Like Any Other Monday (2014, Gaspereau Press) is Halifax author Binnie Brennan’s first novel, and it is an impressive one. From the moment you handle the book, you know that you are in for something special. Gaspereau Press has done a beautiful job of printing and binding this softcover book. It even comes with its own embossed paper dust jacket. Even if the pages inside were totally blank, you would still have a handsome softcover to display.
Fortunately, the 200+ pages inside are not blank, but filled with a wondrous, meticulously researched story set in a time period that has practically been forgotten: the American Vaudeville era. The vaudeville era arose in post-Civil War America (as well as in Canada) in the late 1880s and lasted to about 1930, when moving pictures began their rise to popularity.
Such was the case in 1916 with The Three Pascoes, a father-mother-son team. The son, Billy – like his father- is a master of slapstick comedy: pratfalls, flips, kicks and spins and being generally thrown about the stage by his father to peals of laughter from the delighted audience. However, his father’s increased drinking has threatened the popular headlining act. Immediately after the last show, Billy packs up and along with his mother Myra head to Muskoka to regroup and decide what to do about the act.
While in Muskoka, Billy and his mother learn about The Hart Sisters act that has had to stop performing due to one of the sisters becoming pregnant. Billy’s mother wants him to team up with Lucinda to create a new act and get back on the road. However, Lucinda is strictly a singer, and at first Billy doesn’t see the potential in working with a singer, but they, along with Lucinda’s sister Norma come up with a routine that they feel audiences will enjoy: Lucinda will sing (and be the ‘straight man’) while Billy acts the lovesick fool all around her. With Billy’s mother Myra in tow as chaperone, they go back on the road as Pascoe & Hart and refine the act to the point where they eventually become well-known across the vaudeville stages of North America.
On the surface, Like Any Other Monday may appear like a love story, but it is so much deeper than that. Billy and Lucinda, while working together out of sheer necessity, have no intentions of becoming more than that. However, after months of travelling together, doing the same act multiple times per day, several days per week, a romantic relationship emerges. Each has seen the other at their most vulnerable (chapter eight, “Diving” relates a chance encounter between Billy and Lucinda while in Muskoka that is very emotionally charged) so there is more than a working friendship there. What happens next is up to the reader to discover. I promised Ms. Brennan that I would not give out any spoilers (not that I would anyway!) so that is all I will say for the story itself! I enjoyed reading every page of it and have awarded it with a 2015 “Very Best!” Book Award for fiction.
The Binnie Brennan Interview
The author graciously agreed to an interview in which she reveals the basis for the Like any Other Monday’s (LAOM) setting, her literary influences and much more.
Miramichi Reader: Like Any Other Monday is loosely based on the life of vaudeville and early silver screen legend Buster Keaton. Where did the idea come from?
Binnie Brennan: Writing a fictional portrait of Buster Keaton took me by surprise, really. I hadn’t entertained the thought of writing historical or biographical fiction at all, but after reading Marina Endicott’s novel The Little Shadows I found myself immersed in the vaudeville era. From there came a three-year research odyssey on the early life of Buster Keaton, during which I wrote essays, prose-poetry inspired by Keaton’s short films, fictional vignettes about his childhood performances on the vaudeville stage, and finally a short story about two un-named vaudevillians breaking in a new act. I made a research trip to the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, California, where I had access to all manner of Buster Keaton’s papers, diaries, autograph books, and photo albums from his vaudeville years; a treasure-trove, really inspiring. Shortly afterwards I had another look at the short story I’d written, and decided to expand on it. From there came the novel. (That short story is now Chapter 13, by the way.)
MR: You have incorporated some interesting literary devices such as in your chapter changes, like “Snapshots” and the various newspaper reviews and theatre bills which I thought lent some authenticity to the book. Did you ‘invent’ the other acts on the bill as well as the newspaper columns?
BB: It made sense to include the “Snapshots”, reviews, and theatre bills as chapters in their own right. They gave a vaudevillian feel to the book, but also (I hope) they served to move the story along. Certainly the Snapshots contained within themselves a story arc. Most of the names on the various bills were actual vaudevillians I’d read about, although I fiddled with them to shape the programs to Billy and Lucinda’s needs.
One of the reasons why I wrote the book was to remind people today of these great performers who did so much to shape popular entertainment as we know it. I wonder how many readers know that Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Bob Hope had their beginnings in vaudeville; Charlie Chaplin, too. And they were the superstars. Between 1885-1925, every night across North America at least 40,000 performers took to the vaudeville stage, and most of them are now lost to history. By including their names in my story, I hope to keep them around just a little bit longer.
MR: Let’s talk about the backstage experiences in LAOM: the way you describe them, one can almost sense the commotion, the smells, and the pre-show excitement. Is this something you have taken from your own experiences as a performer with Symphony Nova Scotia?
BB: Yes, very much so. That sense of waiting in the wings and preparing to go onstage comes directly from my own experience, the mind-games and rituals that help performers along. Usually backstage during symphony concerts there is an ordered sense of calm, as we are blessed with really fine stage managers who keep things running smoothly and efficiently. But there is most definitely a heightened sense of awareness and focus among the musicians as we get ready to go on.
I’ve often been asked if I’d ever write a story about playing in an orchestra, and my answer is always a resounding “no” – too close to my own experience, and it’s something I’ve been doing for so long I wouldn’t find it particularly interesting to write about. But I was interested in writing about performance, which I think is what most people are curious to know about, anyway. The world of vaudeville, the era, and the performance demands fascinated me, particularly the life offstage.
MR: This book felt like a movie that could have been made in the golden age of Hollywood. I don’t think that there have been any movies dealing with that time period have there? Perhaps you have started something!
BB: First of all, let me say thank you for picking up on the cinematic “feel” of the book. I’ve watched a lot of silent movies over the past few years – not just Buster Keaton’s, but many of his contemporaries’ movies from the ‘teens and ‘twenties, such as Roscoe Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, and Charlie Chaplin, all of them enormously popular comedians of the silent era. I guess the shape and feel of a silent movie rubbed off on me, and my novel seemed ideal for that style of storytelling. I’ve learned, especially from Keaton, a lot about streamlining and minimalism, which is something I’ve always tried to achieve in my writing.
There haven’t been many movies made recently to do with the vaudeville era – a couple of Houdini bio-pics, and of course there was the silent movie “The Artist,” which was set in the late 1920s, and won the Academy Award in 2011. Over time there have been some great ones, notably “Cabaret” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” both of which take place later in time than does Like Any Other Monday, which is set in 1917. I like to think the time is right for a revival in interest in the vaudeville era, and if my book helps that along, then I feel I’ve done my job.
MR: It seems like you have the best of both worlds: music and writing. How do you find time to practise for the symphony and write too?
BB: I’m fortunate to be able to pursue two of my favourite creative endeavours. I’ve been a musician for as long as I’ve been an avid reader and maker-upper of stories, and to be able to carry them both through my professional life is a real gift.
It isn’t always easy to do both at once, so I just try to keep organized and a few steps ahead of myself. In the case of Like Any Other Monday, I wrote the first draft during an intensely busy time at work, smack in the middle of “Nutcracker” season. There was no stopping it, and I didn’t particularly want to stop it, but something had to give. In this case it was sleep.
MR: Tell us about some writers that inspired or influenced you.
BB: Margaret Laurence and Alistair MacLeod have been enormous influences on me. I started reading Laurence’s fiction when I was twelve years old; she was the first author to show me that you could write about ordinary people and render their lives extraordinary through great writing. MacLeod came along later. He was truly one of the great storytellers, and I had the immense good fortune to have him as a mentor through the Humber School for Writers.
MR: Who are some of your favourite composers? Other than classical music, do you enjoy other genres as well?
BB: How much time do we have? I find it impossible to narrow it down, but usually my favourite classical composer is whoever I’m listening to at the time. As for other genres, my first choice for listening is usually jazz. I feel very much at home with it.
MR: How about your favourite filmmakers? And favourite movie?
BB: Buster Keaton, hands-down. I wonder how many people today know that not only was he a superstar film comedian of the silent era, but he was also the director, chief gag-writer, and stunt man for all the films he made between 1920-1928 at the Buster Keaton Studios. Keaton was a technical wizard and a master stunt-man, and he brought about some of the most innovative and influential camera and stunt techniques of the era; and his sensitive eye for direction and pared-down storytelling have influenced filmmakers ever since. As an actor, Buster’s style was understated and natural, and his comedy was dry and unsentimental, which is my personal preference.
Choosing a favourite movie of his is like choosing a favourite piece of music – nearly impossible. Usually it’s whatever I’m watching at the time, but of Keaton’s short films, I would say “One Week” and “The Scarecrow,” and of his feature films, “Sherlock, Jr” and “The General.”
MR: What is next? Are you working on something new at the moment?
BB: A couple of things: I have a novel out being considered – nothing to do with the vaudeville era or Buster Keaton; it’s set in the 1960s during the Thalidomide crisis. And I’m writing something new, to do with family stories (not mine – pure fiction) and the reality of thwarted ambition that so many of our foremothers (and fathers) have had to face. I thought it might be another short story, but it’s just crossed the 90-page mark, which is rather long. It’s a long way from being finished, still in its infancy.
Co-winner of the 2009 Quattro Books’ Ken Klonsky Novella Contest, Binnie has also been published in several literary journals. Her novella, Harbour View, was published in the fall of 2009; in 2010 it was shortlisted for an Atlantic Book Award and longlisted for a ReLit Award. Her short story collection, A Certain Grace, was published in 2012. Binnie is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers, where she was mentored by M.G. Vassanji and Alistair MacLeod.
In 2007 Binnie’s story A Spider’s Tale was adapted for the stage in Halifax, where it received critical and popular acclaim. Since 1989 Binnie has enjoyed a career playing the viola with Symphony Nova Scotia. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia