Interview with Cary Fagan, Giller-Longlisted Author of My Life Among the Apes

Cary Fagan is the author of Valentine's Fall (finalist for the Toronto Book Award), The Mermaid of Paris, Felix Roth and other novels as well as many books for children. His short stories have been included in Best Canadian Stories and other anthologies. His writing has received two Jewish Book Awards, a Mr. Christie Silver Medal, and many other awards and nominations. Cary Fagan lives in Toronto with his family. His new book My Life Among the Apes has been longlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

My Life Among the Apes

KC: You’ve noted your interest in magic in the past, and the first story in your new collection My Life Among the Apes is about a marriage torn apart when a man insists on pursuing a career as a magician against his wife’s wishes. And then there is your epigraph, from War and Peace: “He felt as a conjurer must who is all the time afraid that at any moment his tricks will be seen through.” Are there parallels for you between writing and magic-making? How is story writing similar or different from a conjuring trick?

CF: Ah, you noticed! Well, first of all I must tell you that as a kid I was in love with magic tricks. My parents would let me buy one once in a while and I'd practice it over and over. And then I bought books on magic. Later, I became fascinated with its history. But as a kid I was rather shy and couldn't get myself to actually perform the tricks in front of anyone. Later it seemed to me that writing was a kind of performing for shy people. I could perform on the page and let someone read it when I wasn't around.
I do think there are parallels between writing and conjuring. Writers need to develop their specialized skills, too, and we often keep these skills hidden for their obviousness would get in the way of what we're trying to achieve. What's important is the feeling and the effect that we can create. But we also worry that instead of letting themselves get swept up in our story, in the "lives" of our characters, readers will try to peek under the box or behind the curtain or up our sleeves and spoil the whole thing.

Magic and many other "minor" arts have a curious hold on my imagination. They do speak to the child in me.

KC: In “Shit Box”, your character explains, “My territory is the northern outskirts of Toronto: Markham, Thornhill, the 905 arc over the city...” Your reader gets the impression from this book that this is your territory as well, 905 suburbia when there was still countryside to be found there (and lakes for canoeing). What do these liminal spaces offer to you as a writer?

CF: I grew up in what I call the "near" suburbs—Bathurst and Sheppard and then Bayview and Sheppard, where my parents still live. And you know, you can take the boy out of the suburbs but you can't take the suburbs out of the boy. I've been living downtown for over thirty years and I consider myself a downtown sort of person. I could never survive in the suburbs now. But my memories of that environment are vivid and I often return imaginatively. I'm also interested in what the suburbs meant to my parents' generation—a place that was clean, free of the poverty of the inner city, a healthy place for children. That's something I'm still writing about.

So all of that comes into play. But "Shit Box" is set a little farther out, in the more recent suburbs that have been built after me. There are whole areas populated largely by people from one part of the world, or who believe in one faith. These spaces mean to the people who have recently come to live there something like what the suburbs of the early 1950s meant to my parents. I exiled my poor downtown character up there but maybe what he found wasn't what he expected.

KC: The same character in “Shit Box” quotes the Leonard Cohen lyric from “Bird on a Wire”: “I have tried in my way to be free.” It seems like a line that could have been uttered by any of the characters in the book. Do you think any of them actually succeed? Do you think it even matters if they do?

Cary Fagan

CF: I'm not sure if I've thought in terms of freedom exactly. I think my characters are often trying to discover who they are, or they're trying to find a way to match their inner selves with the person who actually lives in the real world. That's not so easy to do. It's about freedom in part, I suppose, but also about feeling useful and significant and feeling real. Does finding all that matter? Surely it must.

KC: “I Find I Am Not Alone on the Island” was one of my favourite stories in the collection. I loved its expansiveness, taking place over two decades of one character’s history. How can one short story hold so much? Do you write this kind of story differently than those with more concentrated time frames?

CF: I'm so glad you like that one. I've always loved short stories that encompass a large swath of a person's life, like the classic Tolstoy story "The Death of Ivan Illich." It's a challenge to do so much in a small space and to make the reader really feel this life as it changes. So it has its own specific challenges, as all the stories do. But I really do try to approach every story as if it were a novel containing much more than it seems to.

KC: The last line of “Wolf” is, “It was good, but it was beyond me.” You are careful to avoid tidy endings in this collection. What is it that intrigues you about a resolution just out of reach? And are you conscious as you’re writing that a reader’s patience for withholding can only go so far? Does satisfying your readers’ narrative yearnings enter into it, or is it all about the story?

CF: I just love a good ending. In fact, it seems to me that some of my stories have more defined endings than a lot of other stories these days. But that doesn't mean that the meaning of the story, or the emotion the character is feeling, gets spelled out with perfect clarity. For one thing, doing so has the paradoxical effect of lessening the impact. For another, the moment is usually more complicated and that. Every story, I think, tries to put into words something for which there are no words. It takes everything—characters, setting, time period, narrative—to get to that moment. It can't just be spelled out because everything, every word in the story that came before the last word contributes to it.

There's something else, too. I want to leave room. Room for the reader to think and feel for herself or himself. That's how a story really comes to life. And that's part of the mystery and wonder of reading—how every reader makes a story her or his own. We are rarely simply happy or completely miserable.

Valentines Fall

KC: Why was “My Life Among the Apes” made the title story of the collection? How does it stand for all the others?

CF: I wouldn't say that the title story does stand in for the others. It's just, I hope, a good story. I liked the title—it seemed interesting, a little quirky and funny, and also puzzling. Titles, after all, are for the people who haven't yet read the book.

KC: I love the opening line of “The Creech Sisters”: “The summer the Creech sisters tried to seduce my father turned out to be the last that we spent on the island.” The whole story in a sentence, really. Foretold, which makes sense for a story so imbrued with nostalgia. For you as a writer, is nostalgia a guiding force?

CF: I hope not, but possibly. I'm more of a backward-looking than forward-looking person. And I love a voice that is looking back and reconsidering the past—I'm always seduced by it. Nostalgia can be genuine; we have a right to feel fond of the past for all kinds of reasons. But of course it can also be quite false. My characters can be drawn to both but I hope that I can see the difference.

KC: In “My Brooklyn Revenge,” your narrator is a sixty-one year old woman whose story is an subversion of what most readers would expect of that demographic (if they are open-minded enough to expect a story about a sixty-one year old woman at all). Your story refers to the Carol Shields novel Larry’s Party, in which Shields took on the story of a man’s life as you take on Cleo’s. Shields has also written about older women becoming invisible in literature and in the world. Were you conscious of these connections as you wrote this story? Where did Cleo come from?

CF: I was only conscious in retrospect. The reference to Shields just came into the story as I was writing. So perhaps it seemed appropriate. There was also some intended irony, as the character notes. I certainly don't claim to see things the way Carol Shields did, or any other woman writer does, or to have the same understanding. But characters just come to a writer, and Cleo came to me. Writing makes you a better person—more sympathetic, more insightful. You can see more clearly through the eyes of someone not yourself.

I don't know exactly where she came from. I had this idea of an older woman going to New York and experiencing some of the pleasures that a young person might. (I'm 55 now and very familiar with such feelings.) And then Cleo herself took over and the story completely changed. I did steal a little here and there from real people—mothers of old friends, mostly. But Cleo just insisted on being herself. That's one of the wonders of writing. We don't fully know where it's coming from.
KC: I’ve described “Dreyfus in Wichita” as John Cheever meets High School Musical. Where did you get the idea for the musical performed in the story? Does the show exist? Should it?

CF: I'm amused by your comparison. I haven't read Cheever in years. In the same way that I like magicians, I'm also drawn to musicals. That's to say, I have a love-hate relationship with the form. But I've seen many because I have friends in New York who love them. I've seen hits and I've seen shows by big names that closed the next day. When I was in junior high I had a role in "Guys and Dolls." In the summer we performed it every night for two weeks at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre during the CNE. That made a big impression on me. Musicals can be so simple-minded, so corny, so pretentious, and yet so hugely entertaining, brassy, and even moving. Who wouldn't want to write a story about one?

I had a friend who was a music teacher at an elementary school (a Catholic school rather than a Jewish one). He wrote a full musical based on a fairy tale and I went to one of the shows. It was impressive. And there he was in tails, conducting those kids like a pro. That was years before I wrote the story. And then one day I came across the quote at the start of the story and it just sounded to me like the basis of a musical, like something Garth Drabinsky would have done in his heyday. What drew me most, I think, was the inherent irony of the situation. Doing something so large and pretentious with a bunch of kids. But I believe completely that the result could be something with a surprising emotional punch.

KC: Your stories are full of characters who are reading. “Lost at Sea” ends with a man reading in an old chair by a bay window. Of the chair he’s sitting in, you write, “With use, the paint and wood has become worn and smooth. Age has made it more beautiful.” As a reader, do any books that for you have similar effect? What stories do you return to again and again?

CF: Doesn't every writer say Chekhov? But for me it's also true. His stories and his plays, which read like novels to me. Henry James, especially The Ambassadors. But in the last year, I've not been so much in a re-reading mode. I've been feasting on new books.

KC: I love the subterranean cafe in “The Little Underworld of Edison Wiese,” this story of the eccentric waiter who keeps his cafe open late on New Year’s Eve and hosts a brilliant, accidental party. Near the end, it is noted: “The events of this night are so unlikely that they might as well never have happened.” Which is true. But as their writer, what is most essential to keeping them vivid all the same?

CF: Ah, we return to the magician. You know, it's not important whether the woman is really floating in air, or the card has turned from black to red. What's important is the moment of amazement. What happens in "The Little Underworld of Edison Wiese" certainly is unlikely, but isn't that at least part of what fiction should do? Shouldn't it make us believe in unlikely things? For the world really is full of unlikely things, and some of them are good things, too.

September 29, 2012
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