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Taylor Writes Us In

Vancouver isn't exactly an 'unwritten city,' but the Story House author is building a better narrative. Part one of a two-part interview.

By Matthew Mallon 15 Jun 2006 |

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Vancouver storyteller Timothy Taylor.

FIRST OF TWO PARTS. Timothy Taylor's first novel, Stanley Park, came out in 2001: a bestselling, big and thoroughly ambitious novel that was deeply concerned with Vancouver, authenticity and regionalism, all seen through the focus of this city's growing food culture. After Silent Cruise, a critically successful collection of short stories, appeared in 2002, Taylor hunkered down for his second novel, and cut himself no slack.

The result, Story House, the tale of the struggle between two sons of a raffish Vancouver architect, appeared in bookstores last month. Though less immediately accessible than Stanley Park, Story House is a creative leap forward, featuring bravura displays of pure writing, a complexly and consciously "built" narrative and, as is par for Taylor, an eagerness to grapple with big ideas.

It's that last quality that most makes him seem a throwback, reminiscent of the realist novelists who populated the middle of the last century. That's not to suggest that Taylor is old-fashioned. His self-appointed task is to write about his home town as it is right now and he's well on his way to becoming the Vancouver novelist who best explains Vancouver in the 21st century. Excerpts from a recent conversation follow.

Matthew Mallon: Was this a difficult second novel?

Timothy Taylor: There are lots of incumbent anxieties for many writers with second books, second novels -- and I had all of them. Every single goddamn one of them. I was not spared, and so the writing process was pretty difficult. And when the book came out -- well, truthfully, I was a little more nervous about this one. At the time of Stanley Park, you know, you just hope you're getting published. That was it.

And for Stanley Park, I got a very modest advance. I think I was between waves. There were a bunch of novelists that got a lot of money, and then I came along, and then another bunch of novelists got a lot of money after me. So I never got my head inflated about Stanley Park, never thought "Knopf thinks I'm a hero!" or any of that sort of stuff.

It was all very low-key. And that made the experience, in some ways, probably easier. The book floated out there and then hey, you know? It did okay. And then I had a really quiet book a year afterwards, which was a collection of short fiction. So really, Story House was the next book. But I have to say that none of the pressure of the sophomore novel came from Knopf. I have to hand it to them. None of the people that I worked with ever betrayed any anxiety, like 'Oh my God, I hope this book does well." So it was all me. It was all my own private terrors. In the end I'm relieved. It's been a good first month.

What were the major concerns?

Well, you always wonder, you know, can I do it again? Stanley Park seemed to hit a chord and I knew part of the reason why. I got fascinated with food around the same time that a lot of other people did. I was responding to the same cues that other people were. And I didn't really want to try that again. I'm not trying to hit a note where I capture a consumer phenomenon. There seems to be something cynical in that project.

But Stanley Park did seem to pick on what was fundamentally a consumer vibe: the consumer interest in food. And we've watched it flower into this phenomenon, this entire realm of consumer behaviour, everything from kitchens right down to all the food entertainment out there now. None of this was developed to even a fraction of what it is now back in 1996 or '97 when I was well into the novel.

What Stanley Park represented was a person who had gone to France a number of times and had this personal cultural revolution where I really realized there were good ways to eat and there were shitty ways to eat, and people ate like shit in North America, to a large extent, and the French were on to something -- which is an elementary conclusion, of course. But that is, perhaps, what motivated the book more than anything else. And as it turns out, a lot of people were coming to the same conclusions -- not necessarily about France, but people were becoming opinionated about food. Hence this interesting nexus between what was going on in consumer culture and what I was writing about.

And now "foody-ism" rules supreme, to a degree that's almost comical, don't you think?

I think "foody-ism," and the manifestations of food culture as we see them presently, is borderline comical. I was at the Sechelt writers' festival and somebody asked me "Are you a foodie?" and I said no, actually, I'm not, and he came up to me afterwards and the guy was actually sort of hurt. He said "You know, I'm really, really surprised to hear you say you're not a foodie." And he seemed personally offended. And then, of course, I was playing ring-around because I didn't want to criticize the guy.

But what I really dislike about the present food culture is that when something becomes absorbed into the realm of consumerism, then the dynamics of fashion come into play. And that is the part of food that I have zero interest in. I'm not interested in what is hot right now or did you notice that a lot of chefs are using plates that look like this. I don't give a shit. I eat what I eat. I eat what is good. And my whole way of appraising food is different than that. So when I say I'm not a foodie, it's because not only do I not appreciate and not enjoy the fashion elements that have entered food nowadays, but I actually actively don't want to have any part of it.

The expression of individuality through neurotic application of taste?

Absolutely. It's the same thing that goes on in clothes. That's how fashion dupes. That's why fashion is kind of a lie, fashion in any realm, because it offers false individuality. At the end of the day it's just defining yourself through your consumer patterns.

Another reason that Stanley Park seemed to hit such a chord was that it was one of the first novels that really took on Vancouver as a city and region. It's still a largely unwritten city in many ways.

That is the other big element. It surprised me a little bit how much people were touched by the consumer element we were talking about, but certainly, it was also the setting. And I have theories about why. I don't think the city is unwritten. I think the city has been written before. Doug Coupland has written the city quite a bit, for instance.

But yeah, I think that was an element of the book's popularity. I can tell you, anecdotally, what people say to me most frequently about that book is essentially "I can't tell you how much pleasure I got from spending time with characters who were traversing familiar landscapes." My essential project, I suppose, in fiction is plausible contemporary stories. I hope that when readers meet the characters they are fundamentally recognizable. Not people that they have necessarily met themselves, but people that they can easily imagine meeting. So it's great to hear that from people but I do wonder about people reading this who aren't from Vancouver, who don't have any familiarity, and I worry about the transportability of the books. But Vancouver has inspired me.

What about it has inspired you? What do you see when you see Vancouver?

It seems to me a very modern, very contemporary city, very connected for its size. There's a lot of coming and going in Vancouver, which is a very contemporary phenomenon. One thing I'm always struck by -- and if this comes off as a dis to Toronto, well, so be it -- is how Torontonians know hugely less about what is going on outside of Toronto. They know a ton about what's going on inside Toronto -- this is a broad and unfair generalization -- but people in Vancouver, it seems to me, know roughly what's going on in their city, but the attention is largely outward. In my experience, anyway.

The people that I meet in Vancouver seem to be residents of Vancouver but citizens of a broader world. Torontonians are really incredibly Torontonian. There's a lot going on in that city and I guess it occupies a lot of their attention. So in that sense, Vancouver seems like a more contemporary city. It seems much more connected, much more international. Its visible and audible cues are international. And that's all very much to my taste.

Who was the fellow who recently told us to play up our intravenous drug problem when we start marketing ourselves during the Olympics?

Simon Anholt. He runs a magazine called Place Branding, which has only been established for a year or so and now it has a circulation of, like, 10,000. I just interviewed him for a piece I'm doing for EnRoute. Yeah. He said play it up. Let the needles be a part of the story.

I always come back to the adolescence metaphor. This is an adolescent city.

Yeah. It could be our own history, though. I mean this was a terminal city, a tough place. I think in its original guise there wasn't a lot of refinement here. This was a port city. It was merchant mariners and guys coming in from the hills, from their logging and mining. When this part of town was the downtown [Taylor gestures out the window of his Dominion Building office] I'm thinking that it had a rough edge back then.

I think in Vancouver's original form, its beauty was -- not unnoticed, because I'm sure a lot of those fishermen coming in would look up at the hills and have thought "My, isn't that a spectacular setting" -- but this place was not chosen for its setting. It was chosen for its resources. And the culture of the town would have reflected that. It was about harvesting and getting some, and the attitude towards the wilderness was one of "Well, we gotta carve our piece out of the wilderness before the wilderness pushes us into the sea."

All of that seems very distant now, because we've become a more leisure-oriented economy in general, and dollars ruled internationally, and so suddenly Vancouver's celebrated qualities have little to do with its history. It's now about what is undeniably spectacular: the water and Garibaldi Highlands just over there and sailing that's great and weather that's relatively mild, and all these things that to me seem to be a complete disconnect. The fact that its whole way of thinking about itself has completely changed.

In the second instalment, Timothy Taylor talks about the great boxing metaphor and counterfeiters he has known.