Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Keith Oatley

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On Writing, with Keith Oatley

Reviewers have compared Oatley's pure, spare prose with that of A.S. Byatt and Umberto Eco. In Therefore Choose (Goose Lane Editions, 2010), three characters draw us into their quest for meaning, hope and understanding in a world diving headlong into chaos. Here, he talks to Open Book about the genesis of the novel, his writing process and his theory on fiction.

Keith Oatley and fellow Goose Lane author Doug Harris (YOU comma Idiot) will be reading, signing and taking questions at the Hart House Reading Series on Wednesday, Oct. 6, at 7 p.m. See our Events Page for details.

Open Book:

Therefore Choose is the first-person account of George, a reluctant medical student whose life, along with that of his best friend Werner and his (their) lover Anna, is thrown entirely off course by the outbreak of WWII. Tell us about the genesis of this novel.

Keith Oatley:

I had my first idea for the novel about five years ago. It was to wonder what it might be like for a German person to think and feel as the Allies believed Germans should think and feel after the war. Also I was interested in imagining what it could have been like for my parents and their generation during the war, when people would say good-bye without knowing if they would ever see each other again. Also I had two carbon-copy pages left to me by my father, who was a medical officer in a British artillery regiment that advanced through Germany after the D-Day invasion. In these two pages he described his visit to Belsen three days after it was taken over by Allied forces. My main literary influence was W.G. Sebald, whom I regard as the most important European writer of the post-war period.

OB:

What was the research process like for Therefore Choose? Did working with such difficult material affect you emotionally?

KO:

I did a lot of research for the novel, and read a lot of history. I had also visited concentration camps, Auschwitz, Mauthausen and so on. It’s certainly difficult emotionally, thinking about how we human beings can live with each other when we are capable of the things that were done in those camps and elsewhere. The historical evidence is that many Germans did behave in terrible ways, became criminals. But the psychological evidence is that there are situations of social pressure in which many more people behave badly than behave well. It’s this combination of history and psychology that is so emotionally upsetting. Canadians and Brits are fortunate to have been on the winning side of this war. We might not have been.

OB:

The idea of choosing is a central concern for this novel. Why did you want to investigate choice in the context of WWII?

KO:

I wanted to write an existentialist novel. I also wanted the novel to be a love story. People go about their lives, falling in love, making plans and so on. War makes many choices problematic, so that although one must take responsibility for one’s choices, war pushes the questions to an extreme. I wanted to explore some of these questions, and to ask readers: “What do you think?”

OB:

When you set out to write a novel, do you already know the course of the plot and the characters who will bring it to life? Was there anything that surprised you in the writing of Therefore Choose?

KO:

When I started Therefore Choose, I didn’t have its plot. When the idea of the novel’s three main characters—George, Anna and Werner—came to me, I found myself thinking about François Truffaut’s film Jules et Jim, which I very much like, and so I read the book by Henri-Pierre Roché on which the film was based. My characters started to come alive on their own, but Jules et Jim was a step in their development. Writing doesn’t have sudden surprises for me; the whole activity of writing fiction is a kind of slowly-developing continuous surprise.

OB:

Literature and writing is important to both George and Anna. Why did you decide to make George, your narrator, an aspiring writer?

KO:

I didn’t think of George as a writer at first. I thought of him as a medical student. The idea of him being a writer came later. And the idea of Anna as the editor of a literary magazine seemed right: someone who believed that art has a humanizing function in society. I think in some ways writing a novel is a bit like reading one. So, there is an element of tapping on the keyboard in order to see what will happen. Of course, as a writer I can change things, but I feel the changes are made not because I’m saying, “OK, you: now do this, now do that,” but because characters start to act according to who they are.

OB:

What was one of the biggest challenges you had to overcome in the writing of Therefore Choose?

KO:

My biggest challenge was with the style. I wanted to write this novel differently from my previous novels. I like the idea that, in a novel, the writer and reader each contribute half. Perhaps the writer does 30% and the reader 70%. I wanted to use this idea by juxtaposing different events, by offering suggestions rather than long descriptions, by leaving gaps in between scenes so that readers could imagine themselves into these gaps, and think how they might feel. I was very struck by one historian of Nazi Germany, Richard Evans, whose work I have drawn on, writing about how he would answer the question: “What would you have done in that situation?” His response was that he did not know because he would have been a different person. So this kind of question may not be for history, but it can be for fiction, which can put the question: “What would you do?” It’s part of the existentialist theme.

OB:

How has your career as a professor affected you as a writer? Was it a good pairing for you?

KO:

For me being a professor of psychology and a fiction writer fit perfectly together, because the research I do in psychology is mostly on the psychology of reading and writing fiction. I can think about fiction in my research, and I can see how issues on which I’ve done research feel as a writer, and even apply some of what I know from psychology. I think that all fiction is psychological. It’s about selves in a world of other selves.

OB:

What is your next project?

KO:

I’m writing a book at the moment for Oxford University Press, with the working title Passion Put to Use, in which the first section of each chapter is a part of a short story, called “One Another,” that I have written specially for the book. The second section of each chapter is a discussion of the emotions one might feel as one reads each part of the story. So “One Another” runs from the beginning to the end of the book, but the whole thing is a hybrid: a fictional story and non-fictional psychology. It’s an impossible project, but I think as a writer one has to set oneself impossible projects.


Keith Oatley's first novel, The Case of Emily V, won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book and was published in the UK, France, Germany and Japan. His second, the critically acclaimed A Natural History, has been published in Canada and France. A professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, Oatley has long been fascinated by the way humans communicate ideas and emotions. His numerous publications on the subject include Emotions: A Brief History, which has been translated into Serbian and Italian, and Understanding Emotions. He now lives in Toronto and in London. Find out more on his website.

For more information about Therefore Choose please visit the Goose Lane Editions website.

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

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