Timothy Findley: ‘The world of Tiffiness’
Martin O’Malley & Randy Potash, CBC News Online
Timothy Findley was severely embarrassed one morning when someone found him sniffing rocks and seaweed on a beach in British Columbia. He was searching for authenticity, this time trying to experience what an animal might sense for his novel Not Wanted on the Voyage, a mythical story of the occupants of Noah’s ark.
Findley, “Tiff” to his many friends, was one of Canada's most celebrated writers, earning international acclaim as a master storyteller. Among his memorable works: The Wars, Famous Last Words, The Piano Man's Daughter, The Telling of Lies, Pilgrim and the play Elizabeth Rex. His most recent novel, Spadework, appeared in the fall of 2001.
Born in the Toronto neighbourhood of Rosedale, for many years Findley lived on a farm near Cannington, Ontario, with his lifetime friend, the screenwriter Bill Whitehead whom he met in 1951 when they were actors. They called the farm Stone Orchard. It was crowded with trees, flowers, cats, dogs and horses. Findley and Whitehead later moved to Stratford, Ontario. They wintered in France, where the French government honoured Findley with the Chevalier des Arts et des Letters.
Findley was briefly married to the actor Janet Reid, but the marriage was annulled, then he got together with Whitehead and the two spent the rest of their lives together.
He joined the original ensemble of the Stratford Festival in 1953, where he met Alec Guinness, who convinced Findley to go to England to study drama. He studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, where he met and was mentored by actor Ruth Gordon and the writer/playwright Thornton Wilder. Findley played in Wilder’s The Matchmakerat the Edinburgh Festival.
Gordon and Wilder encouraged Findley to pursue writing after reading one of his short stories in The Tamarack Review He accepted the challenge, left acting in the 1960s, and began his writing career. His first two novels, The Last of the Crazy People(1967) and The Butterfly Plague(1969), were published in England, after being rejected by Canadian publishers. Findley’s third novel, The Wars, established him as a major writer when published in 1977. It won the Governor General’s Award for fiction, and was adapted for film in 1981.
Findley teamed up with his partner Whitehead to write the TV dramas The Whiteoaks of Jalna and The National Dream, for which the two won ACTRA Awards. He has also been named to the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario and has won an Ontario Trillium Award. He won another Governor General’s Award for his play Elizabeth Rex, which was first performed in Stratford, then opened in England in 2002. There was talk of the play going to London’s West End.
His one-act play Shadows is set for a run at the Stratford Festival in the summer of 2002.
Findley never shied from controversy, as in October 2001 when, as writer-in-residence at the University of Calgary, he gave a talk in which he compared oil companies to the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center the month before.
He said the oil companies are doing little to reduce greenhouse gases and they rush to exploit global gas and petroleum reserves. “What’s going to happen in the future if we allow corporate profits to prevail above all other concerns?” Findley asked. “Talk about suicide bombers and all the innocent others who die along with them…. Think about that (corporate profits) and consider the future of our children, our country and our civilization.”
There have been several special tributes to the man while he was still alive, one of them in October 2001 in Toronto when friends Martha Henry, William Hutt, Margaret Atwood, David Staines and Marnie Woodrow delivered accolades to Findley in a program Henry called “the world of Tiffiness.” Findley was impressed by the sold-out tribute, but when it was over he asked, “Am I really dying and nobody has told me?”
Findley always wrote in longhand, in pen and ink, then Whitehead typed his manuscripts. “I love the ink,” Findley once told an interviewer. “I love the feel of the pen in my hand, and you don’t get that flow into a machine.”
Findley admired the work of Russian writer Anton Chekhov. In Inside Memory: Pages from a Writer’s Workbook, a work of nonfiction published in 1990, Findley said Chekhov believed that memory “is the means by which most of us retain our sanity.” Findley’s own take on this was, “Memory is the purgative by which we rid ourselves of the present.”
CBC-TV did a Life and Times on Findley in 1999, directed by Diane Ngui-Yen.