Giller Prize Special: The Chat with Michael Redhill

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Next up in our Giller special, we’re in conversation with Michael Redhill, author of the novel Bellevue Square.

From the Giller jury: “To borrow a line from Michael Redhill’s beautiful Bellevue Square, “I do subtlety in other areas of my life.” So let’s look past the complex literary wonders of this book, the doppelgangers and bifurcated brains and alternate selves, the explorations of family, community, mental health, and literary life. Let’s stay straightforward, and tell you that beyond the mysterious elements, this novel is warm, and funny, and smart. Let’s celebrate that it is, simply, a pleasure to read.”

Michael Redhill is a novelist, poet, playwright and former publisher of Brick. He is the author of the novels Bellevue Square, Consolation, and Martin Sloane, which was a finalist for the 2001 Giller Prize; the short story collection Fidelity; and the poetry collection Light-Crossing; among other acclaimed works. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.

More Chats with the 2017 Giller Prize finalists – including excerpts from their nominated books – are here:

Eden Robinson for Son of a Trickster.

Michelle Winters for I Am a Truck.

Rachel Cusk for Transit.

Ed O'Loughlin for Minds of Winter.

 

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Trevor Corkum: This is the second time you’ve been shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the first of course for Martin Sloane. How does it feel the second time around?

Michael Redhill: It feels pretty good—I'm lucky to have this rarified experience again. This time around, the Gillers are touring the authors to different cities to read together and it's been wonderful getting to know the other authors.  

TC: Tell us more about how Bellevue Square was born.

MR: The doppelganger theme is one that has appealed to storytellers since antiquity and I've thought about it on and off over the years. Something gelled for me one morning when I was in Bellevue Square and realized that the park was like a character generator and had this endless power of creativity. Then I imagined seeing myself walk into the park ...

TC: I love the notion of doppelgangers. Most of us have had that eerie feeling of seeing or hearing stories about our own double, somewhere out there in the world. What would you say to your lookalike Michael Redhill?  

MR: "My god, you're fantastic. Can I borrow fifty bucks?"

TC: 49th Shelf is built around a large community of readers and fans of CanLit. What Canadian authors are you reading these days?  

MR: I'm loving so many of the fall books this year. I love Alison Pick's Strangers with the Same Dream, as well as a lot of the Giller-longlisted books, especially David Demchuk's The Bone Mother and Zoey Leigh Peterson's Next Year, For Sure.

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Excerpt from Bellevue Square

My doppelganger problems began one afternoon in early April.

I was alone in the store, shelving books and humming along to Radio 2. Mr. Ronan, one of my regulars, came in. I watched him from my perspective in Fiction as he chose an aisle and went down it.

I have a bookshop called Bookshop. I do subtlety in other areas of my life. I’ve been here for two years now, but it’s sped by. I have about twenty regulars, and I’m on a first-name basis with them, but Mr. Ronan insists on calling me Mrs. Mason. His credit card discloses only his first initial, G. I have a running joke: every time I see the initial I take a stab at what it stands for. I run his card and take one guess. We both think it’s funny, but he’s also shy and I think it embarrasses him, which is one of the reasons I do it. I’m trying to bring him out of himself.

He’s promised to tell me if I get it right one day. So far he hasn’t been Gordon or any of its short forms, soubriquets, or cognomens. Not Gary, Gabriel, Glenn, or Gene and neither Gerald nor Graham, my first two guesses, based on my feeling that he looked pretty Geraldish at times but also very Grahamish, too. He’s a late-middle-aged ex-academic or ex-accountant or someone who spent his life at a desk, who once might have been a real fireplug, like Mickey Rooney, but who, at sixty-plus years, looks like a hound in a sweater. There is no woman in his life, to judge by the fine blond and red hairs that creep up the sides of his ears.

I know he likes first editions and broadsides, as well as books about architecture and miniatures. I keep my eye out for him. And he’s a gazpacho enthusiast. You get all kinds. I always discover something new when Mr. Ronan comes in. For instance, you can make soup from watermelons. I did not know that.

He came around a corner and stopped when he saw me. He was out of breath. “There you are,” he said. “When did you get here?”

“To the Fiction section?”

“You’re dressed differently now,” he said. “And your hair was shorter.”

“My hair? What are you talking about?”

“You were in the market. Fifteen minutes ago. I saw you.”

“No. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t in any market.”

“Huh,” he said. He had a disagreeable expression on his face, a look halfway between fear and anger. He smiled with his teeth. “You were wearing grey slacks and a black top with little gold lines on it. I said hello. You said hello. Your hair was up to here!” He chopped at the base of his skull. “So you have a twin, then.”

“I have a sister, but she’s older than me and we look nothing alike.” I don’t mention that Paula is certain that G. Ronan’s name is Gavin. “And I’ve been here all morning.”

“Nuh-uh,” he said. “No, I’m sure we …” He left the aisle. My back tingled and I had the instinct to move to a more open area of the store, where I could watch him. I went behind my cash desk and started to pencil prices into a stack of green-covered Penguin crime. I flipped up their covers and wrote 5.99 in each one, keeping my eye on my strangely nervous customer.

Finally, he came out of the racks with The Conquest of Gaul and put it down on my desk.

“Oh … Mr. Ronan? I wanted to tell you I found a pretty first edition of Miniature Rooms by Mrs. Thorne. Original blue boards, flat, clean inside. Do you want to see it?”

“Yes,” he said, like it hurt to speak. I brought it out from the rare and first editions case. “It’s just uncanny, it really is,” he said.

“This woman.”

“Yes! She said hello back like she knew me. I swear to god she called me by name!”

“But I don’t know your name. Right? Mr. G. Ronan? I think you dreamt this.”

“But it just happened,” he said, like that explained something to him. “And you knew my name.”

“Mr. Ronan,” I said, “I am one hundred per cent —”

I didn’t like the look in his eye. He began edging around the side of the desk, coming closer, and I backed away, but he lunged at me with a cry and grabbed me by the shoulders. Despite his size, I couldn’t hold him off and he backed me up, hard, against the first editions case. I heard the books behind me thud and tumble. “Take it off!” he shouted in my face. With one hand, he tried to yank my hair from my head. “Take off the wig!”

“Get back!” I shrieked. I pushed against his forehead with my palm. “Get off me!”

“Goddamn you, Mrs. Mason!” When a fistful of my hair wouldn’t tear off, he leapt up and stumbled backwards, his eyes locked on mine, but washed of rage. The blood had drained from his face. “Christ, that’s real!”

“Yes! It’s real! See? Real hair attached to my own, personal head.”

“Oh god.”

“What is wrong with you?”

He grovelled to the other side of the desk. “Oh my god. I’m so sorry. I must be having another attack.”

“Another attack! Of what? Do you want me to call an ambulance?”

“I’ll be okay. I’m really sorry. I don’t know what came over me, Jean. Forgive me.”

That was the first time he had ever used my name. “You scared me. And you hurt me, you know?” I began to feel the pain seep through the shock of being battered. “Are you sure I can’t call a friend or someone?”

“No. I’ll go home and lie down. I’m just so sorry.” He took his wallet out and put his trembling credit card down on the cash desk.

I tapped it for him. We stood together in a dreadful silence until I said, “Gilbert.”

“No,” he replied.

Excerpted from BELLEVUE SQUARE. Copyright © 2017 Caribou River Ltd. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

October 31, 2017
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