By Iain Reid
The first question Mark Kingwell asked John Ralston Saul at the Fleck Dance Theatre on Sunday afternoon was: “Why fiction now?”
The two writers, familiar to one another and seemingly at ease, were alone on stage. Saul, who has returned to fiction with his novel, Dark Diversions, replied he’s always considered himself a novelist first and an essayist second. He believes fact-based work typically doesn’t last the way fiction or poetry does. Ideas for him are like characters. “Novels have the best form out there,” he said.
The crowd learned this book was 20 years in the making. Saul shared stories of his early days of writing. It was in France where he wrote his first novel at 29. The novel was attacked by certain papers. He was troubled at first but began to find this extreme reaction fun and necessary. “Part of being a writer is being under attack,” he said.
For this book Saul used a first-person narrator, a form, he told Kingwell, he typically avoids. He explained he usually finds first person narration to be a thin veil for the actual writer. “This narrator doesn’t want to be the subject. The subject is what he’s stumbling upon.”
Their discussion touched on the style of the book, the twists and misunderstandings throughout. Kingwell added, “I think there’s also a lot about agency.”
Saul reiterated this was an interview and not a reading but did spontaneously read a few lines from the book. He picked a section to highlight its humour. It seemed his only concern for the event was that it might be too serious. After all, “the book is a dark comedy,” he said.
“It’s a very funny book,” replied Kingwell.
As it had in previous events, the topic of originality and how each writer is influenced by earlier works and authors came up. “There are all these tentacles attached to you as a writer,” he said.
As Kingwell wrapped up the session he made a reference to Gogol and his relevance to Saul’s own work. Saul looked at him for a moment across the coffee table between them. “You’re good,” he said.