Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Jordan Tannahill on why queer writing is universal, and so is the Bible

The author of Botticelli in the Fire & Sunday in Sodom answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Botticelli in the Fire & Sunday in Sodom is a collection of two plays written by playwright, author and theatre director Jordan Tannahill. (Alejandro Santiago/Playwrights Canada Press)

If you want to make Jordan Tannahill blush, talking about sex probably won't do it. But calling him prodigious might. At 30, the playwright won the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for drama for the plays Botticelli in the Fire & Sunday in SodomHe previously won the prize in 2014 for Age of Minority: Three Solo Plays and has also published a novel called Liminal

Below, Tannahill answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. George Bowering asks, "If someone publishes a book you had not finished writing at your death, is that okay?"

Absolutely. I have dozens of fragments of unfinished plays and books — and I'm a big fan of the fragment. Sometimes all a play or a book wants to be is a fragment and is perhaps unfinished for a reason. It is tragic that the works of Sappho exist only as fragments but the pieces we managed to salvage still resonate profoundly. I often find books cut off midstream by death, like David Foster Wallace's The Pale King and Roberto Bolaño's 2666, are in some ways perfected by the absence of completion. 

2. Kim Thúy asks: "Have you ever fallen in love with a character from your own work?"

Definitely. My current crush is on Leonardo da Vinci, or at least my fictional portrayal of him as a 24-year-old in my latest play, Botticelli in the Fire. I mean, what's not to love — a precocious Renaissance man with curly locks and a Romanesque nose! Plus, I bet he was a catty queen. 

3. Tomson Highway asks, "What do you think of the Bible as a piece of literature?"

This question is so timely for me. I was raised Christian and am now an avowed atheist. My father is Lutheran, and read the entire Bible to my brother and I over the span of about half a decade as a bedtime story when we were kids. So those stories are in my DNA. They are full of horror, magic, sex, death... all the juicy stuff. I draw a lot of inspiration from these foundational narratives. 

In fact, the piece I wrote for CBC Books' Heroes and Antiheroes series is a feminist retelling of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as told from the perspective of Edith, Lot's wife (who, like many biblical wives, is unnamed in the holy book). 

4. Rachel Cusk asks, "Name some of the rituals or habits you indulge in while writing."

Lots of Facebook and masturbation.

5. Lynn Crosbie asks, "Have you ever confronted, in your writing, the most shameful thing you have ever done? Should you?"

The most shameful thing I ever did was betray a friend's confidence in high school. In my new play, Botticelli in the Fire, the character of Botticelli is a libertine who I see as a kind of magnified version of my best and worst qualities. He is also a terrible gossip. I'm definitely much better with friends' confidences as an adult, but Botticelli is a character who doesn't learn from his mistakes fast enough, which ultimately leads to his undoing. 

6. Jalal Barzanji asks, "Why do you write?"

I write because it is the cheapest, easiest and most immediate way for me to manifest ideas.

7. Frances Itani asks, "When you have presented your work to an audience in the past, what was the question you were not expecting? The one you thought about for a long time afterward, the one you wish you'd answered differently? How would you reply to it now?" 

An older gentleman once asked me, after a show, whether all my plays were "gay-themed." And at the time I said no, and proceeded to describe various plays of mine that didn't have overtly gay content in them. That question stuck with me, as did my reaction — to be defensive, as if he was suggesting my range was limited. In retrospect I should have said: "Yes. Even the plays about straight people." Because my queer politic suffuses everything I write.

8. Sharon Butala asks, "What is the main question that you wish somebody would ask you, although nobody ever has?"

I find we often omit sex in these kinds of Q&A situations. I'd love to be asked: "When have you been the most turned on while reading?" and "When have you been the most turned on while writing?"