Quill and Quire

Sky Gilbert

« Back to
Author Profiles

The reclusive Sky Gilbert

Outspoken author's new novel shares much with Salinger

ECW Press has come up with an eye-catching cover for Sky Gilbert’s new novel, Brother Dumb, but it’s possibly a little too eye-catching for the author himself. “I love the cover, but it wasn’t my idea,” says Gilbert sheepishly, adding that he had to have “a long talk” about it with his editor, Michael Holmes. “It does imply a certain, uh, focus, doesn’t it?”

The cover in question is a take-off of the familiar look of J.D. Salinger’s titles. And since Brother Dumb is, as Gilbert explains, a memoir of an American literary icon who withdraws from the public sphere, is it safe to assume that the book is a fictionalized take on Salinger’s life? “That’s an issue I want to leave to the reader to decide,” says Gilbert with a studied vagueness. “Let me put it this way: I think an astute reader will certainly find there are some interesting parallels with Salinger, but he’s not the only reclusive author who ever existed.” It’s clear that Gilbert will not elucidate the matter any further, and he lets out a guilty laugh. “That was very Salinger of me to drop the lid down like that, wasn’t it?”

Although even a cursory reading of Brother Dumb reveals more than just a few similarities to Salinger (see review, p. 42), Gilbert says the primary impetus for the novel was his own life, and his move, three years ago, from Toronto to the relatively sleepy city of Hamilton. “It was kind of my partner’s idea to move. I wasn’t really into it at first,” says Gilbert. “And when we first got there, I felt very isolated. But in some ways, I wanted to be. Which is kind of what the book is about. It’s about a misanthrope – a character who doesn’t like people, but who needs to be around them. I have a real weird mixture of that in me.”

Though the move to Hamilton was mostly due to the high cost of housing in Toronto, there was also a part of Gilbert that simply wanted a break from the social scene surrounding Buddies in Bad Times, the gay theatre organization he ran. As anyone who has followed his career knows, Gilbert is fairly controversial for his outspokenness and in-your-face attitudes, and people often take him to task for this. “I’m so hated in the gay community,” says Gilbert. “I was talking to a student once, a student who lived with a gay guy. She said she had one of my books on her table one night and that her roommate came in and said, ‘What are you doing with that?! You’re not going to read that garbage, are you?’” (Brother Dumb is, in fact, Gilbert’s first novel without even a shred of gay content, but he insists this is just a coincidence. “The subject matter just didn’t require it,” he says.)

Though Gilbert is quick to label himself a “minor Canadian author,” he says that, like Salinger, he is able to appreciate the values of seclusion. He even thought about releasing the novel under a pseudonym at one point, just to keep himself out of the public eye. “I totally understand Margaret Atwood and her signing machine,” Gilbert says. “I don’t think it will work, but God love her, I haven’t got stuff against her the way some people do. People have trouble with me in the gay community for sort of similar reasons. It’s not her fault that she’s famous and that people want to look into Margaret Atwood’s eyes. She has a perfect right to say, ‘I can’t look into anybody’s eyes anymore; I’m tired.’”