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
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
"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
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
"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
"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'."