Novelist and poet Michael Redhill shares stories at Glendon

Award-winning Toronto novelist, playwright and poet Michael Redhill was the latest guest speaker in Glendon’s Michael Ondaatje Writers’ Series on March 9.

Redhill read from Fidelity, a collection of his short stories published in 2003 by Anchor Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd., in an artistically designed edition with fine paper that provided a special appeal for booklovers.

He chose to read his favourite in the collection, “A Lark”, a story which relates a brief affair between a married man approaching forty and a very young woman, both working for the same firm. The story posed a moral dilemma, as does much of Redhill’s work, struggling with questions such as if you do something wrong, but nobody finds out and it comes to a conclusion without any major repercussions, does that change you as a person? Or does life just go on as if nothing had happened? Or will you be punished later on?

Moral dilemmas are Redhill’s preferred territory and he presents them with an unflinching eye and a perfect pitch for dialogue. His characters are ordinary people – ones we recognize as ourselves or those around us – facing everyday situations. Their relationships are often flawed, which puts an ironic twist on the book’s title, as so many of the protagonists are not faithful in some way. His world is somewhat dark and pessimistic, and he seems most at home exploring deep, philosophical, existential issues.

Right: Michael Redhill reads from his work

Redhill has been writing since his teens, first producing short stories that were not published; then moving on to poetry, which was published in various magazines. At Glendon, he also read a poem from his collection, Asphodel, (McClelland & Stewart, 1997) exploring his personal miracle of creation, the wonder of his eight-month-old son. Although prolific in the genre in earlier times, Redhill doesn’t write much poetry these days, explaining that it is a completely different mental process from writing prose, whether it is drama or fiction, and that he seems no longer to be in that mindset.

He talked about his writing process, putting together a first draft very quickly and then polishing and rewriting for a long time, sometimes years, before feeling ready to publish. Among his best-known works of fiction, Martin Sloane (Doubleday Canada, 2001) garnered him several prizes, including the 2002 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Books in Canada First Novel Award in 2001, along with several nominations. His book Consolation (Doubleday Canada, 2006), received the 2007 City of Toronto Book Award the same year it was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

Left: Michael Redhill (left) and poet Christopher Dewdney of Glendon’s Department of English

His play, Building Jerusalem, won both a Dora Award in 2000 and a Chalmers Award in 2001, and was nominated for a Governor General’s Award for Drama that same year. All of these works reflect his focused attention to style, dialogue and character development, where every word seems carefully chosen.

“Writers always feel that there is a moral quest, although the moral may not always be positive,” said Redhill. “When I start to write, I already have an idea, a general direction, but not a detailed plan. I try to find truth in my characters.”

Many writers assert that as the characters in their novels unfold, they take on an independent life of their own, leading the author to follow their actions. Redhill said that he did not believe this to be the case. “Writing a story is a discovery of some knowledge or feeling that you, as the writer, already have, but perhaps don’t realize yet, have not yet formulated.”

He explained that at the beginning of his career he was striving to be successful, to get published and to be famous. Now, in his middle years, he is more interested in immersing himself in ideas and going ever deeper, which provides him with greater satisfaction.

He has established a comfortable balance between creative writing – which he does for two to three hours a day – and working on Brick, a Canadian literary magazine, of which he is both publisher and one of the editors. Working on the magazine brings in the daily realities of deadlines and some mundane, but enjoyable activities of managing and organizing as well. He is also an active participant in cooking for the family and helping to run the household.

As for where ideas come from and how they become stories, he says, “an idea is like a pearl, an irritant around which a whole story develops in order to resolve it.”

Submitted by Marika Kemeny, Glendon communications officer