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Timothy Findley
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timothy findley:
the pianoman's daughter



For The Edmonton Sun

Timothy Findley
The Pianoman's Daughter, first edition cover

Timothy Findley is sitting in an Edmonton café proudly describing the turn-of-the-century photographs of his family that adorn the endpapers of his latest novel, The Piano Man's Daughter (HarperCollins).

"They're so charming, they're so intrinsically moving, as any family photographs are," says Findley, and he is right: the photographs are as charming and moving as The Piano Man's Daughter itself, and that should come as no surprise. The novel was inspired by Findley's own family.

Findley is the bestselling author of Headhunter, The Telling of Lies, Not Wanted on the Voyage and The Wars, the now-classic novel set during World War I. Whereas The Wars chronicled the experiences of the men in Findley's family, The Piano Man's Daughter follows the history of his mother's side of the family.

"It was wonderful to go back and find aspects of my own memories and the family anecdotes about place in this novel, and equally in The Wars," says Findley. "My grandmother lived in Collingwood, Ont., and my grandfather did what the piano man in the novel does: he would get on a train, go around a whole circle of towns, demonstrating pianos in each town. In those days, all the salesmen did this, and they often did this together: the women's clothing salesman, the farm machinery salesman. They'd all arrive in town at one time, and they would take over one of these display rooms hotels would have. There would be dancing and there would be parades. My grandfather met my grandmother in the town of Collingwood when he was out demonstrating pianos. He was a good businessman, so he got drawn into the business side of the piano world and ended up owning a factory of his own."

The main character of The Piano Man's Daughter is Lily, the offspring of Ede Kilworth, who stands in for Findley's grandmother, and Thomas Wyatt, the piano man. Findley says Lily was partially based on his own aunt Ruth, who suffered from schizophrenia, and whom Findley adored nonetheless.

"Lily is autistic and not schizophrenic. She's quite different than my aunt, but there was this general aura created by my aunt of a very beautiful woman who spoke very softly and who had a marvellous relationship with the world, which included all its spirits," says Findley. "So you would sit in rooms filled with angels and out in the park or in the garden, you included the trees and the flowers in your conversation."

Findley's writing is populated by characters who most people would dismiss as mad, including the schizophrenic librarian who is the hero of Headhunter.

"I'm always fascinated by the other view of the world, which I think is the view we're all missing and which is the one that might open the door to survival if we paid attention," says Findley. He cites "An Anthropologist on Mars", an article by the American neurologist Oliver Sacks (a Hollywood movie of his book Awakenings starred Robin Williams) about a severely autistic woman who came to Sacks' attention.

"It turned out that one of her great talents was that she could communicate with animals, and she has become a recognized genius of animal communication, and yet, for the first part of her life she was treated as a total loss and had nothing to offer," Findley says. "Her statement is, now that we're learning to do more and more genetic engineering, we're in very grave danger of bringing the race to an end as a creative force. There is a tremendous link between schizophrenia and autism and genetics. If we say, this baby is not going to be born because we don't want any more schizophrenics, we don't want any more autistics, her version of it is there aren't going to be any more scientists or artists. That is what creativity is about, seeing the world, in a pure way unhampered by all the facades that civilization throws onto reality, mostly for its own convenience. Civilization teaches us to ignore the poor. Civilization teaches us to ignore the old, the sick."

Findley says when he writes, he leaves this world in a sense, to live amongst an unseen society.

"It's part of your job to get there as effectively as you can, as efficiently as you can, so that you can find what it felt like to be alive in those days in every sense," he says. "What did it feel like to wear that clothing? Or to live in those row houses? Most people don't even think about what was light like? Think of all that we see because of electric light, but if you think of kerosene lamps and candlelight, suddenly, the quality of everything you're looking at changes. The very meaning of the word 'shadow' changes. Think of all the people who learned to read by candlelight. Think what it means to have a green dress, what it would mean to see it by kerosene lamp instead of [electrical] lighting; the green would be a different colour. That's what I love, is finding all that different material, buried in the time itself."

The time that The Piano Man's Daughter takes place, in the early years of this century, has fascinated many Canadian writers of late. Carol Shields' Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Stone Diaries is set during the same time period, and one of the stories in Open Secrets, Alice Munro's latest collection, has an eerie similarity with The Piano Man's Daughter.

"It starts with a librarian falls in love with a man who goes to the First World War and [when he returns] is decapitated in a piano factory. She ultimately marries the president of the piano factory [as Ede does in The Piano Man's Daughter]. I was going, oh please, don't do this!" Findley says.

"I didn't find that out until I finished [The Piano Man's Daughter]. I was listening to Peter Gzowski when he was doing his interview with Alice Munro, and I heard them talking about piano factories in 1914. I finally decided I had to something about it. I wrote to Alice and I sent her the page in the novel where, when Ede is about to visit the piano factory, she has a nightmare of headlines: GIRL'S ARM TORN OFF BY GIN-WHEEL! MAN CRUSHED BY STEEL PRESS! I wrote, "Do you mind if I do this?" — which was to include: MAN DECAPITATED IN PIANO FACTORY!

"She wrote back and said, `Not only do I not mind, but I'm delighted. Think of what all those Ph.D. students are going to go through trying to figure this out!'"
Findley says he doesn't mind the synchronicity.

"It's a different take on a period. I'm always struck when these things happen. Ultimately, it doesn't matter if you head into the same territory where someone else has gone. Your eyes and ears are yours."

Findley has also seen his own work being given different takes. In 1980, he adapted The Wars for a film by Robin Phillips, who recently wrapped up his term as Director General of Edmonton's Citadel Theatre. More recently, Not Wanted on the Voyage was adapted for the stage by DD Kugler, now Artistic Director of Northern Light Theatre in Edmonton.

"I think you have to make the decision that the work is going into another form and the other form immediately asks different questions, poses different strictures," Findley says. "The strictures of a novel are that it's between covers and you can only get out from between the covers if you open the book. The reader has to take part and create the stage for it in the reader's own mind. Whereas when DD Kugler takes Not Wanted on the Voyage and puts it into a theatre, thousands of doors open for it that don't open when it's between the covers."

Findley says an initial problem with the Not Wanted project was that Kugler and the Winnipeg company he was working with "were being too slavishly true to the book, which was confining them."

Findley told them, "You have to stop treating the book as a sacred text. And that did, I think, work. Ultimately, I think [Kugler] succeeded in getting it into the other world of the theatre. He created a dazzling theatrical experience."

Findley says he is increasingly being drawn to the theatre, where he had his first career as an actor. He is currently experiencing a boom in playwriting. In 1993, his play The Stillborn Lover, which won the Arthur Ellis Award. This spring, Blizzard Publishing is issuing his play The Trials of Ezra Pound, while he works on a new play. He says his new-found prolificness for stage took years to achieve.

"I spent a long time with that part of my talent being used in television and radio. I was very fearful of the theatre as a playwright... it was another kind of stage fright," Findley admits. "I ultimately ended up with wonderful allies who encouraged me to go back as a playwright and now it's starting to pay off in the sense that I'm gaining freedom from that apprehension that I had before. I'm not afraid of it any more in the way that I was."

As he speaks, it's clear that theatre is his first love, giving a clue as to how he can create such vivid characters in his fiction.

"Theatre is one of the great temples of magic, and for me there will never, never be anything like being in the presence of other people while you watch other live people hand you something from across the footlights, whether it's dance or music or a play," he says. "It's like walking a tightrope. There's a wonderful danger of it going wrong, or being misunderstood, or of someone taking offense — or of enlightenment, when the lights go on and everyone says: 'that's what that means'."

External Link:
HarperCollins Canada Ltd.



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