Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Brian Panhuyzen

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Brian Panhuyzen

Toronto writer Brian Panhuyzen‘s ambitious new novel, Night is a Shadow Cast By the World, is a gripping literary adventure about books, aviation, travel and love. We are delighted to announce that it will be serialized on Open Book: Toronto for eight weeks, starting next Tuesday, January 10.

In his On Writing interview, Brian talks to Open Book about his novel, his influences, his writing style and his fascination with the sky.

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your book, Night is a Shadow Cast By the World.

Brian Panhuyzen:

First chapter: Cordell and Marla Bechard are doing the dishes. Something thunders over the house, Cordell goes out to investigate, and a plane — a DC-3, which is probably the most iconic aircraft in history — lands in the field behind their house. Marla’s watching from the window. The plane stops behind the house, door opens, and Cordell interacts with someone inside, someone Marla cannot see. And then Cordell scrambles up the steps, pulls the door shut, and the plane takes off. Chapter one. We’re left with Marla’s dilemma — what do you do? She doesn’t know if he was kidnapped, or if he planned this as an elaborate escape. And then life just continues. She has to manage the eccentric bookstore that Cordell runs, trying to find clues to his disappearance. It’s a mystery story. And she learns a lot about Cordell from the fascinating character of the store itself. She also discovers much about herself. In a way it’s about the person we stop being when we join our life to someone else’s.

And then we have Cordell, who is swept up in this giant, world-spanning adventure in which he only wants to get home, but for complex reasons cannot. He finds himself in real danger throughout, has to use his ingenuity and knowledge — which is entirely book-learned — to keep alive. The plane itself is a character, this clunky old DC-3, built in the 1940s, named “Lucky Duck.” And the pilot, Tessa — she’s this irascible grandmother, much tougher than Cordell and short on patience for the way he conducts himself, but she has a good heart, and also serves as a key figure in a political struggle with a noble cause.

The novel is hard to classify. People want to compare it to other books — what book is it like? they ask, but I’m stumped. The opening has been compared to Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, but the rest of the story is completely different. I mean there is a very sturdy plot here — a lot happens, a lot of action, suspense, surprising revelations, mysteries presented and solved. But it’s also rich in character, not just the human participants, but objects — the bookstore, the airplane — and places too. Cordell ends up in a lot of different countries — the United States, Mexico, a bunch of Pacific islands, and eventually, India, and I’ve tried to capture the spirit of each. But it’s a literary book too — as much about the language, the poetry in the prose, as it is about plot and character. I always try to write the kinds of books that I myself want to read: books full of plot, character, and language. I try, I try. I guess whether or not I succeed is up to readers to decide.

OBT:

The book shifts between Marla’s perspective and Cordell’s perspective. Did you have any tricks for switching perspectives when you were writing?

BP:

Yes, part one alternates evenly between Marla and Cordell’s perspectives, but it wasn’t always that way. In early drafts, Marla’s section was told in its entirety before we switched to Cordell’s view. This heightened the suspense of the story, because you spent 30 or so chapters with Marla without knowing what happened to Cordell — you were living her experience. But one of my test readers, the author and poet Jonathan Bennett, who’s also experienced in the publishing side of books from his tenure with Stoddart, pointed out that while this was more realistic, it wasn’t particularly satisfying for the reader. It felt like a manipulative withholding of information. Writing is ultimately about manipulating the reader — the trick is to do it without the reader’s awareness (or resentment). I took Jonathan’s advice and interleaved the two stories, which in itself turned out to be a monumental enterprise, with colour-coded Excel spreadsheets to help me along. The important part of the exercise was to slice it both evenly and logically, to insert breaks in natural locations, which also sustained suspense.

OBT:

You’ve been published widely in literary journals and you’ve written three books. How has your writing style changed over the years?

BP:

I went through this arc in which I started writing very simple, straightforward sentences that weren’t particularly interesting. Then I moved on to big, complex sentences with enormous, powerhouse words which, though they were precise and impressive, tended to be opaque to the reader. You’d have to read with a dictionary in your hand. And my sentence structure also became eccentric, even though construction of my sentences was technically more correct. I became fastidious about keeping verbs and their modifiers together, which is in fact what you should be doing, but it can also sound pretentious and unnatural. I’m now doing what I should’ve been doing all along, which is to write readable prose. It sounds crazy to put it so plainly — what else should we be doing? But writers forget that this is their ultimate purpose, and we get hung up in the craft. It’s like these super exotic cars that look stunning, show impressive performance on the track, but are uselessly uncomfortable and impractical to drive. If a car doesn’t drive well, what good is it, other than as a showpiece for the manufacturer? My job as a fiction writer is to tell interesting, clearly-written stories, with enough suspense to motivate the reader to continue. It sounds easy, but so does, “end world hunger.” Simple edict, hard to achieve.

OBT:

The titles of your three books — The Death of the Moon, Night is a Shadow Cast by the World and The Sky Manifest — are all about the sky. Is there a link?

BP:

Definitely. My wife teases me that many of the outdoor photos I take are like a lot of Dutch landscape paintings: nine-tenths sky, showing lush textures of cloud and light. When I write an outdoor scene, I generally describe the sky, which is a very human thing to do. When you step out the door, don’t you check the sky? I do — but that may also be because I’m outside a lot: I walk, plus I’m a four-season bicycle commuter. Pilots, sailors, cyclists — your first look will always be the sky. And what happens to my characters often has much to do what the sky will deliver today.

Look, the sky is this fascinating thing. It is on one hand relentlessly consistent. Sun comes up, sun goes down. But that simple binary state is coloured by spectacular variation, from snowstorms to blistering sunlight to hurricanes to serene partly-cloudy summer afternoons, high near 28, cooler by the lake.

It’s also been a semi-conscious strategy to title my books this way because in terms of subject matter, my books have very little in common with one another, and this, from a book marketing perspective, is a big no-no. The way the publishing establishment would have it, you are a literary author, or a horror author, or a technical thriller author, or a chick-lit author, or a multi-generational ethnic epic author (hopefully with at least traces of the ancestry you write about in your blood).

That’s not to say the titles are irrelevant to my books. The Death of the Moon did include a story in which the moon died. “Night is a shadow cast by the world” (which it is, BTW) serves as an important phrase in the book’s plot, but it also describes a theme of the book. And The Sky Manifest is about a man who is writing exactly that — a manifest, a list, of the changing character of the sky.

So, on the one hand, my titles are a subtle, thumb-my-nose-at-the-establishment way of tying my works together. But on the other, they are entirely relevant to the stories I’m telling.

OBT:

Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?

BP:

I think everything Cormac McCarthy has written since Suttree has been perfect, and I often read his work for a few minutes before I start writing. It sets the bar. Not that I can get over the bar, but it makes me aware of when I’m bonking my head against it. You should see the bruises.

There’s a host of modern writers like this, whose work is just so good, they drive me almost mad. It’s this perfection that gets me, that motivates me — books where you would honestly not change a single word, a single punctuation mark. Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Marilyn Robison’s Gilead. And — maybe not perfect, but forgivable given its sheer audacity — David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Moby Dick is like that too, not perfect, but — such a grand feat, you can’t help but be drawn to it.

I think because my contemporaries, my writer friends, are so accessible, I’m wary of their influence. I don’t want to step on their territory, and in some cases I’ve read early drafts of their work, so I feel that I’ve witnessed their vulnerabilities, and allowing it to affect my own work would be a betrayal. Of course there is an influence, but not one I can consciously identify.

OBT:

What are you working on now?

BP:

A new novel — working title is The Empty Vault, where vault means — surprise! — the sky, the vault of heaven, but also the skull. It’s a book about god, or the absence thereof, and it’s also about the brain, and consciousness, and the concept of the immortal soul separate from our physical being. On top of all that, it’s a period piece, set after World War I (with flashbacks), and most of it takes place in the mining town of Cobalt, Ontario, as the silver rush was dying down. Oh, and it’s a tragic love story too. So — not at all ambitious.

I think because I have so little time to write (I work full time), and I won’t at this rate be able to write many novels in my lifetime, any novel I write must be epic. Which isn’t particularly wise, because epic books are more work and take longer to write. Ultimately I think novels should epic. When you’re asking a reader to spend eight or 12 or 20 hours with your words, you’d better deliver something that is both entertaining and substantial.

Brian Panhuyzen’s first book was a collection of short stories entitled The Death of the Moon, published by Cormorant Books. He has worked as a publisher, magazine editor and as a typesetter for House of Anansi. His new book, a novel entitled Night is a Shadow Cast By the World, is available exclusively as an ebook priced at $2.99. He lives in Toronto with his wife and two boys.

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