Ray Robertson is the author of the novels Home Movies, Heroes, Moody Food, Gently Down the Stream, What Happened Later, and David, as well as two collections of non-fiction: Mental Hygiene: Essays on Writers and Writing and Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, which was short-listed for the Hillary Weston Prize for non-fiction and long-listed for the Charles Taylor Prize for non-fiction. His most recent book, the novel I Was There the Night He Died (Biblioasis), has just been published. Born and raised in Southwestern Ontario, he lives in Toronto.
The Q&A below is courtesy of Biblioasis.
More Alive Than When He Started
Biblioasis: I Was There the Night He Died reads like a battleground of addictions: it’s strewn with weed, booze, sugar, caffeine, speed, gambling, writing, self-mutilation, music. Some addictions are positive, others clearly not. Yet of them all, music seems to be the drug that heals more than it hurts. Do you believe that? What is it you think music can do?
Ray: “It’s the best drug I know—alternatively uplifting and pacifying, always there when you need it, and you never feel like dying in the morning. On the contrary, you feel more alive. Berthold Auerbach wrote, “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” We all need our daily musical dousing.”
B: Speaking of music: I think it’s time to let the cat out of the bag. The character of Sam Samson isn’t the only one working on a book called Lives of the Poets (with Guitars), is he? What’s it about? When can we expect it?
Ray: “In I Was There the Night He Died, Sam is, yes, writing a book called Lives of the Poets (with Guitars), a collection of twelve biographical/critical essays that takes its inspiration from 18th-century prefaces to the selected works of what were then viewed as the greatest English poets (a project that Samuel Johnson agreed to undertake in 1777 at the urging of three British booksellers, the result of which we know today as his Lives of the Poets). Except instead of 17th-century and 18th-century English poets, in his essays Sam is writing about some of the 20th century’s most underappreciated musical geniuses (popular music division), people like country-folksinger Townes Van Zandt, gospel singer Sister Rosetta Sharpe, and bluegrass visionary John Hartford.
And, yes, coincidentally, I’ve also written a book called Lives of the Poets (with Guitars) that is remarkably similar. It should be out in the fall of 2015.
B: A follow-up, going back to I Was There: why write a book that’s partly about writing a book that you’re already writing?
Ray: Although Sam is a well-established Canadian novelist, he’s also a musical fanatic. Also, and what’s important to the plot of the novel, the above-mentioned music book he’s writing is in place of the novel he doesn’t want to write—not yet, anyway—about his wife’s relatively recent death in an automobile accident. In other words, he’s writing to avoid writing. One of the things I Was There is about is the interplay between creativity and psychic release.
B: You’ve had a couple invitations to read from I Was There the Night He Died at high schools and colleges, even though the novel could be said to support a teenage girl’s decision to smoke pot. Were you surprised that teachers wanted to present it? Why or why not?
Ray: The book never advocates pot smoking; in fact, Sam doesn’t even like it and is pretty convincing about why. Not that I’m necessarily anti-drugs (or pro-drugs for that matter). The bottom line is that Samantha, the 18-year old girl you refer to, is a pot smoker as well as a “cutter.” These are her choices and her life. I respect my characters’ individuality. They are who they are, just like people in everyday life. Smart teachers know that kids are too smart to believe that real people don’t struggle with real problems. And one of the ways to survive those problems is to face them honestly.
B: In the background of your novel is Sam’s father, who, in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, has forgotten most of who he was. The rest of your characters have had more than their share of loss and rotten luck, and seem to be trying to forget who they are as hard as they can. How does Sam’s father’s Alzheimer’s help him come to terms with the other kinds of grief he feels?
Ray: Death—and the loss of personality that comes with Alzheimer’s is psychic death—is the ultimate philosophical starting point. As terrible as it can be, it can also be the ground zero for serious contemplation for what’s really important and what isn’t.
B: Most of your readers will never have been to Chatham, Ontario, and I think it’s safe to say your novel won’t have them lining up at the tourist bureau. Would Sam have felt the same about any city under those conditions?
Ray: Everyone’s hometown is filled with ghosts—“James Joyce” were dirty words for generations of proud Dubliners. I’m no harder on my birthplace than most people are.
That said, I was born and raised in Chatham, Ontario, my parents still live here, and many of my novels are set there either wholly or partially; if it and Southwestern Ontario didn’t continue to confound and captivate me, that wouldn’t be the case.
B: Let’s talk about names for a minute. We’ve got Sam, his last name is Samson, and his new smoke-up buddy is Samantha. What’s up with that?
Ray: I think, beneath their various, very obvious differences, they’ve got a lot in common : for example, their pain, their attempts to deal with it, and their potential for positive change. Other than that, you’d have to ask them.
B: Imagine a reader just as he or she is finishing I Was There the Night He Died. He reads the last sentence, closes the book, puts it down. What do you like to think he’ll do next?
Ray: Feel more alive than when he started it.
Ray Robertson visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 10, 2014 — full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) — along with Nora Gold and Cathy Petch. Come early, too (6:30) for a special talk by Degrassi: The Next Generation writer and producer Matt Huether on getting started in screenwriting!