The Miramichi Reader
Biography Interview

The Sherrill Grace Interview


“I write against violence. I write against fascism. I write against one person dominating another.”

Timothy Findley

Already garnering attention from the likes of Margaret Atwood on Twitter, Tiff: A Life of Timothy Findley is finally here. First announced over three years ago in Quill & Quire, this mammoth investigation of Findley’s life has been getting some well-deserved buzz from scholars and authors alike, including Mount Allison University’s Christi Verduyn, author of Lifelines: Marian Engel’s Writings, says Tiff is a “compelling portrait of a complex man and brilliant multifaceted writer.” while Andrew Pyper says the new biography “brings thoughtful attention to both the man and the work, the latter of which notably marked the national literature by its particular obsessions and inventions.”

Writing such a major biography is never easy. So, it should come as no surprise that Tiff: A Life of Timothy Findley (which comes with illustrations, insight and a beautiful hardcover to keep everything about his incredible life contained) was many years in the making. Mordecai Richler and Timothy Findley died a year apart. When Findley died in 2002, in some ways, this was the end of an era for a certain paradigm in Canadian literature. Sherrill Grace, who is the author of several books and a Professor Emeritus at UBC, says Timothy Findley as a subject is quite timely right now on so many current issues.

What is it about Timothy Findley that made such a lasting impression on Canadians and the world of art?

Sherrill Grace: People loved him. Young people, students in particular, felt he understood them. He had that rare ability to make one feel he was totally there with just you. And he would greet everyone warmly, directly, regardless of who they were. My sense is that he was also greatly admired with much affection by readers as the fine writer he was.

What makes his work relevant and vital today?

Sherrill Grace: From human rights to environmental degradation, looming threats of war and the absolute need for imagination to save us all.

Has reading and writing so thoroughly on this subject changed what being a writer means to you?

Sherrill Grace: No. This work only confirmed what I’ve known from many years of teaching, research, and publishing on, for example, Malcolm Lowry, a profoundly tormented writer (Under the Volcano, etc).  ML was an alcoholic with a troubled family history; hugely intelligent and a gifted writer who Findley admired.  I spent many years preparing Malcolm Lowry’s two-volume Collected Letters (1995-96), which took me deeply into his private and professional life, and have lectured, taught, discussed Lowry’s work over many years.  Preparing Sharon Pollock’s biography (Making Theatre: A Life of Sharon Pollock, 2008) took me inside the world of theatre, which has proved very helpful with TF’s life.  Research on Tom Thomson was fascinating and informed my appreciation for the necessary privacy and isolation, plus the obsessive creativity, of a painter.  TT resembles TF in more ways than one (that’s another story!), and is an artist TF loved.  Inventing Tom Thomson (2004) meant digging deeply into the concepts, pitfalls, and storytelling demanded of biography and autobiography. 

For my book, Canada and the Idea of North (2001) I travelled my own country extensively, and that research proved invaluable for understanding TF’s love of the “North.”  Ditto for my research on Labrador explorer Mina Benson Hubbard.  So you see, I have lived with writers and lived as a writer all my professional life.  Being a writer is bloody hard, solitary work, but writers differ in how they work, how quickly they work, and in what drives them and blocks them.  My writers—and interestingly many painters, like Thomson—do drafts they reject and struggle constantly with how to say/paint what they are compelled to communicate; they often drink, never marry, or have failed marriages.  My writers kept and annotated their drafts, kept diaries or journals, and wrote interesting letters.  They preserved everything (unless, like Lowry, a fire destroyed mss—another story), and lived intensely in specific landscapes.  So tracing their lives involved exhaustive archival work, a lot of travel to walk literally in their footsteps, and determined searches for facts, items, people, influences, photographs. I have ruined my eyesight and my back, but I love writing and research…and teaching.

If he were alive today, what do you think Timothy Findley would be writing about? 

Sherrill Grace: He would be writing about the things that he always wrote about and lived.  He was prescient about threats to the social contract and the serious challenges facing contemporary society.  A. degradation of the environment; climate change; drastic loss of habitat and species in our oceans and on land.  B. censorship in all its forms and on all “platforms.” He warned against the silencing of free speech as he watched this escalating.  In a dramatic speech he gave at Duthie’s Book shop in Vancouver in 1993 he threw classic works of literature from Shakespeare to Dickens to Conrad to Toni Morrison, Atwood etc etc on the floor to mimic the Nazi book burnings in the 1930s.  In 1978 he rose to the defense of Margaret Laurence when The Diviners was threatened with a ban in schools.  He helped with a vigorous defense of The Wars in 1994 when a parents’ group petitioned the regional school board to drop it from their English curriculum; the book stayed!  C. he viewed religious extremism that fuelled censorship, homophobia, and misogyny as a real and present threat to a democratic society.  He warned against a rise in totalitarian regimes, fascist ideology, and the kind of violent hatred that led to the Holocaust. 

What was the most chaotic research session you experienced?

My research has never been “chaotic” because I plan and organize with great care.  So I can’t say I have ever had a chaotic session except during Lowry research in a Texas archive known for mold; I became very ill and had to return home quickly!  However, I have had many standout fascinating, exciting events.  Here are 2 examples during my research:  1. Archival work: Looking for Findley’s beloved Aunt Ruth required thinking outside the boxes, while applying the information, clues I had assembled.  One must connect the dots but be nimble and change course quickly if/when something new pops up.  I tracked her down in the microfilm room in the basement of the TO Library, scrolling through the Mail and Empire (the Mail would eventually merge with the Globe to make our G and M) for the years 1912 to 1920.  I knew she had published poems under a penname, “Nicholas Fagan,” so I was looking for that name on the page and area of the page, which typically carried poetry.  On my last day of Toronto research for that trip, I found her/him.  It’s a much more convoluted story, but that’s the key point: she was found; she was indeed using that penname; she did indeed publish her work, as TF always said; and she has been entirely erased from poetry collections and all but one other source.  This is the aunt who was institutionalized for mental illness; her family called her “mad,” a term TF rejected.  TF recreates Ruth as Lily in The Piano Man’s Daughter, where she becomes a fascinating, ill to be sure, visionary person who is creative and sings.  I was doing this scrolling work, which is ghastly by the way—awful on the eyesight and the back—with my grad student assistant.  When Ruth/Nicholas Fagan suddenly appeared we screeched with glee and the archivists came running over to laugh and cheer with us.  After 5 days of sleuthing, they knew who we were hoping to find and were almost as pleased as I was!!!  (Caveat: one should be quiet in libraries and archives.) 2.  Fieldwork: I do a lot of actual on the ground research, as you now know, so I am not easy to faze.  But this was a tad unnerving.  TF and his family lived at various Rosedale addresses, so I made several trips to the area south of St Clair.  On one sunny day I was touring the streets with my map, address list and a briefcase.  I did not trespass but I did stop to look and cross check details and make notes.  I did not take photos.  About an hour into this tracing of Findley family history, I realized I was not alone: a person in an unmarked car was following me.  The window glass was tinted, so I could not see the driver, but I got the message.  This was a hired security person, and I looked suspicious.  I’m afraid I carried on with my work because I was there honestly on the taxpayers’ dime  (SSHRC funding) and had a duty to complete what I came for.  Luckily I was not stopped and the car eventually left me alone.  Have you ever read Headhunter?  Well, cars cruise Rosedale in that novel, and this does not end happily.  I knew this novel well and did not like the prospect of living inside it!

So is it safe to say that you have a passion for research?

I love my research.  I have what some journalists call “the burn in the belly,” except I describe it as a form of mental and emotional fixation/obsession.  The desire to answer questions, solve mysteries, find the exact ‘scene,’ wakes me up at night (I often stumble to my desk to scribble a reminder note).  When I do wake up in the morning, this desire sits on top of me, in my head.  The adrenalin starts going.  Research is engrossing, invigorating, exhausting, and fun.  It’s like detective work requiring cognitive acuity, agility, vigilance, and curiosity (biographers are often called plain nosey).  But there is one more essential aspect of research, certainly for me:  we must accept what we cannot know.  As Julian Barnes so aptly puts it in The Man in the Red Coat: “‘We cannot know.’  If used sparingly, this is one of the strongest phrases in the biographer’s language.”  And with TF there are many things I cannot know; they niggle, bug me, but that’s research and a time comes to let go.  If you will excuse the analogy, it’s rather like childbirth: you have to let go.  And there is often, for me at least, a real let down, almost like postpartum blues, when the book goes to press.

Tiff: A Life of Timothy Findley is available from WLU Press and your local bookstore.

(Contributed)

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