Quill and Quire

Dennis Bock

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Gambling man

Dennis Bock took a big risk with his first novel. It led to a big payoff.

Scaring himself may be the secret of Dennis Bock’s success. “I set myself up for failure,” the author of Olympia and now The Ash Garden says, nursing a cranberry juice in the Sunnyside Café in Toronto as he squints into the afternoon glare off Lake Ontario.

Dennis BockFailure? His new novel, The Ash Garden, stars on HarperCollins Canada’s fall list and will also be published this fall by Alfred A. Knopf U.S., which paid an encouraging $250,000 (U.S.) for the privilege. “Well, not failure,” Bock amends quickly. “Big Challenges.”

Two years ago he met with Phyllis Bruce of HarperCollins to discuss an early draft of the novel. “She plopped the manuscript on the table. I said, ‘It’s pretty unfocused, isn’t it?’ She said, ‘Well, it would be, since it tries to deal with the history of the 20th century.’”

Bock, who is boyish-looking except for the way his 30s are starting to push back the shoreline of his sandy hair, communicates a gentle, firm confidence – evident in his writing as much as in his person. “I first read Dennis in Descant magazine and I remembered him for the psychological certainty of the writing,” says Phyllis Bruce. “He has an old brain in a young body.”

The Ash Garden is narrated by Anton Boll, a scientist in his late 70s, and Emiko, a Japanese-American filmmaker in her late 50s; they were imagined by a Canadian who will be 37 on Aug. 28. The plot is set in motion when Emiko attends a speech by Anton and then approaches the scientist to take part in one of her documentary projects. This one will be a film about the making of the atomic bomb. Anton – an old man now, and living quietly on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario – once worked on Hitler’s atomic team, and then, after defection, with the Americans at Los Alamos. He knows immediately that this scarred Japanese-American woman must be a Hiroshima survivor. As he asks about her project, he braces himself to be called a war criminal. “Nuclear madness, I imagine? Is that the point?”

To his surprise, she replies, “No. I don’t begin with themes. I begin with time and place and event. Themes reveal themselves later, if at all.”

That’s Bock’s technique too: Start with a bombshell of an image (and a person with a camera somewhere close by to capture it). Tie this image firmly to time and place and event – events connected to the cataclysms of our age. Go in over your head. And, without fighting, without denial, without moralizing, let the themes unfold.

Bock’s first book, Olympia, is a sequence of related stories about a German family who immigrated to Canada, bringing with them memories of Hitler’s Germany. It opens with images from Leni Riefenstahl’s 1936 documentary film of the Berlin Olympic games. The first story ends with a drowning.

The very first scene in The Ash Garden is in Hiroshima, on August 5, 1945, with Emiko as a child, playing by a river, drawing pictures with mud on the back of her little brother. These images are literally burned into her brother’s back by the radiant flash of atomic detonation. Weeks later, the hospitalized children are filmed by a team of Americans who have come to sift through the ash of Hiroshima and assess the impact of their creation.

Amid horror Bock introduces words like “marvelous” and “beauty” (as in the marvelous beauty of that first explosion at Los Alamos). He writes about people swept along by love of their work as much as they are by catastrophe. “I was really happy,” says Bock, “when someone – a sales [rep] in New York – told me he liked The Ash Garden because it wore its history lightly.”

It also wears its craftsmanship lightly. Bock talks about writing as if he were adjusting the rigging on some exquisite watercraft: “In Olympia some of my images were too clean, too obvious. In Ash Garden I tried to restrain myself.” Bruce adds: “Dennis is not technical, though he may sound so. He’s intuitive. He has a strong sense of his own ability to shape language.”

Perhaps this is because Bock’s language was not originally his parents’. He grew up in Oakville, Ontario, near the lake. His German parents kept few English-language books in the house. But they were passionate practitioners of their chosen crafts. His mother did (still does) weaving. Father, a carpenter, built a sailboat in his basement (Olympia is partly autobiographical in its portrait of a German-Canadian family whose house is filled with the smell of fibreglass).

Young Dennis wanted to be a marine biologist – to work in a milieu that was literally over his head. But then, while at Oakville Trafalgar High, he discovered Gulliver’s Travels. “It was the first book I read with the understanding that someone’s mind had put all those words to-
gether – that someone’s imagination had constructed something that didn’t exist before.”

If he wanted to write books, one of his high school teachers warned him, he’d have to improve his spelling. “Oh,” said the cocky young Bock, “I’ll have editors to do that for me.”

After a year studying English and philosophy at the University of Western Ontario, he went off to Spain (again, like the young protagonist in Olympia). “I wanted to experience what half the population of Toronto has experienced: dislocation, immigration. To break down my elements.” This sentiment sounds like emotional kin to the father in Olympia whose hobby is chasing severe weather events, such as tornadoes, and letting them wash over him.

In Spain, Bock tried to write, came back to finish his university degree, then returned to Spain for five years, teaching English and writing more. “Back then I wrote bad stories. I cast my net way too wide,” he says. “I was reading John Cheever and trying to learn too quickly from him.”

The stories could not have been too bad. In 1992, Geoffrey Hancock published “The Wedding” in Canadian Fiction magazine; it was also published in Best American Short Stories 1994, and became the first story in Olympia. (The title story was selected for the 1997 Journey Prize Anthology.) In 1994 Bock moved home to Canada. “The idea of staying in Spain for the rest of my life was starting to scare the shit out of me. And I was desperate for literary conversation.” He did a stint as editor of Blood and Aphorisms magazine and hung out with other writers. One day he saw pal Bert Archer with a beautiful female friend. “I called him and said Bert, you’re gay, what are you doing with this hot woman?” The agreeable Archer said that her name was Andrea Kellner, she was an editor at a Toronto publishing house, and they could all meet at a Toronto pub later that week. Andrea is now Bock’s wife, and on this sunny afternoon is playing with their dog somewhere down the beach.

They live in east-end Toronto, where Bock does his writing on a laptop on the living-room coffee table (“Well, I did. I won’t do that again, I wrecked my back”). When he finished Olympia, his agent Denise Bukowski (whom he calls “my first reader”) took it to Doubleday, where it was edited by Maya Mavjee and published in 1998.

Delicately, at first obliquely, it explores shadows of the Holocaust, images of drowning, and the issues of living with submerged memories. The book won England’s Betty Trask Prize in 1999, and £3,000 (about $7,000 Canadian) from the U.K. Society of Authors. “Olympia becomes something more than impressive family fiction; it makes a contentious contribution to the politics of memory,” said a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement.

Already Bock was working on a new manuscript. Called The Reading Boy, it dealt with a young Japanese book restorer who had been born in 1966, the year the Arno rose and inundated Florence. More images of floods, more drowned memories. After many months, Bock decided that The Reading Boy wasn’t working. He started over.

This time he began writing a book about an atomic scientist; it would be called A Man of Principle. Drafts went to Mavjee. But Bock and Bukowski eventually pulled the book from Doubleday because the company didn’t get back to them fast enough. “We moved to HarperCollins and I’m very glad. Phyllis responds quickly and thoroughly,” says Bock.

Though Bock is said by some to be a prickly edit, he speaks of working with Bruce and Fisketjon, both of whom he obviously respects, as experiences that were “very exciting.” He reports that Bruce told him right off the top, “To this point you’ve only written short stories. The biggest problem for a short story writer doing a novel is characterization.”

Bock says, “She was right.” He wrestled more with Anton, his “man of principle,” considering from different angles the man who bails out of Hitler’s atomic program not for moral reasons but because he thinks the science is better in America. Anton also smoothly justifies to himself the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, a defence he maintains even half a century later, as he shares his rationale with the reader and tells it to Emiko’s scarred face.

“Those characters really took over Dennis’s life,” says Bruce. “This was a large novel, there were many versions of it. He had to go through many stages of refining the concept. It was so intense and so powerful, my feeling was, he had to work around it before he could get into it. My role as an editor was to show him what was there.” And so Bock found a man, admirable and human in many ways, whose “principles” nonetheless create a garden of ash where children once played.

Bock also threw himself into nailing down casual details to give his creations authenticity. He did not visit Japan, nor did he talk to survivors, but he waded through transcripts and eyewitness testimony, to the point of knowing the smell of the coconut oil in the suntan lotion Anton and the other scientists wore while they watched the test at Los Alamos.

By this time Bruce and he had reshaped his manuscript. It was “structurally sound,” says Bock, and had evolved from A Man of Principle to a book whose plot ricochets between two narrators. Its working title was now After Emiko.

Agent Denise Bukowski sent the manuscript down to Gary Fisketjon, a vice-president and editor at Knopf in New York, who read it over the weekend before the Frankfurt Book Fair and then bought it. “It’s a real act of imagination,” Fisketjon says. “I’ve always said it would be hard for an American to write about Hiroshima – people’s views are so entrenched. I like the fact that Dennis is not American.”

Fisketjon, who’s worked with Cormac McCarthy and Raymond Carver, among others, also decided to ditch the titles A Man of Principle and After Emiko. To him, “the book was obviously The Ash Garden,” says Bock. “I accepted his judgment.”

With the money his new book has already brought him, Bock’s plans are simple: pay off the mortgage on his house, travel, write another novel. Not about the Second World War this time, but as ever, some subject way over his head. “It would be sad not to take on a big subject,” he says. “I’m not taken by books that don’t.”

And he wants to go back to Spain, with more to show to his Spanish acquaintances than he has ever had before. “For years my friends in Spain had to take it on faith that I was a writer,” says Bock. “Now when I go to see them, I can show them.”