Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Brian Panhuyzen

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Brian Panhuyzen

The Sky Manifest (ECW Press) by Brian Panhuyzen is a dark, rollicking road story following Nathan Soderquist, who strikes out west after the death of his wife and child. Blending tales of addiction and adventure, self-destruction and nobility, The Sky Manifest takes readers on a cross-country journey through both the countryside and the human psyche.

Today we speak with Brian about his new novel, why the writing should come before the research and the ins and outs of his other passion, comedy writing.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Sky Manifest.

Brian Panhuyzen:

The Sky Manifest is dark novel about a desperate man who thinks he has nothing to lose. It’s a road book: the main character, Nathan, is travelling aimlessly across the continent, encountering all manner of trouble. It’s very much about longing too, a longing for human contact in the face of devastation, but also a longing for expression through language. There’s a temptation to interpret the plot as simple — man loses family, travels west, struggles — but Nathan undergoes a kind of journey before the book begins, from a bookworm to a bit of a hooligan, then back again to his roots, before the tragedy of his loss sends him awry again. It’s not simply a road book, or a story about escape — it’s about trying to determine who you actually are, beyond the airs you assume when seeking acceptance. And it’s about the consequences of betraying your own identity. That may sound very abstract, but it’s not. Nathan is trying to figure out who he is, and his struggle is reflected in the awful decisions he is forced to make along the way.


How did the character of Nathan evolve for you? He goes to very dark places in this book — was it ever difficult to take him there?


Part of the fun of writing fiction is that you get to inhabit characters that are unlike yourself. Nathan behaves in ways that I never could. He is terribly reckless with his own life, and, by extension, the lives of others. My previous novel, Night is a Shadow Cast By the World, featured a character named Cordell Bechard, an eccentric bookseller who is longing for real-world experiences, and ends up in an overwhelming adventure that tests his confidence and capabilities. He had a lot in common with me, physically (he’s a tall, slender fellow, somewhat awkward) and mentally (an academic, a lover of books and knowledge). Nathan is raw in ways that I am not, fully capable and willing to resort to violence. But he is also encumbered by a sorrow I hope never to experience. Was it difficult to take him the dark places he visits? Yes, at times. To imagine someone faced with the moral dilemmas that confront him in the book, and to watch him react in astonishing, frightening ways — the difficulty here is that when you write, regardless of your protests to the contrary, it’s you. I plead with people who don’t know me well to separate fact from fiction, to recognize that Nathan is an invented character. But I do fret sometimes about some of the decisions he makes, that I made him make. There’s me in there somewhere.


There's a travel (or possibly escape) impulse that drives the narrative. Is this something you can relate to? Why was it the right engine for this story?


I wrote a draft of the novel, then I took a portion of the journey that Nathan follows, from Ontario to the west coast, over Superior, down into Montana, and onward to the Pacific. (Author and friend Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer recommended that: write it first, then take the trip, so you’ll know what to look for. If you journey first, you don’t know which blanks you need to fill. When you write before the research, you travel equipped with all your questions at the ready, and can answer them methodically: the donut shop is on that corner; the hospital is constructed from red brick.) At the time I had two small children at home, plus a full-time job — I think I was longing for the kind of journey I wrote for Nathan, and when I actually took the trip, I enjoyed the freedom of the open road immensely. Enough to invoke guilt. Nathan is conscious of the pursuit of grief, and it’s the reason he needs to keep moving. It’s a practical device to power the story, but it also makes sense in the circumstances. By changing the scenery, by limiting his encounters with people, he is able to distance himself from his grief while simultaneously avoiding the kinds of human bonds he’s not ready to form.


You've worked as a comedy writer. This book is quite a contrast in tone to that work — tell us a little bit about writing at both ends of that emotional spectrum.


Comedy is hard, because unlike other forms of art, where a broad range of responses are acceptable, comedy must be funny. If it doesn’t evoke laughter, it has failed. There is no art form more unforgiving in its requirements. However, while comedy and tragedy are superficially opposites, some of the best comedy is dark in nature. Think of Monty Python, for example the crucifixion scene at the end of Life of Brian. Or Louis CK, say when he discusses how the greatest threat to women is men. These are dark thoughts, but also incredibly funny. Some of the awful things that happen to Nathan are funny as well, his road accidents with two moose, the violent altercation with a well-spoken pimp, the fight with a bunch of rotten youths on a railway siding in Montana. While comedy and tragedy start and end at different places, they pass through the same corridor of creativity.


What are some of your favourite recent reads? And what's next on your to-read list?


I just read Last Night at the Lobster, by Stuart O’Nan, which is so understated in its fineness, I was in the first few minutes after closing the book a bit miffed. I always expect novels to be grand in scope, but O’Nan has done something extraordinary in writing about the quotidian lives of plain characters and making it all highly engaging and genuine. I quite enjoyed Zadie Smith’s NW, and I loved my first Richard Ford read, The Sportswriter. I’m eager to read more work by all three authors.


What are you working on now?


I have two projects on the go, a ridiculously ambitious novel set in 1919 in northern Ontario about war, mining, religion, and the brain — which is also a devastating story of heartbreak — plus I’m working with artist Andrew Duff on a graphic novel inspired by his mixed-media robot art, which I’ve been admiring for years and which spurred me to come up with a storyline for his cool little robot characters.

Brian Panhuyzen is the author of the short-story collection The Death of the Moon (Cormorant, 1999). He has written for the Just for Laughs International Comedy Festival, worked as a typesetter and designer, and is a developer of databases. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.

For more information about The Sky Manifest please visit the ECW Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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