I met my favourite author, Paul Russell, on Saturday night and had a great time.
I left the house a little early to head over to the Archives before the reading. I wanted to grab a copy of Paul’s book, The Gay 100, for him to sign for the archive’s collection. I wondered on the way if other volunteers were doing the same thing, but I suppose in reflection no one else meets famous authors with the same frequency as I.
Upon entering the Archives I heard the beeping of the alarm and went over, entered my code, and nothing happened. I started panicking, I entered my code again, and nothing happened again. Soon the alarm was going off full blast. Good times.
I picked the list of volunteers off the wall and started calling important people for assistance. Unfortunately the phone goes dead when the alarm is triggered but I was able to use my cell. The first two people I called didn’t pick up, but I had success with the third who also happened to be the alarm company’s main contact and all was resolved.
I hurried back to the bar where the reading was held and met Paul Russell. I sat down and we spoke alone for about 20 minutes or so, then another three or four people joined in the conversation and we all spoke together for about 2 hours. Around 9 pm Paul read the first chapter of his new book, “The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov”. The noise from the bar had grown quite loud by this point, despite the fact that we were in a private room some regular customers had wandered in. What made me most mad was the organizer of the event, the owner of Glad Day bookshop, was talking quite loudly beside us to someone else and making the most noise. Why organize a book reading and then loudly chat all through it?
I had talked to the owner of Glad Day book store about advertising for the event as I believe three people showed up other than myself. He said that’s the way the book world was now, that no one cared. I asked him how he had advertised the event as I myself hadn’t seen any advertising even though I was looking for it, and I said I wanted to be able to find future events held by the store. He said he had posted a message on their facebook site which held 400 members. I asked if it was in the gay paper and he said he was told it was. Now I looked through the gay paper looking for it and didn’t find it so I doubt it made it in. Also on Friday I saw the Glad Day facebook group had only 139 members. Also the group’s homepage was last updated in June. Unless I was looking at the wrong thing, this site posted news of the reading on Tuesday, which means someone would have had to check the homepage between Tuesday and Saturday to find out about the event, even though the last time the page was updated was in June.
The owner said the world was moving too fast and he wasn’t interested in keeping up with it, that he didn’t know how to advertise anymore and was waiting for bankruptcy. All this seemed a sensible solution, except I wish a more effective strategy had been used as both Bob Smith and Paul Russell deserved much larger audiences then they received.
I chatted with Paul Russell about many things, near the end I was wishing I had taken notes or recorded something as I believe it would have been a great fan interview, I wanted to know everything about him, about his books, his writing style. I’m going to try to remember some of the questions I asked him and his response but I’ll have to paraphrase.
After the questions we went out for food. I paid for his dinner and asked him several more questions in this more intimate gathering of just four of us now, and I left before they moved on to Flash, Toronto’s most recent male dance bar, not wanting to overstay my welcome.
Q: Last year you picked “My Queer War” by James Lord as your favourite book of the year. Have you got this year’s selection already chosen, and if so can I have a preview of the title?
A: Yes, it’s “The Intimates” by Ralph Sassone. He’s a first time author and has written a wonderful book about the relationship between a gay man and a straight woman which is something I don’t think has been explored enough in fiction.
Q: Are there any other current authors you recommend?
A: I enjoy the works of Patrick Gale. I also teach with author Phillip Hensher. I would recommend his last two books, The Northern Clemency and The Mulberry Empire, I thought they were both superb.
Q: What is your favourite book of all time?
A: Ulysses by James Joyce. I also recently read Finnegan’s Wake. Some students came to me suggesting we read it as a group. I had tried reading it before but the novel is famous for being unreadable and after 25 pages I gave up. The students said they all had similar results and thought a reading group would help. We met once a week at a pub and would each read one chapters, so between 25 and 50 pages, in the preceding days. At first we would meet and talk for about 20 minutes, mostly saying “Does anyone have any idea what is happening?” but after a while we started to meet for longer periods. It was like learning a language and you could start to pick up on things you recognized before. At the end we were meeting for six hours at a time.
Q: What is your favourite book written by you?
A: Sea of Tranquility. It’s unfair, like a parent picking a favourite child, but Sea of Tranquility for the character of Jonathan who is closest to my heart.
Q: If you could make any of your books into a film, which would it be?
A: All of my books have at some time or another been optioned for film, but I believe the options on all of them have now expired. Someone recently wrote a play about the first half of my novel Sea of Tranquility which I was quite honoured by and quite enjoyed.
Q: That novel would be a difficult one to adapt for the stage as there’s a break between parts one and two of about 15 years. Also part one ends on a rather sad note with the one character telling the other “I renounce you forever” which would be quite a cliff-hanger for the audience.
A: Yes, they re-arranged it slightly so the play ends with a scene of them looking up at the stars, connecting the whole astronaut theme and again I felt it was very well done. My editor once said to me that I didn’t actually want any of my books made in to films as they would be butchered beyond belief. A colleague of mine once wrote a book that was turned into a movie called “Jack the Bear” and the whole experience was a disaster. Reese Witherspoon was cast in it but the filming ran long and she had other commitments. The whole project was put on hold for two years until she was able to come back and once she did she didn’t look the same and the movie got bad reviews. Now any time anyone thinks of “Jack the Bear” they think of the horrible movie and not my colleague’s book.
Q: What is your favourite vacation spot?
A: Turkey, I have been there seven or eight times.
Q: Your current novel, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, takes place in Berlin and Russia. Did you travel to either of those places?
A: No, I didn’t. There are some famous figures in the book such as Jean Cocteau and when I was in Paris, which also features in the book, I did try to find the places he had stayed and the famous gay bars of the time. I found out however that all the streets in Paris had been renumbered in the early 1970’s and as such I was unable to locate the exact location. As I was writing historical fiction I felt that it wasn’t necessary to spend an inordinate amount of time searching for the actual place, but instead felt free to wander around his old neighbourhood, knowing I was in the general vicinity.
Q: Did you do much other research for the book?
A: I did. I had written my thesis on Sergey's brother Vladimir Nabokov in the early 1980’s so I have always had an interest in him but it wasn’t until recently when someone suggested I write a book about him that I actually pursued this as a project.
The holy grail while I was doing my research was an adult photo of Sergey but it is something I was never able to find, I don’t believe one exists. There is very little left of him as his famous brother tried to wipe his existence from the face of the earth. There are four letters he wrote.
Q: In chapter one of the book, you quote Sergey as saying “England is the most civilized country in the world.” Was that a direct quote?
A: It was, and that quote is ultimately what got him imprisoned in a concentration camp. He had been watched as a sexual deviant for years but it was this political utterance which made them finally put him away.
There’s a gay museum in Berlin and they recently had an exhibition of gay themed material from the Second World War. A friend sent me a book about the exhibit and when I opened it to a random page, there in front of me was the arrest warrant for Sergey Nabokov. I didn’t know it existed and out of all the pages, that was the first one I turned to. I typed the text out to have it translated and as I was typing it out it suddenly occurred to me that the last time someone typed this out, the exact series of words, was when the person was writing this arrest warrant that would cause Sergey’s death. I had to stand up from my computer, I felt chills.
Q: Where do you get your ideas for your books, for example in The Coming Storm?
A: Everyone assumes I was raised in a similar environment, in a private boarding school. I wasn’t, I went to high school in Memphis, Tennessee in a very poor, predominantly black neighbourhood. I remember our teacher was dealing drugs in the school. He saw the police coming and he knew it was for him, he jumped out the window and ran in to two other police sitting outside, he just stopped running, hung his head, and walked over to them, knowing he was caught.
I wish I had been raised in a boarding school like in the novel.
Q: So this could have been your ideal school setting you were depicting instead of your actual?
A: Yes, definitely. As research I called up a few of these kind of schools and claimed I had a problematic son I was considering enrolling. They were all very helpful; I was surprised how much so. I received letters and pamphlets and DVD’s featuring a day in the life of a student.
What I hadn’t counted on was how aggressive the schools would be at recruitment. Several schools called me repeatedly and one I finally had to send a letter to saying that my “son” was now happy at his own school and could they stop contacting me.
Q: What about War Against the Animals? Did some hot young guy come cut your lawn?
A: Actually it was the reverse, I was the young guy.
It’s funny afterward I had a young guy and his brother come and work on my house. They stayed around and were hopeless workers, they were usually drunk and after they left I had to get the roof completely re-done. But we had a connection, the guy knew the score. Eventually the police ran them both out of New York State.
I remember thinking this was my novel coming to life and I was worried the guy would read it, but they were both functionally illiterate so I didn’t have much reason for concern.
Q: Why is so much of the head cut off on the cover of your new book?
A: Have you not noticed? I do that with all of my books, I never show the face. This guy has more of his head than most.