation of how I got thinking about the subject. In coming back from Australia, I made a little note on a cigarette package that said whatever the first line of the story is. Yet it was almost a full year before I wrote that story. I walked around with those people for a very long time before I dared come to grips with them on paper. There they were, Bragg and Minna. Who the hell were they? What does it mean about the kids? But it was so vivid.

BiC: Do you think the climate has changed for what you want to write about?

Findley: Yes, but when you come right down to the nitty?gritty, there is a sort of watchfulness on the part of many people about homosexuals, particularly since AIDS. We've been swept back into the worst name?calling and gay?bashing, as you will find on walls in various places. I've always been fascinated by graffiti because it tells terribly, but it tells. Racism is on its way back up too. It always took my breath away when I discovered anti?Semitism rooted where you would never dream ?? in the depths of churches and universities, all over the place. But the horror of hearing intelligent people speak this way about homosexuals, given the experience of the 20th century ?? it simply boggles me. Why do I have to write about it? Why does anyone have to say this any more? The important thing is that it's so easy to condemn a group by resorting to sexual preference, colour, or whatever, in the abstract, but it's very difficult to do when you come face to face. By presenting such characters you are performing a very useful service. It's also not that simple. These characters are what we call bisexual as well as homosexual.

BiC: Yes, the ambiguities of feeling in such relationships are things that fiction has not yet explored much.

Findley: No. There's a lot of sensational writing, but not much straightforward stuff. I'm going on with the Bragg and Minna series, but you must remember that the only way in which it is biographical or autobiographical is that I chose two writers who had a relationship that produced the kinds of tensions and also the kinds of wonders that they encountered. But their experiences have nothing to do with either Marian or me.

BiC: Did you and Marian act as each other's critics?

Findley: Yes, in letters especially. I always will cherish a letter she sent me after reading Not Wanted on the Voyage, which came very late in her life, moments before she died. She wrote a few comments on a card, and then scrawled across the top, as a kind of afterthought, were the words: "You shook your fist at God!" That was so typical of her, mischievous, poking, prodding. A wonderful person.

BiC: Is there any other comment you'd like to make about this collection of stories?

Findley: No, except that I enjoyed writing it. It was a deliberate attempt to put a book of stories together rather than to collect stories that had been written randomly over time. I am not a short story writer, in the sense that Alice Munro is ?? a writer, by the way, that I admire immensely. It was a new kind of writing, a new way of organizing a book. I set them all in Toronto, deliberately, and kept discovering that they were about brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and parents and children, deeply committed relationships and the crises they provoke ?? the whole book had that. The copy editor giggled at the end of her work and said to me: "I don't think you realize this, but are you aware that the Queen Street Mental Health Centre is a character in every single one of these stories?" And by God it is!

BiC: And a very powerful character too.

Findley: And I literally didn't know that.

BiC: Back to the Crazy People!

Findley: Yes, back to the Crazy People.


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