This is first installment of a new Torontoist column – Torontoist Reads – that will feature reviews of new books by Toronto authors and interviews with the authors themselves. This week, Torontoist is pleased to feature Consolation, by poet, playwright, and novelist, Michael Redhill. Redhill is the author of the novel Martin Sloane, the short story collection Fidelity, as well as several collections of poetry and the plays Goodness and Building Jerusalem.
Michael Redhill’s debut novel, Martin Sloane, is a masterpiece; I remember hearing the stories of the ten years and countless drafts it took him to complete. Thus, the release of his second novel has been met with sky-high – possibly unreachable – expectations. The news is mostly good.
Consolation is an interesting, layered, and assured work. Redhill is firmly in control, taking us back 150 years to an adolescent Toronto that is still unsure of what it will become. It is very much a book about Toronto, and no doubt will be compared to Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. Both works celebrate our city through an examination of its past.
Consolation opens with the suicide of David Hollis, a professor of “forensic geology” at the University of Toronto. Fighting a losing battle against ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease – he throws himself into Lake Ontario while taking a ferry to the islands one morning. He leaves behind a wife – Marianne – and two daughters, including Bridget, who is married to John Lewis (the protagonist of In the Skin of a Lion was also named Lewis), as well as an academic scandal. It seems a monograph he wrote has come under dispute. Hollis claimed to know the whereabouts of a series of photographs from 1850s Toronto that his peers claim don’t exist. The scandal sets up a quest to discover the “truth”. Marianne sets herself up in a hotel overlooking the “Union Arena” construction site – a thinly veiled Air Canada Centre – as this is where her husband said the photographs would be found – in a ship that had sunk in the harbour over a hundred years ago (filled in via landfill in the ensuing years.)
From there, the novel falls backwards and jumps forward through time before finally coming to a head.
In 1855 Toronto, we are introduced to J.H. Hallam, an apothecary newly arrived from England. He sets up shop at 81 King St. E., with the intention of sending for his family once he is establishes in the city. He soon meets photographer and sometimes pornographer Samuel Ennis and the mysterious Claudia Rowe.
But the central character in the book is not John Lewis, or Hallam, or David or Marianne Hollis. The focus is Toronto, living and breathing on almost every page:
“On one side of the city, Toronto was still the little British hamlet with treed avenues and good shops, but the well-wrought illusion of a town growing at a regular rate burst apart once one came east of College Avenue. That wide avenue, with trees growing in the middle, had been based on the Parisian model, but as a boulevard it marked a hard barrier between the accustomed-to-having and the never-did-have.”
The book’s one misstep is the “twist” that occurs near the end. It is unnecessary, and telegraphed about halfway through the novel. I found myself hoping my hunch would not turn out to be correct – it was. I wondered afterwards if Redhill had read Atonement while writing this book.
This is also a timely novel, consider the surge of interest in urban renewal – be it the waterfront, etc. – in the past few years. Fittingly, the book is dedicated to Jane Jacobs, among others. The photographers of the book chronicle the city in very much the same way as the photobloggers do today – on this very site, in fact.
A strong offering from one of our city’s – and country’s – best.
When Martin Sloane was released, much was made of the number of drafts and the length of time it took you to finish. You’ve written Consolation in half the time and, in between the two novels, you’ve published a collection of stories and penned another play. What’s your routine, and how has your writing process changed since the first novel? (If it has at all.)
Too much was made of the time it took to write Martin Sloane. It became a touchstone in the publicity process, but the fact is, it simply took as long as I needed. I was a first-time novelist finding my way during the writing of Sloane, and naturally, in the act of writing, I learned a few things not to do. Hence Consolation had fewer trap-doors in it for me. I also wrote Martin Sloane fully in the expectation of complete failure. When the book did well, it put some fuel on my creative fires and the three or four years that followed the novel were particularly fecund. My routine, such as it is, is even more chaotic. After Sloane came out, my role at Brick (the literary journal, not the furniture store) became more complex, until 2002, when I became the publisher. So my writing life is scattered, fragmented, and disorganized. I’ve learned to write in focused, short bursts. For me, a three-hour writing day is brilliant. When I’m working, I’m rereading, revising, researching. Sometimes it feels like I don’t write at all, but time passes and a manuscript develops. I’m really the last person you should ask how it works …
There’s been an increased spotlight on urban improvement and renewal in Toronto – from preserving and reclaiming old buildings and areas such as the Distillery District, to improving existing buildings such as the ROM and the AGO to ongoing battles to “fix” parts of the city, like the waterfront. Much of this began around the time you started the book (1999). Was this renewed interest in the city your starting point for the book or did you have the theme in mind already?
Toronto goes through fits of self-improvement from time-to-time, and in retrospect, these often turn out to have been bad ideas. Does anyone really think the Eaton Centre improved on the west side of Yonge Street from Dundas to Queen? What about that greenless abomination called Dundas Square? The problem with how we renew this city is that so many projects take the next ten years into consideration, not the next fifty or one hundred. The horrorshow of video ad signs that litter the ether at Yonge and Dundas is something every Torontonian should be ashamed of. Times Square took fifty years to develop – no matter what you may think of that particular address, its growth was organic; it had an economic as well as civic purpose. What is Yonge and Dundas? It’s a hodgepodge of intents and execution; it’s nothing; it’s civic and architectural pollution. Better is the Distillery District, where for once, we’ve attempted to live in harmony with our own past. We’re lucky in this city when beautiful remnants of our past remain unattractive for long enough that they aren’t demolished piecemeal and someone can actually take the time to execute a bright idea like making the Distillery a cultural and business centre on its own architectural terms. The Carpet Factory is another good example of this. As for refurbishments to existing cultural buildings, like the AGO and the ROM, you can’t help but be pleased by the need to expand, even as you might scratch your head at the designs. Although it’s fair to withhold judgment until the new buildings open.
I wouldn’t say that the latest fit of “self-improvement” inspired Consolation. I’ve wanted to write a book about Toronto for a long time and just needed to find a way in. For me, this was the discovery that the city had a long time ago begun to infect itself with this strangely adolescent wish to be “world-class” – as early as the 1856, when it advertised itself to Queen Victoria as being worthy of becoming the seat of government for the newly created Province of Canada. It did this utilizing a new technology: photography. How a place sees itself (and tries to make others see it) seemed to me a perfect starting point to write about this self-conscious, infuriating, and beautiful city.
What kind of research did you do to prepare for the novel?
I read as widely as I could on every aspect of the city and the country of the time, from the newspapers of the day, to private diaries, to scholarly works. There’s a complete list of books and sources at redhillconsolation.blogspot.com
Toronto takes centre stage in Consolation. What novels, or short stories, or poems, or plays, do you feel do the best job of capturing our city?
We don’t really have a city literature, I don’t think. There are some writers who have used Toronto in their work – sometimes as backdrop, sometimes as a character – authors like Atwood and Ondaatje have used the city quite consciously; Joe Fiorito has just written a marvelous book about the city; and authors like Cary Fagan, Pier Giorgio DiCicco, and Barbara Gowdy seem to suffuse their work with the city. But I wonder sometimes why a central mythos about Toronto has never developed, the way you get ongoing images of cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and a few other New World cities coming out over generations of literary work. You can piece together a certain kind of biography of these cities, decade-by-decade, simply by reading books written by people who lived through those times. Not so in Toronto. I can’t think of the Toronto of the thirties or forties in our national or civic fiction. Montreal, absolutely; Toronto, no (with the possible exception of some of Morley Callaghan’s work). This may simply be that we’ve internalized what we perceive (accurately or not) as a hatred for this city, and resist any call from within to speak of it in art. Toronto resists art—there, I said it. Recently (very recently), there seems to be a reversal at work here – the generation after mine, especially visual artists, seem to be opening their eyes to this place. This awareness of where they are is in their work, and it’s celebratory rather than apologetic. This awes me, having grown up in a place that celebrates itself, if at all, with its eyes pointing downward.
As a writer, what parts of Toronto inspire you? Do you have a favourite haunt, or writing spot?
I’m a downtown person, so I’ve always felt most comfortable south of St. Clair. I’ve lived in a lot of places both on the east end and the west, and in every neighbourhood I’ve lived in, there’s been a haunt I’ve turned to, to write in, to read in, or just to settle my soul. Some of these spots have been The Sunset Grill in the Beaches; By The Way Café in the Annex; the Metro Reference Library at Yonge and Bloor; Bar Italia on College Street, as well as Café Diplomatico; Bar Mercurio at Bloor and St. George, and a pile of coffeehouses too fleeting and numerous to mention. I love the distraction of working in public – it’s always somehow made it easier to concentrate. That must say something about my own head, but I’m not sure what.
Photography plays an integral part in the novel. I’m wondering how, as a writer, do you negotiate the visual with the written.
I don’t think that there’s a hard contradiction between the visual and the written when it comes to lodging an image in the viewer’s/reader’s mind. Even though a photograph enters the eye differently, there’s still the interpretive faculty of the viewer at play, and the act of imagining that occurs when you look at a picture or a painting is still very much of a piece with the action of reading. I say “action” because that is what it is: it’s not a sedentary thing. The engagement with an art form may use different faculties (or perhaps emphasize one aspect of witness over another), but it is a muscular and intellectual engagement. It’s the artist’s job to provide enough impetus so that the viewer/reader wants to make the journey. So it goes with a novel, whether you are describing a placid, pastoral scene; violence; relationship; emotion; or in the case of your question, something purely visual: it requires sufficient imaginative fuel to hold the reader’s attention. This is, ultimately, something beyond the purely descriptive, however. The engagement is on the level of human interest. I doubt any of the pictures described in Consolation would have any weight if they weren’t also tied to the characters’ lives and fates.
You thank both Steven Heighton and Michael Helm in the acknowledgements. Is there a group of writers you rely on for advice and criticisms during the writing process? How many people read drafts of the novel?
As time has gone on, I’ve begun to rely on fewer people, but to a greater degree. I can remember soliciting the opinions of about dozen people for my first collection of poetry. Now I have a small handful of victims who I approach for opinions, and these are people who each possess two distinct qualities: 1) they’re highly intelligent, sensitive readers who are excellent writers themselves, and 2) I understand how they read. The former quality means I’m in good hands, the latter ensures I can understand why they say what they say about my work. Having a small group to bounce your work off of at certain points is of immeasurable benefit to a writer. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t do what I do.
You dedicate the book to Jane Jacobs, among others. Did you know Jane, and if so, did she have the chance to read a draft of the novel before she died?
I knew Jane personally, but not well. I knew her in the way hundreds of Torontonians knew her. I did a few events with her over the years, but essentially, she’s one of the spiritual parents of this book and that’s why I dedicate it in part to her. She was always on the side of human beings; she believed cities should be a product of human beings, as opposed to companies, or governments, or yet more ephemeral forces, like money or prestige. She always had in focus the seemingly simple idea that cities are places where people live. I loved her ferocity and her confidence. I wish she could have read the book. A thumbs-up from her would have been worth more to me than anything else.
What do you hope readers take away from Consolation?
I’m not very good at summing-up … I have no single ethic or moral I want to impart with the novel. I hope it surprises people to imagine this city before they were in it, and that that realization makes the times before ours more real to them. It might have a salutary effect on readers to consider that if the past was real, then so is the future, and that that aspect of the city is still in their hands to be decided. But more than that, I just hope they like the book … ultimately, it’s just a story I wanted to tell.