Lee Gowan’s new novel is an audacious sequel to Sinclair Ross’ prairie classic, As for Me and My House. The Beautiful Place* is about a man who is in trouble in love and work—a darkly funny cautionary tale for our times.
Bentley is facing a triple threat—in other words, his life is a hot mess every way he looks. Like anyone who feels that he’s on the brink of annihilation, Bentley thinks back to his misspent youth, which was also the year he met his famous grandfather, the painter Philip Bentley, for the first time. To make matters worse, he has inherited his grandfather’s tendency to self-doubt, as well as that cranky artist’s old service pistol. Our hero is confused about so much. How did he end up as a cryonics salesman—a huckster for a dubious afterlife—when he wanted to be a writer? And who is the mysterious Mary Abraham, and why is she the thread unravelling his unhappy present? What will be left when all the strands come undone? Lee Gowan’s The Beautiful Place is the best kind of journey: both psychological and real, with a lot of quick-on-the-draw conversations and stunning scenery along the way —and only one gun, which may or may not be loaded.
Lee Gowan grew up on a farm near Swift Current, Saskatchewan, and studied at the University of British Columbia, where he earned an MFA in creative writing. He is the author of three previous novels: Confession, The Last Cowboy, and Make Believe Love, which was shortlisted for the Trillium Award for Best Book in Ontario. He is also an award-winning screenwriter, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for his screenplay Paris or Somewhere. He is currently Program Director, Creative Writing and Business Communications, at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies.
What was your starting point for The Beautiful Place?
I began in the summer of 2009 with no plan but to get something down on the page. In fact, the working title for the book in those infant stages was “Something”. What emerged was the beginnings of an examination of a post-modern family from the perspective of a husband in Toronto in his second marriage. He is intent on correcting the mistakes of his first marriage with his second, but things aren’t working out the way he planned. Two things added to the mix and formed a plan: my eldest son recommended a podcast about a cryonics company in California in the 60s and 70s. My protagonist became a cryonics salesman. At about the same time my boss, Ed Carson, who had a long and illustrious career in the publishing industry, told me I should write a sequel to Sinclair Ross’s classic prairie novel As For Me and My House. That novel is about a minister who doesn’t believe in God, and mine is about a cryonics salesman who doesn’t believe in cryonics. I tracked down a memoir by Keith Fraser called As For Me and My Body about his friendship with Sinclair Ross, and discovered that when I’d moved to the West End of Vancouver in 1985, Ross was living only a few blocks from me. From there the novel, and Bentley’s relationship with his grandfather, took on a clearer shape.
The protagonist is 50, so Generation X. His daughter possibly Gen Y. How does the post-modern family exist in the twenty-first century and is it better or worse than things were when Bentley was coming of age?
How the post-modern family exists and whether it is better or worse depends on the family. There are certainly more “blended” families than there used to be, Bentley’s experience being an example of that delicate balance and how things can go awry. The blending has its strengths, but also its fault-lines. In the end, for Bentley, it’s a question of figuring out how to make things better and how to avoid making things worse.
How do creative types approach the concept of humour in this ever-serious world in which we live?
The more serious things get, the more necessary it is to see the humour in things. For the writer, one danger is that humour might undermine your work by allowing the audience not to take it seriously, but being overly serious seems to me to be an even greater danger. At any rate, for me it’s impossible. Another danger in the humorous approach to serious things is glibness or an irony so stark that it doesn’t let in any light or humanity. The ultimate goal of humour should be to make the audience sit down and have a good cry.
The novel opens with chaos, problems of all sorts, financial uncertainty, etc. How do things such as the global housing crisis, Canada’s house market, etc., influence the novelist in today’s world?
We tell stories to make ourselves and our place in the world real. My novel is a sequel to As For Me and My House and the reason that novel is important to me is that it came out of a real place close to the place I come from, a place that I was not accustomed to seeing represented in fiction. Sinclair Ross had his first job at the Royal Bank in a town called Abbey, which is not far from the farm where I grew up. That town was the main model for the town of Horizon in his novel. So the place was all around me and I recognized the time from the stories my father told me about what he called “the good old days”: his childhood on the same farm where I grew up, during the dustbowl years of the Dirty Thirties. Ross was writing about his place and time, and I’m writing about mine, and though I spend most of the novel writing about Vancouver in the 1980s and Toronto in contemporary times, and so the Canadian housing market is part of the story, like him I ended up writing about the prairies.
What did you learn from your last novel and did you apply this to The Beautiful Place?
My last novel, Confession, was a sad story with a sad ending. I suppose this is a sad story too, but I wanted it to have a happier ending. I think I succeeded.
When was the last time you watched Paris or Somewhere?
It was in the summer of 2012, nine years ago, at the beginning of my relationship with Ranjini George. She’d read my three novels and my stories and wanted to see Paris or Somewhere. We watched it here, in the basement of her home. Now it is my home. I had not seen it in a decade. I don’t recall my impressions, seeing it through her eyes. Some pride and some shame, I think, though perhaps more shame, as I seem to have blocked the memory. My son found a VHS copy for sale in Melbourne, Australia. He bought it and brought it back to me, so it is sitting on my desk right now, but I have no technology to play it.
What advice do you give someone who wants to write the great Canadian novel? What would you suggest they do first?
The great Canadian novel? Does that mean the Canadian version of Moby-Dick, a novel that was a complete failure on publication, and was out of print when Melville died, so that he left this earth feeling very bitter and that he was a failure as a writer? My advice would be to be careful what you wish for. By comparison As For Me and My House actually did much better, selling a hundred thousand copies by the time Ross left us, but he still seems to have gone feeling that he was a failure. Writing a good novel about the place you come from, wherever that may be, is a noble pursuit, and so I would encourage them, but I couldn’t really give them any advice except to persevere. Writing a novel is a marathon. What to do first? Write the first sentence, I guess. It’s just one sentence after another, unless the great Canadian novel is another book that’s only one sentence. I don’t think so.
What is your favourite place to write?
Right now it’s my desk in our bedroom, where I moved last fall, during the pandemic, just in time to write the final drafts of The Beautiful Place. I’d been using the study until then, which has a view of the ravine out back. Ranjini is also a writer and used to prefer working at the kitchen table. However, the pandemic, with everyone working from home, made that impossible, as we all kept walking into her office to get food and beverages and were constantly distracting her. She tried writing in the bedroom, but it didn’t work for her. So I gave her back her study, moved to the bedroom, and the next thing I knew I had a book deal. They don’t recommend putting your office in your bedroom, but it worked out okay for me.
What was the hardest part of putting The Beautiful Place together?
The beginning and the ending. And the middle. It was all difficult. It took twelve years. I sometimes lost faith it would ever come together. I couldn’t find the right opening, but in the last eighteen months I got some excellent feedback from Ranjini and Dennis Bock and Chris Gudgeon and Kim Echlin and the beginning fell into place. Kim and Ranjini helped me make the middle work. Most of the first three quarters had existed in one form or another for many years, so it was just a matter of shuffling and cutting until everything was in the right order. The ending, on the other hand, was not working at all. While I was polishing the middle, I got an idea for a new ending. Last September (or was it October?) Liz Philips, an old friend from Saskatchewan, started a job as an editor for Thistledown Press. She knew I’d been working on the novel for years and asked if I’d be interested in submitting it, but I still hadn’t written the new ending. I dove right in and wrote the last quarter of the book in less than a month. Liz and the Thistledown readers liked it, and I had a contract. I did the first big edit that pandemic Christmas, working every day including Christmas day. Actually, I only did half a day on Christmas day, because I had to make the Christmas dinner.
*The Beautiful Place will be released by Thistledown Press on September 30th, 2021