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Timothy Taylor: Why novels still matter

By John Burns

Vancouver's Timothy Taylor - author of a collection of stories (featuring three Journey Prize recipients), three novels, and a iPad's worth of journalism for enRoute, the Globe and Mail and more - sheds light on his writing process, his favourite authors and his ongoing obsession with teasing out the truth.

The kind of ideas you write about might take you years to explore. Why choose fiction to do it?

There's no form more capable of looking at the cultural moment than the novel. It's ever more true because of the density and complexity of our lives - our networked existence demands such complex forms of storytelling. Yet one of the side effects of the way we live now is that we have so many things on the go, the discipline required to prepare and consume a novel is dwindling. There's less willingness to believe that the process of contemplation could build up a profitable result in a cultural, personal way. It's become a little bit cute, this idea that literature could actually better us in some way.

So why persist?

There are a whole lot of tactical advantages to long-form prose: you can sustain many voices simultaneously; you can push a reader's emotion in a certain direction while advancing a piece of narrative business at the same time. All because of this splendid thing called language.

Is there a moment when the whole work rests in your head?

Quite late - and that's a difficult truth to admit. I'm sure it's hard for a beginning writer to think about because it seems you spend a lot of time writing toward something the shape of which has not been entirely revealed. As an artist, I'm really pleased with how my last book, The Blue Light Project, came together but at the beginning, I didn't know how central the preoccupation with fame and celebrity would be. Only in the development of the three characters did this commonality come to light - and then choices retroactively started to seem like they couldn't have been anything else. Thematic unity is achieved only over this long, iterative process.

Has your ongoing exploration of ideas changed how you think about the world?

Discovering mimetic theory really changed the way I see the world. I started quoting [lead theorist] René Girard in 2006 in articles I was writing for enRoute. My essay series for them was ten years long and three times a year, the magazine had pieces in it quoting Girard, because his power in explaining consumer markets is fantastic: if you look at how people compete, you begin to see how rivalries and dissatisfactions form. And since my stuff is always going to attempt to be an entertaining yet thoughtful look at how we're living, I'm forced to let ideas that have been coming into my life from all angles, things I saw, things I read, I'm forced to consider those in the light of the fiction I'm working on. You can never believe yourself to have come up with the theory of everything - or even a complete unifying theory of one thing - but it's thrilling to even be involved in teasing out some truth.

What inspires you in your writing?

Two writers - I don't necessarily agree with the big ideas that rooted their work, but they were thinking about the cultural now and advancing it through fiction - would be Mordecai Richler and Martin Amis. Exhilarating writing, and you're never in danger of drift in their work. People like them inspire me; I'm inclined to follow their lead, thinking "This is so good, I have to get working on my own stuff." 

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