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When he passed away on June 21, 2002, Timothy Findley left behind a significant body of work, legions of dedicated fans and enough awards and professional accolades for two well-spent lifetimes. One of Canada's best-loved authors, Findley was highly regarded internationally in both the literary world and that of the theater, for which he had a special love.
A mere summation of Findley's accomplishments -- impressive though they might be -- is dry and meaningless compared with the man himself. Better, I think, to sketch him briefly for you here -- a quick rendering from life -- and follow with our final interview with him, made on his last book tour for his fabulous -- though starkly underrated (even by Findley himself) novel, Spadework.
I first met Timothy Findley in 1995, on tour for The Piano Man's Daughter, a book that would prove to be one of his most important and that was nominated for a Giller award and made into a film that Findley loathed. On that and subsequent book tours -- for He Went Away, Pilgrim and Spadework -- Findley was always more than professional. A wonderful interview -- always ready with a quick quip and something deliciously quotable -- Findley consistently gave the feeling that he loved the tour aspects of writing a book: something that not all authors like. A talented showman -- the author often said he learned to write by being an actor -- Findley never seemed adverse to being the center of attention. And he possessed the sort of genteel magnetism -- as well as talent, humor and style -- that brought that attention to him very naturally. Findley -- "Tiff" to all who knew him -- was possessed of clear blue eyes and a sharp yet gentle wit.
An interview with Findley always meant a chat with Bill Whitehead, as well. Whitehead, who often cheerfully referred to himself as Findley's "keeper" and who the author himself credited with all that was good in his life -- was the author's partner for almost 40 years.
Findley's last novel, Spadework, has mostly been overlooked by both critics and readers and was even disparaged by its author for being "slight." It's a shame because Spadework is a lovely book and though, as the author remarked, the canvas of the book is small, it deals searingly with human emotions and sexuality set against a backdrop Findley loved: the theater in general and Stratford, Ontario in particular.
Findley died in hospital near his home in the south of France of complications resulting from a pelvic fracture suffered in the spring of 2002. As fellow writer and long time friend Scott Symons remarked in the National Post, with Tiff's passing, "an awesome amount of sweetness and light has passed from our cultural scene."
Linda Richards: I loved Spadework.
Timothy Findley: This is my entertainment, as Graham Greene would say.
Tell me what you mean.
I thought it was my slightest book.
It's not so slight.
No. There's a lot going on.
And there are so many things you love in Spadework. Stratford and the theater. Maybe that's why it was fun to write?
Yeah. It was harder than I thought it was going to be. I thought it would be a breeze. I know the theater inside out, I've been there all my life. But it wasn't easy. Because you have to get it right. But I had the advantage of having had all these wonderful friends and mentors in the theater who gave me the weight of what the theatricality is really about. You know, it's not about failure. It isn't about just going out there and doing it. It's not just about having talent. It's about using what everybody has and bringing it into focus in one place. When you watch the greatest productions and you realize what it's taken to make that happen... So you have Bill Hutt playing Lear or Prospero... so? What else? How do you surround this giant talent with talent that is both supportive and flourishing on its own independently? Not leaning on this talent. That's very hard to do and it's very hard to write.
And it's in the details, Tiff. The weighted beads and the sweat over the windows. [Both images from Spadework.]
Yes. And getting them right. Getting them exactly right. And the screaming and the yelling that goes on when they're not.
And the labyrinth behind the stage.
Yes, yes, yes. And it is a labyrinth. I literally counted that moment when the costumes turned over on the floor -- these great racks of costumes and they all have names attached to them. And they have to be delivered to the right dressing room. And what if the wrong cart got to the wrong dressing room? But there where all these alleyways you had to get through in order to achieve that. And the actors coming down to get on stage.
... And sometimes being carried!
And sometimes having to be carried because they're wearing such weighty costumes. [Nods.] The Pope is always carried. Thank God the Pope is not in very many plays.
[Laughs] The Pope needs puppeteers these days.
The Pope needs puppeteers [nodding]. The dear man. As much as I hate much of what he's done, he's been at least a courageous man, in terms of his job. And, you see, actors are not puppets. They have to go up there and they have to do it on their own without strings. And without the props that the Pope really does need. Because it's so ghastly watching him [these days]. Your heart just goes out to this poor, bent person who keeps going somewhere else. You know, I mean: He went to Afghanistan for God's sake! I know it all has a reason, but how do you get out of bed in the morning? How do get onto the airplane? How do you get off the airplane.
I didn't know he was carried everywhere.
Well, you know, he used to always get off and kiss the ground. Do you know what they do now? They hold a plate with earth on it. They bring the ground up to him and he kisses the ground in that way.
Which of the characters in Spadework did you identify with most strongly?
Jane. I was the one who experienced the extraordinary experience of the Bell man. We were living in a rented house and the Bell man came when the phone line had been cut when the guy was digging in the garden. That really happened. And I have not been the same since. Of course, it couldn't be fulfilled because he drifted back into his world and we drifted back into our world but it was very easy to imagine what could have happened if one could have drifted off into his world. Because, while he wasn't a gay man, you did have a real sense of, because of this extraordinary innocence: Do you want to try something? Well, I've never done that before, but let's see what it's like. And that's the feeling you got from him. It could have happened. I fantasize about that a lot. [Laughs]
So it wasn't hard to write Jane's affair with this man. He was exactly as he's described in the book. He had no idea how beautiful he was. He had no idea whatsoever. He was just standing there. And the weird thing is, I was due to deliver the outline of the next novel the next day and I had no idea what I was going to write. And then this happened. And as soon as the man had left, I said: Bill, the book just fell into my lap. So to speak. [Laughs]. So when Jane couldn't stand up, I couldn't stand up. I couldn't get up in his presence. It was extraordinary. And the whole novel, literally, laid itself out in what? [He looks at Bill.] Half an hour?
It seems to me on some level -- and whenever I say stuff like this to you it seems so arrogant, but you'll correct me if I'm wrong -- it seems like you approach sexuality not so much from orientation, but as individuals.
And I hear that a lot in Spadework. And so, in that way, it seems to me to be an important book. Because you talk about things that are important to people. Emotions and sexuality and so on. So there. [Laughs]
No, that's wonderful to hear. I shouldn't be dismissive about it because it's been a very important book for me to write. But I expected the reading public to say: Oh this is less than Pilgrim or this is less than Headhunter or Not Wanted [on the Voyage].
Well, it treats of, in a sense, more unconvoluted things. But what's more convoluted than sexual relationships? I was very grateful for it when it happened. That it came at a time when I didn't have another big book inside me. And it's always been that way. I've gone from a big book to a lesser -- not knocking the lessers, but they're lighter. They're smaller canvases. Like going from Headhunter to Piano Man's Daughter I guess. He Went Away or the books of short stories are smaller canvases. But The Not Wanted on the Voyages and the Famous Last Words and the Headhunter and Pilgrim and The Piano Man's Daughter, they're all huge canvases.
It might be easier for you, but you bring your special eye. And there's some beautiful stuff in Spadework.
I'm glad to hear you say that. Nobody else has said that. Isn't that interesting.
Bill Whitehead: A lot of people have taken it as a murder mystery, which was a total shock to us. Three people have designated it as a murder mystery and that was so incidental as far as we were concerned.
That's a subplot. But this is not about Jesse. It's about Jane and Griff.
You've had a wonderful couple of years. Professionally.
Have you ever had a play as successful as Elizabeth Rex?
No, I've never had a success in the theater like this. And they made a film of The Stillborn Lover. And they're making a film of Elizabeth Rex.
At this point in your life, do you get the most satisfaction from your books, or from the theater or do you make that distinction?
I don't. I'm just glad when I'm finished something. [Laughs] Glad that I actually got it done. When something of what you set out to do has been done it's the same in both mediums. I don't differentiate. I love writing: plays, novels, stories. I love writing my journal, my workbook. I just like writing.
Do they inform each other? Your novels and your plays?
Oh yes. In the workbook/journal, there's lots of stuff that I go back for [to] collect into the next book or the next play. The current workbook has a lot of scenes for a new play that I've been commissioned to write. But I don't want to put them in a separate file. It's good to have them happen when they happen. If it happens on a Thursday you put it down Thursday, or whatever.
Bill: The bonus of a play is the collaborative effort. We like to watch the rehearsals, because it's the best time to see what all the other artists bring.
And the people stand up and walk off the page in three dimensions.
When you write a play, do you see it visually?
I see it as scenes. Both novels and plays. It's all very visual. And this is where I tell my students when I'm teaching creative writing (so called, because you can't teach people how to write but you can teach craft). I say it has been the greatest advantage I had when I began writing seriously, to have been an actor. The best apprenticeship for a writer. Because you learn language, structure, cadence, rhythm, how to build the tension. How to bring something to a climax at the end of Act One or the first chapter or whatever. You learn all of that in the theater and you take that into your prose. Having been an actor, you learn how to play the people in your books. What you learn is -- I hate method actors. They're pains in the ass. They're the worst people to work with onstage because they can literally destroy the entire performance of a play. Then they come off at the end and they say: I'm sorry, I just didn't feel like it. I've got to feel it. That's not acting! You've got to know it. And what you do is you go into where your anger is, if you're writing anger, you go into where your hatred is, if you're writing hatred. Your joy is, if you're writing joy. You find the source of the energy that draws hatred, anger, joy, etc., etc., etc. That's what you have to find. That's what you do as an actor and that's what you do as a writer. And you bring people to the page. | June 2002
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.
Read January Magazine's 1999 interview with Timothy Findley.