Quill and Quire

Pan Bouyoucas

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Dreaming in English

Montreal novelist and playwright Pan Bouyoucas has already achieved a fair level of critical acclaim in Quebec – his 2001 novel L’Autre was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award – but even there he is not exactly a household name. As he explains, in his experience critically successful novelists in French Canada are still only likely to sell 300 or 400 copies per book. Consequently, the 60-year-old author says he has spent much of his career pondering how his life would have been different if he’d written in English rather than in French. So in 2003, after the completion of his sixth novel, Anna Pourquoi, Bouyoucas decided to stop wondering and find out.

Bouyoucas began writing his first English novel, The Man Who Wanted to Drink Up the Sea – about a Montreal restaurateur wandering through a nightmare dream-scape in search of his dead, lost love – on spec, just as he wrote most of his French novels. In this case, however, he did not have the safety net of even knowing any agents or publishers who were likely to take it on.

Once he had the manuscript in shape, he made a list of potential English-language agents and sent them a few sample chapters. “Nobody told me that they didn’t like the book, but a lot of them said it would be too difficult to sell,” says Bouyoucas. Samantha Haywood of the Transatlantic Literary Agency was the one who eventually took the bait, and before long she had found his book a home with Cormorant Books, which is publishing it this spring. As it turned out, Cormorant publisher Marc Côté was so smitten that he agreed to translate and publish Bouyoucas’s two most recent French novels as well.

Most of Bouyoucas’s protagonists have been, like himself, of Greek background – he moved to Montreal from Lebanon with his family in 1963 – and because of this, he says he has always felt a little like an outsider in the Quebec literary world. After publishing his first two novels in the mid-1970s, Bouyoucas actually stopped writing for a period of about 15 years or so, because he had such trouble making his voice heard. “In those days, Quebeckers were so taken up with their identity crisis and the rise of the Parti Québécois and all that that they didn’t really have time for ethnics and their issues. But those were the things I wanted to write about,” he explains. To support his family, Bouyoucas became a translator of other people’s works instead.

By the early 1990s, things began to get better for Bouyoucas. He wrote a number of successful plays – one of them, Divided We Stand, was written in English and was a hit at Toronto’s CanStage Theatre in 1991 – and his return to novel-writing was greeted with a warmer reception than he’d enjoyed in the past.

In 1997, however, he published a novel called La Vengeance d’un Père, and the response was not what he would have liked. The book was written as a direct response to the 1995 referendum and Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau’s infamous attempt to blame the Yes side’s loss on “money and the ethnic vote.” Says Bouyoucas: “The book was well received, but everybody talked about it only as a thriller, without mentioning the political issues. And at this point I just thought, ‘The hell with it, I’m going to try in English and see what happens.’”

First, though, he spent several years working on two French novels that were already underway. And because English is his third language, Bouyoucas admits he had some initial difficulties getting the words to flow when he did start writing The Man Who Wanted to Drink Up the Sea. “But it’s not like English was a language I didn’t know at all,” he says. “I had been speaking it and writing it for years. And because I am a very concrete, realistic, image-based writer – and because French is much more abstract – from that point of view it was much easier to write in English, which is more visual. It suits my style.” He has since heard from a few people in Quebec who were nonplussed about his choice to write in English – some have even told him it was a form of betrayal – but he hasn’t let the naysayers bother him. In fact, he is already hard at work on his next novel, which will also be in English.

Bouyoucas says The Man Who Wanted to Drink Up the Sea has actually been finished for almost two years, but Cormorant has had such a backlog of impending releases that they’ve been forced to hold publication until this spring. Furthermore, the two earlier novels that Cormorant picked up for translation – which were originally scheduled to come out before The Man Who Wanted to Drink Up the Sea – have now been postponed until 2007, in the hopes of capitalizing on any success that might come his way this year.

The slow release schedule has come as a bit of a shock to Bouyoucas, who had gotten used to Quebec’s much speedier system: “In Montreal, I’ve handed books in at the end of August and they’ve been out by October!”

Because of the slower pace, Bouyoucas’s English-language debut has, ironically, seen the light of day first in Quebec and France, where it has been released in French translation by Quebec publisher Les Allusifs. Cormorant had given Les Allusifs its blessing to go ahead with the release, and in turn Les Allusifs commissioned Bouyoucas’s friend and colleague Daniel Poliquin to do the translation. And now that the French reading public has gotten a look at his “betrayal,” Bouyoucas says he is rather pleased by the response. “The funny thing is, now that it has gone from English back into French, suddenly everybody likes it. I could extrapolate things from that….”