Q&A: Edward Riche on his new comic novel Today I Learned It Was You
Award-winning St. John's writer Edward Riche's latest work Today I Learned It Was You officially launches Saturday by House of Anansi.
Riche's first novel, Rare Birds, was turned into a movie starring William Hurt and Molly Parker, and his second novel, The Nine Planets, won an East Coast Literary Award and was a Globe and Mail Best Book.
Riche told Ted Blades, host of CBC's On the Go, that his new comic novel, about a dysfunctional city hall and a man who is transitioning to a deer — that's correct, a deer — has "questions of identity" throughout it with the characters "wondering who they are and what they should do".
Here's their conversation, which has been edited for length.
Q. How would you describe what Today I Learned It Was You is about?
It's about a group of people in St. John's with various relations, a wide net of people here, whose lives change for the worse in many ways. There's a cascade of problems that comes from the assertion that a man in Bowring Park, a known citizen, is transitioning from man to deer, and he has a group of advocates and that one fact sets in motion a series of events that affect a lot of lives. There are a lot of characters in this that are given voice. I think there's like nine voices in the piece.
Q. I'd also add it's about what drives people, what drives them to succeed, what drives them to distraction, what drives them to do things they should or should not do.
That's very much the case. The mayor character in this book has sort of mixed ambitions — he is told and expected to have ambitions, and he's following those expectations, but he doesn't really know as much as other people. There's questions of identity in this book all over the place. He really doesn't know who and what he is. We have another character who's suffering from Alzheimer's related dementia, who's losing his identity, he's watching it disappear. His wife wonders if he's going back to look at books he wrote to find who he was, so yeah, everybody's wondering who they are and what they should do.
Q. How much harder is it to write a comic novel about a fictional St. John's city council when you've got a real council, that dare I say, is pretty tragicomic at the best of times?
The actual St. John's city council is so ridiculous as to be implausible in fiction.- Edward Riche
The actual St. John's city council is so ridiculous as to be implausible in fiction. I think if you put these characters in a novel, it wouldn't work. When I started, our actual city council were, there was the folly of the harbour fence and that kind of thing, but there hadn't been this cascade of sort of bungling and failure and venality and blame-shifting that you see with the actual council, and I think the people on my city council are, by necessity, greater wits.
Q. I've read all your books; this is the one with the shortest chapters.
It wasn't an accident. You know when you start, you start experimenting with different things, and then at some point when I realized there were going to be all these different voices, I said, "Well, I'll give them incredibly short chapters." And then I thought that actually sort of is part of our Twitter-paced contemporary existence, and so I'll see if that works. Let's see if people have a different way of coming at things. The architecture of the book is dictated by the story; this one has many voices. The Nine Planets had nine chapters, each based on the mythology and science of the chapters. This one, it's not tweetable ... but everybody has told me they've gotten through it pretty swiftly. I think it is built like that — if I had made it the size of a phone, maybe I'd have a bestseller on my hands.
with files from On the Go