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Giller Prize Special: The Chat with Jordan Tannahill

We begin this year’s special Scotiabank Giller Prize coverage of The Chat in conversation with Jordan Tannahill, author of the novel The Listeners (HarperCollins).



*Don't miss your chance to win one of three copies of The Listeners on our giveaways page*

The 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize jury says,

"The Listeners is at once a revery for the sublime, for the innocuous tapestry of sounds that make up the rhythms of our lives—and the pollution of sounds that can tear and devour. It is at once a masterful interrogation of the body, as well as the desperate violence that undergirds our lives in the era of social media, conspiracies, isolation, and environmental degradation. Tannahill writes as both poet and playwright, millennial and philosopher, as one who trains his reader to attune to the frequency of ‘the Hum’ to experience a rich hinterland beyond our embodied senses, beyond our perceptions of grace or faith. I leave listening, even to the silences, which are always screaming, and posit myself in my cochlea, forever now a conch, flaring and reeling, primordially."

JORDAN TANNAHILL is an internationally acclaimed playwright who was born in Ottawa and is currently based in London (UK). Two of his plays have won a Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama. He has written one previous novel, Liminal, which was published to much acclaim and named one of the best Canadian novels of 2018 by CBC Books. CBC Arts named him as “one of sixty-nine LGBTQ Canadians, living or deceased, who has shaped the country’s history.” He is a regular columnist on CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter.

What was the first thing you did when you found out you were a finalist for this year’s Giller Prize?

The first thing I did was call my mother, in Ottawa. Needless to say, she was very proud.


The Listeners is your second novel, follow-up to your haunting and powerful debut, Liminal. What was it like tackling this sophomore project—among the many other projects you’re involved in! Did you feel any extra pressure?

I felt much less pressure, actually, this time around. When writing Liminal, I wrestled with doubts like—who am I to write a novel? who will read it? Liminal was deeply personal in a way that The Listeners is not, and so I felt more significantly more exposed, especially during the post-publication process of interviews, reviews, etc. Comparatively, The Listeners has been a joy to release.

The novel features Claire Devon, who becomes obsessed when she hears a low humming noise no one else seems to notice. It’s a seemingly straightforward but incredibly rich premise for a novel. Where did the seed for the story come from?

I stumbled upon an article about The Hum roughly seven or eight years ago. I was initially intrigued by how only a select few people could hear it, sometimes only a single person in a family, but how for those who did, it could be debilitating. I began to imagine a story in which a woman starts hearing The Hum, grows increasingly isolated from her family and colleagues, and develops an unexpected and intimate relationship with one of her students who can also hear it. This was the seed from which the rest of the novel grew.


At this moment in Canada’s history, what does our literature offer us?

As ever, it offers us perspectives on where we have been, where we are now, and where we might yet go.

What’s the last Canadian book that changed you in some way?

A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt.

Excerpt from The Listeners

THE CHANCES ARE THAT YOU HAVE, AT SOME POINT, stumbled upon the viral meme of me screaming naked in front of a bank of news cameras; a moment of sheer abandon forever rendered as a GIF, pasted in comment threads and text messages the world over. The chances are that you have also seen the coverage of the tragic events that unfolded thereafter on Sequoia Crescent. And the chances are that you probably think of me as some brainwashed cultist, or conspiracy theorist. I wouldn’t blame you for believing these things, or any of the other wildly sensationalized stories that have circulated in the days, weeks, and months since.

The truth is that I am a mother, and a wife, and a former high school English teacher who now teaches ESL night classes at the library near my house. I love my family fiercely. My daughter, Ashley, is the most important person in my life. You read about parents disowning their transgender sons, or refusing to speak to their daughters for marrying a Jew, or not marrying a Jew, and I think—well that’s just barbarism. Faith is basically a mental illness if it makes you do something so divorced from your natural instincts as a parent. I remember holding Ashley when she was about forty-five seconds old, before she had even opened her eyes, when she was just this slimy little mole-thing, nearly a month premature, and I remember thinking I would literally commit murder for this creature. As I held her I imagined all of the joy and pleasure she would feel, all of the pain that I would not and could not protect her from, and it completely overwhelmed me. I imagined the men who would hurt her one day, and I imagined castrating them one by one with my bare hands. All of this before she was a minute old! So no, I have never understood how anyone could ever put any creed or ideology before their love of their child—and yet, this is precisely what Ashley accused me of doing in the year leading up to the events on Sequoia Crescent.

I have attempted to recreate the events in this book as faithfully as my subjective experience of them will allow. I wrote these words myself. I did not have a ghost writer. I did not write this book to cash in on whatever minor and temporary notoriety I might have accrued, or to somehow exonerate myself. I wrote it as a way of making sense of my circumstances.

I have always turned to books for this. I’ve been a voracious reader since I was a girl. I was raised by a single mother and a television. There were no books in our apartment growing up, so I would take out as many as I was allowed from the library, and sometimes a few more which weren’t returned. I’ve always been drawn to stories of women pushed to the brink, living through extraordinary times, and enduring remarkable hardship. I have no time for stories about people mired in self-pity or self-destruction, who flounder around helplessly and hopelessly, I mean who cares, just get on with it. Even though my life really goes down the shitter in this one, I hope that you’ll take me at my word when I say that I truly fought every second of the way, and I did not, and still do not, see myself as a victim. In fact, I’m sure many people see me as a villain in this story, but I try not to see myself as that either.

In high school, I was an aspiring essayist in the mould of Joan Didion. I had visions of postgraduate nomadism, smoking half a pack a day and driving my way across America, stumbling into the eye of the zeitgeist with my notebook and pen in hand. I used to wear a big army jacket with deep pockets stuffed with dog-eared copies of Rimbaud and Pound. All I wanted back then was to see my name in print. That was before I got pregnant at twenty-two, married Paul, and enrolled in teacher’s college. I never harboured regrets, though. I enjoyed being a young mom. When Ashley was growing up, we used to finish each other’s sentences. People would joke we were telepathic, and sometimes I half believed we were. I’d be thirsty and she’d bring me a glass of juice. Or I’d wake up knowing that she’d had a nightmare and walk into her bedroom before she even cried out for me.

All that to say, I never expected I would wind up writing a book after all these years, and certainly not under these circumstances. It just got to the point where I couldn’t bear to hear another person’s take on my story, another pundit or talk-show host weighing in on the events of Sequoia Crescent like they knew a damn thing about it, or making light of the tragedy for a late-night-show laugh. And trust me, I can take a joke. I’m sure I laughed harder than most of you at my frazzled hair and flopping boobs in that meme. But if you want to know the full truth, that requires digging deeper than an easy punchline.

The thing I still struggle to wrap my head around is how did something so small, so innocuous precipitate the complete unravelling of my life. How all of this soul-searching, transcendence, and devastation could begin with a low and barely perceptible sound.

Do you hear that?

I was lying beside Paul in bed. He was reading the New York Times on his tablet, and I was marking student essays on Twelfth Night.

Hear what? he asked, still reading his article.

I put the essay down on the comforter. It’s like a—humming, I said. Paul looked up, and we both listened for a moment.

A humming?

Like a very low hum, I said. He frowned, shrugged, and returned to his tablet.

I don’t hear it.

I picked up the essay and tried to get back into it. After a minute or so, Paul asked me if I enjoyed myself at dinner. I nodded, noncommittally. The evening was supposed to be just another monthly meeting of my all-women’s dystopia book club, but it turned into me cooking an overly involved tagine to celebrate Nadia’s birthday—and then husbands were invited. Paul pointed out, rightly, that this was just my way. He was drafted into the role of sous-chef for the evening, bless him. The nine of us spent most of the dinner talking about Trump, and the Mueller report, which then mutated into an intense and wide-ranging discussion about ethics and faith which had half the table speaking animatedly, and the other half in silence.

Paul turned his head on the pillow, and said, You know, I wasn’t totally comfortable with you calling us atheists.

It took me a moment to realize what he was talking about. I looked up from my essay. I’m sorry?

At dinner. You said we didn’t believe in God.

What else could I’ve said? Tara asked me point-blank.

Well I would say that, maybe, I actually do, he replied. Paul held my gaze until I laughed.

Which god?

What do you mean—? Like Jesus Christ?

Paul looked at me like I was an idiot. Yes, he said. And his dad?

I studied Paul’s face, wondering if this was all a set-up for one of his laboured jokes. He then told me that ever since his father died in the fall, he had found himself thinking about faith.
Well not just thinking about it, but— But—?

Praying. Praying? When?

In my head, in the car sometimes.

He told me that he found being back in the church for the funeral strangely comforting, and that it stirred something in him. He said he knew I would diminish it, which was exactly why he hadn’t told me, and I said no, I wasn’t diminishing it, as I tried to compose my face. He said that he’d been considering trying to find a church in our area that he could try visiting, even just once a month or something. That’s when I figured this was probably a test and that he was baiting me, perhaps because he was still a bit drunk and wanted to square some argument from earlier in the evening, but I certainly wasn’t going to bite. I just opened my eyes wide and nodded. He then reminded me, as if I need reminding, that Cass and Aldo are Evangelical.


So, you were quite rude about it. I wasn’t.

Yes, you were. You were being forceful and dismissive.

Well I certainly didn’t mean to be, and if Cass thought so, she can tell me herself tomorrow.

I was hoping that was the end of it, but I could tell it was still working on Paul as he lay there, staring up at the ceiling. For such a giant man, he could be like a little boy when he stewed on something.

I actually think I’ve buried this part of myself for years because of you, and now I—

Oh please.

—no I do, because of your atheism, but I think if left to my own devices my tendency might actually be towards faith.

Left to your own devices your tendency is also towards micro- wave dinners and The Wire on Netflix.

He turned his head towards me again and smiled, then reached over and gently pushed my face with his big paw.

If you want to start going to church, you can knock yourself out, I said. But leave me out of it.

I never suggested otherwise, he replied.

Paul knew better than to talk to me about God. I had invested twenty long years in un-fucking his head with that stuff. I’d seen what the church had done to people like his mother, and there was no way I was going to live a small, mean life under the thumb of the patriarchy. My feeling on the matter was: I had my shit together, I didn’t need God. That’s pretty much how I’ve felt since I was sixteen, when it suddenly struck me that God was no different than every other guy in my high school; he wasn’t interested in me unless I was down on my knees.


Excerpted from THE LISTENERS by Jordan Tannahill. Copyright © 2021. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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