||Interview with Ray Robertson
by Andrew Johnson
Novelist, critic and teacher Ray Robertson was born in Chatham, Ontario in 1966. After completing an undergraduate degree at Victoria College, University of Toronto, Robertson earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Southwest Texas State University. His first novel, Home Movies, was published by Cormorant Books in 1997. This was followed by Heroes, published by Simon and Pierre in 2000. His latest novel, Moody Food (2002), is published by Doubleday. Robertson is the Small Press columnist for the Toronto Star and teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies.
Andrew Johnson: At the heart of Moody Food is the quintessentially American music of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and George Jones. But you have chosen Toronto's hippie Yorkville as the setting of its transformation into Interstellar North American Music¨country-rock. What possibilities did that open up?
Ray Robertson: In retrospect, using Yorkville as the launching pad for Thomas Graham's musical pioneering was a great idea because it serves as an historically clean canvas on which to paint my fictional pictures. In reality, though, I set it there initially out of sheer laziness. I've spent more than enough time in libraries in my life and I didn't want to be imprisoned in another one researching late-Sixties Southern California, where the actual "country-rock" explosion happened, when I could be exploring Thomas' character instead, the real work of a novelist. It's a clichT, but no less true for being one: writers should never let the facts get in the way of the truth.
AJ: But Moody Food comes complete with political idealists and Manson-esque paranoia, free love and drug casualties. You were only one year old during the summer of love. How did you achieve such a full picture of the Sixties?
RR: I relied on one book¨Nicholas Jennings' Before the Gold Rush, a history of the birth of Canadian rock which discussed the Yorkville scene in depth¨and my imagination. I can smell a novel that is born in the research library, and it's not a stench I can stomach very well. Sure, a novelist has a responsibility to make the reader believe the dream he's creating, but that's only necessary, not sufficient. Novels are about people, not history books, and riding the subway is a much better education in the study of people than a library carol.
AJ: Your acknowledgments for Moody Food end with: "This is a work of fiction and therefore of truth. Certain facts have been modified toward this end." What kind of truth do you think novels get at?
RR: Novels¨and all art, I'd argue¨are concerned with metaphysical truths: the what and why of who we are as human beings. Meaning that if I have to make the famous Yorkville sit-in of 1967 an eight-hour protest and not, as was actually the case, a three-day protest, because the arc of the plot needs to mesh with the thematic issues I'm exploring in the book, so be it. Information is useless without a guiding intelligence. Facts never saved anyone's soul.
AJ: Your character Thomas Graham is based on Gram Parsons, the troubled father of country-rock and someone whose music you admire. How hard was it to keep your enthusiasm for Parsons in check and avoid writing hagiography?
RR: Gram Parsons is a fascinating figure not in spite of his dark side, but, to a great degree, because of it. For example, every driven, messianic figure like Parsons sees most other human beings as a means to their own personal ends, not as unique individuals worthy of respect in their own right. This is why great artists don't usually make for good parents or spouses. They do tend to make for fascinating characters in novels, though.
AJ: How much Brian Wilson, the creative force behind the Beach Boys, is in your novel?
RR: I'm glad you picked that up. Most reviewers have noted the fictionalized use of Gram Parsons in the novel, but no one has noticed the Brian Wilson Smile-era material I incorporate. Essentially, Brian Wilson wanted to transcend simple pop music and write what he called a "teenage symphony to God", a pop record to end all pop records. This was the legendary, never-completed, never-released Smile album. Why the album wasn't finished isn't clear¨Wilson's escalating drug use, opposition from the record company and within the Beach Boys power base, the impossible musical task Wilson set for himself. The tragic dimension of the failed project always attracted me, not to mention the breathtakingly beautiful music that has surfaced on bootlegs over the years.
AJ: The spectrum of drug taking is put to use in Moody Food. Was there a point in writing the novel where drugs became less a part of scene and became a driving force of the novel?
RR: Drugs saturate the period I write about and, so, Moody Food, too. But you make a good observation regarding the way drugs come to dominate the book as it unfurls. It's purposeful and is integral to the plot and the theme of creativity/self-destruction I wanted to explore. There's a junkie clichT that gets at what I wanted to investigate: Everyone can handle drugs until they can't. Ditto for genius.
AJ: You seem to specialize in drawing together seemingly unreconcilable elements¨putting an ornery old steel guitar player amongst a bunch of hippies, or a rich kid from Mississippi amongst a bunch of middle class Canadians with a taste for anarchism¨and seeing where they lead. Is this a way to get at metaphysical truths?
RR: Too many literary fiction writers believe that plot and conflict are below them, that these are an unsavoury component of popular artistry. This is why most Canadian fiction is boring¨nothing happens. People sit around and talk and talk about their sensitive souls for two hundred pages and then the author tags on an epiphany at the end to justify the oh-so-serious rambling that preceded it. Theme emerges out of action, conflict, plot, whatever you want to call it, not in spite of it. You can't philosophically explore if the reader isn't taken along for a ride narratively. Conflict turns the key and starts him or her moving.
AJ: Is this why one reviewer of Moody Food suggested it will be big... in France and Germany?
RR: The state of cutting-edge fiction in Canada reminds me of what Mark Twain said when someone asked him what he thought of St. Louis, Missouri: "It's the city of the future, fifty years ago."
AJ: Is there anyone on this side of the border taking exciting literary chances?
RR. I don't believe in "experimental" fiction. In science an experiment is an attempt to see if something works, and art proceeds in the same way¨it either works or it doesn't. There shouldn't be any consolation prizes for simply trying something different, which is every artist's primary duty anyway¨to find fresh ways of seeing and saying. Most fiction that the literary establishment in Canada calls "edgy" or "risk-taking" is simply warmed-over modernism¨second-rate Pound, for instance, or third-rate Virginia Woolf.
AJ: Your main character, Bill Hansen, certainly challenges a cherished Canadian self-image: he is not the level-headed, reserved Canadian running up against the ultimately silly American Thomas Graham. In most ways he is a hapless follower who snorts drugs when told to and falls in love with the idea of being in the band. If some Canadian were to take offense, are they being a little too earnest or simply dishonest?
RR: Bill is very alive to me, a real person in his own right, so I wouldn't want to reduce him to some sort of symbol of Canadian-U.S. relations, but I think I understand what you're seeing in terms of his relation to Thomas. I love the idea of Canada being politically neutral, but the fact remains that we're in Afghanistan too, we're dragging our heels on Kyoto too, and we've got a McDonalds on every street corner too. If you lie down with dogs, you're going to get fleas. What's true of Canada is true of Bill too.
AJ. If Moody Food satirizes hero-making and genius, the view of musician-as-messiah just waiting to be resurrected in Mojo magazine, you can clearly be seen as continuing another cherished Canadian tradition, that of taking heroes and knocking them down to size.
RR. I don't think I'm knocking Thomas Graham down to size¨that sounds simply mean to me, and a good satirist should love his subject. I do, though, think that great human beings usually have huge flaws in their characters. In the end, however, it's not important. It's like Auden says of Yeats: "You were silly like us/your gift survived it all."
AJ: But your story isn't just about people with questionable characters, but about people whose gift is dreaming big and failing in the process. What is so attractive about failure?
RR: Tragedy is attractive. At one point, the working title of the novel was Moody Food: A Tragedy. Icarus flies too close to the sun and perishes, but we admire his attempt to do what everyone knows is impossible. Tragic heroes allow us to be doomed visionaries in our night-time heads and yet live to have cereal and the sports page the next morning.
AJ: As much as Bill's voice celebrates his time of running around with his band the Duckhead Secret Society, his voice also resonates with the loss of people he loved. What is too high a price to pay for making art?
RR: Faulkner says somewhere that: " ŠOde on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies," and he certainly walked the talk, alienating, at some point along the line, every member of his family and all his friends. It probably comes down to temperament. Bill Hansen says at one point in the novel, "Maybe a mere metronome is not the worst thing a person can be. Because flip the coin of too much, and the other side always comes up too little." Maybe Bill and I aren't willing to fly into the sun, but at the same time, I'm glad Thomas was. ˛
Andrew Johnson writes about art and edits books about drugs and mental illness.