Ritual sacrifice and the faith of the artist: TSR interviews Timothy Taylor

March 13, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Clean cut, dressed in a grey, pinstriped suit, and seated behind a desk in an office at the Toronto headquarters of his publisher, Knopf Canada, Timothy Taylor could easily be mistaken for a corporate executive, which is what he very nearly was. Taylor holds an MBA from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and was well on his way to becoming a fixture in the financial world, working in commercial loans for TD Bank, when, with his wife’s blessing, he left banking in 1991 and took up a consulting business that allowed him time to indulge his first passion: writing. Twenty years later, with three novels and a story collection to his credit, the consulting business is long behind him, but the writing continues. The third of those novels, The Blue Light Project, has just been published, which is the occasion for our meeting.

In the novel, a terrorist has seized control of a television studio where a show called KiddieFame is shot. KiddieFame is a variation on our millennial fascination with American Idol–type reality programs, but instead of adults, the subjects are children. They perform for the cameras and are rated by audience members; if there is enough dislike for a particular child – resulting from antipathy or jealousy – the audience can vote to enact a “Kill,” in which a group of actors dressed as soldiers storms onto the set and “eliminates” the contestant in question.

“Reality television is a quasi-sacrificial system,” Taylor says in reference to the elimination aspect of KiddieFame. “Sacrifice has been a ritual function of all human societies, and we have evolved into creatures for whom real human sacrifice in superficial everyday happenings is unacceptable. And yet we maintain the ritual through these actions where we sort of ritualistically humiliate people.”

Mov, the hostage taker in the novel, is no stranger to humiliation: he worked for the government breaking down prisoners prior to interrogation at so-called black sites (think: Abu Ghraib). Indeed, there is a parallel between the ritual humiliation of contestants on a reality television show and the humiliation of prisoners at black sites – a parallel Taylor acknowledges. “One machinery is known, superficial, and everyday, and the other is hidden, terribly real, and profound,” says Taylor. “I would be roundly chastised for making any moral equivalency between torture and reality television. But do I think they respond to a similar impulse? Yeah, I do.”

Mov’s nom de guerre is a reference to Movsar Barayev, one of 43 Chechen rebels who took over the Nord-Ost Theatre in Dubrovka, a suburb of Moscow, in 2002. The Moscow Theatre Crisis was very much in Taylor’s mind as he wrote The Blue Light Project. “The Moscow Theatre Crisis really captivated me in reading about it and reading survivors’ accounts, and it struck me as the kind of incident that I wanted to explore.”

The idea of a hostage crisis came to Taylor early in the writing process. “It’s one of those narratives that you open and it’s clear that it can’t end well for everybody,” he says. “And that’s a good feature in fiction.”

It’s a good feature in the kind of fiction that Taylor is interested in, certainly. Listening to the author speak, what becomes clear is that no matter how thematically dense his work may be, he considers himself a storyteller first, and acts on the impulses that will help create a compelling story. When asked why he used a city on edge as a backdrop for telling three very personal stories, his answer is quick and definite: “I wanted it tense.” But lest this be mistaken for glibness, it should be pointed out that Taylor never seems content to operate on only one level. Having provided what he admits is a “superficial” response to the question of storytelling, he immediately puts that response into a more nuanced context. “All storytellers to one extent or another manufacture a precipice in order to speak about what it means not to be falling into it.”

If the precipice is the moral bankruptcy of a society that can simultaneously produce KiddieFame and the hostage taker Mov, what is there to prevent us from sliding inexorably into it? For Taylor, one answer is art, and in particular the kind of street art produced by anonymous graffiti painters and poster hangers in urban environments like Toronto or Taylor’s home town of Vancouver. One of the main characters in the novel, Rabbit, practices a variation of Parkour that he calls Freesteal, which involves infiltrating public spaces and leaving behind a work of art. Rabbit’s artistic work finds its apogee in a city-wide installation he calls The Blue Light Project.

Taylor’s fascination with Parkour led him to watch hours of YouTube videos about the subject while working on the book; he says that the Parkour notion of rejecting the limiting nature of urban topography felt like a nice complement to the idea of producing street art. “Ninjalicious – I love the name – wrote a seminal book on what is sometimes referred to as ‘urban exploration,’ or ‘urbex.’ There are relationships between urbex and Parkour, because the principle of Parkour is that I’m going to move from here to there in the cleanest line possible. That’s really why the vaulting and the climbing and the wall-running takes place. That act of liberating yourself from the constraints of the city is similar to what the urbex explorer does. Layering the street art impulse on top of it just made it a nice, attractive package.”

On the subject of street art, Taylor displays an equal fascination, coupled with an abiding curiosity about the impulse behind its creation. “I’ve watched street artists at work,” Taylor says, “and the fundamental question to me is, ‘Why are they doing what they’re doing?’ By no conventional metric can I make sense out of this activity.” What was most puzzling for Taylor initially was why these people would go out in the middle of the night, often in the freezing cold, to hang a poster or paint a mural on a wall, with no hope for recognition or acclaim. Indeed, the anonymity of the artists in question is one of their defining features. It was only when one of Taylor’s friends, Vancouver photographer Lincoln Clarkes, told him that street art is a gift that the impulse behind its creation began to make sense. “When he first said it, I thought that it was very idealistic. But the more I watched them, and the less I was able to explain what they were doing, the more it occurred to me that what was happening was a kind of gift-giving: it was an instance of a person acting without explicable self-interest, and that in itself is a remarkable moment in human affairs.”

Taylor is quick to point out that The Blue Light Project was written before Banksy appeared on the scene. “Banksy has to some extent complicated this,” Taylor says. “To Banksy, it seems that we can ascribe motives that we understand: there seems to be an interest in increasing his own profile and increasing his own fame, despite the false cloak of anonymity.”

By contrast, the anonymous street artists that Taylor so clearly admires are able to provide an offering to a troubled world that testifies to what the author sees as a pristine human impulse: they underline the redemptive quality of creativity by combining it with a truly selfless act. Whether that in itself is enough to pull a fallen society away from the precipice it teeters on is uncertain, but Taylor retains an almost aggressive faith in human potential. “Can art save us?” Taylor asks. “Perhaps not. But the magic of bringing something into the world for no reason that benefits yourself – from that source, the beauty of art arises, and in that is a glimpse of divinity.”

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 5: “The Boar’s Head Easter” by Timothy Taylor

May 5, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Silent Cruise

From the spring of 1962 through the spring of the following year, Jake’s mother lived with her husband in Chicago. While she was there, she took a lover. Jake discovers this thirty years later when he reads his mother’s journals, which he has uncovered in the den of the aging woman’s condominium. He recruits his friend Syd, a photographer, and Syd’s girlfriend, Erin, to accompany him on a trip to Chicago over the Easter weekend with the intention of tracking down his mother’s old flame, now in his seventies, who is the chef of a game restaurant called The Boar’s Head.

Beginning from that simple premise, Timothy Taylor weaves a stunningly graceful tale about the nature of desire and the enduring tug of love.

It helps that Taylor’s prose is so supple and his facility for sensuous details so finely honed. In particular, he is adept at writing about food, at one point launching into an extended dinner sequence that compares the sybaritic indulgence in fine cuisine to poetry:

We talked about poetry. We talked about a gallery showing Syd had set up for Vancouver on his return. I explained the consommé techniques that result in its being perfectly clear.

Rabbit and wild rice pie followed, a careful slice plated table-side, garnished with sorrel. Sauterne the surprising choice here but perfectly, opulently balanced, full sweet to full savoury. Endless taste playing through the mouth. Butter lettuce salad next. Tossed with hazelnuts and oranges, the individual servings piled artfully with silver tongs. A glass of crisp white Bordeaux, not too cold. Citrus echoed nicely in the fragrance.

Back to poetry.

The final sentence is unnecessary, because Taylor has located the poetry in food, the luxurious, gustatory sensation of it, captured in prose that sings.

Taylor is first and foremost a stylist, but this is easy to miss, because there is nothing flashy about his style – no overly clever metaphors, no twee phrasing or self-satisfied verbal contortions. But when he describes a train making its way through the night as “scudding across a black sea, drumming with the energy of the rails,” the image is pristine: at once startling and completely recognizable. The description of the train entering Chicago is equally well done:

We burst past the charred shell of a warehouse and crossed North Branch. A sticky, viscous meander. Useless even to commerce. Union Station didn’t announce itself. We slowed to a crawl. Rounded a half-submerged corner past a thirty-storey building with lattices of wrought-iron fire escapes spidering down its sides. Then the city disappeared as we went underground and trembled to a stop.

The train’s “sticky, viscous meander” is surprising and vivid; the “half-submerged corner” zings with originality; and the train that “trembled to a stop” will chime instantly with anyone who has had experience with this mode of transport. It takes consummate skill to make writing appear this effortless.

The subtlety of the prose finds its match in the subtlety with which Taylor moves his characters through the story, teasing out their relationships without ever resorting to heavy-handedness or bald exposition. Through a sequence of carefully calibrated scenes, it becomes apparent that Jake and Erin are harbouring an unrequited desire for each other. The way their relationship plays itself out, and the note on which it resolves itself, is effected in seemingly effortless fashion. So too is the burgeoning friendship between Klaus, the chef at The Boar’s Head, and Jake, who was once a sous-chef at a failed restaurant in Vancouver. The similarities between these characters and their chosen professions is not accidental, and the trajectory of their story is foreseeable based on the situation Taylor has set up. What is not foreseeable, however, is the force that Jake’s epiphanic moment carries with it, a force that hits the reader doubly hard because the process of building toward it has occurred without the reader even realizing it.

Like Alice Munro, Taylor is able to convey depths of meaning and multiple layers of understanding through deceptively simple prose. It is appropriate that the story takes place over Easter weekend, a period of death and rebirth, for these are the twin poles that epitomize Jake’s experience. At one point, Jake reads in his mother’s journal: “Some rather beautiful and difficult things can be made in a surprisingly short period of time.” Taylor’s story explores emotions that are both beautiful and difficult, and does so with ease.