The Next Chapter

How Jordan Tannahill turned one shocking second into an entire novel contemplating life and death

Imagine seeing your mother in bed, and not knowing if she was dead or alive. That's the question at the heart of Jordan Tannahill's debut novel, Liminal.
Jordan Tannahill is a playwright and the author of the novel Liminal. (Alejandro Santiago/House of Anansi Press)

Imagine seeing your mother in bed, and not knowing if she was dead or alive. That's the question at the heart of Jordan Tannahill's new play, Declarations, and debut novel, Liminal. In these connected projects, the Canadian playwright, director and artist explores mortality and his memories surrounding his mother's diagnosis with terminal cancer.

This interview originally aired on Feb. 5, 2018.

A second that spans a lifetime

"Liminal exists entirely within a single second. The second when Jordan, the protagonist, walks into his mother's bedroom and sees her in bed. In that single instant, he cannot tell if she is alive or dead. Finding her body in that existential uncertainty creates an eruption in him that consumes his entire life, his entire coming of age, his entire relationship with his mother and his entire relationship with consciousness itself. The book is Jordan's inner monologue, an address to his mother that exists entirely within that single second that he stands on the threshold of her room."

The meaning behind death

"My mother is very much alive, but she was diagnosed with a terminal illness not too long ago. That brought up a lot of questions for me about what it means to have a body and what it means for ourselves to be cleaved from that body. I found myself asking what it means to give up self, to die and to leave. I think we have different frameworks to understand these questions: spiritual, artistic and scientific. The book takes in all these vantage points on what it is to be and then not to be."

A playwright's approach to novel writing

"As a playwright, I often think that my two primary tools for creating live performance are time and the body. Liminal uses those same two tools in different ways. The entire book is contained within a single second so there's a temporal aspect that's at work. As well, the book is an extended meditation on the body: What is it to have a body? What is it to feel pleasure? What is it push our bodies to their limit? What is for our bodies to become things, objects? I wanted to explore time and the body in these extreme ways because these more textured or nuanced explorations can't be done in real-time before an audience. Though, I do think of the book as a performance for an audience of one."

Jordan Tannahill's comments have been edited and condensed.