The Chat with Timothy Taylor

TREVOR CORKUM cropped
Taylor, Timothy-AuthorPhoto-creditDavidMiddleton

Timothy Taylor returns with his latest offering, the Vancouver-based thriller The Rule of Stephens. The novel follows the story of Catherine, the survivor of an airline disaster who is convinced she is being pursued by a doppelganger.

Of the book, the Toronto Star says “Taylor has composed a tightly-crafted, suspenseful story, and one that smartly plays off the disjunction between the rational world of Stephen Hawking and the 'power and darker land' of Stephen King.'” 

Timothy Taylor is an award-winning novelist, journalist, and short story writer. His debut novel, Stanley Park, was a national bestseller and a finalist for the Giller Prize, and his most recent novel, The Blue Light Project, was a national bestseller and winner of the CBC Bookie Prize in literary fiction. Both his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Canada's leading publications, and he is the only writer to have had three stories selected and published simultaneously in The Journey Prize Stories. He currently lives in Vancouver, where he teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia.

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THE CHAT WITH TIMOTHY TAYLOR

Trevor Corkum: This is your first novel since The Blue Light Project. How did this one come to life?

Timothy Taylor: I started a story about the survivor of an airline disaster and wrote that very first crash scene quite early. I knew I wanted to work with a survivor who was a woman. I also knew I wanted to write about someone who’d had their belief in science shaken by their ordeal. That idea of a rational person, a scientist herself, pressed into considering superstitious explanations really intrigued me.

From those seeds the character Catherine grew. She became a doctor. Then a former doctor now bio-tech entrepreneur. And once I had her company and her project defined—DIYagnosis Personal Health Systems, an ingestible diagnostic device that reads out a very sophisticated array of body vital signs to a phone app—well then the conflicts that begin to spring up all around her started to shape themselves: an impatient investor, a hostile take-over bid, a shadowy figure beginning to appear at the edge of peripheral vision, and then the appearance of one of the other survivors with an alarming story of his own to tell that Catherine finds she just can’t ignore.

TC: Catherine survives the crash only to become haunted with the idea that her double is stalking her. In what ways does the “double” or doppelganger figure operate for you creatively?

TT: Von Clausewitz writes in On War that duelists mirror one another in the heat of the contest. So in the bitterest of fights we see a de-differentiation of opponents. Contrary to some readings, Von Clausewitz instructs that it isn’t absolute difference that ensures violence, it’s the overlap of common interests or objectives. It’s sameness. That’s one reason in my opinion why combat veterans tend not to like the word “hero”. They’ve been there and seen how combat can level differences between combatants.

In the bitterest of fights we see a de-differentiation of opponents. Contrary to some readings, Von Clausewitz instructs that it isn’t absolute difference that ensures violence, it’s the overlap of common interests or objectives. It’s sameness.

The implications here are fascinating though, as Von Clausewitz also guides us to a reading of warfare that highlights the degree to which we are in the end fighting ourselves, a deeply destabilizing notion. We’re inspired mimetically by our opponents, just as they are by us. We become like each other. We become each other. And that is where the doppelganger is born. The war with the other who is shaped by our own actions, a perfect reflection in the most dangerous mirror of all.

Catherine crashes out of the sky and walks away only to enter this precise vortex. Her world seems to be crumbling around her. And an opponent emerges, a person with real presence and seemingly the same objective as Catherine: to own DIYagnosis and build it out to fullest success. Longstanding faith in science notwithstanding, Catherine is riveted by the resemblance between her and the other woman, whose first name is Kate, a differently spelled but very common abbreviation of Catherine’s own name. Catherine apprehends Kate as an alternate version of herself at large in the world, scheming at her expense, running up the odds against her and betting big. And disturbingly, for the once rationalist, as Catherine gathers information about Kate she learns only details that deepen her suspicions.

TC: The book shape-shifts from chapter to chapter. Nearly every character is suspect at some point or other. What were the challenges in writing a thriller?

TT: I was assisted enormously in achieving that effect by my wonderful editor Martha Kanya-Forstner. Her recommendations for edits on the first draft were challenging, in that they involved excising one character from the novel, a character of whom I was fond. But the removal of that character allowed the book to more tightly track Catherine’s progress, without digression or sideways steps. That single stroke of an edit—which ended up involving many months of deleting and replacing material—resulted in a streamlined narrative that, I hope, grabs you early and won’t let you go.

That single stroke of an edit—which ended up involving many months of deleting and replacing material—resulted in a streamlined narrative that, I hope, grabs you early and won’t let you go.

 

TC: It’s also a book about trauma, how the pain from our past is stored and reproduced. How much research was involved in this aspect of the writing?

I read up a bit on “survivors’ guilt” as well as various sub-variants of the clinical condition known as “delusional misidentification syndrome.” I worked a bit with that research but followed instinct quite a lot as well. Regrettably, I had a lot of personal experience to work with in fashioning Catherine as a person under pressure and experiencing a certain bewilderment at their fortunes. While writing the book, I lost a lot of people. My father died. A month later, so did my wonderful mother-in-law. A month after that a friend who had been one of the most valuable ongoing correspondences I’ve had in my life, a brilliant man, gone far to soon from inoperable and  fast moving cancer. That wasn’t even the end of it. 2016 was full of loss. And so I drew on that to look at how pain is carried, how it resonates past itself, and how it might be brought to closure.

2016 was full of loss. And so I drew on that to look at how pain is carried, how it resonates past itself, and how it might be brought to closure.

TC: As a former Vancouverite, one of the things I love most about your work is its unabashed West Coast vibe. The Rule of Stephensis no exception. How important are physical place and setting to your writing process?

TT: Anyone who’s ever taken a class with me would probably recognize the mantra “setting is a context for character.” And I really do believe that. We build our settings in literature as fully nuanced social and cultural environments, which work on characters much as characters work on their own surroundings in various ways. Used in that way, settings become like characters in their own right. They’re interactive. They’re dynamic. They’re narratively meaningful.

We build our settings in literature as fully nuanced social and cultural environments, which work on characters much as characters work on their own surroundings in various ways. Used in that way, settings become like characters in their own right. They’re interactive. They’re dynamic. They’re narratively meaningful.

Vancouver is my own personal context, though I always have to add that travelling a lot makes Vancouver a hub, connected to a lot of other places that are also part of my environment. But the hub is this city. And a lot of that has to do with my own personal history, my father having chosen this place after a life of global roaming. His last stop before choosing Vancouver was a little oil town in the Orinoco Basin of Venezuela where I was born. Even though he later moved on, and is buried now next to my mother on a wind swept piece of Albertan prairie, I find it incredibly significant that he chose this place from that far away vantage point. And I am enacting something I can’t always put my finger on by being here, and by situating my characters in that same context.

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Excerpt from The Rule of Stephens

AIR FRANCE 801

The significance of being a survivor, in the case of Air France Flight 801, for a long time lay in the simple fact that there should have been no survivors. At least, for a long time, that’s what Catherine Bach considered the crucial element of the story. The press felt differently. News accounts in the aftermath of the doomed Chicago-bound flight focused on the unexplained circumstances surrounding the crash, the possibility of lightning or some other external impact, the failure for six weeks to find the flight recorder until it was eventually fished out of Brittas Bay off the east coast of Ireland not at all far from where the big plane went down. One account of the incident hinged on the rumour that an extra, unauthorized pilot was in the cockpit of the Airbus A380-800 at the time. And that gave rise to a storm of follow-up press and blog speculation all addressed to the mysterious and tantalizing possibility of a fifth man.#AF801TheFifthMan.

Excerpted from The Rule of Stephens by Timothy Taylor. Copyright © 2018 Timothy Taylor. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited.”

March 14, 2018
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