March 2011

Heather Clitheroe

features

An Interview with Timothy Taylor

Canadian author Timothy Taylor took some time to talk about his latest novel, The Blue Light Project, due out in March. It's a novel about, among other things, a hostage-taking crisis at a theatre where a children's talent show -- somewhat American Idol-esque but far more ruthless -- is being filmed.

The novel features Eve Latour, a has-been Olympic athlete, trying to find meaning in the years since her gold medal and searching for a lost brother, Rabbit, a street artist with a curious past, and Pegg, a disgraced journalist now working for a tabloid press agency after fabricating sources for a story that nearly wins a Pulitzer Prize. Of the three, Pegg is arguably the most fascinating: a shell of a man. But KiddieFame, a reality show where the worst and the best child competitors are voted off, presents an unsettling vision of just how far the gaping masses are willing to go.

It's a novel ostensibly about crisis, but more than that, it's a story of redemption and the startling beauty of art in unexpected places -- but also about the brutality of the ever-churning celebrity machine, the spoils of war and torture, and the price of fear. Taylor weaves his story through these seemingly disparate themes, drawing them together in a final, startling conclusion.


Do you think this is a postmodern novel? The images that accompany the text, the fragments of Pegg's manuscript, Meme media, and even the mention of pastiche - intentionally postmodern? Or do you think novels are necessarily becoming postmodern?

You could say the picture/text combination is postmodern, I suppose. But I thought of it more as a way of suggesting the relationship that real world research had to this book. It was completely different than in Stanley Park and Story House where I went to conventional sources for info, then transcribed “real life” into the narrative. It was all completely blurred in The Blue Light Project. Real life art entered the book via my descriptions. But the book itself was already on the street as early as 2007, since before-first-draft pages were used in street art installations. That in turn gave rise to art that originated in the book -- my own creations, you could say -- coming to life on the street. “You’ll Find It Where You Last Saw It” is a good example. I came up with that one for Rabbit. But a month or so back I saw it in an alley. I have no idea who put it up, and I’m not fibbing creatively here. I asked my closest street art friend and he didn’t know either. So … postmodern in the sense of authorship and authenticity being both concepts under siege? You bet.

I'm curious why you chose to include street art in the book as well as writing about it -- did you choose the images, or were they created for you? Which came first?

I met artists and wrote their work into the narrative (I actually stood on Hastings Street exactly as Eve is described standing in Stofton and watched Freedom Is Slavery going up. I saw the dancing woman, hence the quote on the title page. She’s real.) But I also saw some work that I created go onto the street as I mentioned. The flows were two-way and became almost impossible to track. Check out this post on the topic of two-way flows. Not only is Jerm’s tense personal story a physical part of my book now, a fictional character named Beyer is apparently alive and well and living it large off the page. Rabbit himself flows both ways as parts of him are imaginary and parts are very real (based on a shadowy someone). So that’s why there had to be pictures: to show the flow.

KiddieFame: do you think reality tv and the endless talent shows will bring pop culture to that point?

I think reality television, and the celebrity machinery more generally, are quasi-sacrificial systems. We are using that whole system to select, groom and elevate certain citizens that we then reserve the right to later discard, in sometimes brutal ways. I read a GQ piece  recently on Billy Ray Cyrus that made this point, unwittingly. The writer Chris Heath may be completely unconscious of what he’s doing here, in the sense that I’m describing it. But it’s all betrayed in one short passage where Heath praises a song that Cyrus played for him at the kitchen table of his mansion, the house now empty in the wake of his family dissolving (and thus justifying the story). The song, Heath protests too loudly, was beautiful. And yet Cyrus was mocked on every other level as being something freakish and unusual: over-weaningly ambitious, tacky, with bad hair, Mr. Hannah Montana’s Achy Breaking heart, etc. etc. The fact is, Cyrus is distressingly familiar: self-conscious, defensive, hurt, desiring acclaim. In other words, Cyrus is no different than Heath or any of the rest of us. And that song Cyrus played (I feel confident) was sentimental crap. So the whole account was inverted. Cyrus isn’t a freak who writes exquisite songs. He’s a very ordinary guy who writes sentimental crap. Why was he selected for “sacrifice” by GQ? Because he nakedly desires and achieves what so many people also desire and do not achieve. And as a tragic nexus point of desire, he also becomes an object of our ridicule. Bear in mind that when we desire what our model has, we desire not the object but the essence of who the model is. We want to be them. And sensing this in ourselves, we quietly loath not only ourselves but the model. And here, in the pages of GQ, the sacrificial machinery went to work, taking the guy down. Executing the guy not for our pleasure exactly, but in the vain hope that our own insatiate desires might be temporarily stilled.

So, that’s what I think reality television and the machinery of celebrity are all about. And I say this as someone who watches Chopped. Hey, on that note, have you noticed how food television has slowly started to morph over into that reality structure where they axe and burn people? That’s one contagious idea.

In your acknowledgements, you take time to credit pivotal scenes and background music. Do you plan to reveal how they correspond to the novel?

Fair question. I wasn’t trying to be tricky or mysterious. I more just wanted to illustrate how this surprising assortment of people and things and songs and places end up becoming mission critical to a project like a novel. A glimpse into process. Something like that. I decode for you, herewith:

Dublin Project Arts Centre: was watching Per Pederson read and a man burst into the theater through a side door. Having just watched the documentary Terror in Moscow, about the Moscow Theater Crisis, this had a certain effect on me.

First, I thought exactly what a lot of Moscow survivors reported thinking when the Chechens burst into that theater: is this part of the show?

Second, recognizing this reaction for what it was, I immediately wondered if they guy was up to no good. And my heart started racing. In the end, he was probably looking for the bathroom and opened the wrong door. But that memory stayed with me.

Think Café is where a significant amount of the very first draft was written.

1111 Nicollette Mall in Minneapolis is a working model for “the plaza,” although smaller.

Pigeon Park = Stofton, the lower slopes, the place dope gets bought and sold.

As for music, coming down the tower at the end, Pegg describes hearing music, many voices. That’s Carbon Dating Service. The torture scenes were Deerhoof driven, and I say this with apologies to the band. Oscar played through everything else. I’m in debt to these artists in strange but forceful ways, and I wanted to acknowledge that.

Do you think you'll write about Pegg and Rabbit again?

Never say never. But not sure I see it at the moment.

The book features gang stalking and torture along with themes of celebrity and paranoia -- if you don't mind me asking, how did you come to arrive at these topics?

They’re the phenomena of our age. I had to write about them.

Celebrity we’ve sort of covered. In addition to seeing it as quasi-sacrificial, I also see it as a default value system when no consensus agreement can be reached on any other set of values. In our era, there is very little agreement on what constitutes a public good. Over in the philosophers corner of the room, meanwhile, they’re busy discussing whether there is any such thing as a good at all. Joel Marks at Philosophy Now recently encapsulated this position in his Amoral Manifesto. But what the philosophers don’t say is that there is default value around which a culture will come to orbit if no other common value can be identified, and that’s money/status/power, which are enshrined in the shimmering drama will call celebrity.

All that, we understand to be superficial and not quite real. As I’ve said, I see it as playing a quasi-sacrificial role in our culture, with the stress on “quasi.” People may be hurt (Billy Ray Cyrus does have feelings), but generally nobody is killed. Or at least, generally they aren’t killed by anyone other than themselves. And yet we sense that darker action is afoot. And here we arrive on the gang-stalking, paranoia and torture side of the discussion.

Bear with here for a historical note. In the late 19th century there used to be a phenomenon known as the “mad traveler,” a young adult male, typically, who would suddenly go into a trance and starting wandering around the countryside. Weeks, even months later, these travelers would “wake up” and report not knowing how they got wherever they got. It was THE neuro-psychiatric affliction for the romantic age, you could say, when the dream state, the noble savage, and innocent encounters with nature were all the rage. The perfect Rousseauian neuroses.

That’s what gang-stalking is in the early 21st century. Of course it’s a product of different cultural circumstances. The Internet, for one, which enables the sharing of info widely and massively, and contributes I believe to the consistency from one gang-stalking account to another (men in black caps, white vans, cars with a missing hubcap… enjoy). But the most critical factor I believe to be an intense and pervasive distrust. Even sane people are distrusting of institutions, at this point in history. And we’re distrustful, in part -- sane or otherwise -- because of a dread doubt about what’s been done in our names (in theaters of war and, yes, interrogation rooms around the world). We feel, as Pegg says: sick with knowing.

Is this book apocalyptic or hopeful, then?

I’m answering my own question here because it’s a necessary follow up to the one before. In other words, I would have less than no interest in the above situation -- which is admittedly apocalyptic -- if there were no source of hope. Without hope, why bother with anything, let alone novels? But there is hope, sure there is. My friend, the photographer Lincoln Clarkes once said to me: “You know, the only way to explain street art is to think of it as a gift.” In other words, it makes no sense measured against the default values we were discussing before. It only makes sense as a response to some other value, outside ourselves, on some higher perch.

Art still might not save us. But that higher value might, that capacity to give.