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Dialogue and Imagery

A recommended reading list (and essay!) by the author of the new novel The Abduction of Seven Forgers.

Book Cover The Abduction of Seven Forgers

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The dialogue is generally the most agreeable part of a novel: but it is only so as long as it tends in some way to the telling of the main story.

—Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography.

Book Cover Trout Stanley

Playwrights write swiftly, in the grip of a swoon. If the play is going to have energy in its spoken text, onstage, that energy has to come out of the writer in the act of writing. I don’t know whether novelists generally have this experience, but I suspect that Ann-Marie MacDonald has had it, I suspect that Jordan Tannahill has, or Sheila Heti, or Drew Hayden Taylor, Tomson Highway, Jonathan Garfinkel, Michael Redhill, Andre Alexis. I know Claudia Dey (who has a new book out this month too, called Daughter) has experienced it, because she said as much, regarding the first draft of her novel Heartbreaker, which she swept onto the pages over a short period in a performative rush of inspiration, she said.

Book Cover Suburban Motel

It’s what playwrights do. You write swiftly and then you shape it. Some playwrights get so good at this sustained, improvisatory pedal-to-the-metal street racer method, that they can cyclone their way through a series of narrative underpasses and around some sleepy neighbourhood corners and white knuckle the play in this manner all the way to its conclusion. Shaping? You do it on the fly. If you want to see what such a play reads like, I recommend the works of George Walker: read Escape From Happiness, which I consider to be his masterpiece. Oh, it seems to be out of print. Then read the Suburban Motel series. When I first encountered him, I thought, “Here is a writer whose energy I want to match.”

Book Cover Purse Monger

Years ago, I was asked by my old high school drama club colleague Attila Berki—who ran a small literary concern called Riverbank Press—if I could please write a novel. He said he wanted playwrights to make novels because the average reader craved dialogue, but he found that most of the fiction manuscripts that crossed his desk were bereft of this energizing feature. The implication was that these texts, sans quotation marks, were all too controlled. “Flat,” he called them. Attila had already published a stylish Toronto procedural novel, decades ahead of its time, by the late, legendary actor-magician Greg Kramer, about a late-blooming middle-aged widow who finds herself hanging around an avant-garde art co-op and performance space inspired by Dufferin Street’s late-80’s Purple Institute, and stumbles into the middle of a murder.

Book Cover Age of Arousal

Novelists need to control the flow of imagery and information. But rendering dialogue cedes the control of the story to something other than a single consciousness. It surfs a wave of chaos. I remember when I first tried to write dialogue. I had written one play at that point, but it was a solo show, a triple monologue. This is not to say the monologue isn’t similar to dialogue: both are meant to be spoken: you can’t fully unpack the meaning of either until you’re speaking these forms out loud with intention. But in the case of a monologue the interlocutor is the audience witnessing a solitary character’s private thoughts. (Or maybe not so solitary: if you want to read a play that updates the convention of the soliloquy to give us a dizzying tunnel-of-love trip into the private thoughts of a sexually repressed cache of Victorians, read Linda Griffiths’ masterpiece, Age of Arousal.)

Still, with my second play, I wanted to create separate characters and use dialogue. But when I tried for the first time, it felt like my brain was splitting in two. The words were scribbled all over a page, thoughts interrupting other thoughts that didn’t make any sense. Eventually, I presented some of what I had to the dramaturg Don Kugler. He told me that, yes, my scribbled, fragmentary page of split-personality dialogue did indeed communicate something. He spelled out what I was trying to say back to me, proving it was there. And so I was off to the races.

Book Cover Lent

Modern novelists employ the use of dialogue so gingerly that a playwright looking for encouragement has to jump back to Flaubert or Tolstoy, where you find dialogue that goes on for pages. Playwright Kate Cayley—who has recently published a beautiful volume of poetry—clarified this idea to me.

I find, too, that playwrights who have turned to novels wear their playwriting experience as a badge of honour. They’ve gone through the experience of understanding in real time how an audience will follow the story they’re telling: rapt, interested, distracted, bored, sometimes even murderously outraged about the time that has been wasted. And so playwrights hold on to the job description even if they never return to the form. But, paradoxically, I also find that playwrights can sometimes avoid their fellow playwrights. We all know each other—the Canadian theatre community is so small—but we’re too busy seeking recognition from our better-known, more esteemed prose-writing colleagues. What former playwright, writing for 49th Shelf, has ever recommended a play-script before? Not one, I’ll bet.

Book Cover A Matter of Will

I’m no better. A few years back, the (current Leacock-nominated) Rod Carley asked me if I might blurb his first novel, A Matter of Will, and I was like NO YOU’RE FROM THE THEATRE.

The first eminent playwright I knew who transformed herself into an eminent novelist—with the world-conquering bestseller Fall On Your Knees—used to come around to my apartment in Kensington Market to visit my flatmate Alisa Palmer. When I told Ann-Marie MacDonald I was interested in writing novels, she kindly replied that she felt I was well-suited to the “big breath of prose.” Being a playwright, whose whole work can be reduced to the need for economy in storytelling, I naturally took this as an insult.

Book Cover Elimination Dance

An earlier inspiration was Michael Ondaatje. Technically, he’s never written a play, but theatre people used to snatch up the poetry of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter and slam it onto the stage. Elimination Dance is like a stand-up comedy special, meant for reading out loud. And he spent some time steeped in the methods of Paul Thompson’s Toronto collective Theatre Passe-Muraille, documenting what he witnessed in The Clinton Special, his gorgeous time capsule of a movie about The Farm Show.

But the moment I love most from Ondaatje—schooling, inspiring—is the iconic opening of his novel In the Skin of a Lion, with the nun that gets swept over the unfinished Bloor Street Viaduct, and the worker who wrenches his arm out of its socket as he catches her. It’s a theatrical image if there ever was one, even if it could never be depicted onstage. So, rather, it’s a painterly image: silent words on a page evoking action not unlike the still images in works by Caravaggio or Botticelli. An image from a story can get fixed in the imagination. It can just hang in the mind like a painting in a gallery.

Book Cover The White Bone

In my experience, playwrights make the leap to novels because they seek to render this kind of imagery; perhaps they’ve grown tired of the enforced limitations of the black box; they want to embrace the vista. They want to take flight or fall off a bridge and be saved by a riveter swooping from a rope, or step into a vastly different body, or explore an epic sensibility. The big breath of prose. Take The White Bone, for example: yes, perhaps you can depict an entire clan of elephants onstage—their capacious memories and complex interrelationships—without the budget and mad skills of Julie Taymor, but you still have to figure out exactly which of those relationships and memories and visions are necessary to let go of in order to wrap up your stage adaptation within the span of two hours.

Paradoxically, though, again, I loved The White Bone not only because of its size and its depiction of elephants as a whole culture that is unlike ours, and not only because it was ahead of its time, depicting an overheated world and the isolating, murderous arrogance of the human species, but also because it reveals so much of its story through dialogue, like a play does, while also possessing just enough of the novel’s expansiveness: all that stuff that we playwrights can only put in stage directions: the descriptive passages, the setting of the scenes. If a playwright is seeking inspiration to make the leap to novels, they need not go all the way back to Tolstoy or Flaubert. They can just open the pages of Barbara Gowdy.

Still, playwrights, (I’m addressing playwrights now), if you’re going to write a novel, you still need to do all the work that Gowdy does to situate her pachydermic dialogues in the world, describing heat pans and head wounds, feast trees and termite mounds: you need to set the scene within the pages of your book, or else your dialogue will be missing its design. If you don’t know what from the wide world to put into or leave out of your descriptive passages, try taking up a beloved prose writer’s hack: put a frame around it: go find a painting that fits your setting and describe that. I discovered this technique a long time ago when I was reading a novel set in the Blue Ridge Mountains, getting close to the end, when all of a sudden I found myself walking through the middle of Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow. I could have sworn that’s what it was. Ondaatje gives a nod to this painterly influence on writers when he names a Lion character after one of the classical painters mentioned above.

Book Cover Frank's Wing

I describe a number of paintings in my novel about art forgers. My narrator sees the potential for composition in practically everything that happens to her. This kind of writing—the written evocation of visual art in a literary context—is known as ekphrasis: a term I learned from yet another playwright: the celebrated Erin Shields. A recently published example of ekphrastic poetry is Jacob McArthur Mooney’s Frank’s Wing, about a fictional collection at the AGO.

Book Cover I Could See Everything

Which brings me to the last three books of this essay of honoured works, moving away from playwrights into the institution of the art book: a stack of two dimensional pages that open up into three. I love the gorgeous, bold, Coach House publication of I Could See Everything, by Margaux Williamson, (who has a lifetime membership in the Lacuna Cabal). I’ve seen many of the breathtaking works that appear in the two-volume edition of The Memoirs of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, by Kent Monkman and Gisèle Gordon, coming out later this year.

Book Cover Memoirs of Miss Chief Eagle

But the Canadian artist who currently throws over my rational mind and grips my soul is the Ukrainian Torontonian Olia Mischenko. Her work is strangely humble, minimalist, adhering to severe limitations, never painted, never coloured, always drawn with a very fine tip.

The fine-tuned artistic eye of Mischenko’s Ravine World (an accordion book that fits loosely into a folder) peers from the middle distance at tiny humans going about their business in the grassy wild landscapes just to the side of our houses and beyond where our sidewalks end, evoking a highly detailed wildness in our urban midst. Like J.A. Baker following his peregrine over neighbourhoods while leaving the rooftops outside the frame. Like the outsider artist Henry Darger, creating a vast world with limited means. It’s an ecosystem I aspired to emulate in the enclosed environment of my little genre-jumping art-forger book.

Book Cover Ravine Woeld

Perhaps it’s because of the lesson of the visual artist for the playwright that I became interested in writing prose about painters: a playwright creates drama with words alone, leaving the visuals to a posse of designers. Olia Mischenko uses a pencil and mute imagery to design a world without words. Perhaps, then, from the point of view of the playwright student of novel-writing, the play + the paintings = the novel.


Book Cover The Abduction of Seven Forgers

Learn more about The Abduction of Seven Forgers:

"One day, not long ago, I was kidnapped by a bitter but fun-loving South Korean art collector named Mr. Jackie Lin who had been burned one too many times by art forgers and wanted a bit of revenge."

So begins The Abduction of Seven Forgers, a brilliant and immensely entertaining novel with a colourful and unforgettable cast of characters. A group of artists are brought together under mysterious circumstances to a leafy London suburb. Once there, they are taken hostage by Mr. Lin, an angry art collector who demands that they create original works that will replace the forgeries he has obtained from each of them in the past.

Over the following days, the hostages discover that a twelve-year-old boy is hiding in crawl spaces behind the walls, and they agree to continue to keep him hidden from Mr. Lin. But things become immensely more complicated once Mr. Lin's daughter appears, purportedly to learn from the forgers—there may be more to Mr. Lin's artistic plan than first meets the eye.

With dazzling inventiveness, Sean Dixon explores the power of art, both in its creation and its acquisition, and creates a vivid world where artworks can—and do—come to life. The Abduction of Seven Forgers brings together the artistic obsession of The Goldfinch, the stakes of Bel Canto, and the intelligent imagination demonstrated by Yann Martel and David Mitchell, with a flair that is all Sean Dixon's own.

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