1. What was the starting point of the novel? Did it start with music, because music plays such an important part of the novel?
As important as it is to the novel, music was not my starting point. I would love to say that it was, because I think some of the writing about music and the creative process is some of the strongest in the novel, but that came later. To start a story or a novel, I need an image. And the image I had was that of a funeral. In particular, in the scene of the funeral, the key image is that of hands. There’s Michel’s mother’s gloved hand on the edge of the pew; there’s Michel’s awareness of his hand as he takes out the key to unlock his car door.
(Later, there’s an image of Michel having to catch pucks with his bare hands as punishment by his father for having lost his goalie’s mitt.) That funeral image became part of a story I wrote in the early 1990s and which was never published. There are several other bits in that story that became incorporated into Everything I Own, such as Michel’s story about his childhood friend, Claude. These were the starting points; the music came later after I discovered who my protagonist was as an adult and what he did for a living and how he came to be who he is.
2. You kind of say so in the novel, but how do you see music and politics linked during this volatile period of Quebec history? Do artists have power to shape or change history?
There are many so-called inspirations for the Quiet Revolution that threw off the
shackles of the Catholic Church and the Duplessis era in Quebec and fed nationalist sentiment. Some of these inspirations, such as Gabrielle Roy’s Bonheur d’occasion, are artistic. Many Québécois artists, poets, writers and musicians were in the vanguard of the indépendantiste movement. Folks like Michel Tremblay, the playwright, and Yves Beauchemin, the novelist, both of whom relied on joual as a fundamental expression of Quebec, singer Pauline Julien and her poet husband, Gérard Godin, and Michel Rivard, the lead singer of Beau Dommage.
In her book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley writes: “The question
arises with Quixote, as with every strong protagonist: does he shape the world, or does it shape him? This question is present in the mere process of the author shifting his attention from Quixote to the world around him and back to Quixote and back to the world around him, realizing each in ever more detail, fitting each more and more to the other in what you might call artistic unity.”
I pose the same question in Everything I Own, particularly as Michel Laflamme, the protagonist, a hugely successful songwriter, whose songs have been listened to by tens if not hundreds of thousands of people, is debating whether to throw his weight into a fundraising effort after the Saguenay floods in 1996. Michel asks the same question about songwriting. How much power does a song have to change the world? And taken to its logical next question: Since the song is a construction by an artist, by a songwriter, does the songwriter shape the world or does it shape him? And then, the next questions: does anyone shape the world? How much of the world do we, can we, shape?
Beauchemin, Tremblay and Rivard, Godin and Julien: did they shape history? Maybe. Their presence center stage in the indépendantiste debate would have influenced people, perhaps not into thinking one way or the other, but in how at least some of the discussion was carried out. Their presence was absolutely necessary: no discussion of Quebec sovereignty is possible without discussing Quebec culture, which obviously included the fine arts, the dramatic arts, and the expressive arts. They provided the vocabulary and the heart. This was a movement that swept people up. And there was a sound to that: a melody and a beat, drama, narrative. Have you ever been to a Michel Rivard concert? When the lighters go up and everybody’s swaying to Je voudrais voir la mer? When Quebecers read Beauchemin’s Le Matou or later his Charles series, they were reading about themselves in the same way their ancestors were reading about themselves in Bonheur d’occasion. And when you read about yourself and you see your life depicted in a certain way, you think, whoa, what’s wrong with this picture? And you go about trying to repaint it.
3. Are you a musician? How does music figure in your own life?
I played piano when I was young and I can still read music, so I can hear a tune by seeing it, but that’s about as far as my abilities have taken me. Music remains, however, a central figure in my life. There’s always been a song, whether it’s a tune, a lyric or both, in my head – and that was before iPods and earbuds!
Music to me is sometimes like a bookmark, a placeholder. Songs have a way of immediately transporting me to a time and place. I hear Nazareth’s “Love Hurts” and I am in the kitchen of my neighbor on Dallaire Street in Aldenville, Massachusetts. I hear Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” and I’m getting off this old, light-blue bicycle that my father fitted with baskets over the rear-wheel guard that I then filled with newspapers. It’s mid-afternoon, about 3:30-4 p.m. and I’m delivering the Transcript-Telegram to a house on Fair Street and my ears are pierced by this amazing voice. And it’s Steven Tyler.
I think, given some of the things that were going on in my life when I was between 11 and 15, that I took shelter in pop music and this is perhaps why I am able to conjure those images so readily. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I suppose my daughter will probably feel the same in 20 or 30 years: if they’re playing Jonas Brothers and Lady Gaga on oldies stations then, she might remember being a 15-year-old girl living in Abu Dhabi. I play with this idea of music and memory a lot in Everything I Own.
Of course, music isn’t just about nostalgia and not every song takes me to some place in history. As I got older music meant different things to me and I came at music no longer as a teenager losing himself and his problems inside a tune but physically – going out dancing – or intellectually – where I can understand what a songwriter is doing and how a song is working itself out – and then of course, there’s just pure enjoyment, where the song doesn’t come with any historical baggage and I’m just loving it for what it is.
4. What is your hunch about the similarities between writing a song and writing a novel?
I can think of three similarities, someone who writes both, like Steve Martin, could
probably think of others, but first, there’s the reliance on image. The best songs aren’t going to be just moon and June rhymes but filled with solid images that make you understand by way of simile and metaphor what that means. “Sweet dreams and flying machines and pieces on the ground” is a great image for a shattered love. Second, rhythm. That’s obvious in terms of songwriting, but in a novel you’ve got rhythm as well: each sentence, each paragraph, even each chapter, is going to have its own rhythm and the novel will have a certain pace because of that. Last is economy. I talk about that a bit in Everything I Own. There’s a scene in which Michel is having beers with his wife, Bijou, and their friend Dany Vox after one of Dany’s concerts and someone says with amazement how crazy difficult it must be to convey so much with so few words. And one of the characters actually does say that, yes, it’s about economy. You know, in a three-minute song you’ve got a hundred, hundred and fifty words. Better use ’em well. In a novel, you’re economizing, too, but not in terms of brevity. You’re being wise in the words you choose. You’re also trying to avoid inflation – where a novel just keeps growing and growing. It’s best to stop when the story’s done.
5. Are we meant at book’s end to feel hopeful about the marriage between Michel and Bijou and the marriage that is Canada? Are the notes you sound at the end meant to feel hopeful?
Everything I Own ends in a flashback that is kind of hopeful, even though we know from what’s come before that things don’t end so well between the father and the son. What is important to understand from that last flashback is that Michel would not have become who he was if not for his father – as hard as it may be to accept that. So Michel becomes the father to his stepdaughter that Noël never was to Michel. That’s how the novel begins and that’s how the last chapter begins: Michel is on his way to the airport to collect Laurence from the airport to surprise his wife, Bijou, with her daughter’s return to Canada after many years. It’s reconciliation time at the Laflammes’.
In metaphorical terms, neither Canada nor Quebec would have become what it is now without the other. Am I hopeful about the marriage between Michel and Bijou? Absolutely. Because I’m hopeful about Quebec and Canada.
6. Were you listening to music, and if so what, while you were writing?
Mostly, I listened to a lot of Quebec music, everything from the 1960s garage bands of Montreal, like Mashmakhan, then on to the 1970s with Harmonium, Jean-Pierre Ferland, Robert Charlebois, the cinq géants, the 1980s and Marjo, Dianne Dufresne, all of the big Plamandon hits, Claude Dubois, then on to the late 1990s and 2000s and Isabelle Boulay, I’ve got more Isabelle Boulay on my iPod than just about anyone else!, and of course, I listened to a lot of Beau Dommage, the seminal 1970s Quebec folk group that became the model in Everything I Own for Bijou’s former band, Beaupré.
7. Why is the book structured the way it is?
A book’s structure is a way for a writer to tell a reader how to read the work. Sometimes a novel is told chronologically or, as is popular now, with short stories that are linked by people or place. It took me a long time to figure out how to tell this story about Michel Laflamme and his wife, the pop singer Bijou, and his troubled relationship with his father. I was researching songwriting because Michel’s a songwriter – I’d never myself written a song so realized I’d better know a little bit about what he did! – when I came across the modified thirty-two bar form, which is a standard way of structuring a blues song and of course many pop and rock ‘n’ roll songs. Its structure is like this:
Refrain or chorus
Refrain or chorus
Refrain or chorus.
There are tons of examples of this type of structure in rock: Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin, River Deep Mountain High by Ike and Tina Turner (and recently by the Glee cast), and the song from which I borrow the title for my novel, Everything I Own, which was recorded back in the 1970s by Bread and redone recently by Vanessa Hudgens in the movie Band Slam.
The structure suited Everything I Own, the novel, perfectly. It’s forgiving. It allows me to move the story forward and hit the recurrent important themes a couple of times until the bridge, which is the denouement.
In Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, she points out that in most novels, there’s a plot point or some kind of “then” moment about 10 percent into the storytelling. And a last plot point 10 percent from the end of the novel. My novel, quite accidentally and even within the confines of the modified thirty-two bar form, follows that. I didn’t do it purposefully. But it is pretty spooky how it happens.
The other great thing about this particular structure was that each chapter, whether a verse or chorus, was long enough and flexible enough to accommodate the flashbacks that are the heart of the novel. And that’s a good thing because, let’s face it, not a whole heck of a lot happens in the “real time” of the novel: Michel’s stuck in traffic for three hours on the Jacques Cartier Bridge!
8. Did you write the novel all the way through, in order?
Except for the few parts of the novel that I’d written separately 10 years before I even started working on Everything I Own, yes, I wrote the novel from beginning to end. Once I was comfortable with the thirty-two bar form as the structure of the novel it made the telling easier. It forced me to outline, which I hadn’t done before with previous novels, and even though looking back at my old notes, I see I didn’t always keep to the original outline. But that’s OK. That’s probably the way it should be. The novel is too much an organic form to be under the tight control of an outline. And when I’d come to a point where something I’d written previously felt like it belonged there, I retrieved it, greased it up a bit and put it in.
9. Who’s the character you identify with most?
I identify with all my characters; I must: there’s a bit of me in all of them or a bit of
them in me.
But if I must identify with someone I would have to say I identify most closely with Michel Laflamme, the protagonist. Readers will probably think that anyway because Everything I Own is written in the first person, they might even assume there’s a fair bit that’s autobiographical, though I’d probably have said I identify with him regardless of which voice the novel had been told in. Michel’s creative struggle is similar to mine, though he’s had much greater success as a songwriter than I have had as a novelist. That could just be me projecting! Michel’s got an older wife whom he adores even though the relationship is sometimes rocky. I have an older wife whom I love but the relationship is a lot more solid than Bijou and Michel’s. He had a difficult relationship with his father, one that was never reconciled. Michel’s father is not my father. I love my father. It wasn’t always easy growing up under his thumb, but that’s normal.
10. How did your skills as a journalist help you write the novel?
Well, it helps being able to tell a story, something that makes sense and has some kind of logic to it. Being a good observer helps, just watching people do things, how they talk, paying attention to details that give character to a person. These are all things I do as a journalist and as a novelist. It helps in terms of research, too, I suppose. Just asking questions and learning what to look for and how to get it.