Black Bird

Ebook $9.99

Vintage Canada | Jul 27, 2011 | ISBN 9780307368478

  • Paperback$13.95

    Vintage Canada | Mar 09, 2004 | 320 Pages | 5-5/16 x 8-1/4 | ISBN 9780676975284

  • Ebook$9.99

    Vintage Canada | Jul 27, 2011 | ISBN 9780307368478

Awards

Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award WINNER 2004

Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book NOMINEE 2004

Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour NOMINEE 2004

Praise

“This macabre, sometimes fantastical, often hilarious first novel…manages to be at once ghastly, farcical and shot through with a pathos that tugs about equally at mind and heart. Black Bird is a terrific read, an epic critique of and lament for the decades of rhetoric and rancour, and blood, that have yet to lead Quebec to the mythic prize of nationhood…. Vive le satirical livre!” — The Globe and Mail

“a stunning debut novel…wildly inventive and darkly funny…. Bravura plotting and comic talent are only the surface of Black Bird’s achievement. Basilières has the essential qualities of a first-rate satirist, in spades. He displays an abiding love for his characters, however awfully they behave, but his rage is equally inextinguishable…. His brilliant novel is an extended metaphor for the messy, intractable, essentially unbreakable web that history has made of Canada.” — Brian Bethune, Maclean’s

“At first glance, [Black Bird] looks a little like a Canadian take on Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. But where Franzen depicts the decline of the nuclear family, Basilières gives us a core meltdown. . . . Spirited, clever [and] dead on.” — The Gazette (Montreal)

Black Bird rocks. An exuberant new Quebec voice that speaks for all of us living in the spaces in between.” — Susan Swan

“When someone tells you that a first novel is ‘brilliant’ or ‘stunning,’ they’re usually lying and they know it. But occasionally a book comes along that’s as good as the jacket cover blurb says it is. Michel Basilières’ first novel is a work of enormous love; it’s intelligent without the pirouettes, literate without showing off. And very funny. It’s that rare thing among novels, a book you should actually read twice.” — David Gilmour

Black Bird is a great, wonderful monster of a novel, from the history of Frère André’s black heart to the screeching of the crow, Grace, from its astounding descriptions of Montreal to its observations of the compulsions and frustrations of one Family Desouche, it ushers in a new, hilarious, wildly imaginative, powerful and heartfelt voice.” — Edward Carey

“If ever a book defied description it is Black Bird. Covering themes as big as Canada itself and as dangerous as the battle field of family life, it is outrageous, hilarious and surreal. It is a remarkable creation, brilliantly original.” — Mary Lawson

“The delightful, macabre nature of Michel Basilières’ novel doesn’t hide the real sweetness of a writer who so obviously loves his fellows, especially when they are at their worst. Basilières’ comic sensibility is as black and shining as a crow’s wing. I believe Lovecraft must be sitting up in his grave and grinning.” — Gail Anderson-Dargatz


From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

1. Readers will notice that Black Bird has a circular structure. Did you start with the end in mind? If not, where did your story begin?
Although the ending of the story was in my mind from the beginning, the final lines changed between manuscript and going to press, when through comments from my editor I realized the story had come full circle. Once I saw it on the page, as opposed to still carrying it in my mind, it was obvious. The opening lines were not the first written, and little survives of the first fragment put to paper.

2. Your writing has a lightness and polite formality that makes Black Bird a pleasure to read, regardless of the often gruesome subject matter. Were you conscious of this contrast?
Yes and no. I always think my prose is overbearingly literary and long-winded, so I spend a lot of time trying to clarify and simplify. My ideal writer in this and other respects is Italo Calvino, who has an amazingly lucid style, even in translation. I try to re-write for clarity, brevity and as Calvino actually says, lightness. And of course I was also trying to make the book as macabre as possible. Let me add also that contrast is not an ideal even mentioned, let alone taught, to most writers. These days people think they prize subtlety, but if you look at the best works in all genres, you’ll see that they’re very bold and direct. Think of black & white photography, film noir, expressionism, pop music. Think of the highest of the high art and how the subjects are always essentials, as if absolutes were let loose to battle uncertainties. In many ways the whole book is about contrasts. In simple story terms this means conflicts, and a polite formality is a good contrast for sarcasm.

3. Your approach to storytelling seems more closely related to European fiction than to most Canadian novels. Would you agree?
The short answer is yes, I agree. Don’t forget that since we live here, we get to see everything produced in our country. Whereas normally we see only a fraction of the work coming out of Europe. So it may be a false perception. Curiously, Canadian novels are a bigger thing in Europe now than ever before, so if they are really different, how do we explain this? One answer is in the attitude of the writers. English Canadian culture, derived largely from England, is firmly naturalistic and documentary, what we’d call Realism. The idea is consciously to reflect social conditions and perceived phenomena. However, in Europe the practice of the novel developed alongside that of natural science and philosophy and has always retained more of the character of a discourse. Many of the great novels of the eighteenth century were written by philosophers — just as in twentieth century France. They don’t describe reality so much as comment upon it, often by using elements like symbol and metaphor or satire. These elements are also present in continental philosophy even to this day. Nietzsche, Foucault, Barthes — all these great thinkers have written almost as if they were novelists. It’s the difference between determining what reality is and working to shape it, or instead of telling, arguing.

So in this sense, you can see that most Canadian novels these days seem content to describe things in order to fix them comfortably into place, but in Black Bird I wanted everything to be too slippery to get hold of. Characters have no names, dates and ages are not mentioned, historical events are twisted out of chronological order.

4. How would you describe your writing process? (For instance, do you write in the daytime or at night? Longhand or on computer? As inspiration arises or for set amounts of time? Any writing rituals or superstitions?) Did the process change in the time you were writing Black Bird?
Time of day is no longer significant. I used to write all night long in the dark by preference, but when you grow up you have to adjust to the world’s schedule. So I write when I can, which varies depending on the rest of my life. But you have to sit down and work. The difference between published and unpublished is the amount of hours spent working. Nothing else. The more external validation you get as a writer, the easier it is to schedule time to work, because the truth is until you prove yourself to others, they think you’re wasting time. And they’re always finding things for you to do. So if you stamp your feet and demand time to yourself, you’re characterized by your own family and friends as distant and selfish. By contrast, if you’re at the office or the loading dock or studying for exams, you’re a hero.

People don’t realize that writing involves a lot of wool-gathering. You have to read constantly and spend an enormous amount of time completely undisturbed by anything in order to take stock of what’s in your head and let things make their own connections. Otherwise, you’re painting by numbers. If you only ever work on a schedule and simply observe the rules of the craft, you end up with dead books.

I used the computer for years, but by the end of Black Bird I was relying more and more on pen and paper. Computers really suck. I finally realized it wasn’t any more work to type up manuscripts, since I reread compulsively anyway. And computers have got more and more intrusive and harder to work with, not less so. Where the hell on the menu is that command? Four dialogue boxes deep?

As for inspiration, you must pay attention to it when it strikes. It’s like a crying baby: feed it now, when it’s hungry. If you leave it until later, when you have time, it’ll have starved to death. I now carry a notebook and I use it. It was the only way to get over all my regrets at so much I neglected to write down and have lost.

5. You’ve worked as a bookseller for many years, first in Montreal and more recently in Toronto, and you’ve included a hilarious description of an English bookstore that has only French signage and “no humour at all.” What is the English reading culture like in Montreal?
That’s hard for me to answer. I think most anglophones pay as much attention to Quebecois writing and foreign books as they do to English Canadian books. They seem to draw on a much wider base, whereas in the Rest of Canada (or Toronto, sometimes an interchangeable concept in Quebec) it seems to me that authors from England are privileged, and Americans and English Canadians are paid attention to only when they really shine. I must add that this is completely a subjective view, complicated by the fact that I haven’t lived in Montreal for several years. The bit about the signs is entirely historical fact, with the exception that the store I worked in did retain a humour section, for which I was responsible. To my dismay I couldn’t keep Peanuts in stock but no one was interested in Pogo.

6. The Desouches are an unusual family, to say the least, and there is little love lost between them. Was your own family a model and, if so, how does your family feel about the book?
Touchy subject. In broad terms, the model for both my real family and the Desouches is similar: mixed Anglophone and francophone Montrealers, living in that neighbourhood. But there are more differences between them, which of course are not present in the book. The differences are present in my family themselves. My family is intensely loyal, and none of them are grave robbers or FLQ terrorists. The structure of the generations is completely different, so there are no stolen lives in my book. That said, it’s natural for them to see parallels, sometimes even when they’re not intended. For instance, I was asked about a specific family situation and whether parts of Black Bird intentionally paralleled it, but the truth is in that case I was much to young to be aware of what had happened and actually had to be told the story. The parallel arose out of what I would call nothing more than metaphorical elements which had a similar shape when considered together. That’s how storytelling works, how it seems real to us.

My family is mostly enthusiastic and proud, and you can’t ask for more. I think even if some elements gave them a double-take, they realize I love these characters.

7. Where does Grace the crow come from, and why did you name the novel after her?
As early as I can remember my working title was Black Bird, and never once did I consider another or become in any way unsatisfied with the choice. But much of this answer will be hindsight and second-guessing. Everyone can see that death and darkness are a huge part of the novel, but for me it’s also about lightness and rebirth. Grandfather is the Resurrection Man, characters come back from the dead, recombine to form new characters, discover new strengths in themselves, find themselves emerging from purgatory in unexpected ways. The crow is a scavenger, living off death and an ominous symbol of death. But she’s also a bird, symbol of flight and freedom and peace. She teaches Aline to sing and fly, she grants Grandfather a new vision. She comes into the story as Mother is falling asleep, and leaves as Mother awakens. Her name is Grace, which is obvious in the heavily Catholic setting.

There are many dualities in the book: French/English, brother/sister, birth/death. Grace is at the center of these in the same way Mother is at the center of the family.

8. It must be difficult to write about a character who is mostly inert, such as the mother is here, but who also seems help bring the story together. How do you see her relating to the other, more active, characters?
Mother is the center of all things, the eye of the storm where everything is calm and patience endures and triumphs. Patience and tolerance are her great strengths, and they outweigh the selfish squabbling for independence and individuality that mark everyone else in the book. They whirl around her with their schemes and bitterness, but none of them can stray far from her. She’s the well of gravity, the force that binds the family together despite its differences. All the other characters come out wounded, vindicated, crushed, reborn. At the end only two characters remain themselves: Montreal, and Mother.

In part she’s based on my own mother who has these great qualities. But my mother also contributed to the figure of Grandmother, Grandfather’s first wife, who is the only character in the book who ever stands up to him. Grandmother is the positive influence on her children, who gives them the example of quiet strength and dignity in the face of scorn and poverty.

9. The real-life events of the novel (the October Crisis, the Lévesque incident) all took place within your lifetime. Is this because you wanted all of the real events to be filtered through your memory and not to be merely historical?
I didn’t think about it that way. I guess unconsciously I wanted to put down what I remembered, as opposed to what specifically happened. In this sense, it’s no more of a historical novel than most. It seems somewhat like a historical novel, but precisely because the events and time have a mysterious, removed quality for English Canadians — a symptom of the historical forgetting we practice. The era does not yet properly belong to the past. It’s living memory — in Quebec. To take another example, last year Ray Robertson published Moody Food, a terrific novel set in Yorkville in the 60’s. He created some new characters, borrowed some parts of real people, mixed up the real history of the time and place and music with the apocryphal and invented. This is very like what I did in Black Bird. But his book was not treated as historical and he was not challenged on his facts or interpretations. This again is a symptom of forgetting. People in Toronto are fascinated by my view of Montreal because for them it’s a foreign city. But they’re not much interested in where they live.


10. Why do you think the October Crisis needs to be revisited?

Because it’s never gone away. The ROC (Rest of Canada) has simply been ignoring it. It’s a constant fact of life in Quebec politics, culture and family life. Everyone has an opinion on it and people still share them. It was a watershed moment for the country and continues to shape the special relationship Quebec has in Confederation. Every part of this country is distinct and has its own agenda. Some other parts of the country have acted in manners which have been much more divisive than anything that happened in Quebec. The difference is, the Quebecois stood up and took action. Because of the more European culture, the French heritage, they’re more personally involved in their own culture. And the October Crisis revealed not just how strongly many in Quebec felt about their place in Canada, but how strongly our democratic and Liberal government felt about dissent. It was crushed. Brutally. In the same way that the US is now lashing out at targets whose involvement in terrorist acts has yet to be clearly demonstrated to the satisfaction of the world community, the Canadian army invaded Montreal. Intellectuals and artists were arrested as suspects and fellow travelers — without proof. It doesn’t make it any more right or less problematic that the Quebec premier asked for assistance or that the Prime Minister who imposed the War Measures Act was also Quebecois. This was exactly the kind of thing that was always being decried in the media when it happened in third world countries or Communist dictatorships. Let me say it again: it was the same thing. But except for in Quebec, it was largely not controversial. I was a witness to this.

When I moved to Toronto I discovered how little people here think about their own history. History here means the family tree in middle-class or wealthy families. People I worked with, younger than I, were not only unaware of the fact of the October Crisis but also unaware of their own history. Torontonians born and raised refused to believe that police on horseback beat unarmed civilians in Nathan Phillips Square for the crime of asking for work and food in the Depression. I was called a liar. These were people who worked in a bookstore. I challenged them to walk into the history section and read some Pierre Berton, but they wouldn’t. That’s willful ignorance.

It’s wrong to forget our history, to pretend that unpleasant things haven’t happened, that we’ve never made mistakes. Amnesia is not a survival characteristic.


11. If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would you choose, and why?
Paul Bocuse. At his home, please. Dinner is about food, a great chef is a great artist, and our homes are part of who we are. In many ways cuisine is the ultimate art. It not only must look the part on the plate, but we interact with it with all our senses and in our enjoyment, it literally becomes a part of us. A meal is a work which literally transforms us physically.

People who ask this question are usually really asking, who would you like to speak to, and what would you ask? That answer could involve any number of great writers, and I’d ask them about their own feelings about their personal lives. Were you, too, wracked with doubt? In the end, did you like yourself?


From the Hardcover edition.

 

1) Can you tell us how you became a writer?
From the time I was a child I read and loved books. Since I’m stubborn I refused to learn any marketable skills, and by the time I was an adult couldn’t get a decent job, but I’d read more than most people do in a lifetime and had boxes full of writing. I briefly went to university and learned it wasn’t for me. Then I just kept at it. I think there’s less choice for some people than others.

2) What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?
There weren’t any novels I could find that reflected my experience, so I set out to write one. By the time I did, I already had another one in the drawer which had gone nowhere. I realized I needed to work harder than ever before. It’s not enough to be good, or lucky, and I was far from connected. I felt I had to do something that would be impossible to ignore. During the long process I was terrified that I was wasting my time, that nothing would come of it.

3) What is it that you’re exploring in this book?
It’s essentially a portrait of the Montreal I knew, sort of from the bottom up. There’s precious little of this in Canadian literature — there’s enough agonizing, alright, but not much testimony from the urban working class. Though Montreal has been gifted with Mordecai Richler and David Fennario. Thematically, death and rebirth play a large part. There’s a lot of darkness in it because Montreal is so grey for so much of the year. Some Montrealers disagree with me, but it’s my experience, after all. On top of this, I was trying to tell myself a lot of jokes. Some of them will never be apparent to anyone else, but at the time I thought, “Okay, if this never gets published, you can still take it out of the drawer in twenty years, and it better please you when you do.”

4) Who is your favourite character in this book, and why?
This is a real toss-up. I like the women over the men, I think. The women all have an honesty in their motivations, they’re just trying to be true to themselves. Bu the men are selfish and lazy. So, Marie, Aline, Mother. I must admit I’ve got a fondness for Woland, but readers of Bulgakov can see I just stole him, so that doesn’t count.

5) Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
Look for the ideas. I would say that to anyone reading anything. You can ooh and aah over surface pleasures, which is where our delight in reading comes from, but if you want to think about what was in the author’s head, you’ll have to ask the same kind of questions writers do about their own work. Why these words, and what do they mean? Why do they come at this point? What comes just before, or just after? What do they add up to?

6) Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your book?
One thing points out the difference between reading and writing a book. An interviewer asked me to talk about the non-human character in Black Bird and I drew a blank on him. I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about and he finally had to name the crow.

7) What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?
Well nobody ever asks if I’m going to write about Montreal again, but I’m not sure it’s a question I want to answer. And no one ever asks my personal position on Quebec independence.

8) Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
To a small extent they all do. It’s very difficult to understand your own work the way other people see it. So whatever someone else says is a piece of the puzzle, a view from outside. Sometimes it merely confirms something nebulous in your own thinking, sometimes it’s surprising. The bad can be as valuable as the good, though of course it can throw you off emotionally.

9) Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
I believe there’s two different things at work in a writer’s mind: the authors he or she loves, and those that have influenced them. They’re not at all the same thing sometimes, and I think the question of influence is best answered by others. Also, there are and have been an enormous number of excellent and fascinating writers. But so as not to dodge the question, here’s a few: Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Bulgakov, Kundera, Voltaire, Julio Cortazar, Borges, Rushdie, Angela Carter, E.T.A. Hoffman, Goethe, Diderot, Samuel R. Delany, Antonin Artaud, Barthes and Foucault. For some years my ultimate admiration has been for Italo Calvino, a great writer of enormous strength and breadth who seemed to be able to write anything better than anyone else. His work was always brief, lucid, elegant, imaginative, superbly structured and controlled, firmly anchored in both life and mind.

10) If you weren’t writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
I really like food and drink. Since moving to Toronto I’ve had to learn to cook for myself, and it turns out I really enjoy baking and otherwise using the oven. Maybe I could be a baker. It’s very satisfying. Or restaurant reviewer. Imagine being paid to eat out.

11) If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
At the risk of sounding pretentious, having written a book myself, I feel they are so personal that you’d have to be the author to undertake the task. Borges wrote a famous short story about this: “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Menard attempts to write Don Quixote and can only succeed by becoming Cervantes. Since we can never be someone other than ourselves, he fails; yet since the resulting book is the individual product of a separate person, he succeeds. So in the end, for better or worse, my own book.

Related Articles

#WhereBooksLive
Back to Top