Quill and Quire

Timothy Findley

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Author Profiles

Timothy Findley’s public face and private space

They have settled into the bar with practised ease, cigarettes and red wine at the ready, soaking up the pre-matinée Stratford buzz while they wait for their own cue to perform. The rendezvous with the journalist and the photographer are part of the job – Timothy Findley has a new novel this fall – but he does it on his own terms and his own territory. Bill Whitehead, his companion of more than 30 years, comes as part of the package, the tab is on them, and the venue is Pazzo, the bar/restaurant on the ground floor of the oldest building in Stratford, Ontario. It just happens to be downstairs from where they live when they are in Canada.

Timothy Findley“This is our home; of course you can’t pay,” Findley insists, summoning the vestigial hauteur of his Family Compact heritage. They are really only “happy customers” of the restaurant, but they like to think of it as an extension of their home, a place where they can sit on a barstool and watch Stratford wander by or have friends to dinner when they don’t feel like cooking. Lunch is sorrel soup, bruschetta, and mussels with fennel, washed down with red wine, storytelling, and the rasp of thumbs striking cigarette lighters.

Being with Whitehead and Findley – Bill and “Tiff” – is more play than work, more a wide-ranging three-way conversation than a straightforward interview. We talk about being self-educated – Findley dropped out of school in Grade 10 – avoiding the barriers research imposes on the imagination, erecting creative safety nets, and negotiating the secret trade-offs that are essential to long relationships.

Findley and Whitehead are as interwoven as a tapestry. Their devotion is built on a collaborative pattern of individual strengths and compelling needs that runs through their professional and personal lives. They met as actors here in Stratford; eventually both turned to writing, Whitehead as a documentary filmmaker and Findley as a novelist and playwright. Now Findley gardens and Whitehead cooks, Findley imagines and Whitehead drives, Findley makes money and Whitehead manages it.

But mainly Findley writes – a book a year – and Whitehead types the manuscripts, copy-editing as he goes, through what may amount to 20 drafts of a novel. “I had to take him off the computer,” Whitehead explains. “He never got past page one because the computer made it so easy for him to keep on revising.”

After their noted departure two years ago from Stone Orchard, the farm in Cannington, Ontario, near Lake Simcoe, that they had shared for decades with dozens of cats and a few dogs, Findley and Whitehead moved to a small house on the outskirts of a village called Cotignac in Provence, about halfway between Marseilles and Nice and an hour inland from the coast. The house is too small for all but the most determined visitors. Even so, Whitehead has turned the garage into a writing studio for Findley. Surrounded by his books and toys – a collection of stuffed animals that are mementos of places they have been and people they have known – Findley turns on the music in his headphones and escapes “into the other world” of the imagination.

Canada beckons still, because ultimately the business of writing is here. “If Tiff’s editing a book, promoting a book, rehearsing a play, we’re in Canada,” says Whitehead. When they aren’t doing any of those things, they are in France working.

Deciding where to live was a problem. They wanted to be closer to Toronto and to the airport than they had been in Cannington. They thought about Guelph, Ontario, but Findley says the minute they expressed an interest “all the hands went out” asking him to give lectures, readings, workshops. “We realized that in Guelph the phone would never stop ringing,” explains Whitehead.

“Suddenly,” Findley continues. “I woke up in the middle of the night with one of those dazzling revelations. What about Stratford?” The difference between Guelph and Stratford, Ontario, is that Stratford is used to having celebrities around. It knows how to ignore famous faces walking down the streets or buying groceries in the supermarket; it understands that writing is hard, dogged work.

Finding a suitable place to live was tough. Last summer they rented from a friend, but it was an actor’s house and there were no surfaces to write on. Whitehead says they listed themselves in the only condo building worth considering and went back to France to wait for somebody to die. Then a phone call came from a local entrepreneur explaining that he was developing an old building in the centre of Stratford into six condos. They leapt at the opportunity with “no idea” of how they were going to pay for it, and began modifying the architect’s drawings to carve out separate working and living spaces for themselves.

Each man has a separate wing at opposite ends of the condo, consisting of a bedroom, a bathroom, and a workroom, opening off the communal kitchen and living room. The quarters are divided not by doors or barriers, but by colour. Whitehead’s space is cool blue, Findley’s is bordello red. And the whole place is suffused with natural light.
Whitehead is the organizing principle behind everywhere they live and everything they do, says Findley. “He’s made it financially possible. The writing has been the money, but I wouldn’t have known what to do with it.”

Whitehead owns the house in France and Findley owns the place in Stratford, “so if one of us dies, the other has … access,” Findley explains after a dramatic pause.

“Maybe we should use ‘when’ instead of ‘if,’” Whitehead suggests gently. They both laugh.

“And I’m dying first,” adds Findley with a mock pout. “Oh, absolutely. That is decided even if I have to take pills, I’m not surviving without him.”

Findley and Whitehead know each other’s lines better than the most assiduous understudies. And like actors accustomed to playing in the same limelight, they have learned to manoeuvre around each other’s psyches. Not for them the petty spitefulness of many long-standing couples who can’t resist upstaging their partners with a rapier interjection to redirect the conversation or foreclose a familiar anecdote.

The actor’s craft is an integral part of Findley’s life and his work. “Tiff calls being an actor the best apprenticeship a writer can have,” says Whitehead. “Scene structure, dialogue, rhythm, cadence, language, the interplay between action and words,” Findley continues, without missing a beat, “which I think a lot of prose writers lack.” He makes Whitehead read his handwritten pages aloud every night before supper. “He wants to hear the rhythm,” says Whitehead. “He feels that if the tongue trips, the mind will too.”

Findley approaches character the way an actor does, by looking into himself for feelings, and he writes fiction by finding a character who will deliver the story. Or rather, a character dragging a dilemma presents himself to Findley’s fervid imagination and the story comes tumbling after. What happens is more like a revelation than a conscious summoning, like leaving a door open in his imagination for somebody to walk in.

That process is as true of Pilgrim, his new book, as of any of his other novels (Pilgrim is reviewed on p. 30). The theme – what is the point of creativity in a world riven by war and corporate greed – has preoccupied Findley from The Wars through Headhunter. The idea for the character of Pilgrim, a being who cannot die, doomed to bitter immortality, came many years ago from watching the distinguished American novelist John Knowles lurch drunkenly across the lawns of the Atlantic House Hotel in Maine with his keepers in earnest pursuit. Findley admired Knowles greatly, especially his novel A Separate Peace, and he was shocked to see how little the novelist cared about writing or even living. Knowles’ attendants insisted on feeding him, but all he wanted to do was slake his addictive thirst.

Something about Knowles made Findley imagine a character whose creativity was blighted just as it reached fruition. What if you have come to the pinnacle of your capabilities and written a truly great novel, but it is too late because the world has become obsessed with vapid entertainment, with what Arthur Miller described as “a mimicry of art which menaces nothing, redeems nothing, and means nothing but forgetfulness?” He’s achieved what he’s worked for all his professional life, and the world doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. For Findley, having the audience turn away from your best work is the most ghastly thing that can happen to a creative person.

The character that Knowles inspired has changed drastically as the novel that is now Pilgrim was “lifting its head and falling back under the water for 20 years.” In the final version, the subject is art, not fiction, and Pilgrim is a raging agent of destruction rather than a depressed novelist who has lost his way. What has remained constant is Findley’s own baffled despair that the world can choose forces of destruction when it could be governed by creativity. “If I didn’t have a foot truly anchored on the ground,” he says, pulling on a cigarette and shaking his head, “and a man to live with who saves my sanity every day, I don’t know why I wouldn’t just sink into alcoholism and get out of here.”

The answer to his rhetorical question, as he well knows, lies in his own words in the novel: “What life requires of one is that one lives beyond the endurance of it.” Ultimately, Findley is not Pilgrim – nor is he Knowles, although the fact that Findley’s brother died of alcoholism makes that a telling possibility.

Findley has his own problems with the destructive power of the corporate mentality, but they don’t have a patch on Pilgrim’s fury. There is an arrogance about Pilgrim’s belief that art has solved nothing and that he can turn back the tides through calculated acts of spectacular vandalism. This is completely foreign to Findley’s mindset. How could it not be? Findley has simmered through a large part of one very prolific and successful career. Pilgrim has been stoking his rage through progressive centuries. “I know I’m not going to turn back the tides,” he says, “although I may do it for some readers.”

But there is a much more important difference. While Findley despairs that corporate forces are growing ever more dominant, he retains his faith in the creative process as he sends another novel out into the world. This is an important novel for Findley, one that takes more chances, pushes themes further, and wraps more into its creative embrace. By no means does he consider it a final book, although he allows that it could be if his age (69) and his high blood pressure conspire against him.

For Findley, Pilgrim is a leap forward, and also a leap around the corner. He’s anxious about its reception and hopes he hasn’t bitten off more than he can chew. But that, too, is what creation is about, pushing beyond the pain of putting one word after another on the page and risking the unknown. Whitehead can and does provide the safe creative space in which Findley writes, but only Findley can go in there and struggle every day against the destructive forces and if he is lucky, brave, and most of all persistent, he may be able to slay the dragons and bring the trophy out with him.