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The Chat with Greg Kearney


Greg Kearney-credit Kyle Brasseur(1)

Novelist Greg Kearney is back with the hilarious and heartbreaking An Evening with Birdy O’Day (Arsenal Pulp Press), a book that mines historical queer life in Winnipeg to share the lifelong relationship between Roland and Birdy.


Giller Prize winner Suzette Mayr calls the novel “funny, artful, infuriating, and endearing, a poignant meditation on what it means to offer - and accept - the "gift" of love.”

Greg Kearney is the author of the story collections Mommy Daddy Baby (2004) and Pretty (2011), which won a ReLit Award, and the novel The Desperates (2013), a Lambda Literary Award finalist. His plays have been mounted at Theatre Passe Muraille and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. He lives in Toronto and Winnipeg.



An Evening with Birdy O’Day follows the six-decade relationship between Roland and his estranged friend/ ormer boyfriend, Birdy, now an aging pop star. What was your favourite part of working on the story?

My first instinct is to say that my favourite part was finally arriving at a story that worked, after ten years of missteps and confusion. But probably the bits that were especially fun for me were all the "drawing room" scenes: much of the book consists of people in living rooms misunderstanding each other. I love to see how far I can push dialogue before it gets too baroque.

Much of the book follows Roland and Birdy’s childhood years, when they’re living together with Roland’s mother, Margaret, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There are so many incredible cultural references from this time. Why did you want to write about the era, and how did you go about nailing the details?

The era was decided by the narrator’s age (sixty-nine). I wanted to write an older working-class queer person, from childhood to near dotage, and I wanted his cultural tastes to be unabashedly mainstream. I’ve always been obsessed with pop charts; as a kid I had subscriptions to both Billboard and its Canadian equivalent, the sadly defunct RPM Magazine, so it was a breeze to invoke singers like Mary Hopkin and Diana Ross. But I can’t take much credit for nailing down the minutiae of exact dates. I have longstanding cognitive problems that make that kind of thing almost impossible. It was my astonishing editor at Arsenal, Catharine Chen, who was able to parquet that stuff. She was relentlessly meticulous—whipping up intricate timeline charts, aligning the characters’ ages with the historical references … I don’t know how she did it.

It’s an unabashedly queer novel, exploring a range of sexual and gender identities. What was involved in building such rich queer characters in 1960s/1970s Winnipeg?

That was pure pleasure. The two primary characters, Roland and Birdy, were—ugh, this sounds so fucking pretentious—"culled from the soul." There’s a lot of me in them. Elsewhere, I absolutely mined my favourite bits of queer history: the secret language devised by pre-Stonewall queens to speak their desire without getting murdered, the wonderful obstinacy of the lesbian separatist movement in the 70s, Frances Faye …

And my time in Winnipeg was crucial here too. When I was there, there was only one gay bar, so we all came together—gay guys, lesbians, trans people, Two-Spirit, fun straights—and it was gorgeous. I’ve never known such deep, immediate community, and I shamelessly lifted characters from that time for the novel. I’m probably romanticizing that period, but it changed and healed me profoundly. There’s still a casual social apartheid in big city queer zones, and it was utterly absent in Winnipeg.

When I was [in Winnipeg], there was only one gay bar, so we all came together—gay guys, lesbians, trans people, Two-Spirit, fun straights—and it was gorgeous.

Birdy’s thirst for fame is so all-consuming, really underlining the hunger of so many artists for non-stop validation and adoration. Yet Birdy is never fully satisfied and never truly happy. What’s your take on the relationship between art and celebrity and this kind of single-minded pursuit of fame?

The current obsession for any kind of fame, no matter how cheap and transitory, is, of course, grotesque. And so cynical! D-listers holding press conferences to announce that they’re dating again, eight-year-olds talking expertly about their “brand”—yuck. Birdy’s quest for mass adoration leads to his artistic and personal disintegration, but at least it stems from a genuine, urgent gift and not some livestream of him putting on concealer.

It was a hoot to render Birdy’s non-stop obsequiousness; his press interviews are borderline incoherent, as he spews every hammy showbiz nicety he can conjure. But Birdy was essentially orphaned as a kid. A Juno Award could never assuage such a deep injury. Which is a hoary old trope, I know, but whatever.

Major fame can be navigated successfully; I adore Kate Bush, who pops her head out every few years to say hello and present new work, then fucks off back to her real life. But that would never suffice for someone as emotionally malformed as Birdy.

I clamoured for fame for many years. I was intensely competitive with other writers; when my long-time friend Zoe Whittall was shortlisted for the Giller a few years ago, I wanted to die. It was a very Gore Vidal moment, and I’m not proud of it. But when my partner died, all that stupid, fiendish jockeying fell away. One can pine and seethe and strategize and even succeed and then fall down an elevator shaft. I’m pleased to report that I’m a sincere cheerleader for my friends’ success now.
It’s been so long since I last published, and I’m so pleased with this book, I hope it’s understandable that I’d like a teensy bit of validation at this point. A few kudos for good work. But that’s different than fame. I hope.

One can pine and seethe and strategize and even succeed and then fall down an elevator shaft.

If you could spend a day hanging out with Roland and Birdy in real life, at what age (their ages) would you want to know them? What would the three of you do, what would you talk about, and what would you learn from one another?

Oh, present-day Birdy and Roland, no question. Roland is witty and relatively serene at sixty-nine, and Birdy is more or less lucid for the first time in decades. We’d play old records, and I’d listen to them wax nostalgic and casually opine on the current state of queer culture. And—for once!—I’d be the youngest one in the room.

Excerpt from An Evening with Birdy O’Day

The Perners’ house was uncomfortably bright, with fluorescent panels of light in the ceiling, like you’d find in a doctor’s office.

      Birdy drew close until I could see the dark of his nostrils. “I’m soooo glad you’re here. Cheryl’s so—I mean, I like her, but I can’t talk about interesting things with her. All she wants to talk about is stuff she found in the garbage. My mother’s pretty drunk. I don’t know where my dad is.”

      “Happy birthday.” I handed him the ukulele, nestled in the sewing box Mom had sacrificed so that it wouldn’t look like a wrapped ukulele.

      He gasped. “I have no idea what you got me but I know I’m going to really like it.”

      I followed him into the living room, which was brightly lit by more office lighting, as well as several floor lamps, some beautiful, others vulgar. There was a jade serpent lamp that I wanted to steal; the snake’s exuberant forked tongue had a hole in the middle for the chain to pull the lamp on and off. There was also a tacky lamp in the shape of a delighted fat baker, replete with baker’s hat, baker’s apron, and rolling pin held high and somewhat menacingly, like Death’s scythe. Birdy’s friend Cheryl sat under the light of that lamp, her mouth held neat and tight, like a zipper.

      Judy teetered in, her coffee mug clinking with ice cubes.

      “This is so nice,” she said. “Gerry, did you introduce Roland to Cheryl?”

      “This is my friend Roland. This is my friend Cheryl.”

      Cheryl offered a wide, oddly maternal smile; with her comfortably splayed legs and lacy gingham top, she looked like a contented country grandma, except she was seven. I smiled and sat on the other end of the couch.

      “Now, we have all kinds of board games, and lots of records for dancing,” Judy said. “This is your special day, sweetheart,” she said to Birdy. “You can do whatever you want. And I’ll make myself scarce—I know you don’t want your silly old mother hanging around!” Then she sat down between Cheryl and me. “I’m so proud of Gerry. I was thirty-nine when I had him. Almost died. The blood and afterbirth just whooshed out of me like a garden hose. I felt myself leaving my body, and I heard the doctor say, ‘Uh-oh, she’s a goner! Oh well.’ But he denied saying that when I asked him about it after I came back to life. Gerry! I’m telling your friends about when you were born!”

      She yelled this at Birdy, even though he was two feet away, by the record player.

      “I’m right here, Mother. You don’t have to scream.”

      “Oh! Gerry’s so quick witted, so clever. I love both my boys equally, but Gerry is for sure the more—what’s the word—not brainy, but along those lines. Terry is very gifted with his hands. He wants to be in the RCMP. He’s really been struggling with grade twelve. How’s your mum and dad, Cheryl?”

      “They’re good. My mom fell in the bathtub, but she’s okay. My dad found a Queen Elizabeth plate in the garbage yesterday.”

      “Oh, yeah? Now what’s a Queen Elizabeth plate, exactly?”

      “It’s like a plate that has Queen Elizabeth on it. It’s nice. It’s not chipped or anything.”

      “That’s just great. It’s nice to have nice things. I like the Royal Doulton products. I had a little collection going, but most of it got broken.”


Reprinted with permission from An Evening with Birdy O’Day by Greg Kearney

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