The Culprits

So. Two novels under my belt, no meaningful employment of any kind, roughly sixteen waking hours each day to kill, a growing realization that novel-writing might become (maybe, maybe, fingers-crossed) my life’s work, and I was faced with the yawning, bracing, stomach-coiling question that confronts every writer the moment his editor won’t let him fiddle with his last novel any more, and sends it off to the printers.

What the hell am I going to do now?

There is this urgency, you see; it is born of a self-punishing work ethic, the pathetic desire for external validation, and the inborn need to get some things off your chest. These are the impulses that create writers, and these are the impulses that make inactivity unbearable. Here I’ll paraphrase Charles Bukowski, a writer whose work I’ve never liked all that much, but who nonetheless has a way of capturing essential truths in short, gruff pronouncements. This, more or less, is how he put it, “You write, and then you go crazy until you can write again.” Of course, you also go crazy when you do write, but the type of crazy you get from not-writing is far worse than the type of crazy you get from writing. The insanity of non-writing, I was to learn, can also lead to surreal lapses in judgment.

While researching The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, I met a lot of people in Toronto who had, at some point in their lives, been involved with either a circus or carnival. At a meeting for some people who were trying to build a Canadian circus museum, I met a guy named William Jamieson, who was donating some items from his collection of circus memorabilia. We got to talking, and Jamieson invited me to his home/workplace to see his collection.

A one-time commercial developer, Jamieson’s life changed more than a decade ago when, in the middle of a trip into the Ecuadorian jungle, he drank a powerful hallucinogenic called ayahuasca during some sort of native healing ceremony. After a full day alternating between bouts of vomiting and intense spiritual insight, he returned home a changed man. He quit his business, purchased the contents of an old relic museum in Niagara Falls, and started selling ancient antiquities from his immense, 8,000-square-foot condo. I’d never seen such a place: most of the footage was eaten up by a room the size of a basketball court, every square inch of which was covered with glass cases containing some sort of freakish collectible. Though it was a while ago, the items that remain in my memory are: Egyptian mummies, all kinds of ancient daggers, three-legged sloths, a Cherokee battle jacket worn during Custer’s last stand, and, stretching along one full wall, the elegantly curved skeleton of a blue whale. Sticking out of the west wall was the back end of a hearse, suspended in mid-air and hollowed out to become (wait for it) a salt-water aquarium.

Yet the thing that caught my attention the most was his collection of shrunken heads. Though the market is apparently awash in fake heads, he had four authentic specimens, all made by an Amazonian tribe called the Shuar. (At one point he owned six, though he had sold one to film director Tim Burton, and another to the lead singer of the rock band KORN.) I was entranced with his stories of the Shuar’s incredibly oddball culture, and when I finished writing my second novel, it was the above-mentioned desperation that planted the following idea in my head: I would pen a novel that took place in a tribe of Shuar headshrinkers. Nobody, I spurred myself on, had ever tried such a thing.

Ergot, I embarked on that exhausting juggernaut known as research. I found every book about the Shuar, I interviewed the inevitable anthropologists, and I reacquainted myself with Jamieson (who invited me to a party in his condo that featured security men with earpieces and, I shit you not, live fawn wondering freely amongst the guests). I had spent six months doing this, and was on the cusp of taking a trip to Ecuador (I would participate in a spiritual Amazonian expedition as advertised in the back of a New Age magazine called Shambhala Sun) when I was struck by a fundamental truth. No matter how much research I did, I would never, ever, fully understand any character who had to kill an enemy as a rite of passage, and then salt-dry his head to the size of an apple.

So I gave up, six months of research down the drain, awash in feelings of stupidity and self-condemnation, when the truly extraordinary happened. I was walking down the street, minding my own business, no doubt thinking about what I was going to do with my life, when a fully formed novel premise descended from the skies: A lonely Canadian man inadvertently funds a Chechen terrorist attack via his Russian Internet bride. I think I even stopped and looked around, as thought trying to spot where this voice speaking in my head might be coming from.

And then, just as quickly, I rejected the idea: it sounded like the premise of a John Le Carre title and, for some reason, I’ve never been one for spy novels. Undaunted, the voice in my head grew even more insistent in tone. No, no, it said. You don’t understand. It’s a black comedy about a lonely Canadian man who …

The wheels, as they say, started to turn. Again the research started: books about the Chechen war, interviews with any Russians who would talk to me, the obligatory trip to St. Petersburg where, for a whole week, the weather alternated between freezing rain and wet snow. The Culprits came out in the fall of 2007. As I write this, it has been nominated for the Commonwealth Book Prize, the Roger’s Fiction Prize and The Trillium Award, making it the most short-listed Canadian novel published in 2007.

What have I learned from this? Hard to say, really, except I will say one thing: when I got my BIG IDEA, it seemingly came from nowhere. I had no apriori interest in Russia or Chechnya, and neither of those two subjects had anything whatsoever to do with Ecuadorian head-shrinkers. (Or, at least, none that I could see.) And yet, when I did get the BIG IDEA, it came with the distinct feeling that it wouldn’t have come to me had I not wasted six months researching the Shuar, which, in actuality, means that I hadn’t wasted those six months after all. Or maybe I did. It’s hard to say. I do, however, know one thing: the subconscious is a craven, belching, ill-spirited bastard. It is also, however, a craven, belching, ill-spirited bastard with a grudging sense of fair play, and after six months of dogged and fruitless effort, it thankfully decided to show me some pity, and turn over something good.